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Underworld tale is familiar but passionate

January 25, 2008|Kevin Thomas | Special to The Times

A decade ago, writer-director Chris Chan Lee made a standout debut with "Yellow," which followed eight Korean American teens through a harrowing graduation night. The film had a quality of universality, yet it explored the painful gap between immigrant parents and their intensely American children. It won prizes and enthusiastic reviews, but without strong distribution and promotion, it did not launch Lee on the career he deserved.

After 10 years in TV and music videos, including a year in Singapore, he has now made his second feature, "Undoing," a sleek neo-noir set in Koreatown's underworld. Around the edges it's arty, murkily plotted and derivative of too many other movies, but at its core it is impassioned and gains power and traction as it goes along. Even though the material does not seem congenial to Lee's sensibilities, "Undoing" nevertheless attests to his talent and confidence.

Sam Kim (Sung Kang) is a handsome, rugged, small-time crook who returns to Los Angeles after a year in Korea, where he fled after the murder and kidnapping of his best friend over a cache of drugs. Sam is determined to avenge the death of his friend, whose killing has remain unsolved, and at the same time he is intent on reclaiming his lover (Kelly Hu), now in the thrall of her employer, a restaurant owner.

Sam is headstrong, reckless and even naive, but throughout considerable risky conniving and mayhem, he remains resolute in pursuing his goals. Sam is, at heart, a man of honor, in contrast to most of those around him, for whom honor either is nonexistent or a sometime thing.

Along with Sung Kang, the film's other strongest presence is Tom Bower as Sam's seasoned mentor, an ex-gangster.

Lee's concern with the nature of relationships, especially between generations, links "Undoing" to "Yellow," but surely he must be eager for the chance to tackle more original films than this underworld tale, highly familiar for all its multiethnicity.

"Undoing." MPAA rating: Unrated. Some standard crime-film violence. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. Exclusively at the ImaginAsian Center, 251 S. Main St., Los Angeles, (213) 617-1033.

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