Notable Cast: Choi Min-sik, Ha Jung-woo, Kwak Do-won, Ma Dong-seok, Kim Sung-kyun, Kim Hye-eun, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Young-sun
During the sort of boom of Korean cinema in the early 2010s, many films came out that I consider to be absolute modern classics, some even masterful pieces of genre film. Among them, and there is a decent amount, would be one in the gangster genre. It has one stellar ensemble cast, including the likes of Choi Min-sik, Kwak Do-won, Ma Dong-seok, who was becoming increasingly popular at the time, and the same could be said for Cho Jin-woong. It is no surprise, but most certainly welcome that Yoon's muse and long-time collaborator, Ha Jung-woo, would also star alongside Choi, making for a fierce dynamic duo that lights up the screen from start to finish. Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time is a bona fide gangster film through and through, and it absolutely deserves to be placed among the best of the best from any period of time in cinema history.
It's the year 1990, and a massive war on crime has been declared by Busan police officials as corruption and criminal activity have soared to an all-time high. We bounce back and forth throughout the '80s and early '90s as we see the rise and fall of Choi Ik-hyun (Choi Min-sik), a customs officer who is near losing his job and completely down on his luck, until one fateful night when he finds himself upon a one-way ticket into the criminal underworld, in which he finds out that he just may be better at than he ever imagined. He teams up with a distant family member Choi Hyung-bae (Ha Jung-woo), who has been in the game for many years. The two hit it off, and Ik-hyun finds himself quickly rising to power, and the things it cost him along the way only seem to make him more powerful in the end. Things get twisty and turny, as you can imagine with any film in the genre, and lies and deceit come into play, and a lot of things are smashed into peoples' skulls as a result, and I mean a whole plethora of objects. I'll just say I can't imagine the amount of glass that a certain character gets embedded into his scalp and how long it must've taken to be dug out. Eesh.
I claimed Nameless Gangster to be among the finest of the genre, and I'll try to express my opinion on that to the best of my ability. While it clearly takes inspiration from films of the past, staples from the likes of Scorsese come to mind; it is the setting, both time and place and the culture that help to give this film a fresh feeling. Nothing about it feels particularly new, but it takes what is already established and the tropes and executes them flawlessly. The acting here is something else. Everyone is so slimy and snakelike, but you have these small moments, especially between Ha Jung-woo and Choi Min-sik, where you see these feelings of compassion and perhaps even love peak through their exterior, and while is brief and ultimately fleeting, I do think these small moments, whether it be a facial expression, or a look in their eyes, just really add some sort of brevity in all of the constant tough guys moments.
Speaking of tough, the gangsters on display here are tough. Bottles, pipes, phones, you name it are bouncing off of someone's head, and more than once. There are so many moments throughout this film where I winced at what I witnessed. None of it is grotesque, nor does it veer into exploitative, but you feel the weight of the violence and ultimately the consequences, or sometimes the lack thereof, depending on who is doing what. These guys are cold and ruthless, and you can't really trust a single character. I love it. I like the soft-hearted gangster tale but also love the cold and methodical by any means necessary type, and that's what you get here. They have their rules and their conduct, but at the end of the day, power is power, and any of these people are willing to do whatever it takes to remain at the top or die trying to climb their way up. No one is safe, which always keeps the stakes high.
The cast here is on another level. South Korea really likes their ensemble pieces and Nameless Gangster just really nailed every choice onscreen. Choi Min-sik is a legend, and no one ever doubts his presence. Honestly, I will say, and I'm not well versed in the Korean language, as I've only studied so deeply, but his accent (Choi's) seems to sort of be here and there, and at times, he just sounded like himself. I could be wrong, but it is something I found more apparent listening this time. That being said, that is a minor gripe, and his actual performance is one for the books. He is just this perfect slimy little snake that slithers his way up the food chain, and it is just great to watch. He is such a crappy character, and I felt he oozed that me against the world persona so well. Ha Jung-woo is the man who is in power and the sort of headpiece of this entire criminal world. He is also a legend in the acting world, and his contributions to Yoon's works are some of his very best. You can see he feels lonely at the top, but also won't hesitate to drop someone where they stand. He has this old-school sense of chivalry about him, and he, in a way, becomes the emotional core of the piece, although this film is never about subtly or emotions very often. There is a scene where he asks someone to light his cigarette, which is some of the most terrifying and intense acting I've seen from Ha.
The others round out the cast, such as Ma Dong-seok, who quickly became even more famous after his tremendous role in The Unjust (2010), and here his comedic chops are on point. His character just cracks me up. Cho Jin-woong, also on his rise in popularity, shines as Kim Pan-ho, a pivotal character in the story, and one that I think helped solidify his place as a respectable performer. I could go on and on about how well everyone does here, but the point has certainly been made by this point. The technical stuff is fantastic, as expected with a Yoon film; as he has continued to grow in popularity, so have his production values and budgets. The soundtrack is excellent and really takes you back. Stay late enough in the end credits, and you even get treated to a cover of I Heard a Rumor by the band Kiha & The Faces, a band that I hold dear to my heart. Everything happening in this film, both on and off screen, is just a chef's kiss.
It's pretty safe to say I have a profound appreciation and love for this film. I absolutely love gangster flicks, and a personal dream of mine is to make one of my own, but I digress. Even if that dream never comes to fruition, I'll be just as satisfied knowing that Yoon Jong-bin and his production team managed to contribute something so unique to the genre. Juggernaut performances, brutal violence, and lots of betrayal and back-stabbing, both mentally and physically on that one, coupled with Yoon's strong direction and attention to detail for the period the film takes place in, sets Nameless Gangster apart from the average film and truly launches it into the stratosphere among the giants of gangster tales as told in cinema. I don't really think there is a single thing I'd change about this film, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I think it is as close to perfect as it could possibly be.
Written by Josh Parmer