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 intimacy is created through honest action, rather than empty promises

Poongsan (풍산개) – ★★★☆☆

Poongsan (풍산개)

Poongsan (풍산개)

There has been a noticeable ideological shift in the representation between North and South Korea in recent cinematic productions. While the late ’90s inaugurated a period where the differences between the people were rendered moot (as exemplified by Shiri (쉬리)JSA – Joint Security Area (공동경비구역 JSA)  and Taegukgi (태극기 휘날리며), the past few years have appropriated a nihilistic approach that represents both sides as equally corrupt. The Front Line (고지전)Dance Town (댄스 타운) and even insanely popular TV drama City Hunter (시티헌터) have all subscribed to such representations, depicting government and military officials, and even citizens, as either equally underhanded or worse than their northern counterparts. Poongsan (풍산개) joins this trend, examining the lives of those caught between the ideological conflict in an interesting, albeit haphazard, style.

Poongsan tells the story of an unnamed man who regularly risks his life by crossing the De-Militarized Zone at the request of families on either side. He becomes know as ‘Poongsan’ (Yoon Kye-sang (윤계상) after the brand of cigarettes he smokes, and passes letters, videos, trinkets, and in special cases, people. Concurrently South Korean agents are pressuring a high ranking North Korean defector (Kim Jong-soo (김종수) for information, which he claims he cannot provide without his girlfriend In-ok (Kim Gyoo-ri (김규리) who still lives in The People’s Republic. The agents charge the DMZ runner with finding and retrieving the woman, yet on their dangerous return an unshakeable bond forms between them. On their arrival in the South,the double-crossing South Korean agents and North Korean spies vie for control over the lives of the defector, his girlfriend and the runner, leading to a deadly showdown.

Poongsan and In-ok cross the DMZ to the South

Poongsan and In-ok cross the DMZ to the South

While directed by his protege Juhn Jai-hong (전재홍), Kim Ki-duk’s (김기덕) indelible stamp is firmly cemented in Poongsan due to his dual role as writer/producer. The nameless DMZ runner, who never utters a word of dialogue during the entire course of the film, has more than a little in common with the lead in prior film 3-Iron (빈집). ‘Poongsan’ never talks, rather allowing his actions to convey his personality and pure intentions. If there is an ‘enemy’ in the film it would be ‘words’. The spies within the film continually offer empty promises and the rhetoric they spout is interchangeable. Worse still is that once the rhetoric has finished, both sides engage in horrific barbarous torture methods that reveal a twisted sadism within the agents. Even the past times of the agents are the same; the southern agents visit a hostess bar for the northern prostitutes, and the northern agents frequent a bar for southern working girls. The high ranking North Korean defector is portrayed similarly, initially conveying love and adoration for his girlfriend which later reveals itself as passive-aggressive misogyny. His vital report is also of note, as the defector understands the nature of his situation – once his document is submitted, his own life will be forfeit despite the security insisting otherwise. Only the silent ‘Poongsan’ and In-ok are represented as innocent and genuine, the true victims of the ideological warfare that continues to divide the populace.

Poongsan, In-ok, and the defector are caught between agents from both countries

Poongsan, In-ok, and the defector are caught between agents from both countries

As is often Kim Ki-duk’s style, the narrative veers in different directions unexpectedly yet still serves to emphasise the underlying socio-cultural critique. A wide array of alternating generic features are employed to this end, however they tend to distract from the deconstruction of the north/south opposition rather than enhance it. In addition, leaps are taken with suspension of disbelief in several areas. For example, the romance between ‘Poongsan’ and In-ok begins organically enough yet somehow jumps into a timeless intimate love; similarly, ‘Poongsan’ is a veritable one-man army who seemingly recovers from grave wounds with ease. The final showdown involves the highly idealised event of locking both factions of agents in a room to settle the dispute once and for all, which is an interesting premise yet merely serves to highlight their cowardice and lacks intensity. As the chief protagonist, Yoon Kye-sang (윤계상) gives a competent performance as ‘Poongsan’, a difficult task given the inherent stoicism. Unfortunately ‘Poongsan’ is, in the latter half of the film, relegated to being a supporting actor as the political themes take precedence.

The intimacy is created through honest action, rather than empty promises

The intimacy is created through honest action, rather than empty promises

Verdict:

Poongsan is a very interesting nihilistic examination of the north/south divide, one that embraces wholeheartedly the similarities between both sides in an incredibly pessimistic context. The deconstruction of the agencies of both countries, and the use of language as a tool/enemy is wonderfully executed and brings a new dimension to the political debate within the cinematic realm. The lead protagonists however lack the depth required for them to be believable and fully attract empathy, and in addition to other frivolous/whimsical uses of generic conventions and audience disbelief, detract from the construction of this statement. Poongsan will no doubt be hailed in future discussions of Korean cinema as a film that brought a new dimension to an old debate and is an entertaining, though occasionally disjointed, film.

★★★☆☆

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Are Korean films not ‘global’?

In his keynote speech at the 2011 International Digital Content Conference, Scott Ross, the co-chairman of inDSP USA and technical director of special effects, claimed that:

“I’m a big fan of movies by Chan-wook Park and Joon-ho Bong. Unfortunately, no one sees them because Korean movies are made for Korea […] (The) Korean film community and content community clearly create great art. But in the stream of global content, they’ve not been a global player.”

Later, when asked to elaborate, Mr. Ross stated that Korean films were:

“very specific to Korean culture, and they’re shot in Korean language with Korean scriptwriters,” and that, “(e)veryone thinks their stories, cultures and movies are global content. But that’s not the case. Hollywood movies are global content. I’m not saying I like them but that is the case.”

While Mr. Ross is clearly a highly respected man in his field, his comments seem particularly unfair. Aside from the rudeness of his comments, he’s claiming that Korean films are not ‘global’ because they contain Korean culture. According to him, Hollywood movies contain the content required for a film to be successful internationally. While I don’t wish to put words in Mr. Ross’ mouth, it’s quite clear that by ‘Hollywood’ he means ‘American.’ This is an incredibly arrogant assumption considering the vast number of different cultures and languages throughout the world. Certifying his stance even further, Mr. Ross continued:

“From a Korean perspective, Korea has to decide whether they want to be in ‘the show’ or ‘the business’ as in art vs. money. Produce the content in English. And it should have global content sensibility.”

Therefore, according to Mr. Ross, Korean films need to be in the English language and contain ‘global’ (i.e. American) narratives and culture in order to successful.

However, one of the reasons that Korean films are successful is ultimately because they offer something different from typical Hollywood fare. Certainly, Korean films do primarily receive profits from within and the surrounding Asian countries that is true. Yet Korean productions have been regular participants at international film festivals, notably Cannes, such as The Housemaid (하녀) in 2010 which was a competitor for the Palme d’Or. Also, Hollywood often buys the rights to films that originated in Korea, such as Il Mare (시월애, 2000) which was converted into The Lake House (2006), and Oldboy (올드보이) which currently has director Spike Lee and actor Christian Bale attached.

So what do you think? Are Korean films too Korean? Should they be ‘Americanized’? Post your comments below!

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