Violence is not something that I fancy. I can live with it (only on TV and films), but it’s certainly not something that I’d like to see on my screen over and over again repetitively. I’d once pondered to myself (and somewhat lamented) on the over-use of violence and aggression in Korean dramas and films, why do the characters always have to go all out, fight with their mightiest, throw their most brutal of punches, and flaunt such insolence at others?! Even an ajumma hitting on her son’s head gives me shrills, let alone onslaughts of brutality and aggression. The emphasis on such has become a commonplace in Korean TV and films, that it’s gradually become an inevitable stamp of cool-ness and grit. We’re appalled by the ramifications it renders, but we’re somehow intrigued by it, in one way or another. I suppose it’s the attraction to dangerous pleasure and adventure that we’re susceptible to, in wanting to have a taste of the thrill of pushing boundaries and living on the edge. Sometimes we just want to be free, and to be rebellious for reals, for once.And what better way than to experience that sort of thrill through the small box and the big screen?
Nameless Gangster is as good as a film depicting violence and aggression, but with a little bit more of something else. It’s an exploration of deeper values entrenching the triad system – loyalty and betrayal, as well as a study and insight into the volatile 8os in Busan which was troubled by war against crime and brutality. With fabulous performances by both the great Choi Min Sik and wonderful Ha Jung Woo, this film is guaranteed to leave you with a gritty impression of Busan in the 1980s, and is assured to entertain you with an impressive tale of 2 gangster heads battling their wits against the long arms of the law and ultimately, against each other (sad sad sobs sobs).
The film focuses substantially on the ups and downs of a man Choi Ik Hyun (Choi Min Sik), a corrupted civil servant who stumbles upon a chance to yield big bucks with mob boss Choi Hyung Bae (Ha Jung Woo). Upon discovery of their unique relation by blood, they forge an interesting friendship and alliance together, and subsequently rise up the crime ladder to become one of the most feared in their coastal area. Time passes when the nation begins its fight against crime and brutality, rendering Ik Hyun and Hyung Bae in a sudden bout of struggle to survive and hold on to their world. The time also comes when their loyalties and friendship are put to the test.
What’s interesting about Nameless Gangster is that it doesn’t attempt to tell you a story in a grandiose or garish fashion. The approach is more often than not simplistic and predictable. It never tries to shove in our throats a glossy or grand tale, but touches more on the humanistic and gritty parts of the world that is so out of reach for us. Director Yoon Jung Bin masterfully creates a believable world, and leads us into the realistic build-up of a violent community. It is without doubt a difficult task, but the young director charges forward fearlessly, and successfully makes use of effective settings and backgrounds to show us how grit and brute such a world can be. Director Yoon also never circumvents, never sacrifices style over substance (as most action films do nowadays) and manages to maintain a level of realism and thrill in the telling of 2 powerful gangster-heads. The use of violence is overt thruout the film, but weirdly, I came away feeling moved instead, by the depiction of 2 individuals thriving to live their ways in the world of no return.
As ordinary or hackneyed as the story may sound, the film itself doesn’t bore in any way. It’s actually quite the contrary, filled with a good mix of thrill and wit. The characters are presented to us in caricatures of sorts, but they are never listless or vapid. In particular, we have a glaring contrast of Ik Hyun and Hyung Bae’s way of working their ways up the crime ladder despite their common goal of earning big bucks and gaining power and control. Hyung Bae relies on force and physical violence while Ik Hyun worms his ways thru holes, nooks and corners, by connections, relations and whatnot. It’s kinda funny as I’d envisaged Ha Jung Woo playing the more braniac kind of guy rather than Choi Min Sik (IMO he has more of the big boss/mob kinda look). But it turns out that they’re equally winning in their roles, nobody overshadows the other in any way, and they both rawk effortlessly in the chemistry department.
Although the story never appears deep or nuanced, it does give viewers something different i.e. an intrinsic look into the moralistic and ethical sides of both worlds – crime vs. government. The touches are brief and superficial, but thru the film we’re able to feel a sense of irony seeing the uncanny bearing similarities of the prosecution/government to the triad. In essence, such corrupted values are plagues which can be found in any community, no manner how sacred or high up the constitution. On the surface the film zeros in on the fight against crime, and yet to me, it also feels more like a jab at the authorities amassed to fight crime.
But of all, it’s Ik Hyun’s gritty survival in the triad and his mounting tension with Hyung Bae which render the film entertaining than usual. We’re never forced to like Ik Hyun in the film, but we want to know what his actions will entail. As the film progresses, we find Hyung Bae relegating to the backside, to become more a shadow of Ik Hyun’s actions and decisions. This is also when viewers will begin to feel the growing disparity and rift in the partnership which has been working well so far. Elements of greed and thirst for power come into play, coupled with the selfish thought of wanting to protect oneself. It’s almost always an inherent element in any triad/gangster related film, and is similarly touched upon in here. It isn’t original, but the film doesn’t try to be in any case. It’s just a mere presentation of how reality comes into play, in any community (as said earlier).
What would be a great movie without its core performers? With such a stellar cast, I never expected this to be something lesser than good. And it certainly didn’t disappoint, in fact I walked away with a great sense of satisfaction and joy. Here Choi Min Sik nails his underdog character effortlessly, with such an unassuming and seamless performance you’d walk away sympathizing with his not so likeable character. He never tries to overshadow HJW, nor does he give anything less than a convicted performance. Ik Hyun isn’t born into that world, so he does come off as a tad clumsy and unnoticed at first. People laugh at his gaffes, and he takes them in stride. We get a glimpse of a very earthy and sorta down-to-earth portrayal of a gangster wannabe transitioning into a manipulative and thirst-hungry person of higher power. You won’t be disappointed.
Ha Jung Woo on the other hand, one word, AMAZING. I’m saying this, most probably out of bias. But I assure you nobody will walk out of this film and not be charmed by HJW’s performance as Hyung Bae. The way he carries Hyung Bae charisma and confidence, he makes walking, smoking and hitting look damn sexy and alluring, no kidding. It’s a performance filled with immense aplomb and unperturbed confidence. There are also moments of vulnerability he displays out of fear and insecurity of being caught or overshadowed by Ik Hyun which loom about in the film, you seriously cannot hate him at all. I’d go as far to say that his character actually intrigued me slightly more than Ik Hyun’s. It’s a play and battle of wits between 2 individuals, and a damn entertaining one.
The supporting characters are also wonderfully acted, by names familiar to some (Jo Jin Woong, Kim Sung Gyun, Ma Dong Seok..etc). The downside is that these supporting characters never get a chance to shine or have their own story, no matter how brilliantly acted. But it’s much appreciated that they do add some parts humor and thrill to Ik Hyun and Hyung Bae’s battle against each other. They may not have their own story, but their importance in the film is undeniably indispensable.
Director Yoon Jung Bin (who also wrote the screenplay for the film) though young, is more than anyone, the one to be credited for the success of the film (box office and general reception). His down to earth approach in his films will bring him to places, and with his good eye on actors capable of conveying what he wants, it is not difficult to foresee a great future ahead of him as a commercial/mainstream film director.
Nameless Gangster, in short, is an entertainingly crafted film for film buffs and audiences craving for thrill and action. It is deftly executed, paced and acted, without an ounce of exaggeration or far-fetched reality. There isn’t a moment larger than life, and yet it is never too dull or insipid. The music score is awesome and blends in well within the era of which the film is set in. All in all, it’s one of the best gangster film in Korean cinema ever since Dirty Carnival? A truly thrilling experience, I assure you.
Have an Eng-subbed Trailer:
credits: photo as tagged/ CJEntertainmentUSA