Present-day. Los Angeles, California.
A convoy of ten armored SUVs travels down Interstate 405 south with two helicopter escorts in the air. Five decoy SUVs break off the convoy, heading eastbound on Highway 101 toward Burbank Airport. The remaining five vehicles stay on course for Los Angeles International Airport.
Inside the vehicles heading to LAX is prisoner number 344691, SongBae Lim, also known as “Fight Song.” His head is covered, and both hands and feet are shackled together in chains. US marshals escort him in full tactical combat gear. They arrive and unload with rehearsed precision. Airport security and bomb-sniffing K-9 units secure a path for the marshals. They cautiously escort SongBae to a boarding gate that has been temporarily cordoned off for pre-boarding. A four-person South Korean security team awaits this prisoner handoff, along with prosecutor Yeshin Seo.
Yeshin is one of the youngest female prosecutors in South Korea’s recent history. She is handsomely dressed, understating her natural beauty. Yeshin finds herself unusually nervous but hides it well. She is still puzzled at the urgency of this extradition agreement and exchange. From reading police reports of SongBae’s crimes in America, she could not comprehend why the Americans would let him go so willingly.
Furthermore, the case file she’s been studying on his accused crimes in Korea was weak and inconsistent. Yeshin could not reason why her department wanted him back so badly. SongBae Lim is listed at thirty-two years old … which would mean he was just a boy when he supposedly murdered his parents. Is SongBae a monster? Yeshin had her doubts, but this was the first major case tasked to her, and there was pressure from the top to convict SongBae swiftly.
Yeshin Seo has been quickly rising through the ranks of the justice department. Her male colleagues were not pleased. There’s palpable resentment that her gender was the reason for her rapid rise. Even her direct boss, the prosecutor general, made his opinion known.
“This order came directly from the minister of justice. I would not have assigned this case to you … I think a high-profile case like this needs someone with more experience than you … But I understand having more female faces will look good politically for minister Jung.”
Yeshin was no stranger to this type of gender politics. The only remedy in her mind was to outperform her colleagues. She reminds herself to focus on the case, not the politics.
Bomb-sniffing dogs finish sweeping the boarding area, and airport police double-check the credentials of all the airline staff involved. Yeshin did not expect this level of high security. Her security team also mirrors this sentiment. As US marshals arrive, diplomatic paperwork is exchanged. The six men escorting SongBae look like soldiers with their long rifles and body armor. They surround SongBae, who’s fully shackled and dressed in a plain grey jumpsuit. His face is covered to hide his identity. The marshal in charge is a man in his late fifties with a gravity-defying handlebar mustache. He wears a wide-brimmed “Stetson” and even speaks like a real cowboy.
“Don’t you worry, ma’am, he won’t bite. All this fuss is for his safety.”
He finishes his statement with a wicked grin and a friendly wink. Despite Yeshin’s fluency in the English language, she’s not sure what the marshal meant, but her heart races as he removes the black balaclava covering SongBae Lim’s face.
Yeshin is surprised; she’d seen photos of SongBae when he was ten years old. The other picture was from his initial intake file at the LAPD West precinct; he had long black hair and a shaggy beard covering most of his features. SongBae is now cleanly shaven with a short athletic haircut atop his six-foot-three inches stature. His broad shoulders anchor his handsome, rugged features. Yeshin finds him attractive, but she quickly chastises herself for such trivial thoughts. SongBae surveys his surroundings methodically as if looking for threats. Their eyes meet, and Yeshin’s initial attraction quickly turns into fear.
His eyes are cold, but they exude confidence and strength, betraying his status as a prisoner. SongBae breaks eye contact with Yeshin and continues scanning his surroundings. Behind ropes at a safe distance, the passengers gather to get a glimpse of the commotion. A young boy is looking on, sipping Binggrae banana-flavored milk through a thin straw. SongBae meets his eyes, and the boy stares back. Something compels the boy to reach out with his banana milk, offering it to SongBae. SongBae reciprocates with an unexpectedly warm smile. Yeshin observes this exchange, easing her fear just a bit.
The marshal begins to undo SongBae from his chains and shackles. The Korean security team protest since they came underprepared with only basic handcuffs. SongBae speaks to settle their fears.
“I’m OK, Marshal. It’s only for twelve hours.”
The marshal looks to the Korean security team, who glances back at him nervously. He nods in understanding and resecures SongBae. The marshal hands over the keys to Yeshin.
“Compliments of the US Marshals Service.”
This is the first time a violent criminal is being extradited to Korea from America. So far, extradition only involved Korean citizens who fled the country after committing financial crimes. There was no precedence for a violent inmate transport. Typically, a lone police officer from Korea escorted a plain-clothed suspect in handcuffs, with the suspect sitting by the window and the escort in the aisle seat … in the economy class cabin. SongBae’s extradition agreement was rushed through Korea’s justice department, and American counterparts were eager to hand him over. There was little time to plan this exchange thoroughly. The easiest solution was to send four agents instead of one. When faced with US marshals donning rifles and body armor, the four-man security team wanted to trade in their navy blazers for something more tactical.
They were not the only ones underprepared. The commercial airline was aware of this exchange, but they did not anticipate the commotion caused by the passengers after witnessing the fully shackled man in a prison jumpsuit, escorted by heavily armed US marshals, being handed over to four Olympic athlete-sized Korean security team members. To alleviate the passengers’ fears, the captain of Asiana Air flight OZ212 orders the upper deck business-class section of his Airbus A380 to be emptied out. He then upgrades SongBae and the security team to that cabin, separating them to travel with privacy and unexpected comfort.
Meal service begins, and Yeshin has an unexpected craving for banana-flavored milk. She orders one from the nervous flight attendant. Yeshin notices that SongBae is struggling to eat because of his restraints. She comes to his rescue.
“Do you speak Korean?”
SongBae looks at her curiously but does not respond.
“Would you like me to unchain you? It would be pointless to break out from this airplane.”
The security team leader protests, and Yeshin contemplates in frustration. She comes to a decision and kneels in front of SongBae, picks up his utensils, and neatly cuts up his steak. She puts a piece of steak on the fork, dabs a bit of buttery mashed potato, and holds it up to SongBae’s mouth.
“You’re not vegetarian … are you?”
SongBae takes the bite reluctantly. Yeshin then puts her banana milk on his tray, pokes the straw on top, and raises it to his mouth. He looks at her suspiciously. In response, Yeshin takes a sip herself, then puts it back near his mouth.
“See? Not poisoned.”
SongBae’s curious stare turns into a small smile; he then takes a sip. The taste of banana brings back distant memories. As his thoughts wander, Yeshin takes advantage of their close proximity and examines SongBae. She notices unusual scars around his neck.
Flashback to the year 2005 – Unknown Island, the Andaman Sea.
The Andaman Sea is west of Thailand, south of Myanmar, and east of India. Many small islands dot this body of water; some are still uncharted. There are hundreds of secluded beaches lined with coconut trees and white sand. It is a tropical paradise worthy of a postcard, but to some, it is a prison. Fifteen-year-old SongBae stands below a coconut tree at the edge of a shoreline. A thick chain is wrapped tightly around his neck. The fifteen-foot-long chain is rusty from exposure, with jagged edges from hurried welding on each link. The other end is wrapped around the base of a coconut tree, and padlocks hold both ends securely. The tree base is also padded with thick hemp rope, which young SongBae kicks and punches, perfecting his Muay Thai boxing. After a long session of brutal strikes, he collapses from exhaustion.
SongBae sits up slowly to look out onto the endless ocean. His hands and feet pulse in pain, but he does not mind it. The pain eventually goes away, and SongBae drinks the last of his clean water from a bottle, ensuring he gets every drop. His thirst is far from quenched, and SongBae thinks that dying of thirst may not be so bad; there are worse ways.
SongBae spent many years on board a fishing vessel as a slave. He’s unsure how long his captivity had been but remembers being one of the youngest when first taken to the chain at ten years old. Endless days of working the net, sleeping on a dirty floor, and eating scraps blurred into agonizing monotony when he first started. He thought about taking his own life, but his mother’s words kept echoing in his mind; SongBae had promises to keep, and he must stay alive.
At first, SongBae was defiant against his slavers, which earned him many beatings. Ironically, it wasn’t the abuse that made him compliant; SongBae decided that the best way to pass the long days was to just focus on the task at hand and fall into the rhythm of hard labor. He stopped counting the days after that.
SongBae didn’t speak Burmese or Thai; thus, it was difficult to make friends with other slaves. He learned a few words from the crew, only necessary for working the net. Perhaps that was for the best since none of the other boys lasted long on the vessel.
The beatings became infrequent when SongBae eventually became the most reliable slave in the group. The abuse might have also slowed down because of SongBae’s rapid growth spurt; he was not only the biggest and strongest slave, but he also physically outgrew his captors. Those who tried to beat him found themselves frightened: SongBae just stared back with his cold eyes, unflinching, as the cane struck and broke his skin. A sailor who often sexually abused the smaller boys disappeared mysteriously one night. No one knew for sure, but many suspected SongBae might have eaten him. Fear gnawed at the crew, and they worried SongBae might break loose and swallow everyone on board. Sailors are a superstitious lot, and they were convinced a man-eating devil lived inside SongBae. How else could this boy have grown so big?
Fearing mutiny, the captain decided to remove SongBae from the trawler and test out his toughness in the illegal Muay Thai fighting pits scattered along the coast. Thrown in with trained boxers, the captain didn’t expect SongBae to win fights. Still, there was an excellent opportunity betting on how many rounds he might last. SongBae’s remarkable ability to withstand abuse led to his opponents exhausting themselves; SongBae even won some of the fights. The captain quickly realized that SongBae’s earning potential was better off the ship.
SongBae gazes out to the open sea, trying to distract himself from the excruciating grip of thirst. He closes his eyes and imagines diving into a pool of ice-cold cola. The captain found this type of punishment to be far more effective than caning for SongBae. He had to get creative with his cruelty when dealing with him.
A little girl with her pet monkey watches SongBae from a safe distance. She looks to be about ten years old. She has long, unruly black hair and wears dirty, mismatched shorts and a tank top. She sends her monkey up a tree to pluck a few plump coconuts. She cautiously approaches, leaving the coconuts within SongBae’s reach. Sweaty and exhausted, SongBae can barely smile to thank her. She runs away shy, giggling. He wraps his fist around the slack of the chain and uses it to crack the shell open. SongBae resists the temptation to guzzle the coconut water. Instead, he sips it slowly. After his thirst is quenched, he breaks it into smaller pieces to consume the white meat. He carefully buries the remains.
The next day, she reappears, this time with freshly picked bananas and dried fish. Her monkey plucks more coconuts to drink. From the look of her dirty, disheveled state, SongBae guesses she’s one of the many homeless children living in squalor at a nearby fishing village. The tide is high, and SongBae can just reach the water. He takes the girl by the hand, and they go to it. SongBae takes a handful of wet sand and uses it to scrub her dirty face. It reveals a pretty girl with big brown eyes. She giggles, and her monkey jumps playfully around them.
A few nights later, the captain approaches SongBae’s tree. He is tall and lean, with dark sun-weathered skin. The captain is holding an empty bottle of whiskey. A slight sway in his walk suggests he is intoxicated. He stares at SongBae with ugly disdain.
“You’re still standing? Should be near dead by now!”
SongBae ignores him. The captain continues his drunken rant.
“You’ve cost me a lot of money … when I tell you to throw the fight, you throw it. Next time you defy me, I will kill you.”
Despite not understanding much of his speech, SongBae knows the words “KILL YOU” in Thai. SongBae responds with his most spoken Thai words.
“Kill me now.”
The captain does not like the look on SongBae’s face. This slave still makes him nervous, but he tries to hide it with forced laughter. The captain thinks about breaking the bottle on SongBae’s face but wisely decides to physically distance himself. He speaks instead.
“What’s the hurry, boy? Keeping you alive all these years wasn’t cheap … you will die… but I must profit from my investment first.”
The captain gets distracted by movement nearby. He glances over to find the little girl’s feet protruding from behind a tree. The captain defies his drunkenness by moving quickly to grab the hiding girl. She screams and struggles against him. Her monkey shrieks and attacks, jumping on his back, scratching and biting his neck wildly. The captain grabs the monkey by its head and swings it hard against a tree, where it goes limp and falls to the ground. SongBae runs to intervene, but his chains hold him at bay. The captain leers, holding the girl by her hair. She screams out in terror.
“So, this is how you remained standing! You had some help from your little girlfriend … She’s mine now.”
He examines her closely, his dirty hand shamelessly groping her. SongBae’s heart turns cold, and he strains harder on his chains; the rough weldings on the links bite into his neck, drawing blood. The captain laughs, standing just out of SongBae’s reach. He drags the girl by her hair and walks away from the tree. SongBae tries to follow, but the chain only digs deeper, tearing his flesh. The captain and the girl disappear into the darkness, but he can still hear her fading cries. SongBae falls to his knees, and tears of rage flow.
SongBae notices movement nearby. Her pet monkey, barely alive with a broken back, tries to sit up. In its hand is a necklace, torn from the captain, with a key attached.
Two crew members are drinking by a beach fire, passing a bottle of cheap whiskey between them. The captain walks by with the crying girl. The two men laugh and encourage their captain to have a good time with her, implying that they’d go next after he’s finished. The captain drags her into a rickety wooden shack nearby, closing the door behind him.
A few minutes later, a thick chain cuts through the darkness and hits one of the drunk men in the head. The weight and speed of the heavy chain land squarely with deadly force, crushing his skull. The other man is confused by the blood and brain splattered on his own face, his intoxication slowing his comprehension. The chain retracts into the darkness. The man turns his head to find SongBae as he winds up the loose end of the chain for another swing. The man notices that the other end of the chain is still padlocked around SongBae’s neck. Danger finally dawns on him as SongBae strikes again with deadly precision.
The flimsy shack door explodes open. The captain is on top of the little girl. SongBae takes the chain in both hands and wraps it around the captain’s neck, pulling hard. The captain struggles violently, but SongBae holds on. The captain launches his body backward toward a wall, the impact absorbed by SongBae as they both break cleanly through it. They land hard on the ground, but SongBae is unfazed, tapping into strength fueled by his rage. SongBae wraps his legs around the captain’s body, trapping him on top as he claws at the chain wrapped tight around his neck. The captain tries to scream for help, but nothing comes out from his open mouth. SongBae tightens his hold on him, trying to squeeze every last drop of life out of him. The captain’s struggle becomes weak, his body eventually going still.
SongBae hears hesitant sobs. He looks up through the hole they broke through and sees the girl staring back. He lets go of the chain, tossing the captain to the side and standing up.
He looks down at the dead body. The captain’s lifeless eyes stare back, and SongBae is satisfied; he’s waited a long time to kill him. SongBae’s icy glare quickly melts away, and he steps inside the shack to comfort the little girl.
SongBae holds her in his arms, trying to reassure her that the nightmare is over. She eventually stops crying, then curiously tugs at his chains, still secure around his neck. He shows her the key and says “LING,” the word for “Monkey” in Thai. She takes the key and unlocks the padlock, the chain falling from SongBae’s neck; it comes off revealing a distinctive circular wound, a bloody necklace to mark his final struggle as a slave.
They build a small pyre for the monkey. The girl kneels and puts her hands together in prayer. She then bows deeply, touching her forehead to the sand. SongBae watches the fire consume the creature, thankful for its sacrifice. Instead of cremating the dead sailors, SongBae decides to leave them to the giant robber crabs to devour.
SongBae tries to get her to go back to her village, but she refuses to leave him. He knows the rest of the crew will soon return from a nearby town. He needs to get far away before then.
SongBae finds a rowboat nearby loaded with supplies for the fishing vessel. The ninety-foot ocean trawler is anchored a few hundred yards from the shore. When they reach it, there are a dozen boys, chained up, huddled in filthy squalor. They recognize SongBae. He unlocks their chains using the captain’s key.