Movies about gambling are always interesting, I think it's because of its potential of real shady characters and the drama that such a premise can bring is enthralling. There have been a number of successful films about gambling; "Rounders", "the Hustler", "The Sting"--movies that explore this concept is helluva lot of fun to watch. South Korea's "Tazza the High-Rollers" (aka. War of Flowers, 2006) has all the formulas that can make a film about gambling successful; it has loads of style, an intricate plot, vigor, shady characters, and of course, the necessary femme fatale embodied by Korean bombshell Kim Hye-Soo. Based on the comic book by Huh Young-Man and Kim Se-Young, the film was a huge success in Asia that it re-sparked the comic's popularity and selling the comic series more by the truckloads; the film even spawned a TV series in Asia.
Go-Ni (Seung-Woo Cho) is a young man hooked on the game called "Hwatu"; he is so hooked on the game that he would lie, cheat and steal to get the resources to play. Go-Ni makes the supreme mistake of stealing his sister's divorce settlement money, and he loses every single cent in gambling. Unable to face his family for his humiliation, Go-Ni is determined to pay his sister back. But without any other job skill, how can he? Go-Ni strives to find the swindler who beat him, and he comes across a master gambler--a "Tazza" (name for a master gambler) named Mr. Pyeong (Baek Yun-Sik) who takes pity on him and he decides to help him out. Go-Ni becomes inspired by the old man's act of kindness, as he learns that he is one of Korea's three greatest gamblers; Agwee (Kim Yun Sok) and One Ear are two others. He seeks him out to become his mentor. Pyeong is a retired card shark with a lot of things to teach young Go-Ni and the young man is more than willing to learn from the best. Agwee has a major grudge against Pyeong, and he is also the man responsible for cutting one of One Ear's ears off. Now, Agwee will not rest until he gets to cut off the old man's hand.
After the two joins up with a pupil of Madame Jeong (sexy Kim Hye-Soo), the complications begin. The comely Miss Jeong takes a fancy on the young Go-Ni, and using her seductive feminine wiles, she slowly draws him away from Pyeong's protective hand. Go-Ni becomes Jeong's partner, both in the gambling arena and in bed. Jeong further hones the skills given by Pyeong upon the young Go-Ni. When finally, Jeong and Go-Ni gets separated by the police, Go-Ni develops a liking to a regular girl named Hwa-ran (Lee Soo-Gyeong), whom they met in a bar owned by Hwa-ran and her sister, that Go-Ni and his new gambling pal, Gwang Ryul frequents.
One day, Pyeong is found murdered and Go-Ni suspects Agwee as the one responsible. Go-Ni seeks out Agwee for revenge and during his pursuit, Go-Ni encounters the man who originally swindled him. Go-Ni is unaware that Agwee is also after him. Through a convergence of events, Madame Jeong must set up a final deadly game of "hwatu"--between Go-Ni and Agwee.
"Tazza the High-Rollers" is one complex film. While the film can definitely stand on its own based on style alone, writer/director Choi Dong-hoon manages to put together a very intricate plot about honor, revenge, lust and loyalty. I was very impressed with Choi Dong-hoon's "The Big Swindle" (which I will review later), and the man is a master of film noir. Such a film like "Tazza" will succeed only through its cast of shady characters, and the direction manages to give each one with depth and dimensions that makes it truly unforgettable. The viewer will have to be invested in the film's characters with stakes high enough to keep even the average viewer enthralled. "Tazza" displays director Choi at his best, displaying tons of style, with a superb execution in camera work, colorful cinematography and scintillating jazz soundtrack. The direction utilizes the use of split screens, oversaturated camerawork and moving pans to further enhance the intensity and techniques of the game of "Hwatu". It is a clever touch, as the viewer becomes familiar with the workings and rules of the card game. The film made me research the rules of the game.
There is a lot of things going on in "Tazza" and the viewer will have to keep the utmost attention; it is not all alienating but becomes more enthralling because of its complexities in its characters. The relationship between Go-Ni and Pyeong is like a Jedi-master and a padawan--a karate kid to his Miyagi--a Batman to his Robin. Go-Ni respects Pyeong to the utmost degree, that even though he became drawn by sexy Madame Jeong, the young man knows where his loyalties lie. Cho Seung-Woo definitely has matured since his role in "the Classic", and the man has improved considerably in his acting skills. His role as a card player has awakened his inner charisma, that he definitely exposed his heart into his role. Baek Yun-Sik (Save the Green Planet) is as commanding a presence as ever, the man knows how to get the audiences' attention. The man can definitely adapt from his roles as sleazy characters and heroic figures. The dynamic chemistry between Baek and Cho was amazing that it was a shame that the teacher-student subplot didn't last very long.
Well, at least, with Baek's absence, Korean sexy bombshell Kim Hye-Soo (Kick the Moon, The Hypnotized) gets to play in the spotlight and it would be more of a shame if this sexy female actress didn't get enough screen time. She is so natural in her role as a seductive, dangerous femme fatale. Kim Hye-Soo knows how to work what she has; she is so alluring as Madame Jeong. Hers is a complex character; she plays rough, somewhat cold but scorching hot. She is so erotically sensuous in her scenes with Cho Seung-Woo, but she also looks vulnerable when she is in birthday suit--yet, she is so evil and deceiving in her schemes. One may wonder what she sees in the young Go-Ni, but it just serves to add more dimensions to her character. Kim Hye-Soo just owns the screen; it sizzles whenever she is on camera.
The film's main premise may be simple, but it is given depth by the screenplay. Some parts of the film may throw some folks a little askew; the non-linear flashbacks may prove a little challenging to the inexperienced movie watcher. People will need to pay attention in the film's first half as characters are introduced at different timelines. The quick pacing may become a bit confusing, but it will all pay off before the film's end. The film also has a lot of efficient twists and turns that happen in every step of the way, so pay attention. The film may also prove a tad overlong to some, but the rich colors, the sharp editing tricks and stylish camerawork makes it feel like a brisk experience as the film expresses the evils and negative aspect to gambling underneath its cool appearance.
"Tazza the High-Rollers" won't make you stop gambling, but the stylish direction, cool plot elements, its cast of interesting characters, charisma and energy, the film fires away with all guns blazing. It has sufficient plot twists and surprising turns that hit the bonanza.
Highly Recommended! [4 ½ Stars]
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