Since the departure of John Woo ("Mission: Impossible 2") from Hong Kong in the early Nineties, there has been a dearth of interesting (let alone intelligent) films in the 'hired killers' sub-genre of Hong Kong action films. True, there have been a few interesting entries over the years, such as Patrick Leung's "Beyond Hypothermia (Sip si 32 doe)" from 1996 or Wong Kar-wai's 1995 arthouse favorite "Fallen Angels (Duo luo tian shi)". However, similar to the overall decline in quality that has afflicted Hong Kong filmmaking over the past decade, the 'hired killers' sub-genre has literally been done to death, particularly by the producing team of Johnny To and Wai Ka-fai, who were responsible for 2001's unforgivable "Full-time Killer (Chuen jik sat sau)", an incomprehensibly pretentious blend of "Assassins" and "Moulin Rouge" (yes, really). That said, it should be of little surprise that perhaps one of the most refreshing entries in this long-standing Hong Kong action sub-genre ends up being a film from South Korea. Though "Guns & Talks (Killerdeului suda)" from 2001 is far from perfect (particularly with its unbelievably cheerful conclusion), it possesses enough wit and charm to make it a must-have for any Hong Kong action fan.
"Guns & Talks" revolves around four young professional killers. Sang-yeon (Shin Hyun-joon of "The Siren") is the leader, Jung-woo (Shin Ha-gyoon of "Joint Security Area") is the demolitions expert, Jae-young (Chung Jae-young of "Ghost Taxi") is the resident sniper, while Sang-yeon's younger brother Ha-yeon (Won Bin) eagerly awaits the day when he is allowed to carry a gun. The foursome work out of their shared house, and their claim to fame is following the wishes of their clients down to the very last detail-if the client only wants someone's left hand blown off, they will do it, no questions asked.
Despite their cold-blooded work, they are actually quite harmless and congenial when they are not being assassins. In addition, for all things not work-related, they are pretty dense (one telltale scene has the quartet misinterpreting the English warning "I will never miss you" as "I am never Miss Yu"). This, of course, in addition to contributing to their charm, leads to some absurd situations. They find themselves harassed by a high-school girl who knows their true identity and insists that they kill someone who broke her heart-- Ha-yeon eventually falls for her. Jae-young is given the distasteful task of killing a pregnant woman, though he finds himself incapable of going through with it when he begins falling in love with his intended target. Meanwhile, Sang-yeon accepts a risky job from a pretty television anchorwoman (Ko Eun-mi) whom they all worship. And if things weren't complicated enough, a public prosecutor named Cho (Jeong Jin-young of "Ring Virus") is hot on their trail for the assassination of a witness.
"Guns & Talks" offers a cynic's point of view on the sub-genre. Ha-yeon, the film's narrator, ponders deeply about the morality of the work they do in his incessant voice-overs, though it is obviously a joke when he begins tripping over words during his internal monologue. Another absurd moment occurs when Ha-yeon is overcome with emotion over Jae-young's refusal to carry out a hit and begins to wax philosophically about the wonders of true love (artsy-fartsy hand gestures included). Though this scene reeks of the same pretentiousness of lesser films (e.g., "Full-time Killer"), it is eventually revealed to be part of an elaborate jab at audience expectations.
Fans of Hong Kong actioners will also find plenty to like in the visual dynamic that iconoclastic director Jang Jin injects into the proceedings. In addition to the usual blend of John Woo-inspired slo-mo and 'bullet-time' action sequences, Jang shows that he has a few tricks of his own. In one sequence, which features Cho searching the quartet's home for evidence, the screen is divided into three, with each third showing a different camera angle on Cho. However, as Cho begins his walkaround, it quickly becomes clear that each 'angle' is an entirely different scene, with each 'Cho' investigating a different part of the house. Jang also constructs an elaborate and well-shot assassination set piece that takes place during a performance of Hamlet at an opera house (with the Korean dialogue remarkably faithful to the original text).
Unfortunately, where "Guns & Talks" could have used some work is in the ending, in which the character motivations, plot mechanics, and plain-old logic must jump through hoops in order to achieve the film's impossibly happy ending. It seems as though Jang (who also wrote the script), having painted himself into a corner during the last act while still having too many balls in the air, tried to tie up all the loose ends as quickly as possible-- too bad it all seems so arbitrary.
Despite a weak ending, "Guns & Talks" is still a lot of fun to watch, due in part to the performances of the talented cast. Shin Hyun-joon abandons his usual 'bad guy' persona (cultivated in films such as "Bichunmoo" and "The Gingko Bed") to portray Sang-yeon as the quartet's kind-hearted and well-intentioned leader, while Chung and Won are both up to the task with sympathetic portrayals of their love-struck characters. Jeong Jin-young also acquits himself nicely as the dedicated public prosecutor on their trail, though his character's motivation gets a little fuzzy near the end.
However, before you run out and get your own copy, here is probably the most disappointing aspect of "Guns & Talks": it is only available as a Region 3 (Asia) DVD, that is, until a Hong Kong multi-region import DVD becomes available (hopefully soon). However, this film is almost good enough to be considered a 'killer app' for investing in a region-less DVD player. Slick, humorous, and fun, "Guns & Talks" takes the cinematic stylings of John Woo, Guy Ritchie ("Snatch"), and Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction") and whips them into one neat package. This is a film that truly speaks to the innovation and surprise awaiting moviegoers in today's cutting-edge Korean cinema.