Long Live the King (롱 리브 더 킹: 목포 영웅, Kang Yoon-sung, 2019)

long live the king poster 1Back in the good old days, gangsters used to make a case for themselves that they were standing up for the little guy and protecting those who couldn’t protect themselves. Of course that wasn’t quite the truth, but one can’t deny how closely small town thuggery and political office can resemble one another. Following his breakout hit The Outlaws, Kang Yoon-sung returns with web comic adaptation Long Live the King (롱 리브 더 킹: 목포 영웅, Long Live the King: Mokpo Yeongwoong), another unconventional comedy in which a surprisingly loveable rogue rediscovers his national pride and finds a more positive direction in which to channel his desire to be helpful.

Se-chool (Kim Rae-won) is a notorious thug with a traumatic past currently working with a local gang hired to clear a small protest of stall owners trying to cling on to a traditional market space in working class Mokpo where a developer wants to build a theme park and upscale skyscraper. A feisty young lawyer, So-hyun (Won Jin-a), is working with the protesters on their case and has no problem telling the gangsters where to get off. Impressed, Se-chool is smitten and starts to wonder if he’s on the wrong side but his attempts to get So-hyun’s attention – being strangely nice to the protestors, buying everyone lunch etc, spectacularly backfire. Only when he hears about another man, Hwang-bo (Choi Moo-sung), who used to be a gangster but has now reformed and become a social justice campaigner running a small not-for-profit cafe serving meals to the vulnerable, does he begin to see an opening, vowing to give up the gangster life and commit himself to serving the people of Mokpo.

The irony is that everyone seems to think that Se-chool has a hidden agenda, but his only agenda is the obvious one in that he wants to win So-hyun’s heart even if that means he has to shape up and learn to become a decent person rather than a heartless gangster thug. Known as the king of the nightlife, Se-chool is regarded as a slightly eccentric, good time guy, so his sudden desire to go “legit” is met with bemusement rather than surprise, but old habits are hard to shake and it takes a while for him to realise that trying to help people with his fists is not the best way to go about it. Punching out some punks making trouble in a cafe gets him an earful from the proprietress who explains that she owes a lot of money to the guys’ gang so Se-chool’s chivalry has probably caused her a series of potentially serious problems she assumes he won’t be on hand to help her out with. Nevertheless, he retains his desire to wade in and do his bit, becoming a surprise local hero when he puts himself in danger to ensure the unconscious driver of a crashed bus gets out safely while the other passengers make their escape.

Meanwhile, local politics is starting to heat up. Venal politician Choi Man-su (Choi Gwi-hwa) is up for re-election and running on a platform of making Mokpo great again. It comes as no surprise that Man-su is deep into the corrupt theme park project and outsourcing general thuggery to Se-chool’s arch-enemy which eventually includes taking out potential rivals like Hwang-bo whose approval ratings are soaring while voters are becoming tired of Man-su’s big money tactics and insincere messaging. Soon enough, Se-chool is persuaded to enter the race seeing as his “local hero” persona puts him in good stead to oppose Man-su’s establishment credentials. But, in order to get elected and convince So-hyun he’s really changed, he’ll have to finally face his traumatic gangster past while learning to be open and honest with his feelings.

Kang goes in hard for the business of politics, taking pot-shots not only at corrupt establishment figures in so tight with organised crime that they’re little more than jumped up gangsters, but also at ambitious party hoppers, and misguided mobsters who think they’re onto the big ticket by hooking up with “legitimate” power. Poor Se-chool, meanwhile, actually thought he was doing “proper business” in his persona as a besuited gangster of the new, corporatised school little thinking about the little guy as he unwittingly went about his ultra-capitalist agenda. Heading for broad comedy, Long Live the King misses an opportunity for serious satire but has undeniable heart as the misused hero learns to accept himself in being accepted by others, falling in love not only with a feisty activist lawyer but with community spirit and progressive politics as he vows to fight for a better future for the people of Mokpo while opposing the inherent corruption in the system embodied by men like Man-su who feel themselves entitled to exploit solely by virtue of their own superiority.


Long Live the King was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Prison (프리즌, Na Hyun, 2017)

prison poster bigPrison can be a paradise if you’re doing it right, at least if you’re a top gangster in the movies. Na Hyun’s The Prison (프리즌) paints an interesting picture of incarceration and the way it links into his nation’s infinitely corrupt power structures. When investigators wonder why a crime spree suddenly came to an end, one of the frequently offered explanations is that the perpetrator was most likely arrested for another crime but what if you could turn this obviously solid alibi to your advantage and get those already behind bars to do your dirty work for you?

Disgraced policeman Song Yoo-gun (Kim Rae-Won) has wound up imprisoned alongside several of the men he himself helped put away. Like many cops who suddenly find themselves on the other side of the bars, Yoo-gun’s life is not easy. Badly beaten, tortured, and threatened with amputation Yoo-gun eventually starts fighting back and seizes the most likely path to prison survival – allying himself with the inside’s big guy, Jung Ik-ho (Han Suk-Kyu). Ik-ho, a notorious gangster famous for eating the eyeballs of his enemies, is the one who’s really in charge around here, not least because he’s the one running the gang of prison based hitmen trotted out to take care of the bad guys’ hit list.

What starts out as an intriguing idea quickly descends into predictability as Yoo-gun and Ik-ho face off against each other, finding common ground and camaraderie but ultimately existing on the plains of good and evil. Yoo-gun has his own reasons for landing himself in prison but his policeman’s heart still loves truth and justice even if he’s forced to become a prisoner whilst in prison. While he goes along with Ik-ho’s crimes, joining in the violence and intimidation he practices, he also wants to take Ik-ho down even if it means becoming him in the process.

While the interplay between the two men forms the central axis of the film as they develop an odd kind of grudging friendship which may still end on the point of a knife at any moment, Na tries his best to recreate the world of the grim ‘80s action thriller. Technically speaking, The Prison is set in the ‘90s (not that viewers outside of Korea would notice aside from the external lack of mobile phones, computers, internet etc) but wants to be the kind of tough, bruisy, fight heavy action movie they don’t make any more in which a righteous hero defeats a large-scale conspiracy by jump kicking hoodlums. He almost succeeds in this aim, but never quite manages to anchor the ongoing background conspiracy elements with the intense pugilism of the prison environment.

Yoo-gun and Ik-ho are obviously a special case but aside from their efforts, prison life in Korea is not too bad – the guards are OK, the warden is ineffectual, and the inmates are running the show. Nevertheless the prison is the centre of the conspiracy as elite bad guys take advantage of put upon poor ones who’ve found themselves thrown inside thanks to ongoing social inequality, trading cushy conditions to guys who’re never getting out in return for committing state sponsored crimes. Needless to say, someone is trying to expose the conspiracy which would be very bad news for everyone but rubbing them out might prove counter productive in the extreme.

Na lets the in-house shenanigans drag on far too long, pitching fight after fight but failing to make any of his punches land with the satisfaction they seem to expect. Flirting with the interplay between Yoo-gun and Ik-ho in wondering how far Yoo-gun is prepared to go or whether he is destined to become his criminal mentor rather than destroy him, Na never fully engages with the central idea preferring to focus on the action at the expense of character, psychology, or the corruption which underlines the rest of the film. Nevertheless The Prison does have the requisite levels of high-octane fights and impressive set pieces including the fiery if predictable prison riot finale. Life behind bars isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all, the corrupt elites of Korea will have to actually pay people to off their enemies. Predictable and poorly paced, The Prison is best when it sticks to throwing punches but might be more fun if it placed them a little better.


The Prison was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Gangnam Blues (강남 1970, Yoo Ha, 2015)

gangnam-bluesYoo ha takes us back to the 1970s for some Gangnam Blues (강남 1970, Gangnam 1970) in a sorry tale of fatherless men caught up in dangerous times of ambition and avarice, very much at the bottom of the heap and about to be eclipsed by the “new world” currently under construction. Back then, Gangnam really was all just fields, owned by farmers soon to be cheated out of their ancestral lands by enterprising gangsters engaged in a complicated series of land grab manoeuvres, anticipating the eventual expansion of the bursting at the seams capital. Far from the shining city of today, Gangnam was a wasteland frontier town, the sort of place where a man can make a name for himself trading on his wits and his fists alone.

In 1970, Jong-dae (Lee Min-ho) and Yong-ki (Kim Rae-won), sworn brothers from the same orphanage, are two street rats trying to survive in straightened times. When the shack they were squatting in is demolished and they come in to contact with a petty gangster, Kang (Jung Jin-young), the pair end up getting a one off job as thugs sent to smash up a political rally but get separated when the police arrive. Jong-dae finds himself taken in by Kang and his daughter Seon-hye (Kim Seol-hyun AKA Seolhyun) as a surrogate son and brother, repaying their affection by saving Kang’s life during an assassination attempt which later prompts his decision to retire from the criminal world altogether. Yong-ki joins the rival gang instead and seems to be making a success of himself but both find themselves at the mercy of an increasingly corrupt, dishonourable system hellbent on progress but only for the few.

Gangnam Blues has an overly complex, intricate narrative overlaying the generic brotherhood and betrayal theme that runs through the film. Dipping into a particularly dark period of history, Yoo is not afraid to step back into those difficult days marked by both rapid progress and increasing inequality furthered by complicated systems of interconnected corruption. The gangsters are at the service of the politicians but it’s always debatable who is running the show. Jong-dae’s participation in the land grab scheme is painted as amusing cleverness (at least at first) but little attention is paid to the farmers who are being “convinced” to sell their land off cheaply to gangsters who are each competing for the prime sections. Modern day Gangnam was built on blood and extortion, by men like Jong-dae and Yong-ki, even in the knowledge that they will be discarded as soon as their usefulness has been exhausted.

Jong-dae and Yong-ki are the bottom of the pile, orphaned and without family connections they have only each other to rely on yet their brotherly bond is repeatedly tested. The ‘70s Philippine folk song, Anak by Freddie Aguilar, which forms the film’s major musical motif has some very poignant lyrics about parents and their children but neither Jong-dae nor Yong-ki are able to find the kind of family they’re looking for. Both end up opting for the fraternal bond of a crime syndicate to replicate the kind of support usually offered by the family unit with Jong-dae finding a father figure in Kang who eventually takes him into his household as a son outside of the criminal world, and Yong-ki eventually marrying and soon to become a father himself. Forced into crime by their poverty, each becomes an outcast, permanently shut out from the thing they most want even whilst living a life of material comfort.

Yoo opts for a highly stylised approach filled with beautifully photographed, expertly choreographed scenes of violence including the traditional mass brawl in the rain, and a sequence of intercut killings each artfully sprayed with blood. Lee Min-ho acquits himself well enough in his first leading role as the noble hearted gangster Jong-dae with quality support from Kim Rae-won as the much less noble Yong-ki though the superfluity of secondary characters leads to an avoidable lack of depth. Relative newcomer Kim Seoul-hyun also does well with her underwritten role of the film’s most tragic character even if her domestic violence themed subplot seems like one too many. Another classic slice of gangster action from Korea, Gangnam Blues is an unflinching look back at a difficult era with uncanny echoes of the present day, and a suitably period tinged tale of melancholy ‘70s bleakness in which brotherhood and honour are merely words misused by men trying to justify their own ambitions.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Freddie Aguilar’s Anak as featured in the film: