Story: Jeon Hae-woong (Cho Jin-woong) wants to make it into parliament and runs as a candidate. He promises the people of Busan that, unlike other politicians, he will take care of their concerns, and soon he manages to win over the crowd. Kwon Soon-tae (Lee Sung-min) sets the course in the background and decides to drop his protégé Hae-woon because he is hard to control. In the future redevelopment of Haeundae he needs a politician who will follow his instructions in policy making. Hae-woong can't handle the fact that he is simply replaced as a candidate for the Democrats. He decides to seek help of the gangster Kim Pil-do (Kim Mu-yeol), from whom he had already borrowed money. He wants even more money in order to afford running in the election on his own. As payment, he offers some photos of secret documents taken by his friend Jang-ho (Kim Min-jae). The photos show exactly which regions in Haeundae will be particularly valuable in the future due to the redevelopment. Pil-do is therefore happy to support him and the election campaign is in full swing. When it becomes clear that Hae-woong will easily win, Soon-tae cheats on the ballots, so that his own candidate wins. Hae-woong is devastated, and the gangster wants his money back too. But Hae-woong is not willing to give up just yet and gets involved in more and more questionable deals in order to come to power.
Review: Politics, gangsters, media, and a 90s setting - all this sounds quite nice, and it's not the first time that political power struggles with betrayal and murder at every turn have been successful at the Korean box office. You can't help but draw parallels to last year's "Kingmaker" in particular. "The Devil's Deal" was already shot in 2021, though (but only came out recently), and is much more gripping and densely structured. Above all, the focus is equally distributed between the world of politics and the gangster milieu. However, it is not only the suspense created by numerous twists and turns that makes the movie so successful, but also the story about a man who crosses more and more boundaries in order to achieve his dream, so that at some point, you have to wonder whether the actually quite sympathetic (anti-)hero might eventually become a villain, and we basically get to see his "origin story" here. Also, an important supporting pillar of the story are the outstanding performances.
Hae-woong is introduced as a sympathetic guy who has a loving wife - who is always angry at him because he is never home - and who wants to stand up for the common people. Unfortunately, his idealism stands in his way to the top and over time he experiences this more and more painfully. The air is getting thinner and thinner for him, his mentor simply exchanges him for a more compliant pawn on the chessboard and he is confronted with the fact that he owes gangsters a lot of money. Having been cornered, there is apparently no other option for him than to fight even more doggedly for power so that the invested time and energy are not for nothing. The viewer can always understand Hae-woong's situation, and actor Cho Jin-woong ("Black Money") shows what is probably his best performance so far. His character becomes less accepting of compromises - or rather, he is more willing to compromise and therefore moves away from his own moral codex -, but he never loses the viewer's sympathy in the process.
But it is not only Hae-woong who always seems to keep his human side, precisely because of the weaknesses he reveals; Kim Mu-yeol ("Intruder") as the gangster Pil-do is also able to flesh out his character. Pil-do is rational and not just a wild thug, even though that's clearly where he started off. While we do see him firmly at Hae-woong's side at some point, and the two of them even sort of form a team, we can never really be sure that he will stay loyal to him. After all, in "The Devil's Deal" you basically never know who will stab who in the back in the next moment just because they got a better deal somewhere, or because they are being blackmailed with something. Hae-woong himself is no different, even though his motives are understandable, and we generally try to justify his reasoning. This game about who you can trust and who has a hold on whom makes up a big part of the suspense. We never know what to expect next.
Above all, it's nice so see that the developments don't simply come from the need to incorporate twists into the story, but instead they are always motivated and set in motion by the characters. These days, most screenwriters have forgotten that this is actually a smarter way to tell a gripping story. So, there are also gangsters who take on other gangsters, or most notably, politicians who make life difficult for each other and (how else could it be) are even more ruthless and cruel than gangsters. With "The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil" director Lee Won-tae has already shot an acceptable gangster thriller, but the emotional density with which he works here made me think of movies like "A Dirty Carnival". Lee has an extremely sure hand when he moves between the world of gangsters and that of politicians, mixing them extremely skillfully. The thriller becomes pretty dark at times, although there is very little bloodshed.
"The Devil's Deal" tells one of those stories in which there is hardly any action, but the suspense is so intense that an CGI-loaden action blockbuster even seems boring in comparison. Of course, there are also a few negative points. For instance, the story about a reporter is pretty flat, and so is her character and monologues. Apparently, the storyline was mainly added for plot development and to show that media (not only in Korea or in the 90s) can always be controlled by the government via backdoors (= money...). However, this part of the story, as well as a major election fraud and shadow men behind the government, is important to understand why the story's (anti-)hero fights so desperately for revenge. The injustices of this frightening but quite realistic world should not be new for anyone with a little world knowledge, though. But it is the question of how this world impacts Hae-woong that keeps us glued to the screen until the well-done finale.