Monday, April 22, 2013

UDINE 2013: An Ambitious Korean Gangster Film: New World (신세계, 2013)

Part of MKC's coverage of the 15th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Ever since I discovered Korean cinema, I’ve been a fan of the industry’s frequent experimentations with genre. Almost every film that comes out of the country seems to be an amalgamation of different tropes but there is one genre that has remained for the most part untouched: the gangster film. When Korean filmmakers decide to make a gangster film, they tend to leave experimentation aside and instead look to emulate some of world cinema’s most beloved criminal narratives.

Ja-sung has been undercover for eight years and in that time he’s risen to become the right-hand man of Cheong, the number three of Goldmoon, Korea’s largest crime syndicate. Following the sudden death of the organization’s chairman, a battle for succession erupts. Ja-sung’s handler, Captain Kang, is hoping to influence the election outcome and forces a reluctant and increasingly conflicted Ja-sung to continue his assignment a little longer.

At first glance, Park Hoon-jeong’s New World seems to be a retread of Infernal Affairs (2002) for its tale of undercover agents with wavering loyalties, but really this latest Korean gangland saga has much more in common with the more sprawling, densely populated sagas such as the Godfather series and the Election films. What all these films have in common is that they deal with succession and feature multiple characters in warring factions, thus examining the structure of crime organizations rather than their principal characters.

New World does give us a primary protagonist in Ja-sung, but he’s also just a straight man, a window for us to explore a landscape filled with far more colorful characters. As the mole, Lee Jeong-jae is competent if unremarkable. Save for his fun, mustachioed turn as Popeye in last year’s hit The Thieves, I’ve always found him to be a little gormless and this new turn does little to change my long-standing opinion of him.

Chief among the supporting characters are the ever-reliable performers Choi Min-sik and Hwang Jeong-min. As Kang, Choi is thoroughly grizzled and world-weary. Sadly, the character is one that we’ve grown accustomed to and while seasoned performer Choi lends suitable gravitas to the part, there’s nothing new here to differentiate from what we’ve seen before. The best of the bunch is Hwang as a colorful and thoroughly unhinged gang boss. It’s the showiest performance and he’s definitely relishing every moment of it. Though I couldn’t catch all the Korean subtleties of his dialogue, his odd accent and loose body language help make his role the most engaging in the narrative.

While the film starts off with a bang and has some fun introducing all of its characters, it quickly settles into a lot of dialogue-based scenes that precede the inevitable fireworks of the contentious battle for succession. Things take a turn for the better after the hour mark once the script dishes out the kind of set pieces we expect. From here on out it doesn’t rewrite the textbook, but it pursues its goal with style and aplomb. We may not care a great deal for the characters on screen but this doesn’t prevent us from getting sucked into the palpable tension of the narrative’s latter stages.

As a gangster film this fares better than last year’s Nameless Gangster but fails to reach the heights set by Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life (2005) and Yu Ha’s A Dirty Carnival (2006). Somber and dense, Park’s film owes a lot to Johnnie To’s Election and its sequel. Just like in those, we are kept at a remove from the gang’s many cogs. We are afforded a surface view of the proceedings but we never really get into the nitty gritty of it all, instead cutting away to Ja-sung’s slow burning moral dilemma. This decision makes sense as it objectively exposes the cold and brutal nature of the organization but it also slows down the plotting and traps us in a series of uninspiring one on one meetings between mole and handler. However, it’s worth it for the electrifying set pieces that all the jockeying eventually leads us to.

Director Park Hoon-jeong is best known for writing the hyper-kinetic scripts for Ryoo Seung-wan’s The Unjust and Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil. He also previously directed the period chamber piece The Showdown, an interesting experiment but ultimately a failed one. Here he has drawn on his clear passion for the gangster genre (he claims to have seen The Godfather over 100 times) to weave together his many narrative strands into a few excellent parallel-edited sequences, much like the famed climaxes of both The Godfather Part I and II.

Well-designed and imaginatively lit, New World is an assured exercise in style that will impress many while leaving some others cold. A likely sequel will afford Park an opportunity to tighten up some of the narrative sag, and inject a little more originality and passion, but on the whole this is a thoroughly engaging affair that comfortably takes its place alongside Korean cinema’s many great gangster films. I may have highlighted a lot of negatives but this is a very impressive sophomore work from an increasingly important filmmaker.

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