Few films are as impressively stylish as South Korean thrillers and gangster movies, be it Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance” trilogy, Kim Ji-woon’s A Bittersweet Life, or Lee Jeong-beom’s The Man from Nowhere. Even with their adherence to genre conventions like an unremitting bleakness and graphic violence, these films boast a sense of style and aesthetics that’s so captivating, it’s difficult to turn away from their dark visions.
As my examples above reveal, though, it’s been a few years since I’ve dipped my toes into this particular branch of Korean cinema. Thankfully, Park Hoon-jung’s Night in Paradise is currently streaming on Netflix, which made it easy to dive back in to these chilly cinematic waters. And what a re-entry it was. Put simply, Night in Paradise is a prime example of everything that’s great about these films… and everything that’s a bit more challenging.
Tae-gu is a stony-faced enforcer for a low-ranking gangster named Yang. Although Yang’s more powerful rival, Chairman Doh, has been trying to recruit Tae-gu, he remains loyal to Yang. But when that loyalty results in the deaths of his sister and niece, Tae-gu carries out a bloody hit on Doh that allows Yang to move against Doh’s gang. (Much of this happens before the movie’s title screen, by the way.)
Tae-gu’s actions have made him a marked man, so Yang sends him to Jeju Island, a popular vacation spot, with orders to lay low for a week, at which point he’ll be sent to Russia to avoid any reprisals from Doh’s men. Upon arriving on Jeju, Tae-gu meets Jae-yeon, a young woman with her own trauma and darkness. While he awaits Yang’s message, Tae-gu begins spending more time with Jae-yeon; the bulk of Night in Paradise is comprised of the taciturn couple meandering around Jeju Island and slowly getting to know each other.
Back in Seoul, however, Tae-gu’s old gang finds themselves in a dangerous spot when Doh’s enforcer, the malevolent Executive Ma, vows a bloody revenge of his own. Which means that Tae-gu’s chance for escape grows increasingly precarious. But will he still want to escape now that he’s grown closer to Jae-yeon?
If you’ve watched this type of film before, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of how things are going to end up even before Night in Paradise’s opening act is done. These movies never end well and you’re lucky if any of the main characters survive to the end credits without winding up in a pool of their own blood. An ever-present sense of doom looms over every single one of the movie’s scenes, even when Tae-gu and Jae-yeon are standing on a pristine beach in the middle of a bright summer day.
For some viewers, this nihilism will make Night in Paradise near-impossible to enjoy. And if it’s not that, then the protagonists’ deeply repressed emotions, be it from grief, violence, or an unending sense of their own mortality, make it hard to sympathize with them. No doubt, some viewers will find Tae-gu and Jae-yeon’s burgeoning connection too little, too late.
Furthermore, the film’s blood-soaked action scenes, which include a shootout in a fish warehouse, Tae-gu fighting off a dozen assailants from inside his pickup truck, and a final stab-a-thon, are less thrilling and more an exercise in inescapable tragedy. There’s no cathartic sense of the bad guys getting what they deserve because, well, nearly everybody is a bad guy who deserves what’s coming to them. (That being said, some of the movie’s action does border on the absurd. Exactly how long can two guys keep shooting at — and hitting — each other? And how many times can you head butt somebody who’s just stuck a knife in your gut?)
So why watch Night in Paradise? Because it looks amazing. Although he doesn’t appear onscreen, the movie’s real star is cinematographer Kim Young-ho. I’m hard-pressed to think of another film I’ve seen in recent memory that looks this rich and vivid, that drips with this much atmosphere.
Some moments are reminiscent of Christopher Doyle’s work on Wong Kar-wai’s films, like Tae-gu lounging in his room at night, cigarette smoke swirling around his head. But Night in Paradise’s visuals aren’t nearly so lush and soporific; rather, they have a hardness and jewel-like clarity to them. Even a scene of the two leads simply sitting on a bench under a streetlight is transfixing through Kim Young-ho’s lens. And even though it’s a bleak gangster film, Night in Paradise could also serve as a travel brochure for Jeju Island; the island’s scenery, as captured by the film, is stunning, to put it mildly.
As for the film’s actual cast, Uhm Tae-goo and Jeon Yeo-been work well as Tae-gu and Jae-yeon, respectively, and it’s not hard to buy their individual grief and damage, or their tentative connection. However, the film’s most memorable performance is Cha Seung-won as Executive Ma. By turns buffoonish, sinister, charismatic, vulgar, and surprisingly honorable, Ma dominates every scene that he’s in.
Gangster movies usually boil down to a couple of well-worn tropes, be it “one last job” or “making amends for the past.” We like to see our onscreen criminals experience a moment of redemption before they’re gunned down or go out in a blaze of glory. Or, if they beat the wrap, to do so with a wink, smirk, and/or clever one-liner. In a more upbeat movie, we love discovering that somewhere beneath their tough gangster shell beats a heart of gold.
Night in Paradise doesn’t care about any of that.
Rather, Night in Paradise is more focused on the tragedy of it all, on the nihilistic despair inherent to a life lived according to murky codes of violence that make betrayal as easy as breathing. “It’s not enough to say that we’re in a rough profession,” confides one gangster to another right before all hell breaks loose. That line rings with inevitability, and so Night in Paradise leads up to one final shot that, for all of its hopelessness, feels like the only way it could’ve ended — the only logical conclusion to everything that precedes it.
For some viewers, such bleakness won’t make for a satisfying story at all. But for me, the sense of style with which the movie’s story is told — the melancholy atmosphere that pervades even the brightest and most tranquil scenes, the elegiac soundtrack that blends ominous electronics with jazz and string arrangements, the immaculate cinematography (some of which can be glimpsed in the trailer below) — proves as important and compelling as the actual story itself.