"Your friends sent me as a birthday gift… So, take off the wrapping and start eating…"
Speed tells the story of a group of young men - Gu-rim, Chu-won, Seo-won and De-sung - whose friendship began in their formative school years, continuing through their headlong leap into adulthood to the point where they are virtually inseparable. Though seeing themselves as an unstoppable force whose combined focus is first and foremost enjoyment, especially if their 'antics' fly in the face of authority, each has a personal passion - be it music, athletics, academic excellence, or indeed love - that has both shaped who they have become as individuals and formed the core of their separate hopes and aims for the future.
However, in succession each is soon to discover that not only can life be almost guaranteed to throw curveballs in our path that jeopardise our most sought after dreams but it can also bring the realisation that the passions of youth are often far removed from the true desires of the adult heart...
Our first introduction to the four young men comes accompanied by a rhythmic, pulse-pounding musical soundtrack as each breaks the law to a greater or lesser degree (urinating in public, taking drugs, etc.); is caught in the act by an authority figure from the older generation; and takes flight at breakneck speed through the city streets with the adults hot in pursuit. While the anger of the infringed upon adults is easy to see, what is even more noticeable is the sheer enjoyment each of our 'heroes' is having in the chase and as the individual scrambles converge onto a single street the young men are reunited in their escapades, their escape and their utter, blatant glee.
As such, in these first few moments of Speed we are resolutely shown (without the need for any expositional dialogue whatsoever) these boys-come-men's determination to fly in the face of authority with only a fleshing out of their individual characters, personalities and passions still required.
Following this frenetic first scene, Speed
's narrative jumps back two years to the group's school years to do exactly that, with De-sung detailing (in narration over montages) what he 'hates' about each of his friends - and they of him - and in one fell swoop director Lee Sang-woo not only shows us exactly what makes each of the group 'tick', as it were, but also gives a subtle foreshadowing of the very things that will tear their individual and collective worlds apart, in the process deftly giving viewers the feeling that they really know the characters even before the main narrative gets underway.
Of course, in any story of exuberant, fearless youth rallying against authority, society and/or social norms there has to be a recognisable figure of power to stand as the personification of the controlling older generation as a whole and in Speed that figure comes in the shape of the boys' deeply twisted (many might say evil) schoolteacher.
Through the self-serving and debased pursuits of this deeply dubious man with a sexual penchant for high school girls - who largely divides his time between quashing the youthful vitality of his pupils, which he repeatedly refers to as arrogance, and coercing (or, more accurately, virtually forcing) female pupils to provide sex and sexual favours in return for the promise of giving them access to exam answers - we are introduced to the character of Eun-ae, a schoolgirl prostitute pimped out by her brother, and it is her character arc combined with that of bookworm Seo-won that brings the strongest, to my mind, narrative thread of Speed to the fore. Initially hired as a sexual birthday gift for virgin Seo-won after it is discovered that he is critically ill, it is Eun-ae's subsequent burgeoning love for Seo-won, and his for her, that forms the most moving, poignant and compelling narrative thread of Speed.
Though each of the group's individual stories is more than engaging and indeed equally vital to the film's ultimate statement, it is the deeply touching relationship of these two broken souls who find completion through their unconditional love for each other that will ultimately stay with you long after the credits roll.
Throughout his directorial career, Lee Sang-woo has focused his films (Mother is A Whore, Dear Dictator, I Am Trash, etc.) on stories of broken or desperate characters on the very edge of Korean society, never pulling any punches whatsoever in his hard-hitting criticism of attitudes, societal injustices and the like nor shying away from forthrightly discussing deeply provocative subject matter that remains largely taboo to this very day, be it rape, incest, prostitution, murder, alcoholism, crippling poverty or indeed unwanted members of society being esentially left to rot, and as such Lee Sang-woo's films, worthy though they certainly are, could rarely be said to be easy to watch.
While Speed, like Lee's earlier work, is specifically Korean in all of its dissections and statements, this story of youths who for a time feel they are utterly unstoppable with the world at their feet but who come to learn that, in reality, is far from the case serves to make the narrative far more accessible than the majority of the director's films, equally hard-hitting though it unquestionably is.
The final scene of Speed features the main characters running in a virtual reflection of the film's opening segment but considering the trials, traumas and tribulations we have witnessed it ultimately feels far more surreal and, in fact, could almost be seen as a depiction of these (now adult and world-scarred) men desperately chasing to catch and hold onto the youth that has inevitably escaped their grasp... and who (regardless of the person they are or the country they reside) on looking back on their younger days has not at one point or another wanted to undertake exactly that chase?
While Speed is equally as hard-hitting and Korean specific as director Lee Sang-woo's earlier work, its story of the difficulties faced in life during the move from youth to adulthood makes it perhaps his most universally accessible film so far.
'Speed' (스피드) / 2015
Director: Lee Sang-woo
Cast: Seo Jun-young, Baek Sung-hyun, Choi Tae-hwan, Byun Joon-suk, Shin Seo-hyun, Lim Hyung-joon