1997 was a pretty big year for Korean gangster films, no less than three of them wound up in the year-end top 10. Song Kang-ho had his breakout performance with No. 3, Lee Chang-dong released his excellent debut Green Fish, and Jung Woo-sung, Ko So-young, Lim Chang-jung, and Yu Oh-seung made a name for themselves in Kim Sung-su’s Beat. 1997 was also an important year because of the disastrous IMF crisis in Korea. After numerous big corporations failed the country had to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund to the tune of over $50 billion. After nearly a decade of enormous year-on-year gains, Korea’s economy drew flat and nearly dipped into a recession.
Many critics and academics, assert that “the revival and popularity of the jop'ok cycle in the post-IMF period can be seen as a consequence of and a response to, the national economic crisis” (Shin, 2005: 123). Friend (2001) in particular is mentioned in this argument. While I agree to some extent that the prevalence of social identity crises and anxieties in young men depicted in contemporary Korean cinema can be attributed to this cataclysmic financial event, I believe there is much evidence that would argue that this trend was already in evidence before the crisis.
Min (Jung Sung-woo) is a high school student who likes get into fights with his friend Tae-su (Yu Oh-seung). He is sent to a new school and makes a new friend, Hwan-gyu (Lim Chang-jung), and meets Ro-mi (Ko So-young) while Tae-su gradually falls in with the local mob. As the narrative progresses Min is torn between joining Tae-su down his criminal path and a more virtuous life with the upwardly mobile Ro-mi.
As many films would do subsequently, such as Die Bad (2000), Friend, Conduct Zero (2002), and Gangster High (2006), Beat examines apathetic youth violence and how it can lead to gang integration. Though in addition to quantifying the role of male peer pressure, machismo, and home situations in this violence, it also throws in something remarkably modern: brand fetishization. Min’s love interest, Ro-mi, asserts early on that anyone interested in “sex, screen, or sports is a loser” and she is relentlessly studious though she presents a vain and feckless exterior to her equally studious classmates. Min wears a Nike shirt modeled after the Chicago Bulls player Dennis Rodman and covets Tae-su’s motorbike. Inaddition, early on in the film Min is auctioned off at a bar by Hwang-gyu and Ro-mi buys him for $100. This in effect commodifies him, which can provide an interesting reading of Jung Woo-sung’s star status. He’s never been viewed as a consummate actor and relies more on his looks and physique. Aside from fetishizing him, Ro-mi’s purchase of Min switches the genders roles as he becomes her servant. She is very frank with him and puts him down at every opportunity though eventually she can’t help herself, she loses her composure and falls for him.
Much of the first half of Beat focusses on the extraordinary pressure put on children to succeed academically. Ro-mi’s stay at a mental institute seems to result from this, though it is never explained. Of course it was probably triggered by her friend’s suicide on a subway platform before her very eyes, after failing a test. She probably blamed herself as immediately before she had boasted of a top score, keep in mind her friends believe that she does little work at all and socializes most nights.
Min’s stay in high school may be brief but he suffers similar problems as his mother berates him for not doing better but clearly she is not a good motivator and her behavior, which incongruously coexists with her aspirations for him, may be what leads him to his violent behavior, though at heart he seems rather sweet-natured. Eventually he disrupts the school order by smashing up the teacher’s office which, after a brief rush of power and adrenaline, gets him thrown out of the system and will eventually lead to gang integration, despite an honest and initially rewarding attempt at a business venture with Hwang-gyu which gets violently shut down by the government as their establishment is demolished. The sequence brings to mind the brutal repression of the student demonstrations of the 1980s.
I’m rambling a bit but the more I think about Beat, the more impressed I am by it, it seems to combine some of the social relevance of the Korean New Wave, which unofficially ended a year earlier with Jang Sun-woo’s A Petal, and the aesthetics and themes of modern Korean film. In light of this analysis the leap between Beat and Friend seems far less pronounced, indeed production values sem to be the greatest disparity. Though the film is no stylistic slouch as it employs Wong Kar-wai’s cool step motion film style that he employed throughout the 1990s, though later Korean films would be far more important to developing Korean film style. There also something to be said about the homoerotic vibe between Min and Tae-soo, I suppose it might be a facet of their shared machismo and hyper-masculinities. Beat stands as one of the first great jopok films of new Korean cinema, see it if you get a chance.
Born to Kill (1996)
The General's Son (1990)
The General's Son 2 (1991)
The General's Son 3 (1992)
Shin, Chi-yun, "Two of a Kind: Gender and Friendship in Friend and Take Care of My Cat," in New Korean Cinema, ed. Shin Chi-yun and Julian Stringer (New York, NYU Press, 2005), 123.
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