The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan or 1724 Gibang nandong sageon or 1724기방난동사건 (2008)
When Korea first began to “do history”, it was very reverential. While accuracy no doubt earns credits in academic circles, it’s hardly entertaining. As a reaction to falling audiences, the last twenty years has therefore seen a steady erosion of deference and an increasing willingness to have fun. The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan or 1724 Gibang nandong sageon or 1724기방난동사건 (2008) sees a maturing of this trend. Although it would be unfair to call it a comedy, there’s a willingness to update the sensibilities and mash-up both the music to heavier guitars and the cinematography to include freeze-frames morphing into manga-style images of fighting and other key events.
As the Korean title tells us, we’re back in 1724 with Joseon Korea going through a significant period of economic and social upheaval. It was all the fault of the merchants. When society was simple, the yangban families were self-appointed nobility who carefully prevented upward mobility. The best the increasingly rich merchants could hope for was to buy their way into socially successful clans. But as the orthodoxy of Confucianism was questioned and Korea learned more of Western culture, wealthy merchants joined the yangban class as equals. It was industrialisation that clinched the deal. It had begun with the improvement of agricultural technology and the development of commercial farming. As factories sprang up social change was inevitable. Mercantile wealth grew to be more important than wealth based on landholdings — as land passed down the generations, ownership was distributed among ever more in the kin group, thereby diluting the power. Set at the start of King Yongjo’s reign, 1724-1776, this film sees the first attempts to end clan factionalism which had been using private armies and gangs to entrench their power on the streets.
We start at the bottom of the heap with Cheon Dong aka Thunder (Lee Jung-Jae). His granny owns a rundown drinking house with an upmarket name, and he’s a street fighter, tough but prone to losing his concentration mid-fight. As a demonstration, we watch him distracted by the arrival of Seol-Ji aka Dishy (Kim Ok-Vin) as a passing spectator newly arrived in town. When he recovers consciousness, he discovers Seol-Ji has mistakenly arrived at the “wrong” drinking house. This does not prevent Granny from setting her to work as a dishwasher (hence the nickname). He does his best to make her welcome, drawing water for her to have a bath, but then falling asleep in exhaustion at the end of a long day. When he awakes, the mistake has been corrected. Seol-Ji has been spirited away to the upmarket gisaeng house with the same name. In frustration, Thunder innocently gets into a fight with Odd Ears aka Jjak Gwi (Yeo Kyun-Dong). His unexpected victory over the leader of the local gang leaves them without someone to go to a meeting of the gang leaders. Second-in-command Chil-Gab (Lee Won-Jong) decides Thunder should go. This is a fortuitous decision because the meeting is to be held at the gisaeng house run by Big Gun aka Man-Deuk (Kim Seok-Hun) where Seol-Ji now works. At a stroke, therefore, the question of who should lead the gangs is resolved into a head-to-head battle between Thunder and Man-Deuk over the heart of Seol-Ji. They are actually cast in the same mould but separated in years and experience. Both come from street fighting stock but Man-Deuk has risen to the top of the gang structure and now hangs out with the yangbans who want to use the gangs to hold on to their power. Thunder cares nothing for niceties and does what he knows best. He hits physically and economically, provoking increasingly angry responses from those higher up in the food chain.
Yeo Kyun-Dong directs, wrote the script and, as Odd Ears, lies with a beatific but comatose smile on his face for most of the action until the snow fight at the end. You can’t help but be amused by the collision of eighteenth century Josean culture and modern attitudes. Combine this with some fast editing and a contemporary soundtrack, and you have an irreverent romp through the usual tired court conspiracy plots. With considerable panache, we have a people’s hero reluctantly mobilise people power as royalty manoeuvres to suppress the yangbans. Although initially tongue-in-cheek, the fighting is actually very competent with an appropriate amount of blood spilt in later confrontations. In other words, the film starts in what’s intended as a rather silly view of history and then transcends the silliness into a more universal ending of royalty and the people combining to defeat the corruption of both the yangbans and their gangs. If what you want is a rough-and-tumble martial arts film with a sense of fun, The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan or 1724 Gibang nandong sageon or 1724기방난동사건 is definitely for you.