The final installment of Im Kwon-taek’s The General’s Son trilogy was not particularly well-received upon its release in 1992 in Korea. Unlike the previous two installments, The General’s Son 3 was not the year’s highest grossing film, that honor went instead to Marriage Story, the ‘planned’ feature which is credited in part with the entry of the chaebol into the film industry, who modernized it, paving the way for the technically-superior Korean cinema of today. Im stopped making actioners after this but he wasn’t absent from the top of the charts for long as his masterful Sopyonje was released the next year and became the first Korean film to cross the one million admissions mark in Seoul, even though the Korean market share of the box office fell to a record low of 15.9% in 1993.
At the start of The General’s Son 3, Kim Do-han is not released from jail, but he is in exile and his gang has been dispersed in Mapo-gu. The Japanese now control the district and Kim leads a peripatetic life, wandering from town to town, making connections and enemies along the way. The first half of the film sees him on the road in a series of questionably strung-together sequences as he meets characters from previous entries in the franchise and makes some new ladyfriends while the back half of the narrative focuses on his return to Mapo-gu and leads up to the final and long-awaited (sort of) showdown with the local Yakuza gang.
After an opening film that had quite a lot to say and did so in a balanced, if imperfect, manner, the conclusion to The General’s Son trilogy does little more than rehash themes and story tropes from the previous two films. It adds nothing new, just presenting us with more fights, nightclub scenes, and women. The first film affixed a fairly convincing historical and sociological pretext upon the generic template of the gangster film but The General’s Son 3 abandons what made the series a hit in the first place and revels in the threadbare mechanics of genre filmmaking. Just as in The General’s Son 2, it’s all about the fights this go-round and women, but in a much more sexualized manner than in previous installments. Gone is the simplicity of its predecssor, which was happy to give us a straightforward story which led from one fight to the next , instead we have to suffer Kim’s perambulations through foreign towns which bog down the narrative and add up to a big waste of time when he finally returns to his hometown.
The depiction of women in The General’s Son 3 was quite problematic and surprising given Im’s involvement. The main love interest, who is gorgeous, is handled like a commodity when Kim meets her. He stands up for her and they begin to fall for each other but then he treats her like a piece of meat too, only know she is more than willing to submit. One of the running gags in the film is her screams of pleasure which resound throughout the night. Perhaps Kim Doo-han’s virility is legendary, not that I have heard as such, but this repeated joke smacked of sexism for me. I can say that compared to the other female protagonists in the trilogy, who exit the narratives without having changed from when they first appear on screen, this new character is a little more three dimensional and features an arc which is passably integrated into the main narrative.
There is some attempt at character development, while Kim was a hero figure in the first and fell prey to vanity in the second, his current exile essentially leads him on a path to redemption and he returns to Mapo-gu the conquering hero. However the characterizations here are not well fleshed out and in any case it is difficult to make anything out in the muddled narrative. The good news is that it doesn't really matter as they fight scenes, while exceptionally contrived, are still very enjoyable, even if they get repetitive after a while. We meet new gangs in the new towns and there's even some opium dealing and sex scenes thrown in for good measure.
My biggest disappointment is that ultimately the film series didn't go explore what I was hoping it would, namely Kim Doo-han's transition from a gangster to a political figure. It certainly hints at it but the wheels are never set in motion which I thought was a shame. I suppose Park Sang-min would have been too young to portray an older Kim but now that 19 years have elapsed I imp Mr. Im to consider The General's Son 4 as his 102nd film! The General's Son 3 is the weakest entry in the franchise but all in all I had a great time with this series despite its flaws and I look forward to revisit it again in its entirety soon.
The General's Son (1990)
The General's Son 2 (1991)
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