Sunday, March 22, 2009

Film archive: A Dirty Carnival

A Dirty Carnival (2006)Original title: Biyeolhan geori. Also listed as "Dirty Carnival"

While the Hong Kong film industry doesn’t seem to produce gangster movies as vital as it has in the past, in Korea the gangster flick is seemingly in robust health. 2001’s “Friend” is generally seen as the genre’s defining statement, but “A Dirty Carnival”, the 2006 release from director Yu Ha (“The Spirit of Jeet Kune Do”), ranks right up there with it.

Much of “A Dirty Carnival” follows the conventions typical of gangster movies regardless of the country of origin; an ambitious young tyro advances from lowly status to a major player in the criminal underworld. Of course, that rise through the ranks does not come without having to make some unsavory choices along the way, and usually contains the seeds of the character’s inevitable downfall.

It’s a well-worn plot thread, but the devil is in the detail. One of the masterstrokes of “A Dirty Carnival” is the casting of Jo In-seong in the lead role as the thug with aspirations, Kim Byung-du. The clean-cut In-seong is better known as a heart-throb in romantic movies, and his boyish good looks serve well to illustrate the contradictions of Byung-du. He is a young man devoted to his mother and siblings, and trying earnestly to win the affections of a sweet girl who disapproves of his lifestyle. Yet he is also caught up in the criminal world and sees little way out but upwards through the organisation, which of course brings its own ugly responsibilities. And when these moments of violence rear their head, the wild light and intensity in his eyes show the other side to Byung-du. It’s a masterful performance for an actor previously known only for his looks.

The other major aspect of “A Dirty Carnival” that sets it apart is the subplot surrounding Byung-du’s relationship with his old school friend Min-ho (Nam Gung-Min). Min-ho is an aspiring film-maker who wants to make a gangster movie, and is inspired by Byung-du’s lifestyle, which both fascinates and repulses him. But there is a parallel between these two young men. Just as Byung-du must betray his superior to take his place in the gang, Min-ho’s use of Byung-du’s stories in his film unsurprisingly leads to complications for the gangster. Nam Gung-Min also puts in a superb performance as a decent young man whose ambition leads him to ultimately betray his friend.

The other subplot is Byung-du’s attempt to conduct a relationship with Hyun-ju (Lee Bo-young), a girl from his old school, re-introducted to him by Min-ho. Far from being a gangster’s moll-type character, Hyun-ju is a relative innocent who is scared off by the undercurrent of violence in Byung-du’s life. Yet he pursues her nonetheless, and the pureness of his devotion to her, and his schoolboy-like awkwardness of his courtship, demonstrates the layers of his complex persona.

There are particularly Korean flavours to the movie which set it apart from other countries’ gangster flicks. The uninhibited and campy karaoke sessions where Byung-du and his henchmen let off steam after a job provide a funny and intriguing counterpoint to the violence they perpetrate elsewhere. Also a particularly electrifying battle scene early in the movie against a rival gang demonstrates the code of honour between the gangs; the intense but non-lethal stoush with rubber baseball bats suddenly takes a more sinister turn when Byung-du’s boss pulls a knife.

Alongside movies such as “The Host”, “My Wife is a Gangster” and “Oldboy”, this is more proof that the South Korean industry is producing some phenomenal work that needs to be taken seriously around the world.

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