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A nameless gangster in 2012's best South Korean film

nameless_gangster260pix.jpgIk-hyeon is a sleazy piece of work you cannot help but look at with disgust and wonder. While he is corrupt, greedy, treacherous, opportunistic, vain, and foolish, he is also a wily scoundrel who may get away with his crimes and misdemeanors even when everything seems to fall down on him, and he is willing to win the game by any means necessary for his survival and advance in the system.

It's difficult to identify with a loathsome guy like him, but "Nameless Gangster", an electrifying South Korean crime drama which is the best South Korean film of 2012 in my opinion, is an engrossing story about his bumpy quest for more power and more money. Even when disgusted by his worst sides, we keep wondering how far he will go or how he will get out of his troubles, and, through him and others and their corrupt world, the movie cheerfully exposes an unpleasant side of South Korean society during the 1980s still influencing the country even at present.

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The movie has not only the vivid looks and feelings of South Korean society at that time but also a certain disgraceful example of South Korean male I and others have seen. While watching the boorish and bullying behaviors of its unlikable protagonist during my first viewing at the local theater, I said to myself; oh, I knew guys like him. They annoyed me and others like hell with their constant bluffs and brags, especially when they were drunk like jerks. And some of them were actually my family members.

Choi Ik-hyeon, played by Choi Min-sik, is an annoying guy like that, and he is an ordinary civic official working at the custom office in Busan. He has little to be proud about himself as a humble civil servant, and there is a silly scene in his shabby house where he tries to impress his future brother-in-law with a long superficial brag about his great Kyeong-ju Choi clan. I and other South Koreans have heard such a boring vainglorious speech like that at least once from the guys like Ik-hyeon, and Choi Min-sik perfectly captures the comical aspects of a petty hero with all pride but no substance.

Port cities usually attract the crimes like contraband trade, and Busan is no exception. There are always the people trying to smuggle something in or out of South Korea, and it is Ik-hyeon and his colleagues' job to catch them--and to extort money for overlooking them. They have no qualms about that because that's what everybody in the custom office does for extra cash. When they return to the office with their latest loots, nobody particularly pays attention to them--or what they are doing in the bathroom with lots of 10,000-won bills and a Japanese electronic rice cooker which have been stashed above its ceiling.

Unfortunately for them, there comes a sudden internal investigation due to a citizen's complaint. Someone must take a fall, so Ik-hyeon is about to be fired just because he has the least number of children among them, but, not long after his discharge is decided by his direct boss, he happens to acquire a bag of methamphetamine by chance. His greedy mind instantly gets a nice idea; rather than reporting it to the authorities, why not sell it to a local mob organization in the town?

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That is how he comes to meet a rising young mob boss, Choi Hyeong-bae (Ha Jeong-woo). They are merely a seller and a buyer at first, but Ik-hyeon goes further. Once he finds that Hyeong-bae is a distant relative of his (both belong to Kyeong-ju Choi clan), he begins to insinuate himself into Hyeong-bae's organization. He quickly proves to Hyeong-bae that he is a valuable asset to Hyeong-bae not only during the competition with the other local crime boss Kim Pan-ho (Jo Jin-woong) but also during the expansion of their crime business involving night clubs, hotels, and casinos. Soon, Ik-hyeon finds himself at the top--or near the top, at least.

You will wonder how such a promotion can be possible for him even though he is just a plain ex-public servant. The movie sarcastically tells that all he needs are the right connections, and Ik-hyeon does have them. There are the countless intertwined connections amidst the people in South Korean society based on family ties or school ties or other kinds of personal ties, and how you are connected with others will considerably affect your life and career in the system if you are born in South Korea. Although the same thing can be about the other countries, the system operated by such ties is especially tight and exclusive in South Korea and other Asian countries, and sometimes these ties are more important than laws.

How Ik-hyeon uses these connections for his--and Hyeong-bae's--benefits is the funniest part in the film. For instance, as soon as he learns that he is technically Hyeong-bae's elder in the family tree and he has been acquainted with Hyeong-bae's father, Ik-hyeon brandishes a condescending attitude mixed with insolent arrogance as if he deserved respect and courtesy from Hyeong-bae. He is treated not so nicely by Hyeong-bae and his gangs as a result, but, what do you know, he immediately visits Hyeong-bae's dad, who sternly reminds his son that Ik-hyeon is an elder of their family he must treat with respect.

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Even though he is a pretty tough guy capable of ruthless violence, Hyeong-bae obeys to his father's words like a good son; he bows politely to Ik-hyeon and begins to treat him really like his godfather, so Ik-hyeon is soon accepted as an elder in Hyeong-bae's organization. Try to imagine that such a circumstance happening in "The Sopranos", and you will find it quite outrageous - but, I can assure you, it is quite possible in South Korean society which has been heavily influenced by Confucianism since the late 14th century.

Ik-hyeon's bag of tricks, or bag of connections, also works well in the other cases including when Hyeong-bae and others are arrested by the local police. He searches for someone powerful enough to help him in his family tree, to whom he can approach with the money or other kinds of bribes through other elder family member. That elder will introduce him to that powerful guy in question as a ninth or tenth cousin, and he will help Ik-hyeon, because, well, they are all family. I must say I and other South Korean audiences were tickled by a rather long introduction during one scene: "You see, your father's grandfather had a brother, and he has a son, and...."

The director/writer Yoon Jong-bin has been one of new interesting South Korean directors during the last decade, and his movies were uncomfortable but realistic stories illuminating the inconvenient sides of the South Korean male society. His remarkable debut, "The Unforgiven" (2005), was a low-budget independent film not so welcomed by South Korean military due to its searing insight on how abusive and tyrannical South Korean military can be to young men going through obligatory military service - and how its system leaves them the scars which will never be healed while turning them into the same bullies they despised during their first days at the barrack. His second work, "The Moonlight of Seoul" (2008), was a dry, unsentimental film about the daily life of good-looking male escorts who are nothing but trouble to the women around them as they desperately struggle by their endless nights with no exit or salvation on their sight. Regardless of whether they go along with their world or get crushed by its rules, their night is same as before, and it will go on like that until they eventually lose their value as products.

"Nameless Gangster", Yoon Jong-bin's third film, is not far from his previous works in its description of the people and the system they belong and obey to. Elated by his new associates and the accompanying power given to him, Ik-hyeon believes he is above his world as a powerful 'lobbyist', but he is not; he is still more or less than a seedy hyena who is coward to the strong and pompous to the weak. When he finally gets in a very serious trouble and realizes that he cannot pull many strings as before, he shows his usual servile attitude to the people who can decide his fate, and one of them is an uptight prosecutor who makes no secret about his contempt toward Ik-hyeon. Maybe he can be bought or persuaded, but that will not be an easy job, because, as a bigger bully of a more powerful organization, he will not let Ik-hyeon go easily unless he is satisfied enough in his investigation.

Yoon Jong-bin's earnest approach to the story without those flash styles we usually expect from recent crime films is commendable, and the movie is full of many nice details to be appreciated by the audiences who remember well the era depicted on the screen. Accompanied by several South Korean hit songs from the 1980s, the recreation of Busan during the 1980s is authentic thanks to the judicious use of various locations besides Busan (they also used one location in my hometown Jeon-ju), and I was particularly impressed by the vehicles used in the film. When I was young, I wanted to get in those expensive cars shown in the film, and I used to get my wish thanks to my affluent relatives.

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No matter how they try to look cool and powerful, the characters are basically pathetic guys stuck in their criminal mindset, but they are colorful ones, and the actors have a ball in their flawless performances. Choi Min-sik, best remembered by the international audiences for his operatic performance in "Oldboy" (2003), is back on his full-throttle mode as he did in his recent chilling turn in "I Saw the Devil" (2010). His character is so repellent at times that we do not care about him a lot, but Choi Min-sik's riveting performance grips us to his character's insatiable hunger for power and money. The main irony of the story is that Ik-hyeon is far more immoral and unethical from the start than the gang members he is associated with, and that is why Hyeong-bae and his gangs start to look like lesser evil as Ik-hyeon becomes increasingly nefarious. Sure, they are indeed legally criminals, but they at least have their own codes and ethics in their world, which Ik-hyeon cannot possibly care about less as changing his side whenever it is necessary. In other words, he may be worse than them as a guy whose second nature is nurtured by a more formidable and ruthless gang organization called South Korean society.

Ha Jeong-woo, who has been consecutively collaborating with Yoon Jong-bin in their three films, underplays his crime boss character with restraint opposite to Choi Min-sik's bravado. Not revealing much about his character, Ha Jeong-woo gradually shows that Hyeong-bae actually comes to like and respect Ik-hyeon in spite of his crass behaviors. Hyeong-bae can tolerate Ik-hyeon's towering arrogance because he is useful, and he is grateful to his godfather for what he did for him and his organization, but he can be very ruthless when he thinks he must do something for him and his men.

Around two main lead actors, the supporting performers dance and clash with each other in their superlative ensemble performance. Jo Jin-woong, Kim Seong-gyoon, who plays Hyeong-bae's top lieutenant, and other minor supporting actors are believable as the individuals of underworld roaming around the streets of Busan. They all wear suits, but you can easily tell apart one from the other even if you do not remember their names. Ma Dong-seok, who was an imposing loan shark in "The Moonlight of Seoul", is Ik-hyeon's hapless brother-in-law inadequate as a recruited enforcer; he says he can beat anyone in a fair fight because he is a martial art expert, but I doubt that though he really is. Kwak do-won is a hostile prosecutor as principled and uncompromising as his ambition and his system allow, and Kim Hye-eun holds her place in few scenes as the sole substantial supporting female character in the movie. As usual, girls know better than boys, so she tries to be tactful as much as she can among her bad boys.

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"Nameless Gangster" is an entertaining film which is bitingly funny as a realistic guide to the dirty side of South Korean society during the 1980s. The original Korean title of the film is "War with Crime: the Prime of Bad Guys", and it is a rather misguiding title considering how its story ends. As shown in the opening scene, the good time is eventually over for these bad guys on October 13th of 1990, when Roh Tae-woo, the president of South Korea at that time, declared "War with Crime" on TV and then lots of gang members were promptly arrested and jailed by the South Korean government. Not so surprisingly, there are several betrayals as everything in their world is crumbled down like the house of cards near the finale - and many of the characters will surely be incarcerated for a long time.

"War with Crime" was in fact no more than a special political show for the South Korean people when the government needed to set an example to cover their latest corruption, and the movie slyly implies that its crime story is the reflection of South Korean society during that era. The South Korean dictators usurped the country with guns and tanks just like the gangsters snatch the management rights of nightclubs and hotels with clubs and fists in the film, and, believe or not, there was the time they worked together harmoniously when they were useful to each other, as shown in an amusing scene where South Korean government officials show gratitude to a Japanese crime boss connected with Hyeong-bae's organization for his significant contribution to the upcoming 1988 Seoul Olympics.

In such a society like that, it is no wonder that the line between an ordinary man and a gangster is not very clear. Later in the story, the prosecutor mockingly asks Ik-hyeon about his true identity: is Ik-hyeon a gangster, or a citizen, or a 'half-gangster'? Ik-hyeon does not answer to that question, and neither does the movie.

Its epilogue points out that South Korean society has not been changed much even in the 21th century. People like Ik-hyeon did anything necessary for themselves and their family, and they managed to survive, and they have maintained their proud social position as someone's father or someone's grandfather. I bet they contributed a lot to the former South Korean strongman's daughter being elected as the new South Korean president at the end of the last year.

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I heard that the director talked a lot about his father during an interview after the screening. His father was a high-ranking police officer in Busan, and he witnessed many people visiting his father for favor, which was probably not so different from what is shown in the film. The movie gives some little human side to Ik-hyeon through his few scenes with his family, and I believe he has no regret about his deeds because everything he did is justified for his family, which is probably only clean thing defining his identity. What do his kids think about him? I don't know, but I and other young South Koreans had many laughs while watching the movie, though they were not easy ones at all.

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