The Executioner (2009) by Choi Jin-ho

‘’The Executioner’’ touches the very sensitive issue of taking someone’s life by the death penalty.


‘’The Executioner’’ is a drama film, directed by Choi Jin-ho and written by Kim Young-ok. It features excellent actors, namely Cho Jae-hyun, Yoon Kye-sang and Cho Seong-ha and won the AQCC Prize (Honorable Mention) at 2010 (14th) Fantasia Film Festival.


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Oh Jae-kyeong (Yoon Kye-sang) is a young joyful and humorous newly appointed guard at a prison where which convicts on death row are also held. On his first day at work, he meets the cold-blooded veteran guard Bae Jong-ho (Cho Jae-hyun) and learns first hand that prison is not a place for making jokes. Things get even more stressful for the prison guards due to the arrival of Chang Yong-doo (Cho Seong-ha), a merciless murderer who is sentenced to death for killing and mutilating 12 women without showing any sign of regret. Shortly after the arrival of the serial killer, the Korean government proceeds with the issue of the execution of three prisoners on death row, including Chang Yong-doo, after 12 years with no executions. The situation for Oh Jae-kyeong gets even more complicated when his girlfriend Eun-Joo (Cha Soo-yeon) announces that she is pregnant.

Writer Kim Young-ok pens a movie about human relationships. One type of relationship portrayed is the friendly one that is formed between the corrections officers and the culprits. This is evident from the beginning of the film with the wonderfully scene where Officer Kim (Park In-hwan) plays a traditional Korean board game named baduk with one of the prisoners on death row named Kim Jae-geon (Seong-hwan). Another type of human friendly relationship is also the one between the prison guards.

Kim Young-ok creates, in a masterful way, two diametrically opposed characters, guards Oh Jae-kyeong and Bae Jong-ho. Oh Jae-kyeong is young, full of energy and compassion for others. On the other hand, Bae Jong-ho is stiff, believes and acts as if the prisoners are garbage who do not deserve a second chance. He does not even blink an eye when he beats them for punishment. These two characters, at least for the first part of the film, represent the two opposite sides of the spectrum of the society, in terms of how people view the convicts.  As the movie progress, these two gradually change due to their interactions with the prisoners, but especially due to the interactions with each other and the strong friendship bond that is formed. The changing of their characters is quite remarkable. Oh Jae-kyeong, with the encouragement of Bae Jong-ho, even beats a prisoner in order to gain their fear and respect.  But the viewers can’t resent him because these two traits are undoubtedly needed in this type of job. Bae Jong-ho on the other hand becomes more warm-hearted towards the prisoners and improves his personal life by trying to date, using some advice and tips by Oh Jae-kyeong.


‘’The Executioner’’ touches the very sensitive issue of taking someone’s life by the death penalty.  This film makes the viewer think and ask himself: Who has the right to kill another human being? Who has the right to make the decision to kill another human being? Is the death penalty a justified way for someone to pay for his crimes?  What if the person executed is proved to be innocent after the execution?

Another theme that is emphasized is the meaning of forgiveness. The sister of one of the women that were murdered visits the man that took her sister’s life and tells him that she forgives him. Moreover, she tells him that she will make a petition to not to be killed and even though if she could kill him, she would do it because she does not want to become like him. This really makes the viewer wonder: How merciful can someone be? What are the limits of someone’s forgiveness? Should there be limits?

There are no easy or straightforward answers to the above questions, and the opinion to adopt is left to the discretion of the viewer. There is just a presentation of all the different opinions regarding the death penalty, even the most extreme ones. This presentation is magnificently portrayed by the different tactics the guards adopt regarding the treatment of the prisoners, and the conflicts that accompany them. Furthermore, by the different kinds of prisoners. There are all types of convicts: the ones that have redempted for their crimes after years in prison and the ones that do not show a sign of remorse. In both cases, there is a great balance between sympathizing the convicts and resenting them. The director reminds the viewers that the prisoners on death row have been convicted of dreadful crimes, whether they regret about their actions or not.


‘’The Executioner’’ contains various poignant scenes. One of them that stays engraved in the mind of the viewer is the phrase ‘’ If you have a dream you can start anew’’. This is written on the entrance of the prison and it’s shown while the vicious serial killer Chang Yong-doo enters the prison’s premises. One of the finest scenes in terms of direction, cinematography and acting is none other than the scene of the execution of the criminals by hanging. The mixed feelings of shock and disbelief are enhanced by the background music.  

Despite the apparent heavy themes and moral questions of ‘’The Executioner’’, there are various humorous scene,s which are really welcome, and make the movie a bit more light-hearted. 

Cho Jae-hyun and Yoon Kye-sang deliver powerful performances and present appealing and complex characters. Cho Jae-hyun does a great job as Bae Jong-ho and makes a believable character whom the viewer can sympathize and understand, despite his extreme actions. The script writer cleverly gives us a hint of the reason Cho Jae-hyun is so distant from people and treats convicts like garbage. His actions come from the sense of betrayal, since in the past his co-worker was killed by a prisoner Cho Jae-hyun had asked to receive a petition. Yoon Kye-sang is also great in his role and does not show at all the fact he started his career as a pop singer.

Director Choi Jin-ho masterfully uses the close-ups and low-angle shoots to enhance the characters’ emotions, especially to highlight the absence of consciousness of the criminal Chang Yong-doo. The lighting also has an exceptional use. In the scenes where the background is dark, only the faces of the protagonists are lighted in order for their facial expressions to be enhanced and to show their thoughts and emotions.

On α final note, the title of the movie is highly symbolic. ‘’The Executioner’’ does not refer only to prisoner guards, but there are many "executioners" in society,  with the broader meaning of the term. The convicts who killed other humans are executioners, the girlfriend of the protagonist is an executioner since she chose abortion, and the doctors who performed the abortion are also executioners and so on.

‘’The Executioner’’ is an emotionally strong film that makes the audience think and even review their opinions and moral compass regarding the death penalty. It’s a memorable movie and an impressive debut for director Choi Jin-ho that should not to be missed. 

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Asian Film Vault: The Executioner (2009) by Choi Jin-ho
The Executioner (2009) by Choi Jin-ho
‘’The Executioner’’ touches the very sensitive issue of taking someone’s life by the death penalty.
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