Paid in Blood (South Korea, 2021)

Paid in Blood,  the feature debut of director and screenwriter Yoon Young-bin, is a crime drama that revolves around the battle for a new casino and hotel between two gangsters. Chairman Oh (Kim Se Joon), a retired crime boss in the resort city of Gangneung, has given majority control of his new project to his trusted underboss Kim Gil-seok (Yu Oh-seong). Young upstart Lee Min-seok (Jang Hyuk) who works as a debt collector and hitman from Seoul, has gained minority control through some violent means but wants to control it all. Confrontation between the two men is inevitable.

The film takes place in 2017, about six months before the Winter Olympic games that saw the city of Gangneung host some of the events, so building of hotels and tourist sites was already underway. Naturally criminal organizations wanted to get in on the action and make as much money as possible. This is where Chairman Oh wants to build a hotel, casino, and nightclub. Kim Gil-seok has earned the trust of his boss and the respect of fellow underbosses thanks to his loyalty and no-nonsense approach to his job. He is dependable and sensible. Lee Min-seok, on the other hand, is violent and depraved. He will do anything necessary to get what he wants, as demonstrated by the opening prologue in gruesome fashion.

Paid in Blood is reminiscent of Korean crime dramas of the 1990s and early 2000s, and even older Japanese yakuza films, in that it gives viewers the classic battle between the unfailing old guard gangster and the new blood looking for their position of power. The fight scenes are brutal and bloody but not overly choreographed so they are more realistic instead of seeming too stylized. It also helps that the acting is superb. Yu’s performance ensures that, even though Kim Gil-seok is a gangster, he is an anti-hero that you want to see win since he adheres to a sense of duty to the Chairman and his peers. He is highly relatable as a person with a guiding compass. Meanwhile, Lee Min-seok represents pandemonium. For him, it’s a free-for-all that results in a bloodbath, making him easy to root against. 

For the most part, the film is engaging and well-paced. However, one issue is that there are too many unnecessary secondary characters. While I’m all for many bodies engaging in violence, especially bloody, non-CGI violence, I was disinterested in quite a few of the supporting players and found it hard to keep track of everyone involved over its somewhat overlong 119-minute runtime. Also, the last act feels like a slow grind, losing some of story’s tension. It builds and then sort of levels off toward the end. Overall, however, there are many really good parts to Paid in Blood that come together beautifully and most Korean gangster film fans will likely agree with that assessment.

Paid in Blood is distributed in the US by WellGo USA Entertainment.