Dir: Im Kwon-Taek.South Korea. 2004. 99 mins.
Veteran South Korean filmmaker Im Kwon-Taek spotlights aturbulent period in the history of his country in this fast-paced saga, whichscreened in competition at Venice. But all that history is the film's mainproblem: international audiences, few of whom have a firm grasp of thepolitical landscape of post-war Korea, risk losing their way among the datesand regime-changes.
The saving grace is the fact that the main character - asmart and good-looking mobster - is oblivious to politics and its ideologues,which makes our own confusion easier to digest.
This is history seen from the bottom up, and though it lacksthe careful weave of time and character that marks more expansive national filmsagas like Heimat or
Beginning in the late 1950s, when the division between Northand South was still a new, and open, wound, the film traces a thirty-year arcin the life of its honourable gangster hero, Choi Tae-Woong. Tae-Woong embarkson his chosen career during the corrupt, US-backed Rhee Seung-Man Liberalgovernment, which used mobsters to break up opposition rallies. Rhee wasbrought down by student riots in April 1960, but after little more than a yearof democratic government, an army coup installed Park Chung-Hee asdictator-president; condoned by the US, who saw him as a useful anti-Communistbastion, Park would rule South Korea for 18 years until his assassination in1979.
Impetuous and more than a little vain, Tae-Woong both usesand is used by his political overlords. Under the Park regime, he amasses asmall personal fortune by taking a rake-off from lucrative military contracts.But Tae-Woong's pursuit of money and power puts a strain on his relationshipwith his wife, the gentle and long-suffering Hae-Ok (Kim Min-Sun), who refusesto sacrifice her integrity or give up her job as a primary school teacher.
Some will find the shifts of tone between intense socialdrama, satire and martial arts action a little disconcerting: but it is good tosee that Im has not has his head turned by the arthouse plaudits that havestarted to arrive in the latter part of his career, and still knows how tocraft a decent fight sequence.
One of the most enjoyable parts of this baggy, sprawlingmovie comes when the ever-resourceful Tae-Woong gets involved in the filmbusiness, acting as a strong-arm fixer for hassled producers (at one point, hedrags an over-booked actress away from another shoot to fulfil her contractualobligations on his own paymaster's film).
One detects a vein of nostalgia in this look back at the badold days of Korean filmmaking; there is certainly something retro about thelook of the film, with its slightly lacquered sets, its faintly theatricallighting and make-up.
Low Life ends asit began - in the middle of a story, with a rather unsatisfying wrap providedby words on the screen. Despite its presence in Venice and Toronto, Im's latestis likely to mean a lot more to Korean audiences than to the internationalbrigade, and may not even achieve the limited arthouse distribution of thedirector's previous festival pleasers, Chunhyangand Chihwaseon.
Prod cos: CinemaService Co Ltd, Taehung Pictures
Int sales: Wild Bunch
Exec prods: Kang Woo-Suk,KimJung-Sang
Prod: Lee Tae-Won
Scr: Im Kwon-Taek
Cine: Jung Il-Sung
Prod des: Ju Byoung-Do
Ed: Park Soon-Duk
Music: Shin Joong-Hyun
Main cast: Cho Seung-Woo, KimMin-Sun, Kim Hak-Joon, Yoo Ha-Joon