A big reason that critics and cineastes flocked to Asian thrillers and gangster movies way back when Hong Kong auteur John Woo was just starting out was the sense that Hollywood had shown us everything it had to offer in the genre.
Chinese hit man thrillers, Japanese Yakuza epics, Thai and Indonesian police pictures, all seemed exotic — both familiar and alien, generic and rule-bending.
“Night in Paradise” is a Korean kick-in-the-teeth version of the “gangster on the lam” tale. Writer-director Park Hoon-jung is best known for the horror gem “I Saw the Devil” in the West. But he’s worked in copland/gangland before. Here, he’s served up a thriller without pity, with violence as visceral as any that’s made it to the screen.
When your bad guys’ murder, torture and punishment weapon-of-choice is a knife, there’s little of this illusory “one shot and it’s over” tidiness of Hollywood. Things get real messy real quick when there are blades involved.
Tae-goo Eom, a detective in “I Saw the Devil,” plays “made man” Park Tae-gu. He’s a higher-level lieutenant in the gang run by Yang (Park Ho-San), a guy forced to manage negotiations with rival gangs and endure insults from their leaders because his boss is perceived as “weak” and “a cripple (in Korean with English subtitles).”
When we meet him, he’s having to sit through threats and parables — “the tale of the chariot and the mantis” — from one such thug. That makes him late meeting his sister and her precocious kid at the hospital. Somebody needs a transplant. Some relative might be a match.
“Don’t gangsters just hang around all day?” his sister (Dong-in Cho) taunts. “Try not to get stabbed, because that would be really bad” her six year-old (Ahn Se-bin) chirps in.
Aww. So cute, the both of them! Of course they’re killed in the very next scene, and thus The Rules for “Night in Paradise” are established. Don’t get attached. To ANYone.
Because as Tae-gu carries out his cunningly-planned revenge on the rival gang’s Chairman Doh, makes his getaway to an island hideout owned by gun-smuggler and former hit-man Kuto (Lee Gi-yeong) and his grating, bluff and depressed niece Jae Yeon (Jeon Yeo-bin), the gangland coup Tae gu started all comes apart.
With brutish Director Ma (Seung-Won Cha) on the case, wanting his blood, tongue or fingers in revenge, it’s “knives out” in the most literal sense.
And help? It might come from the usual (movie convention) places, or not come at all.
Park casts his picture in a grey-blue gloom of mourning. Characters die, or are dying. They all know it and act accordingly. Revenge offers no one any solace, but it’s what the fates ordain.
Tae-goo Eom and Jeon Yeo-bin (“After My Death”) create a brittle rapport for their characters, destined by genre convention to face the furies together. Park twists up their “relationship” and makes their connection more fatalistic than anything else.
There’s one stunning chase that begins on foot in the Seoul airport, reaches the freeway and adds violent flourishes every step or car-ramming along the way. When you’re not spattering brains all over the windshield with a dumdum bullet (there are plenty of guns), “catching” your quarry is just the first hurdle you have to overcome. Getting him out of the car without losing every single minion to injuries great and small can be a chore when he’s got the option of fighting back, and the desperation to do it.
That’s riveting to watch.
The torture is hands-on and bloody. Even the meals Tae gu and Jae Yeon share, with or without other gangsters or a mediating, paid-off cop (Mun-shik Lee), are brutal. The soups are mouth-watering, the slurping, belching table manners straight out of goon finishing school (a Yakuza movie convention).
Park’s patient, edge-of-your-seat storytelling is a delicious and dark “Around the World with Netflix” substitute for any genre fan weary of what Hollywood has to show you in a gang war vein.
There is no “paradise” in this world, and you can bet there won’t be one awaiting the slaughtered when all the scores are settled and everyone and I do mean everyone has gotten what they have coming to them.
MPA Rating: TV-MA, graphic, bloody violence
Cast: Tae-goo Eom, Jeon Yeo-bin, Seung-Won Cha, Park Ho-San, Mun-shik Lee and Lee Gi-yeong
Credits: Scripted and directed by Park Hoon-jung. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:11