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Original Title:
Biyeolhan geori

South Korea 2006

Crime, Thriller, Action, Drama

Yu Ha

Jo In-seong
Nam Gung-Min
Jeon Ho-jin
Yoon Jae-Moon
Lee Bo-young
Jin Ku
Lee Jong-hyeok
Kwon Tae-won
Kim Yun-Hee
Kim Byeong-chun

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A Dirty Carnival

Story: Kim Byung-du (Jo In-seong) is a gangster, who is pretty much at the bottom of the food chain. At least he has a few fellows that serve him as his subordinates. However, future doesn't look all too bright. Byung-du's direct superior Sang-chul (Yoon Jae-Moon) doesn't take care of his guys and keeps the income of the money collections for himself. Kim realizes that it can't go on like this, as he does not only carry responsibility for his boys, but also for his ill mother, as well as his sister and brother. When he hears that the boss of the organisation, Hwang (Jeon Ho-jin), has some serious issues with a prosecutor who is hot on his trail, Byung-du brings himself to the scene and gets rid of the problem.
From that time on, Byung-du has no money problems anymore and even climbs the ladder in the organisation, but not without further soiling his hands. As his right hand he has Jong-su (Jin Ku) who helps him out wherever he can.
Moreover, Byung-du finally has the courage to ask out his old schoolfellow Hyun-ju (Lee Bo-young). However, she isn't really happy about the way he earns his money. Concerning his friend Min-ho (Nam Gung-Min) this is a completely different story, as Min-ho is eager to get first-hand information on the world and life of gangsters for his upcoming gangster film, which he hopes might be his final breakthrough.
Byung-du slowly has to learn that in the world of a gangster nobody can be the winner, as there is always betrayal waiting around the next corner...

Review: "A Dirty Carnival" is Korea's next step into the right direction of what can be called a gripping and gritty gangster movie. Director Yu Ha manages to deliver what movies like "Running Wild" or "Bloody Tie" completely or at least partly failed to do. "A Dirty Carnival" looks as if it were somber in-your-face Hong Kong crime-cinema intertwined with a little bit of Scorsese. At times, the film even reminds us a bit of a documentary, mainly because of its overlength running time, its carefully drawn characters and the world in which they interact. Also adding to that fact is the interesting movie-within-a-movie subplot. However, apart from that the film is absolutely convincing on an entertainment level, too.

A Dirty Carnival - Film Screenshot 11

Actually, it's all about the familiar plot of the rise and fall of a gangster within an organisation, were the number one catch phrase is "go big or die trying". Director Yu Ha succeeds in drawing an astonishingly well elaborated picture of the involved individuals. Oftentimes Korea's moviemakers are so in love with their gangster genre that they always depict their characters as kindhearted fools or ludicrous figures. But just not here. Yu, who already made a name for himself in the movie industry with his "Spirit of Jeet Kune Do", and was more focused on dramas until now, creates a flick that is as cruel, brutal and dark as it gets. The triad organisation may yet again be depicted with a little bit of pathos, but this proves to be a mere tool for the movie's message to gain more weight. And that message is of course, that in the world of gangsters there are no winners, and that you can't be at the top of the food chain for long.

That's not really new stuff, as Hong Kong is making movies about the "black society" for years already, the latest more or less successful entry being To's "Election". However, it's the first time that Korea in terms of quality manages to keep up with them.
Byung-du is our reference guy, a poor low-life gangster, who just happens to have gotten into the organisation and along with his six fellows is making a living by collecting money. They live from hand to mouth and aren't doing pretty well. But image is everything and so they walk around in their expensive suits and polished shoes. In conversations like the one in which Byung-du explains that they are like a familiy eating at the same table, the genre typical "brotherhood" motif is brought into play. But sooner than in other works we realize that this is just empty words in this world. Here, no one is looking out for anybody. On the contrary you should always be watching out that you don't end up being knifed down by your best friend. Nonetheless, the film manages to introduce three-dimensional characters, so that we can almost sympathize with them. Especially Jeon Ho-jin who is playing the boss comes to mind. He is a rather soft leader, but you can still feel the power emanating from him.

A Dirty Carnival - Film Screenshot 12

Since I always found words of criticism for actor Jo In-seong ("Madeleine", "The Classic"), I feel that it is my obligation to give Jo some special credit at this point. It was a good decision of him to finally undergo an image change, as he fits surprisingly well into his role. He may not look like your tough-as-nails gangster, but during the scenes in which he jumps at his enemies with a wild look on his face, almost making us believe that he has gone insane eventually, we don't really care about this anymore, as he is really convincing and scary during these moments. During the emotional scenes his "soft" looks even plays in favor of him, as he seems especially human and vulnerable at these moments. A good example for his human side are his scenes with his friend Min-ho in which he describes what it's like to stab somebody. In terms of acting this is a very intense scene and Jo proves that he actually has a good amount of acting potential hidden behind his looks. Interestingly enough, he never could convince me in any of the romantic movies he participated in. And concerning the imbedded love story that's also the case here, as the relationship between him and his old schoolfellow never really starts to gain any momentum or be engaging in any way. It's just too shallow and cheesy for us to really care about it.

Nevertheless, the little love story shows that Byung-du isn't really a villian or a bad guy - at least not always. It's this ambiguity of his character that is so striking. The things he does, he does for his family and only because he wants a better life for them. He doesn't want any of his friends or relatives to lead the life he has to, which becomes already apparent at the beginning where he scolds his brother for his gangster-like behavior. Nonetheless, he participates in brawls until he is totally exhausted, kills and tyrannizes whomever he has to. He may have feelings of remorse at times, but at others it is shocking to watch his darker side unfolding more and more. Byung-du is a gangster and there is nothing glorious or beautiful about this - Yu Ha really leaves no doubt about that.
The extent of brutality is stunning. The fighting sequences all look very realistic and are therefore not easy to look at, at least for the feint-hearted. They are full of adrenaline and are brutal to the core. People get hit by bats and knives are rammed into bodies. These are in fact the scenes that look like being from a documentary as only real life can be so brutal. You can almost feel the stabbing at your own body. Director Yu achieves a level of intensity with this repulsive brutality that proves to be very essential for his film to work out.

A Dirty Carnival - Film Screenshot 13

"A Dirty Carnival" sadly also has its downsides. The pacing is too slow at times, the ending is pretty predictable for someone who is a little bit familiar with the genre, as Karma plays an important role in this movie, too. Without spoiling too much you can say that everything eventually goes the way it has to. Nonetheless, there are a lot of scenes that are pretty moving, and others are very disturbing thanks to the brutality displayed.
Technically, the movie is top, the soundtrack adds to the thrill and tension a lot, and some scenes are even so intense in their atmosphere that you feel like being pressed into your seat. Moreover, the film-within-a-film story shows that most directors in their enthusiasm for the genre forget what it is really like to be part of the world of a gangster. Yu Ha doesn't make that mistake. He depicts a somber and nihilistic world, in which you always have to fear that you get stabbed by your best friend.
With its grittiness, "realistic" approach and the brutality depicted, "A Dirty Carnival" proves to be a little gem among the films of this genre and absolutely gained my respect.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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