Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Tribeca Part 4: Korean Gangsters

Things did get better at Tribeca, before they got worse again.

Before I go into that, in response to ‘heckler blog,’ who’s apparently created an account just to comment here (perhaps he should have named himself ‘blog heckler’), I have to reiterate that I realize my story about Jamie Kennedy and Pablo is hearsay. However, in the little time I’ve known Pablo, he has proven himself a very trustworthy person. He acknowledged that the crowd seemed to be against him. No surprise, really; there might have been some Jamie Kennedy fans at the premiere of his new film, and they might not be the type of people who are predisposed to listen to someone who speaks very good English (but with a foreign accent) criticize their hero. I have absolutely no reason to doubt his account of what happened.

That said, I think you might be right about me being a nerd. So that stung a little.

Anyway, the two best films of the few I managed to see at Tribeca were Michael Kang’s West 32nd and Yoo Ha’s A Dirty Carnival, which has already achieved some success in South Korea.

Both are follow-ups to films that I liked a lot. West 32nd is Kang’s second feature. His debut was the humane but brutally honest coming-of-age comedy, The Motel. A Dirty Carnival follows Yoo’s well-executed political/social drama, Once Upon a Time in High School.

I was slightly disappointed in West 32nd, not so much because of the film’s shortcomings, but because in many ways it is a standard, if culturally specific, gangster film, and with my enthusiasm for The Motel, I was expecting even more. It’s a solidly entertaining drama about a driven young attorney, John Kim
(John Cho of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle), who, in his efforts to help the family of a Korean teenager who’s been arrested for murder, immerses himself in the shady underworld of Manhattan’s Koreatown, with the untrustworthy, volatile low-level gangster, Mike Juhn (a noteworthy debut from Jun Sung Kim), as his guide.

John’s beneficence is motivated in part by his attraction to Lila Lee (Grace Park, whom fellow nerds will recognize from Battlestar Galactica, handling a challengingly complex role with aplomb), the older sister of the murder suspect.

Naturally, things spiral out of control, and John, unable to turn away from the case, finds himself increasingly wrapped up in Mike’s chaotic world.

Kang writes multilayered, believable characters, directs his actors with skill, handles the violence reasonably well (including a chopstick assault lifted from Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks), keeps things moving forward despite an incident-laden plot, and his film has a strong sense of place, and of community, from the room salons of Chelsea to the Korean neighborhoods of Flushing, Queens. But I didn’t find the story quite as convincing as the characters or the setting.

A Dirty Carnival is also a standard gangster story in some ways, but Yoo Ha writes and directs it with such power and energy that it transcends any genre limitations. This is the gangster saga at its pinnacle.

In an amazingly magnetic performance (I almost think you can tell how good he is, and how well shot the film is, from the screenshots posted here), Jo In-Seong plays Byung-du, a low-level gangster with money troubles who finds brutality and murder the only way to ingratiate himself to a mob boss (Jeon Ho-jin) and get ahead.

He turns out to be quite good at it, but naturally, there are complications in his rise to the top. Aside from his dangerous gangster rivals, Byung-du has to contend with a
manipulative old school friend, Min-ho (Min Nam-gung), a desperate aspiring filmmaker. Min-ho wants to make a gangster movie, and he needs Byung-du’s help to make it gritty and believable.

Min-ho ingratiates himself by re-introducing Byung-du to his old high school crush, Hyun-ju (Lee Bo-yeong).

The fascinatingly detailed and fluid relationships between the characters, combined with the strong visuals, the magnificently choreographed chaos of the fight scenes, and Yoo’s intricate but believable plot, held me rapt throughout its 141 minute running time. This is a special film, and Yoo may now be in the same class with the immensely talented Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host)

If I’m up to it, I may come back later and write something about the last film I saw at Tribeca, Rise: Blood Hunter, yet another Avid-fart (term © Vern) -laden saga of a vampire who hunts her own kind, this one distinguished by the surprisingly frequent appearance of the bare boobs of Lucy Liu’s body double.

Or maybe that says it all.


StephaniePisces said...

Lucy Liu is no Lina Romay.

Then again, there is a rumor that LL's body double is, in fact, Romay.

Anonymous said...

I think I'm actually a blogger now, is this is my fifth post of the day. And I learned how to digg, too. At any rate, Josh's passion for Korean film is convincing and contageous. A Dirty Carnival sounds like an interesting character study of a hit man, dramatized rather than verbalized--like is is on the Sopranos.