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)

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: