A tale of Gangnam's grim history

BLOOD BROTHERS: Jong Dae (Lee, right) and Yong Gi (Kim) are childhood friends who end up in opposing gangs in 1970.


    Jan 29, 2015

    A tale of Gangnam's grim history


    Crime action/135 minutes/Opens today

    The story:

    Set in 1970, this noir flick follows impoverished childhood friends Jong Dae (Lee Min Ho) and Yong Gi (Kim Rae Won), whose paths diverge only to meet again after three years. By then, both are gangsters serving rival bosses, each vying for control of Gangnam.

    A WAVE of nostalgia has swept through South Korea. In variety shows, TV dramas and films, the 70s, 80s and even 90s are making a comeback as people seek to relive the glory days.

    Gangnam Blues (known in South Korea as Gangnam 1970), however, suggests a different kind of reflection on the past.

    With no intention of painting a pretty picture, director Yoo Ha's noir film reveals the dark history behind Seoul's now most affluent district, taking viewers back to a time when the fashionable stage of Gangnam Style was no more than a vegetable patch.

    Reminding us of an era ridden with corruption and violence, Gangnam Blues splashes cold water on our nostalgia for "simpler times".

    The audience is, of course, given the occasional pleasure of scenes of quaint premodern Seoul streets. Parts of the movie run like a long retro music video, featuring the velvety tunes and nightclubs of the era.

    For the most part, however, a darker reality reigns.

    Actor Lee Min Ho sheds the designer suits and thick Prince Charming curls of his The Heirs character, transforming into brooding, soot-faced orphan Jong Dae. Fellow orphan and housemate Yong Gi (Kim Rae Won) is like a brother to him.

    Growing up, Jong Dae inevitably turns to the underworld for fast money. He gets caught up in an all-out maniacal pursuit of Gangnam real estate involving gallons of spilt blood, bare-knuckle murders and as many casualties as a small civil war.

    When counselled to not turn to crime, Jong Dae replies: "I make less than 50 won sewing all day at the factory. When do I find the time to live like a human being?"

    Gangnam Blues is an allegory. It makes no attempt to bring glamour to either the mafia underworld or the high-ranking government powers - only revulsion. There are no thrilling action sequences, only unrefined fist-fighting; no thugs with hidden hearts of gold, only ruthless, savage self-interest.

    The film's theme is best summed up in a mass fight scene that takes place at a funeral, in a rain-soaked, muddy field. All parties thrash about wildly with crude weapons, tangled in a pool of blood, rainwater and red earth.

    "That scene represents the obsession over land: land from which we are born, to which we return when we die," Yoo explained. "It is a feast of all things wretched."

    Gangnam Blues is a fitting end to the director's "street series" trilogy, each more bleak than the last.