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“A Dirty Carnival” is the latest offering from Korean poet turned director Yoo Ha, following his violent 2004 tale of growing pains “Once Upon a Time in High School”. This time, Yoo turns his eye to the gangster genre, predictably eschewing the usual stylish violence and heroic thugs in favour of a painfully human and melancholy drama, though one which of course features plenty of brutal baseball bat and knife fights. The film has already made its presence felt in Korea, not only enjoying box office success, but with Cho In Sung taking the Best Actor prize at the 2006 Korean Film Awards for his excellent portrayal of the tortured protagonist.
The gangster in question is Byung Doo (Cho In Sung, “Classic”), a lowly thug trying to take care not only of his handful of subordinates, but also his ailing mother and younger siblings, all of whom are on the verge of being evicted after being unable to pay their rent. After it becomes apparent that his immediate gang superior Sang Cheol (Yun Je Mun, “Antarctic Journal”) cares little about his desperate situation, Byung Do turns to big boss Hwang Heui-jang (Cheon Ho Jin, “Crying Fist”) for help, and ends up taking on a risky mission to win favour and rise through the ranks. As his fortunes appear to change, he is reunited with childhood friend Min Ho (Min Nam Gung), who is now a film director who just happens to be researching a project on gangsters and is hungry for material. This leads Byung back into contact with unrequited sweetheart Hyeon Ju (Lee Bo Yeong), something which only serves to complicate his life even further.
Although the plot may sound like a run of the mill story charting the rise and fall of a vaguely sympathetic criminal anti-hero, “A Dirty Carnival” is actually a rich emotional drama, and is far more concerned with the effects of violence and gangster life on the psyche of the protagonist and with how it disrupts his attempts to take care of his family and lead a normal existence. Thankfully, Yoo steers clear of the hackneyed redemptive character arc, and simply follows Byung as he tries to get ahead, initially for financial reasons, then later for power, and ultimately for survival.
Byung’s journey is an unpredictable though strangely intimate one, and since the film is largely seen from his perspective, the viewer learns of his capability for ruthlessness and violence along with him, something which lends the proceedings an increasingly disturbing and tragic air. The plot develops naturally, and though the end is never really in any doubt, it comes across as being inevitable, rather than as the punch line to the all too common kind of hypocritical morality tale which glamorises the gang life, only to patronise the viewer with a ‘crime does not pay’ lesson during the final scenes.
The film’s mood is dark throughout, with backstabbing and betrayals being very much the order of the day, and with Yoo offering very little in the way of hope. Gangsters are portrayed as being a selfish, scheming, money grabbing lot, willing to kill anyone to move up the ladder, and with violence being their only method of resolving conflicts. Through film director Min Ho, who is every bit as driven by self-interest as the rest of the characters, Yoo cynically comments on the film industry’s misplaced desire to capture the essence of criminal life, and pulls no punches in shattering the illusion of the noble bandit. This adds a nicely cinematic aspect to the story, not to mention a bitter kind of irony and a rare self-awareness.
Such lofty aims aside, “A Dirty Carnival” is on more basic terms a gripping and thrilling drama that features plenty in the way of stabbings, mass brawls and corpses being buried in the woods at night. The film’s violence is intensely realistic, being chaotic and visceral rather than choreographed or polished, making the set pieces all the more thrilling when they suddenly explode. This makes for a tense, edgy atmosphere, and helps to keep the film moving along at a reasonable pace, despite it being rather long at nearly two and a half hours.
As such, “A Dirty Carnival” works on many levels, and Yoo manages not only to entertain, but to achieve an emotional richness and almost epic scope rarely seen in the genre, confirming him as one of the most interesting directors working in Korea today. Although viewers may understandably be tired with portrayals of angst-ridden gangsters, this is undoubtedly the cream of the crop, and reaches far beyond the confines of the form and into genuinely moving human drama.
Ha Yu (director) / Ha Yu (screenplay)
CAST: Yoon Jae-Moon …. Sang-chul
Ho-jin Jeon …. President Hwang
Ku Jin …. Jong-su
In-seong Jo …. Byung-du
Bo-young Lee …. Hyun-ju
Gung-Min Nam …. Min-ho