A former federal agent, a kidnapped child, and a villain in the shadows orchestrating his master plan for vengeance. My first thought? I’ve seen this film before, many times; maybe it starred Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis or Liam Neeson. It didn’t really matter, because the story runs along pretty much as usual, right?
Long story short, no, Innocent Blood isn’t the same old story just told from an Asian American point of view. Firstly, there really isn’t anything I would call an action scene in the film. Nothing explodes, and although the main character, James Park, is often proclaimed as a legend in the law enforcement community, there isn’t a climactic fight scene, or any stunts to speak of. This film is a story, showing a man’s struggle between his identity and his responsibility to his family.
The film opens in the desert, with a man approaching a motel room, numbered 8. Gun in hand, he hesitates at the door. The scene flashes back to three days in the past, and from here we see the main character, played by Jun Kim, as he awkwardly lectures a bored college class about forensics. Afterwards, he meets Kenny Tran (Reggie De Leon) in a bar, where we learn the seed of Park’s story: he was a detective, and a wrongly-convicted man Brad Lee is really innocent.
Park jumps back into his family life. Picks up his son, Cody (Lance Lim) from violin practice, feeds him noodles for supper (slurping loudly to applaud the chef), and puts him to bed. Park goes through a box, showing the audience his commendation from the mayor, which is the first indication of his name, James Park; he digs out his police badge to give Cody comfort. His wife Susan (Alexandra Bakyn Chun), arrives after bedtime from working at a restaurant, revealing signs of a strained relationship. She is a stereotypical annoying wife, urging James to forget about his police life and strive for his Masters’ degree in order to teach at a better institution. Susan reminds him that Cody is their focus from now on.
The next day, after dropping Cody off at school, a quintessential white cube van is seen parked behind Park as he pulls away from the curb, the same white van seen passing by in an earlier scene. Sure enough, a man approaches Cody, introduces himself, and ultimately he is shown locking the boy up in a basement with a mattress.
From here, the story unfolds, with the kidnapper urging James to think, “to get it right this time.” Park searches for truth about Brad Lee’s case, and in the process implicates himself in a number of deaths, attracting attention from LA Homicide Detectives Collins and Grierr (Trip Hope and Doug Jones). The film follows Park’s investigation until we return to the opening scene at Motel Room 8.
The film is driven by characters questioning their current identity and position in life, and the contrast with their past. The acting jumps from the quite convincingly annoying Asian American wife, to almost cartoonish portrayals of police detectives with terrible “Oriental jokes” and bad puns concerning a hanging victim. Kim exudes the frustration of a man living an unwanted life, and C.S. Lee is terrific as the villain who is always two steps ahead of super cop Park.
From the film’s website: “Innocent Blood was born out of a film festival called Talent One Media, aka the T.O.M. film festival, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) founded by Sun W. Kim. The festival, held annually in Little Tokyo Downtown Los Angeles is dedicated to raising awareness and funds for social issues.” So it’s not surprising that human trafficking is the underlying message of the film, and the characters’ transgressions or redemption is based on some involvement with sex slavery. There is a common theme of people’s (seemingly) innocent blood being tainted by the crimes of their past, which really sets it apart from a traditional hostage and chase film.
What really jumps out is the atypical plot. When I first saw the flashback to “Three Days Earlier” following the opening scene at the motel, I was reminded of almost every crime drama on prime time television. I could see the Arnold/Bruce/Liam plot ahead of me, including the tearful reunion finale. However, writer and director Sun W. Kim throws in many wonderful twists, and intentionally delays naming main characters throughout the film. Alongside co-director DJ Holloway, Kim includes simple scenes of Park’s family life amidst the struggle to find his son. Bringing Susan something to eat, for instance, brings to light the depth of both characters. This humanizing interaction really interrupts the story with great character development, resisting the expected skipping along of the plot.
The only details that distracted me were C.S. Lee’s character being named as (SPOILER ALERT!) “Vincent Park”, instead of Vincent Lee in the credits (oops); and I noticed there was only English spoken in the entire film. Viewers see a lot of Korean writing, but don’t actually hear any Korean. Park is said to speak fluent Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, and Japanese, but doesn’t demonstrate it. This doesn’t take anything away from the story, I just found it unusual for Kim to state a character’s multilingual capability but not find a way to show it.
This is a great story, especially in drawing attention to the sex trafficking. As the first feature-length film for Kim and Holloway, it is an suspenseful and thought-provoking start to this year’s VAFF.