A Dirty Carnival: Farewell to the Flesh

A Dirty Carnival: poster

Tell me you heav’ns, in which part of his body Shall I destroy him?

Whether there, or there, or there,

That I may give the local wound a name;

And make distinct the very breach, whereout Hector’s great spirit flew.

Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, IV, 9

If this is not the best gangster film ever, this is perhaps the most organic. A Dirty Carnival, as the title suggests, is a film made of flesh (a popular etymology associates the word “carnival” with the Latin nouns carnem and caro -flesh- and levare -lighten or lift-: literally “to remove the flesh”), generously offered to copious slashing and stabbing. And indeed it goes deep beneath the skin, where the cut runs bare and raw. Where some kind of truth may lie hidden.


A moment of peace

A bit of passion-aggression

With his fourth film (We Must Go To Apgujung-Dong On Windy Days in 1993, Marriage is a Crazy Thing in 2002, Once Upon a Time in High School in 2004), poet Yu Ha has not reinvented the gangster drama genre, he has concentrated and dramatized it, by strictly adhering to a limited number of formal rules, into an infinitely vulnerable body: Jo In-Seong's (The Classic, Spring Days, Public Toilet) slender and nervous Byung-Du. A mid-level mobster, hardly more than a common thug, Byung-Du is in his late 20's and in a bit of a pickle, money-wise. The young man does not only have himself to support, he has to earn the sustenance of his father-deprived family. Things in fact are even tougher than he is: his mother, younger sister and wayward brother are about to get evicted as the film opens.

The story follows his painstakingly slow progress from here, adopting his own particular pace in the process: a mixture of time-keeping regularity and convulsion (and isn't beauty convulsive? André Breton wrote somewhere), defining the very substance of the film, whose scope and scale expands to epic proportions as the narrative fluidly progresses and Byung-Du moves up and through the mean streets of a jobok (organized crime)-controlled Seoul. All the while, the film takes your breath and does not give it back.

A Dirty Carnival has very little to say about pleasure, but a lot about pain (in that, it is not fundamentally different from its predecessor, Spirit of Jeet Kune Do/Once Upon a Time in High School, to which it is a sequel of sorts). It spends a lot of time nailing this portrait of a man both charismatic and pitiful into la réalité rugueuse (rough reality) to borrow Rimbaud's word, as Byung-Du lives and breathes increasingly thin air.

Jo In-Seong: the face as a mask

Jo In-Seong: driven.

Jo In-Seong: out of control

Particular attention is paid to the construction of the gangster, who occupies center stage from start to finish, to the point that A Dirty Carnival is to a large extent his film. It is striking to watch how the actor monopolizes the narrative space, and the camera's attention, which it almost seems to absorb (especially considering Jo In-Seong's previous roles in TV dramas and a few forgettable films). Mid shots and multiple close-ups frame his face like a vice, and catches it between a myriad fugitive emotions, at the opposite end of what somebody like Japanese actor Kitano Takeshi would (refuse to) show, for example. Choi Hyeon-gi's cinematography, based on a gamut of subtly saturated warm colors accentuate the depth of the actor's performance.

Smoking is bad for youA Dirty Carnival is the tale of one man, and two families: one “natural”, the other “adoptive” (his half-a-dozen-brawler gang). The tension between both groups is what informs and drives the narrative primarily. In this respect, the film deals not so much with social ambition per se, the hunger for more that haunts and possesses iconic American gangsters like Little Caesar and Scarface, as with the conflict that divides the main character, and makes his very masculinity problematic. Though his gender forms the bedrock of the story and the genre in which it is written, it is far from a clearly cut (unlike the body of the actor). Byung-Du actually is, for the most part, quite “pitiful”, to use his own word. It is revealing, then, that Yu Ha intended to call his film “A Carnival of Pitiful Thugs”. They are thugs all right, but pretty miserable as well. They haul themselves and their baseball bats into action when they have to. In the (trans)action, they are always damaged, die sooner or later, undone by an enemy's knife and more often than not, by a traitor within their own ranks. Women do not, at least not on screen. They cry (a bit), look very nice, and are supported (financially, and otherwise), for lack of being supportive. They are not made love to. They are hardly kissed, or touched. Sex seems completely out of the question in this strangely chaste carnival where a few seconds from kayo (Korean pop) music videos are the only allusions to the act. The avoidance is all the more surprising as a lot of the cash in the pockets of Korean gangpae notoriously come from prostitution and sex-related businesses. But when Byung-Du courts his old high school flame, Hyeon-Ju (Lee Bo-Yeong), the cypher and hope for an ordinary life, domestic and docile, he does not try to make love with her, he cooks a meal for her! Kim Ki-Duk for one did not have that kind of reluctance when he made his Bad Guy film (about a low-level thug who turns the woman he loves into a prostitute).

Byung-Du's burden as a man is a heavy one, and is presented as a painful and costly prerogative. Men carry the loads, men care, and are hurt one way or the other - by betrayal, disillusionment, experience. That is the story A Dirty Carnival unfolds with patience and horror. Men rise, men fall. And when they fall, it is often in the mire.

The Art of Persuasion

Seng Mae Jang:
the charming custom of burying your enemies alive.

Seng Mae Jang
Violence as the favorite course of action

Violence as the only possible way out/in

In this respect, one of the most fascinating features of the film, aside from the otherwise absolute classicism of its manner and matter, is the series of primal, true-to-life, furious fight sequences during which the characters slash, strike, and drag each other in an endless mud-splattering chaos, in sharp contrast with the invisible process of legitimization of their capitals and enterprises.

To be validated as a man, accepted as such, some dirty work is demanded from Byung-Du. Violence for him, for these men, is never an option, and always the one way to go. But this way, things can only go wrong (they always do… which is why there is a film), insofar as this violence can also be a violation of the rules, the same rules that allow it to be in the first place. As a consequence, the social system within which violence “works” demands the sacrifice of the character... of himself, and of his masculinity, doubly offered as narrative material for Byung-Du's former classmate, Min-Ho (Min Nam-Gung), now a mediocre but manipulative film director in search of authenticity (i.e. validation) and intensity (i.e. masculinity) for his gangster screenplay, and as an acting hand for a “whack job”, executed for the benefit of top-of-the-heap President Hwang Heui-Jang (Cheon Ho-Jin, Crying Fist), who represents the cleaner side of the organized crime, its respectable side.

Thus, to save his family and his gang from disgrace, Byung-Du becomes the means to an end. His position in the hierarchy, already dependent on the good will of others, is mortgaged and placed at the mercy of an unwritten contract from then on. With this short circuit (murder), trust is gained, but trust is also lost.  By killing a public prosecutor, the gangster has earned the favor of his commissioner, at the expense of his tight-fisted direct superior, Sang-Cheol (Yun Je-Mun), whose authority he short-circuited and with whom, of course, the relationship will turn sour.

A world of rituals - to the grave

A world regulated by social rituals, funeral and otherwise

In parallel to these events, Byung-Du trusts Min-Ho's with his intimate confessions on a night of drunken despair. His trust is, of course, doomed - to be disappointed... as if, once the possibility of betrayal had been open, the breach was still gaping wide, threatening to swallow all relations of complicity.

It is clear from the start that Byung-du is not the first and won't be the last in this paranoid spiral (reminiscent of Infernal Affairs), as is suggested by his hyung-nim (elder brother in the gang hierarchy) Sang-Cheol and the final meeting between the survivors of the infernal carnival. In a way, he is trapped in other people's stories, unable to have one of his own, which condemns him to romantic failure, as he cannot choose his “elective affinities”, his own destiny. He is destined to something else.

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This is the way the world ends: with noraebang.

From this perspective, the device of mise en abîme (embedded story), Min-Ho's film within the film, is not just the meta-fictional dimension of the film, it says something about Byung-Du's character as well, something essential, perhaps deeply Korean: he does not belongs to himself, but to concentric circles of social entities that are greater than he is: his family, his friends, his gang. It says something about social reality, seen and shown as intrinsically violent, behind the rituals of conviviality that punctuate the violence of brawl and sentiments (aptly underscored by Jeong Jin-Heui's soundtrack), beyond or after the noraebang (karaoke) and the dining sessions. It makes perfect sense then, that martial arts choreography should be flippantly dismissed in a tongue-in-cheek scene that ridicule the mannerisms of action films and question the very idea of mise-en-scène. Violence, always social, escapes aesthetic categories.

Profoundly teleological, A Dirty Carnival adopts a long-run strategy and lets itself be guided by this violence which remains in the viewer's mind long after watching the film. While consecrating the victory of the social over the individual, of the corporate over the tribal, Yu Ha's film ends as a beautifully bitter and brutally enjoyable piece. Not to be missed.

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