CRUEL WINTER BLUES (2006)
A gangster flick turned family drama mediation on material longing, a small-time city crook heads to the country to avenge the death of his crime boss
Cruel Winter Blues is a film that lingers with varying possibilities. You are left suspended as to whether it will tumble into a full-blown knife-stabbing gangster brawl, or simply a film about family connections and the bonds with our mothers.
It does a good job of treading both of those issues, largely built through the long periods of waiting as our central character stews in the liquids of his troubled past.
This is mainly possible because the lead is the superb Sol Kyung-gu (Peppermint Candy, Oasis, Hope), who much like his Peppermint Candy character is a difficult and unlikable character for us to empathise with throughout.
This character, mob captain Jae-mun, decides to avenge the killing of his boss and childhood friend at the 2006 Korean World Cup finals. Committed to crime revenge codes, but also ridded with guilt over his inaction on the night, he must head to Dae-sik's rural hometown, Bulgyo in the South Jeolla Province, to complete the deed.
He takes with him Chi-guk (Jo Han-sun), the imposing taekwondo black-belt who is still a softly-spoken newcomer to the gang.
Jae-mun is no easy travel partner, offering random cruelty to Chi-guk and anyone who stands in his way. To await Dae-sik, they head to his mother’s restaurant and meet the cantankerous Jeon-sim, played by the absolutely superb Na Moon-hee (The Quiet Family, Crying Fist, I Can Speak).
Here the film moors itself to the building anticipation of the waiting game, all while Jae-mun and Jeon-sim simultaneously clash and bond – two characters not to back down, who also see a lost gangster son and home-cooking mother in each other.
Characteristically for many Korean films of this ilk, there are flickers of genuine comedy amongst the brutality and violence, often centered on the odd-ball paring of Jae-mun and Jeon-sim.
This notion is likely to disorientate some audiences, especially those settling down for an action-packed Korean gangster flick. The pacing is gentle, as the waiting game is something we must play too. This is as much a musing on the emotional debt we pay by disappointing our mothers, in this case illustrated by the extreme case of choosing a life of crime.
This is not to say it offers a sympathetic view of gang members, as we witness Chi-guk's moral decline and the various horrendous acts of the spontaneously evil Jae-mun. It does manage to humanise them in parts, especially in the context of a material relationship.
Cruel Winter Blues is a character study brought alive by a stellar cast on top form. A work of genuine contemplative weight, its ability to lead us in one direction and ponder on another issue entirely makes it a piece of profound, multifaceted filmmaking.