- Rated NR
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Bob Westal
remarkable and stylish blend of sentiment, wit, brutal social commentary, and bone-crunching violence, “A Dirty Carnival” might appear to be fable about the dangers of the gangster lifestyle. Actually, it’s about the soul-killing potential of careerism.
If ever there was a person whose career and emotional life don’t quite mesh, its 29-year-old Byeong-du (Zo In-Song). Unafraid to use a baseball bat or a steel bar on rival gang members or frightening intimidation tactics on debtors to his gang’s loan-sharking service, off the job he’s the kind of dependable, gentle soul you’d probably trust to watch over a three-year-old -- give or take a few anger issues. He’s also stressed out by family finances, stalled in a no-win position on the job, lonely and embittered. So, when a new opportunity arises at work, he never questions his participation in the nastiest sort of office politics. He goes over the head of his immediate superior by endearing himself to the gang’s likeably suave sponsor (Nam-Koong Min). This requires first murdering a pesky lawyer and later presenting his soon-to-be former superior with a sashimi-knife pink slip (on the wedding day of the elder crook’s daughter, no less). Soon, with a good working relationship with his new job and some plum opportunities, things are looking up at work – though enemy gangsters are forever a concern and the murders must be concealed.
Meanwhile, his emotional life takes a turn for the better when he bumps into Min-ho, a childhood pal (Chun Ho-Jin) and a struggling would-be filmmaker. Byeong-du is all too eager to reconnect with his non-criminal friend – even more so when he learns his old buddy is still hanging out with his youthful sweetheart, Hyeon-ju (Lee Bo-Yung). Both the romance and the friendship are touchingly portrayed: Byeong-du falls hard for his very reluctant ex, and does whatever he can to help his buddy out on his career as a budding auteur, largely providing some first hand background to help save the gangster epic he’s been unsuccessfully shopping around Seoul. Soon, both Byeong-du and Min-ho are young men rising in their respective careers. Naturally, things won’t keep going this well for long.
It’s important to note here that for all its clever plotting and strong characterization, aided by a likable and skilled cast, “A Dirty Carnival” is punctuated by several strong action sequences. The gangsters mostly avoid guns, but that doesn’t mean that blood won’t be shed, and we are treated/subjected to several stunning and imaginatively staged action set pieces that combine sheer brutality with martial arts grace. Once again, an Asian director has schooled U.S. filmmakers on how it’s still possible to combine exciting action filmmaking with genuine emotion and tried-and-true storytelling values.
A must for fans of such modern day gangster epics as “The Departed” and its Hong Kong source material, “Infernal Affairs,” and with echoes of such diverse gangster epics as John Woo’s “A Better Tomorrow” and “The Sopranos,” “A Bloody Carnival” is nevertheless entirely its own film. Writer-director Yoo Ha began as a poet, and while his presumed facility with language might not quite survive the subtitling, the sensitivity and clear-eyed (not quite cynical) realism of a true poet is on display along with the qualities of a first-rate showman. Though the production values and pacing wouldn’t be too out of place in today’s Hollywood – and I’d rate its odds of being remade in the U.S. as probably 75 percent -- Ha’s movie brings to mind the idealism masquerading as cynicism of such greats as Sam Peckinpah and Billy Wilder, though a bit kinder and more brutal in some ways than either.
This, my friends, is a movie.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
Films from Asia are often problematic when it comes to subtitling and translations, but this DVD introduces a wrinkle I’ve never seen before: for the first several minutes of the film, the subtitles are not subtitles at all, but supertitles placed on the top of the screen. This is even more of an annoying distraction than you might think, but the supertitles randomly become subtitles before too long; from there on, it’s mostly clear sailing. The translations themselves are a bit rough in spots, but not to the point of being a problem or creating unintended laughs. As for special features, the DVD includes a possibly too lengthy, but nevertheless worthwhile, behind the scenes look at the grueling and painstaking making of the film’s action sequences. A newcomer to elaborate action sequences, star Zo In-Song emerges as a real trooper, exhausting himself, taking some painful hits (he was sidelined with an injury for several weeks during the production) and working apparently without a stuntman even during some of the most stunning and dangerous moments. Several brief deleted sequences are also included.