On a crowded street in Garibong District in Seoul, two young thugs get into an argument. Tempers flare, and one pulls a switchblade. The other grabs a knife from a nearby market stall. The threat of bloodshed hangs in the air, but Ma Seok-do happens to be walking through the crowd, speaking on his cellphone. Without even breaking from his conversation, he swings his fist, disarms the two men and leaves them nursing their wounds. This is how the law is enforced in Garibong, and Ma Seok-do is the cop who nobody dares to provoke.
But there’s a new arrival in the neighborhood. Jang Chen is an ethnic Korean gangster from Harbin, China who specializes in collecting debts. After landing in Seoul, it doesn’t take long for him and his subordinates to clash with the Venom Gang (‘Heuksapa’) who control the area. But Jang Chen displays a ruthlessness and cruelty far beyond that of his adversaries, and it’s not long before a full-scale turf battle is underway.
The Outlaws is based on a real-life gang war known as the ‘Heuksapa Incident’, which took place in 2007. But the film is not concerned with portraying contemporary social ills, so much as it aims to be an action-packed, engaging piece of entertainment. In that it certainly succeeded – thanks to strong word of mouth, the modestly budgeted film smashed all expectations and sold 6.9 million tickets, ending up as the third-best selling Korean release of 2017.
It’s not hard to see what audiences were attracted to in this film. Lead actor Ma Dong-seok (in English, he sometimes uses the name Don Lee) has appeared in 60 films and TV series since his debut in 2004, but it’s only after his highly charismatic turn in the breakout zombie film Train to Busan (2016) that he has become a household name. The Outlaws is more or less made to showcase all aspects of his appeal: his brawny physique, his perfect comic timing, his skills as a fighter, and the unusual expressiveness of his eyes which reveal a warmth and sympathy beneath his rough manner. His character in this film is a law unto himself, but when the gang war reaches a critical level he takes on the impossible task of apprehending the entire mob at once.
There’s no question that The Outlaws is a brutal film, with some creatively staged and genuinely disturbing moments of violence. But debut director Kang Yoon-sung keeps the conflict restricted to knives and fists, so it never loses its human dimension. For the villain he cast against type, with former singer Yoon Kye-sang taking on the role of Jang Chen. Korean viewers have praised him for this daring change of pace, and for the way he communicates menace mostly through his voice, rather than physical bravado.
At first glance, The Outlaws may look indistinguishable from countless other Korean cop thrillers. Nonetheless it succeeds thanks to the kinetic energy that pervades the film, from its efficient editing to its concise, effective screenplay. And in no way does it feel like a fluke. Director Kang clearly has a talent for juggling action, characterization and a streamlined plot in a way that pulls viewers in. It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see him establish himself in the coming years as a vital new player in the action genre.
Born in 1971, Kang Yoon-sung shot several short films in the 1990s while studying at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco before working as a production assistant on Kim Sung-soo’s Please Teach Me English (2003). In 2007 he shot the music documentary Last Concert about guitarist Shin Jung-hyeon, known as Korea’s ‘Godfather of Rock’. Having tried for over a decade and a half to make his feature film debut, in 2016 he decided to quit filmmaking, and moved with his family to Spain. It was there that he finally received a phone call from his producer, telling him that funding had been secured for The Outlaws. It would ultimately become a smash hit, selling 6.9 million tickets and winning a Best New Director award from the Korean Association of Film Critics.
2017 – The Outlaws