Miss Jiwaku and I have lately seen two movies worth the price of admission: one that is #1 in Korea (범죄와의 전쟁 / Nameless Gangster — yeah, the English title is really unfortunate), and one that I’m pretty sure won’t be playing here for long: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
I won’t say much about the latter beyond the observation that I learned something watching it: there’s no point in trying to watch an actually good, actually challenging movie in a CGV cinema. While I’ve gotten used to the audiences at anyplace except Cinematheque behaving like idiots, I hadn’t yet tried to watch an actually challenging film with such an audience: Miss Jiwaku and I had to move, just in order to follow the plot. I wish parents would teach their children to chew the popcorn and squid and McDonald’s burgers with their mouths closed. Well, or actually, to eat their damned McDonald’s before the film starts.
But perhaps I should say something about the film itself: I was shocked at how good it was. I never got into John Le Carré, though my father was a fan and probably read the book on which this film was based. The movie brought to mind the afterword in Charles Stross’s espionage/Lovecraft mashup The Atrocity Archives, where he notes just how Lovecraftian the whole secret service/Cold War scenario really is; I get that now more viscerally than when I first read it; at that time, it registered only on an intellectual level.
But as for Nameless Gangster, I know, I know: Korean gangster movies are usually just awful, in my experience… but this one really, actually isn’t. It had a good director, and it has a feel reminiscent of other major mafia films, except for one thing: the guy whose ascent to the heights of Korean gangster power is just some disgruntled crooked cop who loses his job when it becomes necessary for someone to be laid off… but who uses his crooked connections to make a lateral move into organized crime. He’s not cool, not sexy: he’s kind of old, kind of fat, a little ugly-looking (especially to us, especially with that 80s hairstyle — the actor normally isn’t ugly, in my opinion), and sort of a pissant bigmouth prick… and somehow, the lead actor Choi Min-Sik makes him sympathetic all the same. How and why the character is so sympathetic isn’t something I can explain, except maybe because he’s inventive, clever (though not intelligent), and has the capacity to adapt to his situation. Well, sort of… the play between adaptability and ego is interesting, and human foibles being what they are, well…
The film is set in Busan, and the attention to detail is pretty much impeccable — I feel like I have a much better idea of what the 80s looked like in Korea (and, as I’ve heard and sensed, it looks kinda like what the 70s looked like in North America). You can just about smell the cologne, and feel the cheap synthetic fabrics on your skin. But it’s also a smart film, and one of the things this smart film is saying is that organized crime didn’t get the way it is in Korea just by chance, or happenstance: the crackdowns we’ve seen in the 90s and the 00s punctuate a much longer and more troubling period of deep laxity. After all, the connections between organized crime and politics here are something you don’t need to dig very deep to find. (Relationships also still exist between organized crime and business, too, with a few incidents in recent years coming to mind, but I’ll only elaborate if commenters ask, except to point you at this interesting paper, which touches on some of the interesting points — including the internationalization of Korean organized crime, with ties between Korean mafia and the Japanese yakuza being an interesting point in the film.)
But politics and all, it’s also a very effective gangster movie. The brutality in it follows the inexorable logic of primate social life, just as does The Sopranos and The Godfather and Scarface and pretty much every other mafia narrative I know: someone has to be on the top, and to get there (and stay there) will take a lot of blood and the kicking of a lot of ass. The top is a precarious position, but it’s not as precarious as the position of someone who is disliked, resented, or distrusted. And everyone, sooner or later, is distrusted. But it pays not to be an annoying, loudmouth prick. I won’t spoil the ending except to say that the director is obviously aware of recent gangster narratives and, I’d say, the ending feels like a wink at least one, or maybe more. Betrayal and loyalty, possibly the two prime social concerns for human beings, are the two great pillars of this film.
Here’s a trailer:
As a side note: talking about this movie with a cameraman friend of ours, Miss Jiwaku told me how he observed that so many films these days are actually consciously political — like the way this movie links organized crime to governmental corruption — and how this is resulting in audiences that are more interested in films about issues. (In the last year, there have been a few others like this; one that comes immediately to mind is 도가니 (Silenced), about the sexual abuse of handicapped [elementary school aged!] kids in a special needs school by their teachers, and the inexcusable impunity enjoyed by those teachers who did the abusing. Because, yeah, it’s based on a true story.)
What’s interesting about this is that, in the wake of the so-called “Korean wave” there was a boom in film investment, and Korean investors did the usual thing people do when investing in stuff they don’t understand or care about: they threw money like they were hurling pounds of spaghetti at a wall, and hoping something would stick. This resulted in a lot of money being invested in absolutely unwatchable crap. Now, since a number of smaller-budget and independent films are starting to achieve increasing success, they’re confused: will there be a market for crappy big-budget films? Is it time to start investing in indie directors? Will indie directors be willing to play by the same rules? I have no idea how much wind is in that sail, it’s just one guy but he’s pretty into the scene and takes keeping up with it quite seriously.
Oh, one more Korean film is out that has me curious, though I’d want to see it with subtitles, and that’s this one… if you don’t speak Korean, watch the trailer and then scroll down for my explanation:
Only in Korea would they make a film about a professor who gets mad over being fired because he pointed out that a math question on the university’s entrance exam was “wrong” — and given what I know about the process, that would hardly be surprising; his firing is upheld by a pompous idiot judge, which leads the teacher to go get… a freaking crossbow and drop by the judge’s house.
And it’s based on a true story. Maybe this wouldn’t happen only in Korea, but, well…
As for us, we have some hard work to get done in finalizing The Music of Jo Hyeja before the deadline for the Bucheon Fantastic Film Festival this summer. There’s a soundtrack to be recorded and cut, audio and color to be mastered, and the submission needs to go out before 23rd of March! But we’ll get it done…