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NYAFF 2012 Review: South Korea Finds Its ‘Goodfellas’ With the Smart, Violent and Fantastic…

By  · Published on June 28th, 2012

NYAFF 2012 Review: South Korea Finds Its ‘Goodfellas’ With the Smart, Violent and Fantastic ‘Nameless Gangster’

The 11th Annual New York Asian Film Festival runs from June 29th through July 15th in NYC.

South Korea, 2012
133 minutes, in Korean with English subtitles
Directed by: Yun Jong-Bin
Starring: Choi Min-Sik, Ha Jung-Woo, Jo Jin-Woong, Ko In-Beom

South Korea existed beneath military dictatorships up until the 1980s, but that only encouraged black market dealings and illegal activity for illicit profit. In 1990 though, President Roh Tae-woo’s fledgeling democracy came out strong against organized crime and went so far as to declare war on the criminals behind it all.

Caught up in the mass of arrests is the very unassuming Choi Ik-hyun (Choi Min-sik). He’s tasked with telling the police as much as he can about his time in Korea’s mafioso, but as his story unfolds from the beginning it becomes clear that Ik-hyun is either a criminal mastermind… or a bumbling idiot.

“I thought he still had some gangster pride. But gangster’s pressing charges over a beat(ing)?”

Ik-hyun’s first step into the morally bankrupt pool of graft and illegality comes during his tenure as a customs inspector at a large port. Scams and bribes are the name of the game, but after he discovers a large stash of heroin in a container he enters a new level of corruption and criminal activity. A complicated series of transactions and interactions follow that see him pulling the respect-your-elder card more than once, and he soon finds himself acting as right-hand man for a young upstart named Choi Hyung-bae (Ha Jung-woo).

He gets his ass handed to him on several occasions, but Ik-hyun always gets right back up with something to say. His way with words, often desperate grabs at honor, family connections and empty information, seems to propel him through the story on conversational skills and pure luck alone. Director Yun Jong-bin’s debut takes some dark and brutal turns, but it rarely leaves its charm and personality far behind.

Min-sik has always been an actor who commands attention with stunning turns in films like Old Boy, I Saw the Devil and even the heartfelt romance, Failan. He continues that trend here with a dazzling performance that’s both goofy and terrifying as Ik-hyun verbally claws his way towards the top. Ha is on an equally impressive roll (after The Chaser and The Yellow Sea) as the incredibly cool gang boss who could carry his own movie if Uncle Ik-hyun wasn’t hanging around and stealing the spotlight.

Nameless Gangster belongs in the same organized crime subgenre as Goodfellas with its fantastic mix of violence, personality and wickedly black sense of humor. It serves as a commentary on both time and place, and it does so with surprising wit. Even as the credits roll you’ll find yourself wondering if you’ve just witnessed the rise and fall of a devious genius or a sad little man with the gift for gab and being in the right place and the right time. It’s an occasionally violent and sharply written look at loyalties, ambition and the difference between who we are, who we appear to be and the very thin line in between.

Film Society of Lincoln Center
Saturday, June 30 @ 9pm
(buy tickets)
Tuesday, July 1 @ 1pm
(buy tickets)

The 11th Annual New York Asian Film Festival runs from June 29th through July 15th in NYC.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.