[Note: This post contains minor spoilers.]
The underworld war of succession is one of the stock stories of East Asian gangster cinema. Hong Kong director Johnnie To's lyrical and marvelously vicious Election films are the contemporary exemplars of the subgenre, but that certainly hasn't dissuaded other filmmakers from trying their hand at such stories. For New World (Korean: Sin-se-gae), screenwriter-turned-director Hoon-jung Park blends a tale of mob warfare with an undercover cop psychological drama, and the result is an engrossing, tightly plotted thriller.
There's deep cover and then there's deep cover. Officer Ja-sung (Jung-Jae Lee) is in the latter category, having spent nearly a decade infiltrating and then working his way up through the ranks of Goldmoon, the most powerful crime syndicate in Korea. He's managed to position himself as the lieutenant to the organization's heir apparent, Jung Chung (Jung-min Hwang), a swaggering mongoose of a man with all the tastes and self-control of a teenage boy. However, when the group's chairman suddenly dies, the grasping, eerily composed Joong-gu Lee (Sung-woong Park) begins to make a play for the Goldmoon crown, sparking a bloody struggle during the lead-up to the syndicate's election.
As it happens, Ja-sung is on the cusp of leaving the undercover life, but his superior—the rumpled, ruthless Chief Kang (Korean cinema icon Min-sik Choi)—is not about to let his inside man walk away at such a crucial moment. In contrast to many crime thrillers, the police in New World have no grand scheme to take down the syndicate Once and For All. Kang is a realist, and knows that the syndicate can never truly be undone, as a new leader will always rise to fill a power vacuum. Kang does believe, however, that Ja-sung can nudge the outcome of the election, pushing Jung Chung and Joong-gu Lee into a mutually destructive conflict while handing the throne by default to the group's weak, older vice-chairman. Only three people know of Ja-sung's true loyalties: the police commissioner (Ju Jin-Mo), Chief Kang, and handler Shin Woo (Ji-Hyo Song), whom Ja-sung visits under the pretext of receiving private Go lessons. Such secrecy is for the policeman's safety, but it could also put him in a nasty position if his police confidants were unable to vouch for him.
In this and other respects, New World's plot recalls the acme of the modern “mole” film, the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs (and its American remake, The Departed). What Park's feature does slightly better than either of those films, however, is foreground the characters' psychological anguish, and in particular the undercover protagonist's terror, rage, and moral confusion. Lee proves to be a fine choice for the lead, as the physicality of his acting matches the film's approach. His wiriness and chiseled cheekbones lend him a feline demeanor befitting a mobster clad in Ermenegildo Zegna, but his perpetual frown also gives him a dourness that complements Jung Chung's libertine ways. Lee is skilled at conveying the anxious weariness of a man who has labored too long at the same high-stress task. When things begin to go south and his cover is jeopardized, his skin seem to go waxen and onion-thin, and his expressive, darting eyes become the rats that squeal on him.
This isn't to say that New World lacks for more visceral pleasures, such as wince-inducing violence, unexpected narrative swerves, or those moments of pure cinema that have become a standard feature of the East Asian gangster picture. In one jaw-dropping scene, an enormous, hand-to-hand battle royale unfolds in an underground parking garage, where hundreds of goons scuffle in a sea of suits, sunglasses, and flashing knives. Said brawl culminates in a gruesome, sloppy close-quarters elevator showdown that is the antithesis of Captain America: The Winter Soldier's precisely choreographed take on the same.
Overall, however, New World is at its most intriguing and memorable when the action, such as it is, consists of Ja-sung's increasingly desperate attempts to maneuver his way unscathed through a lattice of falsehoods (most of it of his own construction). Indeed, it is a remarkably talky gangster film, full of brooding conversations between allies and harrowing cat-and-mouse games between enemies (Does he know? Does he know I know he knows?). This is hardly a surprising feature, given Park's history as a screenwriter. That pedigree is also apparent in the way that the characters are gradually revealed to be more nuanced than an off-the-cuff assessment might suggest. It's particularly prominent in the case of Jung Chung, whose goofy antics conceal a vicious, amoral cunning, which in turns hides a startling sentimentalism.
New World also has some structural tricks up its sleeve. While the film's events are presented mostly chronologically, Park and editor Se-kyung Moon often toy with the viewer's assumptions about off-screen occurrences. (Rule of Thumb: Don't make inferences about anything that isn't actually shown.) This creates a recurring sensation of sour-gut fearfulness, where characters—and the viewer—become wary of trusting their own instincts. Ultimately, New World proves to be a nervy, consuming work of character-centered drama, more than earning its 134-minute running time, a rare enough feat in any genre.