On the page, the set up for Park Hoon Jeong’s “New World” is almost a cliché, the story pivoting around a cop caught in deep cover in the midst of a crime syndicate, looking for a way to the end assignment, only for forces on both sides of the law to squeeze him to a breaking point. In Hollywood, both “Donnie Brasco” and “The Departed” popularized the concept in the recent years, with the latter a remake of “Infernal Affairs,” which itself spawned a trilogy. So the question for “New World” is: does it bring anything new to the equation? Nope. Does it do this formula well? Yep.
An opening “Law & Order”-esque cautionary title card warns, “the events, characters and institutions portrayed in the film are entirely fictitious,” immediately establishing a ripped-from-headlines tone for picture, and just like the famed network procedural, by the end of the first five minutes we’ve already got two dead bodies to deal with. But that’s about the last of the carnage -- for now -- as “New World” then settles into a quickly moving drama in which the Go pieces are set up for a twisty, bloody final act.
One of those bodies in the opening moments belongs to Chairman Seok, the head of the Goldmoon crime syndicate, who operate under the screen of a legitimate corporate enterprise. To the chagrin of the cops, Seok recently escaped prosecution on a battery of charges, but they’ve still got one more card to play: Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae). A high ranking player in the organization, he’s also undercover, but clocking his eighth year on assignment, he’s eager for an exit strategy, and soon. And with Seok dead, he feels his job is now over. But his handler, Police chief Kang (Choi Min-sik of “Oldboy” fame) -- one of only two people who know about Ja-sung’s true identity -- manipulates him to stay undercover, as the next head of Goldmoon succeeds into power. Ja-sung’s value on the inside is now too high for the cops to let him walk away....
….but his growing influence within the syndicate has its own consequences. One of the contenders for the Goldmoon gig is Ja-sung’s immediate boss Jung (Hwang Jun-min) as dumb, charming and utterly ruthless as can be. Yet, the pair share a close if contentious bond, with their loyalty to one another withstanding their differing personalities, and soon Ja-sung is essentially forced to make a choice: continue to fight to end his mission for the cops and get the life back that he once had, or reach for the brass ring with Goldmoon and give in to the power he can wield that is just beyond reach, backed by a group of associates who seem to value him more than his police bosses do.
Though the film runs over two hours, Park’s direction is brisk, and the script is knotty enough to be compelling, but thankfully not complex to the point of confusing, which these movies can sometimes be. And while that may give the impression that “New World” is flawlessly and tightly plotted, there are some elements left to hang, one in particular surrounding Ja-sung’s pregnant wife who has a dark secret of her own. It’s underdeveloped and hastily introduced, and the movie would have been fine by dropping it completely (one gets the sense if may have been more fully fleshed out in a longer cut of the movie). There is an air of the “Election” films hanging over the dynamics of the internal syndicate politics in the middle third of the movie, and again, at first glance this does seem a touch conventional. But it’s the execution that elevates the material, with Choi Min-sik continuing to prove he’s one of the most easily enjoyable South Korean actors in whatever he’s in (though this part seems like he could do it in his sleep) while Hwang Jun-min’s unpredictable sleaziness adds some nice flavor to the sometimes humorless picture.
And when the blood starts to flow, Park gives viewers the works. One particular centerpiece involves a gangland battle that starts in a parking garage, and leads to a pretty spectacular, artery spewing knife fight, all within the confines of an elevator. And the final closing sequences of “New World” in which the board is given one last reshuffle in a series of twists, is deftly and thrillingly executed (it’s too bad that one last extraneous and unnecessary epilogue scene, almost undoes it all). While Park doesn’t quite rise to the immediately distinctive work of his contemporaries like Bong Joon-ho or Park Chan-wook, with only his sophomore film, he does very much establish that it would be very wise to keep a sharp eye on what he does next.
“New World” has topped the box office in its native South Korea for three straight weeks and it’s easy to see why. While it hardly reinvents the genre, it’s smart, sharp entertainment that meets expectations dead on, and provides a nifty little story told with just enough spark to make the familiar feel fresh. If you've been looking for another "The Departed"-esque movie to keep you guessing, this would be a good place to start. [B]