When a low-level gangster’s girlfriend’s death goes unpunished through proper channels, it’s a matter of tit for tat until he falls in love with the object of his rage in Kang Hyo-Jin’s stylish but frequently mean-spirited The Backstreet Noire, which combines black comedy and crime drama. Despite a fresh visual spin and a tweak to the tried-and-true revenge genre that adds an extra human layer between the vengeance seeker and his target, Kang’s narrative meandering, reliance on archetypes and lack of focus (except on how best to debase his lead actress) detract from the film’s novelty. The pic could still find a place with genre- and Asia-focused festivals, but it’s unlikely to gain a lot of traction beyond Asia-Pacific and niche distributors overseas.
Petty gangster Bae Chang-Do (Kang regular Kim Byung-Chul) is a professional whipping boy, regularly tasked with doing his boss Dong-Man’s dirty work — which often involves groveling in apology and accepting a beating on Dong-Man’s behalf (seriously). His latest encounter is with corrupt construction company manager Cha Young-Min (Kim Young-Yong, think a Korean Darren Criss), who beats the tar out of him for a perceived slight by a drunken Dong-Man the night before. Chang-Do is fine with his lot in life, as he’s squirreling away money so that he and his girlfriend, Mi-Young, can run off and start a life together. One evening, Mi-Young is hit by a drunk driver and killed, crushing Chang-Do’s dreams and setting him down a path seeking vengeance: The driver was Young-Min’s arrogant, unrepentant girlfriend, Hee-Jung (Yoon Hee-Sung).
When he’s unable to get any legal justice for Mi-Young’s death, Chang-Do plans to kill Hee-Jung, but is foiled by his bumbling henchmen, Cutlass and Bagman, when they — seriously — hit Hee-Jung with their minivan. The plan changes to one of kidnapping the comatose woman, gaslighting her when she wakes up with no memory and convincing her she’s a prostitute who works for them. It makes it easier to accept the degradations, humiliations, brutalizations and rapes perpetuated on her. Nice. The quartet is on a road trip headed for Mi-Young’s hometown of Geoje, where Chang-Do intends to finally kill Hee-Jung, all the while staying one step ahead of Young-Min and his thugs, who are out to recapture Hee-Jung, who in her forgotten life is Young-Min’s personal sex toy. (Because all the men in Backstreet Noire are mouth-breathers.)
Carrying on the theme of his 2016 thriller, The Rule of Violence, about the effortless perpetuation of brutality, Kang returns to similar territory, shading The Backstreet Noire with practically the same issues of insulated entitlement as the earlier film. This time, however, he ups the viciousness and brutality directed at (again) a woman while framing it as a source of conflict for Chang-Do and throwing in a little Stockholm syndrome for good measure. A fully aware, tough-as-nails Hee-Jung manipulating her kidnappers with fake friendship would have been a movie worth seeing, but alas, that’s up to another (female) director to make. Hee-Jung’s not being dead doesn’t make her less of a girl in a fridge, as it is indeed she who is the catalyst for Chang-Do’s redemption.
The Backstreet Noire displays flashes of extremely black comedy, and had the film stayed the course with its early tone it could have been a clever satire of just these kinds of brutal revenge films that disguise themselves as wannabe Shakespearean tragedies about grief, destiny, vengeance and honor. Outside a few moments, usually involving Cutlass and Bagman’s doofery, the dark comedy never relocates the funny bone it flirted with in its establishing minutes and the needlessly convoluted plot trudges along to the inevitable conclusion that sees Hee-Jung finally exert some agency. That’s a shame, because Kim slips into his romantic rebel antihero role nicely. Yoon habitually rises above the material she’s given, and watching her flip the genre on its head and kick-start a Korean (admittedly thorny) rape-revenge trend would be welcome. There’s a challenging, subversive pic tucked somewhere inside The Backstreet Noire, wrapped in cinematographer Son Sam-Woong’s rich black-and-white images, but the distasteful misogyny simply overwhelms it.
Production company: Kinocracy
Cast: Kim Byung-Chul, Yoon Hee-Sung, Kim Young-Yong, Suh Seung-Won, Cho Kyung-Hyun, Son Gwang-Up
Director-screenwriter: Kang Hyo-Jin
Producers: Kang Hae-Jin, Kang Yoon-Jin, Kang Hyo-Kin
Executive producer-production designer: Kim Ji-Soo
Director of photography: Son Sam-Woong
Costume designer: Burre and Snowman
Editor: Kim Hyo-Jin
Music: Hwang So-Hee
Casting: Kim Eun-Seok
World sales: Mirovision