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)

The Last Princess (덕혜옹주, Hur Jin-ho, 2016)

last-princessReview of Hur Jin-ho’s The Last Princess first published by UK Anime Network.


Filmic biopics of real life historical figures are not generally known for their fierce adherence to fact, but The Last Princess (덕혜옹주, Deokhyeongjoo) is unusually honest in its approach in the sense that it includes a brief opening statement to the effect that the film pays very little attention to historical veracity. Hur Jin-ho adapts the story of Korea’s last princess, Yi Deok-hye (Son Ye-jin), as recounted in a novel by Kwon Bi-young, whilst indulging the genre he’s best known for – romantic melodrama. Another of the recent spate of films to address Korea’s colonial past, The Last Princess is the story of a woman who was fiercely loyal to her homeland, even in the face of harsh opposition and final rejection by the very people she’d been striving so hard to protect.

Told in a non-linear fashion, The Last Princess spans the majority of Deok-hye’s life from her opulent childhood in the royal palace to her eventual repatriation to Korea in the mid 1960s. In 1919, nine years after Korea had been annexed by the Japanese, Deok-hye lives in the palace with her loving father, the former Emperor (Baek Yoon-sik), and her mother, the concubine Lady Yang (Park Joo-mi). Her carefree days soon end when she witnesses her father’s death by poison and comes to understand her precarious position as puppet royalty of a subjugated regime.

Her life, and those of her remaining family members, is largely in the hands of a traitorous civil servant, Han (Yoon Je-moon), whose fierce loyalty to the Japanese emperor knows no bounds. Deok-hye is unwilling to assist him in his desire to use her as a tool to promote the “Japanisation” of the country and so is packed off to the mainland to study with the promise that she can return to live with her mother in Korea after her studies have ended. Needless to say she does not return.

In a touch of cinematic romanticism, the film elides two characters into one in the otherwise fictional character of Kim Jang-han (Park Hae-il). The son of a resistance fighter loyal to the emperor, Jang-han was betrothed to Deok-hye when they were both children and later returns to her as an adult in Japan where he is active in the Resistance, before coming back to find her years after the war. Jang-han hatches a plan to help Deok-hye and the other royal family members escape for exile in Shanghai but the the pair are eventually separated.

Recalling other recent Korean Resistance movies Age of Shadows and Assassination, The Last Princess has its share of action as Deok-hye and Jang-han attempt to escape the Japanese occupation and foster the revolution from abroad. The villain of the piece this time around is not so much the Japanese but the Koreans who willingly helped them as as exemplified here by the odious Han. Han is the most typically melodramatic character and only lacks a moustache to twirl to complete the effect. Hellbent on ingratiating himself with the Japanese, Han is determined to harness his princess’ appeal to sell the virtues of the Japanese state. When Deok-hye resolutely refuses to play along, he threatens her family members and friends in an attempt to force her compliance but finds her love for her country too strong to be bent by his egocentric cruelty.

Sent away and kept a virtual prisoner far from home, there is little Deok-hye is able to do in service of her nation. Introduced to the Resistance operating in Japan, she begins to see a way to help and eventually finds herself taking a stand when blackmailed into reading out a propaganda speech in front of a collection of forced labourers. Beginning the speech in Japanese as ordered, Deok-hye finds she cannot continue and eventually makes her real feelings known in Korean as she instructs the people in front of her not to give up, she will be right along side them fighting to regain their homeland. In a touch of Casablanca inspired drama, a chorus of Arirang suddenly springs up among the crowd, much to the consternation of the Japanese officers expecting a show of contrition, as the Princess herself is whisked off to pay a heavy price for her “betrayal”.

The Last Princess forces its heroine through constant loss – of her home, of her position, of her family, of a future, of love, of a child, of happiness, of her mind, and most importantly of her nationality. Deok-hye never wanted to be Japanese, did not travel to Japan of her own volition, and did her best to resist even at great personal cost. Nevertheless she finds eventually finds herself barred from her homeland due to opposing political concerns when the fledgling Republic fears the misuse of a powerful symbol like a royal family to frustrate the democratic future. Played with wonderful sensitivity by leading actress Son Ye-jin, Deok-hye suffers as her nation suffers, longing for independence both personal and national but finding only new cages everywhere she goes. Despite the unconvincing ageing makeup of the latter part of the film and an overly intrusive score, The Last Princess is an impressively produced prestige picture which plays its melodrama credentials to the max but is also undoubtedly moving in recounting the tragic story of its heroine whose constant misuse and lack of agency mirror much of the history of the nation she holds so dear.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Asura: The City of Madness (아수라, Kim Sung-soo, 2016)

asura-poster

Review of Kim Sung-soo’s Asura: The City of Madness first published by UK Anime Network.


Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. It’s a shame the title City of Violence was already taken, Asura: The City of Madness (아수라, Asura) is a place of chaos in which carnage has become currency. Re-teaming with actor Jung Woo-sung fifteen years after Musa the Warrior, Kim Sung-soo’s Asura: The City of Madness is, at heart, B-movie pulp steeped in the hardboiled world of tough guys walking alone through the darkness, but even if film noir’s cynicism is out in force, there’s precious little of its essentially chivalrous mentality to be found in this fiercely amoral universe.

World weary policeman Han (Jung Woo-sung) has been moonlighting as the “gun-dog” of corrupt crime boss mayor, Park (Hwang Jung-min), and soon plans on quitting the legitimate force to work for city hall full time. After helping Park “relocate” an inconvenient witness, Han runs into a problem when another policeman turns up and promptly gets killed, drawing unwanted attention to his shady second job. This also brings him into contact with a righteous prosecutor, Kim (Kwak Do-won), who claims to be hellbent on exposing Park’s not quite legal operations and ousting him from power in the hope of a less corrupt regime emerging. Despite his lofty claims, Kim’s methods are little different from Park’s. Han soon finds himself caught in the middle of a legal cold war as he tries to play both sides one against the other but slowly finds neither worth betraying.

The film’s title, Asura, is inspired by the creatures from Indian mythology who are imbued with immense supernatural power yet consumed by negative emotion, relentlessly battling each other in a quest for material rather than spiritual gain. The very male world of Annam is no different as men trade blows like money and wear their wealth on their faces. There are no good guys in Annam, each is involved in a desperate fight to survive in which none can afford luxuries such as pity or morality. Han emerges as the film’s “hero” not out of any kind of nobility or a desire to do good, but simply in being the least actively bad. Able to see the world for what it is – a hell of chaos and cruelty, Han is, perhaps, the best man his environment allows him to be but this same knowledge eats away at him from the inside as he’s forced to act in a way which betrays his own sense of righteousness.

Annam is a world founded on chaos. The forces which are supposed to represent order are the very ones which perpetuate a state of instability. The police are universally corrupt, either working for themselves or in the pay of larger outside forces, and the municipal authorities are under the control of Park – a vicious, mobbed up, sociopath. Prosecutor Kim who claims to represent the resistance against this cosmology of corruption is not what he seems and is, in fact, another part of the system, willing to resort to blackmail, torture, and trickery in order to achieve his vainglorious goal. Yet for all that, the force that rules is mere chance – the most meaningful deaths occur accidentally, the result of shoddy construction work and high testosterone or in the indecision of betrayal. Death is an inevitability for all living creatures, but these men are, in a sense, already dead, living without love, without honour, and without pity.

Kim Sung-soo makes a point of portraying violence in all of its visceral reality as bones crack and blood flows with sickening vitality. The film is extreme in its representation of what could be termed ordinary violence as men engage as equals in hand to hand combat until the machetes and hacksaws come out to combat the shootout finale, complete with the Korean hallmark corridor fight.

Beautifully shot with a neo-noir aesthetic of the nighttime, neon lit city filled with crime ridden back alleys, Asura: The City of Madness is a grimy, hardboiled tale of internecine violence fuelled by corruption and self serving compliance. The ‘80s style lowkey synth score adds a note of anxiety to the proceedings, hinting towards an almost supernatural presence in this strange city populated by the walking dead and morally bankrupt. An epic of “unheroic” bloodshed, Asura: The City of Violence presents a world which thrives on pain where men ease their suffering by transferring it to others. Bleak and nihilistic in the extreme, this is the hard edge of pulpy B-movie noir in which the men in the shadows wish they were as dark as the city streets, but find themselves imprisoned within a series of private hells which are entirely of their own making.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)