Choi Min Sik, one of Korea’s most respected and popular actors, stars in “Nameless Gangster”, a crime biopic that charts the rise of a customs official to the heights of the criminal underworld. Written and directed by Yoon Jong Bin (“Beastie Boys”), the film also stars Ha Jung Woo (“Love Fiction”), and takes a very different approach to most other Korean gangster pics, with a boldly amoral and distinctly unglamorous stance. Despite this, and some fairly shocking violence, the film proved incredibly popular at the local box office, emerging as one of the most watched films at Korean cinemas in 2012 so far, in addition to winning the Grand Prize at the 48th Baeksang Arts Awards.
Set in Busan during the 1980s and 1990s, the film begins with the arrest of businessman Ik Hyun (Choi Min Sik, “Oldboy”) for embezzlement, kidnapping and assault, as part of the government’s new crackdown on organised crime. Put under pressure from chief public prosecutor Jo Bum Suk (Kwak Do Wan, “Head”), Il Hyun’s story unfolds, following his beginnings as a customs officer who is set up for a fall when he and his colleagues run into trouble for taking bribes. After he comes across a massive stash of heroin, he is surprised to find that the gangster he tries to sell it to, local boss Hyung Bae (Ha Jung Woo) is actually a relative and part of the Choi clan. Il Hyun quickly becomes seduced by the gangster life and partners with Hyung Bae, using his business skills and connections to help them both. However, he soon starts getting ideas above his station, and when a turf war brews with Kim Pan Ho (Jo Jin Woong, “Perfect Game”), things rapidly spiral out of control.
Right from the start, “Nameless Gangster” is somewhat reminiscent of Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” and “Casino”, with the same kind of keen eye for period detail and style, Yoon Jong Bin bringing back the 1980s and 1990s with a fine collection of pop songs, costumes and hairdos. The film certainly looks gorgeous throughout, with some excellent production values, and has the same kind of ambitious fractured narrative, jumping back and forth between past and present, at times taking on a confessional air, though never becoming too flashback-heavy. Thankfully, Yoon avoids the kind of self-indulgent long windedness which has marred many Scorsese outings, managing instead to keep things tight and grounded, and though “Nameless Gangster” is at two hours and fifteen minutes a long film, it’s never anything less than utterly engrossing, helped along by some well-handled action scenes and gritty brutality.
As a rise and fall crime biopic, the film is bold and reasonably atypical, in that its chief protagonist is a largely unlikeable and unsympathetic figure, as indeed are most of its supporting cast of criminals. The film has a distinct lack of any moral compass or judgemental air, though Yoon at the same time doesn’t take the easy route of simply sitting back, investing a huge amount of detail and depth in his characters and making the story a very human one. Il Hyun is certainly a fascinating figure, an ever-struggling survivor who is clearly willing to do whatever it takes to fight his corner, violent and volatile, though knowing when to grovel. This makes the film far more convincing than other crime tales, as does its pushing aside of the usual illusions of loyalty and brotherhood. Yoo uses Il Hyun’s story to shine a harsh light on corruption and nepotism in Korean society, as he tirelessly networks and milks every Choi family connection possible, allowing him to manipulate and win favours from the police, prosecutors and politicians.
Unsurprisingly, the film belongs mainly to Choi Min Sik, who is superb as Il Hyun. The actor clearly put on a great deal of weight for the role, and is at times almost unrecognisable, exuding mixture of ruthlessness and wretched desperation. Crumpled, sweating, overweight and hopelessly loud-mouthed, he is pretty much the polar opposite of the usual kind of detached, super-cool figures seen in the Korean genre, and this further sets the film apart in its powerful demystifying of the romantic gangster image. The rest of the cast are similarly on top form, Ha Jung Woo in particular as the very different Hyung Bae, slowly drawn into accepting Il Hyun into his life and gang, and this makes the film’s various relationships all the more effective, not to mention hard hitting when all the inevitable betrayals and back stabbing begins.
All of this combines to make “Nameless Gangster” not only the best Korean gangster film in several years, but also one of the best films in general. Gripping, immaculately directed and anchored by Choi Min Sik’s towering performance, it stands as a near masterpiece of the crime genre, and proves again what can be achieved with a great script and investment in character.
Jong-bin Yun (director) / Jong-bin Yun (screenplay)
CAST: Min-sik Choi
Kwak Do Wan
Jo Jin Woong