New World Review
By Bret Dorman
Korean cinema has done well for itself over the past couple of years. So much so that Hollywood is tapping its filmmakers for its own movies (The Last Stand, Snowpiercer, Stoker). But where does that leave Korean cinema? Will it be the same exciting place to find new stories with a bit of ultra-violence/crazy twists, or will it start mirroring the stuff we see in the big leagues to try and get drafted quicker?
In the case of New World, it’s a bit of both old and new. Its a reliable story of undercover cops in a mob setting, using standard cliches to get its melodramatic points across, but none of that gets in the way of the crystal clear cinematography and sharp style.The Story: Ja-sung (Lee Jeong-jae) is an undercover cop who must navigate his way around a mob boss election and his handler’s desire for him to take over the syndicate. Things predictably start to unravel around him because as it turns out gang members aren’t the easiest to manipulate. Also, there’s a crazy big-ass gang fight thrown in just for good measure.
At first I found myself asking “Why this movie? Why now?” New World seems like very familiar ground. It doesn’t seem to add anything new to the genre thematically. But then I remembered a discussion I had with someone from Korea about another Korean movie (and its use of phantom pregnancies, as well as phantom pregnancies in Asian movies in general) as well as a day later I talked to a young black woman about Tyler Perry’s Temptation . So I guess my point is every once in a while I need to be humbly reminded that not everyone tries to watch and analyze every movie from such a filmmaking/critical point of view. Some movies are made to appeal to certain demographics who may not otherwise see the kinds of stories people like myself see all the time. Fortunately for New World, despite the familiarity, the execution really is top notch.Even though the movie meanders a bit and clocks in at 2 hours and 14 minutes, I can appreciate how Ja-sung is the primary focus. We don’t get to see both sides of his story, just mostly the crime aspect and then glimpses of the pressure from his handlers. In fact, he knows there are other undercovers in the operation but he doesn’t know who they are. This helps when things tense up and “extreme interrogation methods” are used on exposed rats, but also adds to the sense of blurring the lines of good and bad because at any point while Ja-sung is carrying out his duties he could be hindering his own op or even hurting fellow officers.
As Ja-sung climbs to mob ladder he gets more and more confused on his role as a mole. Is he there to report on how the crime organization works? Or carry out the dirty work that the police can’t legally perform? Choi Min-sik perfectly embodies that grey area as he unempathetically gives orders, congratulations, and condolences.The bad guys aren’t without their “characters” as well. Hwang Jeong-min as Ja-sung’s “best friend” plays the most exaggerated and goofy of the bunch, but as he becomes more of a threat so does his persona. The Korean language itself lends a great slurring blasse attitude that allows everyone in a scene to downplay the stakes. Perhaps this is part of the style or just my American ears, but I found it interesting regardless. Also, every scene is overly populated with body guards, posses, and entourages. When there is a meeting or casual scene, there are anywhere from 8-12 people in the room. This makes the one on one scenes significantly more intense, as you feel the characters are keeping secrets from everyone else or are at risk of getting caught. Additionally on the subject of bad guys, there is a group “hobos” or something that act completely out of place and add a bit of strange lightness to scenes where other people or even themselves are getting killed.
Lastly, while the movie does open on one dude’s face after a brutal beating, the movie is pretty tame in terms of violence. The movie doesn’t go out of its way to feature fight scenes and none of the violence is gratuitous. However, at one moment, there is a giant gang fight where one member and his troupe is severely outnumbered. Yet, this guy manages to escape to an elevator and is confronted by a bunch of his enemies, everyone armed with a knife. What proceeds is one of the craziest knife fights I’ve ever seen on film, and a scene definitely worthy of being involved in a discussion of Top Elevator Fight Scenes. Kudos to Director Park Hoon-jung for making the few moments really count and allowing everything else to settle without urgency.
In Conclusion, I know I keep saying this, but in the moment I couldn’t help but feel a bit frustrated and even bored by the average mundaneness of New World. At a certain point you just accept the fact that for the sake of plot twists and “oh snap!” moments, anyone could be a cop or a mole or a triple ‘agent’, or a quadruple ‘agent’, or whatever else the filmmakers want to throw in there. But all the while the film never fails to give you something beautiful to look at while allowing the actors to make the roles their own. In the end I’ll go one the side of generosity and say if foreign cops and robbers movies are your thing, this is worth checking out.
Final Grade: B-
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