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Review: ‘Nameless Gangster’

Korean Film Transcends Genre

Above: Choi Min-sik as the civil servant who rises to crime boss in "Nameless Gangster."

"Nameless Gangster" (opening April 6 at AMC La Jolla) was originally scheduled for a single night. Fortunately that has been extended to a full week. It's worth making time for.

"Nameless Gangster" does what a number of recent Korean films manage to do so well, mix genre elements with serious social and political realities. Films like "Friend," "Die Bad," and "The Show Must Go On," all mixed the gangster film with a social consciousness that looked either to where Korea was coming from or heading to. This mix makes the films richer in their themes and emotional impact.

The only down side for American audiences is our lack of familiarity with Korean politics and social realities. Because of that, let me reprint a statement from "Nameless Gangster's" young director Yoon Jong-Bin:

My reason for wanting to tell a story from the '80s is because I feel that the current societal climate is very similar. About 3 years ago I got a feeling that the era of my deceased father was suddenly coming back, an era in which everyone's good will is only reserved for their own survival and well being. But like my own father, I did not see these people as selfish fools, but sympathized with them. I wanted to portray these characters not as criminals who were on the wrong side of the law, but as people who tried their best to survive and thrive despite the conditions they were in. People innately follow the times they live in and those who ride it architect the next generation. The '80s in South Korea were an incredibly volatile decade in which a single person's decision could change the direction of an entire era. Following men who lived through that decade, I wanted to show that the eighties had more dramatic appeal than any other decade. I wanted to inquire whether it was the times that were changing the people, or if it was the people that were changing the times. Most of all, I hope that the audience can laugh and identify with these men who lived like kings in the face of loyalty, betrayal, and ambition.

That statement sets up the film as a kind of Korean "Goodfellas" or "Casino." It gets into the fabric of these gangsters' lives so that we can live in their clothes for a few hours and try to see the world from their perspective. It doesn't condone what they do but it tries to depict them with enough humanity to make them real and not cardboard stereotypes. The film spins a fictional plot from headlines and Yoon has said that it's inspired in part by his father who served in the National Police Agency.

The Korean gangsters of "Nameless Gangster."

Showbox

Above: The Korean gangsters of "Nameless Gangster."

The first thing that strikes you about the world being depicted is the widespread corruption. The film opens with news footage of South Korean President Roh Tae-woo declaring his war on organized crime in October of 1990. Cut to rime boss Ik-hyun (Choi Min-sik of "OldBoy") in a media frenzy of journalists as he's led to court. Then we just back to Busan, South Korea in 1982 to see how in a mere decade, a lowly civil servant could transform into a crime boss.

Ik-hyun is a corrupt customs officer who ends up getting scapegoated when it looks like the department might go down for some dirty deals. But his fate takes a sudden turn when he uncovers a stash of heroin and ends up partnering with Busan's top gangster boss Hyung-bae (Ha Jeong-woo). They get off to a shaky start but thanks to a sense of generational respect and family loyalty, the two men ultimately form a tenuous alliance. Ik-hyun becomes something of the brains of the operation and Hyung-bae and his henchmen are the brawn. They take over the crime operations of their coastal city but then get caught up in the police crackdown on crime and corruption in the 90s. That's when the film shifts it's point of view a bit so that we see the need for law and order.

Like Martin Scorsese's gangster films, "Nameless Gangster" shows the lure of money and power and how ineffectual law enforcement can be in fighting crime. Director Yoon (a mere 33) confidently conveys the violent, volatile times with brutal grit. Rising to the top isn't pretty and it isn't easy. The film benefits immensely from actors Choi Min-sik and Ha Jeong-woo. Choi has a kind of hang dog appeal. Even when he seems to be at the top, he doesn't come across like a winner. He struts around yet he's somewhat unconvincing, like a man in clothes that are too big for him. It's a great performance. Ha seems better suited to the gangster life and his performance exudes confidence and ruthlessness. If Choi's character rises to be a crime lord, Ha's seems born to it. The two men play off each other brilliantly, and in the end it proves to be a game of survival and who can turn on the other more quickly and effectively.

"Nameless Gangster" taps into the theme of corruption that seems popular at the Korean box office with films such as "The Crucible" and "Unbowed." Corruption, however, is a universally popular theme because it's something that always seems to plague us. "Nameless Gangster" has done well in Korea and has been brought over for a special release that places it in mall theaters rather than art houses. The choice makes some sense since it is a smartly made gangster film that transcends its genre trappings much in the same way as Martin Scorsese's films do. Yet American audience still seem to bristle at having to read subtitles in a movie, even if that film is wildly entertaining. The film marks Yoon's first Korean hit after a pair of critically acclaimed but financially unsuccessful films, "The Moonlight of Seoul" and "The Unforgiven."

"Nameless Gangster" (unrated and in Korean with English subtitles) serves up an epic gangster tale and delivers both satisfying genre elements but with a savvy sense of bigger issues. Yoon is definitely a director to watch, and the film just cements Choi's status as one of Korea's best actors. At the moment, the two best films in cinemas right now are both Asian: "Nameless Gangster" and "The Raid." They are taking very American genres and kicking our ass doing it.

Companion viewing: "Goodfellas," "Il Divo," "OldBoy," "The Chaser"

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