Story: It's the year 1953, the Korean War ended with a truce and the country needs to be rebuilt. People have nearly nothing to eat and there
are countless, starving orphans roaming the streets. Tae-ho (Song Chang-ee) and Jong-doo (Lee Wan) are two of them and so they try their hands at becoming errand
boys for a group of gangsters. Thanks to his intellect Tae-ho manages to get a job as a salesman for American goods within the gangster organisation. Jong-doo,
however, wants to prove his worth through physical prowess. But when someone dies because of this - a tragical accident - he is conscience-smitten. Meanwhile,
Tae-ho thinks about the future since he doesn't want to work for gangsters all his life. Together with the group of beggars whose leader Jong-doo
accidentally killed they scrounge a good amount of rice. That is because Tae-ho realizes that the price for rice won't stop going up. Thus, there can be
made quite a fortune with it on the black market. Furthermore, female beggar Soon-nam (Greena Park) is a common point of interest for the two friends.
Yet, there soon is a power shift in the gangster organisation which also has a direct influence on Tae-ho and Jong-doo.
Review: 1953 is an interesting year for a movie setting. After all, the Korean War has just ended, the land has no direction, the people are starving, the political landscape is in chaos and on the streets it's survival of the fittest. During that period we accompany two teenagers who want to make a name for themselves in different ways. One of them by using his head, the other one by using his fists. Unfortunately, the film misses to deal with the historical and political circumstances at the time in more detail. Instead, the setting simply serves as an admittedly innovative backdrop for a gangster story that you have seen many times before. With the only difference that the keyword isn't "brotherhood" this time but "family". It is in fact refreshing, though, that the element of betrayal is missing since the two friends remain brothers until the very end.
This isn't any kind of spoiler because if there had been some sort of betrayal between the two friends it would have been extremely far-fetched. The movie
never works towards somethings like this, even though on the surface there is constantly a wedge driven between the two. What's positive to note is that
there is also a love interest, which isn't responsible for the two drifting more and more apart, though. It's money and what it means to be a family which
causes this development. Two things Jong-doo and Tae-ho have different ideas about. Still, this makes the subplot around the girl all the more odd since
it doesn't serve any real purpose. It rather takes place in the background and gets dropped when it has reached its pinnacle. That's a good thing since the
level of inventiveness is rather low, of course - but then again you wonder why this subplot was implemented at all.
Tae-ho is the more analytical type of guy and his ideas in fact promise to bear fruits. He wants to make the big bucks, yet underestimates the fact that he acts
in a line of work which is dominated by gangsters. Jong-doo on the other hand wants to be the tough guy who doesn't need to rely on anyone. He is predestined
to become a gangster himself someday. Myeong-soo, one of the movie's highlights thanks to the tragic coolness portrayed by Ahn Kil-kang
("The Divine Move"), serves him as a role model, even though Myeong-soo certainly doesn't want to be one. "Once Upon a Time
in Seoul" toys with the viewer's expectations well since the two protagonists both undergo a change during the course of the story or they rather show
different sides of themselves that almost depict them in a completely different light. One of the unexpected positive elements of the film.
Besides that there is only little that surprises. Song Chang-ee ("A Reason to Live") plays his character rather cold in
nature, but never so cold that you couldn't sympathize with him. Lee Wan doesn't really manage to win us over as Jong-doo in the beginning, but he is
emotional and constantly captivates us. However, there isn't any extraordinary chemistry between the two individuals, which rightfully makes us ask what's
left in the movie if the brotherhood-motive doesn't turn out to be a strong point of the action drama. Unfortunately, there isn't much left. The gangster
story, which serves as a framework, can't be called original, only the setting of the sandy marketplace and the constant hunger that accompanies the indiduals
distinguishes "Once Upon a Time in Seoul" from similar works. Still, you won't get to see anything spectacular, so that the mere 100 minutes running time even
seems a tad too long.
Nonetheless, there are a few action scenes thrown in for good measure. Although they don't stand out. Apart from a bullwhip fight which in the end is a disappointment since it's sold as the film's finale. There could have been done more with that. Director Bae Hyeong-joon ("Too Beautiful to Lie") has done well casting comparatively fresh faces for his movie, but the screenplay would have needed some finishing touches. At least a stronger bond to the 50s setting would have been necessary in order to give the movie more depth. Ultimately, the characters suffer from the mediocre screenplay as well since the dramatic moments don't manage to touch us. Technically a solid affair this action drama only manages to score with its sets in the end. The rest is just average.