I briefly read about this film online, saw a couple of stills, and decided to take a chance and watch it. Months later, I’ve finally come back to remembering I had it laying around and I’m glad I did (I’ve since learned it premiered in the U.S. at the New York Asian Film Festival this year, where they call it “the feel good domestic violence movie of the year”).
I’d like to make some sort of blanket statement like: It seems like South Korea is making the best gangster pictures these days, but I don’t really know if that’s true. Though, after A Bittersweet Life, A Dirty Carnival, and now this film, I think I’ll just choose to believe my own sweeping generalization….
At first glance, I thought this film might have something to do with Godard’s Breathless (which is the English translated title of this film). I suppose it does in its featuring a bumbling gangster with a much younger female who trails along with him and his ineptitude. That and they are both first features by each filmmaker (though Yang Ik-Joon also takes on the burden of playing his own lead). Yet, these are completely different films in tone and, of course, nationality. While Godard’s French New Wave film was playing (some would perhaps say slumming) in the cliche of Hollywood genre stereotypes, this film is very much rooted in continuing the excellent tradition of Korean (melo-)dramatic tragedy, while attempting a realism that, if not entirely visual, strives for more emotionally honesty than you would normally see in a picture of this type. I have read that some people are making comparisons to Kim Ki-Duk’s Bad Guy. Though it shares some thematic similarities (and I appreciate it greatly for what it is), this film is not nearly as abnormally obtuse (or violent).
The characters are all insulated in their mutual isolation. The film toys with oversimplifying the relationship of the two leads in moments, but never falls into this simple kind of romanticism. I was impressed with how the story chooses to display a deeper psychology at root amongst the characters’ connection with each other. The girl is (verbally) abused at home by her mentally ill father, and in turn by her older brother, so when she is confronted with Sang Hoon’s foul-mouthed gangster, she naturally holds her own. He is taken aback by her tenacity and her meddling into his own family troubles (an obvious escape from her own), which in turn makes him question his lack of involvement with what is left of his own family for so long. The idea of family and how one deals with the lack of control one has in how its plays out for each of us opens up the film to a larger emotional resonance than if it was just about these two people.
If the movie itself does delve back into more general storytelling tropes toward the end, the structure of its ending was surprising. Without giving anything away, I found it interesting that it skips a rather important detail and moves ahead in an apparently significant passage of time, only to jump back to what we expected to see in an abruptly, more resonating way.
Maybe this is way too abstract a recollection of the film. I hate giving away plot points when I know people haven’t seen a film. And I know that most people will never see this one (unless they borrow it from me or find it online). Maybe I should start with log lines about what each film is about?
I may change my mind, but I think I liked this better than Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother, which seems to be the Korean arthouse import of the year (not that the films should really be compared). Though, I would definitely recommend that one too, especially for the lead actress’ performance (one of the best of year, on the planet, for sure).