With the South Korean action thriller film Believer 2 coming out this week, this is a good time to look back at the 2018 original, which presented the criminal underbelly of Southeast Asia. The plot centers around a toughened police officer, Won-ho, who is on a mission to bring down a notorious drug lord and has to team up with an ex-member of the gang. While the action and thriller parts of Believer are quite interesting, the suspense and twists that it tries to anchor on are not too convincing.
Plot Summary: What is the film about?
Believer begins with police detective Won-ho meeting his closest contact, a young woman named Soo-jung, because he wants her help with some police cases. Soo-jung is almost like a niece to Won-ho, and he trusts her enough to do the job, despite the girl still being an official minor. Therefore, when the girl is found heavily injured and tortured, which ultimately leads to her death, the detective is all the more determined to bring down the criminal network that he is after. Won-ho has been trying to catch a notorious drug lord known as Mr. Lee and track down his entire drug network, which is spread all over Southeast Asia.
Around the same time, a woman named Oh Yeon-ok arrives at the police station, seeking help. The woman, a known accomplice of Mr. Lee, has now had a change of heart, and she wants to help the police in exchange for shelter and protection. Yeon-ok reports that a deadly explosion had taken place at one of the drug gang’s factories, killing and injuring many, and she, too, was supposed to be present at the place. But just when Yeon-ok starts to open up, she is poisoned by the coffee sent to her from the outside, making it clear that Mr. Lee has killed her. Another death in the recent past, that of esteemed businessman Lee Hak-seung, is also suspected to be the work of the drug lord, even though any solid connection is yet to be found.
With the two women who could have helped him out dead, Won-ho decides to find help from another individual. A young man named Seo Young-rak was found as the sole survivor of the factory explosion incident, while his mother had been killed and his beloved pet dog had been terribly injured. The police detective makes use of this weak point to convince Young-rak to help him out. The young man, evidently seeking revenge against his evil employer, Mr. Lee, agrees to be a part of the police investigation.
What is Won-ho’s elaborate plan to catch the criminal?
While in custody, Young-rak is taken to see the injured dog at the veterinary hospital, and the man is evidently very close to the animal. He mentions its name as Jindo, even though a policeman remarks that the dog is not really of the Jindo breed. Young-rak is moved by the painful suffering of the dog, and it is because of his love for the animal that he decides to help the police. He reveals to Won-ho that multiple criminals have been posing as Mr. Lee so far, since nobody knew the criminal mastermind’s real identity. The factory that had been bombed had recently seen some internal fights, and this is why it had been attacked, as Mr. Lee did not want to keep any opponents in business. Incidentally, Young-rak was not supposed to be present at the place and was only there by luck, as his business trip in China had ended sooner than expected. He also reveals himself to be Mr. Lee’s communicator with Chinese drug dealers, and a deal was in the works with a Chinese smuggler called Jin Ha-rim.
Ha-rim had tested some of Mr. Lee’s products, and was ready to make a deal with the Korean gang, as he is also a supplier of raw materials required for the production of these drugs. But the Chinese man has only one demand—to directly meet Mr. Lee and make the deal. However, because of Lee’s extremely private identity, the gang has decided to send a different director, named Park Sun-chang, to meet with Ha-rim, while Young-rak oversees the meeting. Since both sides are meeting for the first time and do not have any idea about how the other man looks, Won-ho decides to exploit this very opportunity.
Together with Young-rak, the police detective goes over to the hotel where the meeting is about to take place, and Jin Ha-rim has been informed that the meeting will take place an hour before the time earlier fixed. This is simply because Detective Won-ho poses as the director of the Lee drug gang and meets with Ha-rim to discuss business terms. Young-rak’s support is obviously crucial, since Ha-rim and his associates know him. Young-rak also puts up with the pretense, and he even wears a secret camera on his tie pin, which live feeds the meeting to the police surveillance team in the hotel. It seems like Ha-rim and his girlfriend Bo-ryun are suspicious of this tie pin but are cautious not to call out the man directly as this would sour ties with the Korean gang. Or, it could be that Bo-ryun destroying the tie pin is simply a coincidence, and the two have no idea that they are being recorded by the police.
After picking up the habits and mannerisms of Ha-rim, Won-ho next poses as the Chinese drug smuggler to the Korean director Sun-chang, as it is now time for the original meeting that was scheduled. This meeting is now held in a different room in the hotel, and all these false details are communicated to Sun-chang by Young-rak. Just as Young-rak had taken Won-ho to Ha-rim’s room earlier, the man now takes Sun-chang to Won-ho’s room, who is now disguised as the Chinese man. But the plan takes a difficult turn when Sun-chang offers some drugs to Won-ho, which he has brought along with him. While all the other drug samples were carried by Young-rak, so the detective knew what he was taking, Sun-chang’s samples seemed like a mixture of different drugs. Won-ho has to take the drug, though, in order to maintain his cover, but it starts to have an effect on his body very soon.
While Sun-chang is escorted away from the hotel room by Young-rak, as their meeting has come to an end, Won-ho has to be helped back to health by his team members in the other room. Although these two meetings do not reveal any more information on the notorious Mr. Lee, they do play a crucial role in the long run. It is well established that Mr. Lee will appear in person at the very last phase of this deal, and Won-ho intends to catch the man during this time. However, in order to do this, it has to be ensured that the deal takes place in the first place, and it is for this reason that Won-ho goes to such heights to meet both sides and get them both to agree.
How does Won-ho find the real Mr. Lee?
The deal soon reaches the production phase, where Young-rak entrusts two young men, who are renowned drug makers, to complete the order. These two men, Dong Young and Joo Young, are deaf and mute, and they are also extremely loyal to Young-rak. It is at this time that Believer introduces a character named Brian, who is another director of the Lee drug gang. When Brian first appears, he immediately assumes a higher role than Young-rak, informing him and everyone else he can that he is working under the direct orders of Mr. Lee. Brian makes it very clear that he has seen and met with the boss, and then when Won-ho once again takes on the role of Ha-rim to complete their business deal, the man behaves as if he is Mr. Lee himself. This claim is very soon dismissed, and Brian obviously turns out to be just another pretender of the criminal. What is ironic is the fact that Brian bosses over Young-rak, only to be later revealed that Young-rak himself is the criminal mastermind, Mr. Lee.
Young-rak had found himself in South Korea as a young boy who had been sealed inside a shipping container along with his parents, who were both drug addicts. The parents were found dead from an overdose, and the child was adopted by a couple as he was the sole survivor. The couple had recently lost their young boy, Young-rak, when he was killed in a truck accident. As this death was never reported to the authorities and the body was just buried at the place, the couple now replaced their son with this new child, giving him the identity of Young-rak. Growing up amidst a booming drug smuggling business, Young-rak had decided to himself become a drug dealer, but he always wanted to keep his identity a secret. Creating the identity of Mr. Lee, he continued to work in the gang without letting anyone know that he was the real leader.
Very soon, other criminals started pretending like Mr. Lee, and they used this identity to carry out their own personal agendas whenever they desired. This is why Believer genuinely raises the question as to whether the crimes attributed to Mr. Lee were even committed by the real man, i.e., Young-rak. In the latest instance, Brian, the criminal son of businessman Lee Hak-seung, had murdered his father by posing to be Mr. Lee, and the man had also bombed the drug factory because of some personal dispute he had with the workers there. Based on how the film portrays the characters, the murders of Soo-jung and Yeon-ok are also seemingly the acts of Brian. As the man had hurt Young-rak’s beloved dog, the latter used his real identity as the drug lord to capture Brian and torture him in the same way as the dog. Brian is then left with severe burns on his back, and he is made to surrender to the police as the real Mr. Lee.
Although the case is officially solved, Won-ho understands that something is wrong, as he was sure that Brian was not the real drug lord. Investigating the matter, Won-ho calls out the beloved dog with the name Jindo, which Young-rak had claimed the animal’s name to be, but it does not respond. Instead, when the detective calls out to the dog as Leica, it immediately responds, revealing that the name of the dog was Leica, which is the same name as the special drug sold by the Lee gang. Young-rak had named his drug after the closest friend he had—his dog Leica.
What happens to Young-rak and Won-ho?
When he had made this discovery about the dog, Won-ho had immediately placed a tracker on Leica’s body, knowing well that even if Young-rak disappeared, he would take his dog along. This is exactly what happens, as the drug lord retires from his profession and goes into hiding in a different part of the country, along with Leica and the two mute twins. Young-rak never wanted to be a notorious criminal, and now that he finds a way to escape by framing Brian to be the man behind the drug gang, he chooses to do so. However, Won-ho tracks him down, and the two have a final confrontation at the end of Believer.
Believer‘s exact ending is not very clear, as a single gunshot is heard from inside the cabin, while we are shown the outside, where the deaf and mute twins play with each other without any idea that a gun has been fired. In an extended cut that was released later, Won-ho is seen coming out of the house in the end, making it evident that the police detective had killed Young-rak, and he is clearly alive. However, if we consider the trailer for Believer 2, then it seems like a different chain of events had passed before the particular ending of the first part, and that there is still more mystery with regards to the identity of Mr. Lee. The trailer suggests that Young-rak is not the real Mr. Lee, or rather, not the only one of that identity. It also could be that Won-ho does not actually kill Young-rak, since we do not see the latter’s body, and only the gunshot sound is heard. In that case, the events of the second film follow the ending of the first, in which Young-rak’s death is only faked. The fates of Young-rak and Won-ho after the final confrontation is still not clear, but Believer 2 will surely answer this question, and more, when it arrives.