Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Show Must Go On (Uahan segye) 2007

Gangster comedies are something of a specialty in Korea and have been among the most popular films on the Korean box office charts for over a decade. While the outright Korean gangsters films, such as A Dirty Carnival (Biyeolhan geori, 2006) and A Bittersweet life (Dalkomhan insaeng, 2005), have been technically-proficient and high-quality, it is those that have blended family and comedy into the mix that ultimately have brought in the most viewers. Both Marrying the Mafia (Gamunui yeonggwang, 2002) and My Wife is a Gangster (Jopog manura, 2001) were so popular in this regard that they spawned trilogies. The Show Must Go On probably falls in between these two categories. While certainly being an effective comedy, its violence and ruminations on failure, betrayal and family loyalty ultimately set it apart from the slighter fare mentioned above. However, despite the presence of Song Kang-ho, the biggest star in Korea, this effort barely made it over a million admissions.

Melodramas has been a staple for Korean audiences ever since there have hade their own industry and the so-called 'Golden Age' of Korean cinema in the 1960s was dominated by them. Since the resurgence of Korean films in the late 1990s very little has changed in that respect. The most successful Korean film of the 1990s prior to 1997 was Im Kwon-taek's venerated Sopyonje (Seopyeonje, 1993) and in 1997 The Letter (Pyeon ji, 1997) and The Contact (Cheob-sok, 1997) landed at the top of the chart in what was the first year that the industry began showing real signs of life.

In the last ten years, there have been numerous films that have blended family melodrama with other genres. Perhaps this phenomenon began with Kim Ji-woon's feature debut The Quiet Family (Choyonghan kajok, 1998), a black comedy that draws on melodramatic conventions which was popular enough to warrant a Japanese remake by Takashi Miike (The Happiness of the Katakuris). There have been many examples of this cross-blending of film genres, notable examples include: Bong Joon-ho's The Host (Gwoemul, 2006), a melodrama that also plays out as a monster movie, a comedy and even a political allegory, and Youn Je-gyun's Tidal Wave (Haeundae, 2009), a disaster movie that set up its effects-laden climax by being a convincing melodrama for most of its running time.

Han Jae-rim's The Show Must Go On at first seems like a gangster movie but it turns out to be a film about a man trying to keep his family together. Unlike other depictions of gangsters in the Korean peninsula, nothing is glorified in this narrative. Kang In-goo (Song Kang-ho) is a high-ranking mob boss, he wears nice suits and drives a Mercedes and yet he lives in a small, squalid apartment with his wife and child. He does act like a gangster whether he is forcing a hostage to sign a contract or bribing his daughter's teacher for better grades, but these actions never solve any of his problems, as Darcy Paquet said in his review of the film "What works so smoothly in other gangster movies only seems to bring on further complications and embarrassment here. The methods are the same, but the results are slow in coming". Perhaps In-goo is trying to conform to the idea of being a gangster as opposed to being naturally inclined towards this sort of behaviour.

What is very clear from the very start is that In-goo works quite hard. When we meet him in the first scene he has fallen asleep at the wheel of his vehicle during evening traffic and throughout most of the narrative he seems fatigued. Compared to the gangster portrayals that we are used to seeing, In-goo doesn't seem to get too hot under the collar (although he is not altogether levelheaded either) and the only time he ever really shows any energy is when he is forced to fight for his life. What is clear is that he cares very much for his family and seems to want to amass enough funds to buy them a house and send his daughter to study abroad in Canada, just like he did his son. Like other middle-aged males in Korean cinema he seems powerless to do right by his family, despite good intentions and a position of authority. In-goo, the gangster boss who can't handle a few construction workers is just like the hordes of detectives and cops who make so little money that they need to take bribes and can never solve any crimes.

Korean cinema has long made a point of showing citizens who conform to society and do everything it asks and still end up betrayed and left for dead. Considering that I am discussing a gangster film, the following point may be pushing it a little far, but I think In-goo's relationship with his boss is a similar representation: his boss believes In-goo to be more capable than his brother, yet he is ranked below. When the boss's brother tries to kill In-goo because of petty jealousy, In-goo is the one who ends up paying the price.

Roads have often been used symbolically in Korean cinema, most famously in Sopyonje where a pansori practicing family constantly wander along the road. Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok, 2003), also starring Song Kang-ho, begins and ends by a roadside in the country, which represents the circularity of a futile search. The protagonists in these films seem to be searching for lost homes, which can just as easily be interpreted as identities. With the separation of the peninsula and the troubled history and politics of the country many filmmakers simply placed their characters on roads that never seemed to lead anywhere.

In-goo ends up on a road with the corpse of his boss's brother in his trunk, after narrowly escaping his henchmen and a big car pile-up with his life. He is a wounded animal who has been driven to desperation and when is boss arrives, sees what has happened and pulls out a rifle from his trunk, it looks like the end for In-goo. Fortune smiles on him this time though as he is the one who prevails. However, the narrative does not stop here, he goes to jail briefly, joins his friend's gang and finally gets the house he wanted for his family. They don't stay for long, he sends his daughter to Canada and his wife goes with her. Thus, In-goo ends the narrative in a higher socio-economic rank, with his big house and big tv but he is now alone and miserable.

1 comment:

  1. Question? Who is the female signer (band) that plays the last track of the closing credits? Sounds amazing :)