Americans are conditioned to wait for that moment when an onscreen brawl crosses over into “to the death” territory. Some gangster or cop will pull out a firearm.
You’ll have a long wait for that in “Paid in Blood,” a Korean gang war thriller that spills all its blood the old-fashioned way — with fists, sticks and knives.
The latest film from Yoon Youngbin reminds us just how much damage a sharp blade can do, how long it can take to “bleed out” from the wounds, and how much guts it takes the fight with this corner of gangland’s weapon of choice.
Titles “Tomb of the River” is Korea, it’s a movie of elderly gangsters and their hobbies — pen and ink drawings, growing and drying one’s own chili peppers — and the hotblooded young men who might not let anybody’s retirement pass peacefully, if they even let a mob boss reach retirement age.
The power dynamic at play is brutal Lee Min-suk (Jang Hyuk), a gangster born in Seoul, is now a “debt collector” for one of the two main gangs in coastal Gangneung. No, he’s not content with that long-time arrangement, which includes the occasional hired killing. He breaks his deal with the Gyeongdo Gang with a blade.
Kim Gil-suk (YOO O-Seong) is a loyal lieutenant with the rival Taekji gang, the sort of insider who has an in with the cops. He’s always warning his boss when this meeting or that bar is about to be raided.
Even though the patriarch of this underworld counsels “not fighting” because “when you fight, you both get hurt,” Lee Min-suk is about to slice up the peace and anybody planning to keep it.
His MO? He finds saps who owe him big debts to take the fall. The ineffectual and corrupt cops can’t get to him.
The plot can be hard to follow, as MANY character names and loyalties have to be sorted out, and the pacing between action sequences seems even more ponderous because of that.
But the fights are intimate or epic in scale, and buckets of blood are always spilled. Same with the film’s assorted assassinations.
And the acting is sharp, with many a blade handled with skill, many a cigarette lit with flair, many a death gruesome and in-your-face personal.
The tough-guy trash talk — in Korean, with English subtitles — is flinty and properly bad-ass
“If you use pens, you get ink. But if you use knives, you get blood.”
“Not anymore. Nowadays, pens get you blood. Knives just get you jail.“
“You’re soft when it matters most.” And “Don’t waste your breath like this. You won’t have enough when you actually need it.”
Yoon Youngbin is no John Woo (Who is?). But he’s whipped up a solid and just-exciting-enough gangster movie with grimly conflicted characters and violence that can only be this visceral and personal when the debt collecting is done with a knife, not the coward’s cannon of choice, an AR-15.
Rating: unrated, graphic, bloody violence
Cast: Jang Hyuk, YOO O-Seong, Park Seong-geun, Oh Dae-hwan, Lee Hyun-kyun and Shin Seung-hwan
Credits: Scripted and directed by Yoon Youngbin. A Well Go USA release, also streaming on Hi-YAH!,
Running time: 1:59