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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Jopok Week: The Rise and Fall of the Korean Gangster Comedy

By Darcy Paquet

(This essay was originally published in Korean translation in the film weekly Cine21, in January 2009.)

Han Suk-kyu in No. 3 (1997)

Sometimes I wish that Song Neung-han's No. 3 had been made four or five years later than it actually was.  I imagine it being released in 2002 or 2003, and stunning both critics and audiences with its distinctive characters and elegant staging of one gangster's epic, self-inflicted fall.  I guess it would have sold between 5 and 6 million tickets, providing a bridge between popular hits My Wife Is a Gangster and Hi, Dharma and the "well-made" auteur films of 2003: Memories of Murder, A Tale of Two Sisters, Oldboy (never mind that it would have been impossible to assemble the same cast in 2002 as in 1997).  If I could rewrite the recent history of Korean cinema, this is how I would assemble the plot:  No.3 would have saved the Korean gangster comedy.

As it was, No.3 appeared ahead of its time. Korean audiences were not as tuned in to local films in 1997, so word of mouth was slow to spread, and it did not perform very well commercially.  More importantly, the model of a commercial genre merged with a strong auteur sensibility did not really exist at that time.  Song Neung-han stands as somewhat of a lonely pioneer.  This is not to say the film did not have influence:  it helped to launch the career of Song Kang-ho, and it bears some elements in common with the films of Kim Jee-woon, Bong Joon-ho, and Choi Dong-hoon, among others.

Kang Seong-jin, Yu Oh-seung, Lee Sung-jae, and Yu Ji-tae in
Attack the Gas Station (1999)

Some critics point to No. 3 as the starting point of the Korean gangster comedy, but it seems to me that the character and attitude of the sub-genre sprung from another source:  Kim Sang-jin's Attack the Gas Station (1999).  It's not just that Attack the Gas Station was a huge commercial success that featured a prominent brawl with gangsters.  It tapped into the mindset that would provide the foundation for later works.  Anthropologist Nancy Abelmann and education professor Jung-ah Choi analyzed the film in an essay published in the anthology New Korean Cinema in 2005.  To them, the core attitude of the film is contained within the reason given for robbing the gas station:  'geunyang,’ loosely translated as "just for the hell of it."  The casual self interest and rejection of social responsibility contained within that word were representative of broader changes in Korean society, they argued.  For decades, the state had asked Koreans to subordinate the personal and the indulgent for the greater good.  'Geunyang' was a rejection of this logic.

This "geunyang" attitude also reverberated throughout the gangster comedy, re-emerging, for example, in the poster copy for the 2001 film My Boss My Hero ("That's right, more gangsters... Got a problem with that?").  It may not have been a noble sentiment, but it imparted to the films their particular energy.  Many critics considered the famous gangster comedy quartet of 2001 – Kick the Moon, My Wife is a Gangster, Hi Dharma!, My Boss My Hero – to be a shameful regression in the development of Korean cinema, but the films themselves are interesting in many ways.  My personal favorite is My Boss My Hero, for the way it combines melodrama with an ironic sense of moral outrage (given the fact that it is gangsters fighting school officials, in the name of social justice) leading up to a very Korean-style emotional climax.  Hi Dharma is structured more like a Hollywood film, even if it feels very local in its details (its setting in a Buddhist temple, Korean games, provincial accents, etc.).  Both films benefit from a good sense of comic timing and effective narrative plotting, and they are genuinely funny – an achievement that is more difficult to attain than many people assume.

Jeong Joon-ho in My Boss, My Hero (2001)

My Wife is a Gangster may not have been as well crafted as the two films mentioned above, but it remains the iconic example of Korean gangster comedy.  Perhaps the most defining characteristic of these early gangster comedies was their high-concept nature:  you could summarize the plot in a single sentence, and even that one sentence could motivate viewers to see the film.  A friend once told me about a film director from the Philippines, who after hearing just the title of My Wife is a Gangster, burst out laughing and said, "I gotta see that film!"  The movie itself could have been improved in many ways, but its central character played by Shin Eun-kyung (thrown into relief by the great supporting role by Park Chang-myun) is one of the most enduring characters of contemporary Korean cinema.

Taken individually, any of these films would have been interesting but not especially noteworthy – but the emergence of a new trend created something that was greater than the sum of its parts. Viewers who went to see a "new gangster comedy" approached it with a particular set of expectations, and directors could play off those expectations in interesting ways.  Internationally as well, the Korean gangster comedy (however briefly) become a sort of brand.  It's rare for a film industry to successfully create a specialized sub-genre of its own, but there are both commercial and creative advantages to keeping such sub-genres alive.

Park Sang-myeon and Sin Eun-kyeong in My Wife Is a Gangster (2001)

Ultimately, however, the girls high school horror film (launched in 1998 with Whispering Corridors) would prove to be far more successful at perpetuating itself than the gangster comedy.  To ensure that a specialized sub-genre lives on, it isn't necessary to produce only good films.  In fact, even a string of unremittingly bad films can keep a sub-genre alive if they attempt something new and create a sense of forward movement.

Initially, Marrying the Mafia (2002) provided some hint that the gangster comedy might enjoy a long life, but somewhere along the line, producers began to view the Korean gangster comedy as a lemon to be squeezed until all the juice was gone.  I sat through all of those "lazy sequels" that appeared in the subsequent years – films which introduced nothing new to the genre and merely cashed in on fading memories of old jokes.  If the plots of the early films could be summarized in one intriguing sentence, the plots of the later sequels could be summarized as "more of the same."  Sometimes a big hit can do more damage to the lineage of a sub-genre than a commercial flop, if millions of viewers buy tickets only to see for themselves that the creativity is gone.

Seong Ji-roo, Yoo Dong-geun, and Park Sang-wuk in
Marrying the Mafia (2002)

It's perhaps understandable that film critics might look down on the gangster comedy, but it's sadder when the people actually producing the films don't consider them worthy of good craftsmanship.  Personally, I regret the fall of the gangster comedy – I think it had a good start, and it could have evolved into a tradition worthy of pride.  But now, I think it is too late.  With deepest apologies for the sexist metaphor, the Korean gangster comedy is like a Chosun-Dynasty era yangban family that has failed to produce a son.  It will be no easier to revive it, than to start a completely new lineage.

Darcy Paquet is the founder of Koreanfilm.org, and the author of New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves (2009).


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1 comment:

  1. I really like Korean cinema myself. I might be a bit sentimental, but my absolute favourite is "My Sassy Girl". I particularily liked also the Korean translation of the subtitles, as I do not speak the language myself, but found it really well made and funny.

    I think that subtitles to the films, book translations etc. should ALWAYS be done by professional translators, because only the you can understant not only the idea of what is said, but also all the cultural background behind every phrase.

    ReplyDelete