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“Tough as Iron” is that most Korean of genre favourites, a melodramatic gangster tragedy which packs in as many different themes and motifs as possible, from heartbreak and angst through to violence and wacky comedy. The film marks the return of writer/director Ahn Kwon Tae, his first in five years, following up on the popular 2008 thriller “Eye for an Eye” and his 2004 hit “My Brother”. Seeing Ahn again focusing on a rough and tumble young man caught up in difficult circumstances, the film stars upcoming actor Yoo Ah In in the lead, playing a role similar to the one he recently took on in Lee Han’s “Punch”.
The film is set in Busan, with Yoo Ah In as Gang Chul, a downtrodden young man who spends his days trying to make money where he can unloading fish from the docks while looking after his mother Kim Hae Suk (“Thieves”, and who also featured in Ahn’s “My Brother”). Unfortunately, she seems to be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and causes great trouble for him, often disappearing and getting herself into dangerous situations. Matter get even worse when she’s admitted to hospital, and with no way to pay the bills, Gang Chul joins his friend Jong Soo (Lee Shi Un, “Shark”) in a local gang, hoping to make some money. Though he catches the eye of leader Sang Gon (Kim Jung Tae, “How to Use Guys with Secret Tips”), he soon clashes with his violent brother Whi Gon (Kim Sung Oh, “Man from Nowhere”), leading to even more trouble. Though a ray of sunshine appears in a lovely young woman called Soo Ji (actress Jung Yoo Mi, a Hong Sang Soo regular who appeared in “Our Sunhi” and “Oki’s Movie”) who wants him to leave Busan with her, Gang Chul’s devotion to his mother leaves him with no easy way out.
There’s certainly a lot going on in “Tough as Iron”, and Ahn Kwon Tae deserves credit for trying to add a little to the usual melancholy gangster or bad boy tales, working in family drama, terminal illness, romance, bloody violence, brotherhood, loyalty and more. On the plus side, this means that the film is never boring, and whilst scarcely original, it does hold the interest and moves along at a reasonable pace. Spending a decent amount of time building its characters during its first half, Ahn’s script successfully poses a handful of tough moral dilemmas, mainly revolving around whether or not Gang Chul’s duty to his mother is misplaced, as clearly most of the time she can barely remember where or even who she is, and from early on it’s obvious that she might not pull through despite his efforts. The film is shot through with this air of angst-ridden conflict and inner turmoil, and though it never gets too deep, its characters are all likeable enough, and it makes for an effective and occasionally moving depiction of a world where very little is fair and where good intentions often don’t matter.
Unfortunately, the downside to Ahn’s scattergun approach is that the film doesn’t always fit together, and has a variable tone that can at times be jarring. While the theme of a boy struggling to take care of his ailing mother is fair enough, the film frequently verges into oddly wacky territory, as she turns up in strange places and situations that seem to be played for laughs. This doesn’t sit well with the films more gritty aspirations, and makes it less moving than it might have been. Similarly, Gang Chul’s relationship with Soo Ji feels like a last minute add on or a mere plot device to offer him the illusion of hope, and though both Yoo Ah In and Jung Yoo Mi are on good form and have a touch of chemistry together, the film isn’t as emotional as Ahn seems to think it is.
More interesting is Kim Sung Oh as the stuttering villain of the piece, a brutal though painfully human figure, whose own rise up through the criminal underworld provides some of the most gripping moments. His battle with Gang Chul has a believable air of dog eat dog desperation, and the film would definitely have benefitted from more of a focus on their antagonistic dynamic.
Still, there’s enough here to make “Tough as Iron” a solid, well-acted piece of genre cinema, and Ahn Kwon Tae is a talented director who manages to give Busan a distinctive, if grim look throughout. Entertaining without really adding anything to the form, it should appeal to fans of gangster weepies, or those who enjoy seeing grown men alternating between crying and handing out vicious beatings.
Kwon-tae Ahn (director) / Kwon-tae Ahn (screenplay)
CAST: Ah In Yoo … Gang Cheol
Hae-sook Kim … Soo-ni
Jung-tae Kim … Sang-gon
Seong-oh Kim … Hwee-gon
Yoo-mi Jung … Suji