Just off the southwest coast of Korea lies Jeju Island, an idyllic paradise of beaches, palm trees and lush nature. To most people, it doesn’t jump out as the ideal setting for a bloodied gangster flick, but acclaimed director and screenwriter Park Hoon-jung (New World, The Witch: Part 1) has long proven himself as a filmmaker who thinks outside of the box.
Night In Paradise – Park’s sixth film – begins back on the mainland, where we’re introduced to gravel-voiced Tae-gu (played by Um Tae-goo), a member of the Seoul-based gang led by Yang Do-soo (Park Ho-san). Tae-gu is a respected figure in the city’s underbelly, to the point that the head of the rival Bukseong gang tries to get him to switch allegiances to their clan.
After Tae-gu declines, tragedy befalls his sister and niece and he becomes convinced that the Bukseong group are behind their deaths. Determined to get revenge, the grief-stricken mobster organises a meeting with their chief and gets his own back, setting up a chillingly iconic scene in a sauna as he slashes and stabs the gang leader and his minions to death with frighteningly cool composure. Getting even in this manner is going to have a pretty big blowback no matter how respected and feared you are, so Yang arranges for his underling to escape to Russia via a week of hiding out on Jeju.
Thus we head to the island where, at first, the tranquillity is only interrupted by Jae-yeon (Jeon Yeo-been), the terminally ill daughter of the arms dealer housing Tae-gu. Grappling with her mortality, Jae-yeon provides a subtle contrast to the gangster’s story – he’s running to save his life, while she seems apathetic at best about what time she has left. The two initially clash but, as they both come to suffer the repercussions of Tae-gu’s earlier actions, their relationship begins to defrost.
Night In Paradise’s action scenes might be more attention-grabbing, but the moments in between linger for a long time after the film is finished, too. Quieter and understated, they softly examine the bonds we can forge in the unlikeliest of situations and the strength of human connection. It might be hard to see it at first for all the rivers of blood but, underneath it all, there’s heart here.
Park’s unfolding of gang life differs from other films in the genre in that he never tries to glamourise this world. Instead, he focuses on the grim reality – one where the violence is brutal in the extreme and everything has very real consequences. At the film’s start, Tae-gu’s sister chides him for looking so “haggard”, hinting that his line of work isn’t as frivolous as she assumes. By its end, the only character that remotely comes close to triumphing is Jae-yeon, but even then it’s in the bleakest way possible.
For the most part, this dousing of paradise in blood and bullets is masterful, but there are times when the film’s aim wanders. Some of the scenes between Tae-gu and Jae-yeon drag, Park dwelling on their thawing friendship a little too long, while the barbarity between the gangs tumbles into gratuitous territory on more than one occasion. The savagery of the fight scenes feels necessary to drive home the filmmaker’s message, but it continues to a point where lessons are in danger of being lost because you’re trying to keep your dinner down instead.
If you’re able to overlook the occasional see-saw between extraneous gore and sentimentality, though, Night In Paradise is up there with the most compelling Korean gangster movies in recent years.
- Director: Park Hoon-jung
- Starring: Um Tae-goo, Jeon Yeo-been, Park Ho-san, Cha Seoung-won
- Release date: April 9 (Netflix)