is a Korean gangster movie all New Yorkers will relate to, because it is all
about real estate—and the high cost thereof. In 1970, an increasingly over-crowded
Seoul needed to develop the sleepy backwater district of Gangnam. For those in
the know, there was a land rush to scope up parcels before the civic expansion
plans were announced. Of course, only politicians and gangsters would have that
sort of insider information. It is dashed difficult to tell the difference between
the two in Yoo Ha’s Gangnam Blues (a.k.a. Gangnam 1970, trailer here), which screens
this coming Thursday as part of the free Korean Movie Night series at New
York’s Asia Society.
Jong-dae and Baek Yong-ki are sworn brothers who left their orphanage together
hoping to scratch out some sort of life in the rough & tumble Gangnam
district. Arguably, in the late 1960s, there are more thugs to be found there
than paved roads. Kim and Baek briefly run afoul of some of Kang Gil-soo’s men,
but the clan leaders chooses to recruit them for a job rather than inflict
punishment. They will join a busload of hooligans sent to disrupt a political
rally. Unfortunately, the job quickly goes sour, leading to the temporary
disgrace of Kang’s political ally.
during madness, Kim and Baek will not see each other again for three years. Kim
will return to Kang, living as his adopted son. Having seen the writing on the
wall, Kang tries to retire from crime, living a modest life as a launderer (of
clothes). Despite his outward obedience, Kim longs to see Kang lead his old
clan back to prominence. Secretly, he has laid the groundwork to facilitate
that goal, but it inevitably leads to conflict with the rival gang Baek joined.
Discovering themselves on opposite sides of a potential gang war, Kim and Baek
form their own personal non-aggression pact. Of course, they will eventually
have to make some hard choices about where their loyalties truly lay.
you are thinking about that rap song, just forget it. Gangnam is now one of
Seoul’s most prosperous and prestigious districts, so its hard fought
development represents one of the grandest cases of “gentrification” ever.
Imagine buying up Greenpoint or Williamsburg before the hipsters moved in.
Those are the stakes at play in Blues.
this is exactly the sort of Korean film that best translates for American
audiences. It is a big, sweeping gangster story, but told from a distinctly
personal perspective. Although not blood relations, there is something almost
Biblical about Kim and Baek’s relationship. The grungy period look adds to the
appeal, evoking memories of cynical 1970s cops-and-robbers films.
TV superstar Lee Min-ho is impressively earnest and edgy as the tightly wound
Kim. In contrast, Kim Rae-won is rather cool and distant as Baek, but that is
rather the point. Regardless, neither of the young toughs can match the veteran
hardnosedness of Jung Jin-young’s Kang, who towers over the large colorful
supporting cast. There are dozens seedy characters conspiring with and against
each other, but Kim Ji-su stands out as Min Sung-hee, Kim’s early tutor in real
At times, viewers could really use a scorecard
to identify which gang is aligned with which crooked politico. Still, that
degree of sophisticated plotting is quite refreshing. For action fans, Blues also boasts a massively awesome gang
fight scene in the middle of a mud-splattered cemetery. Highly recommended for
fans of Korean gangster epics, Gangnam
Blues screens (for free) this Thursday (5/7) at the Asia Society on
Manhattan’s fashionable Upper Eastside.
Labels: Asia Society, Gangster Films, Korean Cinema