The City of Violence – 짝패
Director: Ryoo Seung-Wan (류승완)
Cast: Jeong Doo-Hong (정두홍), Ryoo Seung-Wan, Lee Beom-Soo (이범수)
Ryoo Seung-Wan pulls quadruple duty as director, actor, writer, and producer on The City of Violence, his latest in a series of films about disaffected youth and self-discovery through violence. While much of what the film has to say has already been said in Ryoo’s previous films such as Die Bad (죽거나 혹은 나쁘거나) and Crying Fist (주먹이 운다), The City of Violence is extremely enjoyable thanks to its brisk running time (only about 90 minutes!), energetic performances, and spectacular (and constant) action scenes.
Unintentionally reviewing another film which, like 20th Century Boys, contains a setup of childhood friends reunited through tragedy, I was honestly pleased to find out that The City of Violence is very direct. Not that it’s a barebones film with little to no subtext, and this is not to say that films with more lengthy and multi-threaded plots always make for better viewing (they don’t), but what this film does well is to state its intentions at the beginning and deviate very little as the story progresses.
When veteran bruiser Wang-Jae (Ahn Gil-Gang) is killed by a gang of young thugs, his childhood friends Tae-Soo (Jeong Doo-Hong, also the film’s action choreographer), Seok-Hwan (Ryoo Seung-Wan), Dong-Hwan (Jeong Seok-Yong, 정석용), and Pil-Ho (Lee Beom-Soo) are brought together after having gone their separate ways years ago. Now a police officer in Seoul, Tae-Soo teams up with reformed gangster Seok-Hwan to find out why Wang-Jae was killed and who was behind this hit that was made to look like a routine assault, but during the course of their investigation, they become embroiled in a gang-controlled construction deal and discover a traitor among their ranks. Naturally, the only way out is to beat down as many offending gang members as humanly possible.
As the title of the film explicitly states, action and violence are the film’s key elements, and Jeong’s signature style is every bit as hard-hitting and flexible as always. By flexible, I mean to say that while choreographed, the action is performed in such a way as to mask any sense of practice and rehearsal. Take a look at this clip to get a sense of what to expect:
Even though the motions are very fluid, the kicks and punches are quick, rough, and blunt. There are flashy aerial moves, but Jeong’s mastery of Taekwondo ensures the film stays grounded in a more external reality. So for those who were perhaps turned off by the stylized swordplay and laughable melodrama in films such as Hero (英雄) and House of Flying Daggers (十面埋伏), The City of Violence will no doubt be a welcome change of pace. Aiding the action is Ryoo’s shooting style which is at once chaotic and intelligible, and it’s hard not to compare it to the latter two Bourne films having described The City of Violence as I just did. Luckily, it is very relevant given the critical and financial success of those films (the third of which came out after Ryoo’s film). Now I’ll be the first to say that The Bournce Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum are two of the worst action films in recent memory for their absolutely unintelligible action scenes. Paul Greengrass’ shooting style seems to be thus: confuse the audience as much as humanly possible, but not for the purpose of the story. Quick cuts, misframed shots, and the shaky-cam are not meant to put us in the frame of mind of Jason Bourne, otherwise Greengrass would not use this style when Bourne is not in a scene, yet he does. What Ryoo gets right in The City of Violence is to showcase the action, and this carries with it a lot of implications. First, the action is foregrounded within a very stable, reliable, and understandable genre. Second, there is a noticeable distinction between the action and non-action scenes, giving the action scenes a stronger visceral as well as emotional impact. The lengthy tracking shots and whirlwind actions in the fight scenes carry a hint of Ching Siu-Tung with them, but they are uniquely Korean in nature thanks to their diegetic messiness. When not in action mode, Ryoo compensates with excellent performances all around, from Jeong’s palpable machismo to Lee Beom-Soo’s sleaziness. Finally, the action is extremely readable, with punches and kicks shown in their entirety with great regard for the viewing audience. Hollywood is no doubt trying to copy the hand-to-hand combat so prevalent in Asian action cinema, but they have never been able to shoot it right. So leave it to the true masters of action cinema to once again reveal the well-manicured artifice of Hollywood’s approach to action. Jeong Doo-Hong is no doubt the best action choreographer you’ve never heard of and easily one of the best of which you have heard.
So what might Ryoo be trying to say with a film such as The City of Violence? On the one hand, you have the scene of the main characters as teenagers, battling it out with another group of thugs while a pop-friendly tune about friendship plays over the action. On the other hand, it seems that instances of corruption and organized crime can only be solved through direct confrontation based on vengeance. Either way, The City of Violence is an action spectacle based firmly in modern Korea and with a reverent nod to action cinema in general.