Aw shit. You see the name of the writer-director in the headline for this post, don’t you? Sounds decidedly un-American, does it not? Now look at the image to the right of this text. That sure as shit ain’t Brad Pitt in that picture. Yep, looks like the Nerd is back on his “Goddamn those South Koreans make some good-ass crime movies” soapbox yet again. You’re not wrong, dear reader: A Dirty Carnival is indeed a subtitle-fest of the highest order.
But come on, you’ve evolved as a viewer by now, haven’t you? You recognize that to skip the Korean film output is to skip the best crime movie shit out there at this point, right? If you don’t, let me put it in book terms for you: to watch only American crime films today is like only reading Michael Connelly or Lee Child while the work of Allan Guthrie or Ray Banks is sitting there ready and roaring to go in your TBR pile – you’re choosing safe and solid chinese food over brilliantly trangressive yet surpremely satisfying on a genre level Vietnamese cuisine. (Sorry, Nerd’s craving about a gallon of pho and a banh mi on the side as I write this and it’s generally confusing his metaphors.)
A Dirty Carnival tells of Byung-doo, a low-level Seoul gangster struggling to support his sick mother and siblings while handing over huge cuts of his weekly take to his asshole boss Sang-chul. When at a meeting he hears of the big boss, President Hwang, asking Sang-chul to take out a corrupt attorney named Park. Sang-chul won’t do it as cops and government officials are strictly off-limits in the game, but behind Sang-chul’s back Byung-doo agrees to take the gig, giving him a leg up in the organization and fucking up his soul something huge. But a dude’s gotta eat, right? Naturally this starts all kinds of in-fighting as Sang-chul quickly figures out who signed on for the hit and is after his sweet gig in the gang.
In addition to a juicy gangster melodrama A Dirty Carnival is also a Korean movie industry satire. Byung-doo’s childhood friend Min-ho has been struggling as a filmmaker for the last few years, his script being turned down rewrite after pointless rewrite. When the producer suggests he actually do some research into Korean gang life, Min-ho takes it upon himself to get back in touch with Byung-doo. The two hit it off, with Min-ho bringing Byung-doo back into the circle of high school friends who still meet up often for drinks and Byung-doo giving him some nasty insight into the reality of gangsterhood. Byung-doo even ends up starting a little something up with childhood crush Hyun-joo while Min-ho knocks out a great script that is quickly green-lit with himself in the director’s chair. But it’s not long until it becomes clear that Min-ho’s new hit film is a little too authentic, with certain scenes of a lawyer being murdered mirroring reality a tad too much for Byung-doo’s comfort.
Obviously from that lengthy plot description, A Dirty Carnival has a lot of meat to its story. You’ve got some classic gangster intrigue, some interesting (though not always plausible) movie biz shit, a little bit of romance – even a study of the pain of stacking up your life to that of your high school friends years down the line. That shit is all very compelling with director Ha Yu keeping the ball rolling like a fucking pro, never letting the pace drag or scenes ring false. But of all A Dirty Carnival’s many merits, the thing that cannot be denied about the film is that the fight scenes are some of the best ever filmed.
There are gang fights in this motherfucker that made me literally sit up in my chair, that shot a true-blue, no-bullshit endorphin rush up through the base of my fucking melon. The way Ha Yu choreographs action is a sight to behold, a vision to fucking tremble before. The scenes are both realistically messy yet completely clear in the cutting and staging. This is not the bullshit kung fu fight shit where our hero neatly round-kicks everyone without getting a scratch – not by a million fucking miles. Byung-doo gets fucking messed up while he messes up motherfuckers. Even the nasty fighting style is refreshing, with its insanely brutal downward-thrust punches and wild, maximum-impact kicks. And then when Byung-doo busts out his knife and starts desperately stabbing the thighs of bat-wielding thugs? Fucking gloriously intense, dear reader.
So do it up, dear reader, and do it up fast. This is not too far outside of your wheelhouse – guaranteed. A fast-paced gangster film packed with solid characters, fresh takes on old tropes and tons of brilliant action scenes? Oh fuck yeah, you’ve got this, the Nerd believes in you. He also believes that he’s gonna fucking keel over unless he catches the pho house before they close so that’s it on A Dirty Carnival, a movie I could fucking easily go on about for a few hundred more words if I didn’t need my MSG fix something fucking terrible.