Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time (Yoon Jong-bin, 2012)

“The Korean mob film Scorsese would be proud of.” – Jacob Templin, TIME.com

Drafthouse Films Logo1982.  South Korea.  Set to lose his job as a customs officer, Choi Ik-hyun has no hesitation in approaching a local crime syndicate to sell drugs confiscated by him and quickly partners up the city’s most powerful mob boss, Choi Hyung-bae (Ha Jung-woo, The Yellow Sea).  In less than ten years, Ik-hyun becomes a powerful criminal force in his own right, armed with a book of contacts and knack for exploiting distant family relations, but his longtime partnership with Hyung-bae strains under their own success.  A blockbuster film in its home country, Nameless Gangster features another bravura performance by Choi Min-sik (Oldboy, I Saw the Devil) as the buffoonish yet canny Ik-hyun and a spot-on reconstruction of 1980s and ’90s Busan, South Korea, set amid the country’s period of rampant crime and corruption.

Special Features:

  • Audio commentary with director Yoon Jong-bin
  • The Golden Age of the Bad Guys, a making-of documentary featuring interviews with cast and crew
  • The War on Crime, a featurette on South Korean organized crime and the government’s war against it in 1990
  • Gangsters of the 1980s – Busan, reviewing the style, fashion, and production design of Nameless Gangster
  • The Music in Those Days …, a review of Nameless Gangster‘s period music
  • Footage from the première
  • Theatrical trailer, teasers, and TV spots
  • 24-page booklet of photos, production stills, and promotional materials, plus an interview with director Yoon Jong-bin

“Who You Know” Edition – Package Includes:

  • Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time on Blu-ray or Standard DVD featuring over 3 hours of bonus material!
  • DRM-free Digital Download of the film in 1080p, 720p, and mobile/tablet formats
  • Instant Download of the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by Jo Yeong-wook and including Jang-Ki-ha and the Faces’ “I Heard a Rumor”
  • 27″ x 40″ reversible theatrical one-sheet

See Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time at http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xrmde2_nameless-gangster-2012-part1_shortfilms.

Set in the port-city of Busan, Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time (Bumjoewaui Junjaeng, or more literally War on Crime: The Golden Age of the Bad Guys) traces the heydays of organized crime in South Korea during the 1980s and its decline in the early ’90s following the election of President Roh Tae-woo and his crackdown on gangsterism.  Choi Ik-hyun (Choi Min-sik) is a modestly corrupt customs official who is labelled his unit’s fall guy when an internal investigation attends to their bribery and kickbacks.  On one of his last nights on the job, Ik-hyun discovers a cache of illegal drugs and convinces his colleague to sell them to a yakuza-affiliated gangster he knows.  As a result, Choi Ik-hyun meets young, up-and-coming crime boss Choi Hyung-bae (Ha Jung-woo).  Ik-hyun recognizes Hyung-bae as a less senior member of his clan and immediately begins putting on airs, receiving a forceful rebuke for this trouble.  Ik-hyun understands the importance of family and professional connections and forces Hyung-bae to acknowledge his familial status by appealing to the young man’s more traditional father.  In doing so, Ik-hyun quickly insinuates himself to Hyung-bae’s mob and partners up with him, using his connections to expand Hyung-bae’s territory into legitimate businesses like nightclubs, hotels, and casinos.  Their success emboldens Ik-hyun, who readily sees himself as a gang boss and an authority figure, but his hold on power is far more tenuous than he believes and Ik-hyun finds himself on the wrong end of success.

Despite his wheeling and dealing, Ik-hyun holds little influence over Hyung-bae’s coterie of thugs and enforcers who see him as a corrupt business man who is all bark and no bite.  In particular, Hyung-bae’s right-hand lieutenant, Park Chang-woo (Kim Sung-kyun), displays near total contempt for Ik-hyun right from the start and repeatedly stares unflinchingly at his tantrums and threats.  Angry with this lack of respect, Ik-hyun confronts Hyung-bae who confirms his gang’s view, saying, “We’re gangsters when we fight.”  Ik-hyun’s inability to defend himself and his business with violence denies him full acceptance as a gangster and, finding himself on the outs with Hyung-bae, he begins working with his once enemy and his partner’s bitter rival, Kim Pan-ho (Jo Jin-woong).  At the same time, a change in government provides public prosecutor Jo Beom-seok (Kwak Do-won) the institutional support he needs for his war on organized crime, and he quickly sets to bring down Ik-hyun, Hyung-bae, Kim Pan-ho, and all of Busan’s gangs.  Finally understanding that he is neither gangster nor simple private citizen, Ik-hyun sells out all his criminal contacts to Beom-seok, including Hyung-bae, in exchange for his liberty.  In an ironic coda, Ik-hyun is depicted using his connections to assist Beom-seok’s political rise and to support his son who becomes a top graduate and a prominent public prosecutor.  This epilogue portrays Ik-hyun’s legitimization and his near, but not complete, freedom from his past criminal associations.

Nameless Gangster was a massive hit in its native country.  While South Koreans have been enjoying something of a crime film renaissance over the last few years, Yoon Jong-bin’s film offered an authentic-feeling period piece that audiences responded to in droves.  From the stylish suits and blown-dry haircuts to the locations carefully chosen to evoke the era to the nostalgic soundtrack loaded with groovy surf and eleki guitars and ’80s pop hits like Ham Jung Ah and the Yankees’ “I Heard a Rumour” and Lee Myung Hun’s “The Way It Is,” Nameless Gangster is loaded with all the textures of its period, making the film not just a portrait of traditional gangsterism during its final glory days, but a genuine-feeling reconstruction of a bygone time and place still alive in the minds of many movie-goers.  In Scorsese-like fashion, Yoon represents the era primarily by its snappy dress and catchy tunes, resting his narrative in an appealing present that is hip, cool, and happily ensconced in its immediate pleasures.

Reviews of Nameless Gangster outside of South Korea have sometimes been slightly restrained with complaints over pacing and some lack of drama.  These criticisms are not entirely unfair, and Nameless Gangster has something of a David O. Russell film about it – a good film made very good, if not great, through its cast.  At its core is another fabulous performance by Choi Min-sik as Ik-hyun, contrasted by Ha Jung-woo’s Hyung-bae.  Ha Jung-woo exudes a reserved cool and confidence that hints at his character’s (sometimes violent) authority and outsider ethic.  This “walk softly and carry a big stick” attitude stands in stark opposition to Choi Min-sik’s Ik-hyun, who is prepared to look bad and kiss ass, even take a strategic beating, if it means long-term prosperity.  His is a performance that gets deeper on repeat viewings.  Even non-Korean speakers can detect the dramatic changes in Choi Min-sik’s tone and timbre of voice, widely shifting as he changes roles between boss and buffoon, between criminal and family man, as Ik-hyun’s situation demands.  Ik-hyun’s dilemma is that he ultimately is not a gangster, but rather a facilitator and a power broker on behalf of his criminal cohorts.  He is unprepared to act in a truly violent manner and fails to appreciate the difference between being a criminal, which he is, and a gangster, which is a lifestyle choice and a code that his colleagues embody and thrive on but which he only apes at.  Watching Choi Min-sik’s character oscillate through his various personas while always and unknowingly remaining at arm’s length from the gangster life makes Nameless Gangster truly fascinating.  Still, Ik-hyun is a complex character who is sometimes a buffoon and sometimes a genius only masquerading as a buffoon.  Choi Min-sik’s performance is so rewarding because it is not always discernible what his character is any given point.  Is Ik-hyun misreading a situation?  Is he just a sheep in ill-fitting wolf’s clothing?  Or is his idiocy a put-on to disarm his prey and lower their guard?  The answer in Nameless Gangster is always both, but its hard to tell which Ik-hyun is showing up in the moment.

In addition to Ha Jung-woo’s contrasting stoicism, Choi Min-sik’s central performance is further elaborated by an excellent supporting cast.  Hyung-bae’s faithfully loyal second-in-command, Park Chang-woo, is played by the ominously omni-present Kim Sung-kyun.  Kim Sung-kyun portrays the character as devoted to his boss, but unable to hide is contempt for the spineless Ik-hyun, and it’s always interesting to watch Park Chang-woo in the background of scenes observe with simmering disdain.  It is in comparison to Kim Sung-kyun that the toothless and honourless qualities of Ik-hyun are most demonstrated.  Jo Jin-woong’s put upon, second best gangster Kim Pan-ho is another figure of appeal, falling somewhere between Hyung-bae’s criminal pride and Ik-hyun’s avaricious drive to succeed.  His partnership with Ik-hyun is perhaps not as elaborated on as might be helpful for the film’s narrative, but Kim Pan-ho’s frustrations to get ahead make him a kind of kindred spirit to Ik-hyun.  No character has more disgust for Ik-hyun than public prosecutor Jo Beom-seok, played by Kwak Do-won.  If Park Chang-woo loathes Ik-hyun to the point of boiling over, Kwak Do-won’s prosecutor expresses an apathy toward Ik-hyun that comes from considering the man truly worthless.  To him, Ik-hyun is a man without a country and his demise is inevitable.  Watching Beom-seok casually kick and push Ik-hyun around a washroom floor may be the film’s most entertaining exchange.  There is little space in Nameless Gangster for female characters, but Kim Hye-eun’s Miss Yeo, a crooked nightclub owner, is a scene-stealing, unladylike, hard-as-nails broad who captivates in those few instances she appears.  It is thanks to these performances that Choi Min-sik’s Ik-hyun can flourish, shifting character, demeanour, motivation, even accent as is required for his continued to success and/or survival and Nameless Gangster becomes a highly rewarding ensemble piece as a result.

Nameless Gangster PosterThe Drafthouse Films label already has a highly praised, South Korean film from 2012 in its library – Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta – but there’s no reason that should prohibit Nameless Gangster from finding a home on the label.  This mob picture has sexy, outlaw subject matter, bankable global stars, and a slick, stylish look.  There’s no need to deny it to a potential cover treatment, as this obligatory, guys-walking-in-a-row, Reservoir Dogs-esque poster expresses indexical gangster cool.  Nameless Gangster feels like a Drafthouse title, but its organized crime panache, its large cast, and its period setting offers something recognizably different from the label’s current array of titles.  Yoon Jong-bin’s mobster opus deserves a proper release in North America and Drafthouse Films is exactly the kind of label this film needs.

Credits:  All of the proposed featurettes are included on foreign editions of Nameless Gangster in hard media, however we can’t find proper descriptions of their content, so we’re entirely guessing as to what they contain.  Yoon Jong-bin’s interview with Jung Hyun-mok for Korea JoongAng Daily reveals the directors impressions of official corruption observed amongst his father’s generation while he was a child and discusses his intentions of his film as a critique of the present generation’s failure to put an end to corruption.  Having a commentary and an interview with Yoon Jong-bin would be an insightful addition to a Drafthouse Films edition of Nameless Gangster, as it would bring the film’s present significance to the forefront and avoid it simply being received as a nostalgic musing.

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