Film: "Nameless Gangster"
Review Score: 8/10
The gangster genre has never been found wanting within Korean cinema. Tales of authoritative corruption, nepotism and violence have been a common reoccurrence within modern Korean cinema, and directors have been able to continually transform the archetypal Korean gangster around these constants. From light-hearted comedies to political conspiracy thrillers, the Korean gangster film seems to be one of the mainstays of contemporary Korean cinema.
This year saw the release of Yoon Jong-bin's "Nameless Gangster" (also known as "Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time"), a gangland epic that scored big at the local box office. The film earned the interest of 4,683,598 moviegoers during its run, and has only just recently been challenged by Lee Yong-joo-I's "Architecture 101" (4,106,633 admissions) as well as Min Gyoo-dong "Everything about my Wife" (4,568,750 admissions) as the highest grossing Korean film of 2012. The film was, however, trumped by the might and magic of Marvel's "The Avengers", which shot to 7,061,050 admissions in no time at all. The film stuck around on the charts for almost two months, hovering around the top end as it proved its popularity with both audiences and critics alike.
"Nameless Gangster" follows a corrupt customs officer Choi Ik-hyeon (brilliantly brought to life by Choi Min-sik) who grabs an opportunity to cash in with one of the top gangsters in Busan. Choi Hyeong-bae (Ha Jung-woo) is his first contact with the criminal underworld operating along the coastal city of Busan. Hyeong-bae is young and well established within criminal circles, boasting control over a mob of subordinates whose loyalty never falters. During there first meeting, Ik-hyeon realizes that they of part of the same family clan, and immediately demands that he is shown the appropriate level of respect. Hyeong-bae is not forthcoming with this, but eventually Ik-hyeon is awkwardly assimilated into his operation and is soon entangled with gangland politics and his own personal sense, imagine or real, of authority within this criminal world.
The story itself is a tip of the hat to the more Scorsese-style gangster flick. Ik-Hyeon's bumpy journey through Busan's crime ring is given enough depth and constant crisis, that it would fit into any gangster flick that's worth its salt. Backstabbing, political posturing, inter-gang violence and corruption are all elegantly sutured by a strong social consciousness that marks this crime drama as Korean. The most notable of these Korean characteristics is the film's emphasis on social hierarchy and structured power relationships. There are a number of scenes (particularly between Ik-hyeon and Hyeong-bae) that encapsulate this conflict of perceived power and authority and, in true Korean style, this is where the film's comedic relief is to be found.
The world of "Nameless Gangster" is one where power has corrupted all those who seemingly yield it. Be it within supposed social authorities or criminal circles, this is a world where justice and the law are internal values that exist and are governed by elite power circles. Individuals are out for personal gain, and respect only the, seemingly unwritten, rules of self-interest and preservation. There is a very apparent lack of an objective ethical standard that emerges from the greater society the film exists within, and that makes for some interest commentary on the power dynamics at play with the film. Sometimes it comes out as comedy, while at other times it's character conflicts and violent outbreaks, but it's always there gnawing at your heels.
The film handles various social codes and norms within Korea society deftly and with great understanding of the current social consciousness. Set in the 1980s, "Nameless Gangster" encapsulates the normative believes of the time, while still reaching the modern audience member by projecting current perspectives on society onto that era. It's a twisted retrospective that questions not only this turbulent time in Korea's past, but also subtly questions current beliefs as well.
"Nameless Gangster" scores high on the entertainment scales through its inspiring acting performances, solid narrative, and intriguing social commentary. Although the film was unable to satisfactory tie everything together in the end, Ik-hyeon's journey through corrupt authorities and organizations is a rewarding one that will no doubt be flagged as another worthy-while entry into the Korean gangster genre.
- C.J Wheeler (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Available on DVD and BLu-ray from YESASIA
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