Gangster themes have been featured in South Korean cinema since the 1970’s, but they only became popular in the early 1990’s. Various productions ‘promoted’ the image of an ‘honourable’ mobster; however, in the past decade or so, films took on a more vicious approach to the subject matter; they became more brutal, with homicides and assaults overtaking the big screen. With both hits and misses, the country slowly started to dominate the international film market and among the international releases, Kang Yoon-sung’s The Outlaws, a film based on true events, is definitely one of the films you shouldn’t miss.
Jang Chen (Yoon Kye-sang) is a cold-blooded and ruthless gangster from China, who finds Seoul’s Chinatown to be the perfect spot for his illegal money-lending business. With his right-hand man Wei Sung-Rak (Jin Seon-Kyu), they ‘butcher’ those opposing them, including people who are not able to repay the loans. With local gangs feeling threatened by Jang Chen, there is only one solution to the situation – Ma Suk-do (Ma Dong-seok: Train to Busan), a detective who runs a crime unit and deals with the mobs. The situation worsens and Ma Suk-do loses his patience with Jang Chen; he threatens the criminal and swears to bring him to his knees and to justice. Concurrently, the detective is at risk of losing the case as the situation gets uncomfortable for some influential people, involved in unlawful trades… and countless punches get thrown.
Kang Yoon-sung’s directorial feature debut grabs the audience by the throat with not only its strong cast, but also a polished screenplay that skillfully mixes action and humour. The production has enough thrills and suspense to satisfy even the most jaded sensation-seeker, and the dialogue, often disappointingly primitive in some of the Korean action films, seems uncannily close to Quentin Taratino’s writing style – which might somewhat please certain viewers. Ma Dong-seok is superb as the defiant – and slightly overweight – detective Ma Suk-do, who is well past his youthful years. Ma Dong-seok, known for his past supporting roles, finally shines in the lead; he creates a character that is tough and relentless, but has a good sense of jocularity. Yoon Kye-sang, a member of the idol group g.o.d., plays the villain for the first time in his acting career; he delivers. but does not succeed in coming out of Ma Dong-seok’s shadow – the man steals all the spotlight.
With impressive long shots, impeccable editing – mostly edited after each filming, on the day – and cinematography, and with painstakingly prepared production design, The Outlaws is one of the most exciting South Korean action thrillers of 2017. The entire construction of the film works well and shows the director’s ability to translate a good script into an excellent film. It is hard to believe that Kang Yoon-sung’s film was rejected by various mainstream Korean production companies as the leading actors weren’t famous enough for the companies to invest money into the project – luckily, the director eventually found investors who entrusted him with $44 million dollars, and he delivered; there is no doubt that Kang Yoon-sung has a great future ahead of him as a writer and a filmmaker.
Written by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
All Photos © Hong Films B.A. Entertainment & Megabox Plus M