Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Tough as Iron: Growing Up the Hard Way in Busan
a port city like Busan, there are two kinds of jobs for a disadvantaged lunkhead
like Gang “Iron Head” Chul. He currently
works as a longshoreman, but the local syndicate will make him an offer he should
refuse. Unfortunately, it might be the
only way he can pay for his mother’s surgery in Ahn Kwon-tae’s bare-knuckled coming
of age drama Tough as Iron (trailer here), which opens
tomorrow in New York.
when he was alive, Gang’s dad was not much of a father. As a result, he formed a close emotional bond
with his mother that persists even though her mind is slipping into the early
stages of dementia. Gang often finds
himself thrust into some form of public spectacle through her misadventures. During one such display, he catches the eye
of Suji, a bohemian photographer traveling across the country. She enjoys the sort of freedom he can only
through happenstance, Gang manages to save the life of Sang-gon, the local mob boss. This hardly endears him to the gangster’s
erratic brother and self-styled bodyguard, Hwee-gon. A childhood chum working as a foot soldier in
the mob tries to discourage Gang’s involvement, but the loyal son has exhausted
every other option to fund his mother’s operation. As tensions mount between Korean criminal
subsidiary and their Japanese Yakuza patrons, a disposable outsider like Gang
could be very useful to gangster brothers.
almost seamlessly combines the young-man-finding-himself story with a street-smart
gangster beatdown, staying true to both genres, while giving each equal
weight. The Busan seafront also nicely
fits both hemispheres of the film, serving as a picturesque backdrop for Gang’s
tentative courtship of Suji, but looking appropriately gritty for the
waterfront action. Occasionally, the
mother-son relationship flirts with outright melodrama, but it always remains
firmly tethered to reality.
Gang, Yoo Ah-in powers the film like a locomotive. Intense and charismatic, yet convincingly
meat-headed, he creates a keenly human, fully realized portrait of a young,
imperfect man under tremendous stress.
Hong Sang-soo regular Jung Joo-mi is also appealingly independent and
down-to-earth as Suji. While not exactly
subtle, Kim Sung-oh delivers some marvelously twitchy villainy as Hwee-gon, the
stuttering thug. Kim Hae-sook (so
awesome opposite Simon Yam in The Thieves)
is a bit showy as Mother Gang, but she still nicely turns the quiet moments with
It is a strange observation to make of a Korean
film, but the Yakuza characters certainly compare quite favorably to their Busan
counterparts (but describing Iron as
pro-Yakuza would still be a stretch).
Regardless, Gang’s character and Yoo’s performance give Iron real heart and grit. Highly recommended, Tough as Iron should equally appeal to cineastes and genre
enthusiasts when it opens tomorrow (10/11) in New York at the AMC Empire and in
LA at the CGV Cinemas.
Labels: Gangster Films, Korean Cinema