Warning – may contain some spoilers
Gang Chul (Yoo Ah In), a hardworking young man with a sunny personality, has been dealt some bad cards in life. He works a laborious job down at the Busan docks, and spends all of his time caring for his mother, Soo Ni (Kim Hae Sook), who suffers from a string of illnesses, including dementia, and who often mistakes him for his long-departed father. Although their lives are tough, Gang Chul manages to find content in the simplest of moments, taking life day by day.
His happiness is short-lived, however, as his mother’s condition begins to gradually worsen while the medical fees climb. In a bad turn of fate, his best friend Jongsu (Lee Shi Un) also becomes heavily indebted to the Yakuza. Despite his insistence on staying out of the gang rings, Gang Chul is unwittingly embroiled into a gang war that is much bigger than himself.
“Tough As Iron” does a great job of subtlety hinting at deeper questions, and is very much a mediation on mortality – Gang Chul, who has a unwavering dedication to his mother, must eventually face the realities of life and death and re-evaluate the extents he is willing to go to save the one he loves.
The highlight of the film comes not from any of the action-packed sequences of the “gang war”, but from Gang Chul’s pointed realization that despite all of his efforts, saving his own mother might in fact be hopeless. He is forever stuck in the repetition of rescuing Soon Ni from her vexing antics, while he has no life of his own to live. His blossoming relationship with Seoul photographer Suji (Jung Yoo Mi) is at a halt – she wants him to leave Busan with her, but he is tied to Busan, and tied to his obligations as a son.
Similarly, the film juxtaposes Gang Chul’s devotion to his mother with his best friend Jongsu’s exasperation with his father. Though their circumstances are similar (Jongsu once remarks: “Since when has the world been fair to us?”), the characters’ approaches to life are at two ends of the spectrum. While one is willing to risk everything and forgoes safely for himself for family, another is cynical and accusing, easily bowing down to the struggles in life.
“Tough As Iron” boasts a stellar cast, with stellar rendering of their characters to boot. In particular, Yoo Ah In’s portrayal of Gang Chul hits the nail right on the head – he perfectly captures the essence of Gang Chul, and effortlessly shows the audience that Gang Chul is only holding steadfast to a mirage and delusion that life could once again be normal.
Overall, “Tough As Iron” paints a poignant portrait about love, sacrifice, and one man’s earnest perseverance. If you have time, be sure to catch it in select North American theaters.
Title: Tough As Iron
Genre: Drama, Action
Language: Korean with English subtitles
Running time: 108 mins
Rating: NR (Not Rated) by MPAA (US Rating)
Director: Ahn Kwon Tae
Cast: Yoo Ah In, Kim Hae Sook, Kim Jung Tae, Kim Sung Oh, Jung Yoo Mi, Lee Shi Un
Production: CJ Entertainment
Distribution: CJ Entertainment
US Release date: October 11, 2013
If you have time, be sure to also check out Kim Hae Sook and Yoo Ah In’s special shout-out to “Tough As Iron” fans in the US!