Nameless Gangster looks like South Korea’s attempt to try and make a gangster movie. The one thing is it does a very good job at making one. This film is more than what one bargained for.
Choi Ik Hyun doesn’t seem like the type to become a gangster. He’s a customs officer in Busan who was pilfering goods and taking bribes along with colleagues at the most. On top of it, he gets drunk very often and comes off as both clumsy and idiotic after a lot of drinking. That all changes when he comes across 10kg of heroin in the warehouse. He and a friend approach a gangster, Choi Hyung-bae, to sell it to Japan’s yakuza that he’s tied to. He also learns that Hyung-bae is from the same family tree.
Soon the two would become partners in crime and they would form their own organized crime syndicate. Soon Choi’s power grows to owning night clubs and one of Busan’s first class hotels. He also faces power struggles from close associates, people within his gang and even among rivals. Some of it has to do with his feisty personality and his habit for getting drunk easily. Other times it’s because of the conflict of who’s really in power. As Choi’s power grows, politics are changing in South Korea. The dictatorship which allowed Choi to prosper in his criminal activity is now making way to democracy with the election of President Roh Tae-woo just before the Seoul Olympics. Just two years after the election, the government proposes a crackdown on organized crime. Choi knows his days are numbered. He knows the connections to prosecutors that helped some of his men get off charges in the past won’t work anymore. The story ends with the predictable as the movie begins with a prosecutor announcing the arrest of Choi in 1990 but it ends on a different and on a note one wouldn’t expect from a gangster movie.
The film’s script is good for that it’s able to mix humor with organized crime the same way Pulp Fiction and Fargo does. However the film is just as smart as it is in its story too. The film’s script is very detailed in how it’s able to take into account the situation in Busan and the rest of South Korea during that time. It takes into good account the situation of crime in Busan in the 80’s during the time South Korea was still under a dictatorship. Yeah, just because South Korea wasn’t under the tight grip the communist North was under as was well-to-do doesn’t mean the people of South Korea were completely free at the time. It also highlights the changes in South Korea as the decade progress from the student protests, to the Seoul Olympics to the election of President Roh Tae-Woo to Roh’s crackdown on organized crime and corruption. This is a part of history few outside South Korea know about. It’s as much of an eye-opener as it is entertaining.
The movie not only shows South Korea’s changing political climate at the time but how it impacted Choi and why he made his choice to organized crime. South Korea was under a dictatorship to the move to democracy to the crackdown on organized crime. While South Korea was still under a dictatorship Choi’s income as a customs officer wasn’t good. Organized crime seemed his way out at the time. He chose it and reaped the lucrative rewards as well as the star status. He also faced threats from outside rivals and rivalry within his own gang. As South Korea made the move to democracy, prosecutors then became the stars of the new Korea and that meant the downfall of Choi. The title Nameless Gangster could be because Choi could be any man in South Korea at that time. The subtitle Rules Of The Time send the message that the movie is as much about the times as it’s about the protagonist.
There were two powerful scenes in the film on that subject. The first was when Choi was having dinner with his children while he knew his arrest would be eventual. He says goodbye to his son as he is about to go to Los Angeles and told him of the importance of learning the English language. Another was when he was at a religious ceremony for his newborn grandchild. It’s the child of his son who’s now a prosecutor. The scene where his grandson grips Choi’s finger is a powerful one of hope. It’s like Choi’s happy that his son and grandson have the better futures that Choi never had the chance for.
Without a doubt, the character of Choi was the top quality of the movie. It’s surprising how a bumbling, clumsy, easy drunk like Choi could ever manage to rise to the top of the organized crime scene in Busan but somehow he does. The movie wasn’t just about Choi and his bumbling meetings or his criminal activities. It was also about Choi the husband and Choi the father. The scenes with his children and grandchild show a different side of Choi and make his character three-dimensional rather than the typical stock character of comedies. Actor Choi Min-shik did a very good job with the role. Scriptwriter and director Yun Jong-bin did an excellent job in writing a script that was as comical as it was smart and bringing it to the screen well. I will admit I was first confused during the movie wondering what the point was in having a clumsy, oafish man as a major organized crime don but it all made sense in the end.
Nameless Gangster has received a lot of buzz. In South Korea, the film was #1 at the box office for three weeks. The film has received many awards and nominations amongst South Korea’s movie awards. Time magazine even described it as: “the Korean mob film Scorsese would be proud of.” Interesting that the Busan-born Yun is almost 32 years-old and he has released two other films that have raised eyebrows, especially in the ways they depict male mannerisms. Already Yun looks like he’s on to a very promising career in directing especially with the success of Nameless Gangster.
Nameless Gangster is more than just an entertaining story of a crime boss. It’s also a statement about South Korea’s politics at the time and about the man caught in between. Definitely a film worth seeing.