Best of Korean Cinema #3: Gangland
The Best of Korean Cinema is a running series of articles that comes out every two weeks, in which I take a look at the best 21st century Korea has to offer, cinematically speaking, whether that means big names like Park Chan Wook and Kim Jee Woon or unknown curios that deserve the coverage. Each article will cover two thematically similar films; this time it’s two gangsters films: 2012’s Nameless Gangster, directed by Yun Jong-Bin, and Ha-Yu’s A Dirty Carnival, from 2006.
Choi Ik-Hyun (Choi Min-Sik) is a Customs Officer operating in Busan docks, preventing anything untoward, that’s the idea anyway as his department is corrupt. One day there is a shake-up, making all of the internal corruption a death sentence hanging around their necks and because Ik-Hyun has the smallest family it is going to have to be him who takes the fall. Back at the docks, he happens across two men moving cocaine late at night, not having the right documents to do this and being agitated, Ik-Hyun decides to takes it for himself to sell to the Yakuza. This results in Ik-Hyun meeting a distant nephew and leader of the Choi clan, with whom he is quickly initiated.
Generally, Korean gangster films fail to make the translation from East to West and there is a very good reason for that, as a crime landscape the Korean gangster is an extension of the Japanese, even down to the detail of the dragon tattoo adorning their back. Whether Nameless Gangster could be called a gangster film is another matter entirely, as our way in, Ik-Hyun, is addressed as ‘neither a civilian nor gangster’. Therein lays the notion of the film, the anonymous gangster, a man who is neither gangster nor civilian manipulating situations with Min-Sik taking the Choi clan from backwater dreamers to big fish in a small pond. This brings an interesting characteristic to the film – a pseudo-gangster who isn’t respected and belittled by employees and competition alike, but wholly responsible for the family’s success. It’s a fascinating contrast.
A contrast that some may have problems with, as Nameless Gangster doesn’t have a simple, contained A-Z narrative. The story of Choi Ik-Hyun’s rise takes place over the period of 1982 to 1990, even 2011 if the entirely redundant epilogue is included. There is a basic structure whereby only the big events have screen-time, it may appear as if there are plot holes aplenty and that may be the case, but such is the structure you only need a vague sense of the way in which Choi Min-Sik operates and that which befalls him to understand the film. This is not an all-encompassing crime epic. Whether it’s his own arrogance or the attention of the DA, everything that unfolds is a by-product of his egotism. It may not be the most significant of examples, but the case can be made that Nameless Gangster is a character study.
As is the case with any character study, it is the central performance on which film lives and dies. Alongside the showy routine that Choi Min-Sik brings, he is joined by three restrained co-stars. Ha Jung-Woo is the Choi family head and he brings that respectful Korean body language and embeds with it the fiery temperament of a Yakuza, the same is true of his enforcer Chang-Woo played by Kim Sung-Kyun, only his restraint is less controlled, with the opposite side of the law represented by DA Jo (Kwak D0-Won). There are scores of powerful displays of masculinity. Then there is Choi Min-Sik who is the antithesis of them, as the noisy, drunk Ik-Hyun whose bark is worse than his bite. It’s his lack of threat that makes his presence such an endearing one for his business partners; it’s that what makes his climb to power (at least in his own head) so captivating.
Nameless Gangster is an ambitious film, and by and large a successful one. Nameless Gangster is a tense, informative epic that is both the archetype and the antithesis of an Eastern take on a Western genre, with added baseball bat fights.
Ha-Yu’s Dirty Carnival is a much more common example of Korean cinema in that it includes many disparate plot threads and styles under its banner. The basic set up sees Byung-du (a 29-year-old career criminal) working for the middle-rank enforcer Sang-chul. Burdened with a terminally ill mother and taking care of younger siblings, at work Byung-du is feeling pressured as the family patriarch. When the big boss President Hwang is cornered by a corrupt prosecutor, Byung-du volunteers for the hit and wins the bosses trust. As far as describing A Dirty Carnival, that doesn’t get very far. Besides the central plot thread, Byung-Du meets with an old school friend, Min-Ho, who has now become a film making wanting to make an authentic gangster film. Through his old friend he comes into contact with his an old friend who he was infatuated with, and still has feelings for in Hyun-Joo. There are also bizarre little karaoke numbers after many of the more significant scenes.
This is a messy film. Thematically, A Dirty Carnival is about the murky nature of the organised crime world, how indecision is a killer and how it isn’t as clean cut as it would appear. Nothing is as simple as it appears and no-one can be trusted. At its heart, Ha-Yu’s film is deeply pessimistic. Even calling it a gangster film is problematic. Byung-Du may be direct about gangster life when talking to his childhood friend, as well as possessing a laissez-faire approach to violence, but he is neglectful in his life of crime, which he only embraces when it smacks him about the face with a baseball bat, demanding action. It appears as if he is only embracing the underworld because it’s the only way he is able to take care of his family. As the film develops, the crime world and his blood relatives react the only way they can.
Ha-Yu has numerous stylistic flourishes from gangster cinema, first and foremost is the score which borrows heavily from mediterranean cinema, namely French and Italian crime cinema of the 70s as well as directors like Martin Scorsese, cinema which is evoked at the directors folly. This doesn’t even begin to live up to the standards of those legendary films, thanks to the simple premise that those films were streamlined and concise in the story and played up the emotions through their contained narrative. A Dirty Carnival is admirably tense and unpredictable, but disarmed by the number of plot threads running alongside each other. To jump from incredibly tense face off to a karaoke number with a musician in the background with the weirdest singing voice wearing the most incredibly eccentric hat, as a viewer you don’t know where to look.
Despite this atypically Korean skew, there is much to celebrate. Take the action. There are numerous action scenes, with those baseball bats that are visceral and entertaining, for all their uncontrolled, anti-choreography. Likewise there is a chase scene through a library that makes fantastic use of its location. The lead actor who plays Byung-Do (Zo In-Sung) also impresses, with a bashful subtlety that makes his relationships uncertain and him as a person, unpredictable. His character, like the film, doesn’t display enough consistency for one to get a true understanding on the small truths and nuances. While all the separate elements are necessary to create a satisfying push-pull dynamic, the film would’ve benefit immensely from a rigorous edit. Turning its ambitions from epic and vague into tight and tense, using the paranoia as a narrative impetus rather than being another aspect lost in the mist.
– Robert Simpson