A Dirty Carnival (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
For a good while of Yoo Ha’s “A Dirty Carnival,” we are given the impression that it is a gangster picture told through a romantic prism, yet another story of a young man who joins a gang in order to better the life of his family, sickly mother and all. It is quite surprising, and enthralling, how adding one character manages to shift the dramatic tone and plot parabola almost completely. Suddenly, the material is alive and crackling. Some familiar elements remain, like having to deal with rival gangs and the like, but we are kept on our toes as to how they might play out given that the screenplay proves to be malleable enough, readily changeable depending on what it hopes to subvert about hardcore gangster flicks.
The character that serves as spice is Min-ho (Namkoong Min), a childhood friend of Byung-doo, our central protagonist, who aspires to become a film director. Min-ho hopes to make a gangster film for his debut and he figures he needed to perform research by means of interviewing actual gangsters and being in the action when things go bad. It is so fascinating that without this character, Byung-doo is just another low-level thug with a good heart. Jo In-sung plays the boyish looking gangster with a transparency so accessible, it feels almost bizarre at first he is cast to play what we expect to be a rough role. But it is actually correct to make such a left-field decision because a) Jo is strong in the role and b) his youthful look strips away some of our defenses. And so when he is thrusted into sudden fits of violence, it is shocking, horrific.
I admired the work’s schizophrenic tone. In one scene, for instance, rival gang members are fighting tooth and nail under a bridge while increasingly covered in mud and blood. The next scene, we observe people having a quiet drink that leads to some karaoke. And the scene after that, a person is being bludgeoned with a bat. You never know what’s coming. It is exciting, amusing, and occasionally creative. I felt the writer-director’s fondness for experimentation. Some risks pay off, some do not. But what matters is that the work is never boring—especially since it has a running time of two hours and twenty minutes. It glides right through.
What I find most ironic about this odd gangster flick is that we get a handful of exchanges between Byung-doo and his superiors. There is much discussion about money, territory, who needs to be killed, and what favors need to be done should someone wish to climb up the ladder. But what’s even more tension-filled is Byung-doo simply trying to connect with a woman who works in a bookstore, Hyun-joo (Lee Bo-young), a childhood friend and crush, how, in a way, he feels he must prove to her that being a gangster is not really who he is.
But is he not? How can Byung-doo expect to convince someone otherwise when a simple thing like getting a phone call from work can completely alter his disposition from a sensitive, loving man to a murderer who makes his victims “disappear”? I found a sadness in Byung-doo and Hyun-joo’s relationship—or whatever it is that they share. Our brains already know there is no way of it ever working out. But our hearts say otherwise. And I think that’s the crux of this film. Just as we fight against our instincts, so does Byung-doo. From this angle, the film gets the story precisely right.
But what of Min-ho? A case can be made that he fights against his instincts, too. Those eyes know that he is constant danger while being surrounded by killers who walk, talk, and laugh just like regular folks on the street. But the artist in him is compelled to tell his subjects’ stories. Surely there is a line he cannot cross. Is he blind to it? Every person we meet here has a blindspot, whether it be family, friends, money, or ambition. Min-ho uses his camera for living. What is he blind to and will it be his undoing?