NAMELESS GANGSTER: RULES OF THE TIME
South Korea has an overshadowed yet strong and fascinating history of organized crime and corruption. For any world-hungry cinephiles, this has translated into a cinematic heritage of gangster films that easily rivals the works of Italian-American directors such as Scorsese or Coppola; films as varied as The Unjust (which played last year’s Fantasia), The Unforgiven (also directed by Yun Jong-bin), The City of Violence (2006), Ji-woon Kim’s now classic A Bittersweet Life (2005) and more, released year after year for the better part of a decade – and enjoyed by many genre aficionados on the festival circuit.
And while most are great and memorable, few exhibit the breadth, scope and sense of history that Yu Jong-bin’s Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time brings to the table. Set before and during President Tae-woo Roh’s 1990 crackdown on organized crime, Nameless Gangster goes back and forth from the “present” time 1990s to the 1980s, following Choi Ik-hyun (Choi Min-shik), a customs officer turned entrepreneur accused of embezzling money, as well as of intimidation, kidnapping and assault.
His trajectory leading to that specific low point in time is shown to us through flashbacks, from his days of taking bribes as a customs officer to the slow ascension and tumultuous road that would turn him into a mob boss. When nearly accused of criminal activities by his customs department boss (who targets Choi Ik-hyun, who has a much smaller family thus fewer responsibilities, to take the fall) fate intervenes in the form of a large amount of found cocaine. At the crossroad, Choi posits gangster activities as profoundly patriotic: “We have to rise above the Japanese, somehow!” What’s wrong with selling cocaine to Japs!” A co-worker quickly puts him in contact with local gangster Choi Hyung-bae (Ha Jeong-woo, which you can also marvel at in this year’s Love Fiction) and their bond is immediately cemented when they both realize they are from the same Choi family. Ik-hyun is in fact Hyung-bae’s godfather, which propels the former on a deadly road towards power: a low-level “civil servant” criminal suddenly finds himself in a tremendous position of power and it can only go downhill from there.
Impressive crime epic spanning two decades, Nameless Gangster as the gauge of Puzo novel set in Korea, echoing both The Godfather and Goodfellas in many ways, all the while providing for a much needed and appreciated look into cross-decade organized crime activities. It’s brilliant soundtrack will recall Scorsese and similarly, the cast is an absolute delight: Choi Min-shik, as usual, is absolutely spellbinding and Ha Jeong-woo, as the hardened mobster (quite the polar opposite from the neurotic writer role of Love Fiction; a personal favorite from the wide array of performances this year’s Fantasia festival has to offer) is both commandeering and chilling. Both are prisoners of a game of hubris, honor and ego, and perhaps reflected in their stature as iconic actors, embody it perfectly.
Brutal blunt force trauma, precarious power dynamics and two simultaneous timelines rushing towards gut-wrenching destinations will keep you on the edge of your seat. A must-see for any fan of South Korean cinema. Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time plays on Saturday July 28th in the Hall theatre at 18h10.
(Ariel Esteban Cayer)