City of Violence Review
City of Violence takes place in the fictional city of Onsung: home to jaded Seoul cop Jung Tae-soo (Jong Doo-hong), who decides to return after ten years in order to investigate the murder of his childhood friend Wang-jae (An Kil-kang). Arriving in town he soon meets up with his other friends: brothers Suk-hwan (Ryoo Seung-wan) and Dong-hwan (Jeong Seok-yong) and Pil-ho (Lee Beom-soo) – brother to Wang-jae’s widow Mi-ran (Kim Seo-hyung). Jung Pil-ho in particular has done exceedingly well for himself, having become a rather efficient businessman with ties to underground organizations. Presently he has been put in charge of “acquiring” the permit plans for a proposed casino under the jurisdiction of President Cho (Cho Duck-hyun), which is about to cause huge aftershocks, taking a heavy toll on those around him who were once considered best friends.
As Tae-soo’s investigation deepens he soon unravels some shocking truths behind the murder of Wang-jae. Soon it’s time for revenge, and more fool anyone who dares get in the way of his slick moves.
With City of Violence director Ryoo Seung-wan had previously stated that he wished to make a quintessential action film, noting that in the past he has of course endeavoured to stray from genre conventions as far as possible. And certainly his latest offering is his most simple natured to date. Simply put City of Violence heeds to every single action rule there is, while taking the heaviest of cues from past and contemporary directors alike. Ryoo Seung-wan’s feature is every bit a pastiche, immediately drawing comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which in itself took inspiration predominantly from seventies spaghetti westerns, countless Shaw Bros flicks and Japanese exploitation classics. But that’s something that both directors have always shared in common and is something which has been clearly evident in their past work; in fact Seung-wan had readily showed his enthusiasm for retro flicks with his fun short film debut from 1998: Dachimawa Lee. In many respects though City of Violence does absolutely nothing new to turn the action genre on its head; its only purpose is to push it into the realms of the extreme. And indeed Seung-wan achieves this much. Without a shadow of a doubt City of Violence is an over-the-top action extravaganza that carries no air of pretension; it knows exactly what it wants to be and what it needs to do, which means stepping over its simplistic plot (which really is nothing to write home about as far as standard revenge themes go) to provide wads of fast-paced action.
City of Violence feels like a self-important transitional piece from Ryoo Seung-wan: he never needed to do it, but we can feel the director letting go of his inhibitions; his desire to continually serve up something different by acknowledging his influences and altogether just having fun with a less-than-demanding picture aimed toward an undemanding audience. Seung-wan never shies away and always lets us know where he’s coming from - in fact the references couldn’t be any more obvious. There’s a distinct love for seventies cinema, from the kitsch funky beats, through to the inspired Morricone music cues from composer Bang Jun-suk, while the director borrows editing techniques, camera tricks and compositions from renowned cinema greats such as Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah; he’s not quite explored such well established cinema devices quite so vividly in the past, but he certainly does put them to good use here.
Arguably what makes the film stand out is the efforts of Jong Doo-hong, who has collaborated with Seung-wan ever since he worked on No Blood, No Tears back in 2002. Doo-hong is better known to Korean cinema fans as a supporting guest actor, usually taking on silent assassin type figures in action films, though he’s more of an established action choreographer in general, with this coming across as some sort of dream project. In City of Violence not only does he handle the action sequences, but so too does he enjoy a major starring role which sees him in an entirely new light. As the central good guy a lot rides on him and he does impress; we have the best of both worlds with a solid lead and some inventive fight sequences, with the most notable - and humorous - set piece involving his character take on four gangs at once, made up of break-dancers, school-kids and face-painted, baseball outfit wearing ruffians (a nod toward Walter Hill’s 1979 The Warriors), while the final showdown effortlessly echoes the Shaw Bros greats in terms of bold colour schemes, saloon-type setting and deadly bodyguards.
Certainly the whole thing is polished and no stone is left unturned. Even for a plot that’s not likely set to win any praise or awards the acting is top notch, with the cast fully aware of how crazy the story is; being able to inject some nice comical moments in addition to some gritty and terrifying turns. While the supporting cast are all perfectly fine (and really there are too many to mention) the film arguably rests on the floundering relationship shared between Tae-soo, Suk-hwan and Pil-ho. As mentioned Jong Doo-hong carries the weight of the film, though he has some terrific support which prevents the viewer from ever becoming bored as it sprints toward its insane conclusion. Surprisingly director Ryoo Seung-wan casts himself in the role of our secondary lead, rather than go the obvious route with his brother Seung-beom (who has enjoyed roles in all of the director’s previous films) while Lee Beom-soo continues to broaden his acting choices by totally getting into super-baddie mode as the rather vicious and cold-hearted friend turned foe. In turn this makes for a great series of events, which steadily explores the decline of a once perfect bond shared between friends.
Premier Asia’s anamorphic 1.85:1 presentation is exactly what you’d expect of most South Korean films on DVD these days. Edge enhancement does little to mask the evident softness, and slightly high contrast - which results in flat black levels - makes this something of a lesser transfer, though one which is perfectly acceptable all the same. Colour saturation is largely fine and detail isn’t too shabby at all. More noticeable with this release is that due to the fierce editing and sheer pace of the fight sequences there are momentary spots in which compression artefacts are noticeable, though you do need a very keen eye to allow it to bother you to any great extent.
In terms of audio options we get Korean 5.1 Surround and Korean DTS. Although I went for the DTS track with my primary viewing I did switch back and forth on a second play of the film, and in all honesty I’m hard pressed to favour one over the other. Both exhibit solid directionality during fight scenes and the film’s frankly wonderful and eclectic score is vibrantly tackled, while dialogue remains clear and well centred for most of the time. But even with DTS usually having the benefit of tighter bass control, there’s so very little to differentiate between the two here. Both are perfectly fine additions to the disc and do good jobs in helping to carry the film’s momentum along, but there is nothing too overwhelming to write home about.
The optional English subtitles are fine, although there are a few grammatical errors and character name miss-spellings.
With absolutely nothing on disc 1, unlike Dragon Dynasty with their director commentary, we’re left with a second disc of bonus material to sink our teeth into.
First up is The Making of City of Violence (35.15), which explores the hard work put into delivering the film’s energetic fight sequences. Ryoo Seung-wan talks about his physical training, while we have several other brief interviews with director, producer and cast intermittently scattered throughout. There’s nothing more in the way of production as this is delivered entirely from an action standpoint, with the stunt team and martial art co-ordinators hard at work. And so we look behind the scenes of several locations, including the fairground, alley, police station, court and street - each one involving participants getting injured at some point, including star and director who have to keep pushing through to the very end.
Promotional Gallery consists of the original Korean teaser and theatrical trailers and a UK theatrical trailer.
Interview Gallery is split into two segments: Masters of Mayhem – Cast Interviews and High School Days – Interviews with Storyboards. Running for 11 minutes the former collects the thoughts of the film’s lead stars. Ryo Seung-wan and Jong Doo-hong talk about getting into the minds of their respective characters and how much of an effect it had on them personally. Lee Beom-soo chats about enjoying playing a nasty guy, while production designer Cho Hwa-sung explains how important his role was in checking fine details and making sure the film flows well. A good five minutes sees Jong Doo-hong talk about approaching a meatier acting role and Ryoo Seung-wan discuss the most difficult aspects of shooting for him personally: his occasional frustrations and lack of concentration, while his co-workers are naturally ready to praise is efforts. High School Days clocks in at just under 5 minutes with production designer Cho Hwa-sung, star Jong Doo-hong, producer Kim Jeung-min talk about a single moment from their past in which they faced bullies, which in turn inspired a few events seen in City of Violence.
Deleted Scenes runs in total for just over 9 minutes. There are nine altogether, which can be accessed individually or played as one feature. Ryoo Seung-wan accompanies each one with a commentary, which is very interesting because the director knows exactly what he wishes to put across. We discover that scenes which were excised were done so to avoid lack of flow, misleading elements and confusion, as they come across merely as being inconsequential padding. Even the huge street fight sequence was tremendously edited down from long takes, because of “empty spots” here and there, as the director notes.
Special Features is split into four categories. First up is Lights, Camera, Action! (22.30) which sees the director explain why it is he wished to make a more conventional action film incorporating all the things he admires so much and taking his abilities and putting them to good use. It’s stressed often that the film is a labour of love for both director and star Jong Doo-hong, who never had guarantees during the film, along with their stunt film. City of Violence was co-produced with the Seoul Action School, which meant budget was lighter and the film was approached as an indie flick due to no huge support. The budget in general meant that everything had to be carefully planned out and producer Kim Jeung-min talks about location scouting for a place that could perfectly embody the script’s location. Ryoo Seung-wan then chats about influences; taking character types from Peckinpah and John Woo movies and placing them into Polanski type settings with Jackie Chan-like action style: taking flamboyances and roughing them out a little to match his previous efforts. It’s here we learn about the differences between Ryoo Seung-wan and Jong Doo-hong’s preferred fighting methods, which had to naturally come together in the end. After some personal chatter we’re taken to the cinematography side of things with cinematographer Kim Young-chul explaining why 16mm was used for a commercial film. Ryoo Seung-wan follows up with this and discusses the decision to use this medium over HD, before going on to mention how he wished to employ different camera movements than usual, along with an unusual colour style built up of primary colours.
The Rules of Engagement: The Art of Fight Choreography runs for 20 minutes and looks at the essentials when delivering memorable action for the audience. Ryoo Seung-wan talks about his previous films and his approach toward using different methods with his latest, noting that it’s important to please an audience rather than always sticking to your guns with your own style. Trying to bridge that gap is obviously difficult, but the director manages to find a solid middle-ground as he clearly discusses his intentions here. This is a good feature for checking out both similarities and difference between the director’s previous work in terms on editing techniques and framing devices. Next we have Action Commentaries with Jong Doo-hong, which runs for approximately 16 minutes. The action choreographer/star talks over several of the film’s action scenes, expressing certain difficulties in the face of a low budget and the obvious effects of ageing. He also talks about various on-set injuries that took place and his overall concern for the welfare of the entire team, while here and there he serves up a few behind-the-scenes facts.
Finally we have Seoul Action School, which runs for another 16 minutes. Jong Doo-hong talks about setting up the non-profit school in order to provide actors and stunt workers with a professional stage to train on. Admirably the school selects its students from those who really want to train properly and places them on a six month course. Featuring interviews with members of the school we get a good look into how this side of the movie business works, while several members address their concerns for the Korean film industry in explaining how it still has some way to go in order to truly challenge other Asian and foreign territories.
I’ve tended to be a bit more detailed in the past with regards to the work of Ryoo Seung-wan, but frankly speaking there isn’t a great deal to say about City of Violence. Whatever Ryoo Seung-wan’s approach there’s no denying the positive impact that his films leave behind, and while City of Violence may appear to be his most routine it is nonetheless a whole load of fun, oozing bucket loads of stylised action and confidence. So you really can just switch off, sit back and enjoy the high levels of mayhem on display.
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