Story: Cheol (Yoo Ah-in) is a longshoreman in Busan and lovingly takes care of his mother Soo-ni
(Kim Hae-sook), who doesn't just suffer from dementia, but also has several other health issues because of her diabetes.
Actually, she is in strong need of an operation, but Cheol doesn't have the money. Jong-su (Lee Si-eun), a good friend of
Cheol, works for gangster boss Sang-gon (Kim Jeong-tae) and suggests that Cheol should start working for him, too. But Cheol
doesn't want to go off the rails and turns down the offer. However, one day he witnesses a murder. The hot-tempered
brother of the gangster boss, Hwi-gon (Kim Seong-oh), beats to death a Japanese Yakuza and betrayed him before that,
so that Sang-gon needs to pour oil on troubled now. When he tells the Yakuza boss that his henchman has been killed in an
accident Sang-gon finds himself in a dangerous game in which he aims at grasping after more power. Cheol being a murder
witness is the unknown factor in this game that could pose a threat to Sang-gon...
Review: At some point it simply starts to be too much to bear. "Tough as Iron" has the unfortunate fate of
being the first in a long series of Korean movies to be critized in the future. South Korean movies, which in general are well produced,
have to be penalized more for their crude genre mix. Most of the time such movies take a turn from a
thriller-heavy story to a drama during the second part. In that respect "Tough as Iron" is more honest, because it is a
drama from the very beginning with some gangster scenes interspersed. If the two genres had been interlocked well, this
mix of course could have worked out. There is no reason why it shouldn't as "A Dirty
Carninval" has already proven that it can, but here nothing fits at all. It also doesn't help the movie that
the characters are all odd and not elaborated that much.
Standing in the story's centre is the mother-son relationship. Still, a real emotional bond isn't brought to screen in a
genuine manner. Moreover, it hurts the movie that the mother's illness isn't conveyed credibly either. She suffers from
dementia but her scenes are put into the movie in such an unmotivated fashion that they can't touch you even a bit. How
arduous this illness must be for relatives should be pretty obvious, but even if Cheol at some point is simply "tired", which
is easy to believe considering the circumstances, it doesn't seem to concern us. That's not all. The protagonist remains
a strange figure in general. He is simply the nice son who tries to stay away from everything illegal and still get together
the money for his mother's operation. Yet, he doesn't have any real character traits.
You can't blame actor Yoo Ah-in, though. In "Punch" he delivered a very convincing performance
and he radiates enough charm to somehow keep things going in this movie as well. But his role is written too shallow
after all. And it isn't any different when it comes to the mother, especially concerning here absolutely unmotivated
love story, which easily could have been erased from the movie without any difficulties. Jeong Yu-mi ("Oki's
Movie") isn't challanged at all and it shows - during some scenes she just stands in the background without doing anything.
It also isn't clear what the romantic story stems from, because there isn't any chemistry between the two protagonists.
But if you put together a drama-thriller mix you naturally need to throw in some romance as well...
Of course there are some humoristic scenes, too. But how incoherent in tone the movie actually is becomes apparent when the gangsterboss' brother is introduced. In a frozen picture we are told that he starts stuttering when being upset. An approach that doesn't fit into the movie and particularly not since it is the only (!) time that such a humoristic pecularity can be found in "Tough as Iron"! Those who expect action because of the gangster story will also be disappointed. Only towards the end there is a little bit of adrenaline getting pumped through your veins, but it certainly doesn't even come close to making a fan of the gangster genre sit at the edge of his seat. The only thing that you see is lost opportunity after lost opportunity. A quarrel between Korean gangsters and the Yakuza: You can't do much wrong with that, can you?!
Technically, there is nothing to complain about. The movie is produced in an appealing manner, but also in technical respects the pecularities of the different genres are mixed together without having any real connection, leading to the film looking even more like a rag rug. Moreover, the drama seems a bit too much at times. Particularly one scene in a bus doesn't manage to come across convincingly. Surprisingly, the ending isn't that drama-heavy, though, and accordingly the ending differs quite a bit from what you would expect. But even the pretty convincing finale and a bustling Busan can't save this inconsistent mix. Director Ahn Kwon-tae did already have some problems with "My Brother", but more importantly with "Eye for an Eye" and thus you need to ask yourself if there really are only that few skilled directors in South Korea nowadays that you should allow Ahn to bring his now third movie which doesn't achieve what it sets out to the big screen.