Every game has its rules, but then again perhaps the game lies in learning how to bend them to one’s advantage. Owing a debt to a Pacino/De Palma diptych – Scarface and the later but then just released Carlito’s Way, Jang Hyun-soo’s Rules of the Game (게임의 법칙, Gameui beobjig) was the first in a resurgence of contemporary action dramas which had gone out of fashion since their 1970s heyday. The story is a timeless one of a young man looking for gangland fame, his loyal girlfriend, and the duo’s loveable third wheel of a degenerate gambler whose sob story may actually turn out to be truer than it seemed.
Young-dae (Park Joong-hoon) is a young upstart in a tiny town. Bored with his life of daily drudgery washing cars, he decides to upsticks to the city, taking his adoring girlfriend Tae-suk (Oh Yeon-su) with him. Young-dae plans on engineering a meeting with famed ganger Gwang-cheon and pledging his allegiance to him, hoping to set himself on the road to gangland success. Things get off to a bad start when the pair of naive country bumpkins run into to smooth talking conman Man-su (Lee Kyoung-young) on a train. Man-su claims to know Gwang-cheon and writes a letter of recommendation before suddenly announcing they’re at his stop and jumping off the train leaving Young-dae and and Tae-suk with a healthy dinner bill.
The city proves particularly hostile to the out of towers as Young-dae realises joining a gang is not as simple as marching in, dropping to your knees and exclaiming “I will die for you, please accept me”. Repeatedly striking out, Young-dae distances himself from Tae-suk who ends up working as a hostess for the gangster Young-dae still hasn’t been able to meet. Finally spotting an opportunity to prove himself by interrupting a gang raid, Young-dae gets a foot on the ladder but as an outsider in an established gang he’s always going to be a liability.
Meanwhile, Man-su has continued to get himself into trouble with cards and is a constant thorn in the side to Gwang-cheon’s guys. After a beating leaves him crippled, Man-su turns to Young-dae for retribution. Young-dae, Man-su, and Tae-suk form an odd, sometimes volatile trio as they try to survive and make Young-dae’s gangster dreams come true while Man-su dreams to going to Saipan where the sun shines everyday and everything is palm trees and summer fruits.
It doesn’t take a genius to realise Saipan is a place Young-dae will never go, no matter how much he might want to. After getting into the gang and reuniting with Tae-suk, Young-dae does seem to be getting himself together but success soon goes to his head. He begins dressing in snappy suits moving from brown, to blue, to white, and drives a BMW around town as if he really owned it. As Tae-suk points out, he’s just a driver – a driver for a top gangster, but a driver all the same. In his desperation to reach the top, Young-dae makes himself a figure of suspicion in the mind of the boss he is so desperate to impress, inadvertently placing a target on his own back.
Jang may have pegged De Palma as an influence, one which is very much felt in the Tony Montana-esque story arc and Carlito’s Way denouement, but his shooting style is pure Hong Kong by way of John Woo – frantic action shot in slow motion. Young-dae is a slap-happy lover of violence, never one to let to the opportunity of getting into a fight pass him by. This is quite a good quality in an aspiring foot soldier, even if not in a potential boyfriend though Tae-suk does her best to tame him, but his impetuosity and naive faith in others’ ability to abide by the “rules” of gangsterdom are at the heart of his eventual downfall. His later decision to mistreat a fellow would-be minion who echoes his own phrase back to him “I will die for you, please accept me” is a clear indicator of how far he has moved away from the scrappy boy who left his village full of angry dreams even if something of his youthful innocence is later returned in his desire to leave the gangster world far behind for a life of ease and friendship with Man-su and Tae-suk in tranquil Saipan. The rules of the game, however, rarely reward missteps and Young-dae will pay heavily for his misplaced faith.
Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.