Byung-du is a 29-year-old career criminal, working for the middle-rank enforcer Sang-chul. Burdened with a terminally ill mother and taking care of younger siblings, Byung-du is feeling financial pressure as a substitute patriarch. When the big boss President Hwang is cornered by a corrupt prosecutor, Byung-du is offered to carry out a whack job to earn the big man’s trust. However, his real trouble begins when friend Min-ho, an aspiring movie director, asks him to be a consultant for the latter’s debut film.
South Korean cinema has a reputation since the start of Tartan Asia Extreme for being mercilessly violent leaving the remakes for US audiences look like a kids film by comparison. For those that have gone beyond those titles that have fuelled that perception, will have realised that not only can they make savagely violent yet thrilling films, their understanding of the gangster genre is second to none.
Socially recognised as a normal aspect of life, the gangsters are feared by many, respected by some, despised by most. In this film as the description states, we follow a gangster at the start of his career trying to establish himself further up the hierarchy. What takes place is not a life of glamour, drugs and copious amounts of money, but rather a spiralling view of various circles of this mans life all being affected on a deeply emotional and somewhat physical level by the actions he takes on a daily basis. Family life, love life, gangster life and social life are all intertwined across a 2 hour film that will leave you exhausted by the end.
Do not yet the 2 hour timeframe put you off though. As they move from job to job, interspersed with the occasional Karaoke bar, the excitement and tension levels reach tipping point across a couple of insane fight scenes. Bats, axes and knives are all used to inflict pain on the rivals, but death is not the end goal. Death is saved for more intimate, subdued moments – there is no glorification here.
One of the unique aspects of this film, is that the story within the film itself is being recreated by Kim Byung-du’s friend, an aspiring film director. A surreal parallel storyline emerges where for instance, the fight scenes are addressed and in the film dismissed as too unrealistic. A subtle nod to the effort the actual film has made to make their own fight scenes realistic, among many other aspects they included. No doubt plenty of research into gangster culture went into making this film, and while realism is often associated with being ‘boring’ or ‘dull’ by many, this film is far from it.
For any avid lover of the gangster genre, this film is essential viewing. If you are looking for a film to take yourself away from the recognised Korean classics and branch out, then this is a great place to start. It is superbly acted, beautifully shot, characteristically brutal and although difficult to follow at first, the multiple story arcs associated with the central character make a nice departure from the linear, simplistic gangster flicks you encounter all too often.