Cruel Winter Blues

Korean gangster films often feel like they are coming at you in a mad slap happy dash loaded with baseball bats to render you unconscious with their brutality - which is why to some degree both A Dirty Carnival and Cruel Winter Blues from 2006 managed to rise above the genre. Though both have their vicious flashes of violence, they are more interested in textured character development and the complicated relationships inherent in that lifestyle. Cruel Winter Blues is especially intriguing as it slowly adds layers of depth to the main protagonist and changes one’s initial very negative reaction to him – not necessarily to liking or sympathizing with him – but perhaps to understanding him. The title of the film is an apt one – it paints a cold, unforgiving picture of the gangster life that leaves you sadly unsettled.

Jae-mun (the always marvelous Sol Kyung-Gu – Oasis, Peppermint Candy) is a sub-boss in a gang and a nasty piece of work. Everything about him makes you want to crawl away – the angry way he holds his cigarette, the stone cold fish eyes, the cruel mouth – he just smells rotten of violence, explosive moods and danger. He takes a subordinate to the small backwater town of Bul-gyo to carry out a mission. The subordinate Mun Chi-guk (Jo Han-sun) who originally came from this town is basically a good guy who used to teach kids Taekwondo but needed to make money for his ailing mother and so became a reluctant gangster. Jae-mun is there for one reason – to kill a man – the head of another gang. He wants to kill him very badly.

But the target Min Dae-sik doesn’t live in the town anymore and only comes occasionally to visit his old mother (Na Moon-hee) who runs a stew shop and raises dogs to be sold for food. To try and learn where Dae-sik is, Jae-mun begins to eat at the mother’s restaurant and over time he develops an affectionate friendship with her and her with him – almost a surrogate mother/son relationship that fills in dark missing holes in their own lives. The boss/subordinate relationship between Jae-mun and Chi-guk also gets more complicated since Chi-guk doesn’t really like his boss and doesn’t want to carry out the mission – but he knows he needs to stay in good with the gang. Days pass – no sign of Dae-sik – and Jae-mun begins to interact with other locals – especially a tea girl (Sim I-yeong) who he takes a sexual liking to. When Dae-sik finally shows up, all these relationships and emerging feelings make the mission so much more complicated than Jae-mun had been planning on.

It is a fascinating slow build portrayal – Jae-mun doesn’t really change for the better per se but as the film evolves sharp broken shards of his life are revealed that show an echo of his remaining humanity. In a very nebulous way the film reminded me of the old movie Local Hero – except instead of coming to a small Scottish town to make a business deal and finding a bit of your lost soul, the character here comes to a small town to kill someone – but also finds a bit of his soul intact as well. It is a melancholy lyrical film full of barren landscapes and empty lives that by the end is moving and tragic.

My rating for this film: 8.0

Reviewed: 03/07