Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tazza: The Hidden Card—a New Generation of Rounders

Just like the old Kenny Rogers song, Kim Go-ni knew when to walk away. He went out on top, retiring from the gambler’s life after winning a large pot. However, he had a nephew. Unfortunately, Ham Dae-gil inherits one of his uncle’s old enemies along with his luck and dexterity in Kang Hyeong-cheol’s Tazza: the Hidden Card (a.k.a. Tazza 2, trailer here), which opens this Friday in the Tri-State area.

Ham might be comfortable with a deck of cards, but he still has much to learn about human nature. He tasted a bit of success playing for gambling den proprietor Kko-jang, until he is taken by his own mark, the rather merry widow Woo. With his boss flat-busted, Ham tries to raise some cash in loan-shark Jang Dong-sik’s private game, but once again he is set up. This time, it is his hometown crush Heo Mi-na who plays him. Deeply in debt to Jang (and suddenly short one kidney), Ham manages to escape his clutches thanks to Heo’s intervention, but it will cost her dearly.

Regrouping in the exurbs, Ham convinces his uncle’s former mentor to take him under his wing. Returning character Ko Kwang-ryeol knows all the high-rollers, but he prefers to keep a low profile, eking out a modest living in low stakes games. Of course, lying low will not be much of an option, given Ham’s unfinished business with Jang and Heo. Eventually, his path will also cross that of Aw-kwi, a mysterious gambler of almost mythic ferocity, who holds a grudge against Uncle Go-ni.

With not one but two femme fatales and shadowy nemeses in the mix, Taz 2 has no shortage of double-crosses and shifting alliances. There is a lot of picaresque bluffing and cheating, but it is considerably darker than The Sting or even Rounders. It is tough to be a woman in this film, even (or especially) for Woo, the jaded seductress. Frankly, some of the scenes in question kill the buzz of the caperish conning and backstabbing.

Although he made quite a credible action lead as the North Korean high school sleeper assassin in Commitment, rapper T.O.P. seems far too light weight for a cat like Ham. Fortunately, he is surrounded by a first rate supporting cast, who chew up all the scenery he disdains to touch. Yu Hae-jin is a particularly nice surprise as Ko, Ham’s Obiwon. While he has played his share broadly shticky characters before (see The Pirates as an example), he balances humor with a good deal of world weary wisdom, while crafty veteran Lee Kyoung-young adds some class as Kko-jang.

Yet, Taz 2 is really all about its villains. Former Miss Korea (Honey) Lee Ha-nui is appropriately sultry and disconcertingly dangerous as Woo, even when her character’s decisions defy all sense. Yet, the real battle is between Kwak Do-won’s Jang and Kim Yun-seok’s Aw-kwi to see which can outdo the other’s stone cold malevolence.

Despite callbacks to the original Korean box-office smash, Taz 2 is easily accessible for audiences walking in cold. Kang keeps it moving along briskly, nimbly juggling the large cast of characters. It is fully stocked with appealingly devious twists and turns, but at times it is a little too gritty for its own good. Recommended for fans of gambler and grifter movies, Tazza: the Hidden Card opens this Friday (9/26) at the AMC Bay Terrace in Flushing and the Edgewater Multiplex in New Jersey.