Gangnam Blues (2015) Review

"Gangnam Blues" Korean Theatrical Poster

“Gangnam Blues” Korean Theatrical Poster

AKA: Gangnam 1970
Director: Yu Ha (aka Yoo Ha)
Writer: Yu Ha (aka Yoo Ha)
Producer: Yu Ha (aka Yoo Ha), Yu Jeong-hun
Cast: Lee Min-Ho, Kim Rae-Won, Jung Jin-Young, Seol Hyun, Kim Ji-Su, Lee Yeon-Doo, Jung Ho-Bin, Eom Hyo-Seop, Yoo Seung-Mok, Lee Suk, Choi Jin-Ho, Han Jae-Young
Running Time: 135 min.

By Paul Bramhall

Former poet turned director and script writer Yoo Ha makes his long overdue return to the gangster genre with Gangnam Blues. Ha, whose 2006 movie A Dirty Carnival is considered a genre favorite, has shown a deft hand at whatever genre he’s worked in, be it high school fight movies like Once Upon a Time In Highschool, or sexually charged period dramas like A Frozen Flower. However with his 2011 mystery thriller The Howling, following a pair of detectives on the trail of a murderous wolf dog, Ha seemed to take a misstep, and the movie was received poorly both by critics and the box office.

Three years later, and on the surface Gangnam Blues looks to be a return to the genre the director is most well known for. The movie stars Lee Min-ho and Kim Rae-won as brothers who grew up in an orphanage together. Min-ho has a huge fan base world wide thanks to his good looks, and despite having a small role in 2008’s Public Enemy Returns, his popularity largely comes from being a staple of K-dramas, including the Korean version of City Hunter, in which he played the lead. Gangnam Blues marks his first time in the lead of a movie. Rae-won on the other hand has consistently worked in both the TV and film industries, most notably playing the gangster lead in the 2006 movie Sunflower.

While their characters aren’t related by blood, the bond they formed growing up is one that’s bound them together, and as the movie opens we meet them as a pair of poor twenty something’s, collecting street rags to sell in an attempt to get by. When they receive a notice to evict their ramshackle dwelling to make way for re-development, a fight breaks out on the day of the eviction, which ultimately sees them overpowered and thrown in front of a gang boss played by Jeong Jin-yeong.

As it happens, on the same day Jin-yeong is short a few men for an attack which is going to lay waste to a political meeting, so he forces them to join in to make up for the low numbers. In the middle of the fracas though, the brothers get separated, and as the police close in Min-ho is ultimately left with no choice but to leave without Rae-won, who’s been knocked unconscious in the bathroom. This separation forms the lynch pin of the story. However the tale of the two brothers plays out against the background of a much bigger story – the fictionalized tale of how Gangnam was turned from peaceful farmland, into the sprawling metropolis that it is today.

It’s fair to say that the area of Gangnam itself is as much of a character in the movie as any of the actors, and Ha creates a sprawling epic that sees a plethora of shady characters and corrupt officials all vying for the land, in an attempt to get rich off the real estate. In many ways Gangnam Blues does for Gangnam what Martin Scorsese’s Casino did for Las Vegas. While a similar comparison was made between Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Nameless Gangster, usually it was to point out the inferiority of the latter in comparison to Scorsese’s masterpiece. Thankfully that’s not the case with Ha’s movie though, as he very much creates his own world, and the similarities are a compliment rather than a comparison.

Taking place in the early 1970’s (notably the Korean title is simply Gangnam 1970), Min-ho and Rae-won see themselves working their way up the ranks of different gangster organizations, who in turn are both attempting to woo counselors and politicians to leverage deals off the precious Gangnam land. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Gangnam Blues could well be called a real estate gangster flick, as there’s just as much talk about land deals as there are brutal beatings. However this shouldn’t act as a deterrent, as the script never strays into being superfluous or dull, instead remaining tight and effective throughout, constantly weaving the many characters and their dealings through a myriad of betrayals, bribes, and beatings.

Indeed the setting of the movie is one of the aspects that make it the most interesting. On the brink of the era that kicked off Seoul’s rapid advance into modernization, it’s a period that many classic Korean movies of the time took place in, like The Road to Sampo and A Small Ball Shot by a Midget (which ironically also centers around a family forced to evict by a real estate agent). It has to be said that the production design captures the details of the era perfectly. The high end production values of most Korean output recently almost seems to be a factor that’s taken for granted these days, but Gangnam Blues is a movie that reminds you of just how much work must go into re-creating the period detail that’s on display here.

Of course, being a gangster movie, proceedings wouldn’t be complete without a healthy dose of gangster violence. Ha gave a distinctive touch to the action in A Dirty Carnival, occasionally throwing in some nice Tae Kwon Do kicks amongst all the down and dirty brawling, and he maintains those welcome flashes of stylistic action here as well. Just about every trope of the Korean gangster genre is ticked off – stabbings, beatings with planks of wood, beatings with anything the characters can get their hands on, and surprisingly for a Korean movie, even some gun action as well.

Many fans of A Dirty Carnival will no doubt remember the huge brawl in the mud, a scene that arguably served as an inspiration for the prison yard brawl in The Raid 2. For Gangnam Blues Ha also gives us a mud drenched brawl, but ramps it up to epic proportions compared to his previous effort. Taking place during a rain soaked burial, several gangs converge at once in the muddy field and proceed to go at each other with everything from axes to scythes to umbrellas. It’s a sight to behold and definitely the action highlight. Korean filmmakers seem to have a thing for fighting in the mud, and the brawl here happily stands alongside the likes of similar scenes found in Rough Cut and Emperor of the Underworld.

If any criticism can be held against Gangnam Blues, it would have to be that in first third of the movie, so many characters are introduced – all with similar motives and dressed in sharp black suits – that they almost become indistinguishable from one another. On first viewing it all becomes clear as the move progresses, but proceedings could certainly have benefited from defining the key characters more clearly early on.

All in all though this is a minor gripe in a tale which is overwhelmingly ambitious in its scope. Ha deserves full credit for maintaining a steady hand and not allowing all the events and characters to derail proceedings, something which would be a foregone conclusion under a lesser director. If there’s any justice in the world, hopefully Gangnam can now be associated with Ha’s excellent return to form, and not some guy dancing like a horse.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10

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