Tuesday, June 26, 2012

NYAFF ’12: Nameless Gangster

Though still a young democracy, by the early 1990’s the South Korean government had run out of patience with the unchecked lawlessness of organized crime.  Choi Ik-hyun became one of their top targets.  He did not look like much of a criminal, but he was very organized.  It is time to get your gangland beatdowns on as the New York Asian Film Festival comes roaring in with a whole new slate of fresh selections.  Yun Jong-bin’s Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time (trailer here) will deliver plenty of said when it screens at the 20012 festival this Saturday.

Choi is a low level customs inspector, corrupt in the pettiest of ways.  His family was once wealthy and respected, but their fortunes have fallen.  However, he remains hyper connected amongst the larger Choi clan hierarchy.  Stumbling across a shipment of heroin, Choi parlays it and his surname into a business relationship with the Busan mob’s top gun, Choi Hyung-bae. 

This Choi looks the part of a gangster.  Though initially skeptical of the doughier Choi, the steely cool gangster comes to appreciate the value of the older man’s connections and his skill at exploiting them.  For a while, they become a very profitable team.  However, Choi Ik-hyun’s greed and vanity will lead him to flirt with his “god-son’s” chief rival, Kim Pan-ho, destabilizing their alliance.  Gangsters always do that kind of thing.

Nameless is far broader in scope than a mere series of gangland rumbles.  Nonetheless, when the Choi and Kim factions start bashing each other fifty shades of black and blue, it is quite impressively cinematic.  Still, Yun is more concerned with the zeitgeist of the time, the ROK’s years of transitional democracy, while depicting the base cunning of a wanna-be consigliere.

Indeed, special festival guest Choi Min-sik is quite compelling as his slovenly namesake.  It might sound like a role quite removed from the ferocious serial killer he played in I Saw the Devil.  Yet, both characters are small men who react desperately when their method of empowerment is threatened.  However, it is Ha Jung-woo who really makes a lasting impression.  Icily fatalistic, but not without the capacity for explosive rage, his Choi Hyung-bae is exactly the sort of performance that makes great gangster films tick.  Likewise, Kim Seong-gyoon has a nice flair for ruthless and reckless villainy as the younger’s Choi’s lead enforcer.

It’s been a while since there was a mob movie with the sweep and ambition of Nameless.  It certainly is good to have another one.  Despite the wider historical context, Yun keeps the action gritty and violent.  It is a big picture, but it has a tight focus.  Enthusiastically recommended, it screens this Saturday (6/30) and next Tuesday (7/3) as part of the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival.