Strangely cool and sweet crime storyOne of the strengths of genre films often lies not in their originality or realism, but their ability to turn familiar subjects that’ve been explored many times before into believable tales. In the dictionary of commercial cinema, that’s called a well-made movie. It takes a conventional story, sprinkles in some unusual twists and dresses it all in a new narrative style.
“Blood Ties” follows the formula faithfully, dealing with the familiar subject of drug trafficking, but does so using various techniques ― including raw dialogue and dramatic characters ― to make the story believable.
The film opens with a written sequence, explaining the story is a fictional scenario based on the Korean drug trafficking scene shortly after the country’s foreign exchange crisis led to a peak in substance abuse.
As the film begins, voices of newscasters are heard warning of a police crackdown on heroin dealers. This is followed by a voiceover by Sang-do (played by Ryu Seung-beom), a dealer who practically grew up in the industry, having started out doing delivery work for his uncle.
Sang-do calls himself a professional “businessman.” He himself never uses the drugs he sells and he is ready to sell out even his friends if he’s put in danger. When Doh Jin-gwang (Hwang Jeong-min), a ruthless detective from the narcotics department of the Busan police office offers him a deal to inform on his secret boss, Sang-do agrees, telling himself, “Life is a swamp. Somebody becomes a crocodile; others become crocodile birds. I will pass the swamp and become a crocodile.”
The film is about the despicable rules of the drug underworld, where not only do dealers exploit junkies but cops also exploit the petty young dealers.
The film is fast and stylish and does a good job for the most part. It’s notable for its confident editing, which jumps boldly from one scene to another. The music, although selected from pop tracks of the 1970s and ’80s, still seems relevant for the peculiar social mood that pervaded Korea in the late ’90s.
In addition, the film’s location in Busan adds rustic images of the port city, which has almost become a cinematic icon of decadence representing the country’s dark past in films such as “Friends” ― about high school friends from the ’70s who end up in the Korean “mafia.”
In the end, the film does not have a distinct connection to the foreign exchange crisis but the setting is still relevant, because it puts the story in the context of the psychological trauma experienced by people of the period.
The film’s ending leaves the audience with a perverse sense of longing, as it makes one feel almost nostalgic for the country’s dark social past, whether it’s through the raw footage of heroin piles we were once used to seeing in news images or then-familiar shots of dead bodies covered in plastic sheets, near piles of cargo ready to be sent overseas from a port.
Strangely the film, though it tries, is too cool ― and perhaps too sweet ― to be in the end a hard-boiled crime-action movie.
by Park Soo-mee