Korean gangster films are ascendant—and Netflix wants a piece of the action with Night in Paradise. With Korean content as a mainstay of the streaming platform’s global growth strategy, it’s no surprise Netflix picked up this latest movie from director Park Hoon-jung, who previously directed 2013’s gangster-themed hit New World and wrote the renowned 2010 action thriller I Saw the Devil.
Now available for streaming on Netflix, Night in Paradise represents a more meditative and artistic iteration upon those predecessors. The film features a senior gang enforcer out for revenge—a familiar formula for anyone who’s watched enough Korean gangster movies. Atop that foundation, Park tries to innovate. He pairs the gangster protagonist with a gritty female counterpart, and transplants the action to the “paradise-like” Jeju Island. The result is action-packed and entertaining, though short of sublime.
Exiled to Paradise
The lead of Night in Paradise is Tae-goo (Uhm Tae-goo), the top enforcer for a gangster boss surnamed Yang. We first see Tae-goo at a hospital, caring for his sick sister and doting on his young niece. It’s a warm contrast to his otherwise laconic, steely exterior. Alas, just as Tae goo’s sister and niece leave the hospital, a car crash kills them in one fell swoop.
It’s no accident. Yang tells Tae-goo that a rival gang boss ordered the killing, and encourages him to take revenge. Tae-goo agrees, and embarks on a bloody stabbing spree. Yang then sends Tae-goo to hide in Jeju Island, located off South Korea’s southern tip that’s best known as a holiday destination. On the island, Tae-goo holes up with an arms dealer named Kuto and Kuto’s niece, Jae-yeon (Jeon Yeo-been, of Vincenzo).
Jae-yeon is an odd character. Tae-goo spies her doing target practice with a handgun…only to watch in horror as she turns the gun on herself and mimic suicide. As it turns out, she has a terminal illness, and has developed a mordant embrace of death. This common pall of mortality allows Tae-goo and Jae-yeon to form a bond—which gets tested when the aftereffects of Tae-goo’s Seoul stabfest arrive on the shores of sleepy Jeju Island.
A Female Protagonist Beyond Formulas?
Night in Paradise contains obvious echoes of other Korean gangster hits like A Bittersweet Life, which should make it easily accessible to genre fans. It features a vengeful yet soulful senior enforcer, and incorporates the (literal) backstabbing and betrayal common to Korea’s onscreen gangsters. The film also contains gratuitous and stylized violence. Gunfights, knife fights, hand-to-hand slugfests, and even car chases abound; action is never far away.
However, unlike other Korean gangster films that depict women as pretty things or literal children, Night in Paradise gives agency to its female protagonist Jae-yeon. Without giving too much away, Jae-yeon plays a key role in the movie’s explosive climax; without her, the movie would end on a substantially different note. While male lead Tae-goo feels pretty indistinguishable from all the senior enforcers that have graced Korea’s silver screen, Jae-yeon provides a new injection of welcome energy into the K-gangster drama.
Jae-yeon’s character is not perfect though. Her terminal illness feels too much like a crutch; take a shot every time she mentions her impending death, and you’ll find yourself drunk in no time. The connection that develops between her and Tae-goo also escalates in a haphazard manner as she vacillates between gunslinging femme fatale and tearful damsel in distress. All this dilutes Jae-yeon’s agency, and makes some of the film’s meditations on mortality fall a bit flat.
Paradise Lost… to Western Audiences?
When Night in Paradise screened at the Venice International Film Festival last year, director Park outlined how the film’s mise-en-scène of “paradise-like” Jeju Island was meant to introduce a degree of irony. On a technical level, Park does an excellent job at this. The film’s moody indigo cinematography bathes Jeju in darkness and twilight, making this “holiday island” seem bleak and downtrodden. Its location choices accentuate this aura—from the empty mulhoe restaurant that Jae-yeon and Tae-goo eat at, to Kuto’s wind-battered farmstead.
However, I can’t help but wonder to what extent non-Korean audiences will appreciate this irony. Most Anglophone readers may not know that Jeju occupies a place in Korean culture akin to Hawaii for the US, as a balmy island that people fly to on vacation. Just like Americans might associate Hawaii with palm trees, sunny beaches, and surfing, most Koreans (and other East Asians) probably have some positive preconceived imagery about Jeju. Night in Paradise becomes ironic by contrasting with those preconceived notions. If audience members know nothing about Jeju though, they might just assume the island looks depressing all the time—and miss the irony. This makes Night in Paradise an intriguing case study into the cultural specificities and context of film, and I’d rather the director have done this than try to change the setting to appease international audiences.
With its Jeju location and an intriguing female protagonist, Night in Paradise adds new dimensions to the storied tradition of Korean gangster films. It’s just as entertaining and action-packed as other members of the genre, with fight scenes and blood galore. However, moments of imperfect character construction thwart Night in Paradise’s more philosophical intentions, meaning it falls just short of films like A Bittersweet Life that leave a lasting taste of enlightenment.
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Night in Paradise (Korean: 낙원의 밤)—South Korea. Dialog in Korean. Directed by Park Hoon-jung. Premiered September 3, 2020 at the Venice International Film Festival, with wide release through Netflix on April 9, 2021. Running time 2hr 11min. Starring Uhm Tae-goo, Jeon Yeo-been, Cha Seung-won.
Night in Paradise is now streaming on Netflix.