Eye For Film >> Movies >> Nameless Gangster: Rules Of The Time (2012) Film Review
Nameless Gangster: Rules Of The Time
Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall
Apart from PSY's Gangnam Style, South Korea is also well known for its epic gangster and thriller films, with directors like Park Chan Wook impressing Western critics with memorable genre contributions like Oldboy. Its a bit of a crowded field then when it comes to considering the kind of Korean films that make it over to British shores, but Nameless Gangster's director Yoon Jongbin manages to deliver a standout film by cooking up a familiar meal with quality ingredients and just enough of a twist. The film has been a huge number one smash back in Korea and deserves to be widely seen outside its homeland, as it can stand with the best the West can produce.
The titular gangster here is Choi Ikhyun, (played in scenery devouring style by Choi Min Sik, the star of Oldboy and probably the Korean actor most recognisable to Western audiences right now). The film jumps between contemporary 2011 Korea and earlier decades as we witness Choi's epic rise and fall, though when we first see Choi on screen it is the 1990s and he is being bundled into a police car as the surrounding news teams declare the end of the gangster king pin. We soon flash back however to where it all really began, in Busan port in 1982. It is here we really get to know Choi - a babbling, jovial and mildly corrupt customs officer working in Busan port as head of an inspection team.
These early scenes generate a good few blackly comic laughs, as we witness the shamelessly corrupt inspection team helping themselves to all kinds of goodies from the cargo crates, stuffing the proceeds into ceiling vents even as cops raid their offices in anti corruption sweeps. But Yoon Jongbin also spends this time familiarising us with just how effortless and widespread this corruption is - it is built into the system almost to the point of banality. When Choi dines later with his director and senior management,it soon becomes clear that everyone at the table is in on the theft and smuggling rackets that run the ports, the director declaring that given the cops are breathing down their necks, one of them must be sacrificed. They proceed to judge who should take the fall based on who has the least number of children dependent on them. Many of the key scenes in Nameless Gangster actually occur around a dinner table in this fashion, gangsters in Korea seemingly needing a good meal and plenty of rice wine to get the juices flowing. Yoongbin seems be suggesting that this is where power decision are made in Korea - in back rooms, after hearty meals, where personal connections (particularly family ones), plenty of alcohol and the odd gift are the essential grease to the wheels. At times this almost feels like a culinary tour of Korea, so frequent are the dining scenes, but it is an interesting touch and adds colour to the proceedings.
Deciding to strike out on his own rather than take the fall, Choi makes two crucial decisions that prove he is more than a fussy and cowardly paper pusher. He intercepts a stash of heroin and decides to sell it himself to the Japanese. And he decides that in order to help him do this he will need to find the one thing he lacks - muscle (Choi remains a physical coward throughout, though very talented at getting his beatings done for him in timely fashion). Through a family connection he discover he has a nephew in the protection and muscle business - the young, laconic but merciless Choi Hyung Bae (the excellent Ha Jeongwoo, who starred in The Yellow Sea and plays well off of the more senior Choi Min Sik here). The importance of family connections to Choi's rise, and other criminal activities, remains a constant theme in the film. Everyone seems to be related to everyone and not just in the criminal underworld. Family ties stretch over into the justice system. The importance of family and deference to elders in Korean society is thus effortlessly perverted into aiding criminality.
The brains-and-brawn alliance of Choi Ikhyun and Choi HyungBae sets the film into a more traditional epic “rise of the gangster” arc, as the pair muscle in on nightclub-protection racketeering, and later invest in domestic and foreign casinos before the inevitable greed-induced fallout sends thing spiralling out of control. Throughout their rise, free meals, expensive watches, suitcases of money, and appeals to family loyalty all keep the forces of law and order easily tamed. This might not seem like a novel character arc, but because the pace is kept brisk, and the two lead actors play so well off each other and are so magnetic on screen, Nameless Gangster never bores. Director Yoongbin doesn't feel the need to fall back on large helpings of over-stylised violence to keep things moving, though there are plenty of slaps, bat beatings and scuffles, his film is surprisingly gun and fatality free. The backdrop is also interesting - placing most of the events on screen in the 1980s allows us a look at a time when Korea was not a leading tiger economy but a dictatorship, and so riddled with corruption that (and Yoongbin seems to appreciate the irony here) the government itself declared war on gangsters.
Slick production values, a streak of black humour, two strong leads backed up by a big colourful supporting cast, and a intriguing backdrop all make for essential viewing for fans not just of Asian cinema, but crime thrillers in general. It would be a crime for Nameless Gangster not to do well outside of its native Korea.Reviewed on: 16 Oct 2012