South Korea has really been on the ball lately, not just in their handling of the coronavirus pandemic, but in their cinematic output. Park Chan-wook’s extraordinary The Handmaiden and the immortal Parasite from Bong Joon-ho were both the best films of their respective years by a long way. The respective stars of both of, Cho Jin-woong and Choi Woo-shik, feature in the new police procedural from director Lee Kyoo-man, The Policeman’s Lineage. It may not reach the same heights as the previous films of its leads, but it is still a well-made and entertaining genre piece.
From the start The Policeman’s Lineage moves at breakneck pace and it’s possible to have key story details pass by, particularly as it attempts to set the scene early on. First we are introduced to Choi as Choi Min-jae, a third generation police officer wanting to uphold the law in the same way as his grandfather and late father. Still new to much of the job, his idealistic views have quickly turned to disillusionment from seeing so much corruption on the force. After testifying in court against his partner, he is recruited by internal affairs as a perfect candidate for a potentially dangerous assignment, as he is seen as moralistic but also genial enough to succeed where others have failed.
The target is Cho’s character, Park Kan Yoon, a chief investigator with a highly successful track record but under suspicion for his means and methods of gathering intel. His investigations are often beyond the means and resources of the force, leading to a belief that he has some manner of a financial backer. There’s also the belief that he may be responsible in the murder of another cop who was investigating him.
Choi then is assigned to Park’s team, keeping a close eye out for anything that could implicate him in illegal activity. Park’s main obsession is Na-young Bin (Kwon Yul), a young CEO running an illegal drugs ring supplying to high-income clients, but those connections have seen him avoid jail three times. Enraged by Bin’s cockiness, Park sets out to finally bring him in by any means. As part of his undercover assignment Choi joins Park and the rest of his team in their efforts to bring Bin to justice.
So far so good. The Policeman’s Lineage wins points for being a more realistic look at policing and not deliberately trying to imitate anything. Also, for a change, the cop under surveillance is not corrupt and secretly in league with criminals on the side. Soon, however, things starts to feel more familiar.
Park clashes with section chief Hwang (Park Hee-soon), as the two have very different ideas of policing; Hwang is completetly by the book while Park is not above over-exercising his authority in the form of threats and violence if it gets him results. As he puts it, “As long as you catch the perp, nothing is illegal.” The more Choi spends under Park, of course, the more he starts to see some legitimacy to his unorthodox methods, and he starts to walk a dangerous line between his ideals and the reality of the job.
Before too long The Policeman’s Lineage starts to feel similar to Michael Mann’s Miami Vice: both good looking and ultra-modern, but whose stylistics start to overwhelm a plot that is by turns straightforward and overly-convoluted. In doing so, it feels like more and more opportunities are being missed.
The film does produce some compelling and exciting moments, with the best action sequence being a raid on a drug lab that is visually arresting and full of tension driven by the narrative, timing of the story and situations of the characters involved. The pace never lets up, it’s definitely a film that requires concentration, though does not always merit the audience’s attention.
It’s also not helped by a reliance on genre formulas and problematic plot developments. After a while Cho starts to fall into familiar character tropes, similarly Park starts out a complex character before ending up as a standard ruthless anti-hero. The case however is not quite so straightforward and there are a lot of twists and turns, some of which are harder to swallow than others.
Perhaps it’s not fair to compare The Policeman’s Lineage to other excellent Korean exports, purely on the basis they all share lead actors. The ambitions of Lee’s film are not as high as those that have pushed the envelope recently, and that’s OK. This film knows what it wants to be and, while it could have gone a lot further, it is a stylish and well-paced police actioner that does enough visually and with its story and characters to sustain its running time and keep hold of the audience to the end.