The lure of power and money creates an unlikely thug in Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time, a muscular and enormously entertaining South Korean crime epic that might have Scorsese looking over his shoulder.
Hitching a blithe surface mood to the violent, amoral world of organized crime a la GoodFellas, the young writer-director Yun Jong-Bin (The Moonlight of Seoul, The Unforgiven) has crafted a brutal study of widespread corruption, powered by a crackerjack performance from leading Korean actor Choi Min-sik (Old Boy) as a civil servant who climbs the underworld ladder to crime lord.
Nameless Gangsterwas a hit at the South Korean box office, where it drew a million moviegoers in its first four days, and holds considerable appeal for international audiences willing to embrace subtitles for a superior slap of violence. It went down a treat at the New York Asian Film Festival earlier this month and has been selected for the Melbourne International Film Festival in August.
Set in the Korean port city of Busan, Jong-Bin spins a fictional mob thriller from the real-life underworld clashes that followed president Roh Tae-woo’s official declaration of war on organized crime in 1990. Flashing back to an authentically recreated 1980s, we meet Choi Ik-hyun (Min-sik), a chubby customs official with a bad haircut who is not averse to taking a low-level bribe.
Fate and circumstance, including a massive methamphetamine shipment landing in his lap at the docks, lead Ik-hyun to gangland kingpin Hyung-bae Choi (The Chaser’s charismatic Ha Jung-woo.) The young Hyung-bae is as cool and suave as the often-drunk Ik-hyun is rumpled and bumbling but the two discover they are tenuously related and, due to the heavy-duty role afforded family ties in Korea, form a mutually beneficial partnership.
With Ik-hyun exploiting his little black book of political connections and his partner providing the muscle, they rise to rule the criminal underworld but the relationship, forever on shaky ground, begins to crumble when the government starts its clampdown and Ik-hyun appears to be in cahoots with rival gangster Kim Pan-ho (Jo Jin-woong.)
Ik-hyun is a fascinating, if often detestable, character.
Thanks to a brilliant, full-throttle performance by the changeable Min-sik, we are never sure whether the civil servant with the hangdog features and the loud mouth is a devious mastermind or a doofus who got lucky. We do know he is grasping and opportunistic with a much shakier moral code than his dyed-in-the-wool gangster cohorts.
He slips through the underworld and the corrupt tiers of government, greasing palms and flattering egos, manipulating the countless familial connections that prop up Korean society and occasionally resorting to flashes of uber-violence.
Vicious beatdowns are rife here but the standard trappings of the genre and the rise-and-fall narrative arc are transcended by a witty – bordering on satirical – social commentary on the times. Director Yun Jong-Bin captures the raw excitement of the criminal underbelly but appears to pity its denizens, sketching a bleak portrait of a society mired in corruption and packed with individuals playing dirty for their own survival.
The complex interplay between the two leads forms the nucleus of this sharply written drama, although performances are uniformly committed. As in most organized crime films, female characters are scarce, although Kim Hye-eun manages to distinguish herself as a cold-blooded nightclub queen.
From the cars to the tailored power suits, the period detail can’t be faulted, lending a compelling authenticity to the filmmaker’s examination of the era’s questionable mores and political realities.
Production company: Palette Pictures
Cast: Choi Min-Sik, Ha Jung-Woo, Jo Jin-Woong, Ko In-Beom
Writer-director: Yun Jong-Bin
Producers: Park Shin-kyu, Han Jae-duk
Executive producers: You Jeong-hun
Director of photography: Ko Rak-sun
Production designer: Cho Hwa-sung
Costume designers: Kwon Yoo-jin, Rim Seung-hee
Music: Cho Young-wuk
Editor: Kim Sang-bum
Sales: Showbox, Seoul
No MPAA rating, 133 minutes