Saturday, August 23, 2008

NYKFF: Open City

If you feel your pocket being picked in Korea, you might want to just let it go, or risk pulling back a bloody appendage. At least, that is one message of Open City (Korean trailer here), a stylish crime drama screening during the New York Korean Film Festival. Far from Dickensian street urchins, these pick-pockets are stone cold gangsters, but at least one of their ringleaders is also a sultry bombshell.

Baek Jang-mi is getting a gang together. She has two talents, picking pockets and tattoo art. Well, maybe three talents. Her upstart crew sets off a series of turf skirmishes among rivals gangs. When one particularly violent crew gets the drop on Jang-mi, she only survives due to the intervention of Dae-young, an emotionally scarred cop who can handle half a dozen henchmen with ease.

When Jang-mi realizes she was saved by a copper, she ditches him at the nearby coffee-bar. However, their paths soon cross, when Dae-young’s organized crime unit is assigned to take down the marauding pick-pocket gangs. This leads to one of the best cinematic femme-fatale cop seductions in quite some time.

It turns out flatfoot and criminal are connected through associations with Dae-young’s ex-con mother, a former pick-pocket herself. As events come to a head and the driving rain starts to fall, the action sequences become almost operatic, as the weight of family regrets and resentments beget more tragedy. In these scenes, City has almost an old school John Woo vibe going on (but no doves, at least).

City has some fantastic action sequences, the most effective of which are probably straight forward one man vs. many style street-fighting scenes. Lee Sang-gi is a stylish, but not subtle director, and he lets the film get a little overblown at times. Occasionally, the villains veer into over-the-top Dick Tracy territory. However, his leads are great and generate some real heat in their scenes together. Son Ye-jin plays Jang-mi with nuance—a manipulator to be sure, but maybe one with a heart. Then again, perhaps not. Kim Myung-min can administer a beat down with credibility and also convey the anger simmering beneath Dae-young’s stoic fa├žade. However, his unyielding hostility towards his mother eventually becomes tiresome and overwrought.

While its themes of forgiveness and redemption get more than a little heavy-handed, the pacing never suffers for it. City’s mix of high tragedy and slick action results in a distinctively ambitious hard-boiled action-film noir. It screens again during the NYKFF at the Cinema Village Tuesday.