If, after watching The Chaser, you felt like killing yourself, this film should lift your spirits. Instead of looking at Asian crime action films of a darker subject matter, I’ll look at one that is just plain fun, bright, and fast paced, which tends to obscure its very heavy subject matter. Seung-wan Ryoo’s The City of Violence (2006) is a light-hearted gangster film, about former friends fighting to the death over the fate of their hometown.
The City of Violence follows Tae-su (Doo-hong Jung): a police detective from Seoul who returns to his hometown to investigate the murder of an old friend. He meets up with his former “Stand By Me-style” gang; some want to help him solve the murder, while others are working in the shadows of the criminal underworld and plotting against him. Tae-su must take down both friends and enemies in order to avenge his fallen comrade.
The story is very simple, and easily transitions between over the top action and a tragic tale of friends destroying their bond. The film moves in linear fashion through Tae-su’s investigation, including some short flashbacks that show the former relationship between Tae-su and his friends. The flashbacks are shot with a naturalistic yellow color scheme and grain, similar to that of Stand By Me. These flashbacks contain a combination of nostalgic memories and people beating the hell out of each other.
The characters are also similar archetypes to that of the 80’s film friendships. There is the cowardly friend, the doughy kid, the loyal fighter friend, the spunky leader, the neglected sidekick. These archetypes are turned upside-down when we see the adult friends as shells of their former selves. The dead friend was a retired gangster who used to run the town, which is now run by the neglected sidekick turned super-violent mob boss, Pil-ho (Beom-su Lee). The cowardly friend becomes a heroin-addicted teacher, who gets paid to send his students to go do muscle jobs for the mob. The younger brother is Tae-su’s right hand man who tries to avenge the death of the friend, but also beats and resents his older brother for bringing his family into poverty.
The film mixes super stylistic fight sequences with dark mob-killings. Any time an extravagant fight is shown, the lighting is bright and saturated, and the choreography is wide and acrobatic. This contrasts beautifully with a “taking out the trash” sequence in the film in which a teenager is set on fire, an old woman and her son are murdered in their car, and a man is given cement shoes and is dropped into a lake. The color scheme in these scenes is concise with one primary color, instead of a multiplicity of bright colors dominating the screen.
The action sequences are awesome. They aren’t as hard hitting as The Raid’s, but they have flare and a sense of fun. Two amazing fight sequences in particular are a night-time fight vs. school children, and the knife fight in a paper door dinner room. The school child fight is this grand scale battle that plays with open space and over-the-top choreography. It starts out with break dancers and bicyclists attacking Tae-su, and only gets grander as he has to fight school girls, a baseball team, and a hockey team. I don’t feel sorry for the whoopin’ these children receive, because they are portrayed as brats who deserve what they get. The knife fight, which takes place during the climax of the film, plays with confined space and an incredible use of choreography, combined with setting. Paper doors are opened and shut as Tae-su and his right hand man have to fight a group of knife-wielding henchmen. The camera keeps close to them as people with knives pop out of every direction in an ever-changing setting. This sequence also contains an dazzling overhead shot of the paper door fight with Pil-ho’s face covering part of the screen, overlapping his contemplation as the violence draws toward him. The entire climax plays out like a videogame with Tae-su and his right hand man moving through different parts of this casino fighting stronger and stronger enemies in wild bouts of zany choreography.
The City of Violence is a dark tale about a small town that thrives on violence and betrayal. Like the town, the film has bright colors, zany characters and over the top action, keeping a sense of fun (and hiding the evil within). It’s a fun time, just don’t expect Disneyland, expect ghetto Disneyland.
Favorite Scene: The paper room knife fight is a joy to watch, being both fun and suspenseful.
Written by Tyler Ducheneaux
Images from The City of Violence