Violence begets violence in director Ryoo Seung-wan’s directorial debut Die Bad
“Gangsters don´t all go around in three-piece suits. You know why we get crew-cuts and wear suits with T-shirts and no tie? So they can´t grab you.”
Cinema loves glorifying organised crime – both in the East and West. It’s a cool profession, where you look good in a three-piece suit and have underlings break the legs of those who wrong you. You have authority, power, style and endless charisma. Hell, even the movies meant to denigrate organised crime (Scarface comes to mind) can’t help to make it look cool. In A Bittersweet Life, main character Sun-woo has to fight his way through an entire crime syndicate, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t look amazing doing it. So it’s pretty refreshing to see something like Die Bad, which does everything in its power to make the world of Korean crime look like hideous misery.
Divided into four stylistically different segments, it more or less centres on Sung-bin (Ryoo Seung-Bum), a student whose group of hot-headed friends pick a fight with another group of students at a pool hall. Sung-bin accidentally kills a kid, and is sent to prison. In the second segment he is released and after a pretty uncomfortable dinner with his family, gets a job at a garage. He is frequently haunted by visions of the person he killed. When he rescues local crime boss Kim from a beating, he is quickly offered a job there.
The third segment deals with one of Sung-bin’s friends – Suk-hwan, now a cop. Interspersed between a pretty tense fight between him and Kim are mockumentary interviews with the two of them. The final segment deals with Sung-bin after he has risen through the ranks. Suk-hwan’s brother – another quick-tempered, violent boy – wishes to join a gang, believing his brother’s old friendship with Sung-bin will get him a position. Suk-hwan wishes only the best for him, and flies into a fury when he learns what’s happened, knowing full-well the death trap his brother has walked into.
That’s the rough gist of the stories without giving anything away. With the story so split into connected segments, it’s difficult to summarise without going into spoiler territory, but frankly with Die Bad this shouldn’t be an issue. Die Bad’s plot is, at its worst, incredibly predictable: it goes through all the motions you expect it to. Every character introduced does exactly what you think they would. Taking the plot as is, this would not be a particularly exciting or memorable film, which is really its biggest problem.
Its experimental nature is pretty neat but not always engaging. There aren’t a lot of moments where we get to know the characters all that well, so the majority of them end up splitting into two categories: knife-fodder and knife-wielders. And this really drags down what would otherwise been a pretty great film into an above-mediocre one. A couple of extra drafts on the script might have helped and gone a long way. However, it’s not all sad because Die Bad does have some pretty good parts. Where it shines is in its style and realistic portrayal of gang violence.
Director Ryoo Seung-wan uses to his advantage the fact that this movie was once several short films. Embracing different editing techniques, he takes what would otherwise be pretty dull stories and makes them visually interesting, giving us quite a few striking images. Cutting back and forth between the mockumentary and the battle between Kim and Suk-hwan is a great move that both prevents the action from getting too much and the interviews from going on too long. Similarly, the opening segment is interspersed with shots of video game violence – which helps us understand the characters’ ideas that violence is like something out of Tekken. But where there would otherwise be a “KO. Player 1 wins” there is instead a dead boy.
That opening number is a taste of the stark realism that permeates this film. Kim often states how messy and bloody his job is in his interviews. During the second segment, a kind-of repentant Sung-bin keeps revisiting the moment he killed a guy thanks to some horror-movie editing. But it’s really the fourth, titular segment that delivers the harshest lessons, and culminates in a bloody and remotely glorified bloodbath as Sung-bin’s new recruits take on some other thugs for seemingly no reason. If director Ryoo has any message, it’s that: in their world, all that exists is this. It’s cyclical, leading only to more misery, but one which no one – not even those trying to do good – can seem to escape.
Verdict: It’s a messy film at the best of times, but its refusal to go into gangster-film cliché is what keeps Die Bad afloat.
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 6.5/10
Editing: Definitely of its time
Somehow still the douchiest character: Sung-bin’s dad
Die Bad (2000)
Also known as: 죽거나 혹은 나쁘거나 (Jukgeona hokeun nabbeugeona, lit: “Dead or Bad”)
Director: Ryoo Seung-wan
Writer: Ryoo Seung-wan