The second film in my fourth match-up in the second round of the 90s Far East Bracket isn’t your typical gangster film!
Written By: Chang-dong Lee
Directed By: Chang-dong Lee
I like when films come across as fresh or different. That isn’t enough for me to like a film mind you. But, I like it when I come away from a film with thoughts in my head centered around how what I just saw was quite unique. Chorok Mulkogi is not without its flaws, but if nothing else it is a unique film. The director and writer, Chang-dong Lee, takes what could have been a very pedestrian and well traveled story and adds some flavor to it in the form of the choices his characters make.
The main character in Chorok Mulkogi, Makdong, wants a simple life for his entire family. The problem is that Makdong and his entire family have more than a few screws loose. Virtually every choice they make is the wrong one. Sometimes sadness results, sometimes hilarity results (a chase scene involving an egg truck and a cop car is perhaps one of the funniest scenes I’ve seen in a bit), but no matter what this family does nothing seems to go right for them. I say that having spent very little time with Makdong’s family, but in the little we see of them they make pretty bad decisions. When you add those to the constant stream of bad decisions from Makdong, well, you end up with a family where nothing ever goes right. Of course, none of the decisions in the movie hold a candle to Makdong’s worst decision.
All for a girl, and for his family, Makdong takes on the life of a gangster. This is the part of the story that we’ve seen before. I know I’ve seen my share of gangster movies centered around the former soldier who becomes a gangster. The difference in what Mr. Lee does with his soldier is startling. Makdong isn’t crazy in a scary way as much as he is crazy in an idiotic way. He’s also almost always getting his ass kicked, he isn’t your typical tough guy soldier turned gangster. But, there’s still more to Makdong, he doesn’t really want to be a gangster. He shows remorse in the actions he takes, he doesn’t quite understand what it means to be a gangster. There isn’t a moment in Chorok Mulkogi where I honestly thought Makdong was happy being a gangster. This is where Mr. Lee takes a story we’ve seen before to a fresh place.
The character of Mi-ae isn’t so lucky. She fits the bill for the classic gangster’s girlfriend to a T. But, even with that being the case she has a few delightfully awkward scenes with Makdong that make her character interesting. Mi-ae also owns the final scene in Chorok Mulkogi, and I means owns it. One of the films flaws brings us to that moment, but when we do get there the acting displayed by Hye-jin Shim is pure, raw emotion. Seong-kun Mun is also quite good as Bae Tae-kon, a mob boss who doesn’t really want to be a mob boss.
Chorok Mulkogi falters in the thirty minutes before its final act and in a stream of constant luck and happenstance that surrounds the picture. With about a half an hour left in the film Mr. Lee makes a curious decision to push Makdong into the background. Bae is an interesting character no doubt, but it wasn’t his picture and by all of a sudden thrusting him into the lead those final thirty minutes feel disjointed. The luck and happenstance I spoke of earlier comes across like lazy writing. Maybe it isn’t, but I felt there were far too many instances of blind luck or coincidence leading to something happening on screen.
Like I said earlier, Chorok Mulkogi is a flawed film. But, at the same time it is a unique experience. (At least it was for me, I was surprised to find out after I had written this that others felt it was a story told many times over. Maybe there are gangster films that cover the same territory and I have yet to get to them, but for the time being Chorok Mulkogi provided a unique take on the soldier becoming a gangster as far as I am concerned). Chorok Mulkogi isn’t a movie that will set your world on fire, even if that screenshot I grabbed is some piece of hot fire. Chorok Mulkogi is a competently made gangster tale, with some family drama and some comedy thrown into the mix. It doesn’t always work, but it often does, and those moments where it does work far outweigh the moments where it doesn’t work.