Judge Ben Saylor finds that a bit of club soda and vinegar will usually clean up most carnivals.
You can't outrun revenge!
Gangster pictures, particularly ones that document a character's rise and inevitable fall (in other words, most gangster pictures), are getting to be a dime a dozen. Everyone from Howard Hawks to Martin Scorsese has done one, meaning that many of the same ideas get used again and again.
A Dirty Carnival is an interesting case, however, because while it uses some of the usual gangster pic chestnuts, writer-director Yoo Ha does bring some unique elements to the table as well, making this a mob movie that's worth checking out, even if it's just once. Still, it's probably best to examine A Dirty Carnival by the ways it adheres to the formula:
Byung-doo (Zo In-sung) is a low-level hood with a crew of loyal toughs under him, but at the beginning of A Dirty Carnival, he's struggling to make ends meet. He's not getting enough money to support his mother and siblings, and when he is given the chance at a bigger payday by running a game room, the place is busted up by a rival gang on opening day.
Like many of his cinematic gangster predecessors, Byung-doo needs to do something Big to make his name in the criminal underworld. And like many of his genre antecedents, Byung-doo's Big act is a murder, that of an attorney, which he does as a favor to the powerful Mr. Hwang (Chun Ho-jin). This act simultaneously cements his reputation and sets his downfall into motion.
With the sordid business of the Big Hit out of the way, the gangster is free to reap the profits: Money, women, power. Under Mr. Hwang's patronage, Byung-doo's career begins to blossom, and his heightened place in the underworld allows him to move his family into nicer digs. He is also made a part of a highly lucrative real estate deal with Mr. Hwang.
Every gangster needs something to take his mind off the rampant violence and wads of cash, right? That's where the Girl comes in. Often, she is an old flame who re-enters the gangster's life and/or is someone the gangster has known all his life (see Carlito's Way and Once Upon a Time in America, among others). Generally, the Girl resists the gangster's advances at first (as Lee Bo-Young's Hyun-joo does here), but eventually relents to his charm and promises of going straight. As the Girl invariably has never seen a mob movie before and thus is clueless to the sisterhood of bereaved cinematic molls dotting the genre, she will relent.
Yoo falls into the same traps that other filmmakers have in the past with his Girl subplot, and the result is an under-developed love interest and a storyline that only seems like it's in the plot out of adherence to genre mores. Even with Yoo's languid pacing, he fails to allot enough time to flesh out Byung-doo and Hyun-joo's relationship.
What goes up must come down, and when gangsters come down, whether it's getting arrested on numerous felony drug charges (a la Goodfellas) or getting riddled with bullets (Scarface, among others), it ain't pretty. This aspect of A Dirty Carnival is actually rather unique, as Byong-doo's downfall comes courtesy of (spoiler) a drunken confession of his hit on the attorney, which Min-ho (Namkoong Min), Byung-doo's filmmaker friend who is coincidentally researching material for a gangster film, then incorporates into his movie. Yoo throws in an excellent bit of irony by having the good-natured but somewhat unscrupulous (capitalizing on Byung-doo's moment of drunken weakness for his own gain) Min-ho not only escape retaliation for his actions but also flourish, and A Dirty Carnival ends with his agreeing to collaborate with Mr. Hwang on a new film (end spoiler).
However, just because A Dirty Carnival conforms to many of the gangster genre tropes doesn't mean it's a bad movie. At one point, Byung-doo tells Min-ho, on the set of his gangster movie, to make a film with a "real gangster spirit." Yoo has taken his character's words to heart with A Dirty Carnival, which is steeped in the intricacies of the world of Korean crime. Every betrayal, beating and backroom deal has a nice feeling of authenticity (whether it is or isn't in real life, which I have no way of knowing), and Yoo's deliberate pacing (at times too-deliberate; the second act in particular drags a bit) allows the viewer to really immerse him/herself in Byung-doo's world.
Yoo has also written some strong characters that are well acted. Zo is excellent as Byung-doo, always making sure the viewer sees the menace inherent in his character instead of making plays for the viewer's sympathy. Despite his loyalty to his family and feelings for Hyun-joo, Byung-doo is still a ruthless gangster who is perfectly willing to commit a murder to put himself ahead or save his own skin. That being said, Yoo's handling of the material is such that it's hard not to (mild spoiler) feel a little for Byung-doo when he meets his fate at the end of the movie (end spoiler).
The rest of the cast is similarly well chosen, particularly Ho-jin as the sophisticated but deadly Mr. Hwang, and Min as the good-natured but naïve Min-ho.
Another strength of A Dirty Carnival is its fight scenes. Rather than overly stylized bullet ballets or meticulously choreographed bouts of kung fu, as can be found in other Asian action flicks, the brutal fighting in A Dirty Carnival consists largely of people beating each other with bats and pipes, with the occasional knife thrown in. The fights are carefully staged to look chaotic (if that makes sense), and the results are visceral and believable.
Genius Products' DVD of A Dirty Carnival boasts a solid audio and video presentation. The image quality, in particular, is very sharp. For extras, however, all we get are about eight-and-a-half minutes' worth of deleted scenes and a featurette called "Making of the Action." Running about 36 minutes, "Making of the Action" shows behind-the-scenes footage and interviews regarding the movie's fight scenes, and, given the quality of said scenes, actually makes for an interesting watch.
The bottom line is that while no one could accuse A Dirty Carnival of being daringly original, writer-director Yoo Ha and his cast still fashion a gripping gangster yarn that offers a couple new spins on a genre that has more or less played itself out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Deleted scenes
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