The Show Must Go On won Korea’s coveted Blue Dragon award in 2007 for Best Picture and Best Actor, so it’s somewhat of a mystery as to how this film has gone unnoticed by foreign audiences. Han Jae-rim takes an organic approach to his direction of the life of In-gu, a family man who happens to earn his living as a gangster, played with an understatement of emotional intensity by the venerable Song Kang-ho (easily the best Korean actor working today).
He does what he does because he doesn’t really know how to do anything else, and despite saying otherwise, he doesn’t much want to either. His son is studying abroad in Canada, and he is left with his wife and daughter, both of whom have become emotionally withdrawn from him as a result of his work. They detest the nature of his lifestyle, yet In-gu hopes to keep them happy by buying a brand new “western-style” house. In-gu is not a consistently violent man, but he often finds himself using violence as a deterrent or when he is on the wrong end of a vicious assault from rival gangs. We see him come to the conclusion that he wants out, yet he often falters in his resolve.
Revered by his boss, In-gu’s bitter rival comes in the form of his boss’s brother, who is both overambitious and exceedingly jealous of In-gu. He’ll take any opportunity to seize In-gu’s accomplishments from him, and this sends In-gu’s attempts to reconcile with his family and find his way out of the business into a downward spiral. It is in the reserved and organic nature which director Han Jae-rim approaches his screenplay that gives it its charming and insightful qualities. The glamorously gritty and ultra-violent world of the North American Mafioso is absent here, and we get a painted picture of a pettier syndicate of gangsters, resorting to physical combat and knives rather than reaching for a gun.
The camera gives us a more voyeuristic look into In-gu’s life, as if we were there in the restaurant eating as him and his wife discuss the possibility of a divorce. Everything about the film is delivered in a subtle, yet emotionally disquieting manner. We identify with the angst of In-gu’s wife and daughter, as In-gu himself seems almost completely oblivious to the reasons for their drifting apart from him. One of the films more touching moments comes when In-gu is finally given his wake-up call, as he realizes that he could lose everything.
A couple of false endings and some odd music cues aside, The Show Must Go On is a superb parable on how one man’s choices can make or break the foundations of the family that he is working to provide for. The film also provides an interesting social commentary that tears into the fabric of the Korean notion that working for material goods is everything, and whatever is left as a result of being the emotionally absent father is what it is. In-gu’s attempts to balance his life as a gangster while struggling to hold his family together culminates in a very surprising, and extremely entertaining, series of events.
It’s great that the film manages to find the right tone for all of this, never feeling overblown and hitting all of the right notes, making for a film that feels very earnest and very real. This is one of the better Korean films to be released in the last few years, and it deserves to be picked up by anyone who can manage to find it on DVD for rental or purchase.