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Gangnam Blues
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by Jay Seaver

"As everywhere, cities are built by the ruthless."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Gangnam 1970" (or "Gangnam Blues", the name under which it's traveling the festival circuit) is the sort of movie where I tend to spend the first ten or fifteen minutes frantically trying to remember the seemingly dozens of characters being introduced in rapid succession, only to relax a bit more upon realizing that, really, only these two and the guys in their immediate orbit are going to really matter - and given that this is a mob movie, maybe they'll be the only ones introduced early who are left when all is said and done.

Those two guys are Kim Jong-Dae (Lee Min-ho) and Baek Yong-ki (Kim Rae-won), orphans living in a shantytown outside Seoul in the early 1970s. Gangnam may be a poor area now with unproductive fields now, but developers, politicians, and gangsters see its position on the road to the capital and intend to develop it after swindling its owners out of their deeds and destroying any opposition they may have in the government. Jong-dae and Yong-ki are dragooned into doing thug work to break up a political meeting, but get separated. Yong-ki winds up joining the mob and moving up quickly, while Jong-dae is taken in by Kang Gil-su (Jung Jin-young), a boss in a rival gang who semi-retires to run a laundry business after being stabbed. It will be three years before their paths cross again, and they form a secret alliance.

There are a lot of other players and side-plots to the story, which is built on (mostly) fictional characters, though against a real-life backdrop. It is a dizzying combination of politics and crime when the two were harder to separate, bringing the intelligence services in as well. If you're not versed in the background, trying to reduce it to the stories of Jong-dae and Yong-ki is almost self-defense. Fortunately, writer/director Yu Ha will reward the patient viewer; his story of corruption and gang warfare never becomes truly simple, but does have a sort of inevitable forward motion, even as the people at the top are knocking each other off and forcing each other out of power. At times, I almost wish it were a book with references and the ability to flip back, but it is eventually merely a dense movie, not an impenetrable one.

And, yes, if you spend most of your attention on the two main characters, you'll get most of the personally compelling pieces of the story. Though their paths are similar, they're also distinct enough to be interesting: Yong-ki seems like the weaker of the two initially, but being thrown into the deep end of a shark tank makes him ambitious with an eye out for opportunities. Kim Rae-won's performance is something of a velvet glove, with the fact that he came from nothing always visible and making him easy to empathize with even if he's always scoping out the room.

Jong-dae, on the other hand, winds up with something approaching a family, and though he displays the same sort of hunger, there's something else tugging at him as well. Lee Min-ho doesn't make Jong-dae unsure as his baser impulses pull him into crime, but he's often a little easier to like, more engaged with people even if it's futile. His scenes with Jung Jin-young as his foster father - and Jung's alone as a man torn between living an honest life and protecting his children because he feels the pain of falling short with every step - give the film a bit of a doomed heart, because despite them, nobody is ever actually stepping back.

That leads to some impressive escalation, and as the movie goes on, Yu Ha serves up some impressive mayhem. His movie never becomes a slick, glossy thing - his gangsters and their political allies are fighting over potential as opposed to what's there already - but it never feels cramped or limited. When the action explodes, it does so in a big way, whether out of nowhere or as something inevitable just keeps getting bigger and bigger. A nifty score by Jo Young-wook builds atmosphere without overdoing it.

There's probably a great larger work to be made out of the stories of this period, a Korean "Boardwalk Empire" or something like it. This one takes a while for those of us who aren't always excited about this sort of history of development, but it's well worth it by the end.

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originally posted: 07/22/15 03:05:30
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Ha Yoo

Written by
  Ha Yoo

  Min-ho Lee
  Rae-won Kim
  Jin-young Jung
  Ji-soo Kim
  Seol-hyun Kim

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