Given that “Cruel Winter Blues” marks his directorial debut, it’s questionable why Lee Jeong Beom would want to add to the ever growing number of Korean gangster films. However, despite these initial misgivings, the film actually delivers a very different experience than might have been expected, and shies well away from the cliché and conventions of the genre, being a quiet, rich character study rather than the usual tale of blood soaked loyalty and baseball bat beatings.
The story begins with gangster Jae Mun (Sol Kyung Gu, best known for his iconic performance in “Public Enemy”) and his subordinate Chi Guk (Jo Han Sun, also in “Now and Forever”) heading to a small rural town called Bulgyo to lie in wait for a rival boss. Whilst waiting for him to show up, the two gradually adjust to life out in the sticks, with Chi Guk becoming involved with the local Taekwondo class and Jae Mun hesitantly forming a bond with the restaurant-owning mother of their target (played by actress Na Moon Hee, recently in “Crying Fist”). As time drags on, the reasons for their mission are revealed, and both begin to question their commitment to the gangster life.
Despite this rather familiar sounding plot, “Cruel Winter Blues” is a difficult beast to pin down, being neither a traditional gangster drama, nor a tale of big city criminals charmed by life in a quirky rural town, nor even the kind of redemptive personal journey which the set up seems to suggest. Probably the best way to describe the film is as a character study which focuses on themes of pride and revenge, but which strangely enough is driven by a mother-son dynamic of all things.
Although this might sound somewhat odd, it works very well, mainly thanks to an interesting set of multilayered characters and relationships which develop in a believable and unpredictable way. Director Lee steadfastly avoids mawkishness throughout, never taking the easy route or throwing in much in the way of cheap sentiment to try and endear nominal protagonist Jae Mun to the viewer, who is consistently depicted as being a pretty unpleasant man, cold, distant and prone to beating people in fits of rage. But since the film basically revolves him, Jae Mun does expectedly undergo some growth as things progress, though not in the expected fashion, and thankfully there is no forced emotional catharsis or sudden transformation into ill-fitting saintliness.
It’s fair to say that the film is not particularly plot driven, being based for the most part around a series of anecdotal events and with Lee taking his time to explore the characters at a decidedly unhurried pace. There is a growing sense of tension, though this stems mainly from the moral issues brought to the fore rather than any actual drama, and by the time the film has reached the halfway mark viewers would be forgiven for having forgotten why the characters came to the town to begin with.
This is not to say that “Cruel Winter Blues” is dull in the least, thanks in no small part to the film’s dry sense of humour, which does lead to some unexpectedly funny scenes, as well as a few bursts of bloody violence which serve to underline the unpleasant effects of the gangster life. The film is generally quite subtle, with many details being hinted at rather than made explicit. Despite this, the film does pack a surprising punch, especially towards the end when the question of the impending killing finally looms; though even this is not handled in a predictable or straightforward manner.
Lee gives the proceedings a suitably cold and bleak look, which effectively mirrors the emotional wilderness inhabited by the characters, and aside from a few rather obvious and heavy handed attempts at symbolism, his direction is surprisingly mature for a first-timer. Mercifully, he steers well clear of any of the kind of idealised small town stereotypes which tend to populate such films, with the rural locale being depicted as isolated and rundown, and without any hint of nostalgia or preaching about the joys of a simple life.
As a result, “Cruel Winter Blues” certainly manages to transcend the gangster genre, and doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with the hordes of other features which on the surface appear to share similar plots and themes. Although it is understandable that viewers are likely already exhausted with Korean films dealing with the criminal life in any shape or form, Lee’s debut really does offer something that is both different and engaging, and which marks him as a director to watch in the future.
Lee Jeong-beom (director) / Lee Jeong-beom(screenplay)
CAST: Kyung-gu Sol