Review: GANGNAM BLUES, A Gorgeously Overwrought Gangster Classic In The Making
Yoo Ha returns to gangster cinema and knocks it right out of the park with his latest, an evocative and immensely entertaining saga that pits a common tale of brotherhood and betrayal against a thrilling period setting mired in violence and corruption. Nine years after A Dirty Carnival, Yoo has maintained his knack for combining genre filmmaking and subtle symbolism, while also elevating his craft to encompass the full range of Korean cinema's technical knowhow in Gangnam Blues.
In the 1970s, after growing up together in an orphanage, Jong-dae (Lee Min-ho) and Yong-gi (Kim Rae-won) try to get by selling scraps and trash. Unable to afford a home with heating, they accept a quick job from a gang for a bigger payday, but as they join a group of brutes breaking up a political demonstration they are separated. Three years later, they are working for different gangs, both of which come to be embroiled in land buying deals in farmland south of the Han River, which, through the shady collusions of government and thugs in suits, would become today's world-famous Gangnam district.
The last two major Korean gangster films, Yoon Jong-bin's Nameless Gangster (2012) and Park Hoon-jun's New World (2013), were both effective and polished works that scored big with critics and audiences alike. But, while Gangnam Blues borrows the period setting of the former and the broader crime syndicate overview of the latter, it trumps them both by presenting a tale with an epic sweep. Particularly strong is the mise-en-scene, as Yoo's film is simply one of the most beautifully designed and lushly filmed Korean productions ever made. Crafting an immersive mood through meticulous period detail, stunning cinematography and a terrific 70s soundtrack, Gangnam Blues presents a world that we are only too eager to get sucked into, and even at 135 minutes, one we're never quite ready to leave.
The film may be too stylized to be called authentic, but the 70s were a very dark time in Korea and accurately cinematizing the period might not have done the film any favors, particularly from a financial standpoint. Yet the overwrought aesthetic never takes away from the historical setting, a fact that was not lost on me as I stepped out of the theater, in the renovated COEX Mall at the heart of Gangnam. It's difficult to imagine the district's expanse of identical residential blocks and rigid, wide boulevards was all farmland just four short decades ago. The systemic greed and bloodshed which the city was built on forms the sombre core that drives the film, as it boulders ahead at the clip of a 70s Fukasaku yakuza flick.
Leading the cast in his first leading feature role is Lee Min-ho, a Korean drama star with an enormous global fan base. Lithe and fresh-faced he may be, but Lee is thoroughly convincing as a rising gangster with a cool exterior and emotional core. The role is not unlike Jo In-sung's turn in A Dirty Carnival but Lee takes it as his own, making his presence felt in every scene he appears in and every blow he deals. As the other friend, Kim Rae-won offers a little less depth but his gruff and amoral hoodlum is nonetheless his best work since 2006's Sunflower, in which he also played a gangster.
Korea has a very talented pool of popular supporting players, but many of them crop up so often that their roles and the films they appear in have begun to blur with one another. For Gangnam Blues, Yoo made the wise decision of largely avoiding familiar faces, which sets it apart from the bulk of mainstream fare, yet the casting is still uniformly strong. Jung Ji-young, who recently appeared in Ode to My Father, is probably most recognizable as Jong-bae's gang boss/father figure, but beyond him the refreshing lack of well-known players allows us to sink deeper into the narrative.
Akin to a modern day incarnation of Howard Hawks, Yoo has deftly navigated different genres with each new project, impressing time and again with his keen sense for story and characters, but what has really set him apart from his contemporaries is the inherent artistry of his works. Yoo, who is also a poet, carefully threads symbolism into the vast tapestry of Gangnam Blues' often violent and chaotic universe. Even with so much already cramming the screen and stimulating the senses, subsequent viewings will undoubtedly unearth an even richer film.
As engrossing a thriller as we're likely to see this year, Gangnam Blues benefits from its bold ambitions and broad canvas. Grand and electric entertainment from start to finish, it wouldn't be a stretch to call it the best Korean gangster film this side of Yoo's previous foray in the genre.