You loved Ma Dong-seok in Train to Busan. You…erm…saw him in The Eternals. Now, here is he is as a cop trying to put a stop to a deadly gang war.
March, 2004. Chinatown in the Garibong district of Seoul. Two men get into a fight in a store and end up in the middle of a busy street. Two police officers arrive to break it up. But instead of stopping, the two combatants brandish knives.
Through the crowd walks Ma Seok-do. Nice giving him a name extremely similar to the actor’s name. He is on his phone talking to someone about…something. He twists one guy’s wrist so that he drops the knife and gets off the phone just long enough to demand the other guy hand over the knife in his hand, order the two useless cops to sort out the mess, and then scold the knife seller nearby from selling knives there. Then he walks off.
Sometime later, Seok-do arrives at a pool hall where a man was stabbed. With little concern about the victim’s injuries, Seok-do opens his shirt to see a tattoo that identifies him as a member of the Venom Gang.
Speaking of the Venom Gang, about nine of them seem ready to leave their…is that a brothel? Well, a building. They are ready to leave to do some retaliatory beatdowns against whomever stabbed their comrade. And here comes Seok-do and his crew, Park Byung-sik, Oh Dong-gyun, and Kang Hong-seok. Seok-do tells the gang to lower their weapons. When they don’t, he smacks the one in the front.
Surely, the cops are outnumbered nine-to-four, but assaulting a cop is about as bad as actually killing someone and the gangsters know it. So, the boss, Ahn Sung-tae emerges and tells his men to stand down. After scolding Sung-tae for trying to go to war in broad daylight, he asks who stabbed his man. Do Seung-woo, Sung-tae’s right-hand-man says that it is Hullang from Isu Gang. Seok-do is not familiar with Hullang.
Seok-do and his team go to a gambling arcade. They walk around until Seok-do notices a man staring at him. The cops chase him into another room where there are six other gangsters. One of them was one of the combatants from the start of the movie. He approaches Seok-do, and Seok-do slams the guy’s head onto a table. He then points to the guy whom he had pursued into the room. And that guy runs off into the streets.
There is a bit of a chase, but Seok-do somehow manages to find a shortcut to wherever the man was trying to go and knocks him to the ground. When the man pulls a knife, Seok-do asks if it is the same knife that he used to stab the Venom Gang member, and then tells him to put it in a plastic evidence bag. The man opts instead to stab, so Seok-do knocks him the fuck out. Then he puts the knife in the bag himself. I would have used gloves as well, but whatever.
Three Korean-Chinese men in a fancy car arrive in Seoul. Jang Chen is the boss and his lackeys are Yang-tae and Seong-rak. They stop at a small group of houses by what looks like a garbage dump. Oh, wait. Hold on. There was a fourth man in the trunk, Gil-su. Apparently, Gil-su’s were supposed to be here for some form of money transfer. And they are not here. So, they have him call his boss, who does not answer. Well, looks like Gil-su will have to pay his own debt…which has now doubled due to the travel costs. Gil-su man begs the others to not be like that, saying that the four of them are compatriots. The other three scoff. He continues to ask for a discount, so Jang Chen brings over a hammer and offers 5% for every limb smashed. They get to work on one limb.
Ah, the police station. Or more like some little side building in the back corner of the police station property. This is where Seok-do’s Crime Unit is located. It consists of him, the other three guys, and occasionally a boss. Two men are brought in for questioning, one being the stabbing suspect. Seok-do is much gentler during this interaction, asking whether Jang Isu ordered the attack. Oh, nope, nevermind; he is back to being mean when the guy does not immediately answer.
The man seems scared and cowed, but still not talkative. So Seok-do hands him a…motorcycle helmet…and has Byung-sik bring the guy to the…truth room. It is not so much a room, but a section of the office that they can block off so that the camera cannot record any physical abuse. And I guess the helmet is meant to obscure the nature of whatever head injuries the suspect receives. Lovely.
Oh, in comes the boss Captain Jeong, just in time to miss the brutality incident. Captain Jeong goes off on the rookie Hong-seok for giving the deputy a report on the pool hall attack without his say-so. Well, it was more for mentioning that he had come from a golf course.
Perhaps not wanting to hear more of Jeong’s complaining, Seok-do takes Byung-sik to Jang Isu’s mahjong parlor. They go to his office where he is…hiding under his desk? Byung-sik starts eating Isu’s lunch as Isu tries to casually emerge as if he had not been hiding. Isu immediately starts claiming that the guy had acted on his own without any stabbing orders.
Seok-do demands that Isu come with them. Isu says that this is a democratic country. Seok-do calls him an illegal alien, and Isu retorts that he is a legal resident. Seok-do does the 1-2-3 warning, so Isu walks around…and Seong-do squeezes his testicles. Lovely.
Seok-do brings Isu to a restaurant that Ahn Sung-tae owns and sits him next to Sung-tae. Acting like he is talking to a pair of kids, he demands that they apologize to each other, shake hands, and play nice. Isu even says that Sung-tae started it. But he eventually apologizes for the stabbing. Seok-do has them sit really close together and Byung-sik takes a couple Polaroid pictures of them. Seok-do has Isu and Sung-tae take one as a reminder of their being compatriots.
Isu leaves and the cops do too, though not before Seok-do tells Sung-tae that he knows about him smuggling girls from China. Sung-tae insists that they come to him on their own, but Seok-do threatens to whip him if he catches him. So, Seok-do leaves and Sung-tae immediately crumples up the picture.
Sung-tae receives a phone call and drives to…the garbage dump with five other men. So, the guy who owed money Jang Chen? Gil-su? He is hurt bad. He stumbles over to Sung-tae, who is not sympathetic.
Sung-tae asks who the three men are. Jang Chen says that he is a debt collector, and Gil-su is three month’s late. Gil-sy insists that it was under a sixth of what he is currently demanding, but Sung-tae tells him to shut up. Sung-tae refuses to pay and starts lightly smacking Jang Chen around. Jang Chen stabs him in the neck. The other two stab him several times in his sides. Then Jang Chen goes in for the final stab. Meanwhile, Sung-tae’s men don’t do anything. Good job, guys.
Jang Chen orders his two guys to cut off Sung-tae’s limbs, while he kills Gil-su. He then turns to the five other men who just stood around like a bunch of cowards. Who will pay Gil-su’s debt now? Jang Chen looks at Seung-woo.
Seok-do shows up at a…is this a karaoke hostess club? I guess that the owner of the club, Hwang, asked him to come. He is curious about the Chinese pool hall case. And the madam asks whether he has a Chinese girlfriend. Seok-do resists giving up information…and resists taking any drinks, but he does put down some cash for time spent. Hwang claims to have a vested interest in stories of Chinese getting knife-happy in other people’s turf, but Seok-do insists that that is why Hwang should stay out of it. Are…they friends?
Seok-do tries to leave, but in comes three…uh…new girls. Seok-do looks at his watch. Oh, he is almost off the clock. Yeah, sure, he might as well stay and have a drink…or forty.
Unknown to Seong-do, Jang Chen and his two guys have arrived at the club and the madam sends them to another room.
Time passes and one of the new girls urgently wakes Seok-do from his stupor, since his ringing phone was unable to do so. She tells him that there are cops outside.
Oh, she meant right outside in the hallway. He needs to get dressed quickly. He looks at his phone: 14 missed calls.
Seok-do tries to sneak out of the room and throu-oh, here comes Dong-gyun. Seok-do tries to act annoyed that Dong-gyun arrived late, dismissing Dong-gyun questions about trying to call him.
The two go to the…next room? Wow. Anyways, it is a mess and there is some blood. Apparently, three Korean-Chinese men cut off an employee’s arm with an axe. Seok-do has the police round up everyone and interview them. Wow, that is a smart idea.
The madam recounts that one of her girls came to her in pain. The madam took a colleague with her to check on the room, where Jang Chen’s lackeys were forcing themselves on their hostesses. The woman with Yang-tae managed to get away when the madam came in, but Seong-rak did not stop. And when the madam pushed Seong-rak off of the woman, he started forcing himself on the madam instead. Her colleague pushed Seong-rak off and started berating the three guys with some…somewhat xenophobic insults. He also hit Seong-rak on the madam, making him bleed from the head.
Jang Chen told Seong-rak not to retaliate and…apologized. He promised to leave after this one last drink. The colleague resumed insulting them, so…Jang Chen smashed a bottle over his head. He let his underlings do their stuff with the guy while he mimed doing karaoke with the madam. And, yeah, Seong-rak chopped the guy’s arm off. So…that’s her story.
Seok-do asks the madam if they said anything about where they were from or where they were going. All she can say is that they may be from Gyeongsang province. Oh, here comes Hwang, back from the hospital. He asks Seok-do to look the other way, saying that he will take care of this. Seok-do throws the request back at him, saying that he will call if he needs anything. Yeah, Hwang seems shady. And after Seok-do leaves, Hwang tells one of his cronies to look into the matter. Yeah, he is not staying out of it either.
The three guys have taken over Sung-tae’s restaurant. Yang-tae and Seong-rak are counting the money in the restaurant and the boss, Jang Chen, is grilling Seung-woo. He says that Seung-woo is responsible for paying the rest of the debt, which is why he is still alive. Seung-woo’s wife, Ahn Hye-kyeong, comes over to bring them drinks. After overtly ogling her, Jang Chen asks Seung-woo about how his organization gets its girls. He also says to do anything to make money, even if that includes killing or chopping limbs. And, of course, protection money. Seung-woo says that Isu Gang won’t let that happen. Jang Chen ask who they are and after getting a brief explanation, decides to start with them.
Captain Jeong and Hong-seok are looking over security footage from the club, when Jeong sees Seok-do on film with Hwang. Seok-do acts like that is obviously not him, even though it obviously is. Jeong is upset, not really that Seok-do was there, but that he was so careless as to get caught on camera. Seok-do dismisses all that and gives Byung-sik and Dong-gyun some cash to…get information. When Jeong continues to berate Seok-do, Seok-do distracts him and leaves.
Seok-do meets with Isu on Chinatown’s market street, accusing him of being associated with the three men. There is also a back and forth where Seok-do is buying food from a stall and threatening to leave Isu with the bill. He ultimately doesn’t, but it is enough to infuriate Isu.
Seok-do and Byung-sik meet with a couple of informants. Seok-do asks them about the club incident. They know about it…and also that Sung-tae is dead. Oh, Seok-do had no idea. The informants say that some guys from Changwon (the capital of Gyeongsang) took over his gang. Seok-do hands them some cash and then asks what else. Well…that’s it. So Seok-do takes back most of the cash, demands details, and tells the informants to leave. He gets a call from Dong-gyun.
Seok-do and Dong-gyun arrive at a part of the city blocked off by the police. There is a bag with human limbs in it. Byung-sik thinks that it is Sung-tae. Seok-do tells his crew that they have to find all of the body parts before anyone else does. He then notices a garbage truck and orders it stopped. Hong-seok, who had just been vomiting, manages to catch up to the truck. Seok-do apologizes to the driver while the other three look through the bags. Heong-seok finds a luggage case stuffed with body parts.
With Seong-woo in tow, the three hatcheteers arrive at Isu’s gambling arcade. Seong-rak tells Seong-woo to get his colleagues. So Jang Chen and the others go inside. Seong-rak plays the role of an irate customer, kicking stuff and accusing the staff of being scammers. As the rest of the customers flee, two of Isu’s men approach Seong-rak and one pulls a knife on him. Once again, the guy from the fight at the start of the movie. Well, Seong-rak is not scared. Neither is Jang Chen, who asks to see the boss.
Well, here comes Isu walking down the street with nine guys. They encounter Seong-woo, Seong-rak, Yang-tae, and four other men outside of the arcade entrance. Seong-rak has Seong-woo be the spokesman. Seong-woo tells Isu that the boss wants to see him inside. Isu thinks that he is talking about Sung-tae, and is confused when Seong-woo doesn’t confirm. He orders his men to prevent the other guys from running and walks inside.
Isu sits across from Jang Chen to hear him out. Jang Chen promises to let Isu keep the mahjong parlor, but will be taking the arcade. Isu calls him insane, and asks if he was the guy behind the axe incident. In come Seong-rak and Yang-tae, kicking one of Isu’s men to the floor. Isu is about to pull out a knife in retaliation when Jang Chen says that he will die if he does. He gets right up in Isu’s face and tells him to stay away from the arcade from now on. So Isu gets up and slowly walks out, bringing his injured minion with him.
Well, that’s it, right? Jang Chen has taken over one gang and cowed the other one. War is over, right? Nope.
This movie is based on events taking place between 2004 and 2007 called the Heuksapa Incident. As such, it is an interesting mix between the more grounded South Korean gangster films and the less realistic ones. From what I gather, actual murders or permanent injuries in South Korean gang feuds are pretty rare and discreet. So, when they do happen, and in such horrid fashion, it is a big deal. A pool hall stabbing is not a big deal as long as the victim can get patched up. But a murder? That is something different.
I kind of liked that strange dichotomy. The cops and the criminals are used to one way that things are, and it is kind of low key and comical, even when it gets violent. There are two criminal factions…maybe three, but there is a delicate balance. And then here come just three utter psychopaths from a different gangster movie who steamroll half of everyone before anyone can understand what is going on, and it is up to the remaining half to figure out what is going on.
I think that this combination of the two styles is what makes this movie so interesting and appealing. It may have helped a little bit that it kind of smoothed over some of the tougher questions of the story regarding the cops. For one, the police brutality is played for laughs. Seok-do’s first real act is to twist a guy’s arm. Hahaha…the police force is shown to be rather dysfunctional in general, so the crime squad’s willingness to go hard is given acceptance. Seok-do’s relationship with Hwang upsets Captain Jeong only because there is video evidence of it, not that it exists. It seems pretty clear that Seok-do is chummier with Hwang than he is with the Chinatown gang bosses. And here is the other thing.
So, I have discussed other movies about Korean Chinese. Dooman River looked at it from the side of the ethnic Koreans living in China. Sea Fog was about smuggling ethnic Koreans from China into South Korea. Coin Locker Girl is about a crime family residing in Chinatown. This last one has plenty of company in South Korean movie history. A lot of movies about Chinese-Koreans that I have heard of center around crime. The Outlaws, thus, covered ground that was already familiar South Korean audiences were already primed for this movie. The residents of Chinatown? Perhaps not so much. The area has been stereotyped as a den of dangerous criminality for decades. And this movie, based on a true story from ten years earlier, probably did not help. Just like with the cops, the movie brings up difficult questions about the “Chinese” without getting bogged down by attempts to actually address them.
Why does it seem like there are so many criminals among the Korean Chinese? Is that even true? If that is, what responsibility does South Korea hold? What of the homegrown gangsters like Hwang, whom Seok-do is chummy with? What makes him more acceptable? Seok-do calls Isu an illegal, like he could be deported just because of that. Then he turns around and tells the local Chinatown denizens that they should trust him, ignoring that some of them may also have questionable residency status. In fact, valid concerns that the Chinese may have in relying on the police get dismissed almost immediately for the sake of doing the right thing. Multiple characters bring up that these people fighting each other are all compatriots: ethnic Koreans from China. They say this as if it is supposed to mean something profound, as if local South Koreans don’t fight each other.
The “smuggled girls” are mentioned a lot, but we barely see them. The only foreign women who get much screentime are the ones at Hwang’s club. Really, there are only two non-criminal Chinese characters who get much focus. One is a boy who idolizes Seok-do’s badassery. The other is Seung-woo’s wife, Hye-kyeong, who is there pretty much just to be abused and terrorized. I guess that the other characters are not sufficiently connected to the main story to be given their own focus.
Yeah, if you are looking for a nuanced take on the Korean-Chinese experience in Seoul, you are not going to find it in this movie. If you are looking for a movie where Ma Dong-seok kicks ass, then this will give you a good time. And, it is based on a true story. And I am totally sure that the sequel that is set to come out later this year is also based on a true story. Yep. Yes.
WTF ASIA 197: The Ghazi Attack (India: 2017, approx. 123 minutes)
WTF ASIA 198: Pinky Memsaab (Pakistan: 2018, approx. 124 minutes)