Believer 2 2023 Movie Review
The decision to remake Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To’s 2013 crime thriller Drug War as a Korean production would prove to be a winning one when Believer was released in 2018. While the original was To’s first venture to see if he could transpose his distinctive style to the Mainland (which through some subtle manoeuvring, he successfully did), the remake fully utilised the creative freedom the Korean film industry has to make a more expansive, layered, and some may argue superior movie. Drug War never received a sequel, however thanks to Netflix surging money into Korean content after the success of the 2021 series Squid Game, in 2023 they greenlit Believer 2, which landed on the streaming giant’s platform in November of the same year (following its premiere at the Busan International Film Festival).
Opening with a needlessly overlong recap of the original through various key scenes being stitched together in rapid succession, it soon becomes clear that the sequel isn’t so much a follow-up as it is a gap fill exercise. The gap in question (and if you haven’t seen Believer, the rest of this paragraph will contain spoilers) being the events that took place between the penultimate scene that takes place in Yongsan train station, and the closing scene in which we see grizzled cop Cho Jin-woong (Me and Me, The Hunt) finally face the mysterious Mr. Lee, played by Ryu Jun-yeol, in the snowy fields of Norway. Depending on if you watched the theatrical or extended version, the scene either ends ambiguously, or we get to see that Jin-woong does actually kill Jun-yeol. It’s a fitting close, and very much up for debate if the audience should care about what happened in-between the two scenes that make up the final reel of Believer.
As the end credits roll on Believer 2, chances are if there was anyone out there who thought the last 20 minutes of the original needed an additional 2 hours added onto them, they’d be left questioning their life decisions. The sequel manages that rare feat of not only being a completely unnecessary plug-in of a story we already know the ending of, but also chooses to fundamentally change many of the key plot points that made Believer such an effective remake, none of them being for the better. It’s revealed Yun-yeol’s character isn’t Mr. Lee after all, a plot twist so essential to the originals impact that I can only surmise he read the script for the sequel, and decided to go nowhere near it. So instead his character is now being played by Oh Seung-hoon (Justice High, Method), who simply fails to register in the role, despite being a key part of the narrative who the audience needs to be invested in.
New characters are introduced, and existing ones have their motivations skewered to become one dimensional and dull. Han Hyo-joo (The Pirates: The Last Royal Treasure, Cold Eyes) is introduced as the psychotic villain of the piece, playing the sister of the late Kim Joo-hyuk’s eyeball chewing drug trafficker from the original (who also makes an appearance, here inevitably re-cast with Byun Yohan – On the Line, No Tears for the Dead – stepping into the role). Hyo-joo gives a disastrous performance that relies almost entirely on pacing around with her head at a slight tilt while sporting an open-mouthed scowl, unfortunately coming across as more of a comedic caricature of the typical Korean cinema villain than someone who we’re supposed to take seriously.
Her introduction into the narrative pointlessly frames her and her brother’s motivations of being in the drug manufacturing business as being one of seeking approval from their father, complete with awkwardly shoehorned in family flashback sequences. Meanwhile Seung-hoon’s character, stripped of his Mr. Lee reveal, is now repainted as someone who’s entire plan is constructed to get revenge on the real Mr. Lee for the death of his parents (whose fate we learn of in the original). Ironically all of this leaves returning cast member Choi Jin-woong, back as the cop at the centre of everything, looking equal parts lost and listless in his own movie, disappearing for large parts of the runtime, only to re-appear with an expression of pure regret at his decision to reprise the role.
Also returning in a significant role is Cha Seung-won (Night in Paradise, Man on High Heels), back as the God-fearing Mr. Lee imposter who ends the original a little worse for wear. Here he gets significantly more screen time, the filmmakers at least smart enough to tune into his scene stealing turn, even if he’s now limited to a wheelchair for the most part. Rounding out the returning cast are Lee Joo-young (Miss Baek, Keys to the Heart) and Kim Dong-young (Cobweb, The 8th Night) as the mute brother and sister, and Kang Seung-hyun (Champion Homme Fatale) and Jung Joon-won (Bring Me Home, Little Forest) as Jin-woong’s colleagues. To give some idea as to how lazy the script is, Joon-won essentially turns up to take a phone call from his wife begging him to come home and take their sick son to the hospital, just before they’re about to bust a group of armed bad guys. You can guess what happens in the next scene.
At the helm is director Baek Jong-yeol, here making his sophomore feature after 2015’s body-swapping romance The Beauty Inside. While his debut was an assured work for a first-time director (which even spawned a K-drama spin-off series), here none of the promise that was on display 8 years ago is anywhere in sight. It never feels clear exactly which character is intended to be the main focus, the frequent rewriting of points that made Believer work so well become increasingly frustrating to watch unfold, and there’s no real narrative thrust considering we already know the ending. At its worst, we’re subjected to one of the most jaw droppingly bad green screen car chases in recent memory, as clearly stationery vehicles careen through a horrendously unconvincing Thailand jungle landscape. The jungle itself is blatantly CGI, and it only gets worse once the clunky early 2010’s era CGI car crashes begin to assault the screen.
The action beats don’t improve much outside of the vehicle chase, with a number of blood splattered gun fights breaking out with little to no build up, robbing them of any kind of impact. In the original each action sequence had something at stake, whether it be maintaining an alias or securing a piece of vital information, but here it usually comes down to either the good guys or the bad guys stumbling across each other, and everyone starts shooting. While subjectively Believer 2 cranks up the violence and brutality of the original, none of it carries any weight, and at its lowest point simply feels gratuitous for the sake of being gratuitous.
The biggest crime Jong-yeol commits with Believer 2 is its finale. It’s a legitimate question to ask how a sequel that positions itself to take place directly before the finale of the original can satisfactorily bring itself to a close, and the simple answer is it can’t. So instead Jong-yeol spends the last 20 minutes re-creating the Norway set finale of Believer only with extra padding, as we once more have to watch Jin-woong sit down for a coffee, this time opposite Oh Seung-hoon rather than Ryu Jun-yeol, with proceedings playing out exactly as you expect them to. Only this time that sense of ambiguity and underlying loneliness that made the scene work so well in 2018 is absent, leaving it a hollow and frankly somewhat embarrassing retread of the exact same way Believer finished.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the decision of how to approach the closing credits results in a case of unintentional hilarity that has to be seen to be believed, further proving what a completely misguided attempt the whole endeavour behind Believer 2 was. An unfortunate low point in Korean cinema that should never have been given the go ahead in the first place, sadly while we live in an era where content creation demands quantity over quality, I fear we’ll see more productions that are just as bad or even worse than Believer 2. I hope the Korean film industry will prove me wrong