A low level gangster moves up the chain in his organization while an old high school friend makes a gangster movie based on his life. When things get a little too realistic in the finished film, both friends find themselves in great danger.
At 141 minutes, A Dirty Carnival might be a bit long but director Ha-Yu got a lot accomplished over that time. The movie is a gangster flick and owes its existence to The Godfather, Scarface and Goodfellas. The movie follows a similar plotline as Scarface, where a low level gangster climbs the ladder to success.
Kim Byung-doo (Jo In-seong) is a low level gangster whose boss makes much of his money from video game arcades. Much of the first forty minutes of the movie goes into detail the life of Byung-doo, from his job as a gangster to his family life. His mother is a sick woman struggling to make ends meet. His younger brother is teetering dangerously close to following his brother’s lead into the world of crime. His younger sister is the only one who seems to be on the path to achieving something more. The entire family needs more money than his boss is willing to pay him to survive.
When Hwang (Chun Ho-jin), a high level boss, mentions that he would like someone to eliminate a troublesome attorney for him, Byung-doo jumps at the chance. Following the execution of the attorney, Byung-doo rapidly moves up the ladder in the organization. Complicating things is old high school friend Min-ho (Min Nam-koong), who is now a filmmaker. Min-ho is working on a gangster movie he hopes can be the next Godfather or Scarface. He has already interviewed many police officials and now comes to his old friend to gain access to the world of gangsters.
What he learns from watching Byung-doo he adds to his script. This is not a good thing since many of the things in his script are now based on highly illegal activities that put Byung-doo and his crew in immediate danger.
I mentioned the movie owes a great deal to The Godfather and there are moments throughout the film that brings that classic movie to memory. The biggest comparison between the two is the music score. Cho Young-wuk composes a score that sounds like it might have been directly lifted from the Francis Ford Coppola film. There is a murder that is eerily reminiscent of the death of Luca Brasi. There is even a wedding in the movie by the sister of one of the bosses.
However the movie travels the road of Goodfellas a little closer. Just as Henry Hill rose through the ranks quickly, so did Byung-doo. Unlike Hill who sold out his men to law enforcement officials, Byung-doo inadvertently sells out his group to the movies. There is a great scene where Byung-doo sits in a theater and watches the finished movie his friend made and realizes he is watching a replica of what we saw him do earlier in the movie. All his sins are laid out before him for the world to see.
The movie is full of great performances as well. Jo In-seong is in top form as Byung-doo. I find it interesting to look on imdb.com and see most his experience comes from television. He is so good in this role that I don’t see how he won’t become a huge star in Korea. He is surrounded by a solid supporting cast and, although I can’t understand what they are saying, they seem to be doing great in their individual roles.
A strange item to mention about this movie is the songs used throughout. There is a karaoke bar the gangsters frequent and every time we see them there one of them sings a song. This really confused me at first and, based on the long running time, I thought these were areas that could have been easily cut from the movie. Then I went back and watched the scenes in the bar again and realized they served a purpose in the theme of the movie. Each song, while absurd when reading the lyrics, tells the story of the state of mind the gangsters find themselves in at that point of the story. It is like an opera in that sense and is a very interesting addition to the film.
The action sequences are brutal and very unlike other Korean features I have watched. While not as intense as Oldboy, there is a similar style to the brutality of the fights. There are only one or two instances where someone actually uses a gun. Most of the fights are fought with aluminum bats and sashimi knives. In the first fight, a rumble between at least thirty gangsters, they used anything they could get their hands on to beat the shit out of each other. Deadly force was used when knives were brought into the mix but when someone is gutted, things stop. During discussions after the fight, the murder is spoken of in hushed tones. These fights seem to be just beating each other up, not killing one another. It is a strange motif in a gangster movie, but it seems to work here. When someone is actually killed it makes it even more disturbing.
I still believe the film is too long and could have used some trimming. However, it never seems to drag and the story of a man’s rise to power and tragic fall is a story that never seems to grow old. It has been told before, and told better, but it is done well enough here to receive a passing grade.
There is a feature over the making of the action scenes (36:14). Everyone agrees the Inchean scene (the huge gang fight I mentioned in the review) was the hardest scene to shoot. It is a nice breakdown of the choreography during these fight scenes and shows how hard it is to make a scene like this. They touch upon all the action scenes in the movie throughout the features running time and talk to the director, the actors, and the stunt choreographers. There are also 8:37 worth of deleted scenes. Most are little throwaway moments but there is a nice little sequence where he tries to clean up after one of the murders.