South Korean director Park Hoon-jeong is on record as saying that he’s a big fan of “The Godfather” saga, and “New World” is his stylish entry into the gangster/mafia genre. Though billed as a thriller, “New World” is really a crime drama, because there are probably more sit-and-talk scenes that delineate character than there are action sequences or moments of acute peril.
Sometimes, the talkiness takes away from the tension, and that’s the chief flaw of Park’s second feature. But it’s still way more successful than “The Showdown” (2011). The difference may be as simple as the fact that Park, himself a screenwriter, wrote the script for this one.
“New World” will remind many viewers of “The Departed” because the focus is on Ja-Sung (Lee Jeong-jae), a cop who has been working eight years undercover as a gangster rising through the ranks of Goldmoon, Korea’s biggest criminal organization. With the sudden death of the organization’s chairman, a dark horse and two leading contenders to replace him emerge, with Ja-Sung the lieutenant and best friend of one of them: Jeong Cheong (Jeong-min Hwang), an eccentric loose cannon whose Chinese heritage is a constant source of ridicule. His rival is Lee Joong-goo (Park Seong-woong), who operates with the kind of impunity and ruthlessness you’d expect from someone who thinks he most deserves the company’s reins.
Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography teeters on the edge of neo-noir, with carefully lit scenes highlighting selective parts of the characters faces and at times carving out ominous shadows.
While parts of this 134-minute drama can feel slow or familiar, “New World” gets its spark from Chief Kang (Choi Min-sik), whose rumpled clothing and “Columbo” demeanor (if Columbo also swore like a sailor) is a deceptive façade for the ruthlessness with which he and the police operate. No one blinks an eyelash if one of their many moles or undercover cops has to be killed in order to keep the operation on track.
Kang is a big-picture guy, a general who accepts collateral damage as a way of life. Like Ja-Sung, he’s also the carrier of the film’s main underlying theme: the thin line that separates criminals and cops. When both are using similar tactics, it’s hard to tell the difference. Because Ja-Seoung has been living the life of a gangster for close to 10 years, at times it feels as if he’s a cop in name only. The same applies to the double-dealing and passively aggressive Kang, who’s easily the most interesting and pivotal character.
“New World” isn’t rated, but without question it would merit an R for violence and language. In fact, there were a few times when I found myself wincing at some of the creative, sudden violence, and I’m usually not that squeamish. But it somehow contributes to the style of the film—and “New World” is a very stylish film.
“New World” is available in Blu-ray too, but since we were sent a DVD it’s the standard def version that we’re reviewing. Because the film was shot with a Red One Camera using Redcode RAW (4.5K) and a 2K Digital Intermediate, it looks almost like an HD presentation even on the DVD, so I can imagine how good it must look on Blu-ray. “New World” is presented in 16:9 widescreen.
“New World” features a Korean Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround soundtrack, with English subtitles. All of the channels contribute to a fairly immersive experience, and even though I don’t know Korean and was dependent upon subtitles, I still found myself turning up the volume just to experience the full force of the characters and soundtrack. It’s a solid audio presentation.
Bonus features are scant, with an under five minute “making of” extra that’s really just raw on-set footage. Other than that, there’s a brief slideshow photo gallery of the actors and staff with a few lines in subtitles, and the original theatrical trailer. That’s it.
South Korean cinema is really coming into its own, and while Park Hoon-jeong’s gangster film seems to celebrate the genre rather than adding a whole lot, it’s reflective of a self-conscious style that’s helping South Korean directors turn a few heads.