It is no secret that the Koreans make the best damn films in the world. The South Koreans, naturally, because the ones from the North are still yet to discover the magical Super 8 video capturing instrument designed by their enigmatic leader. Since the early 2000’s a gang of ridiculously talented South Korean filmmakers have been delivering a new kind of visceral cinema. Park Chan Wook burst upon the scene with Oldboy, which is currently being Hollywood-ized by Spike Lee. Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder became a timeless whodunit, Kim Jee Woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters reinvented the horror genre while Hong Jin Na’s The Chaser is considered a narrative masterpiece. All these guys went on to make many more classics, but they all have one thing in common – their films are extremely violent, beautifully violent. The way Bollywood is good at song and dance numbers, South Korean films are known for excelling at pitch dark serial killer and mob thrillers.
The latest entry into the Korean mob genre is New World (not to be confused with Terrence Malick’s 2005 film). The film stars the legendary Choi Min Sik, the protagonist of Oldboy and the antagonist of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and the brutal I Saw the Devil, and Lee Jung jae, who previously appeared in the terrific heist thriller The Thieves. New World is directed by Park Hoon Jung, who wrote I saw the Devil, and though shades of that film only cameo here, Jung lobs grenades at South Korea’s hilariously corrupt and feeble police department and the towering might of established crime lords in the country. Staying true to its genre, the film opens with a shot of a severely bloodied face of a snitch being tortured – his mouth is jut open and is force fed liquid cement before being pitched into the ocean. We’re introduced to Goldmoon Inc, a sprawling ‘fictional’ crime syndicate, a sort of a conglomerate between various crime lords who feign a legitimate large scale business and use its resources to carry out laundering, murder, extortion, the works. As the corporation goes beyond the control of the police and greases the justice department, various gangs which are part of the syndicate hatch plans to assume total control over the firm, while detective sergeant Kang (Min Sik) launches a covert mission to destroy the organization from within. Kang sends over a mole (Jung Jae) to infiltrate the gang, but over a few years the rat rises to become the right hand of one of the top mob bosses.
New World twists, turns and spasms into giddy thrills as characters leap from one shade to the other. Although the informant angle is not too new in cinema (we’ve seen the best of this in Donnie Brasco, Infernal Affairs and Scorsese’s remake), the filmmakers lay out an extremely tense and engrossing narrative even while fiddling with the predictable. It helps that the film is exudes style, razor sharp editing and panache seldom found in contemporary Hollywood. As shown in the excellent A Bittersweet Life, South Korea has strict gun laws, and we don’t see any shootouts in New World. Instead we get dozens of suave goons in black suits, carrying baseball bats and large knives, brutally going at each other in long, uncut scenes. Whether it is the camerawork or the choreography or a combination of both that deserves credit, director Jung stages large scale knife fights in parking lots and elevators but manages to make it all look convincing. The bloody carnage on display is incredible, as are the actors who eschew melodrama even though the situation calls for it.
(First published in DNA)