Largely set in 1980s Busan, “Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time” is a rags-to-rogues crimer whose finely chiseled portraits of greed, self-preservation and depravity are buttressed by powerhouse perfs. Methodically chronicling the volatile alliance between a corrupt official and the city’s top mafioso, helmer-scribe Yoon Jong-bin (“Unforgiven,” “Beastie Boys”) achieves a down-and-dirty realism, but falls short of the Scorsese-style gangland epics to which it aspires, and likewise lacks the satirical punch of Ryoo Seung-wan’s political thriller “The Unjust.” Local B.O. recorded a satisfactory $32 million-plus; offshore, pic won’t languish in anonymity, either.
The yarn spans the decade between the mid-’80s and the mid-’90s, when gangs ran rampant during South Korea’s dictatorial era. In 1990, new president Roh Tae-woo announces a crackdown on organized crime; among the many arrested is Busan businessman Choi Ik-hyun (Choi Min-sik, “I Saw the Devil”), tried for collusion with local lynchpin Kim Pan-ho (Jo Jin-ung).
The nonlinear narrative then traces Ik-hyun’s humble beginnings as a customs inspector in 1982. The office is rife with corruption, and Ik-hyun isn’t one to say no to a bribe. However, when he’s singled out to take the rap for the team’s offenses, he throws in his lot with underworld topdog Choi Hyung-bae (Ha Jung-woo, “The Yellow Sea”), using his government network to expand the latter’s empire.
Ik-hyun gradually gains wary Hyung-bae’s trust by highlighting the fact that they’re both descendants of the illustrious Choi clan. The apex of this partnership sees Ik-hyun pulling strings with city officials, and Hyung-bae importing Japanese yakuza coin to open the city’s first hotel-casino. Yet, cracks are already appearing on the coalition’s surface, and everything comes to a head when Ik-hyun is seen consorting with Hyung-bae’s enemy Pan-ho.
Ik-hyun emerges as a bravura study in survival instinct, someone who can turn from ranting bully to groveling worm at the drop of a hat. Thesp Choi attacks the role with verbal vigor and increasingly aggressive body language, casually offering up his haggard, puffy face for the harsh scrutiny of lenser Ko Rak-sun’s unflattering closeups, and embodying a soul as craggy as the Busan coastline.
In deliberate contrast to Ik-hyun’s expressiveness, Hyung-bae remains as unruffled as his starched shirts, though he’s more dangerous when he’s not reacting than when he is. In a remarkably controlled perf, Ha presents a flinty, inscrutable exterior that belies tremendous physical endurance and discipline, adherence to his own code of honor, and unexpected magnanimity.
In its re-creation of a recent historical milieu, “Nameless Gangster” paints an unsavory picture of national nepotism; symptomatic of this is the Korean clan culture, where something as simple as a common surname can spawn tentacles of corruption. The absurdity of these spurious ties — extending through government, courts, gangs and even church — is epitomized drolly when Ik-Hyun curries favor with a prominent prosecutor (Kim Wong-su) by stressing that they are “10 degrees of kinship apart.”
Precise, no-frills editing maintains clarity despite the overlapping chronological structure. Still, Yoon is so caught up with period particulars and scene-by-scene dynamics that the overall rhythm is too even-keeled; his procedural approach downplays the thrills inherent in these internecine power struggles. There are exceedingly violent episodes, but none are stylishly aestheticized in the manner of Korean gangster films such as Kim Ji-woon’s “A Bittersweet Life” or Yoo Ha’s “A Dirty Carnival.” Instead, Yoon goes for a dull, thudding brutality that may be more realistic, though after a few scenes, one starts to wonder how many bottles can be smashed over one person’s skull.
Tech credits are polished, with funky ’80s K-pop spicing up the deglamorized visuals.