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‘Paid in Blood’ (review)

Paid in Blood is a Korean gangster thriller.

That descriptor alone is enough to create some excitement.

For the last twenty years, South Korea has taken up the banner that Hong Kong held for so long: the southeast Asian cinema that creates both thoughtful art films and crowd pleasing action and horror films. Watching a new Korean thriller recalls the memories of first seeing Oldboy, I Saw The Devil, The Man From Nowhere, and New World. A new Korean thriller is the proverbial box of chocolates.

Unfortunately, in this case, Paid in Blood does not rise to the level of these previous classics, mostly due to a first act where the thrust of the story is unclear due to the number of characters and stories being juggled, and the decision to drop the viewer in the middle of an existing.

I watched the film three times for the purposes of this review and it was only on the third viewing that I felt like I had a handle on the basic relationships between the major characters.

Other gangster thrillers of recent memory like the aforementioned New World and Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage similarly drop the viewer in the deep end early but wisely anchor their openings in important blocks of exposition to ensure that we’re able to navigate the troubled waters. In the script’s favor there are some amazing pieces of dialogue and a biting satirical wit.

The sight of a merciless professional gangster telling his subordinates, “not to disgrace the city that’s hosting the Olympics” has a Coenesque verve that survived the subtitle translation.

That said, once the film gets going there are some magnificent betrayals and a (literal) show-stopper of climax built around some highly entertaining knife fights. The stylized bloodletting, to this reviewer, recalls the Cantonese Triad films before John Woo’s heroic bloodshed films like Hong Kong Godfather that were similarly built around the edge of the blade rather than tricky gunplay. Yu Oh-seong acquits himself well as Min Seok, a Yakuza whose tenuous relationship with the other families under his Chairman is threatened when he is given a lucrative resort to manage. That said this movie lives and dies with Jang Hyuk (the star of last year’s excellent The Swordsman) as a fatalistic hitman who has decided to make terminal edits to the familial structure of the Seoul Yakuza. The film builds up to some truly shocking turns and culminates in a sequence where Hyuk confronts an entire gang on his own that feels like Johnnie To directing James Dean.

Jang is electric: he gets all the best lines (“”Everything in this world is already owned by someone. So I have two options. Either kill and steal, or do something too dangerous that others don’t do.”); he simmers with insolent rage in negotiations; he erupts in stretches of brutal violence. He is an absolute delight, and even when I was lost in the forest of the plot, I was always pretty sure I wanted to follow the path he was on. The finale is a testament to his immense charisma and between this and The Swordsman, he has marked himself as an actor to take note of in the future. I’ll see whatever this guy’s in.

Director Yoon Young-bin makes his directorial debut here and he’s got promise. The photography has weight, the lighting is dynamic, and the action is well-staged. He gets good performances from his cast, and though he wears his influences on his sleeve, one has high hopes that his voice will round into form and find itself as his career progresses. It’s a shame he was saddled with a script that is so dense in its earliest sections, because I really feel like some moments are so well constructed visually that they would have had a greater impact had we been able to get a handle on why they were happening.

Paid in Blood is not a new classic of Korean cinema. It is, however, a stylish and well staged gangster film with some moments of genius. If you’re a fan of the genre give it a look.

3 out of 5 stars.

Paid in Blood premieres today on Hi-YAH!; Available on Digital HD July 26

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Lee Chan-Nam
Written and Directed by Yoon Young-bin
Starring Yu Oh-Seong, Jang Hyuk, Park Sung-Geun, Oh Dae-Hwan,
Lee Hyun-Kyun, Shin Seung-Hwan, Song Young-Kyu,
Kim Jun-Bae, Lee Chae-Young, Han Sun-Hwa 


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