Kim Byung-doo (Jo In-sung) is a low-level gangster in South Korea who finds his complacency at this station in life isn't doing him any good, what with the mother he lives with ailing and his younger brother seeking to leave the straight and narrow to follow in his footsteps, something Byung-doo discourages by beating him up in front of his friends. But if he can see the downside of this criminal life, he is now in too deep to leave it behind, and as his bosses are paying him a pittance he is having trouble living on and providing for the rest of his family, he would like to be out of it for good. Yet how can he possibly do so when his recent past follows him around whatever he does?
A Dirty Carnival, or Biyeolhan geori as it was known in its original Korean, was one of those gangster flicks from that region of the world which brought renewed attention to the country's movie scene, taking over to an extent from Hong Kong, who had previously been the most notable progenitor of the form in East Asia, and complementing the Japanese yakuza films that were still popular with fans of foreign thrillers. But if anything, those fans were increasingly turning to South Korea for their action movie kicks of an Asian variety, the occasional Indonesian effort aside. Looking back, was this example worth the hype, and did it truly lead the way in the acceptance of such things?
It certainly wasn't a bad film, not bad at all, but it was rather obvious in what it presented on the screen; perhaps if other similar works had not come along then it would seem a lot fresher now than it does. Director Yoo Ha didn't wind up as one of the most celebrated filmmakers from South Korea with his next pieces, and A Dirty Carnival was somewhat lost in the shuffle thereafter, though that did not mean it was not worth tracking down if you had a genuine interest in gangster cinema, as its main plot was something different from the norm. To comment on the genre, Yoo created a director character to ask Kim about his life and use that to inform his latest crime epic.
The trouble with that being Kim has tried to make himself a small fortune by getting into his boss's good books and performing a hit on an attorney who was giving him trouble in his business interests, an act that predictably fails to liberate him and merely gets him in further over his head. When this director, Min-ho (Min Nam-koong), coaxes his old pal's truths out of him in a late night chat, for some reason Kim doesn't twig that the filmmaker will be applying all he has heard into the upcoming opus which is made and released with hard-to-believe alacrity to keep the plot moving along as quickly as possible - not a terrible idea, however, when the running time stretches over the two hour mark. Now, Kim is depicted as not exactly a dummy, so his lapses in judgement render him a frustrating character to watch.
Mind you, if he didn't keep making mistakes then there would be no plot, so it's just as well Yoo plonked them in there. On the other hand, none of these underlings we spend time with are especially valued company, preferring to either be partying at the karaoke bar or getting into one of those mass brawls that became a signature sequence of many a South Korean thriller, with about twenty-plus guys, at least, knocking seven bells out of one another. There was time for romance, as Kim meets Hyun-joo (Lee Bo-young), a shop assistant who appears to be a very decent prospect for escaping into a normal, loving relationship away from the hubbub of gangsters, so you can imagine how well that goes by the time the end credits have rolled (to the strains of The Alan Parsons Project, oddly). Maybe the real issue here was that there were no surprises, and further to that, the surprises for the lead were not a shock to the viewer, indicating A Dirty Carnival had probably been superseded, and in record time. Music by Jo Yeong-wook.