Judge Michael Nazarewycz gets his cinematic passport stamped.
Our review of New World, published December 20th, 2003, is also available.
Pick a side.
It's CineMeaCulpa time…that time when I confess to some cinematic oversight other movie fans might find surprising—even (almost) unforgivable. Before New World, I had never seen a Korean Noir film. Not even Oldboy. There, I said it.
Facts of the Case
For a decade, cop Ja-sung (Lee Jeong-jae in his film debut) has been undercover in Goldmoon, a massive crime syndicate fronting as a legitimate business. In that time, he worked his way up the ladder to become the right-hand man of the syndicate's second-in-command. However, he has a child on the way and he wants out. The unexpected death of Goldmoon's chairman should signal the cop's exit from the assignment, but his boss, Chief Kang (Min-sik Choi, Oldboy), extends his tour.
Kang hopes Ja-sung can help influence the outcome of the power struggle occurring between the organization's two most likely successors: Chung (Jeong-min Hwang, A Bittersweet Life) and Joong-gu (Seong-Woong Park, Into the White Night). Thus "Operation New World" is born, keeping Ja-sung deep in the organization. But as events unfold and allegiances change, the difference between good guys and bad guys blurs to become differences between bad guys and worse guys.
What an introduction to Korean Noir. Honestly, I don't know if Korean Noir is its own genre, or a sub-genre, or some kind of genre mash-up, and I really don't care. Whatever label you want to give it, if New World is a representative, it's done very well.
Its foundation is in the screenplay. Writer/director Park Hoon-Jeong (I Saw the Devil) is careful to layer everything properly. He first pays attention to story, crafting a captivating tale of crime, justice, loyalty, and betrayal. It's intricate but not convoluted, and nicely paced so as to seem neither frenetic nor slow. He then deftly avoids replacing drama with melancholy; every emotion is measured and never overplayed. As for the violence, it's a crime story, so of course it exists, but it is never gratuitous. From what I've read about other Korean Noir films, this is an exception, and it really works.
A solid story is nothing without solid characters to populate it, and New World is anchored by four solid characters. The two gangsters in line to become leaders, Chung and Joong-gu, while a little predictable in their dichotomy (the former is something of a hotheaded goof, the latter meticulously ice-cold), are still a compelling watch. I won't go so far as to call them the equivalent of The Godfather's Michael and Sonny Corleone, but thanks to the performances of the actors portraying them, they transcend the caricatures they could have become.
Ja-sung, on the other hand, is fascinating. He's a 10-year veteran of the force, but all of that time has been spent ensconced in the world of organized crime. He is, ultimately, youthful as a cop, but world-weary as a cop-as-gangster. That weariness is not only due to being a party to the crime he swore to fight, it's also the fact that he must trust everyone—good guys and bad—and he's tired of it. As wonderfully played by rookie actor Lee Jeong-jae, Ja-sung straddles two very different worlds and suffers greatly as a result.
But the best of the bunch is Ja-sung's boss. Kang embodies that great dichotomy of doing the right thing versus doing what needs to be done. He is the puppet master, and as played by Choi Min-sik, he is neither reviled nor revered. He is as calculating as the monsters he is trying to bring down, and uses his badge to justify the tough decisions he makes.
These four characters—along with solid supporting players—are integral to the success, and it's a testament to the actors playing out Jeong's story that he doesn't need to shift to melancholy or violence to make the film work.
Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung's (Stoker) imagery is simply beautiful, and the 2.35:1/1080p high def widescreen presentation takes that beauty and turns it up to the visual equivalent of 11. What's more impressive is Chung never seems to try too hard because director Jeong never seems to try too hard. There aren't shots that look like they are intentionally added to be ogled; everyday events like meals and meetings and ultrasound appointments, are moving portraits thanks to Chung's technology-enhanced eye. This imagery is complemented by the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, which is well-balanced, allowing the film's louder elements—mostly the score and the action—to compliment the scenes they accompany, not drown them out.
The extras are disappointing in both offerings and length. The 94-second trailer is no different than the one you can find on iTunes, although the quality is much better. The "Making Of," which runs less than five minutes, is not that at all, but rather a series of behind-the-scenes clips that look like they were shot on video (with the Blu=ray treatment).
The Picture Gallery, which runs a little longer than that Making Of featurette, is technically nothing more than a glossy PowerPoint presentation of sliding photos featuring production stills of cast and film, plus candids of the crew. It reminded me of the slideshow the camp counselors put together at the end of every summer. If you are unfamiliar with the actors, watch the Picture Gallery before you watch the film. The opening minute gives you a visual cast list of actor and character, which makes viewing the film a little easier.
I might be a neophyte when it comes to Korean Noir, but I know a very good movie when I see it, no matter the genre nor country of origin. With a compelling plot, interesting characters, and excellent execution; New World delivers everything a crime drama should. Add to that its beautiful visuals, and it delivers even more.
In this case, crime pays quite well. Not guilty.
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