At first glance, the plot of 'New World' feels as though 'Infernal Affairs' has entered the third leg of its international journey, traveling from Hong Kong to the United States, where it became 'The Departed,' and now making a stop in South Korea as the newest film from Park Hoon-jung ('I Saw the Devil'). And while the concept of a deep-cover officer, torn between his loyalty to the law and his desire to keep himself alive while in the presence of increasingly paranoid gangsters has become something of a contrivance, it soon becomes clear that, all similarities aside, this is not merely a carbon copy of what has come before.
'New World' begins as the head of a massive criminal syndicate known as Goldmoon walks free after a lengthy investigation and trial nearly crippled the organization, but deep political corruption and a near monopoly on organized crime has made Goldmoon practically impervious to any successful prosecution by the law. Then, as luck (or the hand of some ambitious gangster) would have it, the head of Goldmoon is killed in an automobile accident that leaves the various families vying for a place at the head of the table.
With the vacuum throwing the families into dispute, now is the time for the police to make their move, and Section Chief Kang (Choi Min-sik, 'Oldboy') has one particular operative at his disposal who can help shape the future of not only Goldmoon, but also help limit its expansive power and give the police a fighting chance. As it stands, the best anyone in the police department can hope for is a way to control the group from the inside, taking arrests and prosecutions where they can get them, and more or less with the consent of Goldmoon. Essentially, it's a scratch my back, I'll scratch yours kind of proposition that lets both the police and the criminals maintain their livelihood while allowing law enforcement to save face in what has been a losing battle against organized crime.
Kang's best shot is his undercover officer Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae), who has maintained a presence and risen in the ranks at Goldmoon for nearly a decade. As two families bicker over the potential successor to the Big Man, Kang tasks Ja-sung with swaying the members' allegiance to one another, so that hot-shot boss Jeong Cheong (Hwang Jeong-min) can ascend to the throne and, according to Kang's plan, strike a deal with law enforcement that will be mutually beneficial.
The plot is unnecessarily complex and convoluted at times, and 'New World' brings more than its fair share of clichés to the party; namely, Ja-sung is expecting his first child with his wife, Kang has more than one operative working on Goldmoon, but they remain mostly unaware of the others' existence, and, the big one: only two people can confirm Ja-sung's true identity. It's all fairly standard undercover stuff by now and, frankly, it should make the film feel stale, but in spite of all of this, there is still a compelling and engrossing narrative here, which helps to justify the familiarity and well-trodden nature of the storyline.
A lot of this has to do with the way the film is presented. Hoon-jung has taken a lot of what made Kim Jee-woon's directorial efforts on 'I Saw the Devil' a success and translated it into his own film – which, appears to be his second time behind the lens of a feature film. There is a lot of style and confidence in the way Hoon-jung sets up his scenes and allows them to develop without overcooking certain elements like the exposition-heavy dialogue, or moments that, under the direction of a less restrained director, might have come off as completely overwrought and melodramatic. This is a double-edged sword, however, as scenes that clearly call for a heightened sense of dramatic tension, and could otherwise benefit from a larger, less stoic performance from some of the actors (Jeong Cheong seems to be the only one allowed to go above a stealth setting) go by exhibiting little in the way of strong emotional performances.
Maybe it's all a side-effect of the roiling plot that feels larger than any one actor and is frequently so turbulent and so twisting that the characters have little choice but to act entirely in service to the story – rather than the other way around. 'New World' is an ensemble, but even at its best, the film feels devoid of anything resembling a full-fledged character. Arcs tend to be completed in very basic ways and the ending of the film is telegraphed, more or less, from the first meeting between Kang and Ja-sung. Additionally, several subplots such as the other moles in Goldmoon and Ja-sung's wife's pregnancy and her own hidden agenda seem to vanish as quickly as they are introduced, with their resolutions handled more as afterthoughts that fail to truly connect with the film's overall narrative.
While 'New World' has its shortcomings, it still manages to offer up a fun, lively gangster film that uses tropes to its advantage, as though Hoon-jung is acknowledging the deep-cover operative saga needs to be shelved for a little while, so why not go out with a little style.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'New World' comes from Well Go USA Entertainment as a single 25GB disc in the standard keepcase, but with an outer sleeve showing the same artwork as the cover. The disc will auto play several previews, but all can be skipped in order to head directly to the top menu.
'New World' has a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer that presents a bright, colorful and frequently stunning image, underlining a very slick picture, which helps take the entire viewing experience to another level. The image is essentially flawless; no noise is present anywhere on the picture, and the distinct lack of grain suggests the movie was filmed digitally. Clarity is superb, with fine detail existing in every second from fine facial features, to textures in clothing and objects; there's even an extremely high level of detail present in background features, as the film maintains superb clarity at all times.
Additionally, contrast levels remain high throughout. Black levels are strong and precise, while whites are never overblown or distort the clarity of the image. Similarly, colors are very strong and vivid – in fact, several times they almost look to have been digitally tinkered with as the saturation is cranked beyond that of a normal film. This super-saturation can be a bit distracting, initially, but it actually plays well into the overall look and feel of the film – once you see a phenomenally blue sky once, you sort get that this is a movie that isn't interested in presenting a subtle image in any way, shape or form.
Although the image is practically flawless, there are a few occasions where the sheer clarity of the picture and certain lighting techniques inadvertently create a situation in which depth suffers and the image looks a little flat. Instances in which this happens are mercifully brief, but like the oversaturated sky, they are noticeable and can temporarily take the viewer out of the story.
Overall, the positives greatly outweigh the negatives and what's left is a unique, gorgeous image that maybe overdoes a few things in the pursuit of perfection.
The disc comes with a Korean language DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that sounds just as good as the rest of the film looks. Although 'New World' is technically a drama, it is also a gangster film, and that means plenty of shootings, bludgeonings and other acts of violence that tend to makes audio tracks shine. But first and foremost is the dialogue, which, even if you don't speak the language, still comes through with fantastic clarity that makes each character distinct, no matter what situation they find themselves. There are several scenes where characters are talking over one another, or are otherwise engaged in activities (i.e., gangland brawls in parking garages) that could overwhelm the dialogue – thankfully, that is not the case with this disc.
Secondly, the film does a great job creating a real sense of atmosphere, as there is a clear distinction between the ways a boardroom sounds and the way the aforementioned parking garage reverberates not only voices, but also other noises such as car engines or the unmistakable sound of screeching tires. Most of the time these elements are presented through the rear channel speaker as a way to immerse the viewer, but occasionally there will be moments where the sound is heavy and loud enough that it comes through on the fronts – which typically produces a deep, rich base level that reverberates but never becomes distorted.
The sound on this disc comes with all the bells and whistles one would expect from a modern-day gangland epic, but unlike the picture, the audio mix doesn't overplay any elements; instead, everything is presented on a nice, even keel that understands balance always wins out in the end.
'New World' certainly isn't offering anything the world hasn't seen in terms of undercover cops and the criminal organizations they're attempting to infiltrate, but what it lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in style and presentation. This isn't a terribly poignant film, as it often favors telegraphed twists or shots of shocking violence over character development. Still, the movie manages to be engrossing and entertaining throughout. This disc could have offered up more in terms of supplements, but with an image that borders on being perfect and very good sound, the Blu-ray comes recommended.