Asura: The City of Madness [JIFF 2017] – Review

A Tour de Force of Violence and Corruption

18th Jeonju International Film Festival
Jeonju Dome Screening

Asura: The City of Madness (아수라) – 2016

  • Directed by: Kim Sungsoo (김성수)
  • Starring: Jeong Woo-sung (정우성), Hwang Jung-min (황정민), Ju Ji-hoon (주지훈), Kwak Do-won (곽도원), Jeong Man-sik (정만식)
  • The Film: Han is an ex-cop turned muscle enforcer for the controversial and powerful Mayor of Anam City. When what was supposed to be a routine silencing of a witness in a corruption case against the mayor goes sour, Han is pressured into becoming a mole for Anam’s lead prosecutor, Kim, who is hellbent on putting the Mayor behind bars. Han’s loyalties get tested as he gets caught up in a torrent of competing interests, but most importantly he doesn’t want to end up on the losing side of either of the warring giants, Kim and Park.


Asura: The City of Madness takes place in the fictional city of Anam, which is a lot like Gotham City on its worst days in that it is dark, dirty, and full of corruption. Except in Anam, we have nothing resembling a Batman to clean it up. This city has been left to the dogs, and may the strongest dog with the meanest bark and the hardest bite rule it.

The Dogs
—Minor Plot Spoilers—

The ex-cop, Han (Jung Woo-sung), who is now working as a top enforcer for the city’s brazen Mayor Park (Hwang Jung-min), takes his younger friend Sunmo (Ju Ji-hoon) under his wing. Han encourages Sunmo to work hard and get noticed so he can also make a name for himself. They share a strong brotherly bond but even so Han is definitely leader of the pack and keeps Sunmo on a tight leash. Sunmo is almost too eager to make his big move without all the learned discipline Han knows is required. Han comes off as an almost abusive older brother to Sunmo but it’s more of a kind of tough-love that may be required for survival in a city of madness.

Han’s hands are far from clean after carrying out the Mayor’s dirty work, and he gets forced into a situation where he has to work for the city’s lead prosecutor Kim Cha-in (Kwak Do-wan) to assist with getting sufficient evidence to put Park away on widespread allegations of corruption. While Han is distracted with Prosecutor Kim, the reigns come off Sunmo and he quickly and recklessly climbs up the ladder of favor with Mayor Park and challenges Han for the spot of top-dog. The bond they share and how it erodes over their desire for power highlights one of the central themes in Asura.

—End Spoilers—

The city of madness is a dog-eat-dog world and a constant power struggle, and the crippling effects that ruthless desire for power and wealth can have on a society that values it so dearly has never been so violently portrayed as it has here in Asura. The film has been seen as a strong critique on the insatiable thirst for money and power in modern Korean society ranging from the average Joe all the way up to the highest offices of government that have rocked the country as of recent. There are no “good guys” in Asura as even the Prosecutor’s team is not immune to corruption and in their desire to win will do whatever it takes to get their evidence no matter how illegally or immorally their collection may be.

According to mythological Indian texts, “Asuras” are powerful and god-like super-humans who compete for power, each with their own schools of discipline, some good and some bad. In the war for power and the position of top-dog in Anam, Prosecutor Kim and Mayor Park might be these Asuras, with the city as their battlefield and the citizens as its soldiers. Han becomes more like a human soccer ball amidst all the chaos, as he goes through the proverbial meat-grinder in his efforts to please both men as they play out their warring strategies.

Asura is an extremely violent and cruel film, and will probably prove too challenging for the average movie goer. But for all the dark themes the film deals with and the near super-human god-like characters battling to the death, buckets of blood seem to fit the bill perfectly, making Asura a genre movie enthusiasts dream film. There is a graphic novel-like feel to the film and the story is a unique hybrid of crime noir and mythological tragedy. The visuals of Asura are absolutely stunning with its darkly lit grungy alleyways, hard-rain and neon lights. Also, the beyond epic final showdown set in a funeral parlor couldn’t have been a more perfect setting for the madness that ensues.

Asura’s actors are right off the top shelf and convincingly portray their monstrous characters with such weight that the battle for top-dog remains gripping all the way to through the credits. I was blown away by the end. There are so many layers in Asura that it would be a shame to brush it aside for its excessive violence and I highly recommend this film to genre enthusiasts most of all!



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