So what makes a gangster film a gangster film?
And more importantly, what are your favorites?
TOP 10 KOREAN GANGSTER FILMS
10: Kick the Moon, 2001
Kim Sang-jin's third film is an anarchic blend of gangster, youth, and comedy tropes which features sprawling brawls, which Kim had already perfected with Attack the Gas Station (1999). Kick the Moon sports some great comic turns from Cha Seung-won, Kim Hye-soo, and Yu Hae-jin, takes place in a small town, and boldly equates gangs with big corporations. Jang Jin would also do this later in some of his films as his gangsters characters would often refer to working for a company and being businessmen. The film is mostly played for laughs and many of the gang figures are ridiculed but then again so is Cha's teacher, whose youthful fighting skills have now been reappropriated to discipline unruly high schoolers.
9: Die Bad, 2000
Ryoo Seung-wan's exceptional debut, which is an omnibus of four chronological short films which share many characters, is one of the most successful examinations of youth violence and how teenage ennui in the right (or wrong) circumstances can lead to gang integration. Few who've seen Die Bad can forget it's climax which obliterates many myths of gang culture and shows it for what it really is. The opening segment, featuring a high school brawl in a pool hall, is more successful in getting it's idea across that the whole of Gangster High (2006), which seems to try to do the same thing. A great start from Ryoo and some strong performances from the youthful cast, including Ryoo Seung-beom, the director's brother.
8: Green Fish, 1997
Another debut, this time from Lee Chang-dong, Green Fish is a thoughtful rumination on the changing landscape of Korea as a young man's rural town gets swallowed by Seoul and Korea's segyehwa (globalization) upon his return from the army. His entrance into gang life is, unlike Die Bad, a matter of necessity. Lee, who was a novelist prior to entering the film industry, carefully engages with the conventions of the gang film. His approach is never radical and he made a strong and popular film yet he still succeeded in using the genre to his own ends. A fantastic exploration of the importance of family and community and the dangers they face in the mutable modern urban landscape. The best of the many high profile Korean gang films of 1997.
7: Friend, 2001 / A Love, 2007
Kway Kyung-taek's smash hit Friend was a sensation upon its release and surprised everyone with its record box office returns. It popularized the director's hometown as it revelled in Busan's busy streets and its colloquial vernacular. The semi-autobiographical story spanned a significant time period as it traced four friend's lives from high school into adulthood. It made a star out of Jang Dong-gun and featured some powerful scenes which demonstrated the technical potential of Korean cinema to come at that relatively early stage. The themes of conflicting loyalties and the destructive potential of gang affiliation are as old as time but they struck a chord with audiences.
Kwak's later film A Love is a simple but well told spin on the star-crossed lovers story set in the gangster milieu. It's a natural fit as it amplifies the fatalism of the lover's story. More than any other film he has made, this may be Kwak's most effective as a director. The film is lean, well-paced, and of course well made, if I little silly but I suppose that's par for the course for Kwak. As a romance film it is particularly effective, although the director is known for his action films, he has said that he harbors an enormous affinity for melodrama and in A Love, this passion pays off as he successfully blends the two things he knows best. I must admit I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this film, I didn't expect it to work so well.
6: The General's Son, 1990
Im Kwon-taek's first part of his The General's Son trilogy is a remarkable film that blends a strong (based on a true) story, historical and social subtext, and more gang tropes and fight scenes that you can shack a stick at. There are also a huge amount of early roles for future leading lights of modern Korean cinema like Hwang Jeong-min (A Bittersweet Life; The Unjust), Jung Doo-hung (Arahan, 2004; The City of Violence, 2006), Kim Seung-woo (71: Into the Fire, 2010; I Am a Dad, 2011), and Shin Hyeon-joon (Guns and Talk, 2001; Shadowless Sword, 2005). A must-see for anyone interested in Korean cinema and curious to dip into earlier works.
Jopok Week MKC Review
5: The Show Must Go On, 2007
The sensational Song Kang-ho pulls off on his greatest roles in The Show Must Go On, in which he plays a down on his luck gangster trying to do right by both his families, though he doesn't know that the odds are stacked against him. His scenes with Oh Dal-su (Oldboy and just about every Korean film you've ever heard of) are a marvel and the script is surprising and original. Song's character is faced with extraordinary decisions and changes a lot over the course of the narrative, only an actor of his caliber could convey the conflicts and transition so effortlessly. A superb film that needs more exposure.
4: Rough Cut, 2008
3: Breathless, 2008
Yang Ik-joon, a veteran actor, wrote, directed, and starred in Breathless, his stunning debut. He is no stranger to the studio system but his film was made outside of the scope of the industry. It is extremely raw, gritty, dirty, dark, and immensely compelling. Gangsters are so often stylized that it's hard to imagine what they might really be like. It feels real, it is gangster cinema vérité with breathtaking performances from Yang and Kim Kkobbi. It is a rough ride and the unsparring violence is made all the more harrowing because of the unstylized and grainy mise-en-scene but do not let this be a deterrent. Breathless is a stark but surprisingly beautiful film that is well worth the effort, you'll be glad you gave it a chance.
2: A Bittersweet Life, 2005
Kim Jee-woon's fourth feature is probably the most well known film on this list, certainly outside of South Korea. A Bittersweet Life is one of the most stylish Korean films ever made and unapologetic in its glorification of the aesthetics of gang culture. It is like a comic book and Lee Byung-hung's antihero seems superhuman at times. He is impeccably dressed, in extraordinary shape, exudes confidence, calculating, a near-unbeatable fighter, and of course, cool as a cucumber. The story, while present, is nearly superfluous, it amounts to a long, expertly constructed set-up for the pulsating revenge thriller that is the second half of the film. The film is not without its ideas though and shouldn't be written off as an exercise in style, although it is worth a look for the gorgeous mise-en-scene alone.
1: A Dirty Carnival, 2006
Ha Yu's gang opus is, as far as I'm concerned, the best Korean gangster film we have yet to see. It is the embodiment of the gangster film, it does not blend with other genres and it doesn't twist genre codes. A Dirty Carnival is a classical crime narrative chronicling one young gang captain's rise and fall. It is the apotheosis of the modern jopok film as the straightforward but well-constructed plot, which brings to mind many Japanese Yakuza and American mafia pics, demonstrates the changing role of the gangster in modern Korea. Jo In-seong's protagonist is attractive, slender, and feminine, he seems like a metrosexual gangster and stands out against the rank and file of his gang but he is unshakably loyal and capable of unspeakable acts of brutality. Some of the set pieces in the film are exquisite, the production values are great but the editing is the stand-out. It is an extremely well-utilized tool in the film, emphasizing movement and detail. One for the ages, that I will be going back to again and again.
No. 3 (1997), Nowhere to Hide (1999), No Blood No Tears (2002), Low Life (2004), The City of Violence (2006), Bloody Tie (2006), Righteous Ties (2006), My Dear Desperado (2010), The Man From Nowhere (2010).
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