[Herald Review] A darker past in ‘Gangnam 1970’

By Korea Herald

Actor Lee Min-ho’s new film is all about blood, money and betrayal

  • Published : Jan 21, 2015 - 21:15
  • Updated : Jan 21, 2015 - 21:15

A wave of nostalgia has swept through the country. In variety shows, TV dramas and films, the ’70s, ’80s and even ’90s are making a comeback as people seek to relive the glory days.

“Gangnam 1970,” however, suggests a different kind of reflection on the past.

With no intention of painting a pretty picture, director Yoo Ha’s noir film reveals the dark history behind Seoul’s now most affluent district, taking viewers back to a time when the fashionable stage of “Gangnam Style” was no more than a vegetable patch.

As it traces fictional events that led to a real estate development frenzy, the film seeks out the root cause of many of our society’s current ailments.

Reminding us of an era ridden with corruption and violence, “Gangnam” splashes cold water on our nostalgia for “simpler times.”

The audience is, of course, given the occasional pleasure of scenes of quaint premodern Seoul streets and bright red Volvos. Parts of the movie run like a long retro music video, featuring those velvety tunes and hazy spotlights that filled nightclubs of the era. Complete with such vintage props as aviator glasses, skin-tight knee-length dresses and the now-extinct Sintanjin brand cigarettes, the simultaneously picturesque and lurid atmosphere of the Korean ’70s is recreated in careful detail.

For the most part, however, a darker reality reigns.

Actor Lee Min-ho sheds the designer suits and thick Prince Charming curls of his “The Heirs” character, transforming into brooding, soot-faced orphan Jong-dae. Fellow orphan and housemate Yong-ki (played by actor Kim Rae-won) is like a brother to him. The two spend cold nights huddling together for warmth, with nothing but a single light bulb to heat their decrepit room.

Growing up, Jong-dae inevitably turns to the underworld for fast money. He gets caught up in an all-out maniacal pursuit of Gangnam real estate, involving gallons of spilled blood, bare-knuckle murders and as many casualties as a small civil war.

Scenes of abject poverty and greasy luxury are transposed in jarring contrast. Profanity is hurled in the rolling dialect of the southern provinces of Jeolla.

When counseled not to turn to crime, Jong-dae replies: “I make less than 50 won sewing all day at the factory. When do I find the time to live like a human being?” 
Actor Lee Min-ho (center) plays Jong-dae, an orphan-turned-mobster in “Gangnam 1970.” (Showbox)

“Gangnam 1970” is an allegory. It makes no attempt to bring glamour to either the mafia underworld or the high-ranking government powers ― only revulsion. There are no thrilling action sequences, only unrefined fist-fighting; no thugs with hidden hearts of gold, only ruthless, savage self-interest. All groups, in the end, are fighting for their own in a world that allows no room for humanity or morals. Whereas brotherly love and family ties would triumph in your more optimistic plot, in Yoo’s view of society, these values are trampled like bulldozed land.

“It is a story about people who are used, then discarded,” said director Yoo in a recent press conference, “about lives that are, like the buildings they live in, unauthorized.”

The film’s theme is best summed up in a mass fight scene that takes place at a funeral, in a raining, muddy field. All parties thrash about wildly with crude weapons like axes and pieces of lumber, tangled in a pool of blood, rainwater and red earth.

“That scene represents the obsession over land ― land from which we are born, to which we return when we die,” Yoo explained. “It is a feast of all things wretched.”

A fitting end to the director’s “street series” trilogy, each more bleak than the last, “Gangnam 1970” opens in local theaters on Wednesday.

It will later be distributed across Asia, including in China, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam, and also shown at the European Film Market in Germany on Feb. 5. Internationally, the movie is to be titled “Gangnam Blues.”