Tazza: The High Rollers

2006, Movie, NR, 139 mins


Director Choi Dong-hoon's kinetic adaptation of Huh Young-man and Kim Se-young's popular comic book cuts back and forth between present and past to tell an intricate tale about luck, lies and reversals of fortune among the high rollers — tazza — who prowl Korea's underground gambling scene. Its center is the meteoric ascent of Goni (Cho Seung-woo), who in two eventful years rises from naive mark to king of the card table. But there are interlocking secondary stories unfolding simultaneously, and Goni keeps them all humming along in perfect balance.

The story is told with steely assurance by spider-woman Madame Jeung (Kim Hye-soo), a sultry grifter whose beauty is wrapped around an ice-cold heart. Goni lives at home with his mother and stepfather, who run a small restaurant, and he's desperate for a way out of provincial Namwon. He thinks he sees an opportunity when his newly divorced sister comes home, with her entire alimony settlement in a duffel bag: Goni knows where there's a hot game of hwatu — whose complexities owe more to mahjong than poker — and figures that with a solid stake, he can make a small fortune. Instead, he loses everything in one round to a pro named Mu-seok. Ashamed and furious at having been taken, Goni swears he'll hunt down and kill Mu-seok, then repay the debt with interest. Six months later, desperate and despairing, Goni meets Mr. Pyeong (Baek Yoon-sik), one of the three best players in all Korea. Pyeong reluctantly accepts Goni as an apprentice, teaching him the secrets of tells, tricks and outright cheating. Having mastered the game, Goni throws in his lot with femme fatale Jeung rather than his mentor, whose parting words are, "There are no friends for life, just as there are no enemies for life."

Goni learns the wisdom of Pyeong's warning as he works his way up the gambling food chain; he leaves Jeung, finds a partner in the goofy Gwang (Yoo Hae-jin), runs afoul of crime lord Kwak Cheol-yong and eventually comes face to face with the legendary Agwee (Kim Yun-seok), who's notorious for exacting payment in body parts. Jeung, meanwhile, sets up her own huge score by luring a nive millionaire into a rigged game and then plots to destroy Goni. The twists and turns continue until the very end of Choi's mesmerizing, high-energy romp, whose 139 minutes zip by like a round of speed poker. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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