“City of Violence” – 2007 New York Asian Film Festival Review

“City of Violence,” Ryu Seung-wan’s lean and limber 92-minute noir, is very much a back-to-basics production after his previous, more ambitious films “Arahan” and his most impressive work to date, “Crying Fist.” Even though the knee-jerk reaction would be to identify Quentin Tarantino as his principal influence, a much more apt comparison would be the Shaw Brothers epics of the ‘70s, such as “The Five Venoms,” which Ryu has expressed his great admiration for.

“City of Violence” is anchored around its incredibly energetic and acrobatic action scenes, choreographed by his lead actor and long-time martial arts consultant Jung Doo-hong. Jung plays Tae-su, a Seoul detective who returns to his childhood home of Onseong after the murder of Wang-jae (Ahn Gil-gang), one of his old friends. He reunites with his old crew, including Sukhwan (Ryu Seung-wan) and Pil-ho (Lee Beom-soo). Pil-ho has become a powerful gang boss who, in a bid for legitimate respectability, is working to build a casino to make the town a major tourist attraction. Pil-ho tells Tae-su how the murder occurred (this scene is replayed multiple times, “Rashomon”-like, throughout the film). However, after visiting Wang-jae’s widow, Tae-su immediately smells a rat, and suspects that he hasn’t been told the entire truth. He decides to remain in Onseong and investigate the murder. Sukhwan, also suspicious, assists Tae-su.

“City of Violence” is so swift and relentless that one only notices its flaws on later reflection. Tae-su’s sudden realization of Wang-jae’s true killer doesn’t quite make sense, and the flashbacks to his friend’s younger days are rather awkward. However, while watching the film, these weaknesses seem to be minor since the movie contains enough style and verve to overcome them.

“City of Violence” contains two impressive set pieces. One occurs early in the film, when Tae-su is confronted by scores of high-schoolers – uniform-clad schoolgirls, break dancers, motorcycle punks – whom he must fend off, each with their own weapons and fighting styles. The other is the film’s final fight scene in an inn, where Tae-su and Sukhwhan are armed with swords, battling dozens of henchmen (and one woman), and crashing through sliding screen doors and up and down staircases.

To put it in musical terms, if Ryu’s previous film “Crying Fist” was his orchestral piece, then “City of Violence’ is his garage band record: fast, loud, and somewhat ragged, but containing very entertaining and catchy riffs.

“City of Violence” will screen at the Subway Cinema New York Asian Film Festival on June 26 and again on June 30. For tickets, go to www.subwaycinema.com.