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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Detective Choi risks everything to keep the scandal secret

The Unjust (부당거래) – ★★★★☆

The Unjust (부당거래)

The Unjust (부당거래)

If there is one universal truth within Korean cinema, it is the representation of every level of the law enforcement infrastructure as incompetent, unprofessional, and corrupt. In certain cases, such as true-life thriller Memories of Murder (2003), the result can be an incredibly intense and fascinating character study; in other more generic offerings such as S.I.U. (2011) the incompetence of the force is frustratingly infuriating. Yet regardless of whether the central protagonist(s) are operating within law enforcement or without, the abuse of human rights, flagrant disregard for procedure and scandalous corruption are seemingly inherent to the respective institutions.

The Unjust (부당거래), director Ryoo Seung-wan‘s (류승완) eighth feature, continues such ideological distrust with the auteur’s trademark wit, ingenuity and postmodern sensibilities. With an incredible screenplay by Park Hoon-jeong (박훈정), The Unjust is a highly engaging and intense thriller featuring electric performances by the principal cast and arguably the highlight of Ryoo Seung-wan’s career thus far, winning ‘Best Film’ at 2011 The Blue Dragon Awards.

With intense mounting pressure from the media, citizens and politicians, the police are desperate to catch the perpetrator of the serial rape and murder of young girls in Seoul. Yet when the only major suspect is killed, the law enforcement are in dire need of someone to take the blame and to be held accountable. Director Kang (Cheon Ho-jin (천호진) believes he has the perfect officer to find such a scapegoat – Choi Cheol-gi  (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민), an incredibly efficient officer who is routinely passed over for promotion as he did not emerge through the academy. Employing the help of gangster Jang Seok-goo (Yoo Hae-jin (유해진), the pair find a viable replacement. Yet Jang’s corrupt business rival enlists the help of Prosecutor Joo-yang (Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범) to find something – anything – that will stop Jang and Choi and allow his business to prosper. As the fate of all three becomes increasingly intertwined, they delve deeper into a moral abyss from which they may never return.

Detective Choi (right) enlists the help of Jang to find a scapegoat

Detective Choi (right) enlists the help of Jang to find a scapegoat

The script by Park Hoon-jeong – which received the best screenplay award at The Blue Dragon Awards – wonderfully balances the array of characters and plot threads at an incredible pace, rarely slowing the momentum or intensity. From the second the film begins the speed at which the narrative is set-up and the players are introduced is spectacular, conveying the seriousness of the situation convincingly. Director Ryoo Seung-wan – who also received an award at The Blue Dragon Awards for best directing – brings the script to life with confidence and style, with camera movement and rapid editing raising the level of excitement to a staggering level. The partnership between both filmmakers is seemingly a perfect match as their respective styles compliment one another in tone, pace and content. The array of socio-cultural discourses and anxieties within The Unjust are vast, from minor subtle issues such as favoritism within the police department, public hysteria and presidential involvement, to more scandalous affairs including secret meetings with criminals, corruption, and personal promotion over public service.

The relationships between protagonists and the various underhanded methods employed to gain leverage are brilliantly portrayed and are highly engaging. In particular Detective Choi and Prosecutor Joo-yang are excellent character studies as well as serving as mirrors of each other, of which they are subconsciously aware as they attempt to prove their superiority through obtaining incriminating evidence. Their methods of corruption are wonderfully explored, with Detective Choi more violent, impoverished and urban while Prosecutor Joo-yang meets executives at fancy restaurants and is introduced to high-ranking officials through his father-in-law. Even the gangsters they deal with have differing social statuses, and as such The Unjust is also concerned with class divide and power, as well as the motivations and loop-holes that are exploited in corrupting those within.

Prosecutor Joo-yang and Detective Choi confront each other over their corrupt behaviour

Prosecutor Joo-yang and Detective Choi confront each other over their corrupt behaviour

Hwang Jeong-min gives a towering performance as Detective Choi Cheol-gi, with his absence from the ‘Best Actor’ category a bizarre oversight. The actor convincing conveys the underdog cop as a violent and diligent yet honest man, who is forced to sink ever-lower due to the request of his captain. His mere physical presence adds intensity to each scene with his height and mannerisms an intimidatingly powerful force. Hwang Jeong-min is so compelling as the violent corrupt cop that when he eventually breaks down it is something of a visceral shock, adding a dimension to his character that creates empathy despite his crimes.

Ryoo Seung-beom is also highly competent as Prosecutor Joo-yang, conveying weasely charm in abundance and is a delight to hate. The actor, nominated for his role, also adds a comedic sensibility to his role as he slithers from one lie to the next as he attempts to rectify his situation wth his superiors and corrupt colleagues. As a slight negative, Ryoo Seung-beom does have a tendency to shout his lines rather than act them which can be distracting.

As street gangster-turned-businessman Jang Seok-goo, actor Yoo Hae-jin is terrific. Also nominated for his supporting role, Yoo Hae-jin oozes criminality and effectively conveys his internal war with his urban thug mentality hiding beneath his fitted suits. The actor clearly relishes scenes in which he gains the upper-hand, smarmy and condescending with glee at the misfortune of his rivals and partners.

Detective Choi risks everything to keep the scandal secret

Detective Choi risks everything to keep the scandal secret

Verdict:

The Unjust is not simply another continuation of Korean cinema’s distrust of law enforcement agencies; it is an incredibly thrilling and compelling exploration of an array of socio-cultural discourses and anxieties, articulated with an intelligent script and visualised with a career-best by director Ryoo Seung-wan. The fast pace, confident stylisation and electric performances make The Unjust one of the best cop thrillers in recent years and a fantastic addition to the genre.

★★★★☆

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