It happens to virtually everyone at least once in their lifetime: a person goes to work or to class for the umpteenth time, only to suddenly be hit by the realization that they could be doing something else with their life. Perhaps it is because a random element on their trek struck their interest; perhaps while at the office or school a particular topic was brought up that tickled their fancy; maybe they were requested to perform a task or read a book in which they got so caught up that they began forgetting the real reason why they were assigned the task in the first place. People are malleable — they can prove their worth at a multitude of tasks and professions, sometimes when they least expect it to happen. Such is the baseline for the curiously titled Extreme Job, the latest from director Lee Byeong-heon.
Captain Go (Ryu Seung-ryong) has had a good run in the police force, but fortune has not smiled on him lately. Cases are handled with increasing sloppiness and ineptitude, resulting in urban collateral damage the likes of which no policeman would ever want to be at the centre of. His ragtag crew is made up of the sanguine Detective Jang (Lee Hannee, who also goes by Honey Lee), serious-minded Young-ho (Lee Dong-hwi), offbeat Ma (Jin Seon-kyu), and young gun Jae-hoon (Gong Myung). There is no time to wallow in self-pity, as new intelligence suggests that a notorious gangster’s next hideout location may have been ascertained. Go and the gang perform a stakeout across from the potential criminal lair, regularly taking breaks at a fried chicken restaurant. When the owner announces that due to the dearth of customers he is selling his enterprise, a collective light bulb flashes in the detectives’ minds: purchase the establishment to serve as their temporary HQ. Things don’t go according to plan, however, when the customers start flocking in, voraciously devouring Detective Ma’s delicious rib sauce-seasoned chicken, turning a once sedate police operation into a delicious misadventure.
Extreme Job screened on the afternoon of July 13th at the Fantasia Film Festival. Thinking back, it feels perfectly natural that this Lee Byeong-heon directed delight would be shown on a balmy weekend afternoon, like a master chef whipping up another satisfying dish cobbled from carefully selected, perfect ingredients. Consider the following: Fantasia world premieres are generally revealed in the evening (weekend or otherwise), as are other significant, culturally relevant pictures that justifiably attract crowds and plenty of press members. Important genre entries from Canada and Québec also explode onto the scene at night, as a general rule. Then there are the 11:55 pm offerings — the ones that promise more outlandish material, tailored to the midnight audiences.
As someone that has attended the Fantasia Film Festival for a number of years (albeit not nearly as many as the website’s editor-in-chief, Ricky D), the underappreciated gems of the festival are the Saturday and Sunday afternoon screenings. These are not typically world premieres, and sometimes are, as relatively uneventful as being Québec premieres (probably having played in a number of countries already, having often earned handsome box office receipts in their native land by the time Fantasia gets its mittens on them). But by golly, are they ever entertaining. These films represent a laundry list of the absolute, unequivocal hits of their respective countries of origin — the movies that are virtually impossible not to like if one’s cinematic proclivities gravitate towards Fantasia fair.
It should come to little or no surprise then that Extreme Job has sold the second most number of theatre tickets in South Korean cinema history. The movie is a riot from start to finish, in addition to playing on a very real, very human trait of being distracted by other prospects when one’s own professional or personal life is navigating rocky waters. There is a sense of reprieve when success or contentment arrives in an unexpected guise as the going gets particularly tough in other facets of life. The quintet of policemen here never imagined the trajectory their mission would take, yet rather than grow increasingly frustrated with what could be seen as a distraction (the restaurant’s rousing success), they effortlessly and willingly acquiesce to the happy demands of the establishment’s famished clientele. In one of the film’s most poignantly funny scenes, each member of this once elite police squadron compares what “having a rough day” means by describing how many tables they waited, how many chicken nuggets they fried, or how many times they had to put on a smiley face.
Understandably, much of the credit needs to be showered onto the director and cast members, all of whom give spotless performances. Equally important (if not more so) is the script from Bae Se-young, which crackles with hysterical dialogue, whilst discovering new avenues to heighten the stakes, all the while adhering to the premise of a group of detectives that get caught up in keeping their unexpected business alive. From the manner in which they acquire the restaurant to how the villain’s plot eventually bleeds into the runaway success they’ve had, or even a mocking depiction of the risks incurred to a small business’ reputation when it explodes into a massively marketed franchise, by the time Extreme Job arrives at its climax, it can play whatever card it has up its sleeve and continue to enthrall. Better still, the climax takes the story outside of the restaurant for a rip-roaring action sequence at a shipping dock, with extremely well-choreographed, complex fisticuffs.
There is a lot to discover at Fantasia; make no mistake about it. Yes, there are provocative pieces of artistic expression that use genre filmmaking as their platform, and the festival is all the better for offering those filmmakers a venue in which to share their work. Then, there is the other type of movie that the event features: the populist, undeniably charming winner. This is Extreme Job. Leaving the theatre after this movie is like leaving a great restaurant with friends. The stomach is comfortably full, the gang has shared a barrel of laughs, the service was great, and the taste buds are still giddy. Three-star Michelin, it may not be, but damned if it wasn’t an awesome place for a mid-afternoon lunch.