Vet South Korean director Im Kwon-taek's saga of gangsterdom and politicking during the country's military dictatorship. Centered on the rise and fall of an ambitious young hoodlum, pic is handsomely enough shot -- like a '50s Hollywood backlot movie. Outside territories like France, where Im has some following, this is a festival curio.

Moving away from the cultural panoramas of his past two pictures, veteran South Korean director Im Kwon-taek moves closer to the present with “Low Life,” a saga of gangsterdom and politicking during the country’s military dictatorship. Centered on the rise and fall of an ambitious young hoodlum, pic is handsomely enough shot — like a ’50s Hollywood backlot movie — but is neither highly stylized enough to work as a retro attraction nor invested with enough B-picture glee to work as a gripping drama. Outside territories like France, where Im has some following, this is a festival curio.

Im is the only member of his generation still working in a youthful industry. However, without the exotic costume decoration that helped give “Chunhyang” and “Chihwaseon” some legs in the West, “Low Life” — his 99th pic in a career spanning more than 40 years — reveals the 68-year-old helmer’s position as a talented journeyman rather than true master. It’s a solid, old-fashioned, period drama out of step with current industry trends. Local B.O. was a mild 500,000 admissions in May.

Movie’s underlying theme of the effects of post-WWII political history on South Korean society continues that of his 1994 drama, “The Taebaek Mountains.” Film also recalls his popular trilogy of mobsterdom under Japanese occupation, “The General’s Son” (1990-92), though crafted at a much higher level.

Set mostly in Seoul during 1957-72 — from the end of Syngman Rhee’s stormy presidency through the repressive military dictatorship of Gen. Park Chung-hee — pic shows collusion between business and government via the story of ambitious young gangster Choi Tae-ung (Jo Seung-woo).

First seen as a brawling high-school student, Tae-ung is adopted by aspiring politician Park Il-weon, father of Seung-mun (Yu Ha-jun), his opponent in a fight. When Seung-mun’s elder sister, Hye-ok (Kim Min-seon), is harmed in a street confrontation, Tae-ung wins the attention of the Myeongdong Gang when he defends her.

In between courting the older Hye-ok, Tae-ung starts working for Oh Sang-pil (Kim Hak-jun), a Myeongdong sub-head, winning renown as a violent young firebrand. The next time he meets Seung-man, the latter is taking part in student protests which eventually lead to a military takeover in May ’61. In a typical sequence where a main event in the characters’ lives intersects with history, Tae-ung rushes the heavily pregnant Hye-ok through streets rumbling with army convoys.

That’s just the first half-hour of a tightly scripted yarn shot through with personal memoirs by both helmer Im and his longtime producer, Lee Tae-won.

During a crackdown on organized crime, Tae-ung briefly enters the film industry — pic’s most engaging reel, packed with refs to sexual and political censorship, and crooked financiers. He rejoins Oh’s gang fixing prices, but pressure from the Americans and a run-in with the KCIA show he is not untouchable.

With its accent on narrative rather than atmosphere, the over-expository script is at pains to spell out everything in the dialogue, including pic’s underlying message: there’s no difference between the worlds of gangsters and politicos, except that hoodlums don’t hide what they are. Though the characters are shuffled around with the speed of an edited-down miniseries, gaining little emotional depth, film does show a nice feel for the levers of power.

Jo (“Chunhyang,” “The Classic”) manages to invest Tae-ung with a fresh-faced naivete-cum-impulsiveness that fits the character without illuminating him. Other thesps are similarly one-dimensional. Production and costume design are both detailed but have a laundered, backlot look.

Pic was previously known under the English title “Raging Years”; current moniker closely parallels the Korean one. International version under review runs some 10 minutes shorter than the domestic one.

Low Life

South Korea

Production

A Cinema Service release and presentation, in association with Choongmuro Fund, of a Taehung Pictures production. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris/Cinema Service, Seoul.) Produced by Lee Tae-won. Directed written by Im Kwon-taek.

Crew

Camera (color), Jeong Il-seong; editor, Park Sun-deok; music, Shin Jung-hyeon; art director, Ju Byeong-do; costume designer, Hong Seung-wan; sound (Dolby SRD), Choi Dae-rim; action choreographer, Im Se-ho; special visual effects, Kim Jong-ik; assistant director, Heo Weon. Reviewed on videocassette, London, Aug. 17, 2004. (In Venice Film Festival -- competing; also in Toronto Film Festival -- Masters.) Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Jo Seung-woo, Kim Min-seon, Kim Hak-jun, Yu Ha-jun.
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