Saturday, October 16, 2021

Korean Gangster films

In the late 1990s, it was difficult to come across many Korean films at the video stores. Bong Joon-ho hadn’t directed his first feature yet, Park Chan-Wook, Hong Sang-soo, Kim Ki-duk weren’t well known directors and only had 2-3 features to their name. While distribution of Contemporary Korean films was almost non-existent, the situation with classic Korean cinema was worse. Kim Ki-young’s 1960 classic film The Housemaid hadn’t been re-released while the Busan Film festival was still a few years away from showcasing many classic Korean films for the world. 2000 marked a shift in the release calendar of Korean Cinema although it took me a few years to notice due to slow distribution of the films. Bong Joon-ho’s first feature Barking Dogs Never Bite came out in 2000, the same year that Park Chan-Wook’s Joint Security Area, Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle and Hong Sang-soo’s third feature Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors.

Fast forward to 2019 when Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite Won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and then went onto win 6 Awards at the 2020 Academy Awards including winning the Best Film and Best Director Oscar. In a two decade span, Korean cinema has gone from strength to strength offering films in every genre, from pulsating thrillers to crime films, sugary romantic films, sci-fi, drama, comedy, relationship films, horror, zombie films and even their own take on a Western. While most in North America have only recently found their way to Korean Cinema, Hollywood has long been aware and that was evident when they remade the 2001 Korean film My Sassy Girl into a Hollywood version in 2008.

Of the various genres, Korean thrillers and crime films have stood out over time and made their mark on the film festival circuit. Early on, Kim Ki-duk and Park Chan-wook grabbed the attention with their violent films. Kim Ki-duk started off with The Isle and Bad Guy (2001) but Park Chan-wook truly shot in the spotlight with his Vengeance trilogy: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance. Bong Joon-ho made his name with Memories of Murder (2003), an intense serial killer investigative film. However, back then I was still viewing these films in isolation without a proper working knowledge of Korean cinema. Therefore, the reference point of such Korean crime films was a combination of Japanese gangster films (such as those of Takashi Miike, Takeshi Kitano) and Hong Kong crime cinema especially that of John Woo’s cinema. Over time, many Korean crime films started to develop their own cinematic style and visual language. The quality improved greatly as did the output.

In the early 2000s, I could keep tabs on major Korean crime films, especially the gangster sub-genre. However, with the growing output over the last decade, it has been difficult to keep track of all the different Korean gangster movies. Therefore, this isn’t a comprehensive list and certainly not a Best all-time list of South Korean Gangster films. These are notes on some of the best Korean gangster films I have seen over the last decade.

Top 5 Korean Gangster Films (roughly in order of preference):

Breathless (2009, Yang Ik-June)

A hard hitting remarkable film that initially appears to be a run of the mill gangster film before unveiling its true strength.

The first 20 minutes appear to be routine stuff straight out of most Korean/Japanese gangster films: punching, swearing and some slapping. The person dishing out all these is Sang-Hoon (played by the director himself), one of the nastiest on screen personas ever seen on camera. The violence is put in context via a flashback when we observe a tragic episode in Sang-Hoon’s childhood where his mother and sister were accidentally killed in an episode of domestic violence. Sang-Hoon never forgave his father and after his father is released from prison, Sang-Hoon visits and beats him up frequently. Sang-Hoon’s kicks at his father usually occur at the end of night when a drunk Sang-Hoon ponders over his past. The father quietly accepts the beatings.

Sang-Hoon is a loner with no friends but one day he comes across a fiery teenage girl, Yeon-Hue, who refuses to take his abuse and fires back. The two form an unusual friendship and take comfort in each other’s presence, even though the two swear and put each other down. It turns out that another example of domestic abuse is taking shape in Yeon-Hue’s house, where her teenage brother is just starting to assert his “manliness” by taking his anger out on his sister. The abuse that Yeon-Hue suffers is two fold because her father is mentally disturbed (triggered most likely after his wife and Yeon-Hue’s mother’s death) and hurls profanity at his daughter frequently.

Breathless shows how a cycle of violence can continue beyond generations and that kids who witness violence in their youth can grow up and re-enact those same episodes onto others. While the film may not be the most pleasant to watch, it takes a brave stand in drawing a direct line from domestic abuse to gangster violence. There are some examples of youth joining the gang due to unemployment but the film emphasizes the cycle of violence aspect quite clearly.

There are many movies out there which have graphic scenes of violence and horror and the directors of such graphic films defend their works by emphasizing their movies are anti-violence and the violent scenes are meant to prove a point. But in most cases, these movies end up glorifying violence because the consequences of violence is never fully explored. On the other hand, Breathless clearly depicts the danger of a violent life, whether that life is in a household or in a gang. There is a consequence to every violent action and Yang Ik-June’s film is the only one I can think of that has a purpose for every scene of violence and abuse. This film should be shown to every teenage and adult male. And if after seeing this film, those males would still opt for a violent life, then there is no hope not only for those people but humanity in general. And to think that Ddongpari (Breathless) was a debut feature by Yang Ik-June!

A Dirty Carnival (2006, Ha Yu)

The gripping A Dirty Carnival starts off as a gangster flick but things get interesting when the gangster, Byeong-du, runs into his old school friend Min-ho. The two share memories in a cafe and head to a old reunion with other friends where Byeong-du meets his old school flame Hyeon-ju. The entire setup among the friends has shades of the reunion from Hong Sang-soo’s Women is the Future of Man and has a very easy flow to it. Min-ho wants to be a filmmaker and is struggling to get a realistic script written about gangsters. Byeong-du offers to help Min-ho etch out realistic gangster characters for his film by offering advice and introducing Min-ho to other gangsters. Trusting in their friendship, Byeong-du confides about his real life killings to Min-ho only for Min-ho to include the exact real life murder scenarios in his film as opposed to creating a work of fiction. When Min-ho’s gangster film becomes a hit, Byeong-du is under pressure from his gang members and boss to kill Min-ho lest all the crimes of Byeong-du are revealed to the rival gangs. Byeong-du finds himself in a tough bind and struggles to maintain both his friendship with Min-ho and relationship with Hyeon-ju.

A Dirty Carnival breathes new life into the over-worked gangster sub-genre by focussing more on the characters and their relationships. Even though there are some edgy and rough fight sequences involving bats and knives, they are put on the back burner when the film within a film element takes centerstage. During key moments in the film the background score is similar to the music one finds on a merry-go round carousel signifying the cyclic nature of business in the gangster world -- round and round the crime business goes and when one gangster gets off the high horse, another is waiting to take his place. There is no time to rest because if one stops, then they will surely get knocked off and crushed.

Rough Cut (2008, Hun Jang)

Rough Cut is a fascinating no holds barred action film that puts a new spin on the traditional gangster sub-genre. Some aspects of the film within a film story are similar to the extraordinary Korean film A Dirty Carnival but Rough Cut has gone in a far more gritty direction with good effect. Kim Ki-duk's screenplay is different from anything he done before, and that includes the gangster film Bad Guy that he directed early in his career. 

The Outlaws (2017, Kang Yoon-Seong)

A raw violent film based on real life events. The setting of the film differs from other films in the sub-genre as the film highlights turf wars between Chinese and Korean gangs set in Chinatown of Seoul’s Guro district. The core reason for the fights is how gangs extort money from helpless owners of shops in Chinatown. The cops are out to get the ruthless leaders and the film is packed with many elements of raw violence: hand to hand combat, knives, axes, limbs getting chopped. Remarkably, not a single bullet is fired in the film. It is safe to say some of the originality that made Rough Cut stand out has been incorporated in a slew of Korean films making it the new normal portrayal of incidents. What makes the film standout is the brilliant acting of Ma Dong-seok as a tough cop who likes to slap the truth out of criminals.

Ma Dong-seok in The Outlaws

The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil (2019, Lee Won-Tae)

As the title indicates, the film combines three different sub-genres of crime films in a seamless manner, with the devil representing the serial killer. Again, Ma Dong-seok steals the show but this time he is playing the hard punching gangster Jang Dong-soo. The chemistry between the live wire and erratic detective Kim Mu-Yeol (Jung Tae-seok) and Jang Dong-soo elevates the film as the two are forced to combine forces in order to hunt down the serial killer. The film perfectly showcases the strength of Korean Crime films and it isn’t a surprise that this will be remade into a Hollywood film, courtesy of Sylvester Stallone and his Balboa Productions.

Honourable mention:

A Company Man (2012, Lim Sang-yoon)

A film about hitmen and assassins who dress up in their crisp suits/dresses and go to work like everyday people waiting to get daily assignments. Their front office looks like any other office with its cubicles, stacks of papers, printers and window offices. But the bland front office is a cover for a world of hitmen with their own set of rules and codes. The characters are cut from the cloth of many previously seen cinematic creations in Korean, Japanese and Hong Kong Cinema. Interestingly, the unique coded world of the assassins can be seen a precursor to John Wick with one difference: A Company Man takes place in the day while John Wick talks place during neon-lit nights and in shadows.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

Best Films of 2020

The previous Best Films of 2020 list included some 2019 titles as I had still had to catch up with quite a few 2020 titles. Therefore, an update is in order with a list that only includes 2020 films.

Best Films of 2020

1. Milestone (India, Ivan Ayr)
2. The Salt in our Waters (Bangladesh/France, Rezwan Shahriar Sumit)
3. The Disciple (India, Chaitanya Tamhane)
4. Undine (Germany/France, Christian Petzold)
5. The Alien (Iran, Nader Saeivar)
6. There is no Evil (Iran, Mohammad Rasoulof)
7. Piedra Sola (Argentina/Mexico/Qatar/UK, Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf)
8. Exil (Germany/Belgium/Kosovo, Visar Morina)
9. Da 5 Bloods (2020, USA, Spike Lee)
10. Fauna (Mexico/Canada, Nicolás Pereda)

Honourable mentions (alphabetical order):

City Hall (USA, Frederick Wiseman)
Days (Taiwan, Tsai Ming-liang)
Days of Cannabalism (France/South Africa/Holland, Teboho Edkins)
Gulabo Sitabo (India, Shoojit Sircar)
Let Him Go (USA, Thomas Bezucha)
A Machine to Live In (USA, Yoni Goldstein/Meredith Zielke)
Mangrove (UK, Steve McQueen)
Nothing but the Sun (Paraguay/Argentina/Switzerland, Arami Ullon)
Notturno (Italy/France/Germany, Gianfranco Rosi)
Window Boy Would also Like to Have a Submarine (Uruguay/Argentina/Brazil/Holland/ Philippines, Alex Piperno)

Monday, October 04, 2021

Top Italian films of All Time

Wonders in the Dark is having a Greatest Italian Films of All time poll. Each participant is expected to only submit a top 20, either in ranked order or alphabetical.

It is quite tough to narrow this list down to only 20 Italian films or to arrange them in order of preference. Other than my top 2, the remaining films can change based on month or year. For now, I will put this down and revisit this list in the future to see how this order changes.

Top 20 Italian Films

1. The Battle of Algiers (1966, Gillo Pontecorvo)
2. Hands over the City (1963, Francesco Rosi)
3. Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica)
4. Il Posto (1961, Ermanno Olmi)
5. L’Eclisse (1962, Michelangelo Antonioni)
6. La Dolce Vita (1960, Federico Fellini)
7. Il Sorpasso (1962, Dino Risi)
8. 8 1/2 (1963, Federico Fellini)
9. La Strada (1954, Federico Fellini)
10. L’Avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni)
11. Fists in the Pocket (1965, Marco Bellocchio)
12. Cinema Paradiso (1988, Giuseppe Tornatore)
13. Rocco and His Brothers (1960, Luchino Visconti)
14. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Sergio Leone)
15. Rome, Open City (1945, Roberto Rossellini)
16. I Fidanzati (1963, Ermanno Olmi)
17. Umberto D. (1952, Vittorio De Sica)
18. The Conformist (1970, Bernardo Bertolucci)
19. Salvatore Giuliano (1962, Francesco Rosi)
20. Mid-August Lunch (2008, Gianni Di Gregorio)