Truthfully speaking, we all know that being a gangster is a free ticket to failure in different aspects of life. Having a gangster background certainly won’t help you get a job, a loan or a relationship. In addition, we also know that, prejudices aside, most gangsters look pretty scary. Or am I the only one who thinks so?
However, there is one place where gangsters are not only super talented and ultra-dateable, but they also have amazing insight and a deep code of beliefs. Yes, the only world where gangsters are top dating material is in the K-world. And no, we’re not complaining!
To discuss gangsters in Korean dramas and movies, one needs to write page after page of commentary. They’re everywhere, and they’re hard to ignore! However, I will venture on this impossible task and mention just a few. Wish me luck!
Fate (2008): Kwon Sang Woo, Song Seung Hun and Ji Sung
What’s more interesting than bromances? Nothing! Except when bromances turns into enmity.
Four ‘’tough’’ friends lived as one until one of their illegal operations went awry, and one of the friends betrays the others. Justified or not, their friendship receives a huge blow. Pride, personal benefit, ambitions and more stand in the way of reconciliation.
These gangster friends engage in all kinds of bloody fights. The movie has drugs, violence and sex: all that a core gangster movie should include. The camera works hard to convey just how dark their world is, and revenge haunts the screen. Heartbreaking and desperate, it throws one into the depth of despair.
Song Seung Hun is the loyal guy who’d take a bullet for his friends, both literally and metaphorically, and he cannot be any more perfect with his bangs, facial hair, and that deep sadness in his eyes. Kwon Sang Woo, on the other hand, shines as a villain. He plays the brutal Jo Cheul Jung, and he plays him well. He’s got that murderous look, that filthy tongue and those merciless hands. At the time, Ji Sung was not the star he is today, but he was still such a scene-stealer. He tried not to take sides in his friend’s battle but ended up having to do so anyways. In addition, Jung Woo was also irresistible here, supporting role or not.
Gangster High (2006): Jung Kyung Ho
Our high school friends in Gangster High are nice guys that are full of dreams and hope of a better future. They like one another and enjoy doing things together, especially football. They discuss different topics and develop personally, as well as intellectually. But unfortunately, they’re bullied and harassed, threatened and attacked until the situation turns into a merciless, bloody, gang war.
Our hero, or antihero, Sang Ho (played by Jung Kyung Ho), doesn’t drink or smoke and has never broken the law because of his dream to join the military. But when it came to his friends, Sang Ho throws everything away and seeks revenge.
The movie is so profoundly heartbreaking, and you can’t help loving the gangsters they become. You end up sympathizing and justifying their cause, despite cringing at the bloody fights scenes and rejecting the violence. Still, you just wish they could have met someone wise to keep them from committing such follies. You wish Sang Ho was not the passionate loyal friend he was and could just let things slide. You wish he would have told an adult what was going on, and you wish you could have been there for him and his friends. To see such a talented kid waste his life away, even if a fictional character, brings a lump to my throat.
A Dirty Carnival (2006): Jo In Sung
A gangster is not all macho or cool, even in K-movies. It can be pretty pathetic. Gangsters do petty things— extracting money with huge interest from debtors, insulting their underlings, and even betraying. If a gangster wants to grow big, he has to sell his soul to the devil, which our friend Byung Do (played by the brilliant Jo In Sung) does.
He needs money and dreams of a better future, but that leads him to a dead-end route with no return. Once he indulges in the work of the devil, he cannot go back to the petty gangster he was before. He is stuck in bloody jobs and involved in tons of secrets. And due to karma, he gets back what he has given, scores worse.
Still, you cannot help loving the man. He was not born evil and is not rotten to the bones. He does think twice before committing crimes. He feels miserable after doing them, and he regrets them with all his heart. He cannot stop what he’s started because he’s got things to gain from his filthy jobs. Once it gets out of hand, however, he decides to stop and ends up losing more than he bargained for.
Bad Guys (2014): Ma Dong Seok
You know Ma Dong Seok, right? That muscular guy with the unique voice! That huggable man! Yes, Ma Dong Seok.
Strangely enough, any role suits this man. You might mistake him for a gangster, a killer, a teacher or a loving husband— all roles he has played, by the way. In Bad Guys, he was one of the three convicts who were given a golden chance to redeem their lives and reduce their prison sentences. They sign up for the latter but manage to gain the first as well.
His character, Park Woong Cheol, is very loyal to his boss and gang. He thoughtlessly throws himself into the fiery pit for those close to him and when he fights, he fights brutally. His tough and comic sides intertwine in an adorable harmony. Overall, you cannot get enough of him. His bickering with Jung Tae Soo (played by Jo Dong Hyeok) and constant annoyance at Lee Jung Moon’s (Park Hae Jin) complete indifference makes him one of the most adorable gangsters in the whole industry, while still maintaining his charismatic, tough side. It’s impossible not to love him in this role!
Heartless City (2013): Yoon Hyun Min
Out of the million things we liked about this hit, unforgettable drama, was this gorgeous man with the beautiful hairstyle, breathtaking suits and repetitive, unconscious use of the word “진정/jin-jeong’’ (really).
Yoon Hyun Min playing Soo was a part that brought a smile to my face with his unconditional loyalty for the one friend he had. His big heart, impatience, swift body and skilled hands made him even easier to love. Soo is a gangster who unknowingly finds himself on a certain path and didn’t have sufficient reasons to change. That path brought him money, women, drink and friendship. He didn’t become a gangster because he was corrupt or had dark desires. He became a gangster because he happened to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time. And at another convenient point in time and with the right help, he walks out of there gracefully.
Friend (2001): Jang Dong Gun and Yoo Oh Sung
Co-existing seems to be awfully hard, especially for gangsters.
Our main leads, Dong Soo (Jang Dong Gun) and Joon Seok (Yoo Oh Sung), don’t dislike or wish ill upon one another. On the contrary, they grew up together and liked and admired each other, which made it harder for them to reconcile after going their separate paths. Both tried to fix the relationship, but luck was never on their side. They always missed one another by a step, and that step was, unluckily enough. a step towards doom.
This may be the most beautiful account ever of a friendship gone wrong. No matter how many times the director and writer Kwak Kyung-taek tried to re-enact the story, it was never the same. Even when he did a sequel (starring Kim Woo Bin as an ultra-hot gangster), it was not the same in any aspect. The story of the two foolish men’s friendship was not solely Kwak’s brain child— it was the two actors’ as well. Dong Soo wouldn’t be Dong Soo if anyone other than Jang Dong Gun played him (be it Hyun Bin in the 2009 drama adaptation), and Joon Seok wouldn’t smash my heart to pieces every time he was on-screen if Yoo Oh Sung was not the one to play him. Friend is everything you need on a Saturday night when you remember you have no friends to talk to in the whole world. You will definitely need a tissue handy when watching this movie!
Believer (2018): Ryu Jun Yeol
A low-ranking man in a huge drug ring, Seo Young Rak (played by the brilliant Ryu Jun Yeol) decides to join forces with the police to bring down the ring after his mother— who worked in the drug lab— is killed in an explosion.
Although the detective he is working with (Cho Jin Woong of “Nameless Gangster” and “Bluebeard”) is highly suspicious of his motives and trustworthiness, the two decide to join forces to take down the mysterious drug boss who has never before been seen and whose real name is unknown.
With an outrageously talented cast, a brilliant script, a dark, sinister vibe throughout the movie, and plenty of action to keep viewers engaged, this is one gangster movie that is an absolute must-see. In fact, WTK chose this film as the #1 recommended crime film that you absolutely have to see in 2018. To read more about it, check out our review by clicking here.
This gripping tale of right and wrong and of honor and justice is the perfect backdrop for one of the most perfect gangster roles ever seen on screen.
26 Years (2012): Jin Goo
Kwak Jin Bae (Jin Goo) had a hard time growing up due to the lifelong trauma his family endured during the Gwangju Uprising of 1980. When given the opportunity to exact revenge, Jin Bae uses all his physical, intellectual and emotional energy to achieve his goal, working with other victims who share the same desire. His insane determination and passion make you cheer for him and his cause. In the end, you will also be motivated to look up this true event and find more information about it. After watching 26 Years, I was led to watch another movie entitled May 18, also about the massacre at Gwangju. Both films are definitely worth checking out!
Lawless Lawyers (2018): Lee Joon Gi
There is perhaps nothing else that can pull at your heartstrings like that of a gangster with a sad background who is just trying to change his life!
In “Lawless Lawyer,” famous actor Lee Joon Gi plays a character that seems designed especially for him. Bong Sang Pil has a tragic childhood. After witnessing his mother being murdered, he becomes kidnapped as well. A twist of fate allows him to escape to the safety of his gangster uncle— a man who had cut off ties with his family due to guilt over his lifestyle. Although Bong Sang Pil grows up to be a gangster as well, his uncle makes sure to educate him properly so he can make his escape one day.
As such, Sang Pil decides to study law. However, he decides to use loopholes in the law (along with his fists) to fight for justice and take down the powerful villains who murdered his mother.
In a story that has you rooting for the hero like no other drama, Lee Joon Gi is stunning as he shows off his real-life martial arts skills in his action scenes as a gangster, he is full of charm as a lawyer, vulnerable as a child who lost his mother, hilarious with his friends, romantic as a boyfriend, and burning with passion to make the world a better place as a good human being.
A Better Tomorrow (2010): Joo Jin Mo and Song Seung Heon
Kim Hyuk (Joo Jin Mo) and Lee Young Choon (Song Seung Heon) are two gangster friends with common goals and setbacks. Kim Hyuk plans to leave the mob for his younger brother Chul (Kim Kang Woo), a police officer with a history of grudges against his older brother. Young Choon’s limp, caused by the betrayal of a fellow gangster, Jung Tae Min (Jo Han Sun), prevents him from actively regaining his position as one of the bosses. The two reunite to bring Jung Tae Min down, but he proves a hard target, especially when Chul stands in the way of his brother as well.
Kim Hyuk, a frightening opponent in fights and a loving regretful brother of Chul, is beautiful to look at! Meanwhile, Yoong Choon’s desperate appearance with his limp is tenfold more attractive. It may seem weird, but you’ll understand when you watch this film.
Not only are the leads pleasant to stare it, even when they’re miserable, the story is so heart-wrenching that it makes you jump around, tear your hair and vow not to watch K-movies again— for the 100000th time that is!
A Bittersweet Life (2005): Lee Byung Hun
Another fantastic movie from director Kim Jee Woon, this story follows a gangster named Kim Sun Woo (Lee Byung Hun) as he decides to do the right thing for once in his life.
A loyal henchman for a major crime boss, Sun Woo is given the task of tailing the boss’ girlfriend (played by the lovely Shin Min Ah) since she is being suspected of having an affair. A talented cello player, Sun Woo goes to a concert where he sees her playing music and looking lonely and vulnerable. After catching a glimpse of this side of her, he falls in love and begins to genuinely wish her freedome from the seedy lifestyle of the mob boss’ girlriend.
Later, he does in fact find that she is cheating on his boss. With torn feelings, he decides not to tell the boss and simply instructs her not to see her new partner again. With love leading the way in his seemingly right decision, his life soon falls apart as the boss finds out about his deception and begins to take his revenge. Fleeing with the girlfriend in an attempt to protect her, one bad thing happens after another— leaving behind a trail of tragic events.
This movie is a classic example of Korean crime movies where the bad guys must always pay a price. Lee Byung Hun plays his character to perfection and leaves viewers rooting for the success of this gangster who is just trying to do the right thing. When it was released, the film became an instant classic in the history of Korean cinema.
There are many more gangsters and heartthrobs in Korean film and TV, so one article could never be enough! Which of these gangsters do you absolutely love? What other characters should we have included in the list? Make sure to let us know in the comment section below!
Media: As Credited