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“New World” has been one of the more promising and anticipated Korean releases of late, a blockbuster with a powerhouse cast that features three of the country’s biggest and most acclaimed actors in Choi Min Sik (“Old Boy”), Hwang Jung Min (“The Unjust”) and Lee Jung Jae (“The Thieves”). The second film from Park Hoon Jung, director of “The Showdown” and writer of “I Saw the Devil” and “The Unjust”, the film is a character driven crime drama charting a mob leadership struggle and the efforts of the police to intervene. Also starring Park Sun Woong (“The Gifted Hands”) and actress Song Ji Hyo (“Codename: Jackal”), the film was a box office hit in Korea as well as earning multiple nominations at the Baeksang Arts Awards, and has since been picked up for a Hollywood remake.
After the chairman of Goldmoon, the largest crime corporation in Korea, is killed in a dubious accident, the two heirs apparent, Jung Chung (Hwang Jung Min) and Lee Joong Gu (Park Sun Woong) are immediately at each other’s throats for the right to take over. Meanwhile, the police, led by chief Kang Hyung Chul (Choi Min Sik), launch an operation codenamed ‘New World’, designed to influence the leadership race and install a more easily controlled candidate of their own choosing. Unbeknownst to Jung, his right hand man and friend Lee Ja Sung (Lee Jung Jae) is actually an undercover cop, who has been working his way up the ranks in the gang for nearly a decade, and who is now being pushed by Kang to help pull the strings. With a child on the way, Lee wants out, and finds himself caught between the warring gang factions, his loyalty to Jung, and his duty as a cop to follow orders.
Although most of its elements, in particular the undercover plot and the clash between brotherhood and the law, might not sound like anything new, what really sets “New World” apart is some truly accomplished storytelling. With Park Hoon Jung having already written two of the best Korean thrillers of the last few years, this probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, though the film really does stand out in this respect, with an immensely involving and tense narrative packed with exquisitely timed twists and revelations, not one frame or detail of its two hours plus running time feeling superfluous. Though it might sound predictable, the film is full of rich detail and realistic though entertaining developments, and it grips right from the shocking opening scene through to the bleak and bitter end.
The character writing is similarly impressive, the film featuring a group of fully realised and believable protagonists who all ring true. While the film might start out seeming to be dealing with the usual figures, Jung Chung coming across as a flamboyant brute, Lee Ja Sung as a decent and measured fellow, and Kang as a tough, driven cop, Park does a great job of subverting expectations, providing the kind of character arcs and development rarely seen in the genre. This level of depth really fleshes out and adds emotional weight and considerable moral complexity to the film’s many friendships, relationships and enmities, giving it real impact when it matters and making sure that the themes of loyalty and betrayal hit home. Of course, the acting plays a huge part in this, and none of the leads disappoint, all three delivering multi-layered powerhouse performances. While Hwang Jung Min and Choi Min Sik impress greatly, it’s arguably Lee Jung Jae who takes top honours, with a shifting and sympathetic turn that pulls the viewer into his character’s increasingly desperate situation.
It’s hard to believe that “New World” is only the second outing from Park Hoon Jung, as he directs with real maturity and assurance, keeping things tight throughout. The film is perfectly paced, and is slick and stylish in a subtle manner, with great visuals and production values, reflecting both the glamour and grit of the high flying gangster life. Park’s confidence really shines through when it comes to the film’s level of action and violence and in the way in which he weaves the set pieces into the plot rather than just throwing them in for effect. Though the film is never driven by or most memorable for its brutality, it’s certainly a tough and hard edged affair, filled with mass brawls, baseball bats and knives, getting exceedingly bloody in places and featuring one of the most carnage packed montages in Korean gangster cinema, not to mention one of the most amazing elevator scenes. Park uses the havoc to underline the subject matter, never shying away from the inherent unpleasantness and back stabbing of gang life, and though the film has a somewhat flashy façade, there’s no mistaking its dark heart.
“New World” is a fantastic and vastly entertaining film and a huge boost for Park Hoon Jung, immediately marking him as a director to watch. Easily one of the best crime dramas from Korea, and quite possibly from anywhere else of the last few years, it towers above most other genre efforts, thanks in no small part to the sterling efforts of its top drawer cast – for fans of the form, this is about as close to a must-see as it’s possible to get.
Hoon-jung Park (director) / Hoon-jung Park (screenplay)
CAST: Min-sik Choi … Section Chief Kang
Jeong-min Hwang … Jeong Cheong
Gwang Jang … Director Yang
Lee Jeong-jae … Ja-seong
Ji-hyo Song … Sin-woo