The problem with Illang: The Wolf Brigade, a live-action remake of Mamoru Oshii & Hiroyuki Okura's Jin-Roh, is not that you can't or shouldn't remake anime as live action. It's that you lose as much as you gain, and what they've lost here is not something you can just throw back in. Illang is assembled with great technical competence and more than a little insight into what made the original story tick. But I still felt like director Jee-woon Kim had missed the point. The original Jin-Roh had an icy, tragic sense of remove, further given a phantasmal, shadow-play quality by its animation. The live-action version is half gritty action film and half noirish spy thriller — competent enough on its own, but missing the primal sorcery conjured up by the original.
The original film was set in an alternate past, a 1950s where Japan had fallen into a mix of anarchy and fascist autarchy. Illang takes the opposite tack: it's set in the near-future, where the two halves of the Korean peninsula elect to reunify as a bulwark against growing pressure from China. Japan and the rest of the West push back in turn, isolating the new Korea. Anti-government terrorism by an outfit named "the Sect" becomes a fact of life. A new elite police squad called the Special Unit, its members armored and helmeted like Darth Vader crossed with RoboCop, is formed to deal with them.
The movie opens in 2029, with an anti-reunification protest that turns into a bloody ambush by the Sect. When the Special Unit corners Sect members in its underground lair, one of their underage bomb carriers ("Red Riding Hoods") sets off a bomb and kills herself — a girl about the same age as one of a classroom of kids the Brigade mistakenly killed years back. Pressure mounts to have the Brigade disbanded, or at the very least its operations suspended.
One of the Unit soldiers, Lim (Dong-won Gang), had that girl at gunpoint right as she pulled the pin, but he couldn't bring himself to fire on her. He was one of the officers in that classroom massacre. A former Brigade comrade of his, Han (Mu-yeol Kim), also from the massacre, but now in charge of the investigation against them, does him a solid on the sly and provides him with a lead to the remaining members of the Sect — the diary of the girl who blew herself up, Jae-hee.
With Unit operations officially suspended, Lim sets out on the downlow to track down the girl's sister, Yun-hee (Hyo-jo Han). She is grateful to have a piece of her sister's life back, but also curiously fatalistic about the whole thing. She doesn't even blame Lim for his actions; after all, it's not like he pulled the trigger on her. As with the animated film, there's the parable of Little Red Riding Hood — the bloodthirsty original, not the sanitized happy-ending version — to explain her feelings. The way she spells it out, there is no one truly culpable figure in the story — the hungry wolf, the helpless granny, the innocent child — and likewise the evils of the world are not so readily pinned on any one person, much as we want them to.
None of this is what it seems, though. Yun-hee is a former Sect member, blackmailed by Han, and shuttlecocked back and forth between rivals within the government — the Public Security forces that want to foment further chaos and seize power, and those that want to keep what peace can be kept. Her mission has been to get involved with Lim and stage an incident, the better to discredit both him and the Unit. But Lim is not having any of it, and those in the Unit are not either — and they are not above using Lim and Yun-hee to set a trap for those that have betrayed them in turn.
Wolf without fangs
Fans of Jin-Roh will have little trouble mapping back everything they see here to the original. The plot tracks fairly closely with it, and there's no end of familiar images from it hoisted and converted into live-action more or less as is. To wit: the soldier's grotesque super-armor, or the staircase-set design of the sewer lair, or a moment when the glowing red eye sockets of the Unit's masks seem to leave trails, or even the design of the film's title card. The problem is that reproducing those things alone, or even in concert, doesn't reproduce what made the original special.
Movies like this feel like case studies in why animation is an artistic choice and not just a convenience or a facilitator. When I saw the original Jin-Roh, one of the things I felt about it was akin to the way I felt about Royal Space Force: Wings Of Honneamise — that animation was a way to accomplish something that otherwise would have been prohibitively expensive at the time. These days, with digital photography and CGI, that may not be as true; it's effects that are cheap, or at the very least abundant, and hand-drawn animation that's now both rare and killingly expensive.
But that only makes the other reason all the more significant — that when you use animation, you create a new way of regarding the material, of giving it a pre-emptive suspension of disbelief that doesn't happen elsewhere. Photorealistic CGI wants to be as convincing as possible; animation is content to just nod in the direction of either reality or fantasy, and let our minds do the rest of the heavy lifting. So it was with the original Jin-Roh, and it inhabited a space of its own that a live-action movie could not.
It's not as if Illang is incompetent. In the space it inhabits, it works decently well. Not the space of live-action anime adaptations, but rather as the latest of the professional-looking, stylized action thrillers that have been a staple of the South Korean film industry since the late Nineties from Shiri on. Its near-future atmosphere seems inspired by productions like Children Of Men, where power cuts are commonplace, trash covers every streetcorner, and all the windows have steel mesh over them.
The other problem with Illang is that it replaces the original movie's qualities with all the wrong things. When the first trailer for Illang screened, I noted that I was worried they had turned the whole thing into a tarted-up action thriller — that the film would end up being unwittingly exciting, when it was never meant to be that. And sure enough, the action sequences commit exactly that error — not just that they try to make the whole thing fun, which is bad enough, but that by doing so they throw us into territory inhabited by too many other movies.
One major set-piece, an action scene in a café at the top of a tower, starts decently enough; it's played as a stalk-and-trap reminiscent of a vintage spy thriller. Then it devolves into a flashy gunfight, and then from there into a truly risible action sequence involving a drone sporting machine guns, and then — sillier yet — a nod to the original Die Hard where the protagonist makes an escape with a fire hose. And the film's final act is yet another one of these protracted climactic action set pieces that just made me wish the movie had ended thirty minutes earlier. And instead of the blunt, bleak ending of the original story, there's yet another stupid shootout, and an eye-rolling coda that goes against the spirit of everything that came before.
Kim is one of Korea's most impressive working directors. He gave us the sensational serial-killer thriller I Saw The Devil, the rousing Western homage/sendup The Good, The Bad, And The Weird, the excellent hitman drama A Bittersweet Life, and many more. His stylistic and dramatic choices for this movie are not by themselves wholly wrong, but they only push us further away from what the original was about and how it was about it. A live-action adaptation of Jin-Roh needed a Denis Villeneuve, someone willing to step all the way back and cast as dispassionate an eye as possible on the goings-on, someone willing to make Lim look like a bug on a slide instead of an action hero.
I'm not against remakes in principle, but they always need to be conducted with an eye towards why, and to what end. Jin-Roh brought far more to the table than just its le Carré-esque intrigue or its moody, murky violence. It was all of a piece with its presentation, and you could not take out a piece here and a piece there and transplant them. It was, in a word, special. This version just goes where far too many other things have gone before.