Gangnam Blues 강남 1970 (2015) Korean movie review

Gangnam Blues (2015) Korean movie review

 강남 1970 리뷰

#GangnamBlues #Gangnam1970 #LeeMinLee #KimRaeWon #SeolHyun #LeeYeonDoo #KimJiSu #Kmovie

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Watching Korean movies feel like time travelling in a way because they remind me so much of movies I saw from the mid 80s to early 90s.   In a lot of ways, “Gangnam Blues” (2015) takes the Quentin Tarantino approach of heavily cribbing from the past movies of his youth. The difference between “Gangnam Blues” (2015)  and Quentin Tarantino is that Quentin Tarantino has his own style overall. “Gangnam Blues” (2015) on the other hand does not.

Whether this is a serious sin for a movie is debatable. Is just being a decent scrapbook of other better movies from 30 years ago something to turn your nose away from? My answer to this question is somewhat yes..? While it is not so much of an issue for making a decent film, I do think that you cannot make a great film with this approach.

The plot
One thing that you have to know from “Gangnam Blues” (2015) is that it is filled with all the tropes and cliché you would expect from a “Gangster” genre movie especially from the mid 80s. “Gangnam Blues” (2015) is a story about fictional people placed in the backdrop of events that mirrors what happened in Korea for real.

It is early 70s Korea and the country was relatively poor since it was only about 15 years after the end of the Korean War. I think it was the early middle period of the Military dictatorship era where there were huge efforts towards economic growth on the part of the government. The down side of this is that there was a lot of corruption and ties between the government officials and local political gangs ran deep.

While this seems like the typical setting for an American mobster tale, the one thing you have to keep in mind is that, unlike the American mobster tale, the government was always the stronger partner in this Korean gangster tale. And this is actually an important plot point.

So, to the movie itself.

You have two orphans who grew up like brothers played by Lee Min-Ho and Kim Rae-Won. In their 20s, they get separated and both end up in the gangster life. The difference is that Kim Rae-Won’s character ends up in the larger political gangs and thus is a colder “killer” and more of the black hat while Lee Min-Ho is more of the white hate because he is in a more “Humanitarian” small local gang. So, while these two are the leads, the one in the small local gang is more of the movie’s central protagonist.

After years of being separated, the two meet while doing their gangster stuff. All the things you expect from this setup occur. There is an older gangster who wants to get out of the life but can’t. There is a gangster who is dating his boss’s girlfriend. There is murder and betrayal. The two protagonists end up as enemies. There is an end movie twist which you can predict from a mile away that tries to put the gangster life in perspective of the larger political story.

As plots go for this type of genre movie, “Gangnam Blues” (2015) has nothing particularly new to offer. However, being new or creative is not particularly this movie’s stronger aspects.

Being a gangster movie
Gangnam Blues” (2015) is heavily influenced by Martin Scorsese movies of the mobster genre and Hong Kong mobster movies of the same era. For a person who was never really into that scene while growing up, do not ask me to point specific movie references out.

However, there is a real sense of familiarity with the movie. For one, the movie looks like a 80s Hong Kong movie. While there are no doves flying around and no gun porn, you do have a lot of walking in heavy rain and fighting in heavy rain scenes.

I counted about 5 rain scenes and most do not really need to set in the rain. They are in the movie to look cool and act as references to better classical movies.

The basic character setup of the movie also copies a lot from the emotionally manipulative character dynamics based on familial bond you see a lot in Hong Kong movies. You see tons of brother versus brother gangster movies coming out of Hong Kong during the 80s. This is also replicated in “Gangnam Blues” (2015) although oddly enough the protagonists are not familial brothers.

This is where the Scorsese movie influences do come into play I think. None of the main characters actually want to get out the life style. None of the important characters are cops or even good guys. “Gangnam Blues” (2015) in a lot of ways is about the life style which is more of a Scorsese movie thing that a Hong Kong movie thing I think.

And this is actually the more interesting thing about “Gangnam Blues” (2015). It is not the characters and their melodrama but the life style and the bigger political story being told. It is like in Casino (1995) with the back drop of Las Vegas being a character in the movie.  With “Gangnam Blues” (2015), you have the mix of poverty, tension, change, energy, wealth, and corruption which actually becomes the most interesting character in the movie.

I’ll get to that later!

The Casting
Another thing that is Scorsese-like or more accurately American gangster movie like is that this movie is made to star both young Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. If you compare the two, they feel similar in a lot of ways but, at the same time, feel different. “Gangnam Blues” (2015) goes for this with its casting of Lee Min-Ho and Kim Rae-Won.

In “Gangnam Blues” (2015), you are meant to get the emotional bond between the two characters because they feel so similar. At the same time, the difference between the characters’ personalities is meant to divide them and pit them against each other. It is not the circumstance they are in but who they are that is meant to be the reason for the tragedy.

The problem with this is that these two actors are too similar while both being not great enough actors to differentiate themselves with sheer acting talent alone. During the first few scenes, I could not really differentiate between them. This does not mean that these younger Korean actors who have mostly done Korean dramas before are terrible. However, I would call them just “not bad” but with a slap on their backs.

It does not help that the screenplay does not do a great job with character development. The story does require subtle scenes to convey the inner workings of the two characters who will eventually confront each other. However, the script relies on the actors to convey this purely by acting which is not something possible with Lee Min-Ho and Kim Rae-Won. It may have worked with young Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.

What a dream team?!
Jung Jin-Young

Eom Hyo-Seop

Leaving Lee Min-Ho and Kim Rae-Won aside who are actually the weakest link in terms of acting talent in the movie, “Gangnam Blues” (2015) has a lot of talent in the cast that actually compensates for a screenplay that is lacking on character development. For some shout outs, Jung Jin-Young plays an old local gang boss that wants to get out of the life. He is great as usual. Eom Hyo-Seop plays the KCIA head and is great for the role.

The screenplay
This is one of the screenplays which try to marry 2 levels of stories. On the bottom but at the core of the screenplay, you have your cliché gang story which has nothing really new to it. On top, you have a high level political game between at least two politicians and a head of the Korean CIA surrounding the real estate development deal of a huge portion of land which includes what we call Gangnam now.  Gangnam in Korean is just “South of the river or River south”.

And to the credit of the screenplay, the two stories do mesh better than can be expected. The problem is that a lot of the character development is sacrificed in order to do that. Thus, more of the characters’ weight is put on the actors and the director. They almost pulled it off but the main leads are too green for that as a mentioned before.

The other problem with the screenplay is that it is not always good at conveying important information concisely regarding the higher level story. Even if you pay attention while watching the movie, you need to extrapolate more than should be required to do so because of lack of information about complex schemes. In contrast, the lower story does not require this amount of attention since it is generic and thus easily predictable.

The overall package is not bad. It lack in certain places but work more than not because of the actors and director.

The action
For this type of movie, you would want to know about the action. For one, the movie is violent and shows blood. However, it does try to reduce the level of gore on screen with stylized means. I am not sure I agree with this approach.

 “Gangnam Blues” (2015) approach to the action scenes are less stylized like Hong Kong movies and go for the “Gangs of New York” style brawling approach. Most of the damage is done via wielding a four by four or using stabbing knives. There is a lot of stabbing in this movie. It made me think why is no one wearing armor?

Overall, the action is well executed but forgettable. You will not remember any specific action scene in this movie except for the battle in the mud scene but even that is starting to fad from my brain. I think I saw that exact scene before in some other movie.

The Score
Gangnam Blues” (2015) is the third Korean movie in the last few months that I notice had cribbed the scores of movies they were heavily “referencing” from. Music is not my area of interest so I cannot name them exactly but I am sure I heard them before in an American gangster movie and Hong Kong movies.

One of the more blatant cribbing can be seen from the fact that the main ending song is a Mandarin language song made famous by a Hong Kong movie almost 30 years ago.

What were my thoughts of “Gangnam Blues” (2015) coming out of the screening? I was seriously pondering whether to give this movie a B+ or A-.

The movie is a solidly constructed 3 act story. It is nice to see a Korean movie with a proper 3 act structure and not a 4 or 5 act one. The pacing is brisk as a result of this which is nice to not get bored in the middle even though the movie was predictable.

At the same time, the cribbing from past movies does hurt the movie a lot in my opinion. A solid movie like this should be better than what I feel it is. In other words, I should not be pondering about giving a B+.

In addition, the ending doesn’t really work as well as it should be. I think that the movie overreached at that point. You may know what I am saying if you see the ending. The problem lies with the balance between the lower level story and the higher level story. The movie does need to have a slightly better focus on one and keep that focus rather than meandering between the two especially at the end.

 “Gangnam Blues” (2015) is much better than your worst fears but not as good as your highest expectations. Rather, it is decently made movie in the so called “Gangster” genre and nothing more. It should have been a classic in its genre but needed to be more original and less “referential”.

However, it is an extremely solid genre movie. I give it a score of B+.

Score: B+ or 7.5/10

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  1. Actually, the ending theme is a Filipino song called Anak (Trans: son).

  2. I don't understand what the ending is about. Honestly, I watched it at least 5 times and i still have no understanding of it!

    1. It's is like street gangs are lessor bad guys than bigger ones who are the government.
      That is why the government had the gangs all killed at the end.