The Plotters stumbles when it pivots away from the social critique that more strongly establishes its unique voice in a crowded field.
The existentially adrift hitman has been a staple of fiction for decades now, a figure mined for the thematic and dramatic possibilities of those who take a life to feel as if they’ve gained one. The Plotters, Un-su Kim’s dramedy about an assassin who begins to question his career path, fits within well-worn genre conventions, even down to Kim’s emotionally detached, almost professionally concise prose. The author’s approach is manifest from the first chapter, in which killer Reseng stalks his target, a retired general, by hiding in the woods outside of the man’s cottage. Almost immediately, Reseng gives away his budding doubts about his job, hesitating to take a shot when the general is fully exposed as he is distracted by the target’s old dog. Eventually, the man tracks down the killer, though he greets him as a lost hunter and invites the man in for food and shelter. The scene drags out as Reseng’s discomfort over the hospitality weighs against his suspicion that his target knows why he is there. The two bond and strike up a human connection. The next morning, Reseng bids the general farewell, heads back to his former overwatch position, and completes his assignment.
The perfectly self-contained tragicomedy of the opening scene sets a haunting, if funny, tone that the rest of the book sporadically reflects. Kim takes an immediate interest in sketching out the criminal underworld to which Reseng belongs. Not unlike the curiously elaborate networks of assassins that populate the John Wick series, Korea’s hitman guilds form a loosely associated (but fiercely competitive) confederacy. We learn about Reseng’s upbringing as an orphan taken in by Old Raccoon, the leader of one group who bases his outfit in an old library he meticulously orders and cleans despite a hatred and distrust of books. Reseng interacts with several killers who are friends as much as rivals, and everyone in his social sphere has the attitude of someone who enthusiastically signed up for a fast life and has not yet come to terms with the fact that it will also be a short one.
Amusingly, Kim depicts South Korea, at last free of rule by military dictatorship, as experiencing an uptick, not a downturn, in government contracts. Where once the state could do its own wetwork, it now outsources to the private sector to make problems disappear. Yet with the explosion of jobs has come a resulting crash in the labor pool, with consolidations and oversaturation devaluing the act of killing. The book is at its strongest when depicting Reseng and his peers as just more workers in the gig economy, forced to underbid themselves for the sake of any payday at all as the good old days of lucrative contracts and high-profile targets are replaced by demeaning labor and an even greater feeling of disposability than the profession has by default. If Old Raccoon has a traditional outlook on the job, a former pupil, Hanja, has emerged like a startup disruptor, absorbing competitors with particularly hostile takeovers.
This subtext is so unique and entertaining that the actual narrative – of Reseng coming into conflict with a mysterious figure who is killing assassins – feels disappointingly familiar. In fact, the book, first published in South Korea in 2010, is oddly almost identical to Rian Johnson’s 2011 film Looper, which fed the same basic premise through a complicating time-travel prism. The twists and turns of Reseng’s investigation into the killer of killers are not particularly complex, and the reader can more or less glean the identity and motive of the antagonist from the first passing interaction with them.
And if Kim’s dispassionate tone captures the farce behind the veneer of calm brutality that animates these characters, if can also rob the deeper exploration of Reseng’s psyche of any emotional pull. This is common to hitman fiction, where the emptiness of the protagonist is a feature and not a bug, but that still leaves swathes of the book’s prose to illuminate a man more or less perfectly captured within the first two or three chapters. An entertaining, at times ingeniously satiric addition to the genre, The Plotters nonetheless stumbles when it pivots away from the social critique that more strongly establishes its unique voice in a crowded field.