Ik-hyeon settles into his 'gangster' role with ease

Nameless Gangster (범죄와의 전쟁: 나쁜놈들 전성시대) – ★★★☆☆

Nameless Gangster (범죄와의 전쟁: 나쁜놈들 전성시대)

Nameless Gangster (범죄와의 전쟁: 나쁜놈들 전성시대)

Gangster ‘epics’ are not films that merely present bad men doing bad things; on the contrary, the ‘epicness’ of the films are due to the ways in which producers tell the story within the wider context of the socio-cultural period, conveying a national uniqueness alongside the themes of brotherhood, betrayal, and the escalation of violence. While there are numerous contemporary directors such as Guy Ritchie, Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Mann that fit this paradigm, the most notable figure in this regard is the legendary Martin Scorsese who besets his conflicted protagonists with problems from all sides, masterfully building tension to a poignant crescendo.

With Nameless Gangster (범죄와의 전쟁: 나쁜놈들 전성시대) writer/director Yoon Jong-bin (윤종빈) seemingly attempts to emulate Scorsese, featuring a similar rags-to-riches and fall-from-grace narrative structure. Yet there the comparisons end as while the story is distinctly Korean and multi-layered, and the directing competent, the lack of flair, tension and an over-abundance of secondary characters halt Nameless Gangster from achieving excellence. However, alongside the sumptuous costume and set design the film sports a fascinating perspective on the evolution of crime in Korea, and the struggle to combat corruption in contemporary society.

In the month of October, 1990, President Roh Tae-woo launches a crackdown on corruption and crime in South Korea, giving the police and prosecutors special powers to arrest those involved in the criminal underworld. For the port city of Busan this presents an acute problem, and as gangsters are forced to lie low the incarceration of infamous Choi Ik-hyeon (Choi Min-sik (최민식) is an enormous victory for prosecutor Jo Beom-seok (Kwak Byeong-gyoo (곽병규). Yet the criminal simply refuses to admit any wrongdoing despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In order to fully uncover the truth, the journey must begin back in 1982 when Ik-hyeon was a mere corrupt customs official, exploring the relationships that were forged – particularly with notorious criminal Choi Hyeong-bae (Ha Jeong-woo (하정우) – during the golden age of the gangster lifestyle in Korea.

Ik-hyeon settles into his 'gangster' role with ease

Ik-hyeon settles into his ‘gangster’ role with ease

Nameless Gangster is surprisingly less a film about gangsters and more a film about the evolution of corruption in Korean society, personified through smarmy central protagonist Ik-hyeon. Originating as a corrupt customs official, Ik-hyeon – and the entire customs department – are directly in the firing line of the government crackdown on crime, the penalty for which is placed squarely on Ik-hyeon’s shoulders. Yet despite being a dishonest and unscrupulous reprobate, Ik-hyeon is quite a charismatic and lovable rogue due to the performance of acting legend Choi Min-sik. Bizarrely Choi Min-sik exaggerates and overacts the character throughout the film but incredibly manages to convey this as part of Ik-hyeon’s personality, an appealingly silly man who constantly oversteps his boundaries to the chagrin of all involved. The subtly seductive performance blurs the lines between the gangster and comedy genres as Ik-hyeon simultaneously charms and smites those around him, juxtaposing laugh-out-loud moments with brutality, reminiscent of scenes within Scorsese’s Goodfellas from which the film borrows heavily. However these moments never quite achieve the shocking impact they should. Writer/director Yoon Jong-bin (윤종빈) writes the scenes incredibly well and has highly competent vision, yet somehow fails to capture the tension that such scenes demand, with the slow build of suspense and apprehension curiously absent. Violence, too, is also problematic within Nameless Gangster through the lack of escalation. While it would be absurd to expect Americanized gun crime within such a distinctly Korean gangster film the repetitive nature of the clashes, commonly involving baseball bats and glass bottles, quickly becomes bland and lessens the severity such confrontations should convey.

Violence enters the narrative through the introduction of Choi Hyeong-bae, a lifelong gangster with whom Ik-hyeon shares common ancestry. It is through their relationship that Nameless Gangster truly shines, as the bumbling Ik-hyeon forges ties with an incredible variety of powerful strangers due to mutual heritage – and seniority – in order to create a criminal empire, constructing a fascinating insight into the multifaceted nature of corruption in Korea. Director Yoon Jong-bin’s narrative strength lies in the comically awe-inspiring Ik-hyeon as he weasels his way into the good graces of politicians, law-makers and international crime syndicates, resulting in a meteoric rise from crooked customs official to one of the most dangerous gangsters in Busan. While Ik-hyeon provides the connections it is Hyeong-bae, wonderfully performed by Ha Jeong-woo, who commands the muscle. Hyeong-bae is stoic, authoritative and deadly, conveying restrained violence and potential danger with every movement and gesture, the true gangster of the partnership. The stark contrast between the two, as well as Ik-hyeon’s unerring manner for overstepping boundaries, provides the catalyst for the introduction of a third party in the form of rival gangster Kim Pan-ho (Jo Jin-woong (조진웅). In another nod to past gangster epics in the form of Scorsese-esque triumvirates, Pan-ho ultimately fails to be a convincing protagonist due to serious underdevelopment, undermining him as a credible threat both within the narrative and to consummate gangster Hyeong-bae.

Hyeong-bae is the consummate gangster - stoic, powerful, and deadly

Hyeong-bae is the consummate gangster – stoic, powerful, and deadly

With a strong narrative and competent direction, Nameless Gangster also benefits from having sumptuous costume and set design. The world of 1980s Busan is eloquently portrayed and wonderfully realized, absorbing the audience within the chic decor and lifestyle from humble homesteads to bars to casinos.

In terms of performance both Choi Min-sik and Ha Jeong-woo play off each other well, with the latter giving the stand-out portrayal as hard-boiled gangster Hyeong-bae. The stoicism of the character coupled with the restrained threat of violence is an absolute joy and contributes greatly in conveying tension, which is sadly underutilized within the narrative and direction. Choi Min-sik, on the other hand, is highly charismatic as Ik-hyeon despite being a tad overzealous throughout. The actor conveys the foolish nature of the man incredibly well, yet the scenes in which Ik-hyeon demands power and authority unbecoming to him that are the most revealing, conveying a man desperate for control in a universe which resolutely refuses him.

The rest of the cast are used in supportive roles and are either generally underdeveloped, such as gangster Pan-ho and prosecutor Jo Beom-seok, or simply redundant, such as club Manager Yeo (Kim Hye-eun (김혜은) or brother-in-law Seo-bang Kim  (Ma Dong-seok (마동석). This is unfortunate, as had the roles been greater (or jettisoned) the web of threat and deception would undoubtedly be much stronger as in Ryoo Seung-wan‘s The Unjust; as it stands, they are rather limp additions in an otherwise well-written screenplay about societal corruption.

Through creating links and contacts, Ik-hyeon helps expand the criminal empire

Through creating links and contacts, Ik-hyeon helps expand the criminal empire

Verdict:

Nameless Gangster is a compelling and fascinating film about the nature, and evolution, of crime and corruption in Korea. With an absorbing narrative, wonderful set and costume design, and entertaining performances, the film is generally let down by the lack of tension and suspense, as well as underdeveloped characters. That said, Nameless Gangster is an enjoyable yarn of power and social relationships in a country still struggling to shake off the ramifications of the war on crime.

★★★☆☆

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The pieces of Geum-ja's plan assemble with incredible imagery

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨) – ★★★★★

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨)

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨)

Vengeance and violence are a seemingly masculine arena cinematically, with narratives propelled by testosterone-fueled actions by those who have suffered injustices. Such passionate reactionary violence is often ascribed to traditional patriarchal roles of ‘the father’ and ‘the lover’, identities which become destabilized through loss and demand retribution. Yet women, who have just as equal a stake in such gendered roles, are often marginalized.

With Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨) auteur Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) finishes his celebrated Vengeance trilogy in incredible style, featuring a woman as the central protagonist to create an altogether different approach to the concept of revenge. The result is a fascinating and riveting film that depicts a more calculating and intelligent form of vengeance than displayed by Dong-jin in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것) or Dae-su in Old Boy (올드보이), constructing a unique and magnificent character in the form of Lady Vengeance herself Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae (이영애).

20 year old Lee Geum-ja is arrested and sentenced for the kidnap and murder of a young boy, shocking the nation due to her tender age as well as for her unparalleled beauty. Yet unknown to the public is that while Geum-ja was an accomplice in the kidnapping, she was forced to take the blame for the murder otherwise her own daughter would be killed by the real criminal – Baek Han-sang (Choi Min-sik (최민식). During her 13 year jail term Geum-ja plots her revenge, forging connections with other prisoners and garnering a reputation for her unbelievable kindness achieved through acts of underhanded treachery. Finally released, Geum-ja begins her preparations in earnest and, joined by her estranged daughter Jenny (Kwon Ye-yeong (권예영), tracks down the man responsible for their separation in order to exact their vengeance.

Geum-ja has become cold and calculating during her incarceration

Geum-ja has become cold and calculating during her incarceration

Park Chan-wook displays a more artistic and surreal depiction of revenge in his third installment, producing stunning imagery of Geum-ja’s quest that emphasizes her beautiful image in conjunction with her lethal internal motivations. Crucially the director never shies away from employing such cinematic playfulness with feminist discourses, overtly conveying Geum-ja’s intelligence in regards to patriarchy and image. Once released from prison Geum-ja purposely applies red eyeshadow and dons dark and seductive clothing, consciously aware that her natural image promotes innocence and purity, features she does not want nor feels she deserves. As such she challenges cultural stereotypes of attraction, subverting patriarchal notions of ‘virginal beauty’ as Geum-ja’s intelligence and violent desires are foregrounded. She is an expert at manipulation in this regard earning the trust and respect of men and women through her subversion of image, allies whom she acknowledges with indifference once they are indebted as her single-minded lust for vengeance is absolute. In achieving revenge Geum-ja is keenly aware of the power necessary, and her methods lead to acquiring a ‘pretty double-phallus’ in the shape of an incredible firearm that is two guns merged into one handle. Park Chan-wook’s wonderful visual style continually yet subtly conveys his lead protagonist as a powerful, intelligent, and highly efficient woman making Geum-ja an acutely compelling character.

That is not to say Geum-ja is lacking in emotion – far from it. She is constantly aware of her role in the murder of a young boy, willing to do anything for forgiveness that can never come. The burden of guilt portrays Geum-ja is a tragically flawed character as she seeks to dehumanize herself and reject intimacy due to her self-hatred. The brilliantly comical reappearance of Geum-ja’s estranged daughter Jenny forms a wonderful partnership in which to explore their neuroses of guilt and abandonment, and the roles of parent and child.

The pieces of Geum-ja's plan assemble with incredible imagery

The pieces of Geum-ja’s plan assemble with incredible imagery

The responsibilities of a parent toward their child are intriguingly explored throughout Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, as Park Chan-wook poses a supremely difficult question – what actions would a parent take if they confronted their child’s murderer? The director expertly conveys the poignant moral conundrum that brilliantly evolves Geum-ja’s personal desire for justice into a communal one, a desire for vengeance that is consciously wrong legally and morally, yet desired all the same. As has become a feature of his, Park Chan-wook depicts such incredibly serious subject matter with a sharply dark-humoured edge that makes the events that unfold all the more captivating, and thrilling, to experience. Despite simultaneously conveying the evolution of revenge as well as narratively veering in an alternate direction, the director never loses focus of Geum-ja’s role as strong methodical woman desperate for retribution and forgiveness, attributes she alone – despite (rejected) offers from patriarchy and religion – must achieve. As such, Geum-ja is one of the most enthralling and compelling representations of women to appear on celluloid.

Lee Young-ae is absolutely superb as Geum-ja, inhabiting the role so completely it is impossible to imagine another actress in her place. The extremely broad range of emotions that are required are wonderfully performed, from moments of quiet manipulation and rage-fueled violence, to tender moments of reconciliation and forgiveness, and fully deserves the various awards for Best Actress bestowed upon her. Choi Min-sik is given a marginal role as the malicious Baek Han-sang, yet during his short screen-time he conveys the depravity, and the sheer terror, required. Other supporting performances are generally fleeting, however it is highly enjoyable when cameo roles featuring actors from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Old Boy appear.

Geum-ja prepares to take her revenge

Geum-ja prepares to take her revenge

Verdict:

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is an incredible final installment to the Vengeance trilogy, presenting an entirely different notion of revenge through one of the most compelling female protagonists in cinematic history. Park Chan-wook’s beautifully creative vision, as well as Lee Young-ae’s captivating performance, make Sympathy for Lady Vengeance an enthralling exploration of vengeance and feminism that demands repeated viewing.

★★★★★

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