As tensions become increasingly frayed, the line between ally and enemy becomes blurred

New World (신세계) – ★★★★☆

New World (신세계)

New World (신세계)

Coppola’s 1972 classic The Godfather has long been a source of inspiration for audiences and filmmakers alike. The themes of family, power and corruption, alongside seminal performances from cinematic icons, make it one of the premiere examples of the gangster genre and a masterpiece in its own right. Director Park Hoon-jeong (박훈정) is clearly a huge admirer – he claims to have watched The Godfather over a hundred times – for he explores such topics, in conjunction with his own unique vision developed as screenwriter of The Unjust and I Saw The Devilwithin exemplary gangster film New World (신세계).

Exploring the dynamics of power within a criminal cartel turned conglomerate (or chaebol, as they are known in Korea), the story weaves a twisted and highly engaging web of suspense-filled intrigue. Ironically however, the focus on such power struggles makes the narrative a somewhat impersonal affair. Yet the film features excellent performances by an A-list cast alongside some truly gorgeous cinematography, combining to make New World a powerful and captivating addition to the genre.

Senior gangsters and close friends Jeong Cheong (left) and Ja-seong greet at the airport

Senior gangsters and close friends Jeong Cheong (left) and Ja-seong greet at the airport

When the head of the Goldmoon corporation is killed in highly suspicious circumstances, a power vacuum is left in his wake. Yet the company is not a typical chaebol. It is an amalgamation of several different criminal organisations, brought together to expand their illegal operations under the guise of an enterprise. Among the candidates to become the next ‘kingpin’ of the cartel are stoic Lee Ja-seong (Lee Jeong-jae (이정재) and close friend Jeong Cheong (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민), as well as the aggressive Lee Joong-goo (Park Seong-woong (박성웅). Yet unknown to everyone within the organisation is Ja-seong’s dual role as a police officer, repeatedly putting his life on the line to report to Section Chief Kang (Choi Min-sik (최민식). As people on both sides of the law wage war for power, choices must be made and bloody confrontations forced in order to sit at the head of Goldmoon.

As with prior film The Unjust, director Park once again proves himself a master of balancing multiple characters. Each member of Goldmoon and the police force has an agenda, and director Park does incredibly well in portraying how each of them attempts to achieve their goals. The character development is consistently believable and occurs as a result of the desire for power, making the story an enthralling experience. This is also in no small way due to the performances of the A-list cast. Choi Min-shik in particular is outstanding as Chief Kang, a veteran cop who realises the monster he has become yet cannot quit. The actor conveys a brilliant complexity within the role, authoritative and intelligent yet self-loathing and frustrated. As Chinese descendant Jeong Cheong, Hwang Jeong-min is also superb. Amazingly he turns an extremely deplorable gangster into a likable jerk, with his foul-mouth and extravagance with fake goods masking a dangerously violent criminal. Ironically Lee Jeong-jae is somewhat short-changed as lead character Ja-seong. His role is the most complex as Ja-seong must play both sides of the law and stay alive, yet there are only a handful of moments where the character develops and genuinely feels threatened. Nevertheless, Lee Jeong-jae is very competent in the role.

Chief Kang meets with Jeong Cheong with an offer

Chief Kang meets with Jeong Cheong with an offer

Furthermore, rarely has a gangster film been so attractive. Director Park immediately places the audience within the violent, dark underbelly inhabited by the protagonists utilising great vision and skill. The composition, lighting and cinematography combine to produce some truly gorgeous aesthetics, conveying the Goldmoon hierarchy, the brutal violence, and stunning landscapes with minimal dialogue. The beauty of the dockyards at dawn is wonderfully contrasted with characters forced to swallow cement, and wonderfully captures the bizarre duality inherent in Ja-seong’s life. Such powerful and compelling imagery continue throughout the entire film, from the cold metallic offices in Goldmoon to the shadowy secret liaisons and deals that take place. New World is a genuine visual triumph, and the passion and attention to detail within every shot is palpable.

While director Park does a great job balancing and positioning the protagonists within the film to culminate in a powerful conclusion, the film also suffers from being overly ambitious. As enthralling as the story is, there are simply far too many characters within the narrative and too little time to fully construct them. Song Ji-hyo exemplifies this issue, as the talented actress is given precious few scenes in which to establish her role as a crucial player. However it is again Lee Jeong-jae who suffers the most in this regard, as his personal life – including an interesting sub-plot regarding his pregnant wife – is glossed over in favour of focusing on his status as a mole. The narrative is so concerned with the Goldmoon power play that, crucially, there is little reason provided to care about Ja-seong’s predicament on an emotional level.

Despite such criticism, New World is an incredibly powerful and exemplary gangster film. The exploration of power and corruption within the Goldmoon chaebol as well as the police force is continually fascinating,  even more so when taking into account such issues are a genuine social concern within contemporary Korea. Director Park has crafted an enthralling gangster epic, and fans of the genre will undoubtedly love it.

As tensions become increasingly frayed, the line between ally and enemy becomes blurred

As tensions become increasingly frayed, the line between ally and enemy becomes blurred

Verdict:

New World is a powerful and exemplary gangster film, examining the power play that occurs when the head of a criminal corporation is killed. Director Park Hoon-jeong expertly weaves a tangled web of gangsters and police into a compelling and thrilling story of corruption and betrayal. The film is also bolstered by fantastic performances from A-list stars including Choi Min-shik, Hwang Jeong-min and Lee Jeong-jae, who are continually fascinating to watch. While the focus on positioning characters and the shady deals that are made make the film a somewhat impersonal affair, New World is enthralling gangster epic that fans of the genre will not want to miss.

★★★★☆

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JIFF 2013

JIFF 2013: Korea Cinemascape

JIFF 2013

JIFF 2013

As part of the build up towards the 2013 installment of the Jeonju International Film Festival, last time here at Hanguk Yeonghwa the ten selected independent films that form the ‘Korean Films in Competition’ were profiled. What they highlight is that JIFF is still continuing to seek out new and fresh film-making talent as the directors are all relatively unknown, raising the possibility for ‘discovering’ quality productions and act as a potential springboard for future festival runs.

Yet JIFF 2013 is also featuring some of the more commercial films to emerge from Korea under the banner of ‘Korea Cinemascape’. In keeping with the festival tradition the themes are quite broad in scope allowing for a range of diverse projects to appear, from star-studded gangster and action epics through to more low-key dramatic pieces. Here are the films announced as part of the ‘Korea Cinemascape’.

Burn, Release, Explode, The Invincible (연소, 석방, 폭발, 대적할 이가 없는)

Burn, Release, Explode, The Invincible (연소, 석방, 폭발, 대적할 이가 없는)

Burn, Release, Explode, The Invincible (연소, 석방, 폭발, 대적할 이가 없는)

Director: Kim Su-hyun  (김수현)

Synopsis: A title that’s almost a story in itself, Burn, Release, Explode, The Invincible charts the life of actor Kim Sang-hyun and the unfolding drama. Described as ‘bohemian and arty’, the 53 minute drama sounds like an interesting exploration of the acting world.

Fist of Legend (전설의 주먹)

Fists of Legend (전설의 주먹)

Fists of Legend (전설의 주먹)

Director: Kang Woo-seok (강우석)

Synopsis: Blockbuster action film Fists of Legend features several A-list stars including Hwang Jeong-min and Yoo Joon-sang, and helmed by the mighty Kang Woo-seok who has been responsible for a string of hits both as producer and director. Word of mouth is positive on this tent-pole actioner, which sees three middle-aged friends reunited in a fighting contest for a large cash prize. As JIFF is mostly concerned with independent features, Fists of Legend will offer a change of pace for those seeking big-budgeted action. Check out the trailer below:

Garibong (가리봉)

Garibong (가리봉)

Garibong (가리봉)

Director: Park Ki Yong (박기용)

Synopsis: This documentary feature by director Park Ki-yong explores the immigrant experience of workers residing in Garibong-dong. Stories involving foreigners and the difficulties of cultural assimilation have become more prominent in recent years, and Garibong could offer a fresh perspective.

Juvenile Offender (범죄소년)

Juvenile Offender (범죄소년)

Juvenile Offender (범죄소년)

Director: Kang Yi-kwan (강이관)

Synopsis: Juvenile Offender made waves upon its release in 2012, with its story of disaffected youth, crime, and familial relationships. The film from director Kang, who previous helmed the Moon So-ri starring Sakwa (사과), premiered in Vancouver and won the coveted Special Jury Award and Best Actor for Seo Young-ju at the Tokyo International Film Festival. With the focus on human rights (indeed, it was partly funded by The National Human Rights Commission of Korea) and timely examination of socio-cultural issues it’s great to see the film get more exposure at JIFF. See below for the trailer:

Mr. Vertigo (축지법과 비행술)

Mr. Vertigo (축지법과 비행술)

Mr. Vertigo (축지법과 비행술)

Director: Lee Kyung-sub (이경섭)

Synopsis: Renowned character actor Oh Dal-su stars in Mr. Vertigo, a story about a man seeking to add excitement and difference to his boring life. At 25 minutes long, the film has the potential to be one of the more off-beat and humourous short stories at the festival.

My Paparotti (파파로티)

My Paparotti (파파로티)

My Paparotti (파파로티)

Director: Yoon Jong-chan (윤종찬)

Synopsis: Since its release, My Paparotti has been quite successful earning around 1.45 million admissions (at the time of writing), despite mixed critical reactions. Featuring rising star Lee Je-hoon alongside Han Seok-kyu, the comedy-drama charts the relationship between a washed-up music teacher and  young gangster who sports an exceptional singing voice. See the trailer below:

New World (신세계)

New World (신세계)

New World (신세계)

Director: Park Hoon-jung (박훈정)

Synopsis: Gangster epic New World has been incredibly well-received both domestically as well as internationally, selling to multiple territories with its tale of violence and paranoia. Directed by Park Hoon-jung, the writer behind hits I Saw the Devil and The Unjust, the film also features heavyweights Choi Min-shik, Hwang Jeong-min, Lee Jeong-jae and Song Ji-hyo. New World has been likened to Infernal Affairs/The Departed which is high praise indeed. Check out the trailer below:

Project Cheonan Ship (천안함프로젝트)

Project Cheonan Ship (천안함프로젝트)

Project Cheonan Ship (천안함프로젝트)

Director: Baek Seung-woo (백승우)

Synopsis: When he ROKS Cheonan was sunk in 2010, escalating tensions between North and South Korea, several conspiracy theories appeared despite the official verdict that a North Korean submarine fired a torpedo. Documentary Project Cheonan Ship explores the events as well as the reactions by Korean society.

Shibata and Nagao (시바타와 나가오)

Shibata and Nagao (시바타와 나가오)

Shibata and Nagao (시바타와 나가오)

Director: Yang Ik-june (양익준)

Synopsis: The 19 minute Korea/Japanese co-produced drama explores the final moments of a couple as they are about to separate. Director Yang Ik-june is the reason to be excited for this film as his exemplary drama Breathless proved his abilities behind the camera.

Talking Architecture, City:Hall (말하는 건축, 시티:홀)

Talking Architecture, City:Hall (말하는 건축, 시티:홀)

Talking Architecture, City:Hall (말하는 건축, 시티:홀)

Director: Jeong Jae-eun (정재은)

Synopsis: The controversial City Hall project in Seoul has been fraught with difficulty since day one, and this documentary shines a light on the issues that occurred throughout construction. It looks to be an interesting piece, especially in the conflict of old (Japanese) versus new (Korean).

Timing (타이밍)

Timing (타이밍)

Timing (타이밍)

Director: Kim Ji-Yeon (김지연)

Synopsis: Timing looks set to be a sensitive drama, as a woman attempts to resolve loose ends before she moves abroad to study. In doing so she discovers the complex emotions of the sadness of letting go of the past and the fear of starting afresh.

To Be Reborn (환생의 주일)

To Be Reborn (환생의 주일)

To Be Reborn (환생의 주일)

Director: Hwang Qu-doek (황규덕)

Synopsis: To Be Reborn is a documentary that follows the director himself, as he pursues another avenue in life when frustrated with the film industry. The film-making frustrations depicted could resonate well with the independent audiences and prove to be a success.

Total Messed Family (오빠가 돌아왔다)

Total Messed Family (오빠가 돌아왔다)

Total Messed Family (오빠가 돌아왔다)

Director: No Zin-soo (노진수)

Synopsis: The oddly titled Total Messed Family appears to be a more traditional family comedy-drama offering in which a group of mismatched personalities are forced to come together during a crisis. This certainly has the potential to be one of the ‘feel-good’ films at the festival.

The Woman (그 여자)

The Woman (그 여자)

The Woman (그 여자)

Director: Jo Mee-hye (조미혜)

Synopsis: The only film to feature the transsexual experience in the category, The Woman portrays the story of Yoon-hee whose life is thrown into turmoil when her brother informs her of their mother’s illness. It will be very interesting to see how such issues are explored, as Korean culture is still quite conservative.

Festival News Jeonju International Film Festival (제14회 전주국제영화제) Korean Festivals 2013
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.

★★★☆☆

Reviews
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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The dischevelled Dae-su is joined by Mi-do on his quest for revenge

Old Boy (올드보이) – ★★★★★

Old Boy (올드보이)

Old Boy (올드보이)

Old Boy (올드보이) has the double-edged distinction of being most international audience’s first introduction to Korean cinema, and ironically, their only frame of reference. Thus any film viewed after such an inauguration is compared with Park Chan-wook’s (박찬욱) seminal work regardless of genre, which is clearly an injustice to all involved. And yet, it is difficult to completely judge those who make the comparison, as Old Boy  is simply phenomenal.

As the extremely drunk Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik (최민식) is arrested one night in 1988, he little realises that his every action is being watched. Released from the police station and apologising for missing his daughter’s birthday, Dae-su is suddenly snatched from the street and wakes up in an apartment – where he will spend the next fifteen years in captivity. Without warning, Dae-su is released from his incarceration and must discover who imprisoned him, and more importantly, why. He is joined on his quest for revenge by Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong (강혜정), a sushi waitress who takes pity on his plight. In following the trail of clues Dae-su finds his tormentor Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae (유지태) but the burning desire for answers stays his hand. As the mystery unravels, Dae-su is confronted by an awful truth, that will lead to a shocking final confrontation with his nemesis.

Dae-su is incarcerated for 15 years

Dae-su is incarcerated for 15 years

The centerpiece of Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy (preceded by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것) and followed by Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨)Old Boy stands out as one of the most innovative and technically proficient thrillers of all time. If it was ever in doubt before, Old Boy cemented Park Chan-wook’s status as an auteur due to his incredible vision and flair for violent and macabre subject matter. His technical prowess appears effortless. Initially the hand-held documentary-esque drunken antics in a police station add realism as well as Dae-su’s appalling character traits. Yet this is seamlessly sutured with conventions ascribed to fantasy, thriller and action as Dae-su evolves during the course of the film. Shots, such as Dae-su emerging from a suitcase in a field – later revealed as a roof – continually astonish and excite. Tracking shots of action sequences are equally enthralling as Dae-su takes on an entire gang in the narrow confines of a corridor. The level of creative confidence also extends into the mise-en-scene, particularly in regards to colour and patterns. The striking reds hint at the danger to come, while the eerie purples (accompanied by the maze-like pattern formed of triangles) are the calling cards of the mastermind behind the events.

The dischevelled Dae-su is joined by Mi-do on his quest for revenge

The dischevelled Dae-su is joined by Mi-do on his quest for revenge

Praise must also be generously given to the narrative, co-written by Park Chan-wook and Hwang Jo-yoon. The central concept is reminiscent of The Prisoner (1967-68), yet from there the ideas generated are original, shocking and downright bizarre. Yet fundamentally, the emotional core of each protagonist is placed front and center giving exceptional substance to the stylised visuals. Each character is incredibly compelling, neither good nor bad but an amalgamation of a variety of neuroses. In presenting such complex character studies to the screen, all the actors deserve recognition. Chief among them is Choi Min-sik who gives a towering performance as Dae-su. His physical transformation is startling, not only in terms of his musculature but also his tired and dishevelled face that conveys the seriousness of his situation without uttering a word. His erratic behaviour is entrancing and performed with real conviction, from his television style speech patterns, his difficulty in entering the modern world and the frustration of unlocking memories within himself. Similarly Yoo Ji-tae is wonderfully sadistic as the antagonist of the film. Woo-jin’s arrogance and sheer audacity radiates with every movement, yet amazingly is far from villainous due to the incredible depth of character. His own torment, and the unbelievable lengths he goes to in displacing them, are profound and convincing despite the extremities that occur.

Woo-jin torments Dae-su with sadistic delight

Woo-jin torments Dae-su with sadistic delight

Verdict:

Old Boy is a monumental achievement not only for Korean cinema, but also in terms of international recognition. It’s little wonder why audiences use it as the frame of reference in comparing other films from Korea despite the unfairness of such comparisons. The innovative narrative and technical prowess, as well as the exemplary performances, serve to make Old Boy a timeless classic and an absolute must-see.

★★★★★

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