Part of MKC's coverage of the 17th Busan International Film Festival.
The gangster film, a genre that has found its way into just about every national film industry on the planet, is no stranger to Korean cinema. While the country has produced its fair share of compelling gangland sagas, stretching from the 1997 trio of Beat, No . 3, and Green Fish to more glossy and baroque undertakings such as A Dirty Carnival (2006) and this year’s Nameless Gangster, some of the most memorable films have been those that have been filtered through the prism of Korea’s filmmaking mainstay, the melodrama. Romance and gangsters have been combined to great effect in films such as Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life (2005) but some of the most surprising examples have featured criminals at the bottom end of the pecking order.
Song Sae-heun’s Failan (2001) featured Choi Min-sik as a hapless thug who develops feelings for his shame immigrant wife (Cecilia Chung) following her death. The film did away with the gloss and style we often associate with gangster films and instead focused on a bizarre relationship which in many ways acted as a path of redemption for Choi’s character. Similarly, Yang Ik-june’s Breathless (2009) followed a gruff and violent money collector in a rundown neighborhood who develops an odd friendship with a high school girl (played by Kim Kkottbi) that could become his salvation.
Song’s assistant director on Failan, Lee Duck-hee, presented his debut at this year’s Busan film festival. Tumbleweed is closely aligned with films like Failan and Breathless in its intent and themes but sadly its execution fails to capture the originality and poignancy of these prior works.
Chang-su has just been released from prison, a habitual occurrence as he makes his living by doing short stints in the pen for other people. One evening, after a few drinks he stumbles on a couple fighting. The man slaps the woman and when Chang-su steps up to defend her honor he ends up curled up in a ball on the street. Following a late-night dinner, the woman ends up staying with him and an odd relationship quickly forms between them. Over-the-moon Chang-su looks forward to a bright future but before their journey can even begin he comes home to find her dead in his room. Now he finds himself on the run from the police and the gang boss who was her lover.
Lee’s film sets up an interesting premise and takes great pains to develop the relationship between Chang-su and the gorgeous woman who finds her way into his life but undermines these efforts when it all turns out to be a MacGuffin. However, unlike the best examples of this sort of plot device, which present an initial plotline or character before steering into a completely different path, Tumbleweed instead regresses into a slew of standard gangster and revenge tropes.
Lim Chang-jung has had an interesting year. Known for his roles in romantic comedies, often as a hapless romantic such as in Sex is Zero (2002) and Shotgun Love (2010), in 2012 he has undertaken much darker roles such as in the taught and morbid thriller Traffickers and now Tumbleweed. However, his role here, at least in the opening act, is once again as a diffident and naïve romantic. Scenes that depict his falling in love, replete with loud, cloying soundtrack and strobe effects, stand in stark opposition to the generally gloomy and gritty atmosphere. It’s a shame because Lim’s performance is very strong in some scenes while others like these seem to belong to another film.
Complete with a few unconvincing set pieces and its inevitable revenge denouement, Tumbleweed fails to deliver on the faint promise of its opening. A frustrating and ultimately disappointing work, Lee's lacklustre debut seems content to go through the motions.
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