In a port city like Busan, there are two kinds of jobs for a disadvantaged lunkhead like Gang “Iron Head” Chul. He currently works as a longshoreman, but the local syndicate will make him an offer he should refuse. Unfortunately, it might be the only way he can pay for his mother’s surgery in Ahn Kwon-tae’s bare-knuckled coming of age drama Tough as Iron (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.
Even when he was alive, Gang’s dad was not much of a father. As a result, he formed a close emotional bond with his mother that persists even though her mind is slipping into the early stages of dementia. Gang often finds himself thrust into some form of public spectacle through her misadventures. During one such display, he catches the eye of Suji, a bohemian photographer traveling across the country. She enjoys the sort of freedom he can only dream of.
Also through happenstance, Gang manages to save the life of Sang-gon, the local mob boss. This hardly endears him to the gangster’s erratic brother and self-styled bodyguard, Hwee-gon. A childhood chum working as a foot soldier in the mob tries to discourage Gang’s involvement, but the loyal son has exhausted every other option to fund his mother’s operation. As tensions mount between Korean criminal subsidiary and their Japanese Yakuza patrons, a disposable outsider like Gang could be very useful to gangster brothers.
Ahn almost seamlessly combines the young-man-finding-himself story with a street-smart gangster beatdown, staying true to both genres, while giving each equal weight. The Busan seafront also nicely fits both hemispheres of the film, serving as a picturesque backdrop for Gang’s tentative courtship of Suji, but looking appropriately gritty for the waterfront action. Occasionally, the mother-son relationship flirts with outright melodrama, but it always remains firmly tethered to reality.
As Gang, Yoo Ah-in powers the film like a locomotive. Intense and charismatic, yet convincingly meat-headed, he creates a keenly human, fully realized portrait of a young, imperfect man under tremendous stress. Hong Sang-soo regular Jung Joo-mi is also appealingly independent and down-to-earth as Suji. While not exactly subtle, Kim Sung-oh delivers some marvelously twitchy villainy as Hwee-gon, the stuttering thug. Kim Hae-sook (so awesome opposite Simon Yam in The Thieves) is a bit showy as Mother Gang, but she still nicely turns the quiet moments with Yoo.