An ironic look at gangs and violence“Mean Streets” by Yu Ha is a poignant illustration of violence. It jumps between realistic and fantastic depictions of violence, questioning ways in which our cinematic culture has consistently idealized and consumed the myth of justice and pride associated with gangsters as an aesthetic subject.
The film presents the story of the private life of a gangster as an ordinary social subject.
Byeong-du (Jo In-seong) is the boss of a small gang made up of young hoodlums. His friend from childhood, Min-ho (Namgung Min), is a struggling film director who renews the friendship specifically to make his next film about gangsters.
“Mean Streets” resonates with irony when Byeong-du asks his director friend to make “a real film of gangsters who live and die with justice.”
His request embodies his desperation to project his lost dreams, which never existed in his world in the first place.
The film persistently overturns general assumptions on the gangsters’ world. Byeong-du’s life is real and intruded upon by the trivia of family life and work, just like anyone else’s.
He buys his sister a mobile phone and pays his mother’s hospital fee. Yet he is drenched in shame when a girl he went to school with tells him she’s heard what he does for a living.
The film encapsulates its entire point when Byeong-du painfully confesses to the girl, “I may be called a gangster, but I am not the kind of person that you think.”
Yet as his world becomes more despicable, he clings to a guise of loyalty to his gang first and foremost, telling his boys at a feast that “a family is nothing but mouths that eat together.”
As one critic wrote, perhaps the film is a message to the world from gangsters who have been portrayed in Korean films as an invasive social force, but are also victims in reality.
Perhaps that’s why the film becomes convincing when Min-ho betrays his old friend and uses a secret Byeong-du confided in him of a murder he committed in his film without consent.
In the end the only world that isn’t real is that of Min-ho’s film.
Byeong-du admits that his world is not that different from the rest of the world. He betrays the loyalty he espoused when he stabs his boss to death as his only way out of a risky situation. Min-ho believes his film shows true reality.
Yet the dramatic gap between reality and fantasy is clear when the two clash on the set of the movie, as Byeong-du, after demonstrating the “real actions” of gangsters to the film’s choreographer, is asked to leave, because his presence makes the crew feel “uncomfortable.”
As the story continues, however, the audience is led to question whether the violence portrayed in “Mean Streets” is any more relevant than in Min-ho’s film-within-the-film. When the larger movie ends with a flashback of Byeong-du asking his friend to shoot a film of gangsters who live and die with justice, after he has been stabbed to death by a boy from his gang, it becomes apparent the story is meant to be a myth.
by Park Soo-mee
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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