November 24, 2013

New World: May the Best Buffoon Win

I know I've seen actor Hwang Jeong-min before. He plays a deadpan detective in The Unjust, a snooping insurance agent in Black House, and a doomed lover in You Are My Sunshine. He's always been good but I was totally unprepared for just how great he is in writer-director Park Hoon-jung's New World. Here, playing Jeong Cheong, one of four gangsters vying to be the next Godfather of Korea's largest crime syndicate, he gives a performance that's epic in scale. What's even more impressive is how sneakily he builds that performance, starting off as a stereotype -- an uneducated thug who favors knock-off designer wear and sports a Jheri curl -- and ending up the movie's most complex character. So don't dismiss him as comic relief. Soon enough, his character will develop an edge. Then alongside his peacock posturing, you'll discover a sadistic streak that suggests, though dimwitted, he's dangerous, too. But wait! Even that evaluation must get tossed aside as you come to realize that his buffoonery is a pose, that he's quite savvy to the political web in which he's ensnared. If he's not the spider, then the spider better beware.

But New World, sad to say, isn't Jeong Cheong's story. It's the story of one of the underworld's other rising stars, Lee Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae) -- an undercover cop who's being asked to stay incognito for the rest of his life as a way to the police force informed until the end of time. It seems a bit much to ask but at least Section Chief Kang, the one asking him to act as "mole" forever, is played by Choi Min-sik who can make any plot device, no matter how preposterous, seem perfectly believable. When Kang outwits the other aspiring crime lord Jung-gu (Park Seong-woon), you believe it. When he quits smoking as a way to honor an unlucky direct report (Song Ji-hyo), you kind of believe that too. You can almost believe his final encounter with one of the movie's murderous hobos. Almost but not quite.

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