The full of this movie is a little ironic, given the nature of the main character. His name is Choi Ik-Hyun and he wants everyone to know it.
It’s the dude from Oldboy.
Free on Amazon Prime. Approximately 134 minutes.
The movie starts out in October of 1990 with the arrest of Choi Ik-Hyun during a general crackdown (or “war”) on organized crime. It is unclear what he is charged with, but it appears that he is the head of a crime syndicate with Yakuza ties. He is, apparently, connected to many crimes, including the recent assault on a hotel owner by gangsters, though Choi was not present during the attack. While locked up, Choi tells Prosecutor Jo that he is a respected civil servant and Prosecutor Jo responds by assaulting him in his cell. And just as soon as you can shout out “brutality”, we flash back to March of 1982. And if you had shouted out “brutality”, you may wish to reconsider after a few minutes.
Choi Ik-Hyun is a mild mannered customs inspector at the docks of Busan, the second largest metropolis in South Korea. We first see him reluctantly (yeah, right) accepting a bribe from a smuggler under the flimsy excuse that the smuggler is related to his supervisor. Yep, family is very important to Ik-Hyun as we will soon find out. Immediately after this scene, the inspection team finds out that someone has reported some crime to the prosecution. What crime? Well, it turns out to not really matter to the story, since it could have been one of any of the crimes that allowed the inspection team to hide all of that confiscated contraband in the bathroom.
The next scene establishes both his character and that of Kim Sung-Bang. Kim is engaged to Ik-Hyun’s sister and Ik-Hyun is giving his blessing. Though it is pretty obvious that his family is not well off, Ik-Hyun boasts about the noble heritage and influence of the Choi family of Gyeong-ju. He talks of politicians and military leaders, as if that makes up for him being a mere customs inspector. Ik-Hyun bestows upon Kim some money and what looks to be a pretty expensive watch (this upsets Ik-Hyun’s wife). He also brags about young son, while neglecting to talk about his two older daughters. Okay, maybe he mentions his daughter after the scene changes, but that does not change the fact that he and his wife kept having children until they had a son.
The next scene shows that Ik-Hyun’s boasting was just that, as the rest of the inspection team pressures him to retire and take the fall for the scandal. They use the excuse that he has the fewest number of kids, but the real reason was probably either that he was the last one to take a bribe or that he was the most annoying of the bunch. I guess that he should have kept going after having a son.
That night, as Ik-Hyun is complaining to his soon-to-be-former coworker about being forced out, he catches a pair of men trying to open up a crate. He and his coworker chase them off and find 10 kilograms of heroin in the crate. Patriot that he is, Ik-Hyun says that he wants to sell the drugs to someone who will ship the stuff to Japan as retribution for 36 years of colonial rule. After listening to Ik-Hyun claiming that the heroin will kill all of the Japanese and allow Korea to achieve its rightful place in the world, his coworker says that he knows a gangster who has ties to the Yakuza. Well…
That gangster is Choi Hyung-Bae. They make a deal and the meeting is about to end, but Ik-Hyung is drunk and…a real jerk. He deduces that he and Choi Hyung-Bae are part of the same Choi family, and that he is four generations higher than Hyung-Bae. He reasons that this gives him license to act superior to Hyung-Bae and order him around. Hyung-Bae does not take kindly to this, so his deputy smacks Ik-Hyun around and throws him out. Ik-Hyun responds by going to Hyung-Bae’s father, who orders Hyung-Bae to treat him with the respect he deserves under Confucian rules. If this were a Western movie, Hyung-Bae might feign respect while looking for the first opportunity to kill Ik-Hyun, but this is South Korea, so Hyung-Bae seems pretty sincere. The Choi pair finish up their deal in Hyung-Bae’s office and go to dinner to settle up.
At the restaurant (or some sort of hostess club), Ik-Hyun starts acting like Hyung-Bae is his protégé, boasting about his political connections and promising to take Hyung-Bae’s organization to new heights. Almost immediately, Ik-Hyun encounters his former boss from the port. He jokes around, but when his jokes start getting dirty, his former boss smacks him and Ik-Hyun then gets violent, kicking and stomping on the man mercilessly. Hyung-Bae sees it all and is impressed. Everyone else looks shocked and scared.
Ik-Hyun the gangster is born. And, of course, by the grace of being Hyung-Bae’s elder, he becomes near—if not at—the top of the organization. He fancies himself as the brains to Hyung-Bae’s muscles. He sometimes tries, awkwardly, to mimic Hyung-Bae’s ways in order to establish himself as a legitimate gangster, though it is clear that he knows little about the gangster codes of conduct and no one else in the group really knows who he is.
Throughout the eight years, Ik-Hyun shows himself to be a wannabe amongst gangsters. He likes bully people around, but is often unprepared for the violence that follows. He deliberately ropes Hyung-Bae (and Kim Sung-Bang, who turns to be just as pathetic as Ik-Hyun) into a conflict with a gang under Hyung-Bae’s former associate, but then gets upset when this starts to escalate into a gang war. He helps the gang through his ability to manipulate family connections (including to family members whom he did not knew) and other personal connections to the powerful in politics and the business world. While the previous movie that I have reviewed touches upon the challenges to measuring up to the spirit of Confucianism, this one is all about cynically following and evoking Confucian protocol. Ik-Hyun is well-versed in the art of kissing up to people in places of power, which helps him and Hyung-Bae get business. So, he is not totally useless. His arrogance and ignorance regarding gangster rules, however, frequently gets them both in trouble. He often has to use his numerous connections to clean up his own messes, though he never phrases it like that. Ik-Hyun seems to believe that his connections to the powerful people insulates him from harm, and gets indignant when the law gets in his way or when gangster rules clash with the Confucian rules that he knows.
Ik-Hyun puts on airs of being tough, the #1 man in Busan. In reality, he is a weak and pathetic man with a ridiculous sense of entitlement and self-importance. And he does not seem to acknowledge that everyone knows this. He starts walking around with a gun, which a rarity in South Korea, but he never gets bullets for it. It is only through Hyung-Bae’s sense of family loyalty that Ik-Hyun receives respect within the criminal underworld and is allowed to remain at the top. And as the years go by, Ik-Hyun tests that loyalty more and more. It is a pretty impressive feat that, in a movie about violent thugs, this man can come off as worse than any of them. It Is difficult to like Ik-Hyun, but it is certainly amusing to see how his attitude causes trouble and how his skills at gaming the system gets him out. Towards the end, you might grow to sympathize with him a little…maybe.
It is probably for the best that the movie starts out with Ik-Hyun in prison, if only to provide a sense that he will finally get his comeuppance. Of course, he has not changed and is still up to his old tricks, which still seem to work as well as they did before. He tries to use his connection to a chief prosecutor in the Choi family to discourage Prosecutor Jo from pursuing the case. There is a bit of sadistic joy in seeing Ik-Hyun repeatedly try to kiss up to Prosecutor Jo through his usual tactics and having Jo disdainfully and aggressively reject him. On the other hand, one may get the impression that Jo is just a bigger fish from a bigger pond, and no less of a bully than Ik-Hyun. During the years of Ik-Hyun rise, South Korea was under what was arguably the worst dictatorship of its history. During years of his downfall, South Korea was under another dictatorship. While organized crime in South Korea may not have been as big as in other countries, there was an understanding between gangsters and the government. Ik-Hyun was a horrible man, but was he that much different from anyone else in the government at the time?
As the film progresses, Ik-Hyun’s insistence to the authorities that he is merely a civil servant start sounding less like lies and more like an indictment of the South Korean government, a place full of egotistical bullies, manipulative backstabbers, and power-mad cowards. While it is unclear whether the film is actually making a statement about Confucianism or the tradition of networking that goes on in East Asian countries, it does show them as being open to massive corruption. Maybe that is why Ik-Hyun was able to get as far as he did and how he was able to keep from staying down after falling so many times. He can afford to be a bumbler, since he knows how the big game is played.
The film is not without flaws. Even with the brutal violence that we sometimes see, the characters seem to recover pretty quickly, and the time jumps kind of gloss over the healing process. Additionally, some of the time jumps gloss over periods where it seemed like Ik-Hyun may have done a lot, particularly during the years prior to his arrest. Like many gangster films, this is primarily a boy’s club. One could find it notable that Ik-Hyun focuses on his distant male relative, his brother-in-law, and his son, while ignoring his wife, sister, and daughters; the movie, however, seems to do the same thing. I think that he even has a second sister whom we barely see, if we even do. There is a woman amongst the gangsters and her role is pretty interesting, but she does not get much screen time. This may be the movie trying to comment on the character’s view towards women, but indulges in it as well.
Many critics have compared this film to a Scorsese gangster flick and I sort of see it. There are more beatdowns than deaths, given that gangster culture in South Korea tries to avoid bringing unwelcome police attention with outright killing. The tone is somewhat similar, though. One reviewer even said that Scorsese would be proud of it. Really? Would be? He is still alive; couldn’t you just ask him or something? In any case, this is one movie that Scorsese would definitely not be able to remake, not without some serious reworking of the material. While the movie does not go into detail about the inner workings of Confucianism, it presents that system as there for the protagonist to use to his advantage; there is seriously no other way for such a bumbling fool to have gotten where he got in this movie, unless one replaces Confucian values with sheer slapstick luck. The movie seems to take for granted that the audience understands how Confucianism is treated in Korean society, so those who are unfamiliar with it may not pick up on certain details and not appreciate that aspect of the story. It is not just a matter of everyone being corrupt, but the corruption of a societal building block. In any case, I liked this movie.
WTF ASIA 26: No One Killed Jessica (India: 2011, Approx. 137 minutes)
Available…on the internet.
WTF ASIA 27: Dream Home (Hong Kong: 2010, Approx. 96 minutes)