For viewers whose knowledge of the Gangnam district of Seoul is limited to the flashy personalities and consumerist attitude on display in Psy’s broadly satirical video for his global pop phenomenon “Gangnam Style”, the shantytown milieu of Yoo Ha’s latest foray into the crime genre may come as a surprise. Set during the politically turbulent 1970s, Gangnam Blues takes the shady dealings and severe violence that fueled the redevelopment of the area from impoverished farmland to a fully-fledged part of South Korea’s capital as a backdrop for a fictional underworld saga.
This volatile period is navigated through the intertwined fates of Jong-dae (Lee Min-ho) and Yong-ki (Kim Rae-won), who grew up together in an orphanage and are first seen as unkempt nobodies living in a home without heating that is scheduled for demolition. Desperate for quick cash, they join a group of thugs who have been tasked with breaking up a political meeting, only to be separated during the mayhem. Jumping forward three years, Jong-dae has tried to make an honest life by residing honestly with former gang leader Gil-soo (Jung Jin-young) and his daughter Seon-hye (Seol Hyun). However, Gil-soo’s noble decision to leave a life of crime behind by opening a dry-cleaning business has led him to fall into debt. Jong-dae’s efforts to take care of this situation brings him into contact with Sung-hee (Kim Ji-soo, making a striking big screen comeback), a well-connected Madam who needs assistance with acquiring the deeds to surrounding paddy fields on the cheap. In the meantime, Yong-ki has become a member of a powerful rival gang; when the childhood friends eventually reunite as sharply attired gangsters, an alliance is struck, but their bond is tested by the lure of wealth, while political machinations well above street level reveal their plans to be hopelessly naïve.
Returning to the crime genre for the first time since the contemporary thriller A Dirty Carnival (2006) and mixing elements of that film with his 1970s-set youth drama Once Upon a Time in High School (2004), Yoo is evidently gunning for instant classic status here, but doesn’t quite scale the pantheon. Gangnam Blues is indeed a juicy crime picture that illustrates the connections between organized crime, official power structures, and their intertwined role in accelerating economic developments that cause considerable social inequality. It also boasts splendid production design, a swooning soundtrack of period songs, and gorgeous cinematography, which aims more for attention grabbing grandeur than exact recreation. Yoo may be fascinated with the seedier aspects of Seoul’s development but is equally in thrall to the history of the gangster genre and makes sure that his scathing critique of land grabbing is packaged as a vivid entertainment that coolly swaggers through its 135-minutes.
As skilled as Yoo is with achieving epic sweep, he sometimes forgets to fill in the finer details: his quick sketch approach to background information, somewhat vague timeline, and veritable revolving door of supporting characters leads to confusion at certain points, making Gangnam Blues suffer in comparison to Young Jong-bin’s more patient Nameless Gangster (2012) which examined underworld politics in Busan in the 1980s. If only Yoo treated relationships and rivalries with the level of finesse that is applied to a brilliantly choreographed brawl between two gangs in a muddy cemetery, he would have a real contender on his hands.
Perhaps an even greater shortcoming is his continued insistence on having likeable protagonists at the centre of worlds that are otherwise depicted as being driven by insatiable greed and characterized by a lack of trust. As in A Dirty Carnival, in which the main protagonist turned to crime as a means of providing for his family, the unfortunate shared background of the principal gangsters in Gangnam Blues is intended to engender a measure of sympathy regarding their misguided choices. Lee and Kim acquit themselves well enough but neither possesses the raw charisma to make their arcs as emblematic or tragic as Yoo presumably intended. Yoo surrounds his stars with solid veterans, mostly culled from television rather than the big screen, and tries to utilize Lee’s lightweight presence to suggest that Jong-dae is not really cut out for a life of treachery and violence. Still, there’s a vacuum at the heart of Gangnam Blues that calls out for a more involving performance.
However, it’s arguably the filmmaker who is the real star here and the unadulterated brio of Gangnam Blues makes it tremendously watchable. Yoo has stated that this is the final part of his “street series” trilogy following Once Upon a Time in High School and A Dirty Carnival but it’s hard to believe that he will be away from the crime genre for too long considering his increasing mastery of its time-honored conventions.