Although most South Korean gangster pictures deliver the moral message that crime does not pay, this maxim does not apply at the domestic box office where movies about mobsters have attracted considerable audience attendance over the past decade. From the semi-autobiographical realism of Kwak Kyung-taek’s Friend (2001) to the high style of Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life (2005) and Ryoo Seung-wan’s The City of Violence (2006) and the more comedic sensibility of Kim Sang-jin’s Kick the Moon (2001) and the My Wife is a Gangster series (2001, 2003, 2006), these films have traded in tough guy swagger but stopped short of glamorising the gangster lifestyle. Although often misleadingly marketed in the West in the tradition of the ‘heroic bloodshed’ films from Hong Kong, these South Korean offerings have sought to put their own stamp on the genre with an emphasis on extended fight scenes rather than shoot-outs, while also showing the camaraderie that exists in criminal circles without subscribing to the sense of underworld honour that is synonymous with the Hong Kong scene. A Dirty Carnival largely conforms to the template of the South Korean gangster cycle, with writer-director Yu Ha presenting a world where any advancement is short-lived due to the complications of cross and double-cross, while also serving up bursts of brutal action and moments of black humour. However, what could have been a rip-roaring crime caper in the spirit of the same year’s brashly entertaining The City of Violence is saddled with an intrusive sentimental streak and a commentary on the process of filmmaking that may have seemed clever on the page, but plays out in an unnecessarily self-referential manner. Fortunately, some well-staged action scenes and an emphatic performance from former television star Zo In-sung as a nice guy in a nasty line of work keep A Dirty Carnival on the rails.
The charming yet coolly efficient Kim Byung-doo (Zo) is a small-time gangster in his late-twenties who has failed to parlay his strong work ethic into a significant position within the organisation. Although he regularly collects large sums of money from those who have unwisely borrowed from his boss, Byung-doo does not receive enough of a share of the recovered funds to spare his family from the constant threat of eviction, and a promotion from shaking down debtors to managing a games room proves to be short-lived when a feud with a rival gang leads to the establishment being wrecked on the day that Byung-doo assumes control. During a drunken karaoke session with organisation superior President Hwang (Cheon Ho-jin), the desperate Byung-doo learns that Hwang is being harassed by Attorney Park, a corrupt official whose drunken assessment of Byung-doo is that a, ‘loser like this should be sucked up with a vacuum cleaner.’ Seeking to prove otherwise – and to keep his family from the streets – Byung-doo offers to take out Park in exchange for advancement, a professional decision which coincides with unexpected developments in his personal life when high school friend Min-ho (Nam Gung-min), now an aspiring filmmaker, asks Byung-doo if he can use his life experiences to add some realism to his crime-orientated screenplay. Min-ho also drags Byung-doo to a reunion dinner where the gangster reconnects with Hyun-joo (Lee Bo-Young), his childhood sweetheart who now works in a book store and has recently broken off an affair with her supervisor. After murdering Park, everything seems to be falling into place as Byung-doo takes steps towards going ‘legit’ by moving into the real estate business while embarking on a romantic relationship with Hyun-joo, but matters become complicated when Min-ho’s movie is released as the storyline shares some startling similarities with the recent murder of a state official.
As with many examples of contemporary South Korean cinema, A Dirty Carnival is arguably over-long, with the running time clocking in at 141 minutes and some of the subplots detracting from what should have been a lean and mean excursion into the world of the low-level gangster, with the main pacing problems stem from Byung-doo’s efforts to reconnect with his former classmates. Min-ho is a naïve filmmaker who serves as a commentary on South Korean directors who have sought to establish temporary relationships with gangsters as a means of adding authenticity to their work, but it seems unlikely that Byung-doo would engage in such indiscretion at such a critical juncture. The romantic scenes with Hyun-joo are largely lifeless, with the object of Byung-doo’s affections representing the life that he left behind when he entered the underworld but not proving to be a sufficiently compelling supporting character due. A Dirty Carnival may boast plenty of macho bravado but, as is common in South Korean cinema regardless of genre, it is permeated by a sense of childhood nostalgia, with the scenes in which Byung-doo spends time with Min-ho and Hyun-joo providing a sense of innocence lost due to an education that was cut short due to economic necessity. The nostalgic importance of old photographs and such treasured memories as staying after school to practise relay racing sits uneasily with the underworld machinations that the boyish yet ruthless Byung-doo engages in as a means of swiftly advancing his organisational status, moving from collecting debts for small change to muscling out residents of old apartment buildings in exchange for a cut of the redevelopment profits. Despite the lengthy running time, he does not get particularly far, though, as this is not so much the classic rise-and-fall story as an account of an enforcer who just about makes it to the middle before being betrayed by those around him.
While the film may flounder whenever Yu explores the sensitive side of his protagonist, it certainly scores during the sections devoted to detailing the hierarchy of the underworld and the limits that lower-level gangsters like Byung-doo must go to in order to scale the ladder. Routine debt collection assignments, the harassment of homeowners and joyless karaoke sessions with the big boss are all offered as examples of the daily grind, while the excitement level soars during the action sequences. When visiting his friend’s set, Byung-doo asks Min-ho to make a film with ’real gangster spirit’ and even instructs the fight choreographer on the manner in which hardened criminals attack one another with blows to the lower body rather than flying kicks, an approach which is ably demonstrated by the action scenes. The protracted fights – in which gang members smack each other around with metal baseball bats and sustain severe stab wounds – follow Oldboy (2003) and A Bittersweet Life in terms of supremely stylised hyper-violence, with the down-and-dirty nature of the combat techniques being emphasised by the muddiness of the wasteland in which the most vicious confrontation takes place. President Kwang may insist that, ‘real gangsters don’t use knives, they use calculators’ as a means of illustrating that criminals must behave more like businessmen than thugs in order to succeed – and survive – in the long term, but A Dirty Carnival shows that recruits who can take a beating as well as they can dish one out still constitute the foundations of any underworld organisation. While the disparate elements of A Dirty Carnival fail to form an entirely satisfying whole, and the sentimental slips of the narrative are almost as damaging for the director as they are for his central character, the film treads tough guy turf with sufficient flair to maintain interest throughout.