An intriguing trend in recent years is the rise of South Korean cinema, which has produced a plethora of memorable films. Prime examples are Chan-wook Park's Vengeance Trilogy, particularly Oldboy, and Joon-ho Bong's monster movie The Host. These releases are known throughout the world and have brought more focus to the other great pictures coming out of that country. I'm sad to admit that I haven't seen too many South Korean films. When I decided to do this marathon, it was the perfect opportunity to begin rectifying this situation. I chose Ha Yu's epic A Dirty Carnival, which chronicles the rise of an ambitious gangster in a brutal environment. Released in 2006, it received four nominations for that year's Grand Bell Awards — the Korean equivalent of the Oscars.
What's this story about?
Byung-doo (In-seong Jo) is a 29-year-old gangster struggling to support his ailing mother and make his name. His boss doesn't appreciate him, so he makes a daring move to get attention. He accepts a job to kill an attorney who's threatening the powerful President Hwang (Ho-Jin Cheon). This act helps his career, but it also raises the danger for the ambitious guy. A separate threat comes from his friend Min-ho (Min-nam Koong), an aspiring filmmaker researching a gangster movie. Min-ho's use of his buddy's real stories could hit too close to home. Byung-doo also begins a relationship with his childhood sweetheart Hyun-ju (Bo-young Lee), but his violent life could push her away. Nothing's easy in this tough world, where every gain brings new challenges to maintain that power.
What are the key themes of this film?
This is your standard crime tale of the rise and fall of a determined guy who wants it all. His original goals to help his family are understandable, but that doesn't drive his behavior for too long. It's clear that Byung-doo seeks power and will hurt and kill to get it. He's not a sadistic guy but has few problems using violence when it's necessary. There's the expected moment where Hyun-ju's boss is causing problems for her, and Byung-doo steps in and pummels the weaker guy. This changes her view of the innocent boy she knew as a kid who's evolved in something much scarier. Ha Yu (A Frozen Flower) sticks with the conventional plot but finds a way to keep it engaging. This isn't easy and he doesn't completely succeed, but there's still enough to make it worthwhile. An intriguing part is the way he depicts the circular pattern within this world. Byung-doo betrays his boss to get ahead, so it's only a matter of time before one of his underlings does the same thing.
Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
The strongest part of A Dirty Carnival is the lead performance from In-seong Jo, who never strikes a false note as Byung-doo. Even when he's dealing with clichéd situations, his emotions are clear and understandable. He's a pretty reserved guy who rarely wastes words and stands apart from his bombastic counterparts. This shyness masks a violent side that can quickly arise when it's needed. The killings are brutal and come through hand-to-hand combat with knives and bats. There are no silent murders in this atmosphere. Bo-young Lee does her best as Hyun-ju, but she's mostly stuck within the predictable story line. The actors sell the connection; I just wish there had been a greater surprise in their relationship. On the other hand, Ho-Jin Cheon does excellent work as President Hwang. He's pulling the strings throughout the movie, but you can sense a weariness in his approach. He understands where Byung-doo is heading but still promises him major treasures in the future.
How extensive is the scenery chewing from the hoodlums?
Although there are over-the-top scenes, the acting remains down-to-earth for most of this story. One guy who seems to be heading in that direction is Byung-Doo's original boss, who gives him very little credit. He begins over the top but changes dramatically once his underling steps up to gain control. He meets his destiny at his sister's wedding, which is sad even if we don't like the guy. Byung-doo stresses discipline with his gang even if he doesn't always follow that same path himself. He's trying to keep everything together, but there's only so much composure you can have when all hell breaks loose.
What are some of the most memorable scenes?
Early in the story, Byung-doo receives the opportunity to manage a gaming house, but there's a catch. At the grand opening, a rival gang attacks the shop and generates chaos. That's just the beginning. His efforts to gain revenge send them right into a trap, and the result is a highlight. Scores of guys arrive with baseball bats and clash violently with the other gang. It's a remarkably destructive scene that devolves into knife fighting and just utter mayhem. If Ha Yu has a mission statement with this movie, it's definitely summarized in this sequence. The gangster world is a nasty and ugly place where gains are achieved through brute force. This fight is a metaphor for the entire profession. All these faceless guys are stepping over each other to try and gain their small piece of the pie.
How’s the direction? Is there an original vision?
While the plot follows the path of many crime films, the saving grace is Ha Yu's direction. He confidently presents this life and doesn't shy away from the realities of this world. He uses inventive framing strategies, including the frequent karaoke tunes that connect to what's happening in the story. The characters are rarely as happy as they seem when belting out the songs on stage. Another strong point is the unique approach he takes to the conventional moments. An example is a torture scene against a resistant landlord that submerges his entire body in dirt. It's a remarkable image that plays a very small role in the story, but it shows how this movie stays engaging within the typical formula.
Next week, I'll close some blind spots from the AFI 100 list, starting with Shane.