Ever since the Hong Kong action-movie boom of the 1980s, the film industries of East Asia have arguably been better at making old-fashioned, hard-boiled crime thrillers than Hollywood has. Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning “The Departed,” after all, was a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong thriller “Infernal Affairs” (albeit an excellent remake with its own spirit and considerable subtlety). While Asian pop cinema remains just off the radar screen of mainstream American culture, it’s a whole lot easier to find than it used to be. This week, Korean writer-director Park Hoon-jung’s byzantine, slick and bloody mob drama “New World” opens theatrically in numerous North American cities, just a few weeks after its smash-hit premiere in Korea.
Part of this new accessibility is simply about the speed of cultural transmission; no doubt pirated copies of “New World” are already available on the Internet, or on the sidewalks of Asian immigrant neighborhoods. If the film’s producers and distributors want to make any legitimate American (or Canadian) dollars off the damn thing, they have to get it out right now. But this also speaks to the rapidly changing demographics of our society; even five years ago, it’s tough to imagine a new movie in Korean, with no actors who count as stars outside East Asia, playing at multiplex theaters in Atlanta, Dallas, Las Vegas and Philadelphia. Furthermore, in this case it’s totally justified. While I’m not sure “New World” will attain the same near-classic status as “Infernal Affairs” or Johnnie To’s mid-2000s “Election” movies, on first viewing it’s pretty close.
We’re in familiar territory here, whether the setting is Asian, American or otherwise: sterile but luxurious settings, hard men in impeccable suits, a quasi-Shakespearean moral landscape of shifting alliances and repeated betrayals. Park, previously best known as the screenwriter for Kim Jee-woon’s hit serial-killer drama “I Saw the Devil,” handles it all with stern, commanding detachment. (The cinematography is by the terrific Chung Chung-hoon, who has shot most of Park Chan-wook’s recent films.) This aloofness extends both to camera movement and to character development, and I suppose it’s both the film’s major flaw and dominant quality. If our central focus is on Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae), an undercover cop who has risen near the top of the Goldmoon crime syndicate, he remains a moral chameleon throughout, and we observe his torment only from the outside.