Director: Park Hoon-jung
Cast: Uhm Tae-goo, Jeon Yeo-been, Cha Seung-won, Lee Ki-young, Park Ho-san
Streaming on: Netflix
I was starting to get a bit worried. The mainstreamization of South Korean culture is nice, but it’s been running the risk of wiping out the traditional genre mastery that had garnered the region its artistic cult status to begin with. Perhaps the proud cinephile circles and gore junkies – who tirelessly discovered Asian violence-porn epics two decades before the world woke up to the region through Parasite – were busy planning a coup of the normie universe whose modern idea of South Korea is limited to Oscar-nominated family dramas, arthouse satires, K-dramas and BTS. As it turns out, there’s no need to panic. All is well. There will always be blood. Night in Paradise, I Saw The Devil writer Park Hoon-jung’s new mobster movie, is a potent restoration of balance – a timely reminder of the dark and smoky members-only basement room of South Korean cinema. It’s only a matter of time before Bollywood enthusiasts see this film remade by Mohit Suri or Sanjay Gupta as ‘Night in Maldives’. Given that the protagonist is a brooding and stone-faced gangster, the Indian action-star pool becomes a box of chocolates.
Not unlike its bareboned ancestors, Night In Paradise is centered on the long-recycled premise of the jilted assassin. Park Tae-goo (Uhm Tae-goo) is the upcoming star of a Seoul-based gang headed by a sheepish grey-haired boss named Yang. His refusal to be recruited by the bigger Bukseong gang is followed by the murder of his dog sister and pre-teen niece. He avenges the tragedy by knifing down the rival boss in a sauna because where else do dons bleed? (By now, anyone who’s watched half a gangster film will have figured out that loyal Tae-goo is being manipulated by his own). Meanwhile, Yang sends him to hide on Jeju island, where the emotionally inert Tae-goo unexpectedly walks into the plot of a terminal-illness drama. He chills on the island with a retired mobster and his attractive dying niece – a girl with a ‘deadpan’ face and great sharpshooting talent – before a gang-war back in the city results in Tae-goo becoming the target of the slick-haired director of Bukseong, who seems to have watched Godfather and Goodfellas way too often. It’s all very familiar and all very aesthetically pleasing.
The too-simple story means that the film-making, of course, is where style must give the illusion of substance. There are some wryly funny touches – like the way Tae-goo’s sister openly comments on his cold appearance in context of his ‘profession’: “Don’t you all just lounge around? Why are you the only haggard gangster I’ve seen?”. Or the way the dying girl, Kim, urges an uptight Tae-goo to drink at lunch while claiming that she’s never seen traffic police on the remote island, only for the very next moment to reveal him blowing into a breathalyzer on the side of the road. Or the way the sight of rain randomly prompts the older man in a hospital waiting area to ask the younger one if he’s had a shower (“filthy bastard”). The editing is playful, especially in the pre-title portions, where the scene of Tae-goo putting his sister and niece into a car at the airport is cut very menacingly: a purposeful build-up urging a bomb-explosion to rip right through the frame. Instead, the car drives away safely, the visual suspense dissipates and a scene passes before a shattered Tae-goo is seen crouched on a street in slow-motion, watching a crushed car surrounded by ambulances and cops.
The character of Director Ma, the second-in-command of the Bukseong gang, is a sinister hoot: Given the recent Western-exotic obsession with quirky Korean roles, I expect actor Cha Seung-won to show up on the Hollywood radar very soon. Possibly the best scene of the film features no errant limbs and bloodshed and cigarettes – it is a meeting between Ma and his frightened rival Yang, brokered by an irritated government aide over a lunch of noodles and verbal jousting. The blocking of the scene and the inter-cutting between the three men are things of mobster-movie legend, the mood heightened by something as simple as a toothpick scraping the teeth of the speaker’s mouth. The narrative circularity of Tae-goo getting close to a girl who lives with her uncle after he himself becomes a grieving uncle is neat, too.
But that’s not to say Night in Paradise is a patch on the Park Chan-wook classics of yore. The 140-minute running time is not earned, with the “slow-burning” atmospherics largely featuring the mourning man and orphaned girl meet-cute-ing on the island for no reason other than to lend meaning to the bodies that will soon be tortured. The cliche of unlikely love blossoming between two broken souls in an existential setting is so old that it could pass off as a member of the British Royal Family. As disarming as the chemistry and conversation might be, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s something most action movies do when they’re bored and need to bide time till all hell breaks loose. The action set pieces – two in the uncle’s farmhouse, one at the airport – finally arrive, but the loud imagery of tuxedo-wearing henchmen twisting knives into ruptured skin seems to have lost a little meaning during the silent-killing era of a global pandemic. It’s all fine for the fans, but the acute treatment starts to feel protracted by the end. The mystery of storytelling makes way for the empty physicality of mortal combat – the likes of which we’ve been desensitized to by cheap Western imitations over the years.
In some sense, I can understand Night in Paradise as a return to roots and a celebration of noir basics. But too many influences seem to be fighting for the same space these days. And space, at this precise moment in history, is at a premium. The fetisization of brutality and loss isn’t the rent-free tenant most of us are looking for.