Professional gambler Goni (means “swan” in vernacular Korean, played by Cho Seung-woo, Chunhyang, Marathon), partnered with fast-talking Gwang-ryul (veteran character actor Yoo Hae-jin, King and the Clown, Musa), cleans up at an illegal hwatoo game and runs off with bags of money from a gangster. We then move several years back in time, and see how Goni became a card-shark under the tutelage of “Commissioner” Pyung (the incomparable Baek Yoon-shik). Initially only looking for a way to recoup his sister’s money he wasted on the table, Goni is gradually drawn into the world of illegal gambling, especially when the sultry Madame Jeong (Kim Hye-soo, Red Shoes, YMCA Baseball Team) sets her eyes on him.
Tazza, written and directed by Choi Dong-hoon, is, like his feature film debut Big Swindle, a fast-paced crime thriller, buttressed by a fantastic cast and a complex but never confusing plot. It is one of those Korean films beloved by domestic viewers (it sold more than 6.8 million tickets, making it the second most commercially successful movie of 2006, after The Host) but never properly appreciated by non-Korean critics, not least because it delivers like gangbusters on the score of cinematic entertainment, spiced just right for the local taste. A Kim Ki-duk Angstfest this is not.
Tazza First of all, let me reassure you that being completely ignorant of the rules of the Korean hwatoo (originating from the Japanese hanafuda, small plastic cards with gaudily colorful designs of flowers and plants) games such as “Go-Stop” and “Seodda” is in no way detrimental to full enjoyment of this movie. It’s not like you have to know Texas hold’em poker to be gripped by Casino Royale, either. (Well… maybe except for the last card trick Goni pulls off on his arch-nemesis Agwee [an excellent psycho-sleazeball portrayal by Kim Yoon-seok]. That one needed some check-back with an “expert.”)
A more interesting issue is to what degree the prior exposure to Heo Young-man’s comic book, from which this movie is adapted, could shape your response to the latter. Truthfully, some of the more loyal fans of the original would find the adaptation disappointingly truncated and scaled-down. I certainly miss its ’60s setting, the decade seemingly as ancient as the Paleolithic Age for some Korean youngsters, but not without its own glamour for the historically-minded. Other fans of the comic may feel that the characters, especially Goni and Gwang-ryul, are not given enough room to grow. Nevertheless, Tazza benefits enormously from its source, especially in porting over the latter’s painstakingly detailed descriptions of milieu of the gambling dens and behavior of the players and preys.
As for the cast, Cho Seung-woo, not my favorite actor, is adequate for the protagonist and Yoo Hae-jin successfully brings pathos and sympathy out of an essentially comic relief character. And of course Baek Yoon-shik is on hand to present us with another virtuoso performance, this time infusing his old shyster with an almost Taoist sense of mock serenity (a hint of self-delusion is there, as well). Yet, if Big Swindle was mainly a Baek Yoon-shik show, Tazza belongs to Kim Hye-soo as the candy-lipped femme fatale. Like Uhm Jeong-hwa, Kim is a confident actress, comfortable with her star status (and her body) and feeling no need to suck up to the camera because she already knows it loves her. Throwing predatory little-girl smiles at her potential victims, Madame Jeong plays everyone for a sucker and derives almost childlike delight from ensnaring dumb macho men in her web of deceit. I believe it is largely due to Kim Hye-soo’s presence that the climactic confrontation among main characters has an unexpected emotional resonance: I wonder if even Heo Young-man could have captured in his drawings the look of panic, guilt and strategic calculation frenzy-spinning into a whirligig inside Madame Jeong’s brain as illustrated by Kim in this sequence.
Director Choi as usual displays a sure hand in keeping all elements of production under control. His cinematic techniques are fairly elaborate but never overstay their welcome. DP Choi Young-hwan (No Blood No Tears, Blood Rain) and production designer Yang Hong-sam (Lover’s Concerto, Ryung) ably assist the director. Wah-wah guitar-like “stingers” and other ’60s &’70s urban action score cliches have been deliberately inserted in the soundtrack for amusing effects.
Although Tazza does not quite reach the heights, or depths, of noir masterpieces like The Grifters (despite a shot clearly meant to evoke it), there is no contesting that it is a superb piece of entertainment. (For the record, it is far more serious and thoughtful than Big Swindle, the latter being more of a puzzle piece than a character-driven drama) With movies like Tazza available for their theatergoing expedition, Korean viewers have little reason to turn to Tom Cruise in designer glasses blowing things up.
P.S.: Tazza, like Jang Jin’s films, suffers from culturally vague subtitles. The version I have seen does a good job in rendering the structure and rules of the card games intelligible, but totally misses out on jokes, snide asides and historical references. For me and my wife, the movie’s most drop-dead hilarious line was Madame Jeong’s petulant complaint, “I’m an Ehwa Women’s College graduate! I cannot stay in jail!” It was not even translated in the English subtitles (granted, it would not necessarily tickle a non-Korean viewer’s funnybone, but still…). Whoever has bought North American rights to Tazza should really consider re-doing the subs, to restore at least some of the pungency and wit of the Korean dialogue.