Open Pack of Cards:
I like to think there is a loophole to political correctness. People turn a blind eye to potentially offensive stereotypical proclamations about an ethinic group if the negative blanket statement is made by someone about their own ethnicity. I’m not saying this should be condoned, merely that most people tend not to get their hackles up in these instances.
When I was a kid, my mother hated gambling. She hated it with a passion hotter than a thousand suns. It probably came from some sort of childhood trauma involving some family member that gambled away their life savings and ended up in a bad bad place. Or maybe not. Maybe my mom was just a goody two shoes.
Regardless of the reason, my mom would give anyone the stink eye if they asked her to play mahjong. She will tsk tsk at my father if he so much as touched a pack of cards. One day, my mom took me by the shoulder and told me: “Baby, no one likes to gamble as much as Chinese people like to gamble, and gambling will never ever end well. Promise me you’ll never gamble or marry a gambler.”
I responded “of course, mommy”, and then proceeded to get really really curious about gambling. Along the same vein, my dad drank like a fish and offered to let us sip his alcoholic beverage anytime – as a result, I learned early on that alcohol tasted bitter and yucky, and I had no desire ever to imbibe until long after I turned 21. (Moral of the story, the more you tell your kid not to do something, the more you whet their curiosity, and vice-versa).
What mommy dearest never counted on was that right around the time she gave me the big no gambling speech, Hong Kong cinema was about to embark on its Golden Age. It was the mid-80s, and the glittering center of Chinese entertainment was in the mecca of Hong Kong.
Oh, Taiwan tried to produce its own products, but it was like comparing the quality of the local amusement park to Disneyland. Okay if you had no other choice, but no comparison when you’ve been to the real deal. Mommy should have breathed a sigh of relief, I was merely curious about gambling on a meta-level. What exactly about gambling was so addicting that my mom could state that an entire race had the urge to gamble in our blood? And what exactly was so bad about gambling that I had to swear a blood oath never to engage in it?
Along came 1989, and Hong Kong released the now seminal movie God of Gamblers, starring Chow Yun Fat and Andy Lau. It was an immediate success, because it was rollicking good time. The movie was exhilarating, funny, sweet, and above all else, exciting. I suddenly knew why gambling could be so addicting. It’s because the act of gambling induces the most basic form of adrenaline pumping emotion – the tension stemming from the unknown. What cards are you going to get for this hand? What cards will your opponent(s) get? Who will win? And can you bluff yourself to a win no matter what?
Unlike sports, anyone can gamble. You pick your vice, and hope lady luck is with you. Or if you are skilled enough, you make your own luck. Since God of Gamblers, Hong Kong has released a slew of (nearing a dozen or more) gambling movies. None have ever matched GoG’s success or its quality.
American cinema has never had a fascination with gambling movies. Off the top of my head, a few have flirted with mild success, such as Rounders, The Casino, and even Rain Main had that exciting gambling sequence. But my mom was right on the money, no one loves gambling as much as the Chinese if we simply go by how many gambling movies have been produced by the Hong Kong film industry.
Now for a confession: I really have no desire to gamble. When I go to Vegas, I go shopping or to the spa. But I LOVE gambling movies. I positively inhaled all the gambling movies produced by Hong Kong in the early 90s. What I loved about those movies was how cool they staged the gambling tournaments.
Part long con, part sleight of hand, those gambling movies always had handsome leading men wearing suits, in some exotic locale, with his lady luck in a long slinky dress by his side, going All In at the end, and coming out victorious. It’s akin to the thrill of watching a well-made sports movie with the final sequence being the Big Game and the Last Play.
After that’s all said and done, I hope I’ve given you the background necessary to understand the review you are about to read. All you need to know is: (1) I love gambling movies, and (2) I’ve seen A LOT of gambling movies.
Take Out Deck of Cards:
Right after I watched Chuno, I was completely torn up by Jang Hyuk’s performance in that drama. He was marvelous, and I wanted to spend more time with this actor. I had already watched his Robbers, and I was choosing between Thank You and Tazza.
I had heard folks recommend the former, but my eyes immediately strayed to the latter. Because, well, it was about gambling! I thought – Jang Hyuk as a gambler – now that is a role this guy was born to play. In fact, he could play it with his eyes closed, his hands behind his back, hopping on one leg.
My choice made, I happily ran off to procure the DVD set and ran home to watch it. The opening title sequence was kickass awesome, so cool and perfectly scored I was in koala heaven. Then the drama started, and I happily dug into the obligatory childhood sequence, which was well done and not so long that I grew tired of the kiddos.
Then the adults showed up, and I thought, yay, gambling is about to start! Except I was immediately faced with a giant problem. The adults first show up as high school students. Let me say it again, high school students. Jang Hyuk’s first scene in Tazza is in a high school student’s uniform! And Han Ye Seul has pig tails and wears school girl pleats.
I almost invoked my Winter Sonata rule – inspired by watching a middle-aged edging towards bloated Yonsama play a high school student – which was I do NOT watch dramas where a post-military service actor plays a high school student. No, nope, the suspension of disbelief is so staggering it would destroy my appetite for the remainder of the drama. Yet….I wasn’t ready to let Tazza go, especially for a rule that seems rather harsh. So I chucked that rule out the window and kept watching (thank god, because I would have had to violate it again once I started watching Friends, Our Legend).
I continued with Tazza, and actually found the high school sequence rather cute and sweet. I’m glad I kept watching since I caught those highlights. At the same time, I wished I had followed my WS rule, because the rest of Tazza (the remaining seventeen or so episodes) were so poorly written and draggingly directed I wished the hell I had saved myself from the mind-numbing tedium.
I cannot recommend Tazza, even to the most die-hard Jang Hyuk, Han Ye Seul or Kim Min Joon fan, because Tazza violates the number one cardinal rule of a gambling show – it is boring. Since I watched it ALL, I shall make it my duty to review this drama, so that no one goes in without knowing what to expect. And if you still want to watch it after hearing what I have to say, be my guest, just know that you must set your expectations lower than low.
Shuffle Deck of Cards:
Tazza is a drama that is adapted from the hit movie of the same name. Tazza the movie was released in 2006 and was a box office success. Not all successful Korean movies are adapted for the small screen, but I actually completely agree with the decision to turn Tazza into a drama. The story was interesting, and built-in name recognition could be an added boost to the drama’s ratings.
The selection of Jang Hyuk to play the lead, Kim Go Ni, was a masterstroke of brilliant casting. Like I said earlier, Jang Hyuk is the no-brainer selection as a volatile, hot-tempered, good-hearted poor boy from Busan who becomes a tazza (or a card sharp) through a series of events.
While Han Ye Seul hasn’t always received the warmest of receptions for her acting projects, I actually enjoy her performances in certain roles. I hesitate to say the “right” roles since an actor needs to be able to convincingly portray a variety of characters. But I have not found Han Ye Seul credible in roles where she is the girl-next-door and/or depressed all the time.
Han Ye Seul has shined in my eyes in roles like her performance in Fantasy Couple, where she is fast, sharp, and, dare I say it, bitchy. In Tazza, she plays Lee Nan Sook, who is starts off as the sassy girl-next-door, and later through circumstances beyond her control becomes a female grifter. I also think Han Ye Seul was well-cast as the female lead.
The third leg of the drama is rounded out by Kim Min Joon, who plays Go Ni’s best friend turned rival, Lee Young Min. I’ve enjoyed watching Kim Min Joon in the past, and thought that his height, bearing, and acting style was perfect for playing a rival gambler character. Plus, hot-blooded Jang Hyuk and cold-blooded Kim Min Joon fighting over sexy Han Ye Seul? Yeah, I’m onboard with that. I don’t really need all three to act well in Tazza, since they all look the part. If they acted well, that would be a bonus.
The story of Tazza centers around Go Ni, who is a local Busan boy with a back story tied to the tazzas of the Korean underbelly. His father was a tazza who died when Go Ni was a boy, and his mother toils away to support Go Ni. Watching over Go Ni is a neighbor ajusshi, who turns out to be a friend of Go Ni’s father and a reformed tazza. Go Ni is, of course, a naturally gifted gambler, with the attitude and the skills to one day rule the tazza world.
Go Ni meets his childhood sweetheart Nan Sook, when both are just kids. They reunite in high school and embark on the start of a sweet romance. Tragedy usually come in pairs, but this time it comes in triplicates. Everything comes to a head at the local gambling parlor one fateful night.
Go Ni’s best friend, Young Min, needs money for his grandmother’s medical bills. He is recruited by the owner of the gambling den Ah Gwi (played by Kim Gab Soo), to aid his band of grifters and thugs to cheat a mark out of his money. That mark happens to be Nan Sook’s gambling fiend of a brother. That same night, Go Ni steals his mother’s hard earned savings to gamble at the same parlor for a chance to make money for Young Min’s grandmother’s surgery (unaware that Young Min has already sold his own soul for the same bargain).
With the wheels set in motion, Go Ni loses all of his mother’s savings to another one of Ah Gwi’s tazzas. Nan Sook’s brother proffers up his sister as collateral to keep gambling, only to lose it all to Young Min. In a fit of rage, Nan Sook’s brother sets fire to the gambling den, burning down the future of everyone involved. Go Ni escapes and leaves Busan, unable to face his mother with the enormity of what he done. Young Min willingly joins Ah Gwi’s group of tazzas, and the group leaves Busan after forcibly taking Nan Sook with them.
After a time jump of three years, Nan Sook is in college during the day and a grifter during the night. She has agreed to work for Ah Gwi’s organization until her brother’s debt is paid, but her anger and resignation at her plight is evident in her rebellious spirit. Young Min has fallen in love with Nan Sook (without realizing that Go Ni and Nan Sook are childhood sweethearts). The organization’s top female head, Madame Jang, played by Kang Sung Yun, has also set her eyes on the man candy that is Young Min.
Another long con and a series of events leads Go Ni and Nan Sook to reunite (again) and to resume their relationship. This leads to Young Min’s jealousy, and it all comes to a head when Go Ni ends up facing Young Min and Nan Sook at a gambling table for the rights to run a casino at the American military base. With all the secrets revealed, Go Ni wins the match, but loses the battle.
Go Ni’s sponsor is murdered under Ah Gwi’s orders and Go Ni is framed for the crime. He gets sent to jail, and Ah Gwi is free to rule the tazza underbelly once again, climbing even higher with the acquisition of the casino rights. In prison, Go Ni meets a mysterious man who runs the prison gambling racket. It turns out that said man was betrayed by Ah Gwi a decade ago and has been plotting his revenge to put set in motion upon his upcoming release.
He recruits Go Ni to be his right hand man, and Go Ni engineers a jailbreak out of prison so that he can find a way to clear his guilt and bring down Ah Gwi and Young Min. Together with some other released prison friends, and his pre-prison buddies, Go Ni and Nan Sook engage in a final winner-takes-all battle against Ah Gwi and Young Min. Will Nan Sook and Go Ni have their happily ever after? Will either or both of them get their revenge against the men who have destroyed their lives? This does sound rather intriguing, doesn’t it? Too bad the most exciting part of Tazza is probably reading what I just wrote.
Tazza is just primed to succeed. The casting for this drama is perfect. Aside from the three leads, can you think of another veteran actor other than Kim Gab Soo more suited to play Ah Gwi, the soulless tazza who claws his way to the top on the corpses of people he has used and betrayed. In addition, all of the secondary and ancillary characters are well-casted and the actors each performed admirably (well, except for one, and I’ll discuss that later).
But the production failed them in this instance. I’ve been racking my brain to come up with a good reason for why Tazza fell so flat, and I have a few theories. The first is the Taffy Theory. Taffy can be stretched, but if you stretch it too thin you can see that it consists of pretty porous material. Tazza does not have enough meaty material to stretch into its 21 episode length. If it was a 16 episode drama, I may have liked it a lot better (though it still wouldn’t have been that good).
A gambling scene is dragged on for 2/3rd of an episode, including bathroom breaks and meaningful discussion breaks. Go Ni spends 3 episodes in jail, and the drama grinds to a halt. A relatively exciting plot development is followed by a dull-as-dishwater creaking forward of said plot. This fast-slow-fast-slow plot switcheroo happens time and again, creating no consistent forward momentum to the drama.
The second is the Repetition Theory. Tazza makes the plotting, execution and delivery of the gambling thrill a boring endeavor by repeating the same old tricks. A good gambling movie has three sections: the whiz-bang lightning fast start whereby our good hero loses a pivotal gambling match, the character-development laden middle section where the hero finds his way again, and the final exhilarating match where the hero finds redemption. For Tazza, this formula is repeated three times!
It makes you feel like you’re watching the same drama three times. You can say that the second big game is more exciting and the stakes are higher than the first one. And the third and final gambling match PWNS all the previous two. Fine, I give you that. But the interim is littered with three distinct character-development middle sections which are poorly conceived and badly executed, it sucks all the excitement out of the juicy parts of the story. What is left is a half-baked hot potato.
The third is the Wet Noodle Theory. I mentioned earlier that I was totally onboard a love triangle between volatile Jang Hyuk, sultry Han Ye Seul, and straight-laced Kim Min Joon. Well, said love triangle never materialized. In fact, the love aspect of Tazza was flatter than a day-old open bottle of coke. Other than a few moments of mild sweetness, the relationship between Go Ni and Nan Sook was all talk and no action. We see how they miss each other and think about each other, but when they are together nothing happens and their relationship never really moves forward.
You can blame it on having the two of them get together so early in the drama, during their high school years, that it sucks all the tension out of worrying whether or how they will get together. If the other leg of the love triangle, Kim Min Joon, had been even a mildly credible threat to derail the Go Ni-Nan Sook ship, then it might have unfolded differently. But that never materialized, and Kim Min Joon quickly gets over his crush on Nan Sook and finds comfort in the arms of Madame Jang mid-way through the drama. Way to NOT deliver an exciting love triangle, drama!
My gripes really do rest 90% on the writing for the love story. But I think 10% of the failure needs to rest on Jang Hyuk and Han Ye Seul not having chemistry as couple. Oh, they look magnificent together, so perfectly suited I am content just to look at that them. But they lack the emotional connection some K-drama couplings have sparked with each other. And that is really not about acting talent as it’s about that indelible something extra that pairing up two people can create (or not create). In this case, our lead couple in Tazza have no chemistry with each other, mores the pity.
Funny enough, both of them have much better chemistry with Kim Min Joon. Jang Hyuk and Kim Min Joon play best friends turned mortal enemies, and their scenes crackle from the early camaraderie and the anger they feel towards each other when they are forced to choose sides. Han Ye Seul and Kim Min Joon share a lovely yet heavy-hearted friendship, and their scenes have this frisson of regret and need that bespoke a stronger love connection than actually was written.
Jang Hyuk’s performance as Kim Go Ni was as expected – he delivered everything he was asked to do. He was a playful scamp as a teenage Go Ni, he was resilient and ambitious as the young adult Go Ni, and he is determined and calculating as the post stint-in-jail Go Ni. But the character of Go Ni never felt alive, he was constantly reacting to things happening to him for the majority of the drama, and only in the end is he in control of his own destiny.
Han Ye Seul was fine as Lee Nan Sook. I liked her sassy teenage self, but found the cold and miserable adult Nan Sook to be tedious to watch. I don’t know if another actress could have infused some fire into this character, which faded further and further into the woodwork for me as the story progressed. But Han Ye Seul looked absolutely gorgeous, and I can’t say she didn’t try her best and succeed on some level. Tazza’s failure is not her fault in the least, and she contributed to the Tazza Sure Looks Good level of success.
Kim Min Joon – okay, let me take a deep breath here – Kim Min Joon was godawful in Tazza. After a promising start during the teen years sequence, his Young Min become hands down the worst character in the drama. He was mopey, he was plotty, he was moody, he was morose, he was quite simply wasted as a credible rival to Go Ni. Yes, Ah Gwi is the ultimate Big Bad, the mastermind behind all the torment that befalls Go Ni and Nan Sook. But Young Min is set up to be Ah Gwi’s successor, yet he is written as an uptight asshat.
When giving a brief review of Tazza, I once compared Kim Min Joon’s performance in Tazza to that of the character of Lurch in the old-school American show The Adam’s Family. Lurch is the family butler that, as his name implies, lurches around the background performing tasks and wandering in from scene to scene. It’s a testament to how bad Kim Min Joon’s performance was that he started to LOOK like Lurch to me by the end of the drama. Which was doubly shocking because I really like Kim Min Joon as an actor (and still do, I treat Tazza as an anomaly), and he did look super dashing in his various suits in Tazza.
You Lose This Hand, Better Luck Next Time:
I don’t know if I’m being too harsh on Tazza. All I know is that as the drama got progressively more and more plodding, I grew more and more impatient with it. The fast forward button was used on occasion to preserve some sanity, but less than I would have normally since I had told some friends I would share my thoughts with them on this drama (and one cannot review a drama if you watch it on fast-forward). A great gambling movie always provides a major release at the end, a moment when you release a breath you didn’t even realize you were holding. When our hero triumphs over the villains through either skill, luck or derring-do, we applaud and walk away feeling a happy sensation in our gut.
At the end of Tazza, when Ah Gwi gets his just desserts and Young Min pays for his misdeeds, I was left feeling nothing. Zip, zero, nada. No catharsis, because the story never built up the requisite tension and excitement leading up to this moment. I don’t think I’m that hardened these days to fail to feel the proper amount of feeling when the moment calls for it. Tazza never engaged my senses except for the eye candy sense, and that sense doesn’t require the engagement of my heart.
Tazza did have an awesome soundtrack. I loved every heart pumping score and every mellow instrumental. The music paired well with the visuals, and sometimes I would close my eyes just to listen to the music. In fact, sometimes I refused to push play to watch the next episode, just to listen to the same score that played over the menu of my Tazza DVD. I don’t have a sense about whether the directing in Tazza was good or bad. Since the drama itself was plodding, I’ll just divide the blame equally on a poorly written script and a mediocre execution.
I do regret watching Tazza. This drama was the rare one that I finished for the sake of finishing, when I really itched to toss it in my abandoned pile. I want those hours of my life back. I barely have enough time for everything I do, and to think I plowed through this muddled mess makes me rather pissy. But if you all will comment and tell me you appreciate the sacrifice I made on your behalf, then it will go a long ways in making me feel like my time spent on Tazza was for a worthy cause. 🙂
I don’t think Tazza is a blight on the K-drama world. It most likely created no lasting repercussions for anyone involved in the production. It garnered respective ratings in the mid-to-high teens during its entire run. It probably has an equally respectable fan base, not particularly avid like those mania hits, but likely more folks than I am giving this drama credit for. I like to think a good gambling K-drama can and will one day be made. Unfortunately Tazza is not that drama. I’ll just call it a day and move on, no hard feelings or (too many) regrets in the end. Thanks for adding a few tracks to my IPod, Tazza. For that, I thank you very much!