Actor Jang Hyuk has been a busy bee in the last few years, with his most recent screen credits focused largely on action. It’s paying off pretty well as he’s about to set sail to a grand red carpet screening in Los Angeles this July for his newest thriller out of Wide Lens Pictures with director Choi Jae-hoon’s The Killer, following their previous proliferated work on Well Go USA’s period actioner, The Swordsman.
By the by in 2020, Yoon Young-bin would catch on with an opportunity of his own, debuting at the helm for a new film that would reunite Hyuk with actor Yu Oh-seong just off of filming JTBC Joseon period drama, My Country: The New Age. That film now arrives in the form of Paid In Blood, the latest release out of Well Go USA Entertainment’s Hi-YAH wheelhouse, following its local release in South Korea where the film is regionally known as Tomb Of The River.
Usually I consider a change in the title as something to factor in about how I choose to receive a film, and I do this particularly since not all distributors are apt about marketing titles out of Asia. With Paid In Blood, you definitely get what you pay for in Well Go USA’s newest offering out of South Korea, and with credit to Yoon for crafting a seething, dark and brutal gangster thriller that puts in as much energy in its brooding and performances as do the actors in all aspects of their roles.
Seeing Yu, especially opposite Hyuk, is something of a treat for me, personally. My first exposure to them were through Hyuk’s debut lead role in Volcano High, a supercharged teen action adventure about a young boy gifted with Ki energy who is forced to mitigate between his sworn oath to non-violence, and using his powers to tame the authoritarian body that’s taken over at the school he’s newly transferred to; and in 1997’s Beat, with Yu starring as the loyal best friend to Jung Woo-sung’s protagonist role while climbing the bloody and brutal ranks of the gangster hierarchy.
Both actors have since made a great career for themselves since my time buying imported DVDs at a local Korean bookstore here in New York City twenty years ago, so to see both actors on screen this time around is cause for celebration. And not for nothing either, as Yoon’s freshman outing invites audiences to immerse themselves into a violent, foreboding tale of greed, corruption, and the price of honoring business with dishonorable people.
The first shot we see of curious fisherman who uncover Lee Min-sik (Hyuk), stained in blood from his mouth while hidden with a dead body inside the bowels of a small meandering boat is part of the grim preamble to the events set against the backdrop of Gangneung’s seedy underworld in 2007. Kim Gil-seok (Yu) is the established head of Gangneung’s biggest gang compared to other leaders. His pacifist nature and affinity for peace and resolve usually brands him as either well-respected or woefully disdained depending on what side of the fence you’re on, and that’s largely due to his reception by his seniors, including Oh (Kim Se-joon), a retired gangster who also runs a development company with Shin (Song Young-kyu).
As it stands, Kim is tasked with overseeing the development of a new resort in the city, as well as representing its largest shareholder, just as South Korea is a year away from hosting the Olympics. Lee, who has since come a long way up in the underworld and is now established with his own crew, emerges before Kim one day, in hopes of claiming a managerial position. The discussion appears to be amicable at first while in the latter end, Kim, much to Lee’s dismay, rebuffs his hopes before parting ways on a not-so-light note.
This is the wind-up-and-the-pitch to Yoon’s directing debut, with Yu and Hyuk presenting distinct characterizations that further draw the physical and ideological lines amidst gangland politics. Kim is all about peace and loyalty with people on both sides of the law, whether it’s fellow bosses like the incorrigible Chung-seob (Lee Hyun-kyun) and the more seeming cordial Mu-sang (Kim Jun-bae), or Detective Jo (Park Sung-geun) who is charged with investigating violent crime and narcotics in the city.
Lee, who up until this point has served his bosses through debt collection by any means necessary, has grown into a quietly sinister and more shrewd, albeit maniacal force of nature who hasn’t fallen too far from his own savage means of survival. He uses underlings who owe large sums of money to enact his agenda – people like the beautiful Eun-sun (Lee Chae-young) who gets roped in by Lee following a violent moment earlier in the film – and wouldn’t think twice about pulling a knife and using it on anyone who didn’t acquiese to his ambitions or cutthroat methods of achieving them.
The distinction can also be seen via Kim and Lee’s respective lieutenants, Hyung-geun (Oh Dae-won) and Jung-mo (Shin Seung-hwan), the latter who brandishes a knife. There’s a scene early on when Hyung-geun, in the midst of working on his golf swing, tries to help ease tensions with Lee’s gang through, Jung-mo, who makes it more than clear where he stands when it comes to his rivals.
Yoon makes brilliant use of this dichotomy through intense storytelling that takes several dramatic turns along the way, and through drastic turns of events as we follow Detective Jo and the gangs, and their quests to hold Lee to account when he’s nearly become the center of unrest in Gangneum’s criminal body. Full-on gang warfare unravels with hidden agendas that eventually surface in waves of riotous violence, with knives, pipes, bats and projectiles useful enough to hurt when thrown all as weapons of choice. It’s a level of violence that Lee himself is provenly ready for, and it all comes to ahead in the film’s ferocious final act when he comes face to face with Kim and his squad of soldiers.
The deeper, albeit more intelligible and direct messaging that “crime doesn’t pay”, can certainly apply at the tail end of Yoon’s two-hour career overture, but you are welcome to take a more subjective approach. There’s a reference to a really expensive lighting fixture that Kim passes by nearing the end of the film that contributes to the overall analysis in this regard, and in doing so, makes for a rewarding allowance for a film that is amply balanced in its execution, from performances and set pieces, to its bloody gangbuster action.
Yu, who’s been a staple in Korean cinema for years with other films like Champion, Friend and Friend 2, The Great Legacy, and Attack The Gas Station, offers another splendid dramatic performance in this latest endeavor, along with the charismatic Hyuk who continues to prove himself as the whole package since Volcano High heyday and The Swordsman. The supporting performances are also terrific, as well as Yoon’s limber writing and story delivery, which should bode strongly for his career going forward.
You don’t really know a whole lot about what’s going to happen in Paid In Blood until it really happens. If you read this review up to this point, then chances are I’ve piqued your curiousity and you might pick up on a few things while watching, which shouldn’t be too bad. Regardless though, whether or not you go in blind, Paid In Blood is a heady, hard-hitting dramatic crime thriller that won’t leave you feeling anemic before the credits roll.
Paid In Blood is a Well Go USA Entertainment release debuting exclusively on the martial arts streaming service Hi-YAH! starting June 17, before hitting Digital July 26.