If you have little background knowledge about South Korean society, you will probably not be able to believe your eyes while watching South Korean movie “Nameless Gangster”, whose subtitle could have been “How to Succeed in Underworld Without Really Trying”. Seriously, you might ask, is it possible that he can be accepted as an elder of the crime organization just because he is an elder to the boss in his family tree, even though he has no experience with their world? Try to imagine that it is a mob family in US, and you will find that outrageously absurd.
But it was possible at least in South Korea during the 1980s, and I and other South Korean audiences who watched the film at last night know that too well. The movie evokes not only the looks and feelings of South Korea during the 1980s, but it also presents the certain disgraceful examples of South Korean male during that era. While watching its pretty unlikable protagonist, I said to myself; oh, I knew such dudes like him. They annoyed me and others like hell with their constant bluff and bragging, especially they were drunk like asshole. And some of them were actually my family members.
His name is Choi Ik-hyeon(Choi Min-sik), and he is a seedy custom employee living in Busan, a big port city which is the second largest city in South Korea. Port city usually draws the crimes like contraband trade, and Busan is no exception; there are always the people trying to smuggle something in or out of South Korea, and it is Ik-Hyeon and his colleagues’ job to catch them – and extort money for ignoring them. Their excuse: everybody does(and that’s true).
Unfortunately, there comes a sudden internal investigation and someone must take a fall, so Ik-hyeon is about to be fired because he has the least number of children among them. However, at one night, he happens to acquire the considerable amount of methamphetamine by chance, so he gets an idea; why not selling it to some local mob organization in the town?
That is how he comes to encounter a rising young boss, Choi Hyeong-bae(Ha Jeong-woo). At first, they are just a seller and a buyer, but Ik-hyeon goes further. Once he finds that Hyeong-bae is a distant relative of his(both are from the Choi family of Kyeong-joo), he begins to insinuate himself into Hyeong-bae’ organization. He proves to Hyeong-bae that he is a valuable asset to Hyeong-bae during the competition with the other local crime boss Kim Pan-ho(Jo Jin-woong), so he soon finds himself at the top – or near the top, at least.
Now, you will wonder, how can he do all these things even though he is just an ordinary ex-public servant who is not so bright? The movie sarcastically tells that all he needs for being successful is the right connections, and he does have them. There are the countless intertwined connections amidst the people in South Korean society based on family ties or school ties or other kinds of ties, and how you are connected with them will affect your life and career considerably if you are born in South Korea.
How Ik-hyeon uses these connections for his advantages and benefits is the funniest element in the film. When he is treated not so nicely by Hyeong-bae and his gangs at their first meeting, he immediately visits Hyeong-bae’s dad, who reminds his son that Ik-hyeon is an elder to Hyeong-bae in their family. Even if he is a tough guy, Hyeong-bae obeys to his father like a good son; he bows politely to Ik-hyeon and begins to treat him like his godfather. Such a mechanism like this works very well for Ik-hyeon in other cases, such as when Hyeong-bae and others are arrested by the local police. All he has to do is finding anyone powerful enough to move the law system in his family tree, to whom he can approach with the money or other kinds of bribes as lubricant through other elder family member who can introduce him as a cousin of uncle of cousin of father of cousin of… never mind.
The director/writer Yoon Jong-bin has been providing the uncomfortable but unflinchingly realistic presentation of the flaws and weakness of South Korean males and their consequent ramification. His first work, “The Unforgiven”(2005), was a low-budget film with the searing insight on how damaging the order of the ranks in South Korean military system is to young men going through their obligatory military service and how meaningless it is outside the system. His second work, “The Moonlight of Seoul”(2008), was a dry, unsentimental film about the daily life of male escorts who are nothing but trouble to the women around them.
“Nameless Gangster”, which is his third work, is no exception. Ik-hyeon is a sleazy ‘half-gangster’ with petty style but no substance. Elated by his new associates, he thinks he is a lion, but he is actually more or less than a greedy, opportunistic hyena who is coward to the strong and pompous to the weak; in other words, he is your average piggish South Korean male during the 1980s who can be far more immoral and unethical than the gang members he is associated with. Compared to him, Hyeong-bae and his gangs look like lesser evil; they certainly are dirty criminals, but they have their own codes and ethics, about which Ik-hyeon cannot care less.
The movie is personal to the director; his father was a high-ranking police officer in Busan, and he witnessed many people visiting his father for a favor, which was not so different from what is shown in the film. Yoon Jong-bin is no Martin Scorsese in case of style and storytelling, but his earnest approach to his story without the glamor we usually expect from gangster films is commendable. The recreation of the 1980s is convincing and realistic to me, especially in case of the cars rode by the characters in the film. I was young at that time, and I wanted to get in those expensive cars like Grandeur made by Hyundai(and I used to get my wish from time to time thanks to my rich relatives).
No matter how they try to look cool, the characters are basically pathetic caricatures stuck in their criminal mindset, but they are colorful ones with which the actors have a ball while doing their job flawlessly. Choi Min-sik, best remembered by the international audiences for his operatic performance in “Oldboy”(2003), is back on his full-throttle mode. His character is so repellent that we do not care about him much, but Choi Min-sik’s riveting performance grips us to his insatiable hunger for power and money. He is a vain and foolish jerk, but he is cunning and manipulative enough to find a way out for himself. We do not like him, but we watch him with amusement and disgust while wondering how far he will go while clashing with others or how he can get out of his troubles.
Choi Min-sik has the terrific ensemble supporting him. Ha Jeong-woo plays his boss character with restrained amusement(this is his third collaboration with the director). Hyeong-bae can tolerate the towering arrogance of his indulgent elder who suddenly become attached to his organization with no reason except their family ties because it is a rule, but he can be ruthless when he thinks it is necessary. Jo Jin-woong, Kim Seong-gyoon, who plays Hyeong-bae’s top lieutenant, and other actors are believable as the individuals of underworld roaming around the streets of Busan; they all wear suits, but you can easily tell apart one from the other even when you do not know their names. Ma Dong-seok is Ik-hyeon’s brother-in-law inadequate as a recruited enforcer(he says he can beat anyone in a fair fight because he is a teakwondo master – I doubt that, though he really is), and Kwak do-won is a bullying prosecutor who is as principled and uncompromising as his ambition and his system allow. Among her co-actors, Kim Hye-eun shines in few scenes as the co-owner of the night club which is the cause of the conflict in the story. As usual, girls know better than boys, and she tries to be tactful as much as she can among her bad boys.
The original Korean title of the film is “War against Crime: Golden Age of the Bad Guys”, which is rather ironic considering how its story ends. The good time is eventually over for these idiotic crooks on October 13th of 1990, when the president of South Korea declared “War Against Crime” on TV and lots of gang members of the criminal organizations around the country were promptly arrested and jailed. There are several betrayals while everything in their world is crumbled down like the house of cards near the finale – and some of the characters will be ended up in prison for a long time.
“Nameless Gangster” is a very entertaining film which is bitingly funny and realistic to me and other South Korean audiences, and you may also enjoy it as a funny guide to the dirty side of South Korean society which still remains with us even after more than 20 years. The movie slyly comments that South Korean government at that time was not that different from the gangsters in the film. The main figures of the government usurped the country with coup d’état just like the gangsters snatch the management rights of nightclubs and hotels with clubs and fists in the film, and, believe or not, there was the time they worked together ‘harmoniously’ when they were useful to each other. As a matter of fact, “War Against Crime” was no more than a public show for the people when the government needed to set an example to cover their latest corruption. In such a society like that, it is no wonder that the line between an ordinary man and a gangster is not clear at all.
Its epilogue reminds us that South Korean society has not been changed much even in the 21th century. People like Ik-hyeon did anything necessary for themselves and their family, and they survive, and they manage to maintain their proud position as someone’s father, or someone’s grandfather later. The movie gives some human side to Ik-hyeon through his few scenes with his family, who gets lots of benefits thanks to his criminal activities. I think he has no regret about his deeds because everything is justified for his family, but how do his kids think about him? I don’t know, but maybe I and other South Korean audiences also have to ask ourselves a question – how did some of our fathers survive through that era for supporting us?