Third Window Films' August slate is upon us, and this month they are once again focussing on the cinema of South Korea. They continue to bring the eclectic, the original, the groundbreaking, and the downright bizarre of Asian filmmaking, something for which I am profoundly grateful. In a world of identikit Hollywood summer blockbusters, it's easy to yearn for something different, something that hasn't come off a conveyer belt, and something that will stop you in your tracks, presented with an image that you just haven't seen before. No. 3 is a film that intrigued me from the moment I first heard of it, a gangster comedy drama made in 1997, one of the first in the most recent naissance of Korean Cinema, and one that established many actors, including Choi Min-sik as names to take note of.
Habits, obsessive compulsions, neuroses, we all have them. The trick is not to let them control us. In a book or DVD shop, I'll always pick the second or third item on a shelf, simply because the first one will have been pawed over by prospective purchasers. I've also got a habit with review discs. When several discs come in to be reviewed, all scheduled for release on the same day, I'll put them in order of which one I want to see least, first, graduating to the one I want to see the most. It's a good system, and I followed it with the four Asian cinema titles that came in, due for release on the 10th August. It isn't the first time that my system has failed me, after all, I have no idea what some of these films are like, but this the first time this system has failed me this badly.
Tae-Ju is No.3 in the Do Kang gang, a position that he earned by rescuing his boss from an internal coup five years ago, and has put him on a cushy career path, along with his girlfriend Hyun-Ji. The problem is that he hates being No.3, he hates being called No.3, and his life would be infinitely better if he was No.1. Of course his boss is in the role, and constantly vying for position with the other trusted Lieutenant, Ashtray (so named for his unconventional weapon of choice), isn't doing the gang any favours. It's more like a couple of crabs trying to climb out of a bucket. Then there is the rival Axe gang to deal with, a zealous public prosecutor who takes an interest in him, and his gang, as well as Japanese gangsters trying to get a toe-hold on Korean territory. The incompetent hitman who decides to start his own gang, and establishes a gangster academy for three hand picked students, is just the icing on the cake. If that isn't enough, Hyun-Ji wants to be a poet.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer isn't going to redefine standards of visual excellence anytime soon. It's a standards conversion of course, soft, grainy, with occasional ghosting. More of an issue is the print damage. This isn't a film that has stood the test of time all that well, and there are some pretty hefty scratches to contend with, as well as a break 11:18 into the film. It gets the gist of the movie across through.
Similarly, the DD 2.0 Korean track isn't going to give your speakers a workout. The dialogue is clear, but the sound sync isn't always perfect, there is a constant hiss, but the biggest problem is with the subtitles. For the first 50 odd minutes, there are glaring typos, grammatical errors, and an utter lack of onscreen text being translated. Thereafter, they go completely to pot, making watching this film an utter, thankless chore.
Some really nice animated menus, and 14 Third Window Films trailers. The main extra on this disc though is a short but sweet making of featurette. Lasting 24 minutes, it offers behind the scenes footage, and lots of interviews with the cast and the crew. It is your standard EPK addition, but it has clear, well translated, and error free subtitles.
So here's the problem. For the first half of the movie, the subtitles are translated from the Korean into idiomatic English, as you would expect. The subtitles aren't perfect, there are grammatical and typographic errors, and as mentioned already, on screen text isn't translated, but these goofs are easy to overlook, and it is possible to enjoy the film. Then, around the 50-minute mark, it's as if the translator went home, and what you now get is a transliteration of the Korean, or at least that's what it looks like. Grammar goes completely to pot, some of the sentences don't parse at all, and I was left scratching my head, trying to understand just what was being said. One scene for example, where Tae-Ju is talking to the prosecutor in a roadside café, obviously riling each other up, and heading for an inevitable confrontation. What could have been translated as a probably clichéd, "Care to step outside", was rendered as "How about a round of fighting?" It made it an impossible chore to watch, let alone enjoy, and what looked to be a cracking little film developing, just become an unfortunate waste of time.
No.3 is something of a slow burner though. When you sit down with it, it looks like just a regular gangster movie, posturing wiseguys, brutal violence, organised crime; it could be a Scorsese by the books. That's the beauty of it though; it's all played absolutely straight, without a single hint of irony, or winking at the audience. It's just that as the film progresses, the situations and characters begin to grow ever more absurd. By the time the head of the Do Kang was explaining the possibilities of the Internet to his nonplussed henchmen, I was laughing out loud. The incompetent hitman who decides that he wants the prestige and power of being a gangster just added to the comedy value. Jo-pil isn't all that smart though, and he gathers the weediest looking thugs as henchmen, and proceeds to put them through a bizarre training regime of his own devising. Tae-Ju's obvious frustration at being No.3 drives the picture, and we follow him on his rollercoaster non-climb to the top, as he continues to reach for better, and keeps getting knocked back by circumstance.
It was turning out to be an entertaining film, but it was the subtitles that killed it. They are unprofessional and just don't do the film justice. Apparently this is a legacy of the US release of the film, I've read the same complaint on IMDB, so there may not even be better subtitles out there for Third Window Films to source. I can't recommend No.3, no matter how much I want to. Unless of course you are fluent in Korean, in which case get this film, as it's a blast. Half of it is watchable, and the technical quality isn't outstanding, which is why it gets less than half marks.