The gangster genre is alive and well in Korea with a number of strong releases that occurred in 2006. It is the genre that won’t die no matter how often you hit it over the head with a metal bat and directors continue to try to find a new angle in order to give it a fresh look. The gangster genre is a truly Asian phenomenon and one has to wonder if the enduring popularity of the Jopok, Triad and Yakuza films has some underlying social significance. While gangster films have had their periods of popularity in the West, most western crime films are one’s of individual transgressions against society. In Asia though, the vast majority of crime films fall very much within the structured world of organized crime. It seems to suggest a very different approach between the West and Asia – the individual vs. the collective or perhaps outcast vs. family. While individual crime is nearly taboo in Asian film (and often of a horrific nature ala Dr. Lamb or Untold Story), crimes committed under the umbrella of an organization that acts as a surrogate family is much more understandable and forgivable. Within this structure it is also socially permissible to invest some of your criminal characters with heroic qualities – those that follow a code of honor and loyalty. These conflicting ethical gray areas often allow the directors to go far beyond making simple crime stories to exploring character, community and morality. That was certainly the case with last year’s Bittersweet Life and this year with films like Cruel Winter Blues, A Dirty Carnival, Righteous Ties and this film.
Sunflower seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle of gangster films from 2006, but it deserves much better with an emotional core that delivers a wallop by the end. It bares some resemblance to a modern day Shane set in the unforgiving world of gangsters. Like that classic Western, it is a moral fable of a man who wants to begin again by escaping his violent past but finds it chasing him down like a hungry dog to a climatic bloodletting finish. Director Kang lets the film simply simmer for much of its running time – focusing on developing relationships and characters – but brings it to a slow anguished boil that seems inevitable but is nevertheless painful to witness. There appears to be a spiritual sheen over the film – of a man trying to find redemption from his past sins but finding that there is no escape from the karma you have sown.
At first glance Tae-sik (Kim Rae-won) appears to be a young unimpressive man with his slightly slumping shoulders, reluctant smile, inarticulate conversations and shy polite demeanor. He has just returned to his hometown after spending the last ten years in prison for murder. Now he simply wants to live a good life and stay with his newly adoptive mother (Kim Hae-sook) and her daughter Hee-ju (Hur Ei-jae). But the intricate tattoos on his body speak to the world he came from and that he can’t escape from. Before he was sent to jail he was the biggest thug in town with a ferocious ability to cause physical damage to his enemies. In jail though he went through a metamorphosis – he looked at his life and what he had done and found it wanting. He meticulously writes down the things he needs to change – do not drink, do not smoke, do not cry, do not fight - and tries religiously to follow them. In the end he finds he has to break them all to do the right thing.
When his former gang mates hear he is back in town they fall into a dither of nervousness in anticipation of Tae-sik trying to reclaim what was his and his conversion to pacifism is looked on as a trick with a hidden agenda waiting to surface. They test him – but nothing seems to be able to make him fight back – until they go after his newfound family. As the mother told him “Nothing is more important than family in life” and he takes this to heart as he forlornly pulls out his cigarettes, drinks his soju and gets ready for war. It is certainly a simple enough story that holds few surprises, but it builds the story with such care and tenderness that knowing where it is going doesn’t matter – it is how it gets there that counts. Beautifully shot and well acted, this is terrific addition to the gangster genre.
My rating for this film: 7.5