Yoo Ha's "A Dirty Carnival" is sometimes a sprawling epic of gangster politics, sometimes an intimate study of a handful of friends and family. The film is not afraid to be overly familiar - its opening theme paraphrases the music of "The Godfather"; the screenplay namechecks "Scarface"; one brutal sequence stirs up memories of "Oldboy" - yet writer/director Yoo shows no interest in merely photocopying the classics. His film is boldly playful in unexpected spots, deeply touching in others. Oh, and the whole damn thing's about a half hour too long.
By stretching out the drama to a full 141 minutes, Yoo (whose previous film was the bloody coming-of-age tale "Once Upon a Time in High School") waters down the whole affair, allowing his points to ramble far past necessary. Such a ramble means his movie lacks focus; it has problems reconciling its manic, vicious energy with its softer character moments. Then again, that may be the point: "Carnival" studies gangsters forced to reconcile conflicting aspects of their own lives.
Byung-Doo (Zo In-Sung) struggles to care for an ill mother, a soft-spoken sister, and a younger brother eager to raise hell with the neighborhood hooligans. He's also the head of a local mob family, a scrappy group of hoods who gather daily for group dinners - a key part of family unity, Byung teaches his underlings, is to share the same table - and wild karaoke parties. As the film starts, the poor guy can barely pay rent, but at least he looks good: he reminds his fellow mobsters that in gangland, impressions are better than full stomachs.
Things get complicated (both for the characters and for the viewer stuck trying to keep up with all of them) when Byung, tired of being overlooked by his immediate mob boss, turns to a higher ranking gangster for help. Eventually, our anti-hero partakes in some rough assassination, which helps him move up the mob ladder, even if it makes him a target for other gangsters unhappy with his new success.
In another film, this would be enough: the gangster's rise, in all its gritty, glamorized glory. But Yoo is instead interested in the more personal side of this story, and so we watch as Byung struggles to come to grips with violence. Here, Byung and his boys have no problem getting in fights (including a show-stopping brawl involving pipes, aluminum bats, dozens of combatants, and a whole lot of mud, a frenzied bit of cinematic rage that gives the movie a jolt right when it needs it), but the idea of actually killing isn't something our anti-hero was ready to encounter.
More complications: two old friends return to Byung's life. One is a filmmaker eager to trail Byung and his crew in order to research a gangster movie he wants to make. The other is an old sweetheart now working in a bookstore and who may not be ready to accept Byung as the rough-and-tumble type.
Both story threads are fascinating character pieces, but having these plotlines stacked on top of everything else only bogs down the project. Yoo is aiming for epic, but too often, all he gets is muddled. The best example of this is in the filmmaker subplot. We eventually see the finished film, which allows the movie to go meta by presenting film-within-the-film versions of scenes we've already watched; it's a clever touch, as are the winking commentaries about the non-reality of modern action cinema and the dangers that follow for the filmmaker, but none of this ever quite seems to gel with Byung's rise-to-the-middle main storyline.
Ah, but there's so much energy, either from the aggressive fight sequences or from Byung's emotional journey, that not even a packed-too-tightly screenplay can dampen the eventual mood. Add to this, then, Zo's often brilliant central performance, one that relies on great shifts in mood, from light and warm to angst-ridden. Yoo's film may not be a knockout, but it's still one hell of a punch, oddly funny, thoughtfully somber, and insanely hyper, often all at once.
Other than a few festival screenings, "A Dirty Carnival" was never theatrically released in the U.S. Genius Entertainment's DVD marks the movie's Region 1 debut.
Video & Audio
"Carnival" is a beautifully shot film, and this anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer does it justice. Colors are deep, blacks are lush. Darker scenes have a hint of grain.
The original Korean soundtrack is equally powerful with its Dolby 5.1 treatment, making great use of the surround feature without overwhelming the dialogue. Optional English subtitles are offered.
"Making of the Action Scenes" (36:14) combines behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage and cast and crew interviews in revealing the creation of five of the movie's most memorable fight sequences (among them an innovative battle inside a car). Consider it a primer on the art of the action scene. Presented in 1.33:1 full frame with film clips properly letterboxed.
Nine deleted scenes (8:36 total) expand on several scenes and/or themes, most of which are unnecessary to the final product. Presented letterboxed with visible time code.
Despite being too padded for its own good, "A Dirty Carnival" is still an exciting entry in the gangster genre, and fans will thrill to the mix of human drama and harsh brutality. Recommended.