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Opposites Attract

Demei Holdings Limited

Green Night (2023)

An unlikely meeting between a drug mule and an airport security agent slowly morphs into a life-changing 48 hours for the two women. Set over Christmas in a South Korean port town and shot in a tense but highly controlled style, “Green Night” has an unusual frankness about violence, freedom and personal choices that rises above the normal thriller cliché. It's an outstanding experience.

Neither of them really have names. The Chinese woman (Fan Bingbing) came to South Korea as a mail-order bride for the loathsome Lee (Kim Yeong-ho). She has separated from him, but as she's without the 35 million won for her own residence permit, he still controls her life. At the airport, a flirtatious young Korean woman with green hair, green fingernails, green toenails and the tattoo of a green firework in her cleavage (Lee Joo-young) comes through the Chinese's woman's security line. She gets a bad vibe; and the green-haired woman, who speaks Chinese, shrugs and walks off without her shoes. Later there's a confrontation over her bare feet, which means they're both shortly in the Chinese woman's awful apartment, finding a spare pair of sneakers. The green-haired woman's bag is indeed full of drugs and she does a regular run that the Chinese woman's boss knows all about; the corruption at her work is an unpleasant surprise for the Chinese woman. But the green-haired woman is tired of couriering for the dealer named Dong (Kim Min-gui), and thinks she can sell the stash in her bag independently before skipping town. She offers the Chinese woman a cut if she'll drive her to meet the contact on her scooter. Thinking of the needed 35 million won, the Chinese woman agrees, and changes both their lives.

Ms. Fan and Ms. Lee have an unusual chemistry, a chalk-and-cheese style which combined makes them a perfect pair. Ms. Lee has the jaded, off-kilter charm of Cameron Diaz, while Ms. Fan is more like Reese Witherspoon, all repression and good manners. The green-haired woman is impulsive, direct and quick to action – the image of her strangling someone with a string of Christmas lights won't soon leave you. There’s also a brutally funny sequence of her being patted down by some thugs in a fish market, during which she accidentally farts into the face of someone armed. The Chinese woman is more obviously unhappy, not least about the bruises (presents from Lee) she hasn't bothered to cover up, but she's also had it with being bossed around and criticized. She's just as quick to assess their circumstances but much more guarded, and absolutely unaccustomed to asserting herself. Their adventures, which mostly happen at night, are beautifully shot by Matthias Delvaux and Kim Hyun-seok and include time in a bowling alley of all places, slowly morph into something further unexpected, which obviously raises the stakes.

Ms. Lee is a Korean star on the rise, in her first leading film role, but with a fresh screen presence. Ms. Fan, a superstar of Chinese cinema who has worked all over the world, has had an unhappy few years of personal troubles, and the choice of this film to reboot her career is a pointed one. The subtext of women taking back their power from brutally unkind men is obviously what drew the Berlinale to this film, and as a story of female empowerment “Green Night” mostly succeeds. But there’s a major flaw: the actions of the police. It's a peculiar decision by director Han Shuai, who cowrote the script with Lei Sheng, to have the police commit a serious crime for sport when it’s not super relevant to the plot, at least not how it was explained in the subtitles. That aside, it means the Chinese woman's final choice isn't made out of desperation, but instead is an act of love. As a motivator, love is powerfully underused in action movies and it really ought to happen more often.


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