A DIRTY CARNIVAL (2006)
More reflective than the average gangster yarn, a young enforcer attempting to scramble up the crime organisation ladder walks into a web of murder and betrayal
“Gangster’s just a label. I’m not as bad as you think,” says the frequently bruised-faced career gangster Byung-du as he attempts to woo cherub-faced book store employee Hyun-joo.
It is unclear if Byung-du is trying to convince Hyun-joo or just himself with this comment as he attempts to rise to power, but increasingly finds that various deeply savage acts are needed for such leg-ups. A sprawling gang brawl across Hyun-joo's book shop soon proves the words to be empty anyway.
Kim Byung-doo (Jo In-sung – The Classic) is 29 and an established member of a crime organisation. However, financial strains for his family and concerns over his mother’s health has him worried for his future. When President Hwang (Chun Ho-jin – I Saw the Devil, Veteran) has problems with a corrupt public prosecutor, Byung-doo agrees to kill the attorney.
The brazen move enables him to gain favour with President Hwang, but undermines the position of Sang-chul (Yoon Je-moon – The Man Next Door, Dangerously Excited), the current right-hand man of the President and Byung-doo’s direct boss.
Meanwhile, Byung-doo is reunited with his elementary school friend, Min-ho (Namkoong Min – Bad Guy), who has become a film director working on a gangster film. Byung-doo provides some consultancy to the director as his film starts to take shape. Through Min-ho, he is also reconnected with his high school love interest Byung-doo (Lee Bo-young).
As Byung-doo attempts start a relationship with Byung-doo, save his family from eviction and rise up the gang ranks, the difficulties that comes with his violent actions and then a too-close-to-home portrayal of gangsters in Min-ho’s hit film complicates Byung-doo’s progress.
The trope of the rising gangster is one that the crime genre has been telling since the dawn of such films. What separate A Dirty Carnival is the distinctly Korean nature of some elements. With such tight gun law restrictions, we are instead offered a series of brutal baseball-swinging, knife-thrusting brawls. Less deadly, but somehow more challenging to witness, especially during one prolonged scrap in the mud under a bridge between rival gangs.
It is also separates itself by having a more reflective nature. Many rising gangster films hinge on the notion of the appeal of the gangster tag and the riches it provides. Instead, all of Byung-du acts reek of increasing desperation, while the payments are often paltry.
There is an inherent hopelessness to all of his action. As if Byung-du has no choice but to commit the next horrendous act, if only to cover up for his previous horrendous act. He is attempting to climb higher, but is doing nothing more than digging deeper.
Unlikely to convert rom-com fans to crime films, A Dirty Carnival will certainly thrill all the long-term gangster flick fan as a familiar crime tale is given the Korean noughties treatment.