Organized crime as a theme has been one of the most popular of international cinema, with movies like “Goodfellas”, “The Godfather Trilogy” and “Once Upon a Time in America considered masterpieces. Asian cinema also has a significant legacy in the category, with the films of Johnnie To, “Infernal Affairs”, Fukasaku’s “Yakuza Papers” and many others. Beyond the classics though, some films of the category are still produced, and although the majority comes from S. Korea, other Asian countries have a representation in the genre, with a number of great films.
Here is a list with some of the best Asian Gangster films of the latest years, in random order, which as you will see, does not include thrillers specifically, but extends to dramas and social films.
The criteria for the selection was for the film to have premiered during the last ten years and for the protagonist(s) to be members of organized crime, or at least cops who act like gangsters.
1. Gangs of Wasseypur (Anurag Kashyap, 2012, India)
In an unprecedented one man show, Anurag Kashyap, co-wrote, produced and directed the film, in a style that is much reminiscent of early Guy Ritchie films (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch) both in context, with the mafia, and technically, since the film uses extensively slow and stop motion, close cut editing, quick, explanatory flashbacks and great mixture of image and music. In the latter aspect, the film is a true audiovisual masterpiece, with Rajjev Ravi’s cinematography splendidly portraying the decaying environment of the city and the depiction of the various timelines being accurate in all of their aspects, in a trait that also benefits the most from Subodh Sirastava’s costumes.
Kashyap created a number of very interesting characters, with Sardar, Faizal, and Sultan being the most interesting of all. Among all the violence that feature much blood and gore, and the almost constant cursing, Kashyap also managed to entail much humor in the film, which is either subtle, or absolutely coarse, at times, since Kashyap does not seem to pull any punches regarding any aspect of Indian society.
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2. Asura: The City of Madness (Kim Song-su, 2016. S. Korea)
Kim Sung-soo directs and pens a very dark film that focuses on its characters, none of whom is even remotely decent or likeable. Han may have been led to this life by his wife’s sickness, but shows no remorse in executing Park’s hideous orders. The fact that he tricks his best friend into taking his place makes him even more despicable, despite the fact that he is actually the victim of a power struggle between powers much higher than him.
Mayor Park is corrupted to the core, a true gangster who not only has connections with the underworld, but also acts as the leader of a crime syndicate. The fact that he has been publicly elected is a clear evidence of both his power and the city’s decay. Special Prosecutor Kim and Do Chang-hak, who actually acts as his henchman, may have the law on their side, but they are willing to go to such extremes to arrest Park, that they end up acting like criminals themselves. Moon Sun-mo may be tricked into Park’s service, but as soon as he “tastes blood” and money, he becomes a remorseless gangster too.
The power struggles between all the above characters, along with the constant shifting of both loyalties and the upper hand, are the backbone of an intricate script, which is concluded, in the most spectacular fashion, in the final sequence of the film.
Furthermore, Kim presents a clear message regarding corruption, which, according to him, touches every aspect of Korean society, including justice and politics.
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3. Rough Cut (Jang Hoon, 2008, S.Korea)
The film is largely based on the depiction of the differences between Soo-ta, who is playing a criminal, and Gang-pae, who is actually a criminal. In that fashion, the movie shows how difficult it is for anyone to change truly, despite any notion one has for himself. Accordingly, it is equally difficult for Soo-ta to behave like a criminal as is for Gang-pae to behave like an actor.
Another central point is the relationship among them, with conflict being its main ingredient, and the advantage constantly switching hands. However, as the film progresses, it is revealed that both of them actually have a conflict with themselves rather than with each other. In that fashion, “Rough Cut” has a depth that is met usually in social dramas rather than action films.
This, nevertheless, does not mean that action is scarce. To the contrary, there are many battles, which are as violent as they are impressive. Most of them occur between the two protagonists, with the final one emphatically standing out. Additionally, all of the action scenes are artfully implemented in the script, thus avoiding giving the impression that they exist just to shock or to draw a specific kind of audience, as is the case so often.
Jang Hoon retains a great rhythm throughout the film’s duration, while managing to combine equally entertainment and food for thought. The artfulness of both the script and the direction reaches its zenith in the two final scenes, which are elaborate, as they are shocking.
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4. Breathless (Yang Ik-june, 2008. S.Korea)
In distinct, one-man-show fashion Yang Ik-june directs, pens and plays Sang-hoon, doing a wonderful job in all three of them, creating very demanding characters and playing the most difficult among them, in a film that is mostly autobiographical. His primary purpose is to delve into the concept of domestic violence, and he accomplishes that by depicting it without constraints regarding the abuse it incorporates, both physically and verbally. The outcome is grotesque as much as it is realistic. His message is clear: the cycle of domestic violence is almost impossible to end.
What makes “Breathless” additionally extreme is that in the overwhelming majority of its duration, violence is present, not only from the protagonist, who seems to stop cursing only when he is beating someone, but also from parents toward their children. His biggest achievement though, in terms of direction, is that he does not let the film become a melodramatic tearjerker, despite the drama that permeates it.
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5. New World (Park Hoon-jung, 2013, S. Korea)
Park Hoon-jung directs an agonizing crime thriller, which contains the usual violence, anti-heroes, impressive action sequences, and stylish gangsters in their suits, along with the much-loved plot twists. However, the film’s main point of excellence is its characters, with the thin balance that dominates their relationships constantly shifting, in a game of death where nothing is improbable, as it is most eloquently stressed in the film’s finale.
Another point of excellence is the acting, with each of the main protagonists performing their respective roles magnificently. In that fashion, Lee Jung-jae plays the perpetually anxious Ja-sung, who has to maintain his cool composure when he is in the company of Jung Chung, acted with brio and overall artfulness by Hwang Jung-min, in both his calm moments and his outbursts. Choi Min-sik is great as always, in the role of a cop that is not so much different from the people he is after.
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6. Mr Six (Guan Hu, 2015, China)
Hu Guan could easily shoot an action film that focuses on the battles between the old and new criminals; however, he decided to direct the film toward Mr. Six’s character and focus on realism, particular through two axes: His relationship with his estranged son, and the realization that the world has changed significantly, outside of his microcosm. At the same time, some secondary social comments deal with male friendship, the difference of values between the previous and the current generation, and the place of women in society.
In that fashion, some of the most distinct scenes take place when the protagonist reconciles with his son, when he is philosophizing with his former comrades and Chatterbox, and when he watches an ostrich sprint its way through traffic in a central road, in a highly surrealistic scene.
Feng Xiaogang is sublime in the titular role, as he presents a multi-leveled character, whose opposing characteristics make him contradictory, at least until his real self is revealed. In that fashion, Mr Six is hard on his son but loves him deeply, he appears fearless in front of any kind and size of enemy but is scared of hospitals, he is dignified but could also be characterized as a righteous ass. Xiaogang manages to portray all these characteristics impressively, in a wonderful performance that netted him the Best Leading Actor Award from the Golden Horse Film Festival.
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7. Godspeed (Chung Mong-hong, 2016, Taiwan)
Who are these Taiwanese gangsters? What can they teach us about the place they are from? What can they teach us about ourselves? As Robert Warshow wrote in his classic “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” American gangsters embody an “intolerable dilemma” that is inherent in the American dream: one is expected to be successful, yet when one achieves the goal, it also means that one is separated from others. One becomes a true individual which will then lead to the demise of the hero. Another feature of the American gangsters is that they can only exist in the city. Their knowledge and skills can only be useful in a modern space.
In many ways, Chung’s Taiwanese gangsters are direct opposites to their American counterparts. They roam around the margin of the city or the countryside. It seems like they don’t live in the city. Even if they do, they definitely don’t enjoy the city life too much. Contrast to the claustrophobic framing of the gangster films from the Classical Hollywood era, for instance, at the end of “White Heat”, where Cagney is blocked by the complex industrial architecture, Chung constantly reminds the audience of the expansiveness of the Taiwanese landscape. He constantly uses aerial and wide angle shot to capture the landscape in full. Instead of being portrayed as larger-than-life characters, the main characters are often tiny spots in the frame.
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8. Drug War (Johnnie To, 2012, Hong Kong)
Johnnie To directs another action film about cops that act as criminals, and their opponents, and does a very good job on it. Most of the film functions as an agonizing thriller, as Zhang poises as a criminal in order to find out more about the syndicate and Choi is always on the lookout for a way out of the strain he is in. This last aspect, however, is presented is subtlety, since, although the fact that the scenario Zhang put in motion will not go smoothly until the end is quite obvious, Choi does not act on it, for the most part of the film. This trait benefits the most by Louis Koo acting as Choi, who manages to emit a constant sense of restlessness, as a man who acts in timid fashion, but is obvious that he is planning something. Some nonsensicality could not be missing from a To film, although this time is quite restrained, with the exception of the scene where Zhang is forced to take drugs.
Some humor is also present in the film, particularly through the character of Haha and even more from the scenes where Zhang is poising as him. The transformation of the tough, laconic cop to a constantly laughing criminal is Honglei Sun’s highlight. To does not shy away from portraying the cops with the bleakest colors, particularly in the beginning, when they humiliate the “mules”, but also throughout the film, as they are presented as at least as trigger happy as their opponents. Some comments about the death penalty are also present, but are rather minor and actually lost inside the action.
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9. Twisted Justice (Kazuya Shiraishi, 2016, Japan)
Kazuya Shiraishi, who knew the case quite well as a Hokkaido native, presents a film that looks like a modern version of Kinji Fukasaku’s The Yakuza Papers pentalogy, although, in this particular case, the protagonists are cops and not criminals. The aesthetics, though, remain the same, with the constant antagonisms among them, the corruption and betrayals, and even the violence, which is chiefly represented by Moboroshi, the most Yakuza-like of all. Also like the aforementioned films, Moboroshi has his own gang, which includes an actual Yakuza named Nakamura, a lowlife ex-addict named Yamanobe, and a Pakistani with Russian mafia ties named Rashido. However, with the exception of Yamanobe, who actually adores him, the rest of the gang stay with him for the profit, rather than out of devotion, as was the case with Fukasaku’s films.
The general aesthetics of the movie have a distinct slapstick nature, as a peculiar sense of humor permeates a large part of its duraton, which, sometimes is offensively hilarious (as with the scene where Moboroshi calls Rashido an Indian, infuriating him) and sometimes seems completely out of place, as the film takes a turn for the dramatic during the end. Add to that the fact that women are presented solely as objects of lust (there are unusually many scenes with sex and nudity for a Japanese film) , and you have a rather offensive movie in your hands that manages to simultaneously cause affront to the police force, the Yakuza, women, immigrants and the notion of male friendship alike. Evidently, the film is not at all sanctimonious, a trap that similar productions often seem to fall into.
10. Ken and Kazu (Hiroshi Shoji, 2015, Japan)
Hiroshi directs a film that depicts the lives of the lower Yakuza in completely realistic fashion, without any notions of grandeur. The protagonists are misfits, living in a place where hope is nowhere to be found, and turn to crime as the sole solution they can find to their financial problems. However, their choice does not mean their lives get actually better, since their basis is so low, that even the best way out is a dead end for them. This applies particularly to Kazu, who, as the story progresses, is proven to have been a victim of abuse by his now senile mother, who keeps pestering him about his father who is long since gone. In that fashion, his predilection for violence is somewhat justified, but Shoji does not let it in any way be excused, as he presents a character who is willing to step even on his best friend in order to achieve his goals.
The film is filled with violence, in brawling fashion, in another trait the fits the rundown neighborhood that functions as the main setting, with the only breaks coming in the scenes where Ken interacts with his girlfriend, although violence eventually finds its way even there.
The permeating violence, the lowlife protagonists and the male friendship are the elements that most reminded me of the early Kitano, with Shoji actually embracing the fact, in a tendency that finds its apogee in a hilarious scene where Ken mocks the way Kitano spoke in his movies.