Though it boasts a full complement of brutal gangsters, black-suited goons, morally compromised good guys, explosive action sequences and tightly knit, unpredictable scripting, what finally elevates “New World” well above similarly accomplished Korean actioners is Hwang Jeong-min’s high-octane performance as a volatile contender in a three-way power struggle to control Korea’s largest corporate crime syndicate. This is only the second helming gig for Park Hoon-jung, the talented screenwriter of “I Saw the Devil” and “The Unjust,” and he demonstrates equally strong directorial chops. Despite some excellent reviews, the New York Asian Film Festival entry failed to fully cross over in its limited 2013 Stateside release.
After the suspicious death of the Goldmoon crime syndicate’s head honcho (his car blindsided by a speeding truck), contentious factions vie for succession. Two polar opposites locked in mutual hatred — the controlled, ruthless Lee Jeong-gu (Park Seong-ung), in charge of operations in Seoul, and psychotic loose cannon Jeong Cheong (Hwang), handling interests outside Korea — emerge as the obvious candidates. Jeong-gu’s cool demeanor and firm rooting in the corporate hierarchy make him the frontrunner, while Jeong’s flamboyance and Chinese ancestry weigh against his noted skill at swelling company coffers.
But hidden players enter the game in the form of grizzled, cynical police chief Kang (“Oldboy” star Choi Min-sik) and his deeply planted mole Lee Jeong-jae (Lee Ja-seng), who has long served as confidant and second-in-command to Jeong. Kang seeks to manipulate the succession as per the department’s secret operation, “New World,” and refuses to reveal the scheme to Jeong-jae, even while denying him a promised release from his undercover role. But nobody’s machinations proceed as planned.
“New World” largely adopts the vantage point of the increasingly frazzled Jeong-jae, sweat rolling off his impassive mask of a face as his deep cover constantly threatens to unravel. In his assumed gangster role, he functions as sobersided ballast to the mercurial Jeong, firmly countering the latter’s more vulgar caprices with careful calculation.
But as the selection of a new chairman nears, Jeong-gu’s smoothly threatening moves to consolidate power escalate. Jeong keeps his countermoves hidden under a thin veneer of buffoonery, importing killer Chinese yokels for further covert operations while hacking government files in search of the traitor in his midst. Police chief Kang holds secret meetings with one faction leader while arresting the other. Jeong-jae, under pressure from multiple sources on both sides of the law, awaits the birth of his first child, unaware that his wife (Park Seo-yeon) is officially keeping tabs on him for Kang.
Violence reigns just beneath the impeccable corporate surface in this vortex of shifting allegiances and constant uncertainty. The film opens with a scene of bloody retribution as a suspected mole is beaten to a pulp, stuffed into a container, forced to ingest raw concrete and then rolled into the sea. Park orchestrates his big action scenes with unusual clarity: The sheer uniformity of both sides’ designer-suited minions, efficiently wielding knives and steel bats, offers a fascinating mix of elegant abstraction and visceral impact. One tour-de-force scene in an elevator pits Jeong and a couple of his goons against enemy troops in a fight to the death.
Park sets most of the confrontations in vast, cold spaces — corporate conference rooms, warehouses, airports, construction sites and parking lots. The compositions (by Park Chan-wook’s regular d.p. Chung Chung-hoon) have a dehumanizing effect, as figures are either dwarfed by, or shown to loom large against, the cold steel and emptiness of Jo Hwa-seong’s production design.
But ultimately, the characters dominate, imparting heft, astonishment and considerable emotion to the plot’s unfolding twists. Lee Jeong-je’s sullen unwillingness and barely controlled nervousness jack up the suspense considerably, while Choi’s marvelously world-weary cop — for whom everyone, even himself, becomes expendable — provides fascinating counterpoint to the gangsters’ ambition. And in this ruthless suppression of all warmth and civility, Hwang’s admittedly psychotic but charismatic vulgarity lights up the screen.