'Tazza: The High Rollers' was released in 2006 and was directed and written by Dong-hun Choi. This is Choi's second feature production and is a follow up to his marginally successful first effort, 'The Big Swindle' (which incidentally gained him an award for best new director in the South Korean film awards). 'Tazza' is based on the comic book of the same name from Huh Young-man, which originates from traditional Korean drawings (manhwa). Following in the footsteps of his directorial debut, this movie also gleaned a number of nominations and awards at the Grand Bell Awards Ceremony (which is also based in South Korea) the year after its release.
The extensive cast is headed up by Seung-woo Cho, who plays Goni. This actor is completely unknown to this reviewer, but having previously starred in movies with titles such as 'YMCA Baseball Team', I'm not surprised (you gotta love those Asian to English literal translations!). Yun-shin Baek, a name you may be familiar with from the popular (but wacky) 'Save the Green Planet', plays Pyung Gyung-jang (Mr. Pyeong). The gorgeous Kim Hye-soo takes on the lead female role, playing Madam Jung.
The plot revolves around the Korean card game of hwatu (which reportedly originated In Japan), where each player is dealt two cards and the person with the highest two pairs takes the pot. Goni is a troubled young man who, after losing his sister's considerable alimony in a rigged game of hwatu, flees his homestead, vowing to win the money back or else end his life. Boiling with rage with those who double crossed him, Goni embarks on a blade wielding assault on all the card dens across the nation to track down his money. Eventually he reaches his goal but also runs into one Mr. Pyeong, who is reputedly the best gambler in South Korea. Itching with gamblers lust and having learned that all of the “high rollers” in the game don't always necessarily play fair, he begs Mr. Pyeong to teach him the ways of the card shark. Initially Mr. Pyeong refuses (in true Asian sensei fashion) but eventually relents and the two embark on a Master Pai Mei style card training stint with one condition; Goni must quit hwatu on Pyeong's command and cut off his finger to prove he has left his gambling ways behind forever!
It's not long before Goni's talent begins to shine through and he becomes Mr. Pyeong's key player and also his bodyguard (an essential addition when playing illegal card games). The pair eventually make their way into the (gambling) lair of Madam Jung, a stunning temptress and old friend of Pyeong's, who has a way of making men's heart's melt and their wallets lighter in the process. Obviously attracted by Goni's ability and good looks, she plans to make him hers to use and abuse. Drawn to the exciting and dangerous world of hwatu, Goni cannot simply walk away from the table, even when Pyeong gives the order to lose the finger!
Weighing in a whopping two hours and twenty minutes, I have to admit that the time pretty much flew by when viewing this movie, which is always a good sign. The plot is presented in a semi-flashback manner, with the action jumping from Goni's present day gambling hot streak with some very dangerous men looking to reclaim their dough, and his earlier days on the gambling circuit under the tuition of Mr. Pyeong (and under the covers in Madam Jung's boudoir). While this approach is initially somewhat confusing it works overall, adding to the high proportion of double crosses and underhand activity which are part and parcel of the hwatu illegal circuit. The rise of Goni is exciting, with a couple of action based fight sequences and a storyline that has enough twists and interesting character concepts to hold the viewer's attention for the duration. There are also some comedic elements thrown into the mix, which are largely situation and (semi-) slapstick based. I didn't find these aspects as appealing as the rest of the movie but I'm not a huge fan of Asian comedy in general as I feel that the humour just doesn't translate that well. Cropping up here and there are some shocking and brutal instances of violence, which belies the no guns/only knives (and other “non lethal” weapons) rule which the movie enforces.
The direction is sometimes sublime this novice director has some serious potential. Every shot is framed to perfection, with Choi employing neat split screen and other effects (such as filters), in conjunction with the flashback approach, to inject pace and energy into proceedings. He also employs a captioning approach to the various “chapters” in Goni's progression from lowly backstreet hustler to true high roller (who even has a safe in the boot of his BMW!). There are plenty of different locations on show and the super trendy wardrobe choices perfectly suit the high roller gamblers who feature throughout. The main players in the cast are for the most part impressive but too many of them employ the “clamp a cigarette in between your teeth while smoking” approach that many male Korean actors employ in an effort to appear more macho; it just looks silly in my opinion and will surely destroy the filter! The sultry and demure Kim Hye-soo is a standout in the role of Madam Jung and picked up a well deserved best actress nomination (in the Asian Film Awards) for her performance here. There are a large number of secondary characters and extras, all of whom complement the primary characters and add to the overall ambience of the piece.
Whilst not a ground breaking movie by any stretch of the imagination, 'Tazza' is none the less a very enjoyable piece of filmmaking, with the cast and (near) perfect direction adding flair and a layer of believability to the plot. The intriguing characterisation enamours the audience to the primary characters and I was genuinely interested to see where Goni's path of self destruction would lead him. My only complaint would be that the comedic elements are a little lost in translation and the conclusion could have done with a little more explanation (and was also a little elaborate and over the top, even if I did enjoy the irony of it). Some of the secondary characters also seemed a little redundant and unnecessary. I'm also surprised that we have not yet seen a sequel, as the ending leaves the door wide open for a follow up instalment of Goni's adventures. That being said, I would recommend this movie to all Asian movie fans as it offers something different to the Asian movie norm, with pleasing film-noir intonations.
If you really like this movie it seems as though there's a spin off television series to sink your teeth into as well!