Gangnam Blues (강남 1970) – ★★☆☆☆

Gangnam Blues (강남 1970)

Gangnam Blues (강남 1970)

In the 1970s as Korea attempts to rebuild itself following the devastation of the war, the attention of the political and social elite turns to a new vital area of power – land. The countryside region known as Gangnam (literally ‘south of the river’) rapidly becomes the most desirable, with each faction preparing schemes and machinations in order to accumulate the most profit. Yet for such plans to achieve fruition first the democractic parties need to be quashed, and local ragmen and best friends Jong-dae (Lee Min-ho (이민호) and Yong-gi (Kim Rae-won (김래원) are hired to join mobsters in obstructing the movement. During the fight however the duo become separated yet three years later they meet again, as the leaders of rival gangs all vying for the lucrative land in Gangnam.

Yong-gi and Jong-dae are reunited three years later as friends and rivals

Yong-gi and Jong-dae are reunited three years later as friends and rivals

Boasting high production values throughout, director Yoo Ha’s Gangnam Blues is a well made gangster flick which explores the rise of the now-affluent district of Seoul with interest. Yet as much of the narrative developments occur in repetitive boardroom meetings tedium quickly sets in which, combined with the overly long running time, make the film a moderate slice of genre entertainment.

Alongside Once Upon A Time in High School (2004) and A Dirty Carnival (2006), Gangnam Blues is the final instalment of writer/director Yoo Ha’s ‘street trilogy’ and is arguably his most visually sophisticated film to date in a resume that also comprises A Frozen Flower and Howling. Director Yoo employs his locations and colours effectively to create a surprisingly vibrant crime drama, with the lush greens of the old Gangnam countryside impressively contrasted with the grey city environs and shadowy clandestine meeting rooms, while still managing to save the best for last with the film’s remarkably violent-yet-attractive final battle royale. The sets are also generally superbly realised, notably the country dry cleaning store in run by former crime boss Gi-soo, articulating the great deal of effort spent on generating high quality production values. While such stages are required as Korea’s landscapes have so vastly altered, however, ironically such settings do often convey a manufactured sensibility that lacks the gritty authenticity of the era and serves to pull audiences from the story.

For fans of Korea there is also enjoyment to be had in watching the rise of Seoul’s most famous district. The collusion between politicians, the social elite and crime syndicates in developing Gangnam for their own corrupt purposes is initially fascinating to experience, as morality and the distinctions between them are erased in their mutual pursuit of greed and power. The film is largely based on historical fact in this respect and frequently insinuates that today’s politicians, now sporting incredible wealth and status, were the greatest criminals of the era, a feature that is so on the nose that Gangnam Blues opens with a preface explaining it as a fictitious story and sparring director Yoo legal ramifications.

Politicians and gangsters collude as most developments occur in clandestine boardroom meetings

Politicians and gangsters collude as developments occur in clandestine boardroom meetings

Yet while the origins of Gangnam’s progress are interesting, so much of the narrative development occurs within boardroom meetings that repetition and tedium quickly arise. Indeed, there are so many conversations of cheating farmers out of land, plans for redevelopment and betraying allies that compulsion wanes and such a strong sense of déjà vu occurs it feels as if the film is on repeat. Coupled with an overabundance of characters on all sides vying for power as well as an overly long running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, boredom frequently ensues.

To humanise the story amongst all the political machinations, poverty stricken ‘ragmen’ Jong-dae and Yong-gi give the story focus and heart, yet they are marginally successful in doing so. As the central protagonists they succeed in drawing attention but the characterisation is particularly weak making it difficult to fully invest in what they try to achieve. There are several attempts throughout the narrative to generate more intense emotional connections with them, such as scenes involving Jong-dae’s sister Seon-hye (Kpop’s AOA star Seol-hyun) as a victim of domestic abuse, the fleeting and redundant love interests both have, as well as a handful of unnecessary and gratuitous sexual sequences, yet they all fall flat and have little bearing on the story with most so easy to disregard they don’t even bother to receive any kind of resolution.

Gangnam Blues has largely been marketed as a vehicle for Lee Min-ho, who admirably tries to break out of his star mould and become an actor in his own right. There are glimmers that he is capable of doing so, but he typically falls back on his star image of appearing cooler and more attractive than the supporting cast. As such it’s particularly hard to buy into his status as a crime boss as he lacks the gravitas of his counterparts in the far superior New World and even Nameless Gangster. Kim Rae-won fares better as the ambitious Yong-gi, though marginally so and largely due to the more conflicting situations within which he finds himself.

Jong-dae prepares for the battle royale

Jong-dae and his crew prepare for the battle royale

Verdict:

Gangnam Blues is the concluding chapter in writer/director Yoo Ha’s ‘street trilogy’ and marks what is arguably his most visually sophisticated film to date. While he makes great use of colour and environments, and the story of Gangnam’s origins is an interesting one, the crime drama lacks compulsion becoming quite repetitive and tedious during the overly long running time, while Lee Min-ho lacks gravitas.

★★☆☆☆

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As the meetings between the Queen and Hong-rim increase, so does their love

A Frozen Flower (쌍화점) – ★★★☆☆

A Frozen Flower (쌍화점)

A Frozen Flower (쌍화점)

The dynasties within Korean history are captivating periods for epic, romantic storytelling. As well as the threat of war from without and the corruption seemingly endemic within, the beautiful clothing and rigid social hierarchy allow for wonderfully passionate tales of forbidden love and scandal, of desperate lovers defying duty for intense moments of lust.

A Frozen Flower, written and directed by Yoo Ha, fits such a mold perfectly. With issues ranging from coerced tributes to foreign lands to the lack of a royal heir, the drama attempts to provide a grand, sweeping story of love and intrigue during the Goryeo period. The inclusion of gay lovers – in the form of the King and his bodyguard – is somewhat of an extension of the themes present within the prior The King and the Clown, yet the relationship takes on new life due to the love triangle with the Queen and the explicit sexual scenes that occur. As such the film is wonderfully passionate tale of love and jealousy in old Korea, but one that ultimately feels like a high-budgeted TV drama.

At a young age, the King of Goryeo (Joo Jin-mo (주진모) initiated training for a select group of boys who would grow to become his elite bodyguards. Such soldiers are desperately required given the assassination attempts on his life by outsiders and corrupt officials. Yet in adulthood, the King has taken the chief of the elite force, Hong-rim (Jo In-Seong (조인성) as his lover. The relationship is something of an open secret within the court, which only serves to compound an important issue – the lack of an heir. Despite his marriage to a princess of neigbouring Yuan, the country threatens to remove the King’s power should an heir not be produced. Unable to bring himself to bed the Queen (Song Ji-hyo (송지효), the King orders Hong-rim to impregnate her on his behalf as he’s the only person that can be trusted. Yet in complying with the King’s demands, a chain of events begin to unfold that none could foresee.

The relationship between the King of Goryeo and chief Hong-rim is an open secret

The relationship between the King of Goryeo and chief Hong-rim is an open secret

A Frozen Flower ticks many of the boxes that make Korean period dramas so attractive and romantic. Director Yoo Ha captures the beauty of the era well as the actors gracefully go about their lives at court, whether through ornate ceremonies or simply resting at the palace and indulging in traditional Korean pastimes. The most prominent feature of the film are the relationships between the central protagonists, and the director wastes no time in establishing the connection that exists between the King and Hong-rim. The affection and love expressed is palpable, as Hong-rim’s concern over the King’s health is wonderfully conveyed through actions and mannerisms, while the King refuses to leave his lovers side even when faced with mortal danger. Director Yoo plays with the notion of gender incredibly well with all the cast but especially in regards to the King and Hong-rim, emphasizing their feminine attributes through colour, costume and particularly hair. The passionate sex scene between them is skillfully framed and conveys their gender as meaningless, as both men embody masculine and feminine qualities through their performance so that only their passion and devotion is of importance. Such androgyny is also ascribed to the Queen who is conveyed as the most stoic and ‘masculine’ of the three. In each case, the actors wonderfully express the fluid notion of gender and sexuality that they embody, making the concept of gender one of the more fascinating aspects of the film.

The sexual scenes between the Queen and Hong-rim are arguably the most renowned feature of A Frozen Flower, and director Yoo captures the raw passion of their physical encounters with effective close ups and vibrant red tones. Yet the repetition of such scenes are undoubtedly a rather cynical attempt to offset the gay context that exists within the narrative, whilst the male fantasy of justified sexual exploitation makes for rather uncomfortable viewing initially. Both Song Ji-hyo and Jo In-seong perform the sex scenes with incredible intensity and sincerity, although the idea that the couple could fall in love purely through sexual encounters is one of the weaker aspects of the story, especially when the cold stoicism of Song Ji-hyo’s performance suggests manipulation and desperation rather than love.

The King orders Hong-rim and the Queen to produce an heir

The King orders Hong-rim and the Queen to produce an heir

Due to the great focus on the evolving relationships between the central protagonists, the political sub-plot of corruption in the court is rather superfluous. The inclusion of such issues are generally an excuse to include action within the narrative, yet this in turn highlights the TV drama quality that perpetuates the film. The choreography is bland and uninspired, while surface wounds seem to cause instantaneous death to miscellaneous enemies that don’t really serve any purpose. Action is also director Yoo’s weakest area as he often steps back from the confrontations, and as such tension and danger don’t really build effectively. The camerawork throughout A Frozen Flower further contributes to the TV drama sensibilities as there is little flair on display that evokes the sweeping romantic epic that the film intends to be. Additionally the mise-en-scene, while featuring attractive decor and props, don’t contain the beauty and vibrancy that has come to be expected from such period dramas.

However despite such criticisms, A Frozen Flower is very much a film centered on the love and lust of the three central figures and in this regard is captivating and enthralling. The exploration of sexuality, gender, lust and love are executed wonderfully giving the film a potent emotional core, while the passion and vibrancy conveyed through the sexual scenes, particularly between the Queen and Hong-rim, are beautifully produced.

As the meetings between the Queen and Hong-rim increase, so does their love

As the meetings between the Queen and Hong-rim increase, so does their love

Verdict:

A Frozen Flower is a wonderfully sexy tale of love and lust during the Goryeo dynasty. Through skilled use of costume, colour and appearance, director Yoo Ha plays with the notion of gender while exploring the relationships between the King, Queen and Chief bodyguard which are central to the film, conveying palpable passion through confrontational and sexual scenes. Yet the limited scale of the directing, as well as the uninspired action and court scenes, exude a TV drama sensibility throughout the running time. Despite this,  A Frozen Flower is a highly enjoyable and racy story of debauchery.

★★★☆☆

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