In the 1970s the land of Gangnam in Korea was nothing more than bare stretches of impoverished farmland, a stark contrast to the busy high-society city that it is today less than 50 years later. Gangnam Blues, or Gangnam 1970, is set amongst this era of political corruption and gang wars as we follow our protagonists through the struggles of life and the beginnings of real estate developments that are covered in blood.
Our protagonists are two sworn brothers who grew up together in an orphanage- Jong-dae (Lee Minho) and Yong-gi (Kim Raewon). We are introduced to the two brothers who scrape by a living by collecting trash and live in a nearby shantytown, cold and dirty. Through the forces of progression their house is torn down and they soon have little choice but to accept an offer for a quick job with the local gang. The job is to cause chaos at a political demonstration, but during this mayhem the two are separated and each return on a different bus with a different gang. Three years later the two brothers are deep within the worlds of their respective gangs, embroiled in political corruption and plots for real estate development.
The film has all the elements that you’d come to expect from a “gangster film”- with plenty of dark dealings, beatings, suits, sex and drugs, but there is something so beautiful in the cinematography of this film that it balances it all out and becomes more. The landscapes and scenes are full of beautiful detail, and you find yourself very much drawn into this world.
This is also supported by how attached you become to the characters, and not just the relationship between the two brothers (although this is certainly one of the most principal parts of the film), but with those around the brothers as well. Jong-dae is seemingly the luckier of the two, having the opportunity to be a part of more of a “gang-family”, and these relationships (despite their brutal life) are actually quite heartwarming. Yong-gi wasn’t so lucky, but his gang (and its political associates) at least provides you with plenty of characters to hate.
This is a truly standout role for Lee Minho, one that does not have any traces of the usual high-school angst or ridiculous sweaters, but instead multi-layered characterisation. In his portrayal there is a young man who has been hardened by life and yet is able to still maintain an innocent hope burning inside of him.
The last film I saw Kim Raewon in was My Little Bride, so this was quite a different character, but again the role seemed to suit him perfectly. His character was perhaps more complex than Jong-dae, and till the end you were never quite sure exactly what Yong-gi was thinking, and Kim portrayed this fantastically.
At its essence this is really a film about the weakest human qualities set amongst blood and violence, but with characters with whom you sympathise and grow to hope for despite their weaknesses.
It all makes for a completely fascinating film and I was capture from the very beginning to the confronting conclusion. Everything works so beautifully together- the music, the landscape, the dialogue, the acting and the setting, to create such an immersive representation of fascinating period of history. I think when I next stroll down the streets of Gangnam I’ll have a far deeper appreciation of the land and it’s worth.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 135 minutes