WTF ASIA 71: A Dirty Carnival (2006)

Damn, it feels good to be a gangstow ow! OW! NO! NOT THE BASEBALL BAT! This doesn’t feel good at all.

Dirty Carnival

Available online.  Approximately 140 minutes.


Byung-doo walks into a police station and beats up his younger brother for taking part in gangster activities. He then offers to pay off the police to keep the Byung-sik out of jail. This was not an easy thing for him to do, as his family is getting evicted in a month, and his mother is sick. Despite not having money, he manages to provide money for his mother’s medication and buy a cell phone for his younger sister, Sun-ok. Oh, I forgot to mention, Byung-doo is a gangster, in charge of his own little crew.

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After shaking down a family for money owed to his boss, Sang-chul, Byung-do asks for a higher cut. Sang-chul refuses, instead mocking him for letting his sponsor (rich client) take off with their investment money and still being a minor crew leader at twenty-nine. Sang-chul’s sponsor, President Hwang seems to like him, though, even if he says that Byung-doo does not look like a gangster. After learning about the fiasco with Byung-doo’s sponsor during a karaoke party, President Hwang suggests that Sang-chul have Byung-doo manage the new game room. Sang-chul claims that he was thinking of doing that, even though another crew leader, Young-pil had set up the whole thing. Later on, Hwang asks Sang-chul to kill a troublesome attorney named Park, but Sang-chul talks him down.

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The grand opening of the game room seems to be going well…even though there are still lingering concerns about Yeong-pil having set it up in a rival gang’s territory. Suddenly, an old friend of Byung-doo shows up. Min-ho is a would-be movie director, trying to come up with a gangster movie. He and Byung-doo knew each other back in elementary school, and Min-ho has tried to get in touch with him for a while, mostly through asking police officers. They go for coffee, mostly to talk about Min-ho’s project. Byung-doo asks about other elementary friends, specifically about a Hyun-joo, and Min-ho says that they have occasional reunion gatherings. The conversation gets cut off when Byung-doo gets called back to the gaming room.

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As predicted, the rival gang has trashed the game room and attacked Sang-chul’s men. Byung-doo rushes in and manages to drive them away. On Sang-chul orders, he takes nine other guys in a van to go to the rival gang’s place. However, the rival gang ambushes them and it is a huge brawl with metal bats, metal pipes, and a few sashimi knives. Byung-doo’s guys seem outnumbered three two one until Sang-chul finally arrives with reinforcements and fights like a madman. He stabs a guy in…well, the wrong place. Up to then, it had been all fun and games, but someone may actually die because of it, and the law could come down hard on the gang because of it.

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In a meeting with President Hwang, Sung-chul says that he paid compensation (it is not clear if this is to the police or the rival gang) and promised to send Young-pil in for the crime. Ironically, this may be punishment less for the stabbing and more for the fact that Young-pil and his guys were not even at the fight, having supposedly been stuck in traffic. Sung-chul, however, told Young-pil that his men could manage the game room, not informing Byung-doo about this decision. As President Hwang gets dragged into a surprise meeting with attorney Park, Byung-doo begs Sung-chul to give him back the game room, but Sung-chil says that the only alternative is Byung-doo going to jail. Later on, Byung-doo meets attorney Park, who insults both him and Hwang. After Byung-doo drives Hwang home, he offers to kill Park. He tells his right-hand man, Jong soo about it, but says that he can do it by himself. Jong-soo, though, offers to help.

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Byung-doo meets again with Min-ho, who takes him to what seems like an impromptu reunion of his elementary school friends. Min-ho recounts witnessing the fight at the game room, though he has no idea about the subsequent brawl elsewhere. Byung-doo seems a little uncomfortable and is considering leaving, but then Hyun-joo shows up, and Min-ho immediately starts telling her how much of a crush Byung-doo has on her. This does not make things less weird for him, but he eventually feels better. He has to leave early, though; Jong-soo has spotted Park.

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Bung-doo and Jong-soo follow Park and kill him. And with that, Byung-doo has gotten a new sponsor: the sponsor of his own boss. Things are looking up. Byung-doo. Though his mother is in the hospital, she is better cared for, and the move will be easier. Byung-doo reintroduces Min-ho to her and introduces him to his crew to get them to help on the movie.

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Young-pil informs Sang-chul that Byung-doo had gone over his head and met with President Hwang directly. They presume that Byung-doo killed attorney Park in order to steal Hwang’s sponsorship, and start planning accordingly. Their schemes, do not go unnoticed, and Byung-doo suspects that Young-pil will try to do something. This mutual suspicion grows when Sang-chul gives Byung-doo the invitation card for his sister’s wedding and not-so-casually remarks that attorney Park has gone missing and the cops had come around the office asking about him. Then he immediately switches to telling Byung-doo to go collect money from some guy after the wedding. The just happens to live in an area where one of Byung-doo’s men had spotted Young-pil a few days earlier. So, while Sang-chul and Young-pil plan on getting rid of Byung-doo after the wedding, Byung-doo and Jong-soo plan to get rid of Sang-chul during the wedding. During the wedding, Young-pil gets ambushed in the parking garage while Byung-doo stabs Sang-chul to death in the bathroom.

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Aside from some cops coming over to visit Byung-doo’s mother before the move, the blowback from the wedding murder does not seem to hit him hard. He has got an office and is going into real estate. So he feels comfortable enough to visit Hyun-joo at the bookstore where she works, but a bunch of books for his “employees”, and ask her out to dinner. During the dinner, she says that she cannot picture him as a gangster, knowing how he was as a kid. He says that it is just a label, and he is not as bad as what people think. However, the next evening, he sees Hyun-joo’s boss harassing her. It seems as if they used to go out, even though he was married. Byung-doo tries to intervene peacefully, but the man provokes him into a fight, which mostly ends up with Byung-do punching him repeatedly. This burst of violence disturbs Hyun-joo greatly, and she breaks off their fledgling romance.

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One thing that I liked about this movie is that, while it may not necessarily be realistic or accurate compared with other gangster movies, there is something that seems true about it. Not truthful, just true. This is a day-to-day job just like every other job. There is a hierarchy, a code of conduct, a little bit of office politics and drama. It is just that the illegality is a little more blatant and the violence is a bit more common. This movie is almost kind of episodic, with certain segments of the film being devoted to bringing up and resolving certain issues, with a main subplot taking its time to develop. Now, granted, the movie does dip into cliché quite a bit, and there are several storylines that kind of get dropped or suddenly sidelined. But maybe that is just how things are.

The presentation of Byung-doo himself also interested me. It is not necessarily that due to what is on screen so much as what is not. On screen, he is a man who values loyalty and family, even if the people whom he considers family do not appreciate what he does for them. It is unclear how much his behavior weighs on his conscience, especially when he so callously subjects others to hardships similar to what his own family is going through. But, then, these outsiders are not his family; they are either people whom he protects his family from or people whom he takes from to provide for his family. During the course of the movie, the people whom he considers family changes, which results in some violence. But why is he like this?

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The lack of a father in his life suggests that he had to be the “man” of the family at a young age, and he turned to the gangster life in desperation, cutting himself off from his childhood friends as a result. He, apparently, took to issuing beatdowns and threats quite well, but was not able to make it beyond middle management and he allowed people to take advantage of him. He does not actually do well financially until he kills his own boss. Unlike a bunch of other gangster movies, he does not get in trouble with his boss for refusing to kill a woman or child; instead, he gets in trouble for going through with killing an important man. And while he gets passed over frequently due to situations that are not his fault, it is his betrayal that leads him to commit murder.

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Reserved to the point of shyness, he comes across as a gangster only to those who know him as a gangster. Those who don’t know him or knew him only when he was a kid have trouble believing that he is a gangster, for he does not adopt his threatening and violent persona until the situation calls for it. The movie shows that side early on in the film to show that he means business, but then holds back for quite a while before unleashing it again. Is it a mask? Is his nice guy act a mask? Or is his tough-guy act his way of blowing off steam after so much being a nice guy? Are both of these sides simply different degrees of the real him? There has been a tradition in South Korean cinema to feature men outside of society, at least in terms of context and subtext. Here, it seems to be right there in the text. And the society in this case is just as much gangster culture as the mainstream. He has a foot in each world, but is on shaky ground in both. Yet, he seems to be genuinely willing to be in both worlds. Maybe it does not matter what he is really like; it is what he does that matters.

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Speaking of the mainstream and gangster society, I quite liked the kind of “have your cake and eat it too” meta-subplot of Min-ho and the general treatment and how he represents how the rest of the unaffected populace views the gangsters. Sure, his view (along with the views of Hyun-joo and their other elementary school friends) of Byung-doo may be compromised by memories of him as a kid, but he also quickly gets comfortable with Byung-doo’s underlings as well. He treats the game room fight as fodder for his film, while standing next to a bunch of other onlookers. Attorney Park, who is portrayed as a jerk even if he is pretty much right about everything, doesn’t view them as a threat. And everyone loves gangster a movie. The film does not exactly point a finger at the viewer so much as give a gentle nudge. Is the relationship between South Korean gangsters and the South Korean movie industry realistic in this story? Probably not, but I enjoyed it regardless. If you are in the mood for a solid gangster flick, this is a good one.



WTF ASIA 72: Waah! Tera Kya Kehna (India: 2002, approx. 142 minutes)


Available…online…sort of…maybe; I borrowed the DVD from my Library system.


WTF ASIA 73: High Kick Angels (Japan: 2014, approx. 90 minutes)


Available in Canadathe United States, and maybe some other countries.