Monday, December 5, 2011

Jopok Week: Introduction - Gangster Films in Korea Cinema

Gangsters are among the most common characters in cinema.  We fear them, respect them, are disgusted by them, and want to be them.  They have power, strength, confidence, authority, and they get to do what they want.  They are eminently cinematic, a gangster's tale can be romantic and elegiac while at the same time brutal, sadistic, and depraved.  As a template for the silver screen's adventures we crave to be enthralled by, few genres can encapsulate conflict, narrative, characters, style, and entertainment so effectively.  Although, because it is one of the richest formats for films, it is also one of the most frequently mined.

Look at any national cinema and you will likely find a rich history of gang films.  Hollywood has graced us with innumerable films from the early efforts of Mervyn LeRoy (Little Caesar, 1931), Howard Hawks (Scarface, 1932) and Raoul Walsh (The Roaring Twenties, 1939; White Heat, 1949) featuring such icons as Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and Jimmy Cagney, to the more modern masterpieces of Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, 1972; The Godfather Part II, 1974) and Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, 1990; Casino, 1995; The Departed, 2006) which immortalized Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and the Cosa Nostra.  Japan has churned out countless yakuza pics like Kinji Fukasaku's pulpy Battles Without Honor and Humanity Series, Seijun Suzuki's eccentric Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967), Masahiro Shinoda's artful and cool Pale Flower (1964), Takeshi Kitano's delighfully droll Sonatine (1994) and Hana-bi (1997), and many more.

South Korea also has its history of gangster films.  A number of low-budget actioneers were produced in the late 1960s and early 70s but few are available today (and none in English as far as I know).  Im Kwon-taek brought the genre back with a vengeance in his The General's Son trilogy (1990-92) and in the mid-late 1990s a flurry of stylish and thoughtful gangster pictures emerged.  As the Korean film industry bloomed at the end of the decade, the gangster genre has soared along with it.  There are many gangster films, even more comedy hybrids, and gangsters appear in an enormous amount of other films.

In America, gangster films do not have the same popularity that they used to.  There have been a few successes, such as Scorsese's The Departed and Ridley Scott's American Gangster (2007) but by and large audiences no longer seem to be craving them.  So why are they so popular in Korea?

Aside from being a great storytelling device there are many reasons including the gradual shifting of authority in modern Korean society:  gangsters were once a symbol of fear and power and though they still can be today, a lot of the time they are figures of ridicule, take the Marrying the MafiaMy Wife Is a Gangster, and My Boss, My Hero series for example.  The resurgence of popularity has also been labeled as an aftermath of the 1997 IMF crisis, when the Korean economy nearly shut down after a number of corporate bankruptcies:  high unemployment and unstable futures led to a collective male crisis of identity, youth frustration in particular manifested itself in violence, such as in Ryoo Seung-wan's Die Bad (2000).

I'm thrilled to be hosting this 'Jopok Week' on Modern Korean Cinema where I hope we will explore the genre through a number of examples and features.  'Jopok' is a Korean word which refers to organized criminals/mafia.  There are in fact a number of other words used to describe the korean mafia, including 'Gundal' and 'Kkangpae'.

During the week I will be taking a look at Im Kwon-taek's The General's Son trilogy, No. 3 (1997), Beat (1997), Lee Chang-dong's Green Fish (1997), and I will also offer up my top 10 Korean gangster films (it's been a while since I've done a list!).  I am very grateful to have contributors Connor from the Rainy Day Movies blog who will be taking a look at Korean gangster comedies, Kieran Tully from the Korean Film Festival in Australia (KOFFIA) who will be covering Born To Kill (1996), Rowena Santos Aquino, writer for Next Projection and Subtitled Online, who will be considering male personas in A Bittersweet Life (2005) and The Man From Nowhere (2010), and Darcy Paquet of who will also be examining the rise and fall of the Korean gangster comedy.

I hope you will enjoy this week's content and that you will take part in the discussion, comments are very much welcome and I encourage anyone to submit something during the week.  In addition please join in the discussion on facebook and on twitter using the hashtag #jopok (we'll see if that takes off).


(by Kieran Tully)


Conclusion and Korean Gangster Films on the Horizon


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