I’ve never been very good at gambling. The few times I’ve put actually money down on the line playing poker (a whole five bucks), I was always the first to run out of chips. I never know when to fold, I’m willing to bluff when there’s no reason to do so, and I just generally don’t have a feel for the way the game is played. Because of all that, I would never put myself into a high stakes game. I understand that if, say, I was asked to bet my right hand, there is no way in hell that it would be a risk worth taking. I think most people, even ones who are pretty good at gambling, wouldn’t risk that.
As for the characters in Tazza: The High Rollers…. Well, they really should have known better.
Tazza: The High Rollers (Tajja | 타짜)
Director: Choi Dong-Hun
Release Date: September 18, 2012 (DVD)
Country: South Korea
Tazza: The High Rollers centers around the game of “Hwatu” which is a Korean card game played with Japanese Hanafuda cards. Going into Tazza I knew absolutely nothing about Hwatu (or “Sutda,” which is the variation that they play in the film), and coming out of it I’m equally in the dark. Hanafuda cards, pretty though they may be, are entirely meaningless to me, so I couldn’t make heads or tails of what was going on at any time. Unlike the standard 52-card deck that I’m used to, all Hanafuda cards have some sort of pattern on them, and even within the pairs the images are not necessarily identical. The lack of numbers signifying any sort of value meant that a couple of moments where the cards were shown to the camera lost any significance that they could have had. All I could understand was that Ten Pair is the best hand and One Point (I think) is the worst. I don’t know how you know when you have Ten Pair or One Point or any other score, and I have no idea what those cards look like, but I’m pretty sure I figured out that basic fact.
Nonetheless, even though my enjoyment of Tazza: The High Rollers was occasionally tempered by my ignorance about the game it focused on, there was still plenty for me to latch onto. Tazza tells the story of Goni (Cho Seung-Woo), a man brought into the gambling world first by greed and then by a need to reclaim the money that he believed was stolen from him. But he makes that money back pretty early in the film, and then it’s right back to greed. Unfortunately, as is wont to happen in films of this sort, Goni gets mixed up with a lot of bad people, and both he and the people he cares for are put in serious danger.
But first Goni has to become a force to be reckoned with, someone worth going after, and that’s where Pyung Gyung-Jang (Baek Yun-Shik) comes into play. The self-described best Hwatu player in South Korea (followed by “One Ear” Jjakgwi and Aw-Kwi), Pyung teaches Goni the ropes of how to play Hwatu the way pros do, by cheating. Using all sorts of fancy tricks and sleight of hand, Goni becomes that player who wins hand after hand after hand, raking in all kinds of cash. This puts him in the sights of friends and foes alike, and it puts him on one hell of a journey.
The stakes of Hwatu don’t stop at money though, as I alluded to in the beginning. “One Ear,” for example, got his name because he had one of his ears cut off after cheating in a game with Aw-Kwi. Anyone who plays proper stakes with Aw-Kwi is put in a similar position, but it primarily focuses on the right hand. Without the right hand, the tricks that make pro players so capable become nearly (though not completely) impossible. Those stakes are not one any rational person would take, but the only people worth making the bet with are the ones who would take it. People like Pyung, Aw-Kwi, One Ear, and Goni.
But that’s not the only danger. Tazza: The High Rollers is a period piece set in 1996 and flashbacks to sometime before. At the time, gambling was illegal in South Korea (it seems that the ban has since been lifted, but I could be wrong about that), which meant that everything was part of the “seedy underbelly,” even though the gambling clientele included military types and other upper class members of society. But that means that the stakes are inherently higher than they would be in, say, America, and high stakes games are much more likely to end in bloodshed. Tazza has quite a bit of bloodshed. If there’s any truth behind the film (or the comic it’s based on), knives seem to have been the weapon of choice for gamblers, but even though stabbings are the most common occurrence, there’s definitely more. Perhaps the most inventive weapon is the sledgehammer. Hammers are something of a staple in Korean films, but I can’t really think of any films I’ve seen with sledgehammers. These sledgehammers don’t bash skulls, though; they bash hands.
But on top of the gambling and the violence and the nudity (there’s nudity by the way), there’s a very real story with some very real characters. Some people are a bit more over the top than others, but nobody ever feels like a caricature. I can’t say that I really cared about most of the characters, but I felt some level of connection to them, and I wanted to see how their stories turned out. When things went badly, I cringed. When they went well, I cheered (or some less obnoxious equivalent). I think the real hallmark of a character drama is the quality of the not-so-good characters, and although Tazza: The High Roller‘s villains aren’t the most interesting I’ve seen, they’re certainly not bad. Aw-kwi’s personality may center around his hubris and love of other people’s wrists, but really, that hubris is the defining characteristic of Goni for most of the movie, so what’s wrong with that?
There’s a lot to like about Tazza: The High Rollers, and I imagine that fans of Hwatu (or at least people who understand how it’s played) will get even more out of it than I did. Still, it lacked the little bit of something that it needed to make me say, “Woah, that was great!” If you like films about gambling and/or stabbings, you’ll definitely enjoy this movie, and if you like good character stories I don’t see why you wouldn’t like this one as well. It seems like there’s a message in there somewhere about the dangers of addiction, but the ending makes that message ambiguous at best. Even so, it certainly turned me off from the idea of gambling, at least in late 1990s South Korea.[Tazza: The High Rollers will be released on DVD September 17, 2012. You can buy the disc from the RightStuf, Amazon, or YFuFu.]