'Hotel M' marks last draw for gangster genre

Gangsters have been portrayed by Korean filmmakers for decades. One of the latest developments is the frothy expansion of gangster comedies, forging a stand-alone genre in Korea's mainstream cinema that continues to inspire producers and yet leave a growing number of moviegoers dissatisfied.

"Hotel M: Gangster's Last Draw", to be released nationwide Feb. 23, adds a new variation to the already hackneyed genre: portraying mobsters threatened by, well, pink slips from their corporate-minded bosses.

The premise is that in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, Korean gangsters have few other options but to adapt to the relentless juggernaut of capitalism. To survive in this tough winner-takes-all business environment, even rival mobster groups should join forces through a corporate-style merger, and push for no-nonsense restructuring plans.

All of this means a significant reorganization at the merged mobster group, putting many underlings and mid-level managers out of jobs. Top bosses, of course, stress the need to eliminate overlapping positions to maximize gangsterly profits.

One of the victims is Dae-hang (Kim Suk-hoon), who used to be No. 2 man of the Musang gangster group. Following a fast-paced merger with another gangster group, he suddenly finds himself plunging into a dismal state of joblessness.

To get back his job, he has to complete a mission of forcing the owner of a regional hotel to pay a large sum of cash, and first-time director Choi Seong-cheol spends most of the running time describing Dae-hang's travails at the old-fashioned hotel that is named "Ma Gang" (originally "Baek Ma Gang", but the first letter is missing due to poor maintenance).

Dae-hang and his three underlings drive to Ma Gang Hotel which is run by an innocent-looking female Hotelier named Min-a (Kim Sung-eun). Dae-hang and Co. attempt the play-by-the-gangster-book "scare tactics" to get the money back from the hotel owner.

It's no easy task largely because Min-a doesn't have any extra money to pay back her debt, and, alas, hotel business is not going smoothly either.

Dae-hang's serendipitous choice of action is to help out the hotel to get its dormant business back on track, hoping that once the hotel generates profits again, she will pay back her debt immediately.

Much of the supposedly slapstick acts - the very selling point of this gangster comedy - involve the tug of war between desperate gangsters and defensive hotel staff. Plus, two romantic relationships are thrown into the comedy in an apparent effort to spice up the unbearable lightness of the film, despite some beefy sidekicks kicking their feet all over the hotel.

A comic situation like this depends on casting to elevate it from a mediocre sitcom, but "Hotel M" does not have any impressive characters to bring richness to the humdrum plot.

Kim Suk-hoon's gangster character is too predictable. Whatever tactical or romantic move he makes, it's so obvious that moviegoers may quickly learn to ignore Kim's next trick. Even with a fake scar on his face, Kim lacks the charisma needed to bolster the shaky drama.

Kim Sung-eun's Min-a is equally, if not more, problematic. She does not reveal any unexpected, hidden sides whatsoever, making her relationships with the gangster overly simplistic even for teenage viewers.

The movie's roots appear to be in screwball comedy, given that all the supporting actors go overboard at any given chance to generate some comic twists. But rarely, if ever, does it approach the comic level it yearns for.

"Hotel M" is promoted as a "human comedy" involving a handful of mobsters battling a harsh corporate restructuring. But its poorly written script and overwrought (yet hardly funny) slapstick acts may force some viewers to hope it's the "last draw" for the bloated gangster genre that needs serious restructuring.

By Yang Sung-jin