Though not as slick as later works like Shiri (1999) and Joint Security Area (2000), No. 3 was a presage of things to come in Korean cinema. A vibrant film made by young people, reveling in anarchy, chaos, poetry, and philosophy. More than the other successful gangster films of 1997, No. 3 ended up being a significant breeding ground for future stars of Korean cinema. Ask any western cinephile what Korean film stars they know and the most likely answers you’ll get are Choi Min-sik and Song Kang-ho. Choi, as one would expect, is quite excellent but the stand-out has to be Song. While he featured in Hong Sang-soo’s debut The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well the year before, it was in No. 3 that he made a name for himself.
Rather than focussing on plot, No. 3 is more of a character piece involving gangster Tae-ju (Han Suk-kyu), his aspiring poet girlfriend Hyun-ji (Lee Mi-yeon), an aggressive prosecutor (Choi Min-sik), and a very strange hitman (Song Kang-ho). Through a series of set pieces and discussions between characters, the film covers a huge amount of ground. It is self-reflexive in its use of black humor, underscoring the absurdity of modern Korean society. Much has been written and said about No 3 but I would like to draw on a coupe of points.
More than any Korean film that came before it, No 3 employs a myriad of stylistic tricks such as: Colors; chiaroscuro lighting; composition; monochrome; music; fastforwarding; point-of-view; slow motion; freeze frame; strobe; and breaking the fourth wall (like staring into camera). That last point in particular showcases how self-reflexive the film can be and braeaks up the narrative for the purpose of enticing the viewer to read the film differently. The film is also entrenched is Western literature, citing authors like Virginia Wolf and even having a wispy, diminutive characters named Rimbaud, after the famed romantic French poet. As Korea has changed throughout the 1990s, it has embraced new ideas and progressive Western thought.
One of the more interesting relationships in the film is the one between Tae-ju, the titular gangster No. 3, and Dong-pal, the aggressive, foul-mouthed public prosecutor. They engage in a couple of discussions which explore the nature of their conflicting lifestyles. In one, Choi criticizes people who judge a crime’s act rather than it’s perpetrator, a significant question in moral philosophy. Regarding a crime, do we evaluate it in terms of the act, the perpetrator, or the consequence, as the utilitarians do? I dare not get into any deep discussion on this subject, lest I expose myself as clueless charlatan but I am fascinated by this distinction.
On the surface it seems pretty simple as we tend to judge crimes on the act themselves, but it’s easy to consider a few variations which expose the weakness of such a proposition. Conspiracy to murder is an offence that carries a heavy sentence and does not necessarily feature any act at all if it doesn’t come to fruition. In such a case, we judge a defendant on intent and the potential grievous harm that would have been inflicted. Looking at the other side of the coin, it is also possible to judge an act on its consequence rather than the thought and action that led to it. Utilitarian philosophy, chiefly a product of John Stuart Mill’s mind, and in large part responsible for today’s judiciary system, concerns itself with the aftermath of an act. How much good came out of it versus bad? The deliberation as to the balance of the consequence judges the severity of the crime or the benevolence of the good deed. The most famously cited example for this is the dropping of the hydrogen bomb on Hiroshima during WWII. Over 100,000 people died, the act it is responsible for the largest toll of human suffering in any single act. However, the argument stands that countless more people were saved because of it. Therefore judging on the consequence of the act, the bombing was just.
Dong-pal in No. 3 is part of the legal system that means that he should be principally concerned with crimes but he seems to go beyond his mandate by harassing criminals whose intentions are to commit crimes. Normally this role is occupied by detectives which his character, with his moral philosophy, violent physicality, and foul language would seem to be a better fit for. Late in the film Dong-pal shares a drink with Tae-su’s girlfriend Hyun-ji, who says “What I hate is not a sinner, but a sin itself.” This is in direct opposition to Dong-pal’s philosophy but she asks him to help Tae-su and look on him as a younger brother. Instead of vilifying the sinner, is it possible to reform him. Essentially I think the point is to what extent is society to blame and can a figure of authority like Dong-pal prevent crimes by reforming the perpetrator and therefore removing the bad intentions? Perhaps I’m reaching a little far with this but since the fall of the autocratic Chung Doo-hwan administration in the late 1980s, the role of authority in Korean society has changed an enormous amount.
More than just about any other Korean gangster film, No. 3 features a very strong and well fleshed-out female character in Hyun-ju. The boss’ wife, while less clearly drawn, acts as a classic femme fatale who, as a result of her domineering affair with Rimbaud, plays a part in setting off the irreverent and chaotic climax, one of the greatest sequences in 90s Korean film.
While later Korean gangster comedies would frequently lampoon hoodlums, cutting them down in size, No. 3 does so in a more interesting fashion. Tae-ju briefly becomes No. 2 in his gang after displaying his loyalty and wit but he is demoted after being stabbed and Ashtray takes his place. Ashtray is a big lump of a character who brutally beats people with his namesake, which he stores down his pants, and does little else. The violence is shocking and far from glorified and demonstrates how unseemly this facet of Korean society can be. Darcy Paquet’s piece, posted earlier today for Jopok Week, on ‘The Rise and Fall of the Korean Gangster Comedy’, explores what went wrong with later gangster comedies after this promising start.
No. 3 features a number of wonderful scenes, including a great playground fight between Han Suk-kyu and Choi Min-sik, and just about every scene with Song Kang-ho who is hilarious and delightfully strange. There’s much more to be said about this film than what I have explored but I will wrap up my discussion here. I look forward to revisiting director and writer Song Neun-han's minor Korean gangster masterpiece in the near future.
Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update, Korean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).
To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.