The main draw of Hanaan is its ethnic exoticism: a Korean cop in the urban/industrial wasteland of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which is certainly not something you see every day (Stalin forcibly relocated thousands of Koreans to populate the USSR’s Asian republics). The story feels well-worn, however – like something from an American movie, as one character observes of a stakeout – with the ups and downs of drug addiction providing automatic pathos but few surprises.
Stas is a narc who, in the course of a sting, runs into the petty criminal who killed his cousin six years previously (in a real bonehead move by the cousin, as we see in the film’s opening section). Unfortunately, he also tries heroin, for the sake of undercover credibility, and when he quits the force in disgust over corruption he lifts the evidence. As bad an idea as he knows this is, it’s too late. Another encounter with the killer and a pathetic attempt to rob his aunt prompt him to go cold turkey in the (beautiful) Uzbek mountains, the wind whipping his thin tent as he clutches his legs in agony.
Debut writer/director Ruslan Pak doesn’t dwell on the suffering to an exploitative degree, but neither to an affecting one. There’s a pointedly voyeuristic overdose, as squalid as can be, and an extended sequence in a filthy toilet as Stas prepares his hit, but Pak shies away from any actual injecting, for example, and whilst the smackheads are all convincingly sniffy and scabby, Pak goes nowhere near the fine line between a gotta-look-away and gotta-look-at-this depiction of their lifestyle.
The film’s prologue deals with the title, as a Korean man tells his kid a bedtime story and then explains to his grubby Uzbek drug buddy (we see neither of them again) that every culture has its Hanaan, the land of milk and honey. When Stas runs into one of his pals from the old days, now moved to Korea, he asks what they have in Korea that they don’t have there. The answer, somewhat at a loss, is “the sea”. So the film ends with Stas gazing mournfully over a wintery Korean waterway. It is a moment of respite rather than resolution, however; there’s still his friend’s drug-running to deal with, and the revenge plot goes unresolved.
If the unusual setting offers nothing new in terms of story or local specificity, the film is at least presented with a welcome lack of flash and a more restrained pace than its American models, executed with well-meaning if unimaginative commitment and integrity.
More information on the film from AFI FEST: Hanaan