South Korean gambling drama “Tazza: The Hidden Card” is long on flashy visuals and short on storytelling discipline. Centered on a talented young hustler working his way into the big-time, this follow-up to 2006’s popular “Tazza: The High Rollers” hit the jackpot during its local release in early September with more than 4 million admissions, but has registered less impressive averages in limited North American and Hong Kong release since Sept. 26. Aside from keeping track of an overstuffed plot, the biggest challenge for offshore audiences will be understanding hwatu, the Korean card game around which the life of every character revolves. While there are some clever scams and stings as sideline attractions, many viewers are likely to be scratching their heads during major setpieces. “Tazza” rolls into Japanese cinemas on Jan. 23.
Pic has a curious dual personality. In many respects it resembles a slick “Ocean’s Eleven”-style yarn about clever crooks planning an elaborate heist; running parallel to this is a much more brutal gambling-related drama in the mold of “Casino.” Abrasive cutting between the escapist-like elements and the scenes of heavy-duty violence make it play like a videogame.
Without any recap of events in “Tazza: The High Rollers,” this second film based on graphic novels written by Kim Se-yeong and illustrated by Huh Young-man plunges headlong into the story of young cardsharp Han Dae-gil (Choi Seung-hyun, aka rap artist TOP from K-pop outfit Big Bang). First seen as a boy with gambling smarts way beyond his years, Dae-gil eventually leaves his small-town home and sweetheart, Mina (Shin Sae-kyeong), for an illegal gambling den in Seoul run by Chief Seo (Oh Jung-se).
With best buddy Jjari (Lee Dong-hwi) by his side, it’s not long before Dae-gil becomes a star at Seo’s house and temporarily forgets about Mina when sexy card player Ms. Woo (Honey Lee) starts making amorous moves he can’t resist. It turns out Ms. Woo has been marked all along by Seo as the target for a big hit, with Dae-gil entrusted to ensure she loses heavily. So begins a frantic series of double- and triple-crosses, as Seo’s crew sells Dae-gil out, leaving him owing a small fortune to ruthless gang boss Jang Dong-shik (Gwak Do-won). Complicating matters further is the reappearance of Mina, who’s been sold into prostitution by Jang as part of debt settlement arrangements.
In the film’s most satisfying segments, Dae-gil becomes the protege of Go Gwang-ryeol (Yoo Hai-jin), a family friend and gambling guru (also the sole character with a connection to the first film) who sets the younger man straight and helps him raise the money to free Mina. Following some nice scenes in which Dae-gil reconnects with his true love, the pic ramps up again with the trio setting up a complicated plan to bring down Jang.
While there are some terrific visuals and few snazzy scenes in which Dae-gil and company enlist theater actors to help ensnare Jang, “Tazza: The Hidden Card” spends too much time on tangential story details that don’t contribute much to the plot. As one hwatu scene melds into another, it becomes clear, to the possible concern of audiences wanting to root wholeheartedly for Dae-gil, Mina and Go, that winning and losing are determined less by card-playing skill and more by who is the most clever and cunning cheat. In a life-and-death grand finale that brings legendary gambler Agwi (Kim Yoon-suk) into play, bizarre conditions are imposed to prevent all possible cheating opportunities. Even still, underhanded tactics prevail, and many viewers will feel reluctant to join in the victory celebrations as a result.
Handsome star Choi is fine in the pivotal role, and has an appealing chemistry with co-star Shin in the relatively few moments of romance afforded the couple. Elsewhere, Yoo adds spark as Dae-gil’s wise mentor (“Read the player, not the cards”), Kim swaggers around enjoyably as the fearsome master gambler, and Park Hyo-ju is fun to watch as Miss Little, the sharp-eyed hostess at Seo’s joint in Seoul. The production is lavishly mounted and crisply filmed in bright colors by lenser Kim Tae-kyung.