A dejected gangster decides to take the chance on a different kind of life but is soon pulled back into internecine underworld conflict where humanity is weakness and the only prize is a lonely hegemony in Cheon Myeong-kwan’s ‘90s-set thriller, Hot Blooded (뜨거운 피, Ddeugeoun Pi). As much about fathers and sons as it is about uneasy brotherhood, Choi’s adaptation of the novel by Kim Un-su harks back to the classic gangster picture in which the hero proves too noble for his surroundings and finds a single act of compassion provoking nothing more than chaos and misery.
In the small enclave of Kuam, Busan, Hee-su (Jung Woo) is a petty foot soldier on the cusp of turning 40 who is becoming tired of this way of life. Loyal to his boss, Son (Kim Kap-soo), Hee-su is also aware that times are changing and the boss’ tried and tested approach may no longer meet them. When a vicious gangster, Yong-kang (Choi Moo-sung), returns from exile abroad after fleeing to escape a murder charge, gangland equilibrium is suddenly unbalanced not least by his shift into drug dealing that eventually places him at odds with Hee-su’s gang. After defusing a potential turf war, Hee-su decides he wants out and takes up with booze smuggler Yang-dong in the electric slot machine trade hoping to make enough money to open a small hotel on a nearby island with his longterm girlfriend and her adult son Ami (Lee Hong-nae) who has just been released from prison after falling in with a thuggish gang.
As he eventually realises, Hee-su has merely ended up as a pawn stuck between Son and Nam, the head of a rival outfit trying to muscle in on their territory. His first problem is that his childhood friend, Chul-jin (Ji Seung-hyun), is a liaison for Nam’s gang. Son explains that only by taking out someone like Chul-jin can they start a negotiation with Nam to nix a gang war before it escalates, but Hee-su cannot bring himself to kill his friend while sufficiently unbalanced by his suggestion that he’s being played by Son as to doubt the old man’s advice. We’re given constant reminders that Chul-jin is a father of young children, while Hee-su has no children of his own but is a surrogate father figure to Ami. Effectively brothers, the two men met as orphans at a government facility and it’s clear that Hee-su sees Son as a man to whom he owes a fatherly debt while Chul-jin may not have any loyalty to anyone besides himself even as he claims that all he wants is to live peacefully with his children just as all Hee-su wants is to open his hotel and live with In-sook (Yoon Ji-hye) and Ami in a less violent environment.
Hee-su’s decision to leave is a kind a of betrayal in itself, born of a desire to break free of the restrictive codes of gangsterdom and be his own man charting his own future but little realising that his life is still ruled by the laws of the underworld. Later someone asks him what it is he wanted to protect. All he can say is that there was something once, but he’s forgotten what it was. In leaving his gangster family he unwittingly destroys his dreams of forging his own, robbed of the more peaceful life he dreamed of by the chaos and violence of the underworld. The irony is that everyone describes Kuam as a “shithole”, a moribund small-town where even the casino hotel craze which is the centre of the gangster economy may be on its way out. Hee-su can’t really understand why they’re having a turf war over a place no one wants, only to realise it’s just a smokescreen to disguise what it is that’s really worth having and why.
A late existential speech makes plain Hee-su’s predicament in Yang-kang’s logic that men like him fall to the depths of hell or become kings of all they survey. Yet for Hee-su it’s all much the same, rendered lonely by everything he’s lost while achieving the success craved by so many that is the opposite of what he wanted. It turns out Son may have had a point, the reason he survived so long was his ability to keep calm and play the long game. Hot-headed revenge is a luxury a gangster can’t afford as Hee-su finds out to his cost. “Fathers are all powerless” Chul-jin tries to tell him, though there’s something left of the old Hee-su in his final act of letting a man who betrayed him go because he’s the last in the boss’ bloodline potentially sealing his own fate in some far off act of vengeance. Very much a classic gangster drama in which a noble foot soldier finds himself torn by conflicting loyalties, Hot Blooded proceeds with a weary fatalism leaving its hero a coldblooded ghost which might be a fitting end for a man who once tried to make his fortune selling fake hot peppers.
Hot Blooded screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)