A Film a Week - Night in Paradise / Nak won eui bam

 previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

Tradition is just an empty word in the world of gangsters, and the same could be said also for the world of film distribution. One might expect that a genre fare with an elite festival premiere (last year’s Venice, out of competition) should end up on the regular repertoire in movie theatres, regionally if not worldwide, but Park Hoon-jung’s Night in Paradise landed on Netflix instead earlier this year. We might blame it on the pandemic, but the fact is that the streaming services are expanding regardless of it.

As a screenwriter, Park is best known for his work with Kim Jee-won on the iconic serial killer flick I Saw the Devil (2010), but as a director, his most breakthrough work would be his second feature, New World (2013). The latter was a crime drama with a dash of action and gangster epic, so it is somewhat expected for the filmmaker to go back to the familiar territory after more or less successful excursions to other genres, like historical adventure (Daeho), spy flick (V.I.P.) and supernatural mystery action (The Witch: Part 1 – The Subversion whose sequel is already announced.

Our protagonist Park Tae-gu (Eom Tae-goo, glimpsed in I Saw the Devil and The Age of Shadows) is a mid-level gangster in the clan lead by the old and weary Mr Yang (Park Ho-san). His sister urges him to consider a change in career before it is too late, but Tae-gu thinks that there is still job that needs to be done. After his sister and the cute niece are killed in an assassination masked as a car accident, Tae-gu and his boss are quick to blame the rival clan lead by Chairman Doh (Son Byung-ho) and Mr Yang greenlights his employee’s idea to assassinate the rival boss.

In the aftermath of the assassination, Tae-gu has to run and hide on Jeju Island until Yang joins him and the two get away to Vladivostok. The hiding place is at the house the former gangster Kuto (Lee Gi-yeong) whose schtick is packing the arms he sells in smelly fish. Kuto’s niece Jae Yeon (the up-and-coming actress Jeon Yeo-bin) who is dying of a mystery disease also lives there and, after the initial mistrust, the two outcasts forge an unlikely alliance to survive, to die or to kill for each other. Meanwhile, in Seoul, Yang’s war does not go as planned, especially after Doh is succeeded by an even more ruthless Director Ma (Cha Seung-won), and the police captain Park (Lee Mun-shik) has to interfere and set up negotiations where some pawns have to be sacrificed.

There is a lot of stuff to be enjoyed in Night in Paradise, like the nihilistic attitude about the honour among the gangsters, occasionally clever plotting, masterful shot framing and action set pieces directing by Park Hoon-jung, laced with some unashamed melodrama and operatic tone. Park also proves to be a clever visual storyteller and a master user of metaphors, such as the rotating tray on the negotiations table that signals how luck quickly turns.

The trouble with the screenplay is, however, that some of the sharper turns and plot twists needed some deeper motivation and Park did not make an effort to develop it. For instance, the friendship/romance angle between Tae-gu and Jae Yeon feels completely unexplored, and her disease is used as a generic movie excuse to make her desperate enough to lean on another soon-to-be-dead “loser”. Probably the biggest flaw of the film would be its unnecessary long runtime of over two hours that is mostly felt at the beginning of the film while the plot still slaloms through the expected checkpoints.

On the other hand, there is a lot of craft involved in making Night in Paradise (which is, by the way, an awfully generic title) from all the parties involved. The characters from the gangster milieu are interesting and unique, with their own perfectly defendable angles, which helps the actors to make their portraits quite compelling. Played by Park Ho-san and Cha Seung-won, Yang and Ma could reach the status of the iconic movie gangsters. On the other hand, the leads Eom Tae-gu and Jeon Yeo-bin seemingly have less work to do and less things to show with their characters, but the calibration of the acting performances on their side is good enough for a viewer to buy them completely. Coolly lensed by the veteran cinematographer Kim Young-ho that subtly highlights the differences between the busy city and the “paradise” island under the building threat of touristic gentrification, Night in Paradise is also an eye-candy and a film worth seeing even at home.

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