Running at an admirably slender 92 minutes it’s packed with good things. Cheeky movie riffs abound – from Korea’s A Bittersweet Life to Tarantino’s operatic Kill Bill, from the comic-colours of Hong Kong’s Dragon Tiger Gate to the guitar-twanging tones of spaghetti westerns.
Nevertheless, The City of Violence sparkles with originality – not least with its playfully skillful editing and superior visuals. Scenes segue into each other to comic or character-building effect. Cigarette smoke curls across the screen forming a wispy frame from which the next scene comes. A close-up of the baddie, knowing the game is up, is obscured by cut-out silhouettes of our heroes leaping across the screen.
Five friends have drifted apart since their youthful days as a not-so-successful gang. One lies murdered. And as Tae-Su (Jung Doo-Hong), a Seoul cop, returns for the funeral, he seeks the truth behind the death. Reuniting with the livewire Seok-Hwan (Ryoo Sung-Wan), the duo soon uncover dirty goings-on that implicate the rest of their former brotherhood.
Unexpected humour and a dazzling array of scraps ensue. Jung Doo-Hong’s taekwondo skills are given full rein, but the battles are more stylized than the back-to-basics martial arts of Tony Jaa’s full-on Ong Bak. Yet writer-director-actor Ryoo Sung-Wan is no action slouch and pulls off some energetic set-pieces – performing several himself.
And it’s the tightly-controlled direction and the engaging playing of the leads – including Korea’s comedian-turned-villain Lee Beom-Seo - which carries the day. Ryoo Sung-Wan blends the boys’ backstories with an effective use of pop-up flashbacks, cleverly avoiding clichéd sentiment.
Frenetic and bloody, touching and funny, The City of Violence avoids the sadism of Tarantino, the macho-posturing of Peckinpah, or the self-consciousness of John Woo. The fight-to-talk ratio could have been higher, as it could have been in Sung-Wan’s Crying Fist, but this is an intelligent blend of character and action. Further proof that Hong Kong film-makers are no longer the action-thriller-kings of the East.