One of the great things about film festivals, in addition to seeing undiscovered independent cinema from around the world, is seeing mainstream films from other countries that otherwise wouldn’t see a release in your own territory. Fantasia Fest has a history of playing films like this, primarily from Asia, that are just regular releases in their own countries, but take on a different sort of life in a festival context. As such, many are polished, propulsive crowdpleasers – and Special Delivery is no different.
Parasite breakout Park So-dam stars as Jang Eun-ha, an employee of a junkyard that, in addition to its regular business, provides a range of services of dubious legality. Eun-ha’s specialty is “special deliveries,” delivering anything the regular post won’t. The full breadth of that job description isn’t really explored, but the most relevant thing is that she’ll deliver people – people in trouble, people on the run, people who need to be moved from place to place without any record of it happening. Combined with her ball-busting boss Baek’s expertise in fake IDs, their people-smuggling business runs fairly smoothly, but for the odd argument over pay.
That is, until she’s assigned to get baseball player Kim Doo-shik out of the country, along with his son Kim Seo-won, to escape some gambling debt he owes to a crime ring run by corrupt cop Jo Kyung-pil (Song Sae-byeok, a highlight). Very rapidly, everything goes south, Doo-shik is murdered in a disturbingly personal way, and Eun-ha finds herself stuck with ten-year-old Seo-won and a very valuable bank fob. All a fine setup for a crime thriller, with Kyung-pil using his position in the police to chase after Eun-ha, the National Intelligence Service investigating Kyung-pil for corruption, and Eun-ha in the middle of it all trying to figure out what to do with this traumatised kid who’s suddenly her very much unwanted responsibility.
If that all sounds a bit intense, it is, but Special Delivery manages to thread a surprisingly light touch through its often quite violent story. Much of that is down to Park’s performance, giving Eun-ha a thick veneer of cool in the vein of her fellow automotive enthusiasts in Drive and Baby Driver. Eun-ha is good at her job, she loves her cat (in a grasp for audience sympathy as blatant as it is effective), and she’s got her own traumatic past as well – one that makes her resistant to the idea of taking care of Seo-won, but unable to let him simply vanish into the crowd. Her chill vibes help keep the tone from getting too dour, supported by flourishes of comedy and some great vehicular action scenes from writer-director Park Dae-min.
The MVP, though, is Song, who all but steals the film as its villain. Kyung-pil is a real piece of shit, but he’s also in a pickle himself. His increasing desperation to reclaim his money while maintaining power over his henchmen and avoid the gaze of the higher-ups clicking on to his corruption makes for some great dark comedy. He loves fucking people over, but is in constant danger of being fucked over himself, and Song imbues him with a nervousness underneath his machismo that’s fascinating and engaging to watch.
In fact, if anything, the movie is almost too focused on Kyung-pil, at the expense of its good guys. The third act, in particular, splits up its protagonist and antagonist, and up until a final confrontation, spends more time with the latter. The third act also gets incredibly nasty, in ways that clash wildly with the almost buddy-movie vibes of Eun-ha and Seo-won, and betray the film’s best attributes. Its action is better when vehicular than it is hand-to-hand, and despite some good action gags, the finale mostly takes the form of a disappointingly traditional warehouse fight sequence and a cliched final portside standoff.
Perhaps if the movie had stuck with its protagonist harder and developed her central relationship more, the tacked-on happy ending would feel a bit more earned, the action more on-point, and the tone more consistent (though we certainly do love Korean cinema’s at-times unpredictable tonal shifts). As it is, though, it’s still a very strong thriller, with good performances, solid action, and unexpectedly, some intriguing politics regarding displaced persons between North and South Korea. It’s a shame we don’t get more movies like this in the West: well-made, original, entertaining mainstream thrillers with a little meat on their bones. It’s a good thing festivals are there to – at least temporarily – give us a breath of fresh air.