A potboiler of a spy game thriller, “Yaksha: Ruthless Operations” is far more revealing about the state of rivalries in Asia than virtually anything to come out of the Far East of late.
It’s a tale of South Korean spies running rampant in Shenyang, a Chinese city close to the North Korean border. They’re shooting it out with North Korean operatives and Chinese security officials left and right in a place that’s presented as a kind of Wild West of Asian espionage.
The stakes for the South Koreans could not be higher, with an armed, unstable and belligerent dictatorship right across the Demilitarized Zone, a rogue state propped-up by the Oligarchical People’s Republic right behind them.
But the guys the Koreans really have it in for, the ones nobody trusts, are the Japanese. I guess World War II and the decades of Japanese occupation and genocidal oppression that preceded it aren’t exactly forgotten on the Peninsula.
The film director (“The Prison”) and co-writer Hyeon Na gives us is a pulpy, gonzo espionage story of mutual mistrust, old grudges, beatings, torture, kidnapping and summary executions. And all those acts are committed by the “good guys.”
As the leader of this “Black Ops” team, nicknamed Yaksha (Sol Kyung-gu) tells the naive, disgraced prosecutor (Park Hae-soo) sent from Seoul to “investigate” this operation, “Justice” is something they pursue with an “any means necessary” ethos.
Yaksha is the name of a “violent demon” in Buddhist/Asian mythology. We’ve seen this trigger-happy goon murder a “mole” in his operation in the opening scene. We’ve got a whiff of lawyer Ji-hoon’s idealism, losing a key high profile prosecution because of laws his own team broke. Now, Ji-hoon is the innocent abroad, checking out the methods of spies who have no compunction about putting a bullet in some suspect’s head.
“Don’t worry. He’s North Korean.“
As it turns out, this spy squad operating out of a travel agency (Dong-kun Yang, Jinyoung Park, Jae-rim Song, Lee El) isn’t interesting in being interfered with. Yaksha beats the hell out of the lawyer at first provocation. They kidnap and drug and honey-trap him and call the Chinese cops. Then they kick him around some more.
But as they’re on the same side, it’s OK, as soon they’re back to sharing drinks and working on this missing North Korean insider they hope to help defect.
Logic takes a severe beating in this action romp. Yaksha and his minions keep on beating on and cursing Ji-hoon, almost to the closing credits.
“I told you to LAY LOW you self-righteous ass—e!”
Characters may joke about how little “real” spying is like “James Bond” and “Mission: Impossible.” But that’s what’s served up here, Korean style.
No Occidentals turn up. This is strictly an “Asian Century” affair, a struggle for primacy in an ascendant East. Characters switch from Korean to Mandarin to Japanese (with subtitles), and occasionally to English if they want a threat to REALLY land.
There are “sleeping with the enemy” violations. Nobody is shy about torturing anyone, even the daughter of the would-be defector.
And lurking over all this mayhem is Ozawa, aka “D-7,” the dapper Japanese manipulator/spy played with sinister sex appeal by veteran character actor Hiroyuki Ikeuchi. Long before the film’s action climax underscores this, we’re thinking “Bond villain.” With his sword-wielding underlings, Ozawa is a force even the supposedly dominant Chinese can’t figure out how to foil.
Filmed in Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, “Yaksha” has lurid red light district fights and embassy heists, laugh-out-loud insults and the funniest use of “drones” as a plot device of any espionage thriller.
The story’s over-the-top nonsensical. Treacherous characters “explain” their motivations, often in mid-brawl, in scene after scene. But the players are game, with the Korean veteran Sol and Ikeuchi standing toe to toe with panache and great presence.
If you think you know what “ruthless operations” look like in the West, prepare to have your eyes opened to how such matters are settled in the exotic, brutal East by the undercover demon they call “Taksha.”
Rating: TV-MA, graphic violence, smoking, profanity
Cast Sol Kyung-gu, Park Hae-soo, Dong-kun Yang, Jinyoung Park, Jae-rim Song, Lee El and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi.
Credits: Directed by Hyeon Na, scripted by Hyeon Na and Sang-hoon Ahn. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:06