Nameless Gangster: Rules of Time

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.

With: Choi Min-sik, Ha Jung-woo, Jo Jin-ung, Kim Wong-su. (Korean, Japanese dialogue)

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.

Popular on Variety

Nameless Gangster: Rules of Time

South Korea

Production: A Showbox/Mediaplex release and presentation of a Palette Pictures production in association with CJ Venture Investment, Dae Sung Investment, Leading Investment, Michigan Venture Capital, Asia Culture Technology Investment, Gemini Investment, KTH, Timestory. (International sales: Showbox, Seoul.) Produced by Park Shin-kyu, Han Jae-duk. Executive producers, You Jeong-hun. Directed, written by Yoon Jong-bin.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Ko Rak-sun; editor, Kim Sang-bum; music, Cho Young-wuk; production designer, Cho Hwa-sung; costume designers, Kwon Yoo-jin, Rim Seung-hee; sound (Dolby Digital SRD), Kim Suk-won; supervising sound editor, Kim Chang-sub; re-recording mixers, Jang Gun; visual effects supervisor, Jung Do-ahn; visual effects, Digital Idea. Reviewed on DVD, Hong Kong, April 16, 2012. Running time: 133 MIN.

With: With: Choi Min-sik, Ha Jung-woo, Jo Jin-ung, Kim Wong-su. (Korean, Japanese dialogue)

More Film

  • Samuel-W.-Gelfman

    Samuel Gelfman, Roger Corman Film Producer, Dies at 88

    Samuel Gelfman, a New York producer known for his work on Roger Corman’s “Caged Heat,” “Cockfighter” and “Cannonball!,” died Thursday morning at UCLA Hospital in Westwood following complications from heart and respiratory disease, his son Peter Gelfman confirmed. He was 88. Gelfman was born in Brooklyn, New York and was raised in Caldwell New Jersey [...]

  • Margot Robbie stars in ONCE UPON

    Box Office: 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Pulls Ahead of 'Hobbs & Shaw' Overseas

    Sony’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” might not have hit No. 1 in North America, but Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is leading the way at the international box office, where it collected $53.7 million from 46 markets. That marks the best foreign opening of Tarantino’s career, coming in ahead of 2012’s “Django Unchained.” “Once [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Leads Crowded Weekend With $21 Million

    The Bean Bag Boys, the self-appointed nickname for the trio of best friends in Universal’s “Good Boys,” are conquering much more than sixth grade. They are also leading the domestic box office, exceeding expectations and collecting $21 million on opening weekend. “Good Boys,” which screened at 3,204 North American theaters, is a much-needed win for [...]

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content