In recent years, the amoral policeman has become almost as common a motif in Korean cinema as the long haired female ghost. Despite this, many film makers seem to be harbouring the illusion that there is something original in satirising the establishment through depicting corrupt officials and drawing an explicit link between the behaviour of law makers and law breakers. Fortunately, “Bloody Tie” manages to transcend this over familiarity, more than anything due to its gritty, cynical approach and a nihilistic sense of believability, eschewing the usual clich’d genre figures in favour of a genuinely engaging set of characters.
The film follows Sang Do (Ryoo Seung Bum, also in “Crying Fist” and “Arahan”), a small time crystal meth dealer who is trying to carve out a living in the drugs trade. He also acts as an informant for corrupt policeman Ho (played by Hwang Jung Min, “You Are My Sunshine”) who is trying to bring down the local drug kingpin, and is quite clearly happy to use whatever methods are necessary. Although the two are forced into a kind of alliance, Sang Do finds his life growing increasingly complex as he tries to keep his retired dealer uncle out of trouble, as well as attempting to assuage some of the guilt he feels at his immoral life by helping a tragic young woman (Choo Ja Hyun, who received the Best New Actress Award at the 43rd Daejong Awards for her excellent performance) get her life back on track.
Although “Bloody Tie” may sound like a run of the mill mismatched buddy comedy, it is anything but, with Sang Do not so much teaming up with Ho as being blackmailed into helping him. The character development in the film never follows the expected conventions, and the two never come close to forming any real kind of bond or friendship, instead exploiting each other for often ruthless reasons. This kind of nihilistic cynicism pervades almost every aspect of the film, with police and criminals being equally without any of the kind of loyalty or brotherhood with which they are so often portrayed.
The world which director Choi Ho creates is one of dog eat dog in its simplest form, with lies and betrayals being necessary for survival. Impressively, Choi sticks to his guns, and refuses to offer the viewer any kind of hero, or even antihero figure, and the characters never undergo much in the way of moral growth or set out on the usual journey of redemption. Pleasingly, Choi also avoids glamorising the drugs trade in any way, with its effects on users being shown in unpleasant detail, including one startling scene where an addict imagines herself covered with insects.
The film as a whole is fittingly violent, with some vicious beatings and bloody shootings adding to the air of brutality. What is perhaps more surprising is the film’s sexual content, which is unusually graphic for a Korean film, and which is used not for titillation but to further the sleazy squalor of the characters’ lives. All of this adds another layer of believability to “Bloody Tie”, as it acknowledges a darker side of Korea rarely seen in mainstream productions.
All this having been said, “Bloody Tie” is actually quite a funny film, with a bleak sense of humour apparent throughout. This manifests itself in a number of ways, for example during scenes with Ho swearing vengeance for his dead partner whilst making incompetent love to his wife. The laughs are decidedly low key, and the director never lets them do anything more than bubble under the surface or detract from the film’s more serious aspects. This is in fact one of the film’s greatest strengths, as it shows a kind of restraint and focus which has often been lacking in similar efforts.
The film has a sort of neo-noir look, with most of the action taking place at night and lit predominantly by streetlight. Choi seems to be aiming for an ironic take on the kind of hard boiled police thrillers so popular in the U.S. in the 1970s and in Hong Kong during the 1980s, with shaky handheld camera work mixed in with well judged split screen action to give the proceedings a real sense of urgency. As such, the film feels like an updated version of Friedkin’s classic “The French Connection”, not only visually, but perhaps more importantly, spiritually as well.
It is a shame that “Bloody Tie” probably won’t be widely seen in the West, as it is certainly one of the best Korean films of the last few years. Although some may be put off by the fact that it belongs to an undeniably overcrowded genre, it is very much the definitive film of its type, and is one of the very few to offer such a believably harsh portrayal of the drugs trade in Korea.
Ho Choi (director) / Ho Choi, Deok-won Yun (screenplay)
CAST: Ja-Hyeon Chu …. Ji-young
Jeong-min Hwang …. Lieutenant Do
Seung-beom Ryu …. Sang-do
Do-gyung Lee …. Jang Cheol