Since the early to mid-noughties, South Korean cinema has been synonymous with revenge flicks here in the West. Films such as Oldboy, The Chaser and I Saw the Devil, to name but a few, defined how the entire country’s output would be viewed through that cultural kaleidoscope. Never mind about Lee Chang-dong’s psychoanalysis of modern life, Kim Ki-duk’s boundary-breaking arthouse, or Hong Sang-soo’s humanistic dramas; “give us more stories about corrupt cops and vengeful criminals,” we cried. And Korea duly obliged with some of the most spectacular output in the genre from any country during any period of time in history.
It was around this time four-and-a-bit years ago that we were treated to one of the country’s finest exports, New World, a crime thriller rife with more twists than a Dickensian urchin eating a Twister while riding a helter skelter singing the theme to a popular 90’s Australian kids’ comedy. Now, thanks to Eureka Entertainment’s Montage Pictures range, we can re-live this awesome feature all over again on a brand new Dual Format (DVD & Blu-ray) release.
From director Park Hoon-jung (writer of Kim Jee-woon’s aforementioned I Saw the Devil), New World tells the story of undercover cop Ja-sung’s (Lee Jung-jae, The Thieves, The Handmaid) mission to infiltrate the criminal underground on the secret orders of police chief Kang (IStD and Oldboy‘s Choi Min-sik). Eight years into the game and Ja-sung is on the verge of breaking, juggling family life with his duty to the force as he tries to take down some of the biggest syndicates in Korea from the inside out.
Park expertly merges the glamorous and lavish lifestyle these high-profile gangsters lead, awash with fast cars, good looking women on tap, and hangouts that make Trump Tower look like a fart-filled elevator, with a more grounded portrayal of the toll that keeping up this appearance takes on those involved. One tends to associate the word “gritty” with a down-and-dirty representation of reality, but it could also describe this arresting thump of gangster life that is delivered in slick fashion.
The start-studded cast of some of the country’s top talent is led by the ever-enigmatic Choi Min-sik, collaborating once again with his old pal. There are few performers in Korean cinema that are as typecast; usually violent and ultimately bad guys for whatever reason. Yet there’s something about Kang that keeps you on his side from start to finish, hoping against hope that he’s not about to screw his man over, or be revealed to be playing for both sides. Conceited, egotistical and arrogant though he may be, Choi Min-sik’s natural charisma imbues the character with a screen presence akin to Brando in Godfather (cliched as the comparison to Godfather may be every time somebody brings up a new gangster movie. Sorry.)
It’s not the first time that Lee Jung-Jae had been tasked with the leading man role, nor was it to be the last. Choi Dong-hoon’s 2015 period drama Assassination set against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930’s demonstrated just how much quality Lee possesses, but New World is perhaps the greatest example of his talent. And Lee delivers in spades. The on-screen chemistry he shares opposite Hwang Jung-min (A Bittersweet Life, The Wailing) is electrifying.
Looking back at reviews from the time of the film’s original release, it’s quite clear where the biggest criticisms are levelled. The plot is so convoluted that it is littered with plot twists to break up lulls in the tension, but often just confuses things often beyond comprehension. Needless to say, the story is bloated beyond belief with what often feels superfluous melodrama, and at 134 minutes, New World does outstay its welcome a tad.
However, if you are looking for a thriller that will keep you guessing until the end, that embodies the spirit of movies such as Goodfellas and Infernal Affairs, then look no further. If nothing else, it should prove to viewers less au fait with South Korea’s output beyond the stereotypical revenge movies that the Asian country can compete with, if not better whatever Hollywood can churn out.
New World is out now on Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition courtesy of Eureka Entertainment’s Montage Pictures series.