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Tazza: Card Boy Bebop

    Tazza: poster

Tazza has opened exceptionally for a couple of weeks at The Imaginasian, last Friday, February 2nd.

The film went far beyond my expectations. Despite or because of its classicism, Tazza: The High Rollers, the third highest grossing film in South Korea last year (after The Host and The King and the Clown), never surrenders to the easy terms that the gambler genre offers. Quite the contrary, the film transcends its surface aesthetics by tightening its grip on the stake it has elected as its horizon, namely: becoming the number one tazza (Korean slang for a professional gambler), while effortlessly concentrating its narrative and visual energy on a sort of superflat formal beauty.

Cho Seung-Woo
Cho Seung-Woo: style can be substance 

 

Tazza: the manhwaFrom start to finish, director Choi Dong-Hoon (the author of the fast-paced and already brilliantly constructed Big Swindle) follows the rhythm and the relentless logic of a pure thriller, constantly showing a fundamental pleasure in the direction and staging of his film. The storyboard is animated by a grammar of action perfectly mastered, like a very well-written manhwa  - the film is based on a popular Korean comic book by Heo Young-Man.

Tazza has the dynamism of plain pulp entertainment but the class and sharp style of the high roller it is rightly claiming to be.

In that sense, it would be unfair, and quite a simplification to see this film as the umpteenth variation of the “rounders”/gamblers genre, even though most of the archetypal elements are present (and are part of a pure pleasure of recognition that cannot be ignored), in the same (American) lineage as The Hustler, or The Color of Money: a young and necessarily naive hwatu (Korean card game) player, Go-Ni (played by Cho Seung-Woo) loses everything right from the beginning. With this disastrous entrance, the character is left open to  infinite possibilities of gain, since he has nothing. Typically and fittingly, he goes on a quest to retrieve his hard-earned savings and “save” his family, thus entering the fateful chronology of the gambler-apprentice, punctuated by a number of rules that resonate as both moral commandments and micro-narratives around which episodes involving the main characters, sketched in a few shots and witty lines of dialogue, unfold and fashion memorable noir sequences:

* To win, you must become a beast. Ruthlessness is a must.

* Your hands must be quicker than your eyes.

* No game is safe. Trust no one.

* There are no friends for life, just as there are no enemies for life.

 

Reclining beautyThese precepts (a lesson in moral relativity) are to be learnt the hard (-bop) way, as a matter of course, by the player, Go-Ni. They punctuate and constitute his story, step by step, as a filmed bildungsroman (German for “novel of formation”) in which he becomes aware of the ins and out of gambling that he picks up, much in the manner a pickup artist would, from hwatu grand master Pyeong (Baek Yoon-Sik, the sajangnim –CEO- in the 2005 quirky masterpiece Save the Green Planet and street combat sabunim of The Art of Fighting), who comes across as the unlikely crossover between a funky mustachioed Yoda and a deus ex machina in a white suit. In the course of his initiatory preparation, little more than an apprenticeship of tricks when you get down to it, the moral and redemptive dimension of his “quest” discreetly fades out of focus… as soon as Go-Ni loses himself in the excitement of the actual games and the twists and turns that logically bring a bit of fun and chaos (and pain) to the order of things.

Cho Seung-Woo

Cho Seung-Woo: "You can tell by the way I smoke that I'm a ladies' man"

Interestingly, the aleatory puzzle-like arrangement of these games puts the technical aspects of hwatu-playing at a distance. As the stakes go higher, the virtuosity of the players cease to matter and wind up being reduced to the basic blurry line between cheating and not cheating that the top players walk across off-handedly, but at the risk of their own hands and bodies. In the end, if the emphasis is put on the art of bending the “truth”, rather than the card-dealing itself, it is because the sleight-of-hand that is performed each time the players meet embodies the main skill of the protagonists. The cards themselves are incidental in this respect. It is no wonder that the cards can literally be concealed within the palm of the hand. By metonymy, by extension, the ultimate stake/stage of the game becomes the bodies of the players, rather than money, which soon vanishes as a pre-text, a blank slate where to write down the tricks to be performed. Money has to burn, so that the pyromaniacs can be free to perform, like the jazz players that the exquisitely light bebop soundtrack (signed by Jang Yeong-Gyu) seems to suggest they are.

The good, the bad, and the ridiculously good-looking 

 

Choi Dong-Hoon has fused the fate of his film with the personal charisma of the performers whose formidable synergy is probably the strongest part of the film. That is where Tazza is most successful, especially when it comes to the female lead: Kim Hye-Soo, who was unsurprisingly voted the most beautiful face in Korea, in a poll conducted by the film magazine Movie Week. 86 of South Korea’s top photographers praised her “commanding presence”, among other things; a presence and a performance that earned her the award for Best Actress at the 27th Blue Dragon ceremony for her role as Madame Jeong, “the flower of gambling”.

 

  
  
Good, bad, beautiful, all of the above: Kim Hye-Soo as the ultimate femme fatale 

The intense corporeality of her acting in Tazza and the physical space she occupies with grace and ineffable swagger during her scenes makes her performance more central in the film than her young lover, played by the ever-present Cho Seung-Woo (to whom the overall charm of the film owes a lot), equal to that of Marlene Dietrich in The Devil Is a Woman (Joseph von Sternberg, 1935).

As Kim Hye-Soo sashays back and forth into the screen, too close for comfort or tauntingly beautiful in the distance, she takes on the aspect of a madonna bathed in showers of light. A walking flesh-and-blood version of Cowboy Bebops two-dimensional babe Faye Valentine and the Korean equivalent of Simone Simon’ s Séverine in Renoir’s La Bête Humaine,

Kim Hye-Soo, stunning

Faye ValentineSimone Simon: a French femme fatale

Two archetypes of femme fatale: "superflat" manga character Faye Valentine and Simone Simon in La Bête Humaine

 

her skin and always tantalizing attire absorb the light as the director sheathes her in tight dresses that sanctify her body, hinting and revealing rather than veiling the promise beneath the clothing.  Her sexual radiance is the perfect counterpart of the nocturnal cityscape background where she comes forth as a quasi-spectral presence.  

 

In the most erotic scene of the film, the eye of the spellbound spectator is irresistibly drawn down the curve of her naked back to her lower body as she sits on a bed talking to her young lover, offering the nostalgic and elegant enticement of a post-coitum moment of surrender. The beauty of her performance is that it is proffered through both her voluptuous curves and the nonchalance of her diction, which traverse the film and carry it to its conclusion with the sumptuous triumph of the Baudrillardian object. If Cho Seung-Woo gets the last shot, she still gets the last word.

 

 Tazza: the cast
For a detailed explanation and a full description of the hwatu game, click here.

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