The Plotters is a curious, askew thriller, its tone less tense than wry. At times, its slowed pace encourages looseness. Imagery recurs – fog, cigarette smoke, falling leaves – and the protagonist’s deadened perspective can be unengaging. But more often, Kim’s understatement is refreshing. He indulges time, gives room for Reseng to deliver a punchline. And he provides equal weight to Reseng’s downtime and his work. Everything, in this numbed and sardonic vision, is levelled out: murder, working out, plotting revenge; reading a book.
Plot itself becomes the problem with The Plotters – there’s plenty of explanation of its mechanics and not enough story in its telling. For all its literary ambition, the strength of this book lies in its visual sense. Kim conjures a gloriously dreamlike alternative Korea, with vibrant settings, heightened reality and choreographed ultra-violence. One feels more like a viewer than a reader, observing this world rather being absorbed within it... The narrative takes on energy as it sheds its pensive digressions and hurtles towards an explosive denouement in which the plot becomes a plot to out-plot the plotters.
The hit man who has lost the will to kill, a familiar arthouse-film trope, is given a Korean twist in The Plotters... by Un-su Kim, in which a library is the improbable command centre for Seoul’s organised crime. Reseng works there for his foster-father Old Raccoon, but recently has taken to rebelling by disobeying orders or pursuing personal vendettas. This makes for a seductive, Tarantino-like blend of fight scenes and bizarre social comedy. Sora Kim-Russell’s translation is fluent and hiccup-free (although “plotters” isn’t quite right for those who plan the hits).
Pleasingly deadpan, The Plotters manages to be both humorous (Reseng’s cats are called, delightfully, Desk and Lampshade) and violent, and sometimes even wise. “Ironically, the overthrow of three decades of military dictatorship and the brisk advent of democratisation had led to a major boom in the assassination industry,” writes Kim, in a translation from Sora Kim-Russell that is both seamless and intriguingly provoking: “It was time for him to make like Old Orin in The Ballad of Narayama and bash his teeth out against a millstone and go into the mountains to die.”