Ma Dong-seok stars in Kang Yoon-sung's directorial debut, inspired by a real-life event.
Buff and lovable star Ma Dong-seok takes on his best leading role to date in the gritty crime tale The Outlaws, which adds laughs and punch to a modest story framed around Chinese-Korean hoods and local law in a low-rent Seoul neighborhood. First time director Kang Yoon-sung keeps things simple and on-track but knows when to juice up the tempo to avoid any slack in this surprisingly effective Chuseok holiday offering.
Suk-do is the husky chief of a detective squad in the Garibong neighborhood that has been tasked with taking down a local criminal network of Chinese-Korean gangsters from the Yanbian province in China, led by the sadistically violent Chen. The story is based on a real event in 2007 that took place in Garibong known as the Heuksapa Incident.
Things have been a little stale in the mainstream of Korean film in 2017 but the few films that have stood out have done so by exploring something new, or at least in a different light. Though Korean theaters are inundated with Seoul-set narratives year in and year out, a few filmmakers have of late turned their cameras to low-rent but vibrant neighborhoods that highlight the changing demographics of the country. First Jason Kim brought us on a nighttime odyssey through the Daerim neighborhood in his ace cop comedy Midnight Runners, and now debut director Kang has explored the nearby Garibong neighborhood in The Outlaws.
Besides their proximity (they're about half a mile away from each other), both neighborhoods are known for their significant foreigner populations but unlike affluent and Western-inclined hubs such as Itaewon, these areas have become hideaways for local Asian cultures that locals don't necessarily aspire to. Daerim houses Seoul's real Chinatown, as opposed to the sanitized and tourist-friendly one in Incheon, while Garibong has a long history as a low-rent neighborhood housing those on the very fringes of society. Im Sang-soo documented runaway youth culture there with his drama Tears in 2000 and while Kang doesn't display the same social bite, despite the informational titles that bookend the story, it's the unique character of the setting, as well as the affably gruff Ma in the lead, that elevates The Outlaws' conventional crime saga.
Playing the tough and perpetually peeved Suk-do, Ma is in his element in a role that fits his physique and his comic charm to a tee. Similar to his ace supporting turn in Train to Busan last year, he plays a common, no-nonsense character with a moral compass that mostly points in the right direction and who you would definitely want in your corner. Given that Ma has about six credits on the go this year, most of those as a leading man, it's impressive to see how fully he throws himself into the part, even if it's well within his comfort zone.
As his adversary, Yoon Kye-sang is less successful but remains effective throughout. In tone and character it's a similar performance to Kim Yun-seok's axe-wielding Yanbian gangster in The Yellow Sea, though it lacks Kim's dead-eyed intensity. What Yoon does bring to the role is a menacing physicality but much like his other quiet tough guy parts (such as in Poongsan) he doesn't quite have the nuance to make his villain memorable. Beyond his acting, the broad, flowing wig he wears in his intro may elicit a few sniggers but ceases to be a distraction once he gets it up into a top knot.
Hostess bars, BBQ restaurants and cop precincts may be well-worn locales for Korean thrillers, but where The Outlaws succeeds is by showing us familiar places in a different light. Korean BBQ is switched out for Northern Chinese lamb, the typical detective office becomes a makeshift container and even the karaoke salons have a different color to them. In fact, the whole film has a unique color palette that balances grim grays with a mess of muted primary colors. Understated production design gives the film a sober but engaging air while Ju Sung-lim's punchy photography places us within its contrasting tones.
Kang's greatest strength in this first outing is a cool-headed restraint that prevents the film from over-reaching. The comedy is always welcome, there's no melodrama to drags things down and he opts to end the film with nothing more than a knock-down, drag-out brawl, that closes this lively cops and gangster tale on a strong note. The Outlaws is a small film and may not add much to the gangster canon in Korea, but it's a satisfying addition to the genre.