War of FlowersReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/09/07 11:55:42
SCREENED AT THE 2007 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: It's probably not a good idea to try to learn about a game by seeing a movie about it. Based upon "War of Flowers" (aka "Tazza: The High Rollers"), I'm dumbfounded at the idea that hwatu could consume someone's life - it looks like poker, only with smaller hands, fewer cards, and no discards. That said, with the right characters and story, you could probably make an exciting movie about flipping coins.Kim Goni (Cho Seung-woo) starts out as a man with a gambling problem, and leaves home in shame after stealing and losing his sister's alimony payment. Driven practically to the edge, he gains the attention of of Pyeong Gyung-jang (Baek Yun-shik), who claims to be one of the three greatest gamblers in Korea (but lives modestly because he is much better at judging cards that real estate). Pyeong teaches Goni how to cheat... er, "use tricks" rather than "play the traditional way", but makes him promise to leave the life after he's achieved his goal of repaying his sister five times over. That's not happening, especially after Pyeong introduces him to grifter Madame Jeong (Kim Hye-su), the "Flower of Gamblers". Goni joins her operation, but winds up on his own after he and new comrade Gwang (Yu Hae-jin) escape a police raid. Even if Madame Jeong didn't still need gamblers for her scams, though, Goni has made enemies of vicious scarred gambler Agwee (Kim Yun-seok) and gangster Kwak Cheol-yeong (Kim Eung-su), which could place his and Gwang's new girlfriends, sisters Hwa-ran (Lee Su-kyeong) and Seo-ran (Kim Jeong-nan), in danger.
War of Flowers has the makings of a caper epic, as Goni starts at the bottom and then works his way up, if not to the top, than to the point where he's on his own. It hits a lot of familiar targets - the mentor character who teaches the audience along with the star and has an effect on the story well after his initial exit, the femme fatale, the motormouthed sidekick, the taste of a normal life, the schemes spelled out for the audience that get twisted into something else. Writer/director Choi Cong-hun (working from a comic by Ha Yeong-min) does a great job of keeping it interesting, telling the story in flashback with Mme. Jeong as our guide. Other narrators contribute toward the end, but Jeong's seductive voice adds a hint of glamor to the world of gamblers even as Goni starts out in the dirt, and the cuts to her being interviewed in an expensive dress hint that Goni will eventually transcend his humble origins to become a big deal.
Mme. Jeong is one of the many colorful characters that populate the film. She's voluptuous, predatory sex appeal both from her first bit of narration and her "official" introduction into the story; the audience can't help but feel for her mark in the last act as she convincingly plays the na�ve gamine, and she loses none of the honey in her voice when she reveals just how cold she can be. Kim Hye-su is pure distilled femme fatale here, and it's a delight to see someone play this type of role with such obvious relish without ever getting close to self-parody.
She steps into the spot vacated by Baek Yun-shik, a familiar face to fans of Korean film - he starred in The President's Last Bang and Art of Fighting, as well as director Choi's previous film The Big Swindle. His relaxed charm is a perfect fit for the part of Goni's teacher - he might have been a fearsome force in his day, but he's mostly retired now, and has maybe gained a measure of wisdom that Jeong and Goni don't have yet. He's one of the guys that makes this sort of thing look easy.
Cho Seung-woo manages to hold his own against these two, though. His Goni is closer to someone the audience can identify with, and even as Pyeong and Jeong involve him in more sophisticated games, there's still a certain scruffiness to him that suggests that even after he's learned to control the game, it might still re-assert its control over him someday. There's a difference to Goni's desperation at the beginning of the film and his desperation at the end - not just that the stakes are higher, but a feeling that being in over his head might not stop him now.
Choi Dong-hun has a knack for keeping things rolling along without a hitch. It's kind of a long film - about two hours and twenty minutes - but Choi keeps us from ever feeling like we're waiting for something to happen, and doesn't wear us out either. There's the occasional action scene, but even when someone is hanging off the side of a train, they don't quite grow into giant set pieces that dominate the characters trying to outsmart each other. The film looks never looks cheap, but manages to add just the right amount of grit and grime to keep the gambler's life from seeming too glamorous."War of Flowers" is a kick. It doesn't do a lot of things differently than other flicks about the shady world of gambling - just better. Hwatu itself still might not look like a lot of fun, but this movie about the people who play certainly is.
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