There has been an overflow of South Korean crime thrillers and even Hong Kong crime dramas have lost a lot of its gritty charisma. A DIRTY CARNIVAL is a crime thriller that has achieved something that other Korean thrillers have failed to do. Director/writer Yu Ha (Once Upon a Time in High school) has delivered a crime thriller that is gritty, realistic, emotionally-driven with well-rounded characters that absolutely rivals the best crime dramas that seemed mixed in the usual Hong Kong grittiness with a bit of “Good Fellas” mixed in.
Byung-Doo Kim (Jo-In Seong) is a 29 year old petty gangster who is burdened with the responsibility of caring for an ailing mother, a brother who wants to become a gangster and his family is about to lose their home. He realizes that he cannot continue on like this and he has to also take care of his gang under gang Lieutenant Sang Chul (Yoon Jae Moon). Byung-Doo seizes the moment when the Gang’s main Boss; Hwang (Jeon Ho-Jin) who is pestered by a corrupt prosecutor and volunteers to take care of the problem by performing a “whack” job on the corrupt official. Byung-Doo is on the quick rise to power among the ranks, and his “gangster” career seems very secure. One day, he crosses paths with a childhood friend who is also an aspiring movie director named Min-Ho (Nam Gung-Min). Min-Ho wants to get background information on real-life gangsters to create his new film. Byung-Doo finds himself in a web of murder and betrayal in a world where trust and mercy doesn’t exist.
The film is very interesting to watch; and unlike most Hollywood mob dramas which portray gangsters as cool, conniving characters, the director instead delivers a film that humanizes the Gang member persona. Byung-Doo is a kindhearted individual entangled in a web of deception and betrayal with no way out but to try to survive. The old adages ‘make it big or die in the attempt’ and "Get Rich or Die Trying" is actually the film’s main theme including family, love and loyalty. The film actually has three elements that make the film very powerful; the rise and fall of Byung-Doo, his love for childhood friend Hyun-Ju (Lee Bo-young) and the love for his family, and the movie within the movie subplot perpetrated by Min-Ho. What would happen if all these pieces of his world collide? Byung-Doo is a decent man in some ways but utterly ruthless in some. He is a fool that believes in his own code that will lead him on the path to ruin.
Now this film is not a weak drama even though there is a lot of emotions underlying in the interactions and reactions. The film does have a lot of violence going for it, there are a lot of brutal fights which is beautifully shot with its realism. As with Yu Ha’s previous film; knives, baseball bats and steel pipes are the weapon of choice. The fights are very well done and full of visceral impact. The action sequences are bloody and brutal; and most important of all, very realistically cruel. Yu Ha has created a film which is very dark and only gets darker as the film progresses. There is a lot of adrenaline as the film has a lot of brutality displayed throughout. The movie within a movie subplot is also very effective. This added element actually gives the film a lot of credibility which brings us to its main strength; three dimensional characters.
The characters in the film are well-developed and backed up with a strong screenplay. True, some may argue that at 141 minutes, the film may run overly long but each second is put to good use. The film is never boring and is full of emotional content. True, the film’s premise may not be something we haven’t seen before but the execution is nearly flawless. Each character is introduced carefully with their own backgrounds and specifically Byung-Doo’s love interest Hyun-Ju which I feared was a simple plot device but she turned out to be a very viable one. So, the director actually spends a lot of time for the audience to get to know our characters. Head Boss Hwang (Jeon Ho-jin) may emulate somewhat of a laid back boss but don’t be fooled by his appearance, he is quite ruthless as they come. Byung-Doo’s gang lives on their own set of rules such as never to look sloppy and always look well-groomed, their gang integrity is all important. They are a family because they eat from the same table, well-mannered and disciplined in their own way. Even the gang itself is full of depth which I can definitely applaud the director for taking this step.
“A Dirty Carnival” is a crime thriller that warrants a look because of its straight-forward, no nonsense, none glorification of crime elements. The film effectively portrays crime as something to be avoided, although it doesn’t point an accusing finger as to why Byung-Doo would stoop to such levels. The film is very solid in its execution that the viewer can forgive its somewhat slow-paced scenes and overlong running time. Director Yu has created a world that is somber but at the same time ruthless and full of violent atmosphere. Kudos to the filmmakers for not forgetting even for one second just how it really is to be a gangster. Intense and full of emotional content, this film will keep you glued to your seat.
Full of grittiness and realism, I stand impressed of Yu Ha’s handiwork.