No. 3 refers to the part played by lead character Tae-Ju (Han Suk-Kyu), a bumbling wannabe who gets his big opportunity when he saves the life of mob boss Do Ka Gang. He is promoted to No. 3 henchman of the gang but wants much more than that. It certainly helps that the people around him are bigger buffoons than he is. No. 2 gangster is known as Ashtray because he uses a glass ashtray to beat his would be opponents to death. He isn’t the sharpest tool in the box and brute force will only get you so far, even if it is with a cigarette butt receptacle.
Before we dismiss this as yet another Korean gangster movie, lets make one thing clear. No. 3 may walk the well-beaten path laid down by better known gangster movies, but it also has a few tricks of its own that should separate it from the chasing pack. Song Neung-Han has crafted a gangster movie that is incredibly self-aware, in fact No. 3 is almost a parody of the gangster movie genre. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be taken seriously, because for every comedic swipe taken at the sub-genre there is a very real consequence; occasionally humorous and often brutal.
The rest of the plot is inconsequential, probably because there isn't much of one to speak of. Tae-Ju takes us on a journey through his anarchic existence, weaving in and out of the weird and wonderful lives of the people around him. Occasionally the plot-lines lead somewhere but more often than not they fade into nothing. We meet his long suffering girlfriend Hyun-Ji (Lee Mi-Yeon), who dreams of becoming a poet. She stands by her man despite having an affair halfway through. In fact, it’s surprising how much time we spend with the minor characters, because there are a lot of them and it does prove a little daunting at first.
The lack of both direction and focus would have been a problem had the characters not been so engaging, but the performances are wonderful and it never becomes an issue. Standing out from the crowd is public prosecutor Dong-pal (Choi Min-Sik), a fearless foe of gangsters the town over. The relationship that develops between Tae-Ju and Dong-pal is perhaps the most intriguing, not least because he acts more like a gangster than anybody else in the cast, even though he despises everything and everyone connected to the mob lifestyle.
Even Song Kang-Ho makes an appearance as a wannabe mobster who forms his own gang, and he is as good here as he was in The Host, The Quiet Family and Thirst. The narrative is at times confusing, with characters popping up out of nowhere only to disappear again for long periods of time. However, No. 3 brings with it a delightful sense of humour, and the random bursts of violence coupled with an array of quirky characters should see you through. Performances are universally strong and Song Neung-Han's refreshing approach is commendable if nothing else.
Much like the character of Tae-Ju, No. 3 is never likely to challenge the big fish at the top of the gangster food chain. When it comes to passion and desire though, you’d be a fool to dismiss it entirely. It will certainly make you think about where you place your ashtray in future.