Sunday, August 7, 2011

Dueling Masculinities in Running Turtle (Geobugi dallinda, 2009)

Just a look at the synopsis for Running Turtle will invite a lot of comparisons to Na Hong-jin’s seminal 2008 work The Chaser. It is a thriller about a middle-aged detective who gets booted out of the force and goes after a young wanted fugitive. The detective is played by none other than Kim Yun-seok, also the lead in Na’s thriller. This is a different beast though, but no less compelling and effective in its depiction of a middle-aged tough guy forced to the end of his wits and the edge of his already shady moral compass.

Domestic scene
Kim, who has truly become a force to be reckoned with of late, is magnificent as Pil-seong, the rough-around-the-edges anti-hero. He is a lone wolf, experienced enough to understand how things work, and not above abusing the system to his own ends. Despite his malefactions, his family is nearly penniless and he gambles most of his earnings away to escape the endless tirade of abuse he receives from his ever-suffering wife. The domestic scenes in the first part of the film are a marvel, which may seem like a strange word to use because they are brutal and unpleasant. However, they are so well staged, passionately acted, and efficiently paced that they become energetic, as well as vituperative, and strangely endearing. We feel for Pil-seong when contrasted with his wailing banshee of a wife but no sooner does he leave the confines of his home when he’s up to his old tricks which likely are the cause of his life partner’s bitterness.

The film also follows another character, Gi-tae, who is a famed martial artist on the run after having escaped from jail. Pil-seong, after having been suspended from the force for brutality and subsequently reached rock bottom, gets lucky when he gambles his wife’s savings on a long shot and wins. He is not so lucky when Gi-tae attacks his bookies for being offensive to his girl and takes his winnings. From this point on he tries to apprehend Gi-tae, even though each time he corners him he gets beaten to within an inch of his life. For some it may be frustrating to watch Pil-seong go after Gi-tae when it is so clear that he will be overwhelmed, but it is a demonstration of remarkable tenacity and stubbornness on the former’s part. The reason for this is that Gi-tae has become embroiled with Pil-seong at a very fragile time. Being booted off the force, unable to provide for his family, facing the ire of his wife, and losing the respect of all his former colleagues, he his emasculated to a degree where he will do anything to prove his masculinity. Running straight into Gi-tae’s fists, knowing full-well that he will be overcome, is the little he can do to stake his claim at being a man. The more he loses, the more frustrated and careless he becomes. As such he joins the ranks of the many post-traumatic males of Korean cinema that have appeared in the last 25 years.

Pil-seong (Kim Yun-seok) after winning his bet
The film is ostensibly about a man chasing down a criminal but really the narrative pits Pil-seong in a scrappy fight and breathless search for his elusive masculinity. After being pummeled again and again, he must pullback and make use of his mental faculty. It is thought and intellect that will allow him to reclaim his desired position in society, as in this instance physicality has clearly failed. The climax and the audience’s interpretation will decide whether he succeeds in reclaiming his identity. In the meantime the other male in the narrative serves as an obstacle.

Gi-tae seems like a one-note character that we learn little about, he is just young, boyishly handsome, and endowed with nearly superhuman fighting skills. Korean cinema seems to be rife with characters who seem positively unbeatable, although they always fall in the end, recent examples include Haunters (2010) and The Yellow Sea (2010). The latter in particular featured Kim Yun-seok yet again in another role in which he displays a gritty bravado and masculinity. Unlike The Chaser and Running Turtle however, his character in The Yellow Sea is in complete control of his persona and with ruthless brutality and unnerving calmness, easily cuts down his adversaries dozens at a time. Haunters features Choi Deok-moon as a nearly emotionless psychic with the ability to control everyone that comes near him like a puppet, save for the hero. Much like Pil-seong, the hero in Haunters puts himself continually in the psychic’s path with no tangible plan of action, although he does not suffer from the same kind of masculine lack.

Pil-seong cannot overcome Gi-tae physically
These all-powerful antagonists typically show very little emotion and even less regard for human life. They have spades of masculinity but are disconnected from normal society and healthy human interactions. As far as the recuperation of the male id in Korean cinema, which generally takes the form of men who blunder through narratives in search of their lost masculinity, these characters seem to emanate from the darker side of this act of reconstitution. They have their masculinities but at the expense of all else: history has been erased or deliberately forgotten.

Gi-tae is on some kind of a journey too but his destination or goal isn’t clear. He fights, or rather defends himself, during the film but still hangs around. Perhaps he has nowhere to go, certainly he has no need to reconstitute his masculinity as he is not emasculated like Pil-seong. Yet his identity is lost and perhaps he knows that he cannot recuperate it, any journey he goes on must therefore be doomed.

For these reasons Running Turtle acts as a very effective thriller and fascinating, if somewhat simplistic, character study. It helps that it builds momentum on the way towards its climax. The more I think about it, this film is actually very similar to The Chaser, thematically as well as aesthetically. Strongly recommended for fans of thoughtful, well-made Korean thrillers.

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