A muscular and unflinching Korean filmmaker with a flair for operatic ultra-violence, Park Hoon-jung does at least one thing better than anyone else on the planet: Shoot legions of suit-wearing gangsters beating the absolute shit out of each other. After scripting 2010’s “I Saw the Devil” and pioneering his particular brand of Musou-inspired mayhem as the director of “The Showdown” the next year, Park came into his own with 2013’s “New World,” a bruising and brilliant mob epic that spends much of its 134-minute run time stuffing Armani-slick henchmen into confined spaces (elevators, parking lots, etc.) with the chaotic energy of a child pouring a gallon of milk into a teacup. It’s as if someone took the infamous hallway fight from “Oldboy” and stretched it into a crime saga worthy of comparison to “Goodfellas.”
“Night in Paradise” doesn’t play against Park’s strengths — this is, at heart, another long and blood-soaked tale of rival gangsters slaughtering each other by the dozens in a war to determine who gets to rule over the bones — but it doesn’t want to rely on them either. If “New World” was paced like Puccini, “Night in Paradise” sounds more like Toru Takemitsu or even the Pixies, its exquisite paroxysms of carnage separated by long, ambient stretches of waiting for death to arrive. If only those purgatorial spans weren’t as brutal as the moments of unbridled mob violence that invariably come along to punch them in the face. Park makes a noble attempt to suffuse the meditative soulfulness of Takeshi Kitano’s “Fireworks” into the propulsive genre tropes established by more recent (and more Korean) forebearers like “A Bittersweet Life,” but he just can’t find the same poetry in that silent pain as he’s able to produce from the screaming kind.
“Night in Paradise” is often frustratingly simple, and its plot relies on a smart and fearsome young gangster’s failure to make sense of a mafia power grab that anyone who’s even seen a few movies about the criminal underworld should be able to see right through. An easy, grounded actor who radiates the same reactive stoicism whether he’s working for Hong Sang-soo (“Oki’s Movie”) or Kim Jee-woon (“The Age of Shadows”), Uhm Tae-goo stars as Park Tae-goo, the kind of swaggering enforcer who seems on track to become the boss of his organization in the not-too-distant future. Alas, Tae-goo has a terrible secret that complicates his chances of ruling Seoul with an iron fist: He cares about people. Specifically, his ailing half-sister and adorable niece (there’s a cartoonish moment of throat-clearing after a henchman catches him being a goofy uncle in public, a comedic beat that epitomizes Park’s tendency to punctuate his deadly serious material with over-broad laughs).
When both of them are killed in an ambush so awkwardly edited that you just know there’s more to the story, Tae-goo’s boss — a silver-haired Park Ho-san as the sly and shameless Mr. Yang — convinces his grief-stricken underling that the hit was put out by the head of the rival Bukseong clan. That nudge is enough to make Tae-goo go full “Eastern Promises” on his enemies at a local spa as part of a killer pre-credit sequence that ends with our hero driving into the night stark naked. Vengeance in hand, Tae-goo is ordered to fly to idyllic Jeju Island and lie low for a while amid the palm trees.
Serene as the coastal terrain seems, you might want to pick a slightly less obvious hiding place the next time you spark an apocalyptic Korean gang war. Not only does Mr. Yang know where Tae-goo is staying — intel the sniveling crime boss is willing to share with both a Machiavellian police captain and the wonderfully sadistic new leader of the Bukseong, Chief Ma — but there’s already some trouble brewing on the island when Tae-goo arrives. The old gun-smuggler who houses Tae-goo (Lee Ki-young) has a pair of eyes that seem ready to bulge out of his head from the pressures of dealing with local goons and Russian mafiosos, while his stone-faced niece Jae-yeon (Jeon Yeo-been) is supposedly dying from the kind of terminal movie disease that’s only symptom is a devil may care attitude towards mortal fears and the idle threats of men. You wouldn’t even know she was sick if not for the character’s tendency to end most of her scenes by sighing “I’ll be dead soon, anyway.” If only Jae-yeon and Tae-goo realized how much they had in common.
Hovering somewhere between downcast and dour, “Night in Paradise” gradually thaws into a kind of numbed anti-romance as the doomed non-couple at its core drive around the island, snack on mulhoe, and stare into the middle distance. These characters are sunken into themselves to the point that only their most heightened attributes stick out above the surface; the unsmiling Jae-yeon is a supernaturally talented sharpshooter for reasons that go unexplained, while the docile Tae-goo is almost catatonic whenever people aren’t trying to kill him. Park seems unbothered by the lack of texture — by the idea of building a movie around two people who rub off of each other like the soft parts of a velcro strap.
There are moments in which their platonic bond (a deceptively typical pairing that puts a bit too much stock in the actual lack of sex) is all the more interesting because of how little they take from each other, as “Night in Paradise” casually ambles towards the idea that dying for someone is preferable to killing for oneself. But it’s only toward the very end — when Tae-goo has to do some fast math about the value of saving a woman who insists she only has a few days to live — that the heroes of this somnambulant movie get to do something besides take in the scenery and wait for the bad guys to show up.
The good news is that it’s only a matter of time before they do, and Park hasn’t lost any of his talent for blunt-force trauma. While a semi-realistic mass shooting in the third act is out of place at the end of a movie that vibes best on a more divertingly hard-boiled wavelength, the rest of the action here strikes just the right balance between pure genre pleasure and divine punishment, and it’s all too easy to appreciate Park’s unique set of skills in a movie that relies on them so infrequently.
A gun battle in a barn is clear and kinetic in a way that seems beyond the capabilities of American cinema (Hollywood might still be able to sell mid-budget actioners if anyone in America knew how to shoot a simple firefight this well), while a chase sequence that follows Tae-goo halfway across the island finds Park taking his kinetic gangster kill squads out of the parking garages and onto the sun-lacquered streets. That last detail may not square with a film that’s heavy with a half-awake three A.M. energy even during its brightest moments — from its title on down to its crepuscular tone, “Night in Paradise” begs not to be watched until after dark. But Park’s latest allows in just enough light to illuminate his genius, even if it leaves you wishing that there was a little bit more to see.
“Night in Paradise” is now streaming on Netflix.
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