An Evil Eye into Korean Society – Nameless Gangster with Choi Nim-Sik

Min-Sik Choi is the godfather of the Korean actors guild. He established himself as a cult hero with his role in Oldboy (2003) and I Saw the Devil (2010).

At the Lincoln Center during the the New York Asian Film Festival 2012, Mr. Choi appeared as the leading guest of the festival speaking in Korean. Toward the end of Nameless Gangster, Mr. Choi sends his son to the US with the words ‘English makes you number 1’ and perhaps Mr. Choi is too big for Korea too. With his role in Nameless Gangster or The Golden Age of Crime he proves himself the leading actor transcending Korean cinema.

The director Jong-Bin Yoon is a fan of both Martin Scorsese and Mr. Choi, and the protagonist’s name Ik-hyun Choi (played by Mr. Choi) refers to Mr. Choi, according to the producer. Min-Sik Choi and Jung-Woo Ha (playing the role of Hyung-bae Choi) play two characters whose mind and muscle combine to form the leading mafia gang. Set amidst the economic boom of the 80s while Korea prepares for the Olympics, corruption is in its Golden Age of Crime. Choi is a corrupt customs officer without anything left to loose, in the port-city of Busan, a smaller and less worldly city than Seoul. When Choi stumbles upon ten kilos of heroine, he tries to sell it to local gangster Hyung-bae Choi. The two opportune men meet by chance but discover their clan relationship which binds them to the strict formal social rules of Korean culture.

The impossible combination of the lawlessness of crime and the lawfulness of the clan offers them the protection that makes up Korea’s corrupt society. The greater association of the clan makes both men bigger than each is on his own. It is therefore difficult to say what the director’s commentary is, if he is even making a statement about Korean society at all.
Nameless Gangster drew a record breaking crowd of 1 million visitors in the first few days in Korea. The character played by Min-Sik Choi is a half-ass gangster, not tough enough for the vicious gangsters but with enough connections and greed to fit in. The character’s opportunism, their lack of scruples and at the same time their bondage to their social environment is reminiscent of Guy de Maupassant’s Bel-Ami or Nicolai Gogol’s Deal Souls.

Though the movie does not explicitly make a statement about the role of hierarchy in Korean culture, it is hard to not read any social criticism into the movie, intended or not.
But whatever the statement is, it makes clear that Korean society is not easy to navigate. Even gangsters must adhere to certain rules and cannot get away with a complete lack of confirmation, which is perhaps one of the reasons why despite the violent character of the gangster, no one gets killed in the movie.

The movie is not simply a great gangster movie that competes with Hollywood blockbusters by Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, it is also a fabulous introduction into Korean culture. The movie proves the importance of hierarchy in Korea, set against an interesting even if corrupt period of Korea as an emerging democracy, accompanied by the catchy tunes of popular 80s songs by Chung-Awa Ham or So Bang Cha (Fire Engine).

Chung-Awa Ham – I’ve heard it from the Wind

So Bang Cha – Last Night (1988)

Facebook page of the New York Asian Film Festival 2012
Lincoln Center – Walter Reade Theater

July 4th, 2012 by