Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Dirty Carnival

No, this isn’t about an X-rated circus; it’s an unadulterated gangster flick from South Korea. In spite of its inexplicable title, A Dirty Carnival presents a gritty if fairly conventional tale of a rising young mobster in his quest for success. A far more fitting title would have been “Korean Gangster”, although this criminal never rises to the heights of Frank Lucas in the similarly themed American Gangster.

Byung-du (Cho In Sung) is a low-ranking thug working for a mid-level boss, desperate for a bigger cut of the action but unsure of how to obtain it. He runs a small crew of ruffians who don’t really respect him, and he’s constantly struggling to make ends meet with his limited taste of the income. When fate presents him with the chance to impress the big boss by solving a legal problem in a particularly ruthless fashion, his rise to the top seems secure. However, his longtime friendship with an aspiring writer/director threatens to unravel his march to the top when his past sins come back to haunt him on the silver screen. Along the way, he also attempts to woo a classy young lady from his past, desperately attempting to downplay his criminal involvement to win the girl of his dreams.

As the star, Cho contributes a vacuous and reserved performance, suitable for the role but not worthy of any accolades. His girlfriend is similarly dull, giving their interactions all the impact of a TV drama rather than providing any big-screen fireworks. The rest of the cast puts in serviceable performances, with only the big boss contributing memorable gravitas to his role.

Writer/director Yoo Ha keeps the film from lagging in spite of its nearly 2 ½ hour length, maintaining a fine pace and avoiding unnecessary side plots. The limited romance aspect is mostly a waste of time, but clearly helps the audience to identify with Byung-du’s hope for a stable home life in spite of his deadly work environment. The movie within the movie (Byung-du’s scriptwriter friend’s production) reinforces Yoo Ha’s own goal to keep it gangster rather than relying on over-the-top stuntwork when Byung-du instructs the team on the finer points of brutal gangland brawls. This focus on realism rather than flash gives the film suitable dramatic weight and contributes to a winning production.

A Dirty Carnival is now available on DVD. It’s short on extras, featuring only a few deleted scenes and behind the scenes footage on the making of the action scenes.

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