“A Dirty Carnival” – Andrew Guarini

If I can admire A Dirty Carnival on one level, it would be its attempted presentation of a gangster genre double dose: blood, broken bones and baseball bats mixed with a high arching character drama of bold confliction and duality. But throughout its bloated, overachieving running time of 141 minutes the twists and turns feel less like screws of emotional anguish turning but more like mouth to mouth on a dead, rotting corpse. It attempts, only somewhat successfully, a juggling act between career climbing dirty ambition and the values of family and a life of straight and narrow normalcy. Byung-doo (Jo In-seong) is a ruthless, but young at only 29 years old, gangster who is burdened by his family’s financial woes but still overtly eager to progress within the ranks of South Korea’s crime racket.

Eventually after a large brawl where he cements his rough and tumble reputation, Byung-doo catches the eye of high ranking boss Hwang Heui-jang (Cheon Ho-jin). As a rite of passage, Byung-doo eliminates a public prosecutor who threatened to expose Hwang’s racket and finds himself seemingly on the path to a prosperous career in organized crime. His promising path takes a self inflicted wound when he re-kindles a relationship with an old childhood friend Min-ho (Nam-gung Min) who’s directing a film on gangsters and would like a defintive representation of what that lifestyle is really like. Byung-doo confides in Min-ho and in the process meets another old friend, one where love becomes a possibility for this cold, violent soul in the form of the glowing Hyeon-ju (Lee Bo-yeong). Alas, no one is who they seem to be, people make foolish mistakes and though you may want to, you can never truly leave the thug lifestyle.

The main drawing point for A Dirty Carnival is the direction of Yoo Ha, avoiding an overbearing, flashy style sense that he could have easily fallen into within such a subject matter. Instead there’s a colorful, playful severity at work as we watch the different characters function within this quirky, unpredictable little world. There’s no technical wizardry through extensive tracking shots or inventive angle work but a real, meaningful dependence on framing reflecting seclusion and perfect symmetry that allows us to watch the characters squirm. It’s a welcome contrast when Yoo has epic, bloody battles with fists and bats flying but it’s all pressed against welcoming colors like pinks or whites on a quiet storefront (side note: how many bat swings does it take to knock down a South Korean hoodlum? Answer: infinity x 6). Interestingly, Yoo avoids glorification of the grimy, yet lucrative lifestyle by not showing violent retribution as a means for self improvement but rather a tool for vicious soul decay. The fights however become a bit repetitive and stale despite their grandiose nature and often, we can’t tell who exactly is fighting whom. Perhaps this is a comment on how identity can be lost within crime mish-mash and convolution, but even so it’s a frustrating development.

The script, also written by Yoo is a suitable mix between quick comedy and deeper emotional themes. What might be his greatest achievement here is the handling of the “movie within a movie” subplot which could have made for a colossal mess were it not handled with an intelligent sense of meaning and care. Min-ho becomes the film’s most fleshed out character because he is so lost in achieving his own success (oddly enough it’s away from crime) that he neglects to remember that he becomes complicit in allowing the cycle of violence and deception to continue within the world around him. Sadly though, the many other threads running around this story aspect become incredibly muddled and collapse under their own weight of attempted consequential tragedy. The happenings start to come at such a pace that I began to lose a sense of connection to everyone involved. Somehow, despite this eventual breakneck screenplay of occurrence piling on occurrence the film never felt that exciting or lively. It builds on each happening a bit too methodically for my liking, and even attempts to break the continuity or predictability of it all with chases or murder flew right past me. Yoo has the possibility of a living, breathing, pretty whole but ends up operating with only a few shiny pieces.

Across the board the performances work to accentuate the desired effect of the film: dire sympathy at some points and disgruntling disgust at others. As the film’s protagonist Jo In-seong handles the versatile Byung-doo in a refreshing fashion, namely without overstretching or overacting his rapidly swinging emotions. The fact that his emotional core of the film didn’t incite the sparks it had intended was less his fault but more for a script that misfires on its multiplicity of aspirations. Rounding out the main group would be Nam-gung Min-ho as the director Min-ho and Lee Bo-yeong as Hyeon-ju, love interest for our leader. Both are impressive: Nam-gung gives off a charming, deceptive sleaziness in his hampered production of his gangster epic and Bo-yeong is beautifully innocent and unfortunately gullible as a youngin’ unsure if she really wants love with such a dangerous man.

It’s tough to deem A Dirty Carnival as a tiresome attempt of treading old waters in a new raft but as the film went on this is exactly how I began to see it. The internal/external conflicts unfold with arresting assurance but soon wind and wrap themselves up in their own web when the different links begin to build upon each other rather ineffectively. Even the little things grated me about this film beyond reasonable description: this is a film so brutally over-scored with soothing music that it actually induced a headache. Every scene had the outline for ace emotive impact but I was so massively distracted and taken out by the constantly looming and glaring music that I began noticing every time the music managed to kick in as opposed to advancements in the complex story. Is it being implied that this wild charade of dirty dealings is just one big carnival, harmonies readily apparent and anxiously goofy? The analogy seems fitting, but the execution isn’t. By the time the 6th or 7th bat fight or karaoke song set piece had come I found my eyes wandering for the exit dreaming of trapeze artists, flame spitters, sword eaters and dancing elephants that would be less incorrigible than this carnival. What about that guy that eats chicken heads? I’m sure the final reel of this film is equivocally flavorless and spontaneous.

Rating: ★½☆☆

-Andrew Guarini

Leave a Reply