When we’re first introduced to Choi Min-sik’s titular character of Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time, he’s a civil servant on the take. And he’s not very good at it. Because someone has to take the fall for his team’s indiscretions, he is targeted because he has the least amount of dependents. In his new security guard job, he stumbles upon a cargo of drugs and concocts a plan to find someone willing to pay. That would be Choi Hyung Bae, Busan’s Big Crime Lord (Ha Jung-Woo). Arrogant and disrespectful of Choi, he saves himself by questioning the crime lord about his family. And lo and behold, they’re related. Thus begins his ascent into becoming a crime lord himself.
With all his smarminess and ineptness, the audience is bound to be drawn to the smooth and sinister Crime Boss instead of the lead. One of the fundamental tenets in storytelling is that we must like a hero enough to take a journey with him. Because there’s no likeable character trait in our lead, the audience may have a hard time rooting for him. We only watch his descent into more depravity. Not to say that the journey is uninteresting. In fact, it’s sometimes darkly comedic as we watch him fumble through the violent crime world. Though, at times we just want the Crime Lord to kill him and be done with it.
This breaking in the rules of storytelling might well be intentional. Director Yoon Jong-bin said that he sympathizes with characters that had to live during the volatile period in which adherence to rules was enforced by a militaristic government. Much like his characters who expand the rules of loyalty, betrayal, and goodness, the audience has to expand its wiliness to accept a character. It’s heady stuff. The grisliness, the machinations, and the maneuvering were exciting enough to keep me from shouting at the screen for the Nameless Gangster to be offed. But the more I think about it, the appealing and unbridled violence was just an entrée for him to inject humanity -- maybe not for his characters, but for his audience.
Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time screens in select theaters. Check the film's website for theater information.
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