Whether it’s to make up for the predictable turn of events or just to leave the audience stewing in the perplexing aftereffect, Believer end is ominously ambiguous, and we’re not complaining. The 2018 Korean crime thriller seemingly prides itself on concocting a twisted cat-and-mouse chase involving an obsessed detective and a wildly enigmatic drug kingpin. And while the chase is intriguingly fueled by the mysterious aura of a certain Mr. Lee, Believer indecisive narrative does at times get tangled up in a web of its own design. What still keeps the film going and maintains a fairly taut grip is the detective-criminal duo and how ambiguous they really are in all of their actions.
Plot Synopsis: What Happens In The Film?
You’ve been dropped right in the middle of an escalating narrative where you are to draw your own conclusions about what might have gone down before. There must be a reason behind Won-ho’s volatile search for the drug lord who has his tentacles wrapped around the entirety of Korea’s drug business. But here’s the catch: No one has ever seen or met this supposedly petrifying Mr. Lee, who Won-ho is after. And how do you even go about catching a guy who’s been impersonated multiple times by low-level criminals seeking fame and respect? We may not have a clear idea regarding Won-ho’s past, which might hold more information about his plaguing pursuit than we’ll ever know, but we are met with a tragedy that explains his further obsession with catching Mr. Lee and making him pay. When Won-ho’s minor informant, who he loved as his own niece, dies an excruciating death and an explosion wipes out a bunch of executives and leaves behind a man and a mangled dog, the detective has all the more reasons to dive head-first into the convoluted investigation. And that’s not all. A shipping company that’s a front for the drug business has recently lost its CEO to a mysterious death. Being completely aware of the nefarious extent of violence that’s been Mr. Lee’s signature style for conducting business, Won-ho has no choice but to pool all available resources—the most significant one at this point being Rak, the man who survived the explosion, lost his mother to it and is aching for payback.
How Do Rak And Won-Ho Plan To Find Mr. Lee?
The most overwhelming thing about trying to find someone who no one knows and several people pretend to be is that there’s no way to know if the real Mr. Lee is even committing the crimes. It could just as easily be one of his impersonators who had the building full of executives exploded and murdered the CEO. But even if it wasn’t Mr. Lee who was behind these crimes, there’s nothing wrong with Won-ho trying to take down the most formidable drug mogul in Korea. Despite Won-ho’s immediate and fairly reasonable cynicism about Rak, the 28-year-old quiet guy is his only way of getting remotely close to Lee. Fortunately, Lee was just on his way to establishing a relationship with an eccentric Chinese supplier, Ha-rim. The odd man with the best ingredients had but one condition: when the deal was final, he’d shake hands with Lee. The plan that Rak and Won-ho hatched was twofold and far from bulletproof. Masquerading as Park, one of the lower-level associates and a henchman of Mr. Lee, Won-ho minutely read Ha-rim’s body language. And things were supposed to go smoothly when the tables turned; the real Park arrived, and Won-ho had to pose as the Chinese drug lord. But luck was hardly in their favor. Persevering through every bad card they were dealt, Won-ho and Rak did score the deal, gathered the supplies, and went over to Dong-Yeong and Ju-Yeong, the young drug-makers Rak had a fantastic rapport with.
Does Won-Ho Find Mr. Lee? Was Rak The Real Mr. Lee?
From the first time Rak and Won-ho’s eyes met, there’s been a sense of odd familiarity between the two. They’d certainly never met each other before the explosion, but there was something strange about how immediate Rak was in joining Won-ho’s pursuit and how recklessly Won-ho opened the door to the crucial investigation and let a stranger in. Don’t get me wrong; blind trust couldn’t be farther from what these two were about. Time and again, Won-ho had found some calm and some furious ways to declare his distrust for Rak. Yet there was something about the man who only took the name Rak from the dead kid whose parents adopted him that Won-ho couldn’t particularly resist. At the end of the day, the disturbed detective and the man-of-few-words criminal who came into the country in a shipping container with drugs up to its brim had more in common than they didn’t.
It is most likely this peculiar sense of familiarity and a shared sense of safety that Rak elevated in Won-ho as he saved his life from Ha-rim when they were kidnapped by the savage, coked-up Chinese drug lord. And even when the salt factory explosion orchestrated by the Walter White-Jesse Pinkman duo we have here took his associate’s life, Won-ho still crawled back to Rak and sought his help. What good is a crime thriller if there isn’t an eerie chemistry and an elusive sense of tension between the hunter and the hunted? Standing in the way of that was the peculiar Brian, who, as we get to know later, was the Caracalla of the shipping/drug dynasty. There are a lot of lines that Brian has crossed: Killing his dad and overtaking the empire; detonating a bomb and leaving melted corpses in his wake; and most importantly, having the audacity to impersonate the OG. The volatile conversation between Won-ho and the supposed Mr. Lee (Brian) that we’ve seen take place in the gray room turns more stones than you may have immediately noticed. No tuppenny criminal, no matter how menacing, can sit before Won-ho and claim to be Mr. Lee.
The chase that has consumed his life has also painted a rather clear picture of Mr. Lee in Won-ho’s mind. When something is too close, you may not always notice it. It’s wildly overwhelming to stand before what you’ve been chasing for the better part of your life, and all it takes is your mind dissociating and cloaking itself in denial for your eyes to be blurred to the truth. What we’ve assumed to be the truth for quite a while only evaded Won-ho’s eyes because he wasn’t even ready to conclude the pursuit. And by the time he does open his eyes, the real Mr. Lee, whom we now, for certain, know to be none other than Rak, has exacted his revenge and scorched the flesh on Brian’s back the same way his dog suffered the burns. And what could be a better act of revenge than making your impersonator take the fall and absolve you of your crimes? Granted, your impression of Mr. Lee isn’t without the intrusion of the impression Rak has been making on you throughout the film’s duration. And the same can be said about Won-ho’s increasingly puzzling feelings about Mr. Lee. The truth of the matter is the Mr. Lee we’ve come to know and love as Rak isn’t too far removed from the benevolence we’ve come to admire. Rak/Mr. Lee is not without his labyrinthine maze of crimes. But at the same time, the deaths he has caused have been of the criminals who used his name to carry out unimaginably horrific crimes. If there was ever a self-made man, that would be Mr. Lee.
The more you know of Mr. Lee and his uniquely scarred life, the more his actions will make sense to you. The curse of grief on Mr. Lee has been unrelenting. As a child immigrating to a strange country in a shipping container, he had to bear the traumatizing burden of watching his parents die from a drug overdose, and those most likely were suicides. Taken in and raised by a family that lived near and worked at the salt factory, he’s never really known of a life outside the bounds of the dark world of narcotics. So it’s only understandable that he sought a sense of control, and more importantly, he ached to become invisible, as it was the only thing that could bring a sense of relief from his haunting coexistence with a severe identity crisis. The calm, almost tranquil aura that he dons is somehow the most terrifying thing about him. There’s nothing more bloodcurdling than a man who quietly plans his moves while battling the loss of his adoptive mother. The concerning lack of rage on his face when he saw his dog in the most wretched state only pointed to the fire that burned within him. If he had been reckless and impulsive, he couldn’t have erected a tremendous drug empire. And if he had lost his cool every time he was messed with, he couldn’t have held on to all that he had built. He hates as deeply and devotedly as he loves.
The two mute brothers who are ready to dice with death for him have long felt and cherished this love. And the people who dared to cross the line paid dearly. You might wonder if he has a death wish. He’s had more than enough shots at eliminating the man who’d given it his all to look for him and bring him to justice. But in the lost Won-ho, Mr. Lee has recognized a familiar crisis. It’s the same shared sense of respect and admiration that has somehow calmed Won-ho when all is said and done. I doubt that he hasn’t known Rak’s poorly disguised truth all along. And I do believe that Believer has only walked the distance to include a parallel with Won-ho connecting the dots in order to tie up loose ends. Frankly, the movie could’ve fared better without the montage of Won-ho putting the pieces together. But even then, the sequence wasn’t necessarily without value. We got to know that the dog’s real name is Leica, which is also the name of Mr. Lee’s signature drug. And there are two reasons Leica is crucial to the climax. The fact that it’s been a while since Won-ho has figured out the dog’s name only reaffirms our belief that he’s known about Rak’s secret all along. And by putting a GPS tracker on Leica, Won-ho ascertained his path to Mr. Lee even when the country was content with deluding itself and catching the impersonator.
Considering he’d come to genuinely admire Mr. Lee, I doubt that Won-ho even knew what he was going to do as his car cut through the snowy terrain where Mr. Lee now resided with the mute brothers and Leica, the only things in the world he would kill and die for. But there’s something acutely hopeless about a menacing drug lord moving to a secluded cottage far away from the city. Add to that his decision to keep the only things he loved close, and you’ve got a suicidal man. Why else would he welcome Won-ho into the house, offer him a cup of freshly brewed coffee and sit down at the table with a gun keeping them apart? From the looks of it, years of having his identity stolen by worthless criminals who only used it to wreak havoc on innocents have finally caught up to Mr. Lee. And so has the dreadful identity crisis that he’s been running from. When the film ends with the sound of a gunshot rupturing the silence of the blissful terrain, all you’re left with is a question. Who killed whom?
It’s unlikely that Mr. Lee would pull the trigger on Won-ho, considering he could have done so a million times before. It’s entirely possible that Won-ho had to finish what he started, not to prove anything to the world, which was content with believing that Brian was Mr. Lee, but to numb the disquieting buzz he’s had in his mind ever since he started looking for Mr. Lee. And the extended cut of Believer only underprops this theory. What you haven’t seen in the theatrical version of the film is the scene with Won-ho walking out, wiping blood off his face. And with that, I guess there’s no point in hoping that Mr. Lee is still alive. Additionally, there was a mid-credit scene that saw Won-ho’s car driving away into the haze of the snow. It’s for certain that Won-ho didn’t die. And if you must hold on to your hope and believe that Mr. Lee was still alive, I guess there’s no one keeping you from wondering if the gunshot wasn’t fatal. After all, Mr. Lee’s fate is up to you.
Believer is a 2018 Korean action thriller film directed by Hae-Young Lee.