The best moment in every movie about organized crime comes when the aspiring gangster becomes an actual one. In Goodfellas, it’s when Henry returns from his first arrest and is rewarded by fellow mafiosos for not ratting them out. In The Godfather, it’s when Michael Corleone puts a bullet in Sollozzo’s head. In the Korean epic crime drama Nameless Gangster — now in limited release — it’s when Choi Ik-hyun (Choi Min-sik) goes to a high-end karaoke bar.
There, Ik-hyun bumps into his former boss after a night celebrating his first drug deal. Harsh words lead to punches and Ik-hyun hands the man a gruesome beating. The music stops. The eyes of the bar fall on him. Ik-hyun looks up in shock, and then, as if a weight has been lifted, smirks and walks out the door. At that moment, a gangster is born, and with him, the next great gangster movie.
Nameless Gangster drew a million moviegoers in its first four days in Korean theaters — a major blockbuster by Korean cinema standards — and is being compared to Martin Scorsese’s best work. Producers are clearly hoping American audiences will tolerate subtitles for a story that transcends the trappings of the genre and offers some gruesome gang fights.
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They won’t be disappointed. When we first meet Ik-hyun, he’s in handcuffs, being hauled through a frenzy of reporters and into a police station. It’s 1990 and organized crime is rampant across the country; the president of Korea has declared war on the nation’s infamous gang leaders. Rattled and bruised, Ik-hyun is told he will be prosecuted as a central figure in the Korean mafia. How did he get here? Flash back a decade, to the port city of Busan, where Ik-hyun is a low-level, corrupt shipping yard customs officer on the verge of losing his job. One night he finds a shipment of heroin and desperately tries to sell it to a successful young crime boss, Choi Hyung-bae (Ha Jung-woo). Tempers flare at first, but the two discover they are distant family members (hence the same family name) and decide to do business together.
It’s a classic partnering of brawn and brains. Ik-hyun knows business and understands that corruption and greed rule the world they live in. He woos politicians and prosecutors, while Hyung-bae viciously takes down rival gangs to expand their turf. (The sound of lead pipes hitting bones is a running soundtrack throughout the film.) Over the decade, they rise to become the two most powerful crime bosses in the city. In a telling scene of their success, they share a lavish traditional meal with a Japanese crime lord, then move to the adjoining private room of the same restaurant to meet with congressmen who they bribe for rights to build a new casino. But this is a gangster movie, and a glorious rise eventually gives way to a self-induced fall. By the time the police launch their assault on organized crime, Ik-hyun and Hyun-bae have already turned on one other.
Nameless Gangster is filled with nods to American classics like Carlito’s Way and The Godfather, complete with a money-counting montage, a disco club and even a slow motion shot of the gang walking down the street. Though the film itself may follow many of the genre’s conventions, Ik-hyun’s unusual character draws us in as he willfully and convincingly swings from powerful to pitiful – even deliberately taking a beating – to remain on top. Min-sik’s masterful performance is not surprising; as one of Korea’s most famous actors, he’s become world-renowned for evoking sympathy for even the most heartless of characters in films such as I Saw The Devil and Lady Vengeance.
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Of course, even movies that reinvigorate a genre often fall prey to some of its most common shortcomings. Like most organized crime movies, the women in Nameless Gangster are relegated to the sidelines. The hard-nosed owner of night club (Kim Hye-eun) has an affair with Ik-hyun, but their rocky relationship is not cohesive. The affair scene itself serves a purpose, allowing Ik-hyun to reveal his innermost ambitions, but one cannot help but wonder whether some potential was lost.
It’s easy to forgive filmmaker Yun Jong-bin, though. The young director — who is only 33 — has created a complete, bleak world, one where corruption has seeped into every corner of society. Place an untraditional mobster in this realm, and the result is a movie that ponders what it means to be a tough guy when everyone seems to have a little gangster in them. It’s a question worth asking and a film worth seeing.