Friday, June 29, 2012

NYAFF 2012: Nameless Gangster (범죄와의 전쟁, Bumchoiwaui Junjaeng) 2012

Part of MKC's coverage of the 11th New York Asian Film Festival.

Korean cinema is filled to the brim with genre offerings and one of its most successful areas is with the gangster film.  These are called ‘jopok’ films, which is a Korean word for gangster and we did a whole series on the genre here on MKC not so long ago called ‘Jopok Week’.  Clearly I’m a big fan of gangster films and like many others I grew up on the likes of the Godfathers (Part II is my favorite if anyone cares to know) and Goodfellas (1990) but it didn’t take me too long to get turned onto more far-flung examples of the genre, ranging from Brazil’s City of God (2002), Italy’s The Conformist (1970), France’s Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob le Flambeur, 1956; Le Samourai, 1967) and Japan’s Kinji Fukasaku (Battles Without Honor and Humanity, 1973-76).

It took me a little longer to seek out Korean cinema but once I did I quickly found myself watching these jopok films.  Ranging from visual and epic tales such as Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life (2005) and Yu Ha’s A Dirty Carnival (2006) to the more arthouse offerings of Yang Ik-joon’s Breathless (2008) and the many gangster comedies including Kim sang-jin’s Kick the Moon (2001). Naturally when I heard about Nameless Gangster I became very excited. While I was not previously familiar with Yun Jong-bil’s work I’m a big fan of actors Choi Min-sik (Oldboy, 2003; I Saw the Devil, 2010) and Ha Jung-woo (The Chaser, 2008; The Yellow Sea, 2010). Following the release of atmospheric promotional stills, posters and trailers promising an old school, smokey period gangster pic, I was sold.

I’m thrilled to say that the film does not disappoint. However, I think it is far more interesting as an examination of Confucianism, culture, authority, family and ritual in Korea than it is as a gangster film. On the latter point, it is a standard rise and fall narrative and doesn’t offer too many surprises, especially as it segues into its predictable third act.

Choi Ik-hyun (Choi Min-sik) is a boozy and corrupt civil servant who lacks in charisma but is so deeply in tune with the culture of family and respect in Korea that he spectacularly ascends to the upper echelons of the gangster scene after connecting with the ruthless, stoic and suave Choi Hyung-bae (Ha Jung-woo). He wields his little black book of contacts like a weapon but many do not see or respect him as a true gangster.

In a sense Nameless Gangster reminded me of A Prophet (2009), the exceptional French film from Jacques Audriard about a young North African who, while incarcerated, becomes the head of a gang.  The similarity is just how unlikely but also how ironic their rises are. The young protagonist in A Prophet becomes a criminal while in prison while Ik-hyun scales the underworld ladder by strictly conforming to the rules of authority and society in Korea circa the 1980s. In early scenes where he meets Hyung-bae, he is an off-putting and drunken sight and it is not immediately clear why this ganglord decides to keep him at his side.

The reason comes down to the simple fact that he is extremely well-versed in etiquette. Another irony is that this means that a loutish, off-putting, and frankly spineless character such as Ik-hyun is actually perceived to have impeccable manners. He brings gifts, slides effortlessly between the numerous different registers of the Korean language, his body language morphs to suit each situation and he intimately understands the ins and outs of networking, especially as he cultivates far-flung branches of his family tree for powerful contacts.

Ik-hyun is a complicated character, his emotional range and broad array of temperaments must have been difficult to convey but Choi, in arguably one of his most impressive performances, completely inhabits him. I marveled at what he accomplished in Nameless Gangster and I think it is fair to say that with any other actor, this film might have completely crumbled, it would have become simply a gangster story and as those go, this is nothing remarkable.

Beyond the surprisingly in-depth look at Korean culture and society, there is also plenty of evidence of social commentary as the film hints at the nation’s rocky transition to democracy. As the old regime fell away following lengthy periods of student demonstrations, the habits of ages past began to die away too. And though director Yun does glorify the gangster lifestyle to some extent, things are so murky and bleak that I can’t imagine he is lamenting the loss of these severely outdated customs.

The second element that makes Nameless Gangster such a joy to watch is the impeccable period detail and the extraordinary mise-en-scene. It is simply beautifully, rich and full of character. The suits, restaurants, cars and backrooms all seem cramped and warm and it felt just like stepping into history, albeit a mite flashier than it likely was.

As gangster films go, Nameless Gangster is one of the most richly evocative of recent memory and features a powerhouse performance from Choi Min-sik and another extremely charismatic turn from Ha Jung-woo, who I think is quickly becoming Korea's answer to Paul Newman. The end of the film does begin to drag somewhat as the outcome is inevitable and takes a little time to unfold but even then it is still a thrill to revisit familiar tropes within the film’s magnificent production values. One of the year’s best films, Nameless Gangster looks to be a Korean film that will stand the test of time.


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