NYAFF 2012 Review: NAMELESS GANGSTER is a Refreshing & Rewarding Crime Epic
Starring one of Korea's iconic actors, Choi Min-sik (Oldboy, I Saw the Devil), Nameless Gangster is a movie about family and survival in a deceptively vicious world. Written and directed by Yun Jong-Bin, the film has been lauded by Jacob Templin from Times magazine as "the Korean mob film that Scorcese would be proud of."
Templin's statement is accurate. The world of 1980s Korea depicted in Nameless Gangster is both elegant and violent. The characters in the film are familiar, especially if you have seen anything made by Scorcese. The merciless gang leader, the relentless prosecutor, and the oblivious family members. These tropes are nothing new to the mob genre. But with a little bit of a Korean twist combined with some amazing craftsmanship, Nameless Gangster refreshes the conventions that have been made so well known by Scorcese.
The story in Nameless Gangster focuses on the relationship of two particular characters: Ik-hyun Choi (Choi Min-sik) and Hyung-bae Choi ( Ha Jung-woo). We follow the life of Ik-hyun for the most part as he evolves from a poor customs officer into a suave politician drowning in crime. Both Choi and Ha fight for attention when they are on the screen. This electric chemistry between the two works wonders on the film. Ha's Hyung-bae is a young, reluctant but ruthless gang leader who stumbled on Choi's Ik-hyun when a seemingly straightforward deal presented itself: Ik-hyun stumbles on a load of cocaine during his routine rounds at the docks. Wanting to make a quick buck, Ik-hyun without much hesitance found his way to Hyung-bae only to find out that they are actually related. The deal did not go as expected, but Ik-hyun gets a taste of the life he had always dreamed of living and Hyung-bae is there to show him the way. Hyung-bae and Ik-hyun may not always like each other, but their partnership is beneficial to the both of them. Ik-hyun's surprisingly likable. He knows how to please people and get what he wants by reaching out to prominent figures all around the city. Hyung-bae, on the other hand, provides Ik-hyun the muscle that he needs to enforce their reign on the city. The bond between the two evolves in ways that are unpredictable throughout the movie.
There is a particular scene early in the movie that sticks with me. Ik-hyun is pardoning himself from the company of a few important officials at a karaoke bar right after the cocaine deal with Hyung-bae. The situation switches from an awkward comedic moment into something that is quickly out of control. As always, Ik-hyun's loud mouth gets him into trouble. Ik-hyun goes berserk and for once shows a glimpse of the darkness inside him that draws him closer to Hyung-bae and the crime world. The entire bar goes silent after they witness the violence. Ik-hyun's extreme turn of character mirrors the volatile nature of the film. The wry humor sprinkled throughout the movie is often juxtaposed by dark, gritty moments that make you hold your breath.
The Korea in Nameless Gangster is a cruel one. At the same time, it is also a beautiful one. The film looks amazing and polished. Every shot and mood feels so amazingly precise. The film gets primal, dirty, and hard to watch sometimes but never clumsy or clunky. Nameless Gangster is elegant in its presentation, from head to toe. The film's polish really allows the focus to be on the performances, as the visuals of the movie, seemingly so effortlessly and seamlessly, paint a picture for the actors to shine.
Nameless Gangster under all the ultra-violence and grim outlook on life is a story about family. The majority of the plot falls on the shoulders of Ik-hyun as he tries to balance the life with his mob family and his "normal" family. Betrayal, business, and greed get in the way of both and Ik-hyun's life hangs in the balance when it all starts to tumble down.
I was honestly surprised by Nameless Gangster. I expected something, well, more expected from the genre. The film is not short on violent outbursts, but its heart and solid, memorable performances make Nameless Gangster something that is worthwhile.
Nameless Gangster is screening on Saturday June 30 (09:00PM) and Tuesday, July 1 (01:00PM) at Lincoln Center as part of the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival. Click here for tickets.
-- Alexander Thebez is a freelance writer and photographer who resides in New York City. Visit him at www.fearthebirds.com