LEAFF 2022 celebrates its seventh year with a programme of 43 films from celebrated and debut filmmakers. Championing East Asian cinema, LEAFF aims to bring a wide range of cinema to London and offer the opportunity to experience a new culture of cinema.
◯ Warning: this review contains spoilers.
Dominic Ko reviews Park Hoon-jung’s modern Korean gangster saga New World, starring Lee Jung-jae, Choi Min-sik and Hwang Jung-min.
This year, London East Asia Film Festival 2022 celebrated the works of Korean actor, Lee Jung-Jae, who most recently acquired international stardom for his performance in Netflix’s most-watched series, Squid Game (2021). As a result, the extraordinary actor-focused curation gave me the opportunity to watch one of South Korea’s top crime films of all time, New World. Widely hailed by many to be a cult classic, with lines in the movie parodied in Korean pop culture, this movie was an absolute delight to watch in a theatre.
Growing up with Hong Kong cinema, I have watched countless re-runs of Infernal Affairs (2002), a crime film about an undercover cop infiltrating a Triad gang, and Election (2005), another classic gangster film about a power struggle between two Triad leaders over the position of gang head. Having read the premise of New World, I was sceptical about how novel the film would be. But upon its conclusion, I was pleasantly surprised by how it managed to combine plot elements from Infernal Affairs and Election, while expanding on its ideas and delivering a well-shot crime opera.
In this character-driven crime thriller, Lee Jung-jae plays Lee Ja-sung, a police officer who has been under deep cover at Goldmoon International, South Korea’s largest organised criminal gang that consists of various clans. For the past 8 years, he has diligently worked his way up to be the trusted second-in-command of the Northmoon sect, which is led by Jung Chung (Hwang Jung-min). Jung Chung is boisterous and flamboyant, and he is often at odds with the more collected, sadistic leader of the Jaebum faction, Lee Joong-gu (Park Sung-woong).
When the chairman of Goldmoon International dies in a thinly disguised assassination, a power void is made apparent and both the Northmoon sect and the Jaebum faction fight to fill it. This succession struggle is further complicated for Ja-sung when his police handler, Chief Kang (Choi Min-sik), decides to take this opportunity to push him further up the criminal food chain so that the police can control the organisation. Exhausted with the inhuman violence and persistent anxiety as a mole in the gang, Ja-sung desperately wants Chief Kang to pull him out of his hellish circumstances. However, this is not an opportunity for the police to miss, and Chief Kang heartlessly manipulates Ja-sung to stay on and complete their latest police exercise, Operation New World. Violence reigns and deception abounds as Ja-sung navigates the complex web he is trapped in. Pushed to the brink and morally compromised, he struggles to pick a side between divided loyalties.
Brisk, tense, and tightly edited, New World grips you from start to finish, even with a runtime of 134 minutes. The main characters are so distinct and fleshed out- they pull you in deep and get you keenly invested in their struggles. Elevating this rich characterisation is an amazing cast playing their parts impeccably. Lee Jung-jae delivers as the anguished, tormented undercover cop that has to consistently maintain a cool, composed front amidst the chaos befalling him. It was easy to sympathise with his character and place yourself in his sweaty shoes. While this is a Lee Jung-jae-led film, I felt the true scene stealer and star was Hwang Jung-min, playing his superior and criminal blood brother, Jung Chung. Hwang Jung-min is a delight in every scene he is in, playing a seemingly jester-like, free-spirited gang leader. As a calculated strategist, this façade belies Jung Chung’s more contemplative self. It is Jung Chung’s and Ja-sung’s complex friendship that provides the emotional core of the film, and this brotherhood harkens back to the Heroic Bloodshed genre of classic Hong Kong cinema. Although this year LEAFF decided to focus on Lee Jung-jae’s illustrious career, I wait in eager anticipation for a Hwang Jung-min showcase. I declare myself a lifelong fan of his because of his performance in New World alone.
Full of twists, New World’s gripping screenplay is not without fault, especially with some last-minute reveals. The truth behind Ja-sung’s wife (Park Seo-yeon) was quite a late introduction, but that seems excusable given the packed screenplay. Nevertheless, I felt uncomfortable with how director Park Hoon-jung represented female characters, such as Ja-sung’s wife and the female detective, Shin-woo (Song Ji-hyo). Their portrayal seems to be representative of Korean gender stereotypes, and while the violence towards women was nowhere as explicit as Park Hoon-jung’s previous work, I Saw the Devil (2010), it still distressed me. Despite being perpetually tense and full of suspense, New World may feel slightly predictable to viewers who are familiar with classic gangster movie clichés. However, I still enjoyed the writing tremendously on the whole. The layered conflict, Chekhov’s guns, and meaningful callbacks are intricately plotted. The epilogue which featured a flashback of Ja-sung and Jung Chung’s earlier days as gangsters may seem out of place, but I thought it was an intelligent way to entrench deeper the emotional core of the film and end the film on an indelible, lighter tone.
Technically, New World excels, especially in its cinematography, sound, and production design. The cinematography is memorable, with great use of close-ups and zoom-outs exploited for dramatic effect. The composition of each frame is meticulously calculated to reveal various perspectives and emotions. A close-up of Ja-sung’s eyes easily situates us in his state of mind and inner feelings, garnering our sympathy. The blue, cool colour hues paint a sombre, melancholic atmosphere. Likewise, the mournful score contributes to this overarching despondence and evokes our empathy for the lead. The rainy weather and overcast skies serve as conspicuous mise-en-scène, embodying the morally ambiguous greys our characters contend with. These cohesive elements enrich the narrative and craft an authentic, credible world we immerse ourselves within throughout the film.
New World’s excellence extends to the deliberative set design, sprawling from Chief Kang’s dodgy hideout to Joong-gu’s nefarious lair set on a construction site. Even the costume design deserves praise for how it supplements the story. Jung Chung’s bold white suits, especially amongst his contemporaries’ darker apparel, befit how his character always stands out. Correspondingly, Joong-gu wears villainous pin-stripes, while Ja-sung’s wardrobe metamorphoses from grey suits to jet black ones as his morality similarly darkens. This meticulousness and these details are what secured my reverence for the film. The action scenes are well choreographed, and I especially relished Jung Chung’s elevator fight scene. I am almost certain Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s synonymous elevator scene was inspired by New World’s blood-soaked original. While there are buckets’ worth of blood shed in this film, New World is surprisingly not as violent as I expected a Korean crime thriller to be. Some of the grittier deaths are implied off-screen and violence is used thoughtfully to raise the stakes of the conflict.
It is an understatement to say New World is a masterpiece. Writing this review days after I had seen this film was an effortless endeavour as it had left such a significant impression on me. All the details I had pointed out were so noteworthy and impactful. It may well be argued that New World’s direction, performances, screenplay, cinematography, sound, and production design united to deliver a fresh take on the undercover cop gangster trope. Bringing together all these elements, New World is greater than the sum of its parts. I enjoyed myself immensely at the screening and held my breath until the end. It was a thrilling ride and a deserving illustration of how enthralling South Korean cinema is. It is no surprise LEAFF 2022 selected it to not just exhibit Lee Jung-jae’s star-power but to also demonstrate the eclecticism of South Korean cinema. Even with its flaws, I cannot wait for the next opportunity to watch this certified crime classic again.
Watch the trailer for New World here: