Showing posts with label attack the gas station. Show all posts
Showing posts with label attack the gas station. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Fighting Spirit (투혼, Too-hon) 2011

Baseball film? Think again.

Kim Sang-jin is one of the biggest names of modern Korean cinema.  He got his start with early films such as Money in the Account (1995), Gangster Lessons (1996), and Two Cops 3 (1998) but always as a contracted director behind a big producer like Kang Woo-suk.  It wasn’t until 1999 that he got his real start with the anarchic hit Attack the Gas Station, which was stamped with Kim’s signature style that has since led to hit after hit.  He’s not the first name that comes to mind when considering the box office clout of Korean directors, but you would be hard pressed to name a director who has been a more consistent and impressive force on the Korean box office charts.  Attack the Gas Station became the second highest grossing Korean film of 1999, subsequently:  2001’s Kick the Moon came in at no. 3; Jail Breakers wound up at no. 4 in 2002; 2004’s Ghost House also had a no. 4 finish; and Kidnapping Granny K landed just outside the top 10 in 2007.

The interesting thing about all of these hits is that though they are all quite similar in tone and structure, they were all written by different people.  Kim has actually never written any of the films he’s directed, which is a testament to the force of his directing style and how recognizable it is on its own.  Kim’s best and most enduring works have been deranged blends of gang and youth violence (Attack the Gas Station, Kick the Moon), prison and romance (Jailbreakers), or horror and melodrama (Ghost House).  The common denominators between his films have been warring factions, anarchy, comedy, and immense climaxes between multiple large groups, a funny thing to be known for perhaps but very effective and memorable nonetheless.

Do-hun (Kim Joo-hyeok) caught in the act

In 2010, Kim made a follow-up to his original smash hit Attack the Gas Station The sequel had little of the impact of its predecessor and 11 years later it was no longer relevant to audiences, failing to leave an impression on the box office.  Late last year a new Kim film found its way into theaters with little to no fanfare.  I first heard about Fighting Spirit the week before it opened but I wasn’t aware of who made it at first.  Had I not known that it was a Kim Sang-jin film as I sat down to watch it, I probably never would have guessed it.   

Do-hun (Kim Joo-hyeok) is the star pitcher for the Lotte Giants, he is nearing the end of a brilliant career but he’s become arrogant and complacent in the wake of his success.  He’s been kicked out of his house after cheating on his wife (Kim Seon-ah) and is soon demoted to the minors.  He must now prove his worth to his teammates and to his estranged wife and children.  This brief synopsis seems to indicate a typical up-down-up sports trajectory of a fallen hero who will rise again but actually that isn’t really the case.  It’s nearly incidental that he’s a baseball player as the sporting angle is a front for what the film really is, a family melodrama.  Do-hoon’s wife Yoo-ran develops terminal cancer and this is the real crux of the film.  In fact, Fighting Spirit is essentially a cross between GLove and The Last Blossom, two mediocre 2011 films that appeared earlier in the year.

Park Cheol-min in a rare moment of calm

Kim Joo-hyeok is an actor I quite like who impressed me with his effortless performance in The Servant (2010) and has been doing steady work for years but audiences so far have not responded to his being recast as a leading man as both of his 2011 starring roles, the other being In Love and the War, have been major flops.  It’s hard to blame him since the scripts were so lacking but I wonder if he shouldn’t be more discerning with the projects he chooses to take on.  Kim Seon-ah (She's on Duty, 2005; S-Diary, 2004), as Do-hun’s long-suffering wife, is a little cold in her role, thereby nudging the audience to side with the boyish and charming Do-hun, despite his infidelities.  The representation of her character is proof that as gifted as Kim Sang-jin is, he’s never been particularly adept at handling female characters, they always lack depth in his films.  Park Cheol-min, who plays the Lotte Giants minor team coach, is one of those working actors who appears again and again in Korean cinema.  Last year alone he had eight roles, including Clash of the Families, Sector 7, Spellbound, and Suicide Forecast, which would seem to indicate that he’s well liked.  He’s a very over-the-top performer who tends to grin a lot and gesticulate with mock bravado.  His style never really changes:  it’s more a case of putting him in the right situations.  For instance his performance works in Clash of the Families while it is miserably out of place in Sector 7, thankfully he just about fits into this film.

I understand why Fighting Spirit didn’t make any money:  it doesn’t really know what it wants to be and it is very lacking in passion.  It’s by the numbers in its characterizations, plot elements, and resolutions but irregular in its tone and narrative.  What this amounts to in the end is a great director who, like Do-hun, was at the top of his game but seems to have lost his way.  Kim Sang-jin needs to get back on the saddle before he becomes a footnote in Korean cinema.


Do-hun's estranged family

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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, and the author of New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves (2009).

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update, Korean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.