Whether your point of reference is The Sting, God of Gamblers, Rounders, or - God help you - My Wife is a Gambling Maestro, movies about gambling can be a heck of a lot of fun. And Tazza: The High Rollers definitely captures the spirit of some of the best gambling films, while still bringing to the genre a few tricks of its own.
Based on a comic book by Huh Young-Man and Kim Se-Young, this award-winning 2005 film tells the story of a young man named Goni (Cho Seung-Woo) and his fateful downward spiral into the world of illegal gambling. One night, he naively joins an after hours card game at his workplace. The game of choice is sotda, which utilizes tiny hwatu cards and looks a heck of a lot like baccarat or blackjack.
Unfortunately, Goni blows all the money he’s saved, and like anyone with a burgeoning gambling problem, he decides he needs to get more money to gamble with in order to dig himself out of a very deep financial hole. Sadly, he resorts to stealing the money his sister received in her divorce settlement, and, unsurprisingly, he loses every last cent.
Ashamed at his behavior and unable to face his family, Goni embarks on a quest to find the man who scammed him and get all the money back – and then some. Along the way, his temper gets him into some trouble in an out-of-the-way gambling den. Lucky for Goni, an older gambler named Mr. Pyeong (Baek Yoon-Sik) decides to bail him out. This simple act of generosity spurs Goni to seek the old man out in the hopes that he’ll become his tutor. As it turns out, Mr. Pyeong is a retired card shark who has all sorts of sage advice for the young Goni. Cue training montage.
Goni learns that Mr. Pyeong is one of the three greatest gamblers in all of Korea, the remaining two being the sinister A-gui (Kim Yun-Seok) and the ominously named “One Ear.” A-gui is the man responsible for the latter’s missing appendages (it seems "One ear” lacks a hand, too), and A-gui’s got it bad for Mr. Pyeong. The film's requisite heavy, A-gui won’t rest until he’s chopped off the old man’s hand, if not retire him permanently from the gambling scene. As fun as Tazza makes gambling look, it never forgets that this world isn’t a friendly one – you may win now, but everybody loses in the end.
Things heat up considerably when the two men join up with one of Pyeong’s former pupils, Madame Jeong (bombshell Kim Hye-Soo). Seductive and cunning as a fox, she takes an immediate liking to the handsome Goni and easily lures him away from beneath Mr. Pyeong’s protective wing. With Madame Jeong as both business and sexual partner, Goni goes on to more lucrative gambling endeavors, honing the cardsharp skills Mr. Pyeong gave him.
But when a police raid separates him from Madame Jeong , Goni falls for a regular gal named Hwa-Ran (Lee Su-Gyeong). Along with her single parent sister Se-Ran (Kim Jeong-Ran), Hwa-Ran owns the bar that Goni and his new gambling pal, Gwang-Ryul (Yoo Hae-Jin) begin to frequent. Through a confluence of events, Goni runs afoul of a ganglord named Kwak Cheol-Yeong (Kim Eung-Su) as well as Mr. Pyeong’s old rival, A-Gui. When a tragic event strikes Goni’s life, he is put on the path of revenge, as all these plot threads converge in – what else? – card game.
Although one might assume that films like Tazza: The High Rollers can coast on style points alone, the truth is that a film like this is only as good as its cast. If you don’t believe what you’re seeing and you’re not invested in the characters, the stakes won’t seem quite as high as the film makes them out to be. Thankfully, Tazza is blessed with a fine ensemble cast. This is not just a Korean Ocean’s 11 in which well-dressed actors coast on their screen personas; whatever “cool points” this cast has, it’s earned. For starters, Cho Seung-Woo makes for a likeable protagonist, believably maturing from naďve mark to badass gambler. His chemistry with the affable, Yoda-like Baek Yoon-Sik is the dramatic lynchpin of the movie, and it’s a shame that theie mentor-student relationship is so short-lived.
On the bright side, Baek’s absence leaves room for Kim Hye-Soo to strut her stuff. Although Kim fulfills the femme fatale role quite easily, the complexity of her character is a testament to her performance. Any actress can “play” tough, but this woman somehow embodies it. Kim can not only project intellectual and sexual confidence with a look or turn of phrase, but the role calls for her to play at different registers as well. She can be sensuous and erotic in her scenes with Cho Seung-Woo, sweet and innocent as in her comical scenes involving a potential mark, and downright plastic and evil when she’s executing her various duplicitous plots. For a character who’s constantly playing everybody, one can’t help but wonder what she really feels about Goni – even her obvious, but contained jealousy that he’s found a regular girl may have some bearing on her behavior, and not necessarily in the way one expects.
At well over two hours, Tazza is a bit overlong, but its rich color palette, sprawling camera movements, and clever editing style makes the whole thing a breezy affair, even as the film successfully stresses that gambling has an ugliness that exists right underneath its glossy sheen. As far as film experiences go, Tazza: The High Rollers won’t change your life, but thanks to stylish direction, an undeniable charm, and wonderful performances from its lead actors, it’s a cinematic jackpot in its own right. (Calvin McMillin, 2009)