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New York Asian Film Festival (June 29th - July 15th, 2012)

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Nameless Gangster

Directed by Jong-bin Yun

      In 1982, Choi Ik-hyun (Choi Min-sik), a South Korean customs officer about to be laid off, finds a stashes of methamphetamine. He seizes the opportunity to make money by selling the drugs to a ruthless, powerful crime boss, Choi Hyung-bae (Ha Jeong-woo). Ik-hyun gradually enters the gangster world as he partners with Hyung-bae, putting both of their lives at risk for the sake of money and power. They get along initially, but soon tensions arise between the two, and their friendship and business partnership becomes unstable as well as volatile.

      A truly great crime thriller should have palpable suspense, action and drama coupled with at least enough realism to character depth to make you emotionally invested in the story and its characters---even if they're far from moral. Nameless Gangster acheives each of those feats with flying colors. On the surface, it's a gritty, suspenseful thriller that will keep you at the edge of your seat as the twists and turns arise. None of those surprises will be spoiled here, though. Beneath the surface, it's a profoundly human story about how easy it can be to become corrupt. Ik-hyun essentially gets sucked into the world of gangster crime like a whirlpool. Greed, selfishness and the thirst for power are addictive and seductive to people like him and Hyn-bae. They're both evil and violent men, but not in a cartoonish way because they're not one-dimensional characters. Ik-Hyun's biggest challenge is trying to get out of the whirlpool which only gets more complicated given the government's corruption.

      Writer/director Jong-bin Yun offers both style and substance. He keeps the pace moving along swiftly and keeps the plot character-driven without resorting to contrived or dull moments. A lot happens until Ik-hyun becomes Hyung-bae's partner-in-crime, but the many events that transpire never feel convoluted or confusing. It also helps that the entire cast delivers solid performances, especially the very talented Choi Min-sik who you might recognize from I Saw the Devil and Oldboy. He's absolutely mesmerizing onscreen, and sinks his teeth into the complex role with aplomb as well as charisma.

      At a running time of 2 hours and 13 minutes, Nameless Gangster is a well-acted, intelligent and riveting thrill ride that will take your breath away. It's one of the most powerful gangster films in years.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Showtimes: Saturday, June 30th @ 9 PM and Tuesday, July 3rd @ 1 PM at the Walter Reade Theater.
Released by CJ Entertainment.

A Simple Life

Directed by Ann Hui

      Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) has been the Leung family's servant in Hong Kong for the past six decades. All of the Leung family has moved to America except for Roger (Andy Lau) who lives alone with her. She's the only one who knows how to cook for him ox tongue soup just the way he likes it. When she suffers a stroke, he now has to find the time to take care of her while concurrently looking after himself. She announces that she wants to quit her many years of working as a servant, and he soon sends her to nursing home.

      Well-acted, deeply human and emotionally resonating, A Simple Life never veers toward melodrama because of its sensitive screenplay, nuanced performances and a heightened sense of realism. At times it's quite heartbreaking and devestating to watch especially because the bond between Ah Tao and Roger feels so strong and palpable from start to finish. It truly deserved being the official Oscar entry for China.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Showtimes: Monday, July 9th @ 5 PM at the Walter Reade Theater.
Released by China Lion Film Distribution.

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