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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Jopok Week: Masculinity and Beauty in A Bittersweet Life and The Man From Nowhere – Part II

Questions of Masculinity and Beauty in the Jopok Films A Bittersweet Life (2005) and The Man From Nowhere (2010)


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A Bittersweet Life

The question of who dies or survives is not a superficial question.  For Sun-woo, ultimately he is the author of the circle in which he becomes ensnared.  This truth is reflective of A Bittersweet Life’s very insular world.  The gangsters in this film hardly interact with the daytime, if they can help it; whatever dealings with the international world that the criminal organisation may have the film does not show or mention.  The irony is that Sun-woo could not help it:  Sun-woo is assigned to look after his boss’ much younger girlfriend Hee-soo for several days while he is away because he is suspicious of her having a boyfriend.  Like a rope that has reached its breaking point, Sun-woo's meeting with Hee-soo unravels the strands of loyalty and honour that had sustained his good standing with his boss.  After tasting a different rhythm and colour of life by accompanying Hee-soo in her day-to-day activities as a student, Sun-woo makes the decision to not kill Hee-soo and her boyfriend.  But what is a gesture of goodwill in the sweet light of day is a death wish in the underground shadows of noir.

The themes of loyalty, betrayal, and revenge; the narrative development of a woman triggering the protagonist's “downfall”; and the jungle of marginalised characters encountered to get to the boss are all there.  But Kim revels in playing with these conventions to bend the jopok under his spell.  One of the film’s distinct characteristics is the segment that bridges Sun-woo’s escape from his boss’ henchmen and his last killing spree.  In this unexpected, comical sequence, which could be a short film unto itself, Sun-woo meets a Laurel and Hardy-like pair of gunrunners and has a great seated showdown with their boss.  It is a bold move because this sequence basically brings to a standstill the dramatic action of revenge, but it showcases Kim’s distinct perspective of things and references the great peculiarity of his previous films like The Quiet Family (1998) and The Foul King (2000).  In this way, Kim demonstrates an incredible confidence in his interpretation of noir as a narrative template as well as visual pleasure.  From a bloody standoff on an ice rink, a muddy buried-alive punishment that turns into a veritable resurrection, the visual motif of lamps and turning on/off lights as a more literal illustration of noir lighting and mise en scène, to the final meeting with his boss at the Melville-esque lounge with the words la dolce vita between them in the background in all its irony, A Bittersweet Life is full of cool, masculine attitude and mood.



The Man From Nowhere

The Man From Nowhere is much more diversified in terms of the scope of criminal activities with which one must contend.  It brings together the Chinese mafia, a Thai assassin, child trafficking, drug trafficking, and organ harvesting to create the formidable criminal web in which pawnshop owner Tae-shik unwittingly finds himself through his acquaintance with a little girl, So-mi, who lives in the same apartment complex as him.  Unlike Sun-woo in A Bittersweet Life, Tae-shik has a backstory – and a tragic family one at that – which informs his conscious reaction to the things that happen to him and the things he witnesses with regards to So-mi.  Even if his actions yield unexpected results, his objective to rescue So-mi never falters.  That he ends up having to confront a big-time criminal organisation and put a stop to their illegal activities in the process is ultimately secondary but convenient and dramatic in a narrative sense.

How Tae-shik gets embroiled in the criminal organisation run by brothers Man-seok and Jong-seok is complicated.  While some regard this complexity as a flaw, it actually reveals the film’s smartness in terms of keeping up with these complex, globalised criminal times.  The parallel strands of Tae-shik finding more about Man-seok and Jong-seok’s extensive criminal operations and the police finding more about Tae-shik’s international special agent background reflect the reality of a more connected, complicated, diverse world.  Lee’s desire to reflect this multilayered reality may also help to explain his decision to have Tae-shik’s most electrifying fights be against Ramrowan, the Thai assassin who works for Man-seok and Jong-seok, instead of the brothers themselves.  Aside from the splendid choreography, the most striking detail about their confrontations is the surprising absence of extra-diegetic music.  The sequence that consists of the silence of their first fight in a bathroom and the pulsating sounds of the dance floor as they stand and face each other as if to initiate a duel, despite the crowd of people dancing obliviously around them, is an effective example of visual and aural contrast and also foreshadows Tae-shik and Ramrowan’s even more vigorous knife fight towards the end.  At the same time, Tae-shik and Ramrowan’s confrontations rise above the story to occupy a whole other dimension unto itself, which accounts for the film’s stylisation.  In this sense, unlike his colleagues, Ramrowan serves less to drive the plot than to affirm and spectacularise Tae-shik’s character.  Ultimately, nothing topples Tae-shik’s coolness and moral sense of self, which affirm each other throughout the film: so guarded of his past, but it tempers his actions in the present.



Angels with Dirty, Pretty Faces

David Thomson writes of Alain Delon in Le samouraï, “[T]he enigmatic angel of French film, only thirty-two in 1967, and nearly feminine.  Yet so earnest and immaculate as to be thought lethal or potent.”  This description of Delon’s taciturn, schizophrenic assassin in Le samouraï is perhaps not the first image of a killer that comes immediately to mind. It certainly does not apply to the majority of assassins or gangsters in cinema, past or present.  In fact, it applies only very rarely.  Not even Ryan Gosling in Drive (2011, Nicholas Winding Refn) fits this bill, regardless of the frequent comparisons made between this film and Melville’s work; marvelous attempt, but not quite.  
Only Louis Koo in Election 2 (2006, Johnnie To) – stunning, menacing, and intensely still all at the same time – is a worthy match.  In contemporary Korean cinema, Lee Byung-hun and Won Bin.

Fans and critics alike frequently discuss these actors’ attractiveness, in terms similar to the ones that Thomson uses above to describe Delon:  “feminine,” “earnest,” “immaculate.”  Any filmmaker who casts these actors must somehow take into account their attractiveness and proceed accordingly, so that part of the interest in these actors in a jopok film – with all of its grimy, sordid violence – consists in seeing how the film uses their attractiveness:  is it downplayed, made more conspicuous?  For the actor, such as Delon, these gangster/noir films are a way to overcome or make rough one’s attractiveness and to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor.


For A Bittersweet Life, Lee Byung-hun’s looks were crucial for Kim Ji-woon.  In a 2009 master class, Kim elaborated on his choice of Lee to play Sun-woo:  “One of the reasons I cast him was that in French noir, the most [well-known] protagonist was Alain Delon.  I thought that Lee Byung-hun is the Korean actor who most resembles him.  Alain Delon doesn't have a lot of dialogue, either.  I worked it in because I thought he was the one who could bring the eyes and aura of Alain Delon.”  Accordingly, Kim shot Lee in close-ups and extreme close-ups throughout the film to express the gamut of overwhelming emotion that Sun-woo must go through without resorting to dialogue.  In turn, Lee brings the eyes, aura, and walk that recall the steely coolness of Delon.  Lee's walk alone conveys a myriad of things, such as in the opening scene where he descends from the sky lounge to the underground bar – the camera closely following from behind – for the first fight scene.  Or in the scene where Sun-woo walks towards Hee-soo to take her home – the camera also closely behind – and then does a quick about-face when he sees her male friend get there before him. The performance is wordless, but Lee gets the giddiness of a schoolboy in love as well as the shyness, vulnerability, and embarrassment that go with it.

For The Man From Nowhere, Lee Jeong-beom also made symbolic use of Won Bin’s pretty boy looks.  Lee speaks of casting Won Bin in a 2011 interview, “In the beginning I had an older character in mind.  But Won's face drew me to him even more.  He has a beautiful face, but when he is not speaking his face is cold.  For example, in the scenes with the child his youthful side would show, while in the action scenes his face grew colder.”  Lee, like Melville with Delon, drew amply from and enhanced the mysterious allure of Won Bin walking quietly but determinedly, looking, and listening intently, or simply standing still in order to create the emotion and mood of scenes.  The film introduces Tae-shik in such a way, which makes the fight scenes and aggressive dialogue all the more impactful.  Ultimately, why The Man From Nowhere works despite its borrowings of kidnapping, busting a drug/trafficking ring, and an ex-special agent rekindling his deadly training plots is due largely to the charismatic tension between the jopok genre and Won Bin’s pretty boy-ness.  The first part of the film relies heavily on this tension, with Won Bin’s face half covered by his hair, while the rest of the film and his subsequent haircut are the consequences of the full-on collision between Won Bin and the ultra-violent, ultra masculine world of jopok.


But what distinguishes Lee Byung-hun and Won Bin from Delon are the “manly tears,” so prevalent in South Korean films, jopok films included.  In both A Bittersweet Life and The Man From Nowhere, Lee and Won each have their moment of manly tears, something that would never happen to Delon’s characters.  What are the roots of this motif (see Pierce Conran’s previous post on MKC)?  Perhaps it goes back to the issue of reviving not just the screen image of Korean masculinity but a particular one that taps into Korean cinema’s history of melodrama and aestheticises masculinity and emotion simultaneously.

Part I of Masculinity and Beauty in A Bittersweet Life and The Man From Nowhere


Rowena Santos Aquino recently obtained her doctorate degree in Cinema and Media Studies.  She is a contributing writer to Asia Pacific Arts.  She has also contributed to other online outlets, such as Midnight Eye and Red Feather, and to print journals, including Transnational Cinemas and Asian Cinema.  She also loves football.  She can be found musing about film and football on her twitter page.


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2 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing this. I really enjoyed reading it and learning more about how the jopok genre got to where it is today. A Bittersweet Life and The Man From Nowhere also happen to be two of my favourite films, so it was very interesting to read your comparison of them.

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  2. I know this is a rather late response, and I don't know if anyone will read this, but I thought I'd at least leave a word.
    Koreans, as a people, are an intensely emotional brand of humans. The extent of which is expressed in the very language itself. There are a great many more words of emotional expression and description than could even begin to exist in English. The depth of which is demonstrated in the "han" established and disseminated by Im Kwon-Taek's Sopyonje, Koreans respond vibrantly to the cathartic release of han in various forms. The release of han is simultaneously heartbreaking and beautiful, both vulnerable and strong. The beauty, appeal, and masculinity of a man giving just a glimpse of his internal struggle by way of tears (more commonly, a single tear running down his face) gives the audience a glimpse into the full depth, complexity, and sensitivity of the man's soul, previously withheld from them. This single moment of weakness, to the Western viewer, is a moment of catharsis and a giant leap of character development, to the Korean viewer. The male character, after his long journey, has finally allowed himself to be a real person. As a side note: This is also, perhaps, a Korean manifestation of the idea of love as both the greatest strength and weakness, but what ultimately makes us human. If this is the case, a man's tears would complete his masculinity. After his aggressive displays of strength, brutality, and unwavering determination - his face crumbling in the face of love, making him, above all, a person.
    Whether this difference in the portrayal of beauty and masculinity is one between the East and the West or just Korean verus the rest of the world, I cannot say. And all of the above statements are simply my (possibly rather melodramatic) thoughts as a Korean-American, but I thought I'd offer up some semblance of an explanation for the question you seem to pose in your last paragraph. :)

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