Get your stab on.
Korean noir isn’t messing around. This tale of an up-and-coming enforcer for the local underworld crime boss pulls no punches, serving up hard-R action violence and a surprising dose of adult situations. But the big question? Is there an interesting story to be found within the excess?
The main man is Yi-Hwan (Min-Ki Lee) a former pro baseball player who exited the big leagues and found himself involved in a harder-hitting industry: beating the hell out of fools who refuse to pay their extortion dough.
Thanks to mean streak and otherworldy ability to take a beating, he rises quickly up the ranks of the criminal universe making a name for himself as one the young up-and-coming mob enforcers. It’s a clear path filled with money and notoriety, but things diverge in a big way when Yi-Hwan encounters a lovely young woman.
The two strike up a smoldering romance, complicating his crime life and ultimately placing him square in the crosshairs of his evil mentor: as well as wave after wave of knife-wielding maniac.
While I tend to like the cut of the jib of the Korean action filmmakers, I must confess: For the Emperor did very little for me. Sure it was mean and earned a hard-R rating, but there were just too many underachieving elements holding it back.
A stiff leading man
Min-Ki Lee is a striking physical presence, slender, sinewy and with a disarming, pretty-boy face (which, admittedly did work well in contrast to his grisly actions), but he never radiated enough energy in his character to become anything more than a horny, prone-to-violence enforcer. As such, when the inevitable final showdown landed, I couldn’t care less about the outcome.
The action was underwhelming
Lots of catchy buzz-phrases on the disc cover proclaiming the hard-hitting excellence of the action bits. Alas, they just weren’t there for me. Lee isn’t a skilled pugilist (at least on screen) and the bulk of the violence is stabbing. Knife wounds are cringe-worthy, sure, but they do not make for engaging cinematic mayhem.
The story failed to surprise
This is all filthy with noir influences, but in the end For the Emperor didn’t do much with the genre. The arc our antihero takes won’t shock you and the final sequence is a familiar beat. Not a dealbreaker — just not enough to lift it into noteworthiness.
All in all, a good not great journey into the heart of Korean noir pulp. For this release, you get a high-performance Blu-ray from Well Go USA, starting with a moody, rich 2.40:1, 1080p transfer and a clean 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio (Korean) mix. No extras.
The underworld is nicely realized, the blood flows freely and some eccentric characters pop up here and there, but there’s just not enough going on to earn For the Emperor your devotion on bended knee.
For the loss.