[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]
Sometime last decade, actor Choi Min-Sik (best known for his role as Oh Dae-Su in Oldboy) quit acting. He was angry with American movies and the way they were infecting other film industries. Fortunately, he’s back now, most notably in 2010’s excellent revenge film I Saw the Devil. What makes the return interesting is that you can be damn sure whatever movie he is in next will be a Korean film through and through. I Saw the Devil was like that.
So is Nameless Gangster.
Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time (Bumchoiwaui Junjaeng: Nabbeunnomdeul Jeonsungshidae | 범죄와의 전쟁 : 나쁜놈들 전성시대)
Director: Yun Jong-Bin
Country: South Korea
Here’s a bit of history for you: in 1990, the South Korean government declared war on organized crime. This led to literally thousands of arrests from the lowliest bodyguard right up to the kingpins. Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time begins in 1990, with the arrest of Choi Ik-Hyun (Choi Min-Sik), who is considered to be a leading gangster of one of the major gangs in the city of Busan. He claims to be no more than a civil servant, but who would trust the word of a supposed gangster?
So the story goes back to 1982, when Ik-Hyun was a civil servant. While working, he happens upon a large amount of narcotics, and decides to sell it to the mob. As it turns out, that particular mob is run by Choi Hyung-Bae (Ha Jung-Woo), who is directly (if distantly) related to Ik-Hyun. And so begins Ik-Hyun’s entrance into the seedy underworld.
There is a lot of time shifting in Nameless Gangster, spanning twenty years of Ik-Hyun’s life. Fortunately, the filmmakers saw fit to subtitle every change, so it was much more difficult to get confused. Given the relative short span that most of the film takes place in, and the fact that older people don’t change so dramatically as they age, it definitely needed the clarification.
Especially because Ik-Hyun’s actions don’t change very much. Ik-Hyun is easily the savviest character in the entire film, and that starts very early on. As a civil servant, he was completely corrupt (as was his entire team), and he learned how to smooth talk, how to schmooze, and who to keep in contact with. He knows lawyers and politicians and police officers who can help him out. Those contacts are as important in the early 1980s as they are in 1990 as they are in the 2000s, and it means that Ik-Hyun is imminently capable of coming out ahead in bad situations.
This also what makes his relationship with Hyung-Bae so interesting. Hyung-Bae is a more traditional gangster, one who uses aluminum bats to get things done. He needs someone like Ik-Hyun to really survive as the mafia becomes increasingly business-oriented. Even so, Hyung-Bae is the leader of the gang, and he never cedes control of it. Ik-Hyun attempts to position himself as the man in charge of the actual affairs, still leaving the dirty work to Hyung-Bae and his men, but it’s all in his head.
One of the most fascinating things about the film is the way it portrays family, and the role of family in the mob. Films like The Godfather have shown me how important family can be, but it seems like connections run even deeper in Korea. For example, Ik-Hyun is helped by someone who should really have put him away because the two of them were 10 degrees of familial separation away. Both had the Choi name, and that was enough. Obviously it would not always be that simple, and the character was at least somewhat corrupt, but that connection that comes from the shared name and lineage was still enough. And it’s not a one time deal either, that particular relationship becomes immensely beneficial to Ik-Hyun in both the 1980s and the 1990s.
I mentioned The Godfather earlier, and it’s a film that’s been in my head a lot while thinking about Nameless Gangster, and a big part of that is because Hyung-Bae calls Ik-Hyun “Godfather.” As I mentioned before, Hyung-Bae is still in charge of things and does not cede control, but it’s a very strange thing to see a mobster reject the wishes of a Godfather. Assuming that’s not a weird translation, it seems like a very deliberate throwback to Coppola’s film and stands as a stark contrast to it. I found that very compelling.
But let’s get back to those baseball bats Hyung-Bae and his men use. There is quite a bit of violence in Nameless Gangster. It’s mostly hand-to-hand stuff, people getting beaten up for various reasons. You know, someone gets punched or slapped and it escalates into a bit of a brawl. That sort of thing that Koreans do better than everybody else. That happens a lot. But every once in a while it goes further. A gang (or the police) will show up with pipes and bats and start beating everybody in sight. More than anything, it’s a display of power. The point isn’t to kill anybody, or even hurt anybody. The point is to show everyone who’s boss, and it is clearly a successful tactic. In all cases of these raids, the attackers come out with some kind of victory on the other end.
And that also comes from humiliation. There are a couple of moments where the sole purpose of the violence is to degrade another character in any way possible, and it’s pretty sick stuff, for example: putting a cigarette out on someone’s face or peeing on them. These tactics change things. In this day and age, violence is just violence. Even if people actually look like they’re getting beaten up (and here they do), it’s hard to be shocking. But throwing in these short bursts of humiliating actions keeps the tension up. Hyung-Bae and his men are real gangsters, and the film makes sure you don’t forget that.
Nameless Gangster is easily one of the best mob films I have ever seen. It’s got all of the corruption, intrigue, and violence you would want from that type of film, plus all of the Korean sensibility that I want from every film. It’s nice when you can follow an actor or actress and completely trust their judgment of the project. Choi Min-Sik has proven time and time again that he only works with the best people and on the best projects.
I’m very happy that the trend has continued.[You can see Nameless Gangster at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center on Saturday, June 30th (with Choi Min-sik in attendance(!!!)) at 9:00 PM, or Tuesday, July 3rd at 2:00 PM.]