At 141 minutes, A Dirty Carnival might be a bit long but director Ha-Yu got a lot accomplished over that time. The movie is a gangster flick and owes its existence to The Godfather, Scarface and Goodfellas. The movie follows a similar plotline as Scarface, where a low level gangster climbs the ladder to success. A Dirty Carnival is blessed with a detailed script, a host of realistic and fully fleshed out characters, and a charismatic and complex lead performance from Jo In-Seong. So, like I said before, a low level gangster moves up the chain in his organization, all the while an old high school friend makes a gangster movie based on his life. When things get a little too realistic in the finished film, both friends find themselves in great danger.
My biggest problem with “gangster” movies is they tend to play follow the leader in terms of style. In the 70’s they were gritty and character driven, the 80’s were far more bombastic and filled with overacting, and ever sine Pulp Fiction was released every film in the genre since then has been content to emulate its fast paced dialogue and heavily edited action sequences. This whole stylization is flat out annoying, not because I don’t like it, but because it is so rare to witness anything else besides it. A Dirty Carnival looks as if it were somber in-your-face Hong Kong crime-cinema intertwined with a little bit of Scorsese. At times, the film even reminds us a bit of a documentary, mainly because of its overlength running time, its carefully drawn characters and the world in which they interact.
I mentioned the movie owes a great deal to The Godfather and there are moments throughout the film that brings that classic movie to memory. The biggest comparison between the two is the music score. Cho Young-wuk composes a score that sounds like it might have been directly lifted from the Francis Ford Coppola film. While brutality, stabbing and blood shed is a dangerous subject in reality, it makes an excellent theme for a movie. The director still allow us to see the more gentle and passionate side of Jo In Seung when he meets his first love and his pouring of his inner feelings and sharing his dark secrets with his good friend Min Ho acted by Nam Gung Min.
This balancing of elements is strikingly similar to what Yu acheived with Once Upon A Time In High School, his previous film, and it’s not hard to see this effort as a logical extension of that film, with this life of crime being a logical end for many of the hardscrabble youth in his earlier film. He may not look like your average badass gangster, but during the scenes in which he jumps at his enemies with a wild look on his face, almost making us believe that he has gone insane eventually, we don’t really care about this anymore, as he is really convincing during these moments. The gang here isn’t the point, not at all. The people are. The gang environment simply allows Yu a setting within which to say something about ambition, family, love and betrayal. The plot of this film is all too familiar for me and even thought it’s been told before, and told better, it is done well enough here to receive a passing grade.