Wednesday, July 13, 2011

New York Asian Film Festival 2011 Review: Ryoo Seung-wan's "City of Violence"

City of Violence (Jjakpae). 2006. Directed by Ryoo Seung-wan. Written by Kim Jeong-min, Lee Won-jae, and Ryoo Seung-wan. Produced by Ryoo Seung-wan and Kim Jeong-min. Cinematography by Yeong-cheol. Edited by Nam Na-yeong. Music by Bang Jun-seok. Martial arts direction by Jung Doo-hong.

Cast: Ryoo Seung-wan, Jung Doo-hong, Lee Beom-soo, Jeong Seok-yong, Ahn Kil-kang, Lee Joo-sil, Kim Byeong-ok, Kim Hyo-seon, Kim Kkobbi.

Ryoo Seung-wan, a favorite and frequent guest of the New York Asian Film Festival, has two films in this year's edition: The Unjust, his latest and one of his best, a sprawling tale of urban corruption and moral corrosion; and a retrospective screening of the swift-moving, down-and-dirty action flick City of Violence. Below is what I wrote on this film when it screened at the 2007 New York Asian Film Festival.

City of Violence, Ryoo Seung-wan’s lean and limber 92-minute noir, is very much a back-to-basics production after his previous, more ambitious films Arahan and his most impressive work to date, Crying Fist. Even though the knee-jerk reaction would be to identify Quentin Tarantino as his principal influence, a much more apt comparison would be the Shaw Brothers epics of the ‘70s, such as The Five Venoms, which Ryoo has expressed his great admiration for. City of Violence is anchored by its incredibly energetic and acrobatic action scenes, choreographed by his lead actor and long-time martial arts consultant Jung Doo-hong.

Jung plays Tae-su, a Seoul detective who returns to his childhood home of Onseong after the murder of Wang-jae (Ahn Gil-gang), one of his old friends. He reunites with his old crew, including Sukhwan (Ryoo Seung-wan) and Pil-ho (Lee Beom-soo). Pil-ho has become a powerful gang boss who, in a bid for legitimate respectability, is working to build a casino to make the town a major tourist attraction. Pil-ho tells Tae-su how the murder occurred (this scene is replayed multiple times, Rashomon-like, throughout the film). However, after visiting Wang-jae’s widow, Tae-su immediately smells a rat, and suspects that he hasn’t been told the entire truth. He decides to remain in Onseong and investigate the murder. Sukhwan, also suspicious, assists Tae-su.

City of Violence is so swift and relentless that one only notices its flaws on later reflection. Tae-su’s sudden realization of Wang-jae’s true killer doesn’t quite make sense, and the flashbacks to his friend’s younger days are rather awkward. However, while watching the film, these weaknesses seem to be minor since the movie contains enough style and verve to overcome them. City of Violence contains two impressive set pieces. One occurs early in the film, when Tae-su is confronted by scores of high-schoolers – uniform-clad schoolgirls, break dancers, motorcycle punks – whom he must fend off, each with their own weapons and fighting styles. The other is the film’s final fight scene in an inn, where Tae-su and Sukhwhan are armed with swords, battling dozens of henchmen (and one woman), and crashing through sliding screen doors and up and down staircases. To put it in musical terms, if Ryu’s previous film Crying Fist was his orchestral piece, then City of Violence is his garage band record: fast, loud, and somewhat ragged, but containing very entertaining and catchy riffs.

City of Violence screens July 13, 3:30pm at the Walter Reade Theater, with director Ryoo Seung-wan in attendance. For tickets, visit the New York Asian Film Festival and Film Society of Lincoln Center websites.

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