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Nameless Gangster - Movie Poster
Original Title:
Bumchoiwaui junjaeng

South Korea 2011

Crime, Drama

Yoon Jong-bin

Choi Min-sik
Ha Jeong-woo
Jo Jin-woong
Kwak Byeong-gyoo
Ma Dong-seok
Kim Jong-soo
Kim Jong-goo
Kim Yeong-seon
Kim Hye-eun
Song Yeong-chang

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Nameless Gangster

Story: The year is 1990 and the South Korean president officially declares war against organized crime in a large scale campaign. In the course of numerous arrests Choi Ik-hyeon (Choi Min-sik) is also apprehended for several delicts like embezzlement and assault. Prosecutor Jo Beom-seok (Kwak Byeong-gyoo) puts him under pressure and so he has to tell him the story of his rise in the organisation. Years ago he worked as a customs official until he had to take the fall for his colleagues concerning several bribery allegations. By accident some drug packages fall into the hands of him and his colleague. As Choi has nothing more to lose they contact the gangster Choi Hyeong-bae (Ha Jeong-woo) who sells the drugs to Japan for them. Eventually it turns out that Ik-hyeon is a distant relative of Hyeong-bae and so Ik-hyeon becomes part of the gangster organisation. While he provides the necessary contacts and the brains in order to help the organisation grow Hyeong-bae has the men and the necessary coldbloodedness. But soon their rival Kim Pan-ho (Jo Jin-woong) poses a serious threat.

Review: Critics shower "Nameless Gangster" with praise. The first reason being Choi Min-sik and his great performance, and there is no opposition from my part: Choi is at his best. The rest of the cast also delivers great performances. But why, this being put aside, the movie is said to be so fantastic eludes my comprehension. Of course there is the risk that many readers might think now "What is he talking about? Actually, I never really shared his opinion... I'll just look somewhere else", but in my opinion "Nameless Gangster" is quite simply overrated and therefore surely no masterpiece. Reason for that is first and foremost an unstructured screenplay and a few plot holes in the story.

It may be true that director Yoon Jong-bin ("Moonlight in Seoul") aims at a little bit different approach to the subject with his film and demystifies the gangster world and strips it of its glory, but taking a closer look you have to ask if this is really something new? Yu Ha delivered a better movie with his "A Dirty Carnival" in my book, even though it might have been a little bit simpler. Yet, Korea also has to measure up to the works of other countries. How about Johnnie To's "Election"? That one was even more merciless and yet also had to struggle with some problems. As is often the case with such movies there is always the risk that we can't relate to the flawed protagonists. Choi Min-sik for most part avoids this thanks to his great portrayal, but the story, too large in scale for its own good as it spans a whole decade, makes some real emotional sympathy difficult.

Director and scriptwriter Yoon nonetheless deserves some words of praise for fleshing out Ik-hyeon that well. He is a dislikable fellow who is mainly interested in his own benefit and yet he remains human at any point, might not cross certain moral lines, but when it comes to others he does. When it comes right down to it he defends his pride to the last breath, even if, because of his lacking physical abilities, he often finds himself getting the short end of the stick, and at other times he is on the ground begging for his life. Choi Min-sik ("Oldboy") is just the right man to portray such a complex character and he also put on quite some weight (for his role?). He stands in stark contrast to the otherwise cool looking gangsters in the movie and that makes him so honest and interesting.

In the end things still revolve around the rise and fall within a gangster organisation. Ha Jeong-woo ("The Yellow Sea") plays the actual mob boss in a very reserved manner and portrays the coldbloodedness a man in his position needs to have in order to survive. Ik-hyeon on the other hand can apparently weasel his way out of any situation since he just has the right contacts. Director Yoon without a doubt wants to show the omnipresent corruption in Korean society by this, which was especially bad in the 80's. Apart from that the career of Ik-hyeon is told in a too jumpy and confusing fashion. It also doesn't help that the film is simply too long with its 135 minutes running time. Moreover, the finale once again is one of those where the director obviously didn't know when he better had put a stop to things.

For a highly praised movie like this there is an awful lot of familiar stuff to be seen. Mass brawls with baseball bats, gangster bosses that are ambushed and knifed down and friends that become enemies and the other way round. I wouldn't say that I watched enough movies of the genre to call myself an expert, yet there were countless deja-vu moments. The only alternation is that the movie takes place in the 80s and that there was some effort put into the costumes, hair styling and sets to make the movie take the viewer back in time. But where is the surpise at the end? What is there to be seen here that we didn't already get to see somewhere else? "Nameless Gangster" may bring some subtle humor to the harsh gangster world that is full of corruption and betrayal, but in the end it's only Choi Min-sik's portrayal that might be a reason to pick this movie over similarly themed flicks.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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