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Nameless Gangster
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by Jay Seaver

"Grand ambition, petty squabble."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time" ("Bumchoiwaui Junjaeng: Nabbeunnomdeul Jeonsungshidae") opens, at least in this English-subtitled version, with a definition of the word "daebu", which means "man of one's grandfather's generation" - or "Godfather". Give writer/director Yung Jong-bin credit for giving his mob drama lofty ambitions, even if its actual achievements aren't quite on that level.

Though the movie somewhat closer to the present day, the story starts in the 1980s, when Choi Ik-hyun (Choi Min-sik) is a Busan customs official of only moderate corruption, though that's landed him with some merchandise he doesn't know how to sell and an internal investigation. This leads him to gangster Choi Hyung-bae (Ha Jung-woo), who it turns out is a distant relative, both being part of the Gyeong-ju clan. Hyung-bae does not initially appreciate this connection, having henchman Park Chang-woo (Kim Sung-kyun) deliver Ik-hyun a beating, but his father demands he show respect. So Ik-hyun is brought into the business, where his connections prove useful - especially once young prosecutor Jo Bum-suk (Kwak Do-wan) starts sniffing around.

There's a potentially interesting idea being played with here - that any enterprise with a certain level of ambition needs both doers like Hyung-bae and facilitators like Ik-hyun, criminal ones most of all. When things are going well for the Chois, this is actually pretty fascinating to watch, especially since it is all but inevitable that neither will truly appreciate the other's contribution. 1980s Korea makes for a good background, as well - it seems as though a capitalist economy under a military dictatorship gives the mob plenty of business opportunities and keeps overhead low with the necessary corruption nicely centralized, letting the Chois at times appear legitimate. It's good empire-building even for those who don't particularly like mafia movies.

You don't build characters like these up unless you're planning on a fall, and that's where Nameless Gangster perhaps comes up short. The conflict between the Chois never quite reaches the operatic heights one might hope for from of movie of this scale - heck, the Chois' potential fall seems to key on a rather ordinary assault charge - and I think that's in part because director Yung doesn't quite figure out how to handle Ik-hyun consistently. He spends a lot of time having Choi Min-sik portray him as a crude, fat stumbler, which seems rather at odds with how he's supposed to be valuable for his skill at networking. Part of it is that he's such a complete wannabe in the gangster world and should look out of his element when guns come out, but we seldom see him doing the calling in favors and greasing the appropriate palms that he's supposedly good at, and as a result it's hard to believe he does that at all.

Which isn't to say Choi Min-sik turns in a bad performance, though it's maybe not one of the best in his impressive career. He does a nice job of placing deviousness under Ik-hyun's apparent buffoonery when he can, and when he can't, he still plays the fool well. Ha Jung-woo matches up quite well as Hung-bae, although it will more likely take a second viewing to really suss out all of what the character is thinking at any given time.

As befits a big movie starring two of South Korea's most popular actors, the movie is impressively slick, giving each time, place, and economic stratum in which it takes place a distinctive feel and doing all right in aging the characters (at least until the end; old-age makeup is no actor's friend). Yung maybe jumps around in time more than he needs to, but it's seldom confusing, and though he goes for a bit of an epic feel, he doesn't let the move get bloated.

The great gangster movies aren't so much about the actual gangland politics themselves, or at least that's what their makers often say. "Nameless Gangster" follows that path, asking whether it truly is what you do or who you know, and while it's a good movie, it might be a better one if it played that conflict up more.

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originally posted: 08/25/12 12:52:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Jong-bin Yun

Written by
  Jong-bin Yun

  Min-sik Choi
  Jung-woo Ha
  Jin-Woong Jo
  In-beom Ko

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