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Gangnam Blues - Movie Poster
Original Title:
Gang-nam 1970

South Korea 2014

Crime, Drama

Yu Ha

Lee Min-ho
Kim Rae-won
Jeong Jin-yeong
Kim Seolhyun
Yoo Seung-mok
Han Jae-yeong
Lee Yeon-doo
Jeong Ho-bin
Choi Jin-ho
Kim Yoo-yeon
Eom Hyo-seob
Ji Dae-han

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Gangnam Blues

Story: It's the year 1970. Jong-dae (Lee Min-ho) and Yong-gi (Kim Rae-won) earn a living by collecting trash. The two are like brothers since they grew up at an orphanage together. But suddenly the roof of their dwelling - located in a poor neigborhood where they struggle through live - is literally torn away above their heads. Then the two come across gangster Kang Kil-soo (Jeong Jin-yeong) who offers them a job. They are supposed to break up a political demonstration. During the scuffle Yong-gi vanishes without a trace, though. Jong-dae is taken in by Kang as if he were his son and is even adopted by him. However, shortly afterwards Kang is attacked with a knife by a rival gang member and after that retires. Three years later Jong-dae still has contact to Kang's men. Apparently the government wants to expand Seoul towards Gangnam, which consists of fields and farmland. Jong-dae gets his hands on insider information and wants to make use of it by making the big bucks through real estate business. The old gang is revived and Jong-dae even runs into Yong-gi again who now is a member of a rival gang. The friendship of the two is put to the test, though, when corrupt politicians and gangs instigate a bloody fight for the future supremacy in Gangnam.

Review: "Gangnam Blues" has to compete with the heavyweights of the genre like "New World". The reason simply being that Yu Ha sat on the director's chair - and he is without a doubt a master of his craft. Unfortunately, it seems that the scale of his epic gangster flick also deprived his work of its soul. Emotionally we almost never feel involved by the characters and the film's focus going more in the direction of the political struggle for predominance may not be to everyone's taste either. Ultimately, it is particularly difficult at the beginning to allocate the different individuals to the various parties that are at war with each other. While the political message of the gangster thriller gets under your skin Yu Ha misses to anchor his two protagonists as a serious reference point in the story.

Gangnam Blues - Film Screenshot 11

Actor Lee Min-ho plays his first major leading role in a movie here, but he already managed to build up a gigantic fanbase with his roles in drama shows like "Boys over Flowers". While you can't say that the director made a big mistake casting Lee in the lead role - it still was a risk, though - you could nonetheless easily come up with some actors who would have squeezed a little bit more out of this role. Somehow Lee also remains too much of a pretty boy meaning that you can't completely buy his portrayal of a tough guy. Kim Rae-won on the other hand takes on a role that is a lot more shallow on paper, yet he seems more convincing, if just for the at times piercingly intimidating look he throws at people. Furthermore, Kim has already some experience in depicting a gangster from his work in the well achieved flick "Sunflower".

Gangnam Blues - Film Screenshot 12

Being the most accessible and complex character seems to be Kang Kil-su which is clearly the effort of Jeong Jin-yeong ("Tabloid Truth", "The King and the Clown"). So, accordingly Yu Ha's gangster flick could have worked more effectively on an emotional level if all of the roles had been cast with more experienced actors? No, on the one hand it is a welcome change not to constantly see the same faces from other gangster flicks here and on the other hand it is Yu Ha's screenplay that misses giving the drama a decent fundament. Which naturally becomes particularly apparent towards the end, when "Gangnam Blues" gets more dramatic. In parts it feels forced to such a degree that you even wonder if you are watching a drama show after all. That Yu Ha can do such much better he has already proven with his "A Dirty Carnival".

But that's most likely the problem that goes hand in hand with expanding your movie to an epic scale: the little stories that reflect real life and thus give the more implausible elements some sort of credibility are given no space. Accordingly, "Gangnam Blues" feels a bit contrived and the complex web of different parties, of which every single one has its own agenda, is presented in such a compressed manner that it demands your full attention. Sometimes it gets too much, though - especially at the beginning you are bombarded with numerous names - and scratching at the surface you try to follow at least the gist of what's going on. That's when it becomes apparent that Yu Ha has no magic formula either, presenting a simple story about brotherhood and betrayal in its core which is only brushed up by the pretty gritty setting of the 70s.

Gangnam Blues - Film Screenshot 13

However, visually the 70s aren't put into the foreground that much. Looking at its visual style the film rather reminds us of modern flicks thanks to its polished look, but the clothes, cars, discos and thus the music as well all leave no doubt which years the movie spans. Especially the very well done soundtrack deserves some praise. Of course, there is also some action featured, but the mass brawls seem rather formulaic, although they can be quite bloody. By the way, for this review the uncut 141-minute version of the movie has been used, which doesn't just seem too long, but which also has some unnecessary, hot sex scenes in it.
Although we don't care about the fate of the protagonists, making the drama fail, the political message of the movie - the hottest and most expensive district of Seoul has been built with the blood which corrupt politicians spilled - is obvious from the very get-go and yet manages to have an impact at the end. Still, as a movie "Gangnam Blues" is too self-aware in respect to its epic scale and moreover is an emotionally distant affair.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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