A recent film noir called “Nameless Gangster” is set in the 1980s and the ‘90s when corruption and outlaws were so rampant that the government declared a war against crime.
In 1982 in Busan, the southeastern port city of Korea, customs officer Choi Ik-hyeon faces losing his job after being charged with corruption. Anxious about supporting his family, Ik-hyeon dares to smuggle drugs that he happened to discover at a warehouse. He meets a young street gangster Choi Hyeong-bae who has connections with the Yakuza. It turns out the young gangster is Ik-hyeon’s distant cousin. Using the ties of kinship, Ik-hyeon quickly forms a partnership with the influential gangster boss. The young Choi helps his partner do business with the money from drug trafficking while the old Choi lobbies for his cousin. The combination of the two bad guys, one using his brain and the other using brawn, is perfect for business in the dark noir world of corruption and crime. Their business flourishes. When the government declares a war on crime in 1990, however, their partnership begins to collapse and mutual trust wanes. Betrayal and mean tricks become so common and the gangsters fight among themselves in order to survive. Who will have the last laugh in the bloody battle?
What makes this film distinctive is its lead character, Choi Ik-hyeon. He is unquestionably a bad guy. The corrupt villain has no qualms about telling lies and never hesitates to manipulate people and even betray his closest partner when necessary. But at the same time, he is a father of three kids. He feels no shame or guilt about what he is doing because he believes it is the only way to support his family.
This layered villain isn’t a typical character shown in many gangster films. Rather, the role of his young cousin is more fitting for a gangster movie, as the charismatic gang boss strictly follows his own rules and remains loyal to the very end. But this character seems like a supporting role in this movie. The film focuses more on the complex villain, whom the audiences can neither like nor hate. As described in the film as “bandal,” literally meaning “a half-gangster,” the baddie is neither an ordinary citizen nor a gang member. The film portrays how this awkward figure, kind of stuck in the middle, lived through the turbulent times.
“Nameless Gangster” drew special attention even before it was released, as it stars big-name actors, such as Choi Min-sik who is famous for his role in the award-winning thriller “Oldboy” and Ha Jung-woo, who successfully performed the role of a brutal murderer in the 2008 suspense thriller “The Chaser.” Veteran actor Choi is said to have put on 10 kilograms for his role as the corrupt lobbyist in “Nameless Gangster” and Ha spent eight hours putting on fake body tattoos.
The movie leads the viewers to ponder whether and how the current Korean society has changed since the 1980s, when undesirable practices such as regionalism, school relations and kinship were very prevalent. A film critic says the film discloses another inconvenient truth of the previous generation—an unpleasant legacy that the next generation is reluctant to inherit.