Having recently screened the Australian premier at Cinema on the Park for the rare Korean kung-fu movie, ‘Canton Viper’ (reviewed here), directed by Korean kicking extraordinaire Hwang Jang-lee back in 1983, I decided it was high time to check out his final movie appearance, in the 1996 movie ‘Boss’.
While it’s fairly common knowledge for fans of Jang-lee to know that this was his last performance, information about it is virtually impossibly to come by, being made in that murky decade of Korean cinema from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, when it seems very little is known about the countries cinematic output. Still, in this day & age it’s only once in a blue moon when you can go into a movie knowing hardly anything about it, so I gladly pressed play with little to no expectations. As it turned out it was just as well, as for anyone approaching this as a fan of Jang-lee, it should be pointed out that he’s in it for barely a minute, has a couple of lines, and disappears. It seems he saved his final fighting performance for against Dragon Lee a couple of years earlier, in 1994’s ‘Emperor of the Underworld’ (암흑가의 황제), which he also directed.
So, with that out of the way, what are we left with? Thankfully a pretty solid gangster drama, which echoes can be seen of in plenty of more recent movies. There’s a number of fairly large scale brawls which bring to mind those seen in ‘A Dirty Carnival’ (비열한 거리), the threat of being buried alive ala ‘A Bittersweet Life’ (달콤한 인생), and the whole structure of a gangster recalling his rise during a turbulent era of Korean history recalls ‘Nameless Gangster’ (범죄와의 전쟁: 나쁜놈들 전성시대).
The story itself concerns a loyal but ruthless gangster played by Chao Yang, in his only acting performance, who along with his faithful second in command, played by Dok-go Yeong-jae (‘Hanbando’ 한반도), tear their way through the Korean gangster world with what seems like nothing more than fists, feet, baseball bats, and steel pipes. ‘Boss’ gets points for delivering a pure no-frills gangster movie, of which the camera angles and lighting often conjure up the feeling of watching a Japanese Nikkatsu movie from the 1970s, rather than a Korean movie from 20 years later. For its 105 minutes run time, a good 75 minutes of those are spent literally going from one scene of carnage to the next, with Yang & Yeong-jae uttering tough guy talk in-between. If anything, ‘Boss’ shows that the Koreans have always known how to do gangster violence, even 25 years ago. I’d go so far as to say some of the scenes are better staged and choreographed than more later efforts, and special mention must go to the scene involving a moustache and some painful hair removal techniques, you’ll wince!
Eventually though Yang’s crimes catch up with him, and he lands himself in prison. A betrayal by one of his own lands him in even deeper trouble, and it seems his future is destined to the confines of his prison cell, with even the gang boss who promised he’d do anything to get him out within a couple of years dieing while he’s inside, leaving him without hope. It’s in this predicament, at almost precisely the 75 minute mark, that if the movie were a train, it suddenly & without warning jumps the tracks and completely derails, sending everything to hell.
Or, as I should more correctly say, heaven. Yes, out of nowhere, completely left of field, Yang finds God, and the movie turns into an unashamed promotion for Christianity. I sat there wide eyed for most of those last minutes, completely thrown off by what I was witnessing having just been guiltily enjoying the barrage of punches to the face, steel bars over the head, and kicks to the groin that had gone before, to seeing Yang on his knees in prayer, Bible in hand, on his prison cell floor.
I had no idea what was going on, and at the time of writing this review, I still don’t know what was going on. It almost makes me curious to see director Yoo Young-jin’s other movies, he also directed earlier efforts such as ‘Agnes’ 아그네스를 위하여 (1991) & ‘Water Kingdom’ 물의 나라 (1989), with ‘Boss’ being the final movie he worked on. If I wasn’t thrown off enough, in the final 15 minutes Yang suddenly develops a pen-pal romance with a Korean student studying in none other than Sydney! From the dangerous and brooding gangster world of Korea, scenes of the girl happily engaging in English & Japanese conversation with her fellow students against the sunny backdrop of the Opera House & Harbour Bridge are interweaved with Yang sitting in his cell. Well, it was interesting to get a brief glimpse of mid-90s Sydney, it seemed mullets were an Australian fashion statement back then as well.
To say that while the credits roll they’re against the backdrop of a church crucifix should give you some idea as to just how much of a huge turn the movie makes in the final 25 minutes, it’s jarring and doesn’t even come close to being believable. Much like Hong Kong movies these days always have to end with some not so subtle pro-China message being thrust in our face, ‘Boss’ comes off the same way, but instead of nationalism it’s religion. Overall, ‘Boss’ is worth a viewing for 75 minutes of Korean old school gangster violence, and the rest is worth watching simply for the bizarreness of it, a cautious curiosity.
By Paul Bramhall
Fan of Korean crime thrillers? Cinema on the Park recently focused on this popular genre of Korean cinema. For more Korean cinema check out the 2014 Cinema on the Park screening schedule online now! The weekly film night is completely free so get along and check it out!