One of the best Korean gangster movies of the 2000s. Noted for the gritty, spontaneous look of its fight scenes, to me it’s also the interplay of conventional and reflexive elements that makes A Dirty Carnival stand above the excessively histrionic Friend, cute but daft jopok comedies like Marrying the Mafia and My Wife is a Gangster, the aesthetically appealing but shallow A Bittersweet Life and the largely unadventurous output of Ryu Seung-wan, among others.
Jo In-seoung, unbearably mawkish in The Classic, is terrific here as a Byung-du, a gangster put through the wringer by his troubled family members, cunning boss and reckless mates in thuggery. Most intriguingly he’s sold out by a buddy from the past, a filmmaker having trouble writing an effective gangster script who comes begging for advice and ultimately exploits Byung-du’s private testimony for his own personal gain.
With this unexpected reflexive twist, writer-director Yoo Ha (Marriage is a Crazy Thing, Once Upon a Time in High School) manages to draw attention to fiction cinema’s conscious and typically apathetic exploitation of real world crime and trauma. Remarkably, the story ultimately elevates Byung-du to higher moral ground than the interloping filmmaker who sells him up the river. Is Yoo suggesting that responsibility is something in filmmaking that flies out the window once self-interest and commercial imperatives take hold? Yoo certainly seems to harbour certain negative feelings about the world he operates in and the type of people he is surrounded by. Perhaps he’s also highly sensitive to the authorial complicity that naturally arises when a lens is turned upon a subject.
These are not the type of issues usually explored in gangland, and for this sparkle of creativity it’s no wonder the US remake rights for Yoo’s picture have already been sold. It’ll be fascinating to see how much will remain of a sub-plot that sneaks up behind cinema and stabs it in the back.