Nameless Gangster (South Korea, 2012) [NYAFF 2012]

Written and directed by Yoon Jong-bin, Nameless Gangster tells a story of crime and incidents of corruption in Busan, South Korea that were so widespread the government declared war in the early 1990s….and the prosecutors’ offices and cops ended up being as ruthless as the gangs themselves.

A corrupt Customs official named Ik-hyun (Choi Min-sik) is about to lose his job for taking bribes.  He finds a large stash of heroin and decides to sell it to the Japanese yakuza through crime boss Hyung-bae (Ha Jung-woo).  Ik-hyun gets drunk and almost blows the whole deal, but he soon realizes that he and Hyung-bae are related.  He manages to talk his way into the boss’ good graces, and even begins helping the boss deal with some sticky situations through some family connections in government.  Soon Ik-hyun and Hyung-bae are partners controlling the biggest crime organization in Busan during the 1980s.  They take control of nightclubs and casinos, angering another crime boss, Pan-ho (Jo Jin-woong).

When a new President is elected in the early 1990s, the Korean government declares an official war on crime in Busan.  The stress of this war reveals cracks in the relationship between Ik-hyun and Hyung-bae.  Ik-hyun, feeling angry and disrespected, meets with Pan-ho.  The rival gangs go after one another and, because of his perceived betrayal, Ik-hyun is beaten and stripped of his position by Hyung-bae and told never to set foot into the underworld again.  The problem is, Ik-hyun has had a taste of the good life and doesn’t want to give it up.  Now prosecutor Jo Beom-seok (Gwak Do-won) has set his sights on Ik-hyun and makes him squirm.  Who will Ik-hyun side with in the war on crime?

When I heard about Nameless Gangster I wanted to see it just because Choi Min-sik stars in it—I’m a huge fan of his.  After actually watching the film I can say it is one that I want everyone to see.  Nameless Gangster is a gritty and realistic film about organized crime and the people who fight it.  Smartly directed, it moves seamlessly from Ik-hyun’s arrest in 1990, back to his early days as a bribe-taking Customs official, through his career as a crime boss in the 1980s and back to his legal woes in the 1990s.  The on-screen chemistry between Ik-hyun and Hyung-bae (Choi and Ha, respectively) is captivating as these two brilliant actors portray a wholly believable partnership of brains and brawn. And it is their relationship that is the real focus of the film.  Choi’s character (which he gained around 25 pounds for) is so unconventional and sympathetic you’re not sure whether to cheer for his success or failure.  Ik-hyun is also pathetic, obnoxious, intense and all-together human.  Hyung-bae is a ruthless and vicious gang boss covered in tattoos (which Ha spent hours getting drawn on prior to shooting) but he’s also oozes coolness.  Yet at the same time he displays tenderness toward his “godfather” Ik-hyun that shows a respect for the older man.

Director Yoon Jong-bin has managed to create a very bleak look into organized crime and government corruption, and what happens to those caught up in it.  Pacing is excellent and the fight scenes are beautifully choreographed.  Like most films of the genre, the women are scarce, but I feel that is more a product of culture, whether you’re talking Asian gangsters or Italian mafia.  The women aren’t really allowed to participate in the business and are relegated to the typical wife/girlfriend roles.  Nameless Gangster includes nods to such genre big shots as The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995), which is fitting because the film deserves to be mentioned right along with those greats of the gangster genre.  Nameless Gangster is riveting and violent in its storytelling and its backdrop of 1980s Korea just adds to the grim reality of the gangster lifestyle.

Nameless Gangster is currently playing in limited release and if you can catch it, you definitely should see it.  It was recently screened at NYAFF as part of a mini-retrospective of Choi Min-sik’s movie career.