Stop me if you’ve think you’ve heard this one before: A rogue cop seeking revenge teams up with a minor meth dealer from the underworld to take down the local drug lord/crime kingpin and a crooked D.A. Loyalties will be loose, moral compasses will be shot to hell, bullets will fly, cars will crash, a young girl gone astray will find redemption, sunglasses will be worn at all times, blood will be spilled continuously and copiously, and certain death will await one or both of our protagonists during a final showdown/standoff.
Taking a page out of the John Woo 101 playbook, it’s readily apparent that Ho Choi’s entertaining but ultimately forgettable crime thriller, Bloody Ties, owes no small debt to the operatic Hong Kong actioneers of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Grainy, gritty but stylistically slick, bouncing along its merry way to an over-the-top ‘70s horn and wah-wah guitar drenched funk/disco soundtrack , the film does as much to pay homage to its forebears (especially ‘70s American police dramas) as it does simply to celebrate and revel in its genre trappings.
I was never quite sure while watching Bloody Ties on which side of the pomo/referential divide to place the film, but perhaps by even posing this question to myself I am missing the point. Reduced to a genre exercise and nothing more, Bloody Ties holds up well enough to satisfy most Asian action/cop/gangster junkies.
But, again, Bloody Ties’ ambitions are slight. Sangdo is a small time crystal meth dealer on the make in Busan, South Korea’s second largest city and biggest port. Successful and cocky, he thrives under the protection of rogue cop Doh, who molds Sangdo as a sort of professional police snitch in exchange for wiping out his competition. When a bust goes down badly, though, Doh is suspended and Sangdo is sent away to prison for a year. Both men, returning to their previous domains after months’ long exile, find the landscape they’d grown accustomed to vastly altered.
A hardline D.A. has cracked down and rousted all the old drug gangs, all the while ceding all the drug business to the ruthless kingpin Jangchui, who also turns out to be Doh’s nemesis whom he’d vowed revenge on years ago. Unable to bust the druglord except through an inside man, Doh enlists Sangdo to get a foot in the door and set up Jangchui for the fall. Mayhem, of course, ensues.
Though starting of promisingly enough, Bloody Ties quickly falls apart in its latter third, mostly due to a dearth of urgency, and a confusion of plot points which seem to spring out of nowhere. The baddy just isn’t bad enough, the protagonists’ desperation isn’t desperate enough, the stakes never seem high enough, and various double crossings seem to go down for no other reason than to obfuscate the paucity of plot and/or pad the film out to 120 minutes.
In some ways, I guess, the film’s lack of depth is deliberate, and is in some ways refreshing, compared to some of the heavy lifting and ambition of recent South Korean films (think of the knotty quandaries and meditations of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, which are thoroughly exhausting for both their moral ambitions as well as their Grand Guignol excesses). Sometimes a cop and gangster movie can be just another cops and gangsters movie, with no winks, no nods, no nudges, and no great arching tragedy, either.
But ultimately, for those seeking some emotional oomph, Bloody Ties seems to be a whole lot of hullabaloo simply for its own sake, with nothing of the sort of necessary cathartic release which attends the bombastic climaxes of Woo’s best films. There is, though, in both direction and stylization, plenty of potential here, and since East Asian cinema has been such a happy hunting ground for Hollywood recently, it would be no surprise if an American remake was in the works somewhere, or Ho Choi was poached to direct the latest Tarantino knock off.
Extras are scant for the Tartan DVD release of Bloody Ties. Aside from trailers for other upcoming home releases, the only feature proffered is a 15-minute interview Kim Sang Mon, the visual effects and sound director for the film. In a way, this makes sense rather than having director Ho Choi interviewed – Bloody Ties key strengths are precisely its flashy lighting stylizations and (as previously mentioned) its bumping, funked-up soundtrack, both of which are instrumental in making the film seem a lot more fun and enjoyable than it is in substance. A word from Choi about various narrative choices towards the end of the film might have clarified some things, but probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference in ultimate effect of this second tier South Korean export.