The head of the Goldmoon crime syndicate is dead, after a late-night engagement with a blue lozenge and a fair mistress, leaving his two closest lieutenants to duke it out for top dog. Seizing the opportunity, if somewhat outgunned and outmanned by the rival-clan gangs operating in their prefecture, the police launch an operation called "New World," with the ideal weapon. The boss' right-hand man, Ja-sung (LEE Jung-jae, The Thieves), has been their deep-cover operative for 8 years, closely watched by handler Police chief Kang (CHOI Min-sik, Oldboy), much in the manner of classic Mafia/gangland flicks (1997) and The Departed (2006).
The set design is ultra-sleek and high tech, except when in the service of meetings on the QT they are grungy and sanguinary, ready for knife-play and bludgeons. With a baby on the way, and living in mortal fear of being exposed as a mole, Ja-sung is torn between his duty and honor as a cop, and the fiercely loyal gang members who will follow him to hell and back. One scene set in a garage is alone worth the price of the viewing: It outMatrixes The Matrix, with a Sargasso of cravated, white-shirted, black-suited, raven-haired, silken Hong Kongese and Chinese thugs, neat as obsessive compulsive cutlery drawers, emerge simultaneously from late-model black sedans, bats and knives in hand, as they tumult into each other. As they wear no gang colors, you don't know who is whacking whom, but the choreography, blam-blam and blood is an opera drenched in stylized controlled mayhem. My Chinese and Korean colleagues assured me the story is a classic, and there was "nothing special" about these scenes, and one gorge-fest in an elevator, but I disagree. They drink and smoke beyond accounting, but they are neither temulent nor slackers.
Not partial to violence, I am fascinated by the careening and wheeling elbows and knees and body- English combat in lightning fashion for minutes on end. The stars are well-loved and popular in the HK, Shanghai, and Seoul hornet hives of such martial fare. The slim, taut protagonists are also, in many scenes, mesmerizingly thoughtful, bringing depth to the many scenes of mixed betrayal and fealty to dark lords, as the psychological import of their steely feints impinges on their sense of the brevity of their futures. Without knowing when, a subaltern can be bashed to death by men with a shovel, stuffed in a barrel, shot at point-blank range then rolled off a pier, or knifed unceremoniously after a cordial final cigarette. Beautiful settings, bucolic winding roads, finessed conference rooms and splendid punctiliousness as dozens of well-shod men bow deeply in reverence to elders or powerful superiors -- all the while gimlet-eyed in planning the deaths of the man on the podium, or the police in the car with a camera. Deep bowing, followed with brisk and unemotional deadly killings, bleeding from various orifices and large muscle groups: These are men who take a licking, but keep on sikking.
Using inside information from Ja-sung to damage the relationship between the two feuding contenders, the gang leaders' suspicions grow that a traitor lives in their ranks. Ruthless Jung (HWANG Jun-min, Blades of Blood) escalates the game by hiring hackers to search the police database for the possible mole in his ranks. As Operation New World closes in, and with the stakes climbing higher and a gangland bloodbath guaranteed among those that remain, Ja-sung makes a shocking decision few could have predicted.
It's not Tarantino, which is a relief, but it keeps your interest throughout, even if you have a struggle with the various rival gangs and the subtitles. It will be most admired by devotees of Asian film, and those intrigued by how Western violence culture filters through the local underculture. Not everyone's cup of chai.