Korea’s revered cineaste Im Kwon-taek has directed 101 films to date, many of those were made in his busier days in the 1960s and 70s, during which time he made a number of action films before attempting more serious works in the 1980s such as Mandala (1981) and The Surrogate Woman (1987), which toured international film festivals and made him, at that stage, the most prominent Korean filmmaker. In 1990, shortly after the fall of Chung Doo-hwan, Im began his own series on the life of Kim Doo-han with his The General’s Son trilogy (1990-92). The first film was a huge hit and became the country’s highest grossing film, a record that had been held since 1976 by Winter Woman. For Im the trilogy was a brief return to action cinema before moving on to the more contemplative Sopyeonje (1993), which once again broke the all time Korean box office record and is considered by some to be the greatest of all Korean films.
The first The General's Son chronicles Kim Doo-han’s unlikely rise to power in the Japanese-occupied Mapo-gu district of Seoul in the 1930s. The narrative opens with his release from prison, having spent a year behind bars for a petty crime. With his newfound freedom he returns to a shack under a bridge where a friend of his still resides. He is a beggar at the very bottom of the social ladder but he is also Korean which makes him equally oppressed by the Japanese occupiers. He finds work at the local theatre, which is considered the heart of Mapo-gu and his featured prominently in all three films. He recites lines through a loudspeaker detailing the plots and stars of the theater’s latest offerings as he trudges through the district’s muddy streets with a marching band. Kim's pay is 10 won a day and two free tickets to the movies. Proud of himself after receiving his first honest wage he goes to a local bakery only to have two thugs demand to see his film tickets. Naively, he hands them over and they promptly leave, ignoring his protestations. Following them outside he continues to demands his tickets back but as they begin to aggress him, he easily fights them away and they scamper off. Not thinking about what’s just happened he goes back to his table, oblivious to everyone’s stares. Shortly thereafter a captain in the local gang walks in, slaps him for beating his boys, and offers him a job. So begins Do-han’s quick ascent in the local gang hierarchy.
It must be said that in some ways the film can seem very tacky. It looks dated, the sounds in the over-choreographed fights are outrageously loud, and the improbable story is told with little subtlety. However the film actually has a huge amount to offer and in many respects is very well-made. Not to mention the fact that its brashness and brevity is positively infectious. The best elements of the film come together in an extraordinary sequence that mostly takes place in the cinema.
Doo-han now works at the theater, which is gang-controlled, as all sorts of different characters stream in for a screening and we are brought up to speed with many of the relationships in the film as well as how the neighborhood interacts. The local courtesans, idling their free time during the day, flirt their way in for free while at the other end a group of young boys, in a rather disgusting sequence, try to sneak in through the women’s lavatories only to be caught and beaten, save for one who hides in the isles. The smell gives him away and Kim grabs him but instead of throwing him out he suggests that he should have brought a spare change of clothes, like he used to do. A man comes on stage to introduce the film and the lights go down. He narrates the silent pro-Korean picture as watchful Japanese eyes look on from their censor’s box. Someone then taps on Kim's shoulder and he rushes outside as a big fight between the top Korean school fighter and a rival is about to start.
Im deftly handles the many elements of this sequence, which reminded me both of Cinema Paradiso, which had just been released the year before, and Martin Scorsese's rich and evocative film style. There is a great flow, energy, and richness in detail throughout. It’s pretty electrifying stuff and for me, the highlight of the trilogy.
If you pay attention, there is a lot of attention to detail in the film. The set of historical Mapo-gu is magnificent though it may not be realistic. Costumes are very important and also serve to tell the story. Kim’s attire in particular evolves along with his character. We first meet him in tattered clothing and as he becomes a member of the gang he begins to wear clean clothes. One night, after impressing everyone with his fighting skills his boss gives him his leather jacket which Kim then wears with pride. Soon he his wearing suits and hats, another sign of power, which become flashier and perch higher on his head the more he ascends.
The great strength of The General’s Son is that it is a simple but effective story with plenty of worthwhile subtext that is told with exuberant alacrity. In effect Im has crafted a film with prescient social commentary within the pleasant trappings of a genre, something that would become very common and be experimented with even more successfully in later years.
The General's Son 2 (1991)
The General's Son 3 (1992)
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