Man, I love this movie. And I love this image, too - it really sums up the oddness of the character. Is he a badass or a buffoon?!?! I still don't know.
A confession: within me beats the heart of a cigar-chomping producer. When I see a fantastic foreign language film like Yun Jong-bin's Nameless Gangster, a little part of my brain thinks about how one would adapt it for a Hollywood film. This time, I was stumped.
The lead performance by Choi Min-sik, familiar to you from Oldboy and I Saw The Devil, is so peculiar and perfect that I was unable to think of any other actor who could nail it. It's a whopper of a role in truly unique crime drama played out on a grand scale. If you think you've seen every possible take on organized crime, hunt down this film.
Nameless Gangster is complex, but juicy, and takes its sweet time getting to its true subject. We open in 1990, with South Korea's president Roh Tae-woo announcing a crackdown on corruption. A hotel manager's name is floated in the press and he soon finds himself getting the crap beat out of him by tough guys. Miraculously he escapes and decides to go to the cops, naming Choi Min-sik's character (named Choi Ik-hyun – it's confusing, and about to get worse) as Busan's criminal puppet master.
Choi seems like a nice older man and swears he's “just a civil servant.” Here we flashback to a somewhat schlubby younger Choi working as a dock inspector and making quick bribes where he can. Opportunity knocks when he stumbles on a major drug shipment and seeks an audience with the mob.
You are never quite sure if Choi is an idiot or an absolute genius, but once he recognizes that Choi Hyung-bae, the young associate of the big boss, is a distant relative, he starts demanding he get treated with the respect due an elder. When it looks like he's gonna get his ass handed to him, the two Chois end up working together, then slowly end up taking over all of Busan's operations.
Nameless Gangster has all the rise-and-fall grandeur of Scarface and the behind-the-scenes newcomer wonderment of Goodfellas. Front and center, however, is Choi Min-sik's slightly menacing but strangely dopey performance. When angry he's a frightening powerhouse, but when he needs to turn on the charm to win over a prosecutor or politician, he morphs into the Korean John Candy. There's an oafish warmth that is completely the opposite of what you know is truly going on in his head – or at least think is going on in his head. As the syndicate's power grows, and the younger Choi starts boxing the older man out of certain decisions, he starts making some decisions that seem, perhaps, a little less wise. Or is that just what he wants you to think?!?!
As you can see Nameless Gangster is the type of film just begging to be discussed and analyzed. There's the perfect amount of ambiguity for three different discussions along the lines of “did he mean for that to happen like that?” However, this isn't just a perplexing character piece. There are numerous kickass moments of gangland antagonism. Amidst the crosses and double-crosses come enough cool guys in suits bashing the hell out of one another with bottles and aluminum baseball bats to keep fans itching for another Casino happy for a while. There's also a quite foxy nightclub owner played by Kim Hye-won who at first seems like the typical dragon lady moll but is actually a tornado of unexpected acting choices. (Three cheers for gorgeous women sitting in unladylike positions!)
I'm really excited about this movie because it is a good example of a filmmaker working within a formula but giving it enough of a unique spin to keep the particulars wholly unpredictable. I'm jazzed to see what this director does next, and as Choi Min-sik's star continues to rise in the US I imagine that this will be seen as one of his greatest showcases.
Nameless Gangster is playing at the New York Asian Film Festival. No word yet on when we can expect a Blu-ray.