Movie review: Lee Min Ho is too good-looking to be a great gangster in Gangnam Blues

Kim Rae Won (far left) shines in his role as a thug opposite heart-throb Lee Min Ho (left) in Gangnam Blues.
Kim Rae Won (far left) shines in his role as a thug opposite heart-throb Lee Min Ho (left) in Gangnam Blues.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES

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GANGNAM BLUES (R21)

130 minutes/Opens tomorrow/**1/2

The story: In 1970 South Korea, Jong Dae (Lee Min Ho) and Yong Gi (Kim Rae Won) are impoverished orphans who grow up together as sworn brothers. Their paths separate and they will not meet again for another three years. By then, both have become gangsters serving rival bosses trying to seize control of Gangnam, the countryside region that is earmarked to be a major financial hub for greater Seoul.

Lee deserves credit for attempting a work that is so completely out of his comfort zone.

The South Korean heart-throb, best known for playing a rich, pretty-boy student on television dramas The Heirs (2013) and Boys Over Flowers (2009), mans up in a big way in this unabashedly violent flick, slashing and axing his way through sleazy nightclubs and dank alleys.

His is a flawed character, as loyal to those he serves as he is ruthless and cruel. He gets into so many intense gang fights that the actor suffered several injuries during filming, including a broken toe so painful that he had to get a dose of morphine to complete the shoot.

But as hard as he tries, Lee fails to convince as a truly cold-blooded gangster - his boyish face and puppy-dog eyes are the complete opposite of menacing.

It does not help that amid the gritty scenes, the director still feels compelled to throw in shots of his star looking cheesily hunky as he stares off into the distance, windswept hair and all.

Lee's limitations are most pronounced whenever he is in scenes opposite the older and manlier Kim, who nails the smug thug routine with ease.

Kim - also a romance drama star (Love Story In Harvard, 2004), but clearly a better actor - goes even further to break away from his idol image here, appearing in a series of graphic sex scenes that include gratuitous shots of his naked butt.

For all of the film's star power and explicit sex and violence, however, the story is strangely unaffecting.

Lee is from which gang, again? Is he on the same side as Kim? Things get more convoluted as the overstuffed film moves along, making it difficult to follow.

What the movie succeeds in is lavishing attention on detail, as evidenced by its elaborate and expensive-looking retro sets, which are full of 1970s flavour. The final gang fight, involving more than 150 people filmed in a muddy field under a heavy downpour, is also moody and beautifully shot.

But when it is all just style over substance - perhaps also an apt description of Lee's career thus far - it is simply not enough to keep viewers interested for very long.