A Dirty Carnival (비열한 거리, Yoo Ha, 2006)

dirty carnival poster“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)

A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생, Kim Jee-woon, 2005)

bitterweet life posterAs Boss Kang (Kim Young-chul) tells the hero of Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생, Dalkomhan Insaeng), no matter how well things are going, it only takes one mistake to make it all float away. Like any good film noir, the forces which conspire to ruin the quiet, orderly life of cooler than thou gangster Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) are those of desire as they come in conflict with codes of loyalty and decency. Sun-woo, like many a lonely hitman before him, finally wakes up to the emptiness of his life only to find no point of escape except the one he has often provided for others in precisely the same situation.

Smartly suited, Sun-woo is the trusted manager of the casino bar, Dolce Vita. Taken away from his elegant dessert in the upstairs restaurant, Sun-woo deals with a group of rowdy customers in true gangster fashion by launching in with a series of jump kicks and quickly thrown punches that reveal just why it is Sun-woo rules the roost. Sun-woo’s boss, Kang, has a special mission for his most trusted minion – keep an eye on his much younger girlfriend, Hee-soo (Shin Min-a), while he travels to Shanghai for three days. Kang thinks Hee-soo is having an affair. If she is, Sun-woo’s options are either to call Kang right away or take affirmative action on his own initiative.

Sun-woo investigates, but much to his surprise finds himself taken with Hee-soo. She is indeed having an affair, something which Sun-woo tries to ignore but finally has to be dealt with. A sudden pang of sympathy stops him from contacting Kang or pulling the trigger. Instead he decides to let the pair go on the condition they never see each other again. Thinking it’s all behind him, Sun-woo tries to go back to his regular job but he’s still dealing with the fallout from playing whistleblower on a high ranking gangster’s son.

Kim opens with an arty black and white sequence of tree branches swaying. In the story offered in voice over a disciple asks whether it is the trees or the wind which are moving, but the master replies that is is neither – it is the heart and mind which move. Like the branches, Sun-woo’s heart has begun to stir. Not love exactly, or lust, but movement. Sun-woo gazes at the way Hee-soo’s hair brushes her shoulder, at the way she walks and smiles at him. Listening to her cello rehearsal, his own emotional symphony begins, dangerously unbalancing his previously one-note existence with its identical suits and minimalist apartments.

Yet if Sun-woo’s downfall is Hee-soo and her alluring vitality, it was Kang’s first. An ageing gangster, Kang feels foolish taking up with a young girl but just can’t help himself. He loves the way Hee-soo couldn’t care less about what other people think, but that also worries him because she’ll never care what he thinks. Kang’s childishly romantic gift of a kitschy lamp with two owls huddling together on the base is the perfect symbol of his misplaced hopes – oddly innocent yet ultimately redundant. Notably, the lamp is one of many things shattered when Sun-woo takes Hee-soo’s lover to task.

Realising he has been betrayed, though not quite for the reasons he thinks, Sun-woo vows revenge. Everything has gone wrong, and he no longer believes in any kind of future which has him in it. Pausing only to send a more mature romantic gift to Hee-soo, an elegant lamp she’d admired on one of their shopping trips, he marches off towards certain death no longer caring for own life in his quest for vengeance and retribution. Repeating Kang’s questions back to him, asking for the real reason any of this happened, doesn’t get him very far but even if these two men have shared the same folly, they fail to understand each other even in death.

Returning to the master and his pupil, the closing coda recounts another story in which the pupil wakes up from a dream, weeping. The master asks him if he’s had a nightmare but the pupil says no, he’s had the sweetest of dreams. He’s crying because he’s awake and knows his dream can never come true. Sun-woo too has woken up, he knows there’s nothing for him now except to accept his fate. He has but been asleep, dreaming a sweet dream, and now he must wake and taste life’s bitterness just as he prepares to leave it.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)