Ultraviolent Korean gangster noir that trades originality for non-stop knife fights…
The knives are well and truly out in For the Emperor from Korean director Park Sang-joon, following up his 2007 crime comedy Bank Attack with something a little more hard-edged. Set against a backdrop of illegal moneylending and vicious gang rivalries, the film is an all-out, stylised action noir that ramps up the body count and packs in an impressive amount of bloody brutality and graphic sex.
Taking place in Busan, the film stars Lee Min-ki (Monster) as Yi Hwan, a former professional baseball player who gets kicked out of the league over match fixing and gambling. His life spirals out of control until he meets Sang Ha (Park Sung-woong, New World), head of the illegal money lending firm Emperor Capital, who takes him under his wing and offers him a criminal career. Yi Hwan quickly takes to his new occupation and rises up the ranks thanks to his talent with the blade and his willingness to use it. Unfortunately, everything starts to fall apart when he falls in love with bar owner Yeon Soo (Lee Tae-Im, Days of Wrath), driving a wedge between him and his mentor Sang Ha.
Obviously, there’s nothing even remotely original about For the Emperor, and anyone who’s seen even just a couple of gangster films will recognise the time-honoured rise and fall type plot. Indeed, Park Sang-joon plays things entirely by the numbers, without any real attempt at creativity or to shake things up, and the film’s outcome is signposted clearly from the start, a fact which inevitably undermines its dramatic tension. Similarly, the characters for the most part are genre stereotypes, Yi Hwan and Sang Ha being very familiar figures, and there’s scant effort made to flesh them out beyond the usual clichés – to be fair, Lee Min-ki and Park Sung-woong do their best, though are let down by a paper thin script. With the film showing a markedly misogynistic attitude towards its female cast members, this results in the viewer feeling very little, if any, emotional connection with events onscreen.
While all of this might make For the Emperor sound like a pretty shabby affair, and indeed it’s certainly not one for audiences unconvinced by the merits of the Korean gangster film, it actually has a lot to offer genre fans, scoring highly in most other areas. Park Sang Joon wisely cranks the action and violence to the max and beyond, packing in a staggering number of stabbings and beatings, and the film is easily one of the most brutal from Korea in some time – during stretches of the film barely a minute goes by without some unfortunate having a knife thrust into one or more parts of their anatomy. Park’s choreography is excellent, and the ruthlessly vicious set pieces have real impact, giving the film a fantastically hard edge throughout. With plenty of graphic sex thrown in for good measure and some excellent visuals and top notch production values, this at least goes some way to make up for the film’s failings in other areas, and it moves along at a fast, thrilling pace.
For the Emperor is definitely a film aimed at a certain audience and fan base, and in these terms it succeeds in serving up a hard boiled hour and forty five minutes of intense, if admittedly generic, entertainment. Though the film is very much open to accusations of glamorising the gangster life, and it lacks the substance and drama of other recent outings like New World and Nameless Gangster, as a carnage filled noir actioner it’s hard to argue with Park Sang Joon’s modest achievements.