Casting, direction and a script with more angles than a Bauhaus building all come up trumps in “Tazza: The High Rollers.” Writer-director Choi Dong-hoon, whose grifter dramedy “The Big Swindle” was an unheralded gem two years ago, considerably ups the ante in his second feature, a long-limbed yarn centered on a bunch of ruthless professional gamblers. But involving characters and devil-may-care tone make the long running time hardly a stretch. Adventurous Western distribs should check out this one, which has taken a hunky 3 million admissions ($19 million) in its first two weeks since opening locally late September.
Choi’s “Swindle” was a clever caper movie focused on a relatively small number of protags and relying on a bold twist in its third act. “Tazza” — Korean slang for gamblers at the height of their powers — is based on a popular comicbook and is both more extreme in its characteriztion and populated by a larger cast. These “pros” are all people who coolly bet the bank (and their lives) on the turn of a card, literally and figuratively.
Through-character is 20-something Go-ni (Jo Seung-woo, from Im Kwon-taek’s “Low Life”), who loses all his savings in a game of hwatu, steals his sister’s alimony to try again and loses that as well. He spends six months trying to track down the guy who cheated him, and in the process meets Pyeong Gyeong-jang (Baek Yun-shik), a self-styled “best gambler in the land” who’s now retired.
Pyeong recognises in Go-ni the right combo of desperation and ruthlessness, and accepts him as a pupil. He then takes him to Busan to meet the famous Madam Jeong (Kim Hye-su, from “Red Shoes”), a cool-as-a-cucumber “Flower of Gambling” who strips amateur punters of their cash without a second glance. After one look at Go-ni, Jeong decides to “make him mine” and within minutes they’re partners in more than business.
But Go-ni, the kid from the sticks, is now embroiled in a world of professional high rollers, which includes the psychotic A-gui (Kim Yun-seok), who has “unfinished business” with Pyeong, and smooth ganglord Kwak Cheol-yeong (Kim Eung-su), who’s still looking for payback from Go-ni after the latter made a pile from him earlier. When Pyeong is suddenly killed — by party unknown — Go-ni is left to sink or swim.
Situation gets even more complicated when, back in Seoul, Go-ni — to Madam Jeong’s dismay — becomes involved with pretty Hwa-ran (Lee Su-gyeong), who owns a small bar with her sister, Se-ran (Kim Jeong-ran). As all players plan their separate revenge (and Jeong the financial killing of her career), events come to a head during a showdown between Goni and A-gui.
Though it sounds tortuous on paper, and is initially difficult to grasp thanks to being told mostly in flashback, Choi’s script does manage to tie up all its loose ends in the final reels. There’s also very little downtime in the picture: the gambling scenes, which in true Korean style often end in rough-and-tumbles, are restlessly shot in handheld closeup, while the non-gambling interludes, lensed more conventionally in good-looking widescreen, have a noir-ish flavor, with characters endlessly toying with each other.
Kim Hye-su, looking every voluptuous inch a legendary femme fatale, is one of the few actresses who could hold her own in such colorful male territory, and her portrayal of the money-centered Madam Jeong is one of the delights of the movie. Baek, who played the mastermind in “Swindle” and a key role in “The President’s Last Stand,” is aces: when he disappears halfway, pic does temporarily lose some puff.
Among the older protags, Kim Eung-su is menacingly smooth as Kwak, while Jo’s Go-ni holds his own throughout the pic by sheer bravado. Only Yu Hae-jin, as Go-ni’s motormouthed sidekick, is too highly cranked.
Technical package is secure, with the whole shebang pushed along by Jang Yeong-gyu’s cool jazz score.