Guns and Talks (dir. Jin, Jang, 2001) is a comic-noir of exceptional wit and convention-bending self-awareness about four guns-for-hire living in the heart of Seoul, whose strides of pride come from the precision with which they dispatch the targets in manners that their clients desire.
As diverse as the troupe is, the story lines that come together in comic crescendo is just as numerous and entertaining. The unstoppable hothead and an explosives specialist Jungwoo (Hagyun Shin) gets his mantle as a hitman challenged by the force of love. The two siblings Sangyeon (Hyunjoon Shin), the elder and the ‘facilitator’ of the group, and Hayeon (Bin Won), the youngest of four who is also a hacking-whiz, bicker over whether it’s finally the time to teach Hayeon how to shoot a gun. And the resident marksman Jaeyoung (Jaeyoung Jung) pulls the trigger that launches the quad’s lives head first into a 2 hour long cat-and-mouse game in the heart of Seoul. They come to enmesh their lives with the district attorney (Jinyoung Jung) when a case requires them to kill a target already in police custody. Thus starts the story that works through whole arrays of types of vengeance.
And especially with its heavy call-backs to Hamletian motifs—the final request takes place in the middle of an enactment of Hamlet, spectres of a father’s death-bed advice to the brothers being narrated throughout—the movie is quite about vengeances. But as much as the film is about killing, it is in equal parts about saving lives; learning that behind each case are lives, another spool of human drama that has precipitated into such sanguine decision. Caught between questionable policing methods and uncharacteristically law-abiding group of affable assassins, the audience soon finds that the matter of justice and blood-price is not so squarely put down on paper one way or another.
Dir. Jang-Jin is economical, but he also appreciates the dramatic potency of long-takes, its run-on sentence pace of flowing scenes. In the scene where the state prosecutor conducts an illegal search of the quad’s house, the screen divides itself into three panels and each panel follows different segment of the search. The triptych at the same time as representing the compressed temporal economy also offsets the concision with the leisurely pace of the search. This two hour long feature does not have a single wasted moment, but it also is fearless when the moment calls to slow-down the tempos of scenes for dramatic, and oftentimes ironic, pay-off.
And these languid cinematography is best used in moments of high-drama/melodrama; the tropes are all there—the movie is self-conscious but also does not take itself too seriously. It gives itself to moments of melodrama, the florid lapses that blooms into comic gems and entirely too quotable scenes. When the youngest suddenly throws himself into a paroxysm of soliloquy about love (”Can’t you see—it’s love.”), the audience is rapidly transported from one moment of high-tension schism to the next moment of high-ironic humour and the on-screen talents are too busy trying to stifle their laughter. You either commit to the moment entirely and hopelessly, or you step back and chuckle from afar.
But the greater grace is in the humorous finesse with which Jang deals with such grim matters as violence and the spectacle of death. In this clever re-working of Hamletian motifs, the wry and yet essentially sincere retouching of the noir-hitman tropes delivers much of what one could ask out of a comic-noir.