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Tazza: The Hidden Card
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by Jay Seaver

"Doesn't exactly continue a streak."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I appear to have really liked the first "Tazza" movie (alternately called "War of Flowers" and "Tazza: The High Rollers") when it played this festival eight years ago, although I don't remember it well enough to remember whether an early scene from this sequel was there or is being retroactively inserted. Whichever is the case, "The Hidden Card" starts with a clean enough slate to tell a similar story about a guy being really good at cheating at cards, at least until he meets people who are better and more ruthless at it than he is, albeit apparently not as well.

This time, the gambler is Ham Dae-gil (Choi Seung-hyun, aka "T.O.P."), nephew of the previous film's Go-ni and a natural hustler himself. Gambling runs in the family enough that his grandfather winds up in debt to local operator "Ghost" (Kim Joon-ho), and when Dae-gil tries to protect his family he winds up fleeing to Gangnam just a day after meeting Huh Mina (Sin Se-kyung), the extremely cute sister of gambling buddy Gwang-chul (Kim In-kwon). In Seoul, he joins a childhood friend (Lee Dong-hwi) at in an underground casino's crew, although a series of reversals will inevitably lead to games where far more than money is on the line.

Tazza is a long-running comic series in South Korea, and there's a tendency to repeat the same stories as those hang around, whether it's villains committing similarly-themed crimes, warriors having to master new and more devastating fighting techniques, or a next generation going through the same things as their predecessors. To be fair to The Hidden Card, it only mirrors The High Rollers in the broad strokes and dispenses with its multiple narrators and pseudo-documentary inserts. Those broad strokes are fairly universal, but the trouble with this sort of sequel is that it's trying to both be back-to-basics and create something bigger and more complex for existing fans, and the result is often a script that alternates between going through the motions and emotionally and heaping so many events into the story that the audience has no time to react to them.

That's not to say that there's no spark to the movie, but it's dimmed, and putting pop star Choi Seungn-hyun in the lead doesn't really help. He's handsome and reasonably charismatic, and can handle when Dae-gil is riding high well enough, but he never finds the scrappiness and intelligence that would make him a believable leader of a crew, just the confidence. Shin Se-kyung does better by that - she's able to bring forth Mina's dry sarcasm in a way that can even target the audience at times - but the script treats the pair's romance as predestined and obligatory, rather than seeing how they mesh as lovers or as a team.

With all the double-crosses and false fronts, few of the other characters really get to stand out as either ally or enemy (sometimes switching between the two for what seems like insufficient reason). Kwak Do-wan eventually does most of the heavy lifting as the main villain, but there's nothing individual to him despite being the most willing to use violence, or have his henchmen do so. Even a late appearance by Kim Yun-seok as the first film's nemesis Agwi doesn't give the story the oomph it needs - he winds up serving to make things more formal than unpredictable.

Director Kang Hyung-chul is partially responsible for a lot of this as a co-writer, but he does some things fairly well. For a two-and-a-half-hour movie, The Hidden Card moves quickly, although some fatigue does set in as it goes through different stages. The feel of the underground gambling scene is not glamorous, but one can at least see why it would be exciting to those involved. And in what is probably the major improvement to the first film, the game of hwatu actually looks kind of interesting here, although the emphasis on cheating rather than reading one's opponents or knowing the game does make that a bit irrelevant.

I suspect that if I revisited "The High Rollers"/"War of Flowers", I'd be a little less fond of it. Maybe it would even come across as being as relatively bland as its follow-up, although I doubt it. For all that "The Hidden Card" is capable, the sizzle factor is lower, and that's not what you want to hear about a movie set in the world of high-stakes gambling.

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originally posted: 07/27/15 23:58:28
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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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