Oh, Reel-y: NYAFF movies from Tuesday

Nameless Gangster
Korea, 2012

Nameless Gangster is Korea’s latest entry into the cinematic mobster world, and it’s a darned good one. Set in the criminal world of Busan, South Korea’s second largest metropolis after Seoul, the film portrays the rise to power of a bumbling customs official played by Choi Min-Sik, in fine form as always. Choi Min-Sik’s character is an unlikely gangster–nonthreatening, long-winded, and self-deluded–but you’re never quite sure whether he’s a criminal genius or a well-connected fool. If anything, he’s a traditionalist, who masterfully (or fortuitously) manipulates Korea’s well-documented rigid social hierarchy and his familial connections during his rise to the top, and it’s strange seeing the juxtaposition of this unlikely crime lord with the “real” gangsters.

Choi Min-Sik shares top billing with Ha Jung-Woo, who starred in auteur Ki-duk Duk‘s brilliantly twisted relationship drama Time and literally killed it in 2008’s must-see thriller The Chaser (he played a serial killer). Like Ryoo Seung-Beom, Ha Jung-Woo is one of Korea’s talented young thespian badasses. Here, Ha Jung-Woo plays the cool as ice crime boss to Choi Min-Sik’s bungling wannabe, and, like Ryan Gosling’s Driver, he oozes quiet charisma and coiled aggression. In other words, don’t upset him unless you think your face could use some improvement.

Nameless Gangster has all the elements of gangster cinema that we’ve come to know, from cheap suits to back room deals, made all the more compelling with Korea’s unique social structure. Somebody please watch this so we can talk about the possibly ambiguous ending.

***

Starry Starry Night
Taiwan, 2011

Exquisitely shot, Starry Starry Night is controlled and measured, a style and tone I’ve come to associate with Taiwanese cinema. Based on an illustrated novel, it’s a coming of age story of a 13-year-old girl as her home and school lives slowly unravel. While it borders on being precious at points, especially with an over reliance on fanciful special effects, overall I found it to be a spot-on and moving portrayal of adolescence and the discomforting realization that, unlikely those of a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces of life don’t quite fit how we were promised. The attention to detail and symbolism in the film is meticulous, and the performances of the stoic child actors are nuanced and powerful.

One thing I found interesting is that the film has several nods toward French culture and cinema, both outright and subtle. The protagonist’s mother is an unabashed Francophile, relishing their art, wine, and cuisine, and the film shares somewhat of an aesthetic sensibility with Jean-Pierrer Jeunet‘s films, particularly in some of the sets. This connection is further cemented in a charming but unnecessary epilogue set in Paris, one of the film’s missteps. As I found out after the film, there exists a strong cultural exchange between France and Taiwan, which undeniably has marks on this film.

Starry Starry Night is currently playing in Manhattan at AMC Empire 25 and will apparently see a limited release in the US. Hopefully it finds an appreciative audience and clears the path for more Taiwanese films to be screened here.

***

Couples
Korea, 2011

Sometimes when I need a break from the insanity of some of the more cray cray Korean films, I slide to the other end of their cinematic spectrum. Korean pop culture, from soap operas to K-pop, is taking over Asian markets, and their rom-coms further hammer home the point: South Korea is pretty good at this pop thing when they’re not doling out the weirdness.

Couples is a remake of A Stranger of Mine, a 2005 Japanese film I haven’t seen, and it’s an hilarious screwball comedy with a splash of noir. The film has a unique structure and framing device, with a nonlinear narrative told from several perspectives intercut with a series of “interviews” of various couples talking about how they met. As the film unfolds, we learn that all the meet-cutes happen on the same fateful day, a day that functions essentially as an intricate Rube Goldberg matchmaking device. But that’s not all. Along the way there’s a traffic accident, a bank robbery, and a briefcase of mob money, and the characters run the gamut from extortionist cab drivers to cowardly private eyes to gold-digging femme fatales.

I take back what I said at first. Even when Korea is making movies for mainstream audiences, they bring the crazy.

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