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Low Life (2004)
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by Jay Seaver

"A series of interesting episodes that just stops, rather than ending."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: South Korea has, in fewer than sixty years as a separate country, had a tumultuous and fascinating history. Ostensibly democratic and free, it could often really only be described that way relative to its Northern neighbor. That environment of corruption, curfews, and military dictatorship serves as the background to "Low-Life", but as the title suggests, it is not the story of those the criminals in public office, but one of the gangsters who was able, at various times, to eke out a living and sometimes thrive.

Choi Tae-ung got his start as a thug early, looking for a fight at a rival high school. When one of the students cowardly stabs him in the back of the leg and runs away, he drags himself to that student's home, demanding Park Seung-mun pull the knife out himself. Seung-mun's politician father, Park Il-won, demands his son do so, impressed with Tae-ung's commitment to honor. As the police question them at the hospital, both the Parks and Tae-ung keep the details quiet, not wanting to jeopardize Park senior's political career, and Tae-ung comes to live with them.

Tae-ung's basic nature doesn't change, though, and it is ironically attempting to support his foster father at a political rally that brings him to the attention of the Souel gangs: Stooges paid by the government throw rocks at the elder Park, and Tae-ung chases them down to deliver a beating, not knowing they are top enforcers. A rival gang recruits him, and he rises in the ranks, the right-hand man of Oh Sang-pil (Kim Hak-jun), and gains a measure of respect for having an amount of honor. During this time, Seung-mun (You Ha-jun) is forced underground as a political dissident, and Tae-ung (Cho Seung-woo) marries the other Park sibling, Hae-ok (Kim Min-sun), a schoolteacher who has difficulty living the life of a gangster's life.

Writer/director Im Kwon-taek steers this ambitious project, and would seem to be the man for the job - an almost fifty-year veteran of the Korean movie industry, he has been winning international awards since well before the Korean cinema explosion of the last decade; he probably saw many episodes such as Tae-ung's ill-fated attempt to become a film producer first-hand. His direction shows a steady hand, handling both the action and the more intimate moments with the kind of straightforward skill that makes the audience forget that there's a director. He uses broadcasts of significant moments in Korean history to set the period, as the film stretches from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. The action scenes are well-choreographed and shot, and the look of the film changes subtly over its running time - time clearly passes, and the Korea of 1950 evolves into that of 1972, but it never becomes unrecognizable; governments rise and fall, but the world that people live in stays relatively constant.

He's not quite so successful as a writer; the story occasionally makes jarring jumps (an issue with almost any film that tries to compress a lifetime into two hours), and the story arcs of some of the supporting characters don't seem as consistent as Tae-ung's. In one seen, Oh Sang-pil is removed as head of the "Fraternity", but ten minutes later he appears to be back in charge; Seung-mun's transition from fugitive intellectual to Tae-ung's assistant is hardly smooth. The film ends abruptly and almost arbitrarily; it neither seems like the end of Tae-ung's story or Korea's. A brief caption appears, the credits roll, and the audience has to wonder if perhaps Im has a second film planned to cover the latter half of Tae-ung's life, bringing him up to the present.

If he does, he'd be well-advised to retain Cho Seung-woo. He doesn't appear to give a spectacular performance until his relatively young age is taken into account; though only twenty-three or twenty-four when the film was made, he believably portrays Choi Tae-ung as both a teenager and a middle-aged father of two. He radiates an authority beyond his years, although he instills Choi with a youthful naiveté even as he ages, seeming to have trouble believing that the criminals he runs with would be so dishonest. My favorite scene has him full of bluster after his wife leaves him and he tracks her down, then kneeling before her in complete abasement as soon as it's just the two of them. Similarly, Kim Min-sun does a fine job as Hae-ok, the good girl drawn to Tae-ung against her better judgment (it is not by coincidence that the movie they plan to see on one of their first dates is Rebel Without a Cause). Her character is a few years older than Tae-ung, and all through the movie, she's pragmatic but loving, even if she does often look pained at sacrificing more of her good reputation than her husband truly understands.

One thing I was impressed with is the honest look Im takes at the time that must represent his youth. There's a slick, meticulously studio-constructed look to the movie that often seems to contain more than a tinge of nostalgia, but the director knows more than to romanticize the time too much. There's violence and corruption always around the corner, and his look at the movie business when he was just starting out as a director features gangs, money problems and censorship; it's a far cry from today's Korean cinema, easily one of the world's most vibrant.

"Low-Life" is a pretty decent movie, with a strong lead character and great production values. That's enough to make up for the problems it has creating a strong narrative, though not quite enough to make it exceptional.

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originally posted: 07/10/05 01:17:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2005 Fantasia Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/22/08 Shaun Wallner Interesting Movie! 3 stars
11/02/04 Elizabeth Violent but interesting story with an unfortunately abrupt conclusion. 4 stars
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Directed by
  Im Kwon-Taek

Written by
  Im Kwon-Taek

  Seung-woo Cho
  Min-sun Kim
  Hak-jun Kim
  Ha-jun You

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