South Korean crime noir film “New World” mixes many familiar elements from its genre into its story, and you may recognize some of them if you have seen its seniors such as “Internal Affairs”(2002) or “The Departed”(2006). For instance, one of the main characters is an undercover cop whose loyalty and allegiance are frequently questioned not only by the others surrounding him but also by himself, and there is also a complicated plot about the deadly struggle for power and survival inside the crime organization he ‘belongs’ to. In such a circumstance, it is no wonder that he cannot trust anyone – including himself. He says he wants to get out of his work, but is it really possible for him? And does he really want that?
The major crisis in the crime organization, which is said to be the biggest one in South Korea, begins with the sudden death of its top boss, who has recently been acquitted of some criminal charge involved with his ‘corporation’. While everybody in the organization feels uneasy and suspicious about the questionable aspects of their boss’ demise, some of the ‘executives’ are very eager to fill the empty throne, and the conflict comes down to two leading contenders: Lee Joong-goo(Park Seong-woong) and Jeong Cheong(Hwang Jeong-min).
While the tension is accumulated between these two powerful criminal figures, Mr. Kang(Choi Min-sik), a police chief who has been watching on the organization, sees a golden opportunity in this situation and concocts a secret plan with other high-ranking police officials. If they cannot get rid of the organization, then how about secretly influencing it from the behind through their man who has been successfully planted into the organization?
Their man is Lee Ja-seong(Lee Jeong-jae), Jeong Cheong’s trusted right arm. He has managed to hide his true identity from the organization members while doing his secret job in the darkness for several years, but now he is exhausted and conflicted as a man between two worlds. Jeong Cheong has trusted him like a brother, and his sincere trust and affection make Ja-seong feel more morose about his work even though he is well aware of that Jeong Cheong will kill him without any hesitation if his identity is exposed. He cannot reveal his true identity even to his wife, and her recent pregnancy does not help their estranged relationship much.
The people on his side do not help him a lot either. Ja-seong is frustrated to learn that his work is extended again because of another assignment. Mr. Kang, his direct boss, keeps promising him that Ja-seong will be pulled out of the mission as soon as the new boss of the organization is determined, but he does not tell everything to Ja-seong. It is possible that Ja-seong is not the only undercover cop infiltrating into the organization, and he knows he may be more expendable than he thinks.
While the movie keeps the tension in its story in constant level, these shady main characters interact and clash with each other in predictable but engaging ways as struggling in their dark, dangerous world. The failure is not an option for any of them, and that aspect is well reflected by several bloody violent scenes in the movie. If they are not careful enough, they may end up being at the bottom of barrel buried in the sea and nobody will look for them.
The director/writer Park Hoon-jeong is no stranger to such a gritty, desperate drama like that. He previously wrote the screenplay for Ryoo Seung-beom’s “The Unjust”(2010), which was about an ever-shifting conflict between three untrustworthy guys in their corrupt system. His first directorial effort was “The Showdown”(2011), and it was another story about a conflict between three characters who do not like and trust each other even when a big danger is approaching toward them.
While his story does not surpass the stereotypes and conventions of its genre, Park Hoon-jeong made a compelling crime drama which can hold our attention even in its predictable turns. Even though I came to get a pretty good idea about what would happen in the end, I followed the story with interest, and the movie competently delivered its payoff as expected.
Although there is always the distant feeling toward the broad characters who mainly care about their survival and benefit, the good performances ably support the story. While Lee Jeong-jae looks a little too bland compared to his more colorful co-performers, he is adequately neutral as a man accustomed to hiding his inner conflicts from his ‘colleagues’, and he has a good scene in which Ja-seong must hide his feelings no matter how he feels about the doomed fate of a certain supporting character.
Lee Jeong-jae is assisted well by a bunch of flashier performances surrounding him. Choi Min-sik is a shabby but wily man who pushes and manipulates others for getting his work done; he does not like what he does, but he also knows well what should be done for the mission supervised by him, and he is willing to do it by any means necessary. Park Seong-woong is effectively aggressive as a substantial supporting character in the story, and Hwang Jeong-min gives the best performance in the film as a flamboyant but ruthless gangster who turns out to be more loyal than we thought. There is a crucial scene between him and Ja-seong later in the story, and we do not need explanation about Ja-seong’s subsequent decision because everything is shown through the two men having the most honest moment in their friendship.
I have some reservations about the movie because of its several notable flaws(the female characters in the story are mostly flat and they are more or less than the accessories to the story), but I enjoyed the performances, and I appreciated its slick, competent handling of the genre conventions. It still looks like an imitation of crime noir film, but it is a good one none the less.