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The Korean Gangland Is 'a Dirty Carnival'

2008/05/26 | Permalink | Source

Yoo Ha's searing crime melodrama deserves kudos

Kyu Hyun Kim (qhyunkim)

Byung-Doo, lanky and adorable, (played by TV drama star Jo In-sung from "Something Happened in Bali") is a 29-year-old career criminal working for the middle-rank enforcer Sang-Chul (Yoon Je-moon, a Molotov-cocktail-loving vagrant in "The Host"). Burdened with a terminally ill mother and taking care of younger siblings, Byung-Doo is feeling financial pressure as a substitute patriarch. When the big boss President Hwang (Chun Ho-jin, "The Big Swindle", "Crying Fist") is cornered by a corrupt prosecutor, Byung-Doo volunteers for a whack job and wins the man's trust. However, his real trouble begins when friend Min-Ho (Namgoong Min), an aspiring movie director, asks him to be a "consultant" for the latter's debut film, a gangster epic not unlike "Dirty Carnival".

Yoo Ha's follow-up to the successful "Once Upon A Time In Highschool" is another intelligent, fast-moving and ultimately poignant melodrama that actually reminds one of the classic gangster pictures from Hollywood's yesteryears. Despite its self-reflexive modernistic devices, such as having a filmmaker as a character, "A Dirty Carnival" shares the kind of straightforwardness and moral concerns that would not be out of place in films like James Cagney's "Angels with Dirty Faces" (1938).

Yoo, who grew up in a rough neighborhood, refuses to romanticize the thugs. They are the scum of society, parasitic worms nourished by Korea's vast underground economy and controlled by a clean-cut businessman like President Hwang, who quips, "real gangsters don't use knives, they use calculators", and never once raises his hand or voice against his underlings. (It is wonderful to see Chun returning to the type of classy villain role first shown in the underrated "Double Agent".)

The unfussy, straightforward approach is extended to the film's ugly and painful "action" scenes. They can only be aptly described as eruptions of violence, as each baseball bat swing lands with a bone-cracking crunch and each sashimi knife stab is felt by a viewer with an involuntary cringe. You are impressed as hell at Yoo's directorial prowess, but only afterwards: while you are watching these scenes, you want them to be over.

The movie-within-a-movie subplot could have been a mess but is handled surprisingly well. Min-Ho, an obvious stand-in for Yoo Ha himself, pays a steep price for not realizing his complicity in perpetuating the vicious cycle of violence and hypocrisy in real life through his "art". There's no tasteful "ambiguity" to sneakily rehabilitate an artist's privileged position here. At times this section appears to be a barely veiled commentary on the symbiotic relationship going on in real time between Korean filmmakers and career criminals, especially the rather ugly aftermath of the financial success of "Friends".

Jo In-sung, who occasionally looks like an overgrown junior-high kid, with his crew-cut plate and doe eyes, was a risky casting choice for the title role but he pulls it off. While not a brilliant actor yet, Jo is believably awkward and conflicted in key emotional scenes, especially working opposite terrific supporting players like Yoon and Cheon. Ironically, it is his romance with the childhood sweetheart Hyun-Joo (Lee Bo-young), a terrain that Jo and Yoo Ha should be familiar with, that feels lifeless and cliched.

While "Dirty Carnival" does not break new ground for the gangster-film genre, and its narrative is ultimately fairly conventional, it is nonetheless a superior example of a talented director with something worthwhile to say saying it with economy and confidence, within the perimeter of an established genre.

DVD Presentation:

Genius Entertainment. NTSC. Dual layer. Region 1. Video: Anamorphic widescreen, 2.35:1. Audio: Korean Dolby Digital 5.0. Subtitles: English. Supplement: Making-of featurette, deleted scenes. Retail price: $24.95. Released: May 20, 2008.

Genius Entertainment, a big DVD distribution company, has recently jumped into direct releasing of Asian titles. I am not sure whether this is a long-term policy or a temporary measure resulting from copyright/distribution deal disputes, but in any case, "A Dirty Carnival" receives a rather indifferently designed if qualitatively superior presentation in Region 1 DVD from Genius.

Transfer is generally satisfactory: every so often the picture gets excessively grainy and black levels get wobbly, but this might have been the problem with original film elements. The film's harrowing scenes of violence, which often employs direct overhead shots, are very effectively conveyed. The audio is equally good with unusually crisp Korean dialogues sometimes taking a back seat to the saccharine score by Jo Yeong-wook. English subtitles are above average, avoiding excessive crudeness and displaying excellent fidelity to Korean colloquialisms.

Supplementary materials include one short-form documentary on designing action sequences that is surprisingly detailed and features input from all major staff and cast members except Chun Ho-jin. Deleted scenes mostly center on character development of Byung-Doo and Min-Ho. The supplements come with very good English subtitles.

Overall, the presentation is on a par with Tartan USA's best efforts. The only noticeable defect is a rather ugly and (literally) colorless cover design. One interesting tidbit is that all retail advertisements for the DVD show a cover with Jo In-Sung carrying a huge gun (as shown here), which is completely inappropriate given the content of the movie, whereas the copy I have received shows him holding a jackknife. I am not sure what is going on here, but if this change was due to a response to someone pointing out the incongruity of a Korean gangster casually brandishing a pistol, then Genius deserves praise.

☆☆☆★★

2008 OhmyNews

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