“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean” said Raymond Chandler talking about a detective, a hero who would, eventually in some sense, triumph. The inverted version of the same story casts a noble man in the role of the villain, a man who must play at being mean but will ultimately fail, unable to cast off his innocence to embrace the darkness of the world around him. There hero of Yoo Ha’s gangster odyssey, A Dirty Carnival (비열한 거리, Biyeolhan geori), is just such a man. The world which he inhabits is cruel, but his intentions are pure and his various missteps born only of a sense of injustice mixed with mild ambition. His goodness is his fatal flaw.
Petty gangster Byung-doo (Jo In-sung) has a pretty good life. At 29 he’s a mid-range foot soldier about to become the manager of a small arcade and has managed to provide for his mother, brother, and sister. The problems start when the positioning of the arcade provokes a turf war with another local gang and Byung-doo’s useless boss, Sang-chul (Yoon Je-moon), turns up late to a rumble and then knifes a guy in the wrong place after getting hit on the head. Gangster fights are bloody and visceral, but no one’s supposed to die and so now the gang has a problem. Sang-chul should fall on his sword but he doesn’t, he gets an underling to promise he’ll go to jail for him in return for handing over the new arcade. Byung-doo’s boss has betrayed and humiliated him whilst also taking the money he needs to support his family right out of their mouths.
The big boss, Hwang (Chun Ho-jin), is having trouble with a lawyer whom he wants Sang-chul to take care of, but he won’t – lawyers are too much trouble. Byung-doo, desperate to impress, decides it’s worth the risk and undercuts Sang-chul to curry favour with the boss by offing the offending official. Meanwhile, an old school friend, Min-ho (Namkoong Min), has become a film director and wants to spend some time with real gangsters as research. Through Min-ho, Byung-doo is pulled back to a more innocent time and allows himself to dream of reuniting with childhood sweetheart, Hyun-joo (Lee Bo-young).
Byung-doo is not your typical gangster. He’s a softhearted innocent who only ended up in the underworld because his father died and his mother was ill, meaning he had to leave school to take care of his family and had no other options for earning enough to support them all. Despite this, he is still not earning his dues – Sang-chul is snaffling all the dough and not paying his guys. Though Byung-doo’s innocence extends to a belief in the gangster code of brotherhood, the long years of slumming it as a foot soldier have worn him down and destroyed his faith in his boss. Betraying him to cosy up to Hwang, Byung-doo makes the first of his three serious mistakes.
The second would be his friendship with aspiring film director Min-ho. Reconnecting with his childhood friends reactivates Byung-doo’s problematic goodness as he’s given another look at what gangster life looks like from the outside. Invited to a reunion, Byung-doo’s gangsterism is tolerated though also mildly fetishised but when confronted with its reality, everyone is suddenly afraid. Having forgotten how normal people live, Byung-doo allows his violent impulses to overwhelm him – viciously attacking a man who mistreated Hyun-joo, showing off his real life fighting skills on Min-ho’s film set, Byung-doo no longer knows where the gangster ends and he begins.
Following his transgressive action, Byung-doo reassess what it is to be a gangster but makes a crucial mistake in indulging in too much intimacy with Min-ho who turns out not to be quite so innocent as he seemed and is just as untrustworthy as any of his colleagues. Byung-doo’s final mistake is an inability to move past his innocent notions of friendship and loyalty to recognise that such things do not exist in the world in which he lives. His tragedy is that he dares to dream of something better – the unity of his gangster family, providing for his mother, and a normal romance with the love of his life. To gain these things he will compromise himself, and in compromising himself he seals his own fate.
Yoo’s gangster epic follows a familiar pattern but it does so with style and with real weight behind its tragic fatalism as Byung-doo sinks ever deeper in to the gangster mire. Byung-doo looks for family in the gangster brotherhood, but eventually betrays it, never realising it may also betray him. Filled with gritty, realistic action coupled with a meta commentary on the movies’ love of cinematic violence, A Dirty Carnival lives up to its name as Byung-doo waltzes on the precipice, surviving only on melancholy romanticism.
Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.
Original trailer (English subtitles)