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  • 18
  • Action, Crime
  • 2006
  • 92 mins

The City Of Violence

The City Of Violence

Synopsis

Seung-Wan Ryoo's nostalgia-tinged action pastiche sees friends reunited and violence committed in a corrupt Korean town

About

After a man's unexpected death, his four oldest friends come back together to chew over old times, reassess their childhood dreams, and take stock of where their lives have brought them.

It is a familiar enough story, but unlike the baby-boomer drama of The Big Chill (1983) or the dumbed-down comedy of Without A Paddle (2004), this film chooses stylised violence as the vehicle to express its bittersweet brand of nostalgia. After all The City Of Violence not only stars, but is also written, directed and produced by Ryoo Seung-Wan, whose previous films (including Crying Fist from 2005) have all explored different facets of the action genre.

Seoul police detective Tae-Su (Jung Doo-Hong) returns to his hometown of Onsung for the funeral of Wang-Jae (Ahn Kil-Kang), and is reunited for the first time in years with his three other schoolmates, Seok-Hwan (Ryoo Sung-Wan), Pil-Ho (Lee Beom-Seo) and Dong-Wan (Joeng Soek-Yong). But there is something rotten in Onsung, and as Tae-Su and Seok-Hwan muscle their way through the local gangs to find out how their friend was killed, they unravel a perfidious plot involving the small-town corruption and big-town ambition of one of their closest friends.

If Quentin Tarantino borrowed extensively from Asian cinema of the 1960s and 1970s for his revenge diptych Kill Bill, then The City Of Violence, along with Kim Ji-Woon's A Bittersweet Life before it, reclaims the debt in full.

Here Ryoo's climactic sequence, in which a vengeful Tae-Su and Seok-Hwan take on all comers in a dining pavilion, draws its imagery from the Bride's bloody onslaught on the Crazy 88 at the close of Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Yet Ryoo focuses far more on the suffering that his protagonists must endure than on the punishments that they mete out, so that while his violence is every bit as much in the comic-book style as Tarantino's, it never seems quite as sadistic.

Ryoo's homages to Western cinema end do not end here. An earlier scene in which the pair are confronted by army after army of teen gangs, each with their own image and style, is a hilariously improbable evocation of Walter Hill's The Warriors (1979), while many of the film's battles take place against a brassy Mexican soundtrack that is reminiscent of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western.

These characters seem as incapable of escaping outside influences as their town (torn apart by the construction of a new casino) or even their own nation (both elevated and corrupted by the forces of globalisation). As Pil-Ho so succinctly puts it: "Korea's finally become an advanced country, like in American TV shows."

It is all just another strand of the nostalgia that courses through The City Of Violence. Ryoo's characters are doomed to a past whose promises they cannot fulfill, and to a present that brings only abject disappointment or murderous treachery - and its final line is a resigned "Fuck it!"

Not that Ryoo's film is all bleakness and despair. On the contrary, it is shot through with an absurdist sense of humour, and plenty of cliche-trouncing surprises. Lee Beom-Su, better known for his comic roles, makes for a mesmerisingly atypical villain - a ruthless, permed megalomaniac whose ego is eclipsed only by the chip on his shoulder, and who insists to the end that he is the wronged party, not his hapless victims. It is a performance made all the more menacing by its bumbling banality.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Ki-Cheon Kim, Seo-Hyung Kim, Ju-Shil Lee, Seung-Hwan Ryoo, Soek-Yong Joeng, Doo-Hong Jung, Beom-Su Lee, Duck-Hyun Cho, Kil-Kang Ahn, Byeong-Ok Kim
  • Director: Ryoo Seung-Wan
  • Writer: Jeong-Min Kim, Ryoo Seung-Wan, Won-Jae Lee
  • Producer: Jeong-Min Kim, Ryoo Seung-Wan
  • Photographer: Yeong-Cheol Kim
  • Composer: Jun-Seok Bang

In a nutshell

Knowingly derivative, Ryoo's action-driven elegy is nevertheless full of surprises - not least of which is its relative restraint.

by Anton Bitel

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