Han Do-Kyung (Jung Woo-sung) hates people. Mind you, the people he is forced to meet and mix with as part of his job as a police detective would turn anyone into a misanthrope, as he is the brother-in-law of Park Sung-bae (Hwang Jung-min) who happens to be the Mayor of this city, and is hanging onto his power like grim death. Grim death being what the Mayor metes out to anyone who tries to usurp or get rid of him, and Han has been guilty of assisting him by intimidating witnesses to stop them testifying against him, often with use of violence and subterfuge. So far, this has been successful and Park is still there at the top of the tree - but Han makes a big mistake.
That mistake being the accidental killing of one of his colleagues, which he is quickly forced to frame his lowlife, drug addict contact for, and since this guy has a history of lawbreaking, his face seems to fit, or it does as long as he doesn't retract his statement and this whole house of cards comes tumbling down. Asura: The City of Madness (not that Asura was the name of the city, Annam was) was one of those South Korean action thrillers which took as its template the slow burn suspense story, starting with one set of characters and pitting them against one another in various ways, building to a crescendo of what turned out as, more often than not, an extended setpiece of brutality.
Even by the standards of this country’s thrillers, Asura grew extremely violent, which may be a deal breaker for some who would have otherwise appreciated its heady atmosphere of political intrigue that gave it the tension it needed. If the thought of watching a movie that ended up with a lot of characters getting bloodily shot and sliced up turned your stomach, be warned, this was that kind of effort, and although there were scenes of aggression littering the rest of the preceding plot, as savage as they were that was nothing compared to how director Kim Sung-su presented the wrapping up stages: this was not for the faint of heart, however comical the days before retirement lead's beatings became.
Maybe comical is the wrong word, but his near constant bad luck which landed him getting hit very hard every ten to fifteen minutes stood as something of a running joke in the way it was arranged, yet like much of this the soul-destroying effects of a corruption inherent in a society's political system tended to undercut the actual humour. Han should really be the hero, but he's not a great guy, as if to observe that anybody wanting to gain control in this world must be viewed with suspicion as you can never be sure of what they will do with that ability once they have it in their grasp. Though Han is essentially an underling, in debt to his brother-in-law morally if not financially, he is an ideal example of what the film was accusing the nation of, as this kind of wrongdoing was part of life: the classic television series The Wire was an obvious inspiration.
The politics aspect was corrosively applied to the narrative, breaking down anyone who thinks they can not merely clean up this community, but simply stick to the straight and narrow as well. About the only noble individual in this is Han’s wife, and she is in hospital in the later stages of terminal cancer; she does tug at his conscience eventually, but this is after a long time spent sleeping around behind her back, not to mention his other crimes. Kim appeared torn between whether this should be an unethical ethical drama or a pulse-pounding edge of your seat affair, and compromised on the latter with scenes such as the car chase sequence which took the intensity based in the best of such items and turned it up to insane degrees. Hwang made for a terrific villain, a grinning shark of a charmer who has an escape plan for every eventuality, and the prosecutor (Kwak Do-won) out for his scalp was a formidable antagonist for him, but Jung's increasing disbelief that events were getting this awful was the engine that drove the dramatic, melodramatic Asura. Music by Lee Jae-jin.