As someone who has been consumed by the K-drama craze that has befallen a lot of us during the pandemic, Jeju island is no longer an unfamiliar location for me in the landscape of South Korean pop culture. It’s a popular vacation spot, or as the shows I’ve seen has called it. But in writer and director Park Hoon Jung’s crime drama ‘Night in Paradise,’ it is also the setting of two broken characters whose lives are defined by death.
Um Tae-goo plays Park Tae-goo, a gangster who must lay low in Jeju Island after the death of his sister and niece pushes him to take a hit against a rival gang’s boss. Tae-goo hides away in the farm of Kuto (Lee Ki-young), an arms dealer, and his terminally ill niece, Jae-yeon (Jeon Yeo-been). While the ramifications of Tae-goo’s actions in Seoul plays out to devastating effect, Tae-goo and Jae-yeon end up bonding over both of their proximity to death.
‘Night in Paradise’ vacillates between ruminating about death and loss and the criminal operations that rely on death as a means to enforce power, which Tae-goo is leaving behind. Park Hoon Jung is equally deft at handling both tonal qualities of the movie; his action sequences are precise and hard-hitting, it’s violent and brutal, whereas his meditative moments are full of life. Even if Tae-goo is a deadly killer, Um Tae-goo is not without his charms. There’s a human being underneath the muscles, tattoos, glower, and hoarse voice.
It is this duality where the film finds its footing. It’s not completely an action and crime story. There’s no specificity on the kind of gangs that are at play in this film. But it’s not some maudlin, tear-jerking melodrama about how life can be so unfair. Death is an ever-imposing, ever-present threat to these characters and both Tae-goo and Jae-yeon are over it. It has gotten the best of these two lost souls, and that’s where this idea of paradise manages to seep into the narrative’s fold.
Because Tae-goo is not some stereotypical cold-blooded killer. His short scene with his sister and niece betrays a soft side. This carries over to his arrival at the farm and his unexpectedly funny interactions with Jae-yeon. Here, the chemistry between Um Tae-goo and Jeon Yeo-been’s Jae-yeon is palpable. Yeo-been’s Jae-yeon is a young woman just going through the motions, barely hanging on to a sliver of hope. She’s somehow revived by the arrival of this gangster on the run. So much so that when both her uncle Kuto’s world comes crashing into their little paradise, the two lost souls find solace in each other in the most charming and unexpected ways.
‘Night in Paradise’ makes no concessions for its characters. We only know them enough to recognize their humanity, but not enough to see some escape from the dark path their lives are set to. Tae-goo’s and Jae-yeon’s lives are tied to the violence and ruthlessness of the criminal worlds that they are connected to. But because death is a familiar presence, it gives them a strength that comes as a surprise to the opposing gang’s Chief Ma. Chief Ma, played wonderfully by Cha Seoung-won, eventually follows after Tae-goo.
There’s a contrasting representation of Jeju island as this island paradise, as the spectre of death hangs so heavily in the air. It creates a texture in the film that makes it impossible to turn away from. It’s surprisingly funny at just the right moments, with well-directed action sequences peppered in. A brutal third act fulfills a promise the film makes at the beginning.
For all these characters, death is waiting. Whether they deserve or not is the point this film chooses to make. Instead, all that matters is how these characters choose to embrace it.