April 23, 2024

My Name Is Loh Kiwan 2024 Movie Review

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My Name Is Loh Kiwan 2024 Movie Review

Under the guise of a refugee story, Netflix’s My Name is Loh Kiwan is an action romance melodrama that rests on Song Joong-ki’s grounded performance to make it work. With a stellar central portrayal and speed-of-a-bullet pacing, the film is an enjoyable first-time watch — even if it gets its wires crossed about its core conflicts.

Blood in the street, a fake passport in a foreign land, and the bureaucratic grays of a refugee resettlement office — the opening shots set the tone for a dark story that starts with only a seed of hope. Song Joong-ki — looking the plainest we’ve ever seen him — plays the titular LOH KIWAN, a man who defected from North Korea to China, only to find himself on the run again.

Kiwan has just landed in Belgium in the dead of winter with a stack of American money he’s reluctant to spend and nowhere to go while he stumbles his way through a bundle of red tape. He’s seeking refugee status from the Belgian government, but after his initial application, he won’t hear back for a few months. In that time, he’s told to just “hang in there.”

We see Kiwan hanging in there the best he can, sleeping in a public restroom to keep warm and picking scraps from the trash in order to stay alive. Homeless, unable to communicate in either of the local languages, and beat up in the street by a group of Belgian bros, he’s on the verge of freezing to death when he makes his way into a laundromat and falls asleep, hugging the heat of a clothes dryer.

It’s here that he encounters the film’s hateful heroine, MARI (Choi Sung-eun), when she steals his wallet with all that bloodied money he’s carrying around. Mari has some problems of her own, involving a criminal underworld, a drug habit, and a massive debt to some murderous men. It’s for these reasons that she robs Kiwan, and when he tries to get his money back, she can’t return it because she’s already handed it over to the archetypal bad guys to pay down her debt.

But, there may be a remedy. The brute who’s holding Kiwan’s cash will give it back if Mari competes in another round of illegal games — where the bets are on her — using her skills as a former national team shooter. This little caveat binds our leads together for at least the next week, as Kiwan doesn’t want to let her too far out of sight until he has his wallet in hand. Of course, every extra second they spend together puts them on the path toward falling in love.

The film’s first half has interesting juxtapositions as it sets up the central conflicts. Visually, there’s a duality between Kiwan’s destitution and the clean and well-kept European city that surrounds him. Even the public toilet where he sleeps is pristine, marking the discrepancy between the country’s wealth and his own poverty — an infuriating fact when we see their reluctance to accept him as a refugee. This realism gives the story its emotional weight, making it harder to buy into the movie-manufactured melodrama that comes later, especially in relation to Mari.

Mari’s character is the contrast to Kiwan’s. He’s honest and upright with few resources, while she’s a thief, morally questionable, and from an upper middle class family. Both of them have lost their mothers — and feel undeserving of happiness because of their guilt over it — but while Kiwan is on the run because he stood up for someone else, Mari’s issues stem from acting out against her doting father (Jo Han-chul). Her motivations feel half-baked (especially in comparison to our male lead’s), and although Kiwan can see the wounded woman inside her, I have trouble seeing past her bratty behavior.

When it comes time for these two to fall deeply in love — and Kiwan’s goals shift from obtaining residency to obtaining the girl — it feels abrupt and somewhat disjointed from the earlier story. At bottom, Kiwan’s desire is to honor his mother by keeping himself alive. And aside from not getting murdered, another part of staying alive is finding a meaningful reason to live — so, it makes sense to me that he would be looking for love. The disjointedness doesn’t come from the relationship itself, but from Mari’s side of the story being so absolutely over the top.

The major gut punches in this movie come from sticking closer to fact than fiction, whether it’s Kiwan’s possible deportation, an emotionless bureaucracy that pits migrants against each other, or the not-so-covert racism at every turn. But what we end up with is a series of scenes with shootouts, beat downs, and drug overdoses — hurdles that seem unnecessary (and make it hard to take the story seriously) given how bad the situation already is.

The movie I thought this was going to be based on the first act is quite different than the movie it ends up being by the end. I initially got invested in Kiwan’s story as he fights for refugee status and a right to stay where he is. But that investment doesn’t pay off when his main objective becomes Mari.

There is perhaps a greater truth here about how fighting for survival and safety will only get you so far if what you want is to be free. The movie’s title alludes to the idea that Loh Kiwan wants to be able to use his real name — not the name on his forged passport or a name given to him in a foreign country. He wants to be himself, and the question might be where, or with whom, he can best do that.

There are enough good moments here to give this a watch — and the time goes by quickly. The difficult events we start with give way pretty easily to life improvements, which — while not offering the most realistic tale — do offer an entertaining action movie/love story. Song Joong-ki is excellent here with micro-expressions that’ll break your heart, and a believable grittiness that glues the whole production to the ground — even when it threatens to go fantastically floating off the rails.

My Name Is Loh Kiwan 2024 Movie Review