No. 3 Review
Before Shiri went on to make box-office stars out of Han Suk-kyu, Choi Min-shik and Song Kang-ho, the trio had previously banded together for newcomer Song Neung-han’s satirical No.3; a Jopok comedy which arrived on the scene prior to a wave of similarly themed flicks that would go on to dominate Korean cinemas throughout much of the latter nineties and early noughties.
The title of the film refers to Suh Tae-joo (Han Suk-kyu ); a gangster who has managed to work his way up to the post of third man within the Do Ka gang. Unhappy with his current position, however, Tae-joo dreams of usurping the current No.1 crime boss in Seoul and already insists to himself that he is No.2, despite that position already being taken by the crazed ‘Ashtray’ (Park Sang-myeon) - named after his weapon of choice. Tae-joo is about ready to do whatever it takes in order to realise his dream, but things aren’t easy, what with nosy prosecutor Dong-pal (Choi Min-shik) arriving on the scene; a bumbling assassin (Song Kang-ho) and Tae-joo’s girlfriend Hyun-ji (Lee Mi-yeon) spending all of his income whilst enjoying a fling on the side with hopeless poet Rimbaud (Park Gwang-jeong), who soon attracts the attention of Hyun-ji’s vicarious sister (Bang Eun-hee).
Sometimes a film can be so crammed full of ideas that it can lead to its own undoing. Song Neung-han’s No. 3 is such an eager feature. Billed as a satire, or parody of the gangster genre in general, No. 3’s agenda doesn’t in fact seem quite so clear cut. Song seeks to construct a politically driven tale it would appear; one that takes stabs at South Korea’s government, whilst exploring the divides between various social classes, all under the guise of a mob thriller. It’s certainly interesting to watch Song gradually juxtapose his ideas as he places both gangsters and politicians in the same bracket, using the distinct voices of Dong-pal and Tae-joo to illustrate where he’s coming from, but it’s one of very few weapons in his script’s arsenal, which soon sees it descend into an awkwardly paced and unevenly toned feature.
Things begin promisingly enough, in fact it spoils us early on with Tae-joo’s wonderfully written speech that sees him likening a flailing swan to the life of a gangster; a moment which displays some strong wit, in turn defining the very essence of the film with very little effort on its part. Other brief examples made up of astute observations such as this crop up from time to time - including Song Kang-ho’s now legendary monologue - and indeed they do well to raise a smile, but Song Neung-han ultimately proves to be a man of little restraint, and in his bid to hammer his points home he forms the bad habit of drawing out many a scene beyond absolute necessity. As a feature that predominantly gets by on words and little action - save for the final 20 minutes or so - No. 3 has the task of trying to keep the viewer engaged for much of its run time with meandering dialogue that actually comes across as if it’s indeed padding out an ordinarily far shorter piece of work. Unfortunately, despite a magnificent cast on hand, the more we see of our primary characters the more they appear to be little other than ciphers; rarely do we ever feel an emotional attachment to them as we sit and watch them slowly destroy themselves - and I stress slowly. This becomes increasingly problematic with the sheer amount of cast members that Song throws on screen, inevitably creating a convoluted story filled with various sub-plots designed to take further pot shots at a number of social issues, but which don’t intertwine nearly as well as they perhaps should do. From philosophical musings to bouts of slapstick, unsettling violence and homages to gangster classics, No. 3 lacks an overall cohesiveness and doesn’t fare too well in leaving us with a firm understanding of what it wants to be.
No. 3 is presented anamorphically at 1.85:1 and sadly is another standards conversion. Comparisons to the Korean R3 disc of a number of years back show a nigh on identical transfer (hence no actual shots included in this review): contrast isn’t quite up to scratch, it’s slightly soft and is also replete with specks of dirt, but by no means is it difficult to sit through.
The sound is also not without its problems. The Korean 2.0 DD track is largely fine throughout, but there are various intervals in which dialogue can come across quite hollow at times. small action segments, punch-ups really, often fail to carry any great impact, while as a side note there is a slight crack and drop-out during the 11.18 mark, which doesn’t appear on either of the two tracks on the Korean release.
Disappointingly still are the optional English subtitles. It appears that Third Window Films has used the same script that was put together for the Korean release a number of years ago, possibly making minor alterations. While I do have the Korean disc I never went through it entirely for the purpose of this review. Still, there are sentences here that don’t come across clearly enough, being awkwardly structured and thus letting down some of the more energetic performances. Meanwhile the large inserted Chinese characters used during a couple of exchanges for comic effect are left un-translated - as with the Korean disc - thus rendering any attempts at parody/satire useless for the western viewer.
Presented at 1.33:1 ‘The Making of No. 3’ runs for approximately 24 minutes, and provides a decent behind-the-scenes look at the production. A lot of it is made up of various shooting clips which conveys the kind of conditions the actors had to work under, but there’s also a plenty of insight with regards to the development of the feature. Primary cast members are on hand to discuss their roles and director Song speaks a little of the philosophy behind the film.
A collection of Trailers for other Third Window releases also accompany the release.