I have a long love affair with gangster pictures that stretches back a few decades. American cinema enthusiasts may think differently, but, for me, there’s no better traditional gangster-style pictures produced anywhere in the world these days than the ones coming out of Korea. Perhaps it’s the fact that there are so many triads from competing nations over there that I find the stories more interesting. Perhaps it’s just that being removed from the shackles of the American studio system these foreign releases tend to feel more legitimate, more authentic, and more thrilling. Perhaps it’s that these releases tend to be more auteur-inspired character pieces than anything being done anywhere else. Whatever the reason, I went into NEW WORLD really looking forward to the experience. I came out, however, not as enamored with it as I hoped I would’ve been.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Ja-sung Lee (played by the impressive Lee Jung-jae) is a deep cover police operative who’s spent the past ten years of his life climbing the corporate ladder within the Triad establishment. His boss – police chief Kang (Min-sik Choi) – has promised him over and over again that he’s working on a method of extracting Lee from his life with the mob, that he needs him to just complete ‘one more mission’ for the team, and that his life will change. But as the power structure within the criminal organization starts to shift dramatically, Kang realizes that he and his man has never been this close before; and if they play their cards right, they can make moves of their own that might just rip the gangland apart.
As is often the case in crime stories of this nature, nothing is quite what it seems, and solutions are always hard to come by. Still, Ja-sung stays committed, even though he knows that his wife and the future of his unborn child rest in his chief’s experienced hands.
Perhaps that’s my issue here: writer/director Park Hoon-Jung went to great pains to paint NEW WORLD as his epic exploration of crime and a life of crime, but somewhere along the way he ended up essentially delivering something that audiences have seen before (and often before, especially from Korea). As much as I wanted to find something fresh, something vibrant, and something new in there, I just didn’t, and methinks that weighed heavily on my mind, much the same way Ja-sung can’t shake the pressure holding him down. It’s plenty stylish. It’s well staged and wonderfully shot. But it’s also bloated (way too long at 135 minutes) and more than a bit sluggish.
Certainly, Min-sik and Lee are in top form as the officers constantly waging a battle against the kingpins that they’re destined to lose. The two are given some terrific material (Park’s script certainly hits all of the right buttons, if not a bit too predictably), and there’s even two other equally impressive performances from Seong-Woong Park as menacing criminal overlord Joong-ju and Jeong-min Hwang as the slightly demented boss, Jung. Still, the film can’t quite escape it’s heavy “been there, done that” vibe.
At the end of the picture, one comes to realize that the story is all about allegiance – how we build them, how we maintain them, and how far we’re willing to go to preserve them. All of that is handled crisply when the opportunities are presented; had they not been so far spaced out in between the moments of clarity, I think I would’ve definitely enjoyed this one much more than I did. As it stands, NEW WORLD didn’t come off all that ‘new’ to this reviewer.
NEW WORLD (2013) is produced by Next Entertainment World, Inc. and Sanai Pictures Co., Ltd. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through Well Go USA. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Korean spoken language release with English subtitles available. As for the technical specifications, Park Hoon-Jung continues to set the bar immeasurably with impressive sights and sounds; I’m even recommend that the film is worth further study by film school nuts and nerds. As is often the case when these foreign releases find distribution on American shores, this disc boasts no significant special features save for a five-minute ‘making of’ short, and brief photo gallery, and the theatrical trailer.
RECOMMENDED. As much as I wanted to love NEW WORLD, I only ended up liking it, and, even then, I only liked it modestly. It’s far too long, staged as an epic with unnecessarily drawn out cinematography over its massive set pieces, and there’s very little (if any) emotional attachment to its characters. In fact, one could make the case that it’s mostly a clinical, academic exercise on Park Hoon-Jung’s part when it should’ve been more about these men. There’s even an all-too-brief few minute coda tacked on after what audiences are led to believe is the closing scene that, narratively, should’ve been on the front end; but, for the sake of art, the director pasted it on the end … like a figurative band-aid or something.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA provided me with a DVD copy of NEW WORLD by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.