Jae-Mun is a seasoned veteran of the gang. Although a physically imposing black belt in Taekwondo, Chi-Guk is a soft-spoken newcomer to gang life, who is quietly offended by Jae-Mun's arbitrary and random acts of cruelty and rudeness against him and others. They travel to a remote town to perform an assassination of rival gangster Dae-Sik, who was responsible for the death of a friend of Jae-Mun.
While waiting for an opportunity to perform the hit, Jae-Mun coincidentally befriends Dae-Sik's mother (played by actress Na Mun-Hee) and spends some time with her. She comes to treat him as another son, even buying him clothing. A tragic plot develops, culminating in a bloody showdown between Jae-Mun and Dae-Sik.
Lee Jeong-beom's CRUEL WINTER BLUES is an impeccable film. It manages to be a revenge movie with very little revenge, an action movie with very little action, and a gangster film with a very low level of crime (comparative to the rest of the genre). You aren't getting the type of revenge you might expect if you come to this with expectations picked up from viewings of Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy. You might be a little upset if you're expecting the type of action found in a gangster film like Kim Jee-woon's A BITTERSWEET LIFE. No, this film offers an entirely different aesthetic experience. But you won't be disappointed, since CRUEL WINTER BLUES is every bit as good as those films.
What you do get is a very low key film about revenge. Most revenge films depict revenge as an overwhelming impulse capable of overcoming all others (OLD BOY, KILL BILL, etc), and one that offers a surety that, while not strictly moral, at least ensures the overall trajectory of the plot. In CRUEL WINTER BLUES, revenge is an important motivating factor, but so is honour, and cowardice, and compassion. Revenge cannot simply overwhelm these other important motivations, though each can twist around or support the other.
Two characters are central to the film: the gangster Jae-Mun (Sol Kyung-Gu, the actor who portrayed Rikidozan) and his enemy's mother (Na Mun-Hee). Jae-Mun is accompanied on his quest for revenge by Chi-Guk (Jo Han-seon), and the movie plays against expectations by making the elder, meaner gangster (Jae-Mun) the centre of attention, over his younger, more conflicted, and more likable partner. Jae-Mun immediately comes off as unlikeable and mean spirited (he even pees on a dog--that's low), and instead of showing that he's actually a sweetheart underneath it all the movie decides, instead, merely to complicated and articulate his unlikeability and mean spiritedness. And this works; the protagonist of a film need not always be a hero, but if he isn't, he needs to be human.
The mother (if she's named, I can't remember it, or find it anywhere) is an old proprietress of a restaurant that only sells stew, and demands that customers get their own water. She's surly and hard-headed, much like Jae-Mun, but is in no way as corrupt. She's a survivor, one who has gone through two sons leaving her behind.
Since Jae-Mun knows only that Dae-Sik, his enemy, will show up in the small town at some point, and that he will inevitably visit his mother, he sticks to the old lady, and in doing so the two unavoidably form something of a relationship. This relationship is rapidly accelerated when Jae-Mun offers to drive her into town for a day of shopping; ostensibly he's being kind to his elder, but in actual fact he needs to make sure that she's not meeting up with Dae-Sik. In the act of keeping tabs on her, he's forced to model clothes for her, since he's roughly the same size as her younger son, Dae-Sik's brother. While the film doesn't dwell on it, you can see from Jae-Min's face that the act of trying on clothes for a man whose brother he intends to kill, and helping out the woman he intends to heinously betray, is weighing on him.
It's an excellent scene, and it speaks to the inherent tension of the film: as time progresses, it's impossible to tell if Jae-Min will go through with his revenge or not. This narrative tension mirrors the viewer's tension: as a compassionate human being, you want Jae-Min to transcend his need for revenge, and take a more humane way of things; as someone watching a revenge film, you demand vengeance, brutal and bloody. And what the film does so well is to make the outcome more and more difficult to foretell.
Everyone should see this movie. Watch it now.