Bloody Tie is an interesting film because it sports all the polish and big budget precision typical of Korean action films but combines it with a frenetic, almost anarchic approach to filmmaking that makes the entire thing feel like it’s totally bonkers and off the rails even when it isn’t. The closest comparison I have for it is Myung-se Lee’s 1999 film, Nowhere to Hide, but you’d have to take that and mix it up with Goodfellas and a healthy dollop of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without and Humanity, maybe with some Michael Mann on the side, to come close to the loopy energy of Bloody Tie. It’s a deliriously colorful, insane celebration of the very seediest and scummiest cops and drug dealers you can conjure up under Korean censorship laws. Even within those confines the movie achieves a level of sleaze I’m not accustomed to seeing in Korean films.
This was also the movie that convinced me Ryoo Seung-beom is a pretty fantastic actor. I never had a low opinion of him, but I never really had any opinion of him, period, other than as a welcome presence. Acting accolades were always reserved for guys like Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) and Song Kang-ho (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). But in short order (thanks to the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival), I’ve seen Ryoo Seung-beom in three very different roles in very short order (the other two being The Berlin File and Arahan), and I was left extremely impressed with how well he adapted and how much he altered himself for each role. In Bloody Tie, he plays slick, successful Busan meth dealer Sang-do. He’s pretty much at the top of his game, not a main man but living a comfortable life full of money, power, and sexy karaoke parties.
He’s also a snitch on the side, working most of the time for scumbag cop Do (Hwang Jeong-min, Blades of Blood), whose partner was murdered by a drug kingpin who then escaped to China, which sent Do into a downward spiral of depression, drunkenness, and banging his dead partner’s wife in front of picture of the formerly happy couple. Do is your typical Korean action film cop: loud, rude, abusive, and generally unconcerned with civil liberties — though in contrast to many films, his disregard for protocol is not celebrated by the film. Discontent with roughing up small fish, Do pressures Sang-do into setting up the number two drug man in the city, a sting that goes horribly wrong and leaves one man dead, the number two drug man’s girlfriend (Chu Ja-Hyeon) destroyed, and Sang-ho bound for prison. The entire drug gang unravels, but rather than being heralded as a hero, Do’s violent actions get him suspended and disgraced.
When Sang-do is finally released, nothing is the same. He’s a nobody. A new D.A. with eyes on a political career has cracked down on everything. The Korean economy (the movie is set in the late 1990s) has collapsed, which means more people are turning to drugs but fewer people have money. And somewhere in the background, a new drug kingpin has taken over Sang-do’s old turf and brought a bunch of ex-gangsters with him. Do is still around, but he’s in terrible shape and suffers from a rare affliction that makes it impossible for him to properly tie his neckwear or tuck in more than half of his shirt. And poor Ji-young has gone from drug dealer’s girlfriend to drug addict, being rented out to high-profile clients by the new kingpin in town. Sang-do decided he wants to take back what was his and decides to start with the pimp/drug dealer preying on Ji-young. This gets Sang-do noticed quickly by the new kingpin — who turns out to be a guy named Jang Cheol (Lee Do-gyung), the same dealer who killed Do’s partner. Needless to say, this means Do is going to slime his way back into Sang-do’s with a scheme to take down Jang Cheol.
If you’ve ever seen any of the American neo-noir films of the 1980s, you will recognize their very strong influence on this film. Swap out the Korean leads with, say, Jeff Bridges and Mickey Rourke, and you’d not really need to change anything else. Although set in the time of the IMF collapse in the final days of the 1990s, there’s a major 80s aesthetic to this film, especially since Do favors cheap, ill-fitting flared suits. Everything in this film is drenched in color and questionable fashion, and with the exception of Ji-young, every character is a scumbag. Do isn’t a corrupt cop in that he doesn’t take bribes or anything, but he’s corrupt in that he is abusive, selfish, and crude. Similarly, Sang-do starts out almost likable, but the more time we spend with him, the less we like him; and when he berates the struggling Ji-yong and thrusts a meth-spiked beer into her hands, he goes from “sympathetic rascal” to “I hope this asshole gets what’s coming to him.”
As sleazy as both characters are though, the movie is cautious not to go overboard. They’re not totally despicable, and they’re not without merits that make them OK to spend time with even though we hate them. Both Ryoo Seung-beom and Hwang Jeong-min are incredible in their roles. Ryoo’s drug dealer is smooth and well-heeled on the surface, with the typical gangster’s taste for crushed velvet blazers and metallic ties, but it takes very little for his veneer of sophistication to give way to baser, more hick-ish behavior that reminds us no matter how much he polishes himself up, Sang-do is always going to be small-time. And Hwang is a whirlwind of shambling, disheveled smirking and head-slapping as the loathsome Inspector Do, a man seemingly incapable of any modicum of decent behavior. Trapped between these two is Chu Ja-Hyeon in a shocking and daring performance that sees her character shooting up, smoking meth, and displaying a truly controversial amount of nudity for a Korean film and a Korean actress, where doing nude scenes is still rare in mainstream film and can get an actor branded as unsavory. Not ironically, I think, she is also the only character you can really like.
It was both the shocking explicitness of the nudity (which is still relatively mellow by the standards of other countries) and the depiction of drug use and dealing that turned Bloody Tie into a lightning rod for controversy, but the film is not content to just rest on the laurels of being infamous. It’s fast-paced and out of control, but also expertly constructed and willing to pause for character and plot development. This is not an action film, but there is action. When it comes, it’s sloppy and stressful and ugly and is what caused me to compare the film to the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series. Modern action films are a flood of ultra-stylized choreography and photogenic posing, but the action in Bloody Tie is all flopping around and shrieking and panicking.
The more I think about this film, the more I love it. From the neo-noir atmosphere to the bad attitude to the soundtrack heavy on funky wah-wah guitars — all done without seeming like it’s homage or irony — this movie got under my skin and continued to fester there. I’m on the verge of calling one of my favorite Korean films and one of the best cops-versus-drug dealers movies from any country. Director Choi Ho has done surprisingly little, and nothing else that I’ve seen, but even if this was his only film it would be one hell of an accomplishment. Stacked on top of the style and atmosphere is some great writing and incredible acting. Bloody Tie is a movie about cops and drugs that feels at times as if Sang-do has just handed you a cocktail laced with speed and acid. It’s darkly humorous and tense, and you might feel like you need a shower after it’s finished. But damn is it good.