The City of Violence (짝패, Ryoo Seung-wan: 2006)

A group of old friends are reunited when Wang-jae – one of their old school friends – is murdered. City cop Tae-su and occassional thug Seok-hwan (who is Wang-jaes brother) start their own individual investigations into just who is responsible – and manage to find a whole heap of trouble in the process…

Director and star of The City of Violence, Ryoo Seung-wan continues his exploration of genre cinema with this ultra-violent, ultra-stylish and ultra-fascinating action study. In itself The City of Violence is a straightforward and rewarding revenge flick – with plenty of punching, spin-kicking and slicing violence meshed together with some startling editing and cinematography. Taken on a surface level The City of Violence is no more complex than other shallow but fun action films – take Donnie Yen’s stylish but silly Dragon Tiger Gate (Wilson Yip / 2006) for example – and there’s only just enough attention paid to characterisation and plot to keep us interested in how we move from point A to point B to point C – through to the end of the film.

Where The City of Violence stands out as an actioner is in its fierce intelligence and awareness of itself as an action film. With his previous efforts – Die Bad (2000), No Blood No Tears (2002), Arahan (2004)and Crying Fist (2005) – Ryoo Seung-wan managed to take familiar genres and push the boundaries of them just enough to highlight – consciously – where those boundaries were. A knowing filmmaker, The City of Violence is perhaps his most cinematically conscious film – its a film about screen violence and he plays with this idea in various ways throughout The City of Violence‘s brief (for a Korean film) 92 minutes. By setting up a fairly familiar plot with some fairly familiar characters (they’re not really developed at all, instead they’re more set up as ‘types’), Ryoo is free to set-up some gob-smacking action scenes which play out in various ways. Early on there’s a flashback fight scene (with some inspired editing establishing just who each past / present version of characters are) which is played out to a cheesy pop tune, the music seemingly at odds with the on-screen kickings. This is followed fairly quickly by a short but beautifully stylised alley fight. From this point on its clear that The City of Violence isn’t just a straight-forward gritty revenge thriller – that’s also a point that is more than underlined in what becomes a big street fight around the half-hour mark. Although the film feels coherent enough, there’s plenty of explorations of action styles through the editing, cinematography and soundtrack.

One minute The City of Violence feels like its taking on the persona of an eighties Hong-Kong cinema film, before moving into a gritty 70’s action film feel. There’s switches galore in tone here – from a triad-style revenge thriller to a western showdown in the blink of an eye using a change in cuts and a twanging guitar. There’s also many references to be found – some which are blatant, such as the musical cue that winks at Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino / 2003)and the baseball wielding thugs wearing shirts with the name ‘Warriors’ – and others that are more about tone and therefore more subtle: for example a jail-house assassination scene that just cries ‘Hong Kong cinema’ and the street fight which has more than just echoes of The Matrix Reloaded (Wachowski Brothers / 2003). I understand that for fans of 70s Korean action cinema The City of Violence has another set of ‘throwback’ moments, but sadly I have to admit to never having seen any of those films- this is the sort of film that might inspire you to hunt some down though.

There’s a hell of a lot of fun to be had with The City of Violence – I certainly enjoyed the energy of the film and as well as some of the brilliantly mad action scenes and top-notch production, it features strong performances from a group of strong actors. Okay, there’s not the greatest depth here (this is an understatement), but everyone involved – notably Lee Beom-soo as the gangster Pil-ho – makes the most of what they’re given to do. It’s not a perfect film – the first half an hour is clumsier than it should be and the lack of depth is a little frustrating – but The City of Violence proves yet again that Ryoo Seung-wan is one of Korea’s top directors, even if he occasionally feels like he’s restricting himself a little too much by simply playing with film genres instead of breaking them down completely.

짝패 (The City of Violence)
Directed by Ryoo Seung-wan
Produced by Kim Jung-min, Ryoo Seung-wan
Written by Kim Jung-min, Lee Won-jae, Ryoo Seung-wan
Starring Ryoo Seung-wan, Jung Doo-hong, Lee Beom-soo, Jung Suk-yong, Lee Joo-shil

The City of Violence Image © Filmmakers R & K