Contemplative, bleakly atmospheric urban-gangster-in-the-sticks pic reps an impressive feature bow for Korean helmer Lee Jeong-beom and chalks up another stunningly volatile perf by Seol Gyeong-gu (“Peppermint Candy,” “Oasis,” “Public Enemy”). Unfolding in a curiously expanded waiting time in which everything and nothing seems possible, “Cruel Winter Blues” makes the most of its hero’s disorientation upon leaving his criminal milieu, taking some irreverent maternal detours. Fascinating character study, which preemed at Pusan, lacks the gut-punch immediacy of more accessible frontline Korean fare, but lingers long in the mind.
When Jae-mun (Seol) finally gets the go-ahead from his boss to avenge the death of his friend/partner, he heads to his target’s hometown with raw recruit Chi-Guk (Jo Han-seon), who has ties to the region. Moody, violent and guilt-ridden about his partner’s demise, Jae-mun finds himself completely adrift in the one-horse working-class town.
Prior to his score-settling pilgrimage, Jae-mun fit snugly into the shifting power plays of a hierarchical gangland setup, a fact underscored by director Lee’s highly formal mise-en-scene in pic’s urban prologue. Lee depicts the underworld in a long, fluid single take at a banquet that organically links all the various pecking orders, rivalries, schemes and undercurrents. After this prolonged horizontal glide, Lee cuts to a vertical axis to record one thug’s misbegotten attempt to grab the money and run, at which point gang members regroup one flight below to demonstrate the utter impossibility of escape.
Once Jae-mun gets to the boondocks, though, all bets are off. The camera ceases to regulate relationships according to any overarching fate, or to distinguish “important” figures in the landscape from unimportant ones. (Indeed, the flat, dismal topography lacks any distinguishing features.)
At first, Jae-mun stays true to type, imposing rank by bullying Chi-Guk in a burst of anger when the former tae kwan do master dares to best him during an informal match in front of little students. But such behavior is no longer the accepted norm, and various neglected aspects of Jae-mun’s personality reluctantly, almost shamefacedly, emerge. Chief among them is curiosity, particularly about the mother (the extraordinary Na Mun-hee) of the man he is going to kill.
Running a local restaurant, the crusty old woman gives as good as she gets. In one hilarious scene, Jae-mun goes outside to pee and case the joint, leading to a confrontation with a barking dog and setting up an ongoing psychological war with the old lady when she intervenes.
The two begin to enjoy their contentious exchanges, and soon Jae-mun is squiring the old lady on her errands, holding up flowery shirts for comparison, bringing food to fisherwomen and suffering the women’s crude sexual innuendos with relative equanimity.
Lee excels at such casual encounters, never merely “quirky” but convincingly indigenous. A performance as nuanced and layered as Seol’s further assures that these diversions never sink into sentimentality or predictability.
Indeed, when Jae-mun and Chi-Guk reluctantly return to their murderous agenda, the pic falters somewhat. Lee presents the retribution as messy, senseless and anticlimactic, successfully sabotaging the momentum of the action scenes but never quite imposing new rhythms.
Tech credits are pro, as lenser Kim Dong-cheon somehow manages to render flat desolation as infinitely varied.