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“Mokpo Harbor, Gangster’s Paradise” is a Korean Gangster Comedy, so right away there are certain things you can expect. As with the “My Wife is a Gangster” films and various others, 90% of the film will be played for laughs — that is, until the moment (always toward the end) when the filmmaker decides it’s time to get serious. At this point a movie that had resembled “Police Academy” will suddenly turn into “Scarface”, with the whole thing drenched in overly melodramatic moments only possible in Asian films. As with formulaic Hollywood schlock, the Korean Gangster Comedies have become so generic that they’re now nothing more than connect-the-dots filmmaking.
“Mokpo” stars Jay-hyeon Jo as Soo-cheol, a bumbling cop who gets beaten up on a regular basis. But because he’s a lot smarter than all the other cops combined (not a hard thing to be, considering the intelligence of cops in these movies) Soo-cheol’s incompetence is put up with. When prosecutor Im Ja-kyung (Seon-mi Song) arrives in Seoul with a plan to break up the Mokpo gangs, she somehow ends up with Soo-cheol as a volunteer for an undercover assignment.
In Mokpo, Soo-cheol encounters obstacles, mostly because he’s an idiot playing a gangster, and this doesn’t convince anyone, namely head hood Baek Sung-ki (In-Pyo Cha). But as dictated by the script, Soo-cheol eventually manages to worm himself into Sung-ki’s confidence. Soon Soo-cheol is living the high life and risks forgetting that he’s an undercover cop. Meanwhile, cinema aficionado Sung-ki is thinking of retiring, which doesn’t sit well with his underlings.
As a comedy, there are some inspired moments in “Mokpo”, but not nearly enough to sustain an almost 2-hour movie. Of note is “Mokpo’s” salute to American gangster films, with a picture of Michael Corleone hanging on Sung-ki’s wall. Also, when we first see Soo-cheol in his gangster guise, he’s sporting a haircut that looks suspiciously like the one Tony Montana wore in “Scarface”.
Alas, like many Korean comedies in recent years, “Mokpo” doesn’t know when too much is too much. Take an early scene where Ja-kyung is recruited by Soo-cheol to stand in for a hooker, where she ends up in the arms of a gangster. Now granted, this is supposed to be a farcical comedy, but I have problems with the idea of a virginal woman (she admits to being a virgin) being forced to have sex by a vile gangster just because it’s convenient for our hero. This is supposed to be funny?
But I have to admit that any movie that puts Leonard Cohen on its soundtrack can’t possibly be all bad. And “Mokpo” does have moments that make it a worthwhile comedy — that is, if you can stand all the 5th grade level jokes it prides itself on. Of course things get even more predictable when gangster Sung-ki ends up falling for Ja-kyung, who he meets by accident while she’s discussing Soo-cheol’s undercover work. Again, Ja-kyung is forced to play along because, well, it’s in the script.
Obviously Sung-ki’s underlings don’t take the sudden change of heart by their boss lying down, which leads to that highly melodramatic moment where the film decides comedy isn’t its thing, and what it really wants to be is a bloody gangster film. Newcomers to Asian cinema will be surprised by the sudden shift in tone, but anyone who has seen the recent spate of Korean comedies will see it coming. Take for example “Sex is Zero”, where an “American Pie”-esque sex comedy suddenly turned melodramatic with the heroine almost bleeding to death in the bathroom hours after her abortion. Yes, I kid you not, kids. This is common in Korean comedies.
If you’re used to Korean Gangster Comedies, “Mokpo” is more of the same. The words “formulaic” and “assembly-line like efficiency” comes to mind. The movie has its moments, but for the most part its gags were written and executed for the benefit of audience members who still giggle at the sight of sexually explicit gags and implied rape. If you’ve been around Korean cinema for the last few years, “Mokpo” is more of the same. It’s not the worst of the bunch, but it certainly doesn’t stand out from the masses either.
Ji-hun Kim (director) / Ji-hun Kim, Su-nam Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Jae-hyeon Jo …. Lee Soo-cheol
In-Pyo Cha….Baek Sung-ki
Seon-mi Song….Im Ja-kyung
Byung-ho Son …. Du-ho