Movie Club: Gangnam Blues Review
Disco and giant hair take a back seat as gangsters in sharp suits are pitted against each other in a vicious grab for territory in 1970’s Seoul as the wheels are set in motion to expand the city in the Gangnam area. Join Wendilynn, Amy, and Taleena as we discuss the Lee Min Ho blockbuster Gangnam Blues.
Gangnam Blues is intended for mature audiences, and it contains adult content, drug use, graphic violence, nudity, profanity, and strong sexual content.
Wendilynn: Gangs of New York this was not. This wasn't stylized or pretty. This was just an assault to your senses.
Taleena: I didn’t expect a Jets vs. Sharks snapping dance battle or anything, I mean, I’ve seen Lady Vengeance and other gang/crime movies, but holy smokes! I think I was longing for American gun culture by the end of this movie. There was a real visceral wrench at all the knife and ax (and shovel and iron and pick) work that made the few bullets almost a relief to watch.
Wendilynn: I know exactly what you mean. The few times people got shot it was like “awwww, what a nice way to go”, compared to all the groin torture and such that we had to watch. I will say this, if this was how gangsters tortured each other in those days, no wonder gangsters didn’t have kids often.
Amy: What are you talking about? They even mentioned overpopulation! Ha ha! I actually enjoyed the violence aspect. It felt more realistic to me. I don’t know how much access people had to guns or if only the higher ups had guns but yeah. There’s something about watching a guy getting hit that is satisfying.
Taleena: Ah HA! We have our bloodthirsty gal! You know how you watch those crime shows and the profiler says something about “the intimacy of knives”? Well, I totally got that. By the time we got to the huge epic fight at the end of the funeral — which I have questions about — the brutality of stabbing by umbrella just burnt out my nerves.
Wendilynn: By the time we reach the end of the movie, we’ve seen how these boys have been turned into monsters by the brutality of what they had to do in their gang roles. I will say this, that the violence always had a point. Its not like Capt. Hook who’ll just shoot you if he doesn't like how your singing up in the rafters of the ship. Each murder, torture and beating had a reason. But….but… the story showed how these boys were slowly changed and corrupted by those reasons. Boss Kang, who played Lee Min Ho’s adopted father, tried to tell him that the only thing he’d get out of this was death and he had to come to grips with that.
Amy: Taleena, I was actually telling the guys who were throwing their umbrellas down to keep them because they’d be good for beating and stabbing. Ahem. I may enjoy the beatings a little too much. I think that once you’re in that lifestyle it is so hard to get out because you get a taste of money and power. It’s addicting and makes a person selfish and want more and more.
Taleena: OK, I am going to disagree with you a little bit Wendilynn. I don’t think we had to show EVERY murder and beating along the way. I think that the whole first hour could have been streamlined. I get that they were showing both brothers working their way up ladders to bigger ladders, but that first hour was a hard slog.
Wendilynn: Oh, it was gratuitous. No argument from me there. From the killings to the sex scenes. There was more shown then was necessary. If anyone watched this expecting a pretty Lee Min Ho story, boy were they in for a rude awakening. As the comments for the movie show, this shocked a lot of people. Burst their bubbles. As for me, I was ready for a grittier LMH role. One where he wasn’t just standing there looking pretty like he did in Heirs.
Amy: We would have understood their relationships without all the sex scenes. I think they just wanted to show how gangsters lived. Meh. I enjoy seeing actors stretch and show different sides of themselves. Especially when they do it well. I thought that both of the main actors did a great job at sucking me in. I only thought about pretty boy LMH at the beginning. After that I believed in his character.
Wendilynn: Sex scenes are there for fan service. End of story.
Taleena: Honestly, I didn’t think this character was all that different from his City Hunter character. That’s a good thing. City Hunter is my second favorite LMH role - I admit to not being a huge fan of those roles where he has two modes: pout and brood - in CIty Hunter he was raised by a brutal drug kingpin who was ex-intelligence officer. I could easily see the same character being this darker version.
Wendilynn: Easily. The character in City Hunter would have been like this to the Dad character’s delight. It was his essential goodness in City Hunter that kept him from being dark. Sadly, Kim Jong Dae didn’t have that type of gentleness to hold him back. Growing up as ragmen, both he and Baek Yong Gi had to scrounge to survive. When you are stuck hugging a lightbulb for warmth and picking up garbage for a living, a few stabbings and beatings for a warm room and regular food is probably not a big sacrifice. I will say that I was impressed with the improved fighting skills shown by LMH since his City Hunter/Faith days. The boy has been practicing and keeping those skills up. Despite all the photoshoots and product endorsements he does.
Taleena: But, BUT — I knew that LMH would die as soon as his brother mentioned how changed he, the brother, was. Knew it. I did hold out some small hope that because LMH loved his adopted sister, that when he was looking through the photo album and saw that Boss Kang formally adopted him that he would FINALLY get out the way that his dad wanted him to. AND I fully believe that he would have — as shown by the sister waiting for him by the moving truck. AND the fact that he didn’t kill his brother in the end.
Amy: I was holding out hope too. I thought that he’d get out of that tunnel somehow and go to her but I’m a sucker for a happy ending. I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t get out. It would’ve been nice though. When you’re motivated to stay away from a previous lifestyle like that it is hard to see anything else. I think he also already saw himself as a dead man so he was going to do that last job no matter what...
Taleena: The lesson we learned from this is: Don’t trust politicians.
Wendilynn: We trust politicians now? These guys were worse gangsters than the actual gangsters were. They turned on each other just as quickly and then turned on their own people. At least the gangsters had a pretense of family loyalty.
Taleena: Well, I have always had a healthy distrust in politicians, this didn’t help me trust them any. I was wishing all the way through that LMH stuck with Madame Mim — SHE was pouring tea nicely under politician Seo’s radar content to make her tidy stack of money on the side. Kim Rae Won though had no such options. He was an enforcer from the get go.
Wendilynn: She was certainly a smart cookie. Which I actually appreciated because the rest of the girls were prostitutes. She was too, but she wasn’t just a thing to screw during down time.
Taleena: Didn’t she run the gigolos? (Side note- Which I must say, I loved every moment the gigolos were on screen. I am going to grab a ping pong ball for my husband’s pocket next time I drag him out dancing.)
Amy: Just dancing. I think that my husband should have a ping pong ball in his pocket all the time. It’d make things more interesting! Wait. What? Back on track, Amy! I liked Kim Rae Won’s character so I was hoping when he killed Boss Kang he did it to get his guys off of his back but I didn’t trust him. He just didn’t seem to make his own decisions easily and was often persuaded too easily.
Wendilynn: I don’t think I agree with that. Kim Rae Won’s character understood the brutality of his situation. He was often used to provide the commentary for the audience to see the difference between his and LMH’s characters. Like the “Money for me, Land for you” line. There were a few others as well. It showed how LMH’s character had hope for the future and KRW’s character was just take what you can get.
Taleena: KRW’s character had no vision. Yeah, he understood the brutal realities of being a thug, but I see what Amy was saying. KRW wouldn’t make the leap. LMH kept saying now, now, now. Join me now and KRW couldn’t see that if the brothers TRULY combined forces that they could have been unstoppable. KRW was hampered by the fact that he wouldn’t let go of his place in his old gang. His snitching was clumsy and half hearted even.
Wendilynn: Well, its hard to be better when you don’t see the path ahead of you. He had a vision, sort of, that was taking over the gang, but even he knew that was a dead end. He talked about how he wouldn't be there for his kid. He saw no future for himself.
Amy: Yeah. I imagine it would be hard to picture a future when you’re in that situation. Everyone around you is backstabbing each other and you could be killed off at any time. I’m sure he was just doing what he felt was needed to survive.
Taleena: Can we do a little Q and A? Because I have Qs that need As. (Paul Scheer, yes I stole that. Thanks.)
Taleena: In the Big Fight at the Grave - we had LMH’s dudes, who are attacked by who? I thought it was KRW’s dudes, but then THOSE come in and help fight for LMH. THEN a FOURTH wave of thugs come in. I am so confused. I thought that LMH eliminated the third rival gang for Seo and only two were left.
Amy: I thought that they were all KRW’s guys but they came in waves to make the fight harder. I really don’t know though. I was fairly confused myself.
Wendilynn: The way I saw it was Boss Yang sent his loyals, of which KRW is supposed to be one, to kill them during the funeral. KRW private little army, came in as the relief group for Yang’s first group only they switch sides and help LMH’s group instead. It was how KRW was able to become the “boss” later because he killed his direct superior. With the help of a nasty shovel.
Taleena: mmm Okay I’ll buy that. Next. What happened to LMH’s right hand man at the theater with the scattergun? Did we ever see?
Amy: I don’t think we saw that.
Wendilynn: Are you talking about the guy who walked away smoking on the train right before Seo’s guys shot LMH?
Taleena: Yes. Did he just stroll away? Because if so, how fortunate a smoke break was *that*?
Wendilynn: We don’t see, but given that they wiped out everyone that could put Seo in a compromising situation, I don’t think he lived.
Amy: I need to watch the movie again to retain all of this information.
Taleena: He lived in my brain. He rode the train to LMH’s sister and took her away from Seoul gangs and lived happy ever after off the profits from LMH’s property.
Wendilynn: If he lived, he was deliberately looking the other way when LMH was shot. Which means he was in on the clean up.
Taleena: No, you can’t take my happy fantasy away. The clean up guy just couldn’t shoot him in the middle of the passenger car — and you can’t tell me any different.
Wendilynn: You know the character I liked best? Boss Kang. Talk about a sweet man in a bad situation. He tried to make it right, but even he had to bow to the burden of being a gang leader.
Amy: Yeah. He was awesome and could still kick butt despite a bum leg and advanced age. Well, in comparison to his boys. He never let go of trying to be good, though, he just wanted LMH to stay out of trouble so he did what he could.
Taleena: Yeah, that is sweet on a sliding scale.
Wendilynn: Well, sometimes good people get no chance. I had a relative who was a good person, individually, but his life was so messed up from day one that he literally had no chance to really be a decent person.
Taleena: OK. One more question: As LMH lay dying and has a ghostly conversation with KRW, he pinpoints the moment their path went wrong from when the shanty was knocked down, however, I think it went wrong when KRW drank four bottles of milk and they split when he ran to the toilet. What do you think? Because I think that if they had stayed together that their lives would have turned out differently.
Amy: I agree with that. If they hadn’t been separated I’m not sure if they wouldn’t have been gangsters but they would have been together. Of course, being together could be a strength or weakness.
Wendilynn: One of the thoughts I had while watching this show, besides that they were both on journeys to become monsters, is that no matter what you’re relationship is with someone, when it comes to corruption, everyone is a friend and an enemy. Just depends on what is going on and what you have to do to survive. An ally may become a liability you have to remove. The minute they fought with the construction guys and got stuck on that bus, they were on a path that would see them at each other’s throats eventually.
Taleena: Yeah, but. LMH stayed true to his brother even when completely betrayed by him. KRW had those years of bitter, lonely self reliance that LMH was spared by Boss Kang and his sister. I really think that if the brothers had been together that they wouldn’t have turned on each other. Alright, I know I said one question more last time, but really just ONE more. When LMH interrupts the gigolo for the first time to threaten castration, did anyone else think he was wearing the ladies panties? And then laugh completely inappropriately to the scene? AND then laugh even HARDER at his thumbs up at the club later?
Wendilynn: ROFL!!! Okay, I’m so glad I was not the only one who laughed there. I didn’t think “women’s underwear” but I did think pantaloons and the three musketeers. There was something very swashbuckling about that scene, to me, even though it was just finding a naked guy and threatening him with losing his manhood over a land deed.
Taleena: The undies looked VERY frilly for a man, to my eyes. They just scooped whatever clothes off the bed and threw them at the people. Anyway. If it weren't for the gigolo I wouldn't have made it through this movie. I really needed the moment of levity.
Amy: Are you sure you just didn't WANT them to be ladies underwear, Taleena?
Taleena. No. I may have NEEDED them to be ladies underwear. You can not take that and the ping pong ball away from me.
Amy: Let’s take all of Taleena’s joy, Wendilynn! No underwear or fantasy ending for you!
Wendilynn: I'm not sure which is funnier, pantaloons or ladies underwear. lol
Taleena: Well, I did always have some gut feeling that men were all underwear optional in the 70’s. And to think: we did not see ONE harvest gold or avocado green appliance the whole movie.
Wendilynn: This movie was a rough depiction of this time period in Korea’s history. I’m sure for all the gratuitous violence and sex, it probably wasn't far off the mark in how nasty it can and did get. I just wish filmmakers didn’t feel a need to seem edgy with unnecessary skin and brutal violence.
Amy: I appreciated the movie for what it was. A look into a not so pretty time in Korea’s history. I don’t like it when they try to paint a pretty picture instead of showing me, as close as they can, how things really were. Having said that, I am one of those people who need to see a movie twice to fully form an opinion and grasp everything that happened. This movie is definitely not for someone who likes innocent, happy endings. I have to admit, though, that I appreciate a good fight. Maybe from watching Cops and crime shows with my dad as a kid? I’ll give Gangnam Blues 3 stars.
Taleena: I am really on the fence with this movie. From the close and brutal violence, to the at times confusing snarl of competing interests, to the over long entry into the main conflicts, the compelling performances were overshadowed. The grace notes of Lee Min Ho’s relationship with his sister, Jung Jin Young’s earnest performance, and the subtle cunning of Kim Ji Su as Madame Mim were not enough to overcome its flaws. 2 1/2 stars for me.
Wendilynn: I would have to agree with you. The movie is a long 2 hrs and 15 minutes. The sex and violence are in your face and distract from what should have been a compelling story. I loved the performances. The actors really did well with their characters, but I spent too much time wanting to turn my head away. For the average Kdrama fan who left American violence and sexual content, Kdramas are a wonderful break into clean storytelling. Sadly, most of that disappears when you move into the movies. So if one is expecting this to be on some level a cleaner story because Lee Min Ho is in it, or because of the kdramas you've seen. You won’t want to watch this. If you are wanting a gritty story about gangsters, then you probably will enjoy it. This is not my typical genre to watch so there were things that made me very uncomfortable. My star rating would probably be a 3. Good acting, the basic story is very good, but the graphic violence and sex was too much and over done. Isn't slitting a throat quicker then stabbing a guy in the groin repeatedly?
So there you have it, our take on this gangster movie. What were your impressions? We know people either loved it or hated it. What drove you to watch the movie in the first place? (Lee Min Ho?) Did it fit your expectations or were you scared beyond repair? Did you feel Lee Min Ho and Kim Rae Won did well? Let us know your comments below.
For more from your Gangnam Blues Drama Club check out:
Special mention goes to Firnlambe from the Blood DC for the gifs