Byung-doo is a low-level gangster who tries to take care of his few subordinates and his sick mother and smaller siblings. His financial situation is awful, with his family being on the threshold of eviction and his direct superior, named Sang-cheol, not caring for his problems. Having no other choice, he bypasses him and goes directly to the boss of the gang named Hwang, an act that leaves him with a mission to get rid of the district attorney Park, who is on the hunt for his boss. As his fate seems to change for the better, an old friend named Min-ho resurfaces, who has become a director and in his wish to shoot a gangster film, he wants information from actual professionals. This meeting leads to a second one, with an old flirt of Byung-doo named Hyun-ju.
Yoo Ha directs and pens a film seemingly in the usual motif of the rise and fall of a criminal anti-hero inside a gang. However, he enriches it with plenty of drama, and he focuses, in essence, on the repercussions of violence and criminal life in the psychosynthesis of the main character, and the way these two aspects keep him from taking care of his family and living a “normal” life. Additionally, he avoids creating a character who only seeks out revenge and creating chaos in his path, but instead one who simply tries to improve his life, initially for financial reasons rather than authority, and, at the end, for survival.
The film is set in very “dark” atmosphere, with the main character offering very few moments of hope in a crime world that is presented in utterly realistic fashion: its members are selfish, schemers, thieves and always willing to kill anybody to ascend the ranks of the organization, having violence as their sole mean of solving their differences. At the same time, it satirizes the largely failed effort of the film industry to portray the essence of life in organized crime.
Jo In-sung is magnificent as Byung-doo, particularly in the scenes where he attacks his opponents, where he appears truly terrifying. In the more sentimental scenes, his appearance helps him the most to portray his character’s vulnerability. However, his best moment comes when he describes to Min-ho the sentiment of stabbing someone, in a cruelly realistic scene. This scene is also the best for Namgung Min who plays Min ho, magnificently portraying his inner struggle, as he takes advantage of his friendship with Byung-doo. Chun Ho-jin is also good in the role of Hwang, a crime boss with paternalistic behavior.
Choi Hyeon-gi’s cinematography implements the noir aesthetics of the film to perfection, while Jeon Jin-hui and Park Gok-ji’s editing retains a very nice rhythm. Their combination, particularly in the action scenes, is masterful.
“A Dirty Carnival” is a great mix of drama and gangster film and a true masterpiece of the genre.