On paper, Ajusshi doesn’t seem that different from your average action flick. You have your tortured hero, you put him (let’s be honest – 99% of the time, it’s a him) in the path of a villain, and then you sit back and watch the fists fly. So what is it about Ajusshi that sets it apart? Why does it always stand out in my mind as something special? Maybe it’s the gorgeous cinematography and direction or the impressively choreographed fight scenes. Maybe it’s the themes of redemption and loyalty. Yes, its all those things, and its also the quietly arresting performances of Won Bin and Kim Sae-ron as the pawn shop ajusshi and the little girl who shone light into his dark world.
If you’re unfamiliar with the word, “ajusshi” (or 아저씨 in Hangul) is a Korean form of address used when speaking to an older man (typically middle-aged) to whom the speaker is not related. For example, a young girl would not call her uncle “ajusshi,” but she might use this term for her uncle’s friend. If you already know the word, you can skip this paragraph. Oh. Well, it’s the thought that counts, right?
In this movie, our ajusshi is Cha Tae-shik, played by Won Bin (Mother, Guns and Talks, and Autumn in My Heart). He owns a small pawn shop, speaks little, and has no friends, with perhaps the exception of the little girl next door, Jung So-mi (Kim Sae-ron, Manhole, The Queen’s Classroom). Sounds creepy, doesn’t it? It’s not. Neglected by her mother (Kim Hyo-seo, Two Weeks, Style), So-mi latches on to Tae-shik, and they form an unlikely but touching bond as she chatters on and he patiently listens.
Their routine existence is disrupted, however, when So-mi’s mother steals drugs from the wrong people, resulting in her death and in So-mi being kidnapped and sold to human traffickers. As Tae-shik races to find So-mi, he runs afoul of both the police and the local gangsters, leaving a trail of bodies and broken bones in his wake. With the police on his tail, Tae-shik must chase down the bad guys to rescue So-mi, all while wrestling with his own tragic past.
The supporting cast is filled with faces that will be familiar to anyone who watches South Korean movies or dramas: Kim Hee-won (Hot Young Bloods, Angry Mom, Misaeng), Kim Sung-oh (Fashion King – the movie, that is – Diary of a Night Watchman, Inspiring Generation), Kim Tae-hoon (My Love Eun-Dong, Angry Mom, Bad Guys), and many more. Each actor handles himself admirably, but it should come as no surprise that Won Bin and Kim Sae-ron are at the emotional center. In the dark, scary world of the film, these two characters had only each other, and I rooted for them every step of the way. Won Bin hasn’t acted in any films or television dramas since Ajusshi‘s release, but with only one viewing of this film, I like to think that anyone would understand why his fans are so eager for him to make a comeback. (On the other hand, one glance at the state of South Korea’s entertainment industry and you might understand why he isn’t picking any projects. But that’s another story.) As for Kim Sae-ron, she was only about nine years old when she acted in Ajusshi, and although none of her subsequent projects have met such high acclaim (that I am aware of), she continues to be lauded as one of the most talented actresses of her generation. And deservedly so, I say.
When I try to articulate why Ajusshi stands head and shoulders above other action flicks (at least in my mind), it’s hard for me to attribute it to one thing. It’s everything. Everything about this movie is well done, from the lighting to the special effects; from the fight scenes to emotionally-charged acting. Perhaps the writing doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but I have no cause for complaint. The film is stylish and gritty, but no one can accuse this movie of lacking a heart. There aren’t many action movies that I would describe as soulful, but Ajusshi certainly fits that bill. Ajusshi is everything that I want from an action film and even a little bit more, and that is why it owns my heart.