Back at this year’s VIFF, I was hoping to see at least one Canadian live-action feature. I didn’t have the luck. I was actually luckier after the VIFF ended as Beeba Boys hit theatres just a week after. I had the chance to finally see it for myself.
The story is about Jeet Johar, a Punjabi-Canadian mob boss who is seen as the big man in Greater Vancouver, especially Surrey. He’s seen by many in the Indo-Canadian community what many would see of a mob boss: a father figure, a leader, a man who helps his community and a man who tells other not to mess with their own.
However there’s another side to Jeet. Despite having a set of loyal men who carry out his actions, he’s a loyal father who’s concerned about his well-being. He’s very upset when his father drinks in front of his son and he’s concerned how his mother feels about him, even though he acts like it doesn’t bother him.
One time, Jeet is arrested for murder. The jury finds him not guilty and he wins the attraction of one of the jurors, the daughter of Polish immigrants. However the police know he’s guilty and they set up a man to join Jeet’s gang and have him set up for what they hope will be his capture.
Jeet faces a load of rivalry from other mob leaders, an Indo-Canadian business leader who has become hugely successful and various other Indo-Canadians trying to get a piece of their own crime action for their own gain. Meanwhile his love for Katya is growing despite her family’s opposition to her love to Jeet.
However with Jeet’s lust for power comes incidents along the way that send him a message he’s doomed to downfall. This comes from members of his gang being killed to even a shootout at his place, endangering his own family. This leads to an ending that is far from predictable but doesn’t make a lot of sense in retrospect.
The film has a lot of of good elements and ingredients brought by writer/director Deepa Mehta: the separation of the values held by the older Punjabis from the younger Punjabis who question and can even ridicule the values and loyalty held by older Punjabis. There’s even the perceived jealousy felt by a lot of young Punjabis towards those who have made it successfully and feel that they have to kill them to get ahead. There’s even the scene of how some children of those who have made it feel a distance from their parents and even feel neglected because of their parents’ focus on making it.
There’s also how one looks at the leader of organized crime as a positive thing, especially the young. That was especially seen in that young Punjabi boy at the beginning talking how Jeet tells others not to mess with them the same way Bruce Lee showed others not to mess with the Chinese. Typical young male with a ‘might is right’ attitude. There’s the feel of power associated by many with the might of the gun. That was shown when one of Jeet’s men gets a young boy to feel what a ‘real gun feels like.’ Even though he unloaded the gun before, it sends a message about how addicting the power of the gun can get. There’s even the feeling they have to rule the night club scenes as shown in many scenes in the film.
The film also includes many other unique and vital ingredients. One unique ingredients to the film include the mix of languages as it goes from English to Punjabi to ‘Punglish.’ Another good ingredient is not just the focus on Punjabi immigrants but also some minor focus on the Ukrainian aquacize teacher and Katya Drobot. Sometimes I think the film is not just showing the struggle of Punjabi-Canadians to exist socially in Canada but the struggles of many immigrants. I found it surprising since I live in Vancouver that is one of the most immigrant-friendly cities in the world.
There’s also the character of Jeet who’s trying to make like he’s the boss but struggles to be a responsible father and is easily infuriated when his father drinks. Soon Jeet would have to fess up as his son now thinks violence is cool.
However the main problem is that the film does not put it all together in a well-constructed manner. The film shows a lot of potential as it features a story within a topic that rarely gets proper focus and has offered few effective solutions in the past. However there are times in which the news stories and even the newscaster herself come off as too cartoonish. There are times when the story goes from telling a story of an Indo-Canadian mob boss turns into ‘preaching’ about the problem. I’ve seen other gangster films before that told a story that reflected a common problem in society without resorting to ‘preaching’ methods. There were even parts that came off as ridiculous such as mob rival Jamie being intruded upon during a fellatio by one of Jeet’s men. All I can say is for each Canadian gangster film like this, there are at least 50 American gangster films that are better.
Mehta brings an ambitious project with Beeba Boys however the problem is it’s not done in a well-edited, well-pieced manner and it comes off as unsteady, sometimes preachy and even confusing at times. I will however give Mehta credit. It’s obvious Mehta, whose 2005 film Water was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, is presenting a topic very close to her concern: the rise in crime among young Indo-Canadians, especially around Surrey and other part of Greater Vancouver. Being a resident of Greater Vancouver myself, I often hear the news stories and concerns however I myself can’t really make a statement about this topic because I don’t have direct involvement with the Indo-Canadian communities in Greater Vancouver. Mehta however is very knowledgeable about this and she feels she has something to say about this. I give Mehta credit for presenting a topic on the big-screen that gets so little focus but I feel that it could have been done better as a big-screen film.
The acting was good but it wasn’t stellar. Randeep Hooda did a good job as playing Jeet Johar: a gangster leader who’s art tough guy, part concerned father and part troubled man. Balinder Johal was the best supporting player as the concerned mother. The mix of IndoPop or IndoRock were some of the best music that could have been added to the score while the more synthesized parts of the score didn’t fit well and took away from the professionalism.
Beeba Boys is an ambitions movie that attempt to send a message as it tells a story. However it makes a lot of noticeable mistakes and it doesn’t compare to many of the crime dramas before it.
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.