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Original Title:

South Korea 2023

Crime, Drama

Kim Chang-hoon

Hong Xa-bin
Song Joong-ki
Kim Hyung-seo
Kang Hyun-oh
Jeong Jae-kwang
Yu Seong-ju
Park Bo-kyung
Kim Jong-soo
Jung Man-sik

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Hopeless - Film Screenshot 1

Story: Yeon-gyoo (Hong Xa-bin) gets into trouble at his school because he hit a student with a stone since that guy bullied his stepsister Ha-yan (Kim Hyung-seo). In order to be able to pay the hospital bill, Yeon-gyoo works as a delivery boy, but there is hardly any chance of ever making enough money. Coincidentally, the gangster boss Chi-geon (Song Joong-ki) finds out about all that, as he often eats with his men in the restaurant for which the boy works. He gives Yeon-gyoo the money without asking for anything in return. This solves the boy's problems for the time being, but he has even bigger issues at home because his stepfather (Yu Seong-ju) repeatedly abuses him when he is drunk. Wherever possible, Ha-yan tries to protect her stepbrother from her father's beatings, but she doesn't always succeed, and so Yeon-gyoo soon has a big scar on his face. As he loses his temporary job because of this, he goes to see Chi-geon. At first, the gangster boss doesn't want to take him into his gang, but because of the boy's stubbornness he soon has no choice but to give in. From now on, Yeon-gyoo has to steal motorcycles and is supposed to give out credits. Although the boy finds a new family with the gangsters, it soon becomes clear that even this life offers him little hope...

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Review: "Hopeless" is a drama that ties in with the gangster thriller genre. Although there are already enough gangster dramas, here, we are presented with the tragic circumstances of a teenager who grows up in a difficult family and who is beaten by his stepfather. It's not until later that he stumbles into the world of gangsters. This is exactly what should have been the movie's big plus, but it instead turns into its weakness. Because somehow the movie doesn't manage to be convincing a hundred percent concerning either of the two genres. Still, the story focuses on two people who are not so different at all, except that one of them has already given up hope for a different life. Yeon-gyoo, however, clings to his dream of emigrating to the Netherlands one day, while he also gradually slips into a life from which there is no turning back. When it comes to this, Chi-geon is clear proof that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, not much was made of this juxtaposition either. The performances are not the problem here, it's more that the characters are not fleshed out well enough.

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The teenager, played by Hong Xa-bin, is riddled with anxiety every time his stepfather comes home. There are a few well-done scenes in which the panic that overcomes the boy is all too clear. But other times it seems a bit exaggerated, since his tormentor doesn't necessarily look bigger or stronger. But it is also legitimate to say that his deep-seated fear cannot be explained by logic. It's a pity, though, that his time with the gangsters doesn't toughen him up in any way. After all, everything revolves around violence in his new family and he constantly has to witnesse it too. Nevertheless, he feels comfortable there. Staying true to his character, though, he repeatedly tries to avoid violent solutions, sometimes even successfully so. At one point, however, he even has to become violent himself to prevent more violence. That's interesting and it describes his character quite well. On the other hand, the finale doesn't really fit into the picture. Especially considering that he apparently never has the courage to grow out of his role when it comes to his stepfather.

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It is actually his stepsister who always acts as some kind of protective shield and puts his father in his place. That's why it's all the more tragic that Yeon-gyoo kind of sells his sister in one scene. After that it's just hard to root for the protagonist. On the other side, there is the mid-level boss of the gangsters, played by Song Joong-ki ("Space Sweepers"), who somehow seems a bit too soft for the job, especially since he feels sorry for Yeon-gyoo and lets him get away with a lot. But there are also moments in which he shows that he has decided to live the life of a gangster and that this goes hand in hand with certain rules that he rigorously follows. This gives him something pleasantly unpredictable. Unfortunately, his character doesn't seem to fit in with what happens during the finale either. One thing does fit, though: Chi-geon has given up all hope. His past, which we find out more about later on and which, of course, also includes a tragic childhood, burdens him to this day, even though he has pushed it deep down. But that is precisely why there is no future for him. It's a different story for Yeon-gyoo.

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The boy owns a box in which he collects postcards from Holland and he saves money. He never loses sight of his goal, even though he hardly gets any closer to it. Strictly speaking, he even moves further and further away from it, as he naturally ends up with the wrong "friends" in his new life as a gangster. Nevertheless, you can't blame him, because he gets support and protection from his new family. Especially Chi-geon, who sees him as his former self, takes him under his wings. Otherwise, the boy would have more problems with the rougher gangsters, as he doesn't really fit into the group. All of this is told with the necessary ease, but the subplot about a local election campaign does not really fit in, because even though Chi-geon's boss appears from time to time, he does not take on the role you would expect, and so the story does not jump to a bigger scale in a believable way. That's why you might sometimes be a bit astonished when it comes to the framework that encompasses everything. You don't always get the impression that director Kim Chang-hoon is giving his debut work a clear direction. However, the movie knows how to capture the atmosphere of a drama in a gangster world without having to resort to clichés.

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When it comes to craftsmanship, "Hopeless" does a decent job, and watching Yeon-gyoo, as he struggles to get his life under control and as he tries to break away from his stepfather while he is sucked deeper and deeper into the abyss, is captivating, especially since you really feel sorry for him for long stretches of time. Towards the end, however, you cannot necessarily say that his actions coincide with his previously drawn character. The violence we get to see does not always serve a purpose and it does not seem appropriate either. And Chi-geon's role also lacks a bit of depth, so that, even though we are interested in his character, we unfortunately get fobbed off with too little. "Hopeless" tries to be a bit more profound than you would expect at some points. This should already have become clear by the family motive. In the end, the story unfortunately stays too much on the surface, and even though the characters aren't badly written, they don't have the necessary depth either. In addition, the message of the movie is questionable. The over two hours running time is also not justified. So all in all, this is not enough for a clear recommendation, but since the story itself has a certain level of originality, you can definitely take a look if you are interested.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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