There are going to be changes at the top of the Goldmoon corporation now the boss has been indisposed. That is to say, on the way home from visiting his mistress in his chauffeur-driven car one night, there was an accident, though - whisper it - there are rumours the vehicle that hit his did so deliberately, but whatever happened, the fact remains the head of the company has been killed. Now there comes the problem of what to do when there are more than one candidate to take over at the top, complicated by the makeup of this organisation, since it was born of an agreement between three criminal gangs who sought to go legit. Can a leopard really change its spots?
Crime melodramas out of South Korea were ten a penny by the time director and screenwriter Park Hoon-jung had produced this, what he claimed was the first part in a trilogy, The Godfather-style or more pertinently, Infernal Affairs-style for that Hong Kong series of hits was evidently the benchmark that many filmmakers across Asia and beyond were attempting to emulate, even better, such had been its influence. Therefore do not go into New World expecting anything wildly original, especially if you considered yourself something of a connoisseur of Korean cinema, particularly that of an action bent, a genre that had been growing in stature to the extent of eclipsing the Hong Kong variety.
Some diehard fans of Hong Kong’s glory days would tell you this was sacrilege, but it was clear with works like this there was a definite flair and depth to the gangster flick and cop thriller that few other nations' cinema was offering up with the same consistency in the early twenty-first century, and as with a whole bunch of others, New World was quick to pick up fans internationally as well as at home. Although this format would lead you to anticipate a selection of high octane action sequences, most likely adrenalin-pumping shoot-outs, Park preferred to build on the character side of his efforts, with plenty of intense conversations which upped the tension in a pressure cooker manner.
That meant when the violence did erupt, it was all the more impressive, though nevertheless you would be hard pressed to call this an action flick, thriller, yes, dramatic thriller, certainly, though its central scene of bloodshed was one of the most electrifying of its era, a battle in an underground car park between what looked like, no exaggeration, a hundred men, all armed with knives and machetes and hacking each other to bits. Though the intermittent nature of this violence should really have diluted its effect, in Park's capable hands it proved hugely suspenseful since he was clear that no matter how long these criminals talked and discussed their way through their negotiations, the real decider was going to be who got the first shot in, and how hard and fast that shot would eventually be.
The Infernal Affairs effect showed in the film's central player, an undercover cop named Lee Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae) who has ben working with the Chinese element of the company for a good ten years now, and though he desperately wishes to extricate himself from this deadly dangerous business, the secretive aspect of his work, and the concern it could not only see himself dead but his wife and unborn child as well, means he is up to his neck and beginning to drown in gangsters on the one hand, and his not-so-noble police force on the other. They were represented by Choi Min-sik, one of the most famous of South Korean stars, and ideal for the slightly dodgy authority figure more ruthless than benevolent, while the gang leaders were Lee Joong-gu (Park Sung-woong), the urbane representative, and Jung Chung (Hwang Jung-min), whose uncouth, almost hick-like qualities are summed up by the way he refuses to wear socks with his suits (!). You can practically hear the ticking of a time bomb set to go off when they both realise the other will not back down, and surprising loyalties erupt, with a conclusion that seems obvious in retrospect but was daring in practice. The lack of novelty was compensated for by the high quality of the craft. Music by Jo Yeong-wook.
[Only the trailer as an extra on Eureka's Blu-ray, but this is one sleek-looking movie.]
And I would be among those die-hard fans crying sacrilege! In all seriousness though Korean action cinema has a different flavor to Hong Kong: less frenetic, more controlled story-lines with fewer genre mash-ups and radical shifts in tone. Perhaps more accessible to a more mainstream palette. I wouldn't say these differences are good or bad, just different. What I will say is the Korean remake of John Woo's A Better Tomorrow reflects all the weaknesses of New Korean Cinema and highlights what is missing from the Asian film landscape now Hong Kong is no longer the powerhouse it once was. But judging from the hipsters, I seem to be in the minority with that opinion.
12 Jan 2018
Well, I wouldn't class myself as a hipster (!), but the new SK movies I've been watching recently owe a large debt to HK's golden age(s), and have managed to become their own entity too, something the new HK efforts I've seen are struggling with. They are different, as you say, but with this example New World picked up the Infernal Affairs ball dropped a few years ago and ran with it, which seems to be the narrative with a lot of the SK productions, sort of anything you can do I can do better, or aspiring to that at least. I don't know if SK has its own John Woo yet.
13 Jan 2018
Hey now, I certainly wasn't calling YOU a hipster! But I do find a lot of those writing about Asian cinema respond to films that conform to established mainstream story-structure and tend to disdain the genre mash-ups and tonal shifts that characterized the Hong Kong New Wave as simply bad filmmaking. Even contemporary film critics from mainland China are doing that lately. As someone greatly inspired by that audacious style of Asian storytelling, I find some of the current critical thinking a little dispiriting.
14 Jan 2018
You could always try Bollywood if you're a fan of the crunching gear change tradition continuing. Seriously, though, I get what you mean, but I feel in the West even the fans of HK efforts were watching them as much if not more for perceived craziness as any other, more respectable qualities. It would be a shame to let that uniqueness go, of course. But I hope just because SK is currently in vogue it doesn't put you off their output, there's good stuff there.