Showing posts with label beat. Show all posts
Showing posts with label beat. Show all posts

Friday, December 9, 2011

Jopok Week: Kim Sung-su's Beat (비트, Biteu) 1997

1997 was a pretty big year for Korean gangster films, no less than three of them wound up in the year-end top 10.  Song Kang-ho had his breakout performance with No. 3, Lee Chang-dong released his excellent debut Green Fish, and Jung Woo-sung, Ko So-young, Lim Chang-jung, and Yu Oh-seung made a name for themselves in Kim Sung-su’s Beat.  1997 was also an important year because of the disastrous IMF crisis in Korea.  After numerous big corporations failed the country had to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund to the tune of over $50 billion.  After nearly a decade of enormous year-on-year gains, Korea’s economy drew flat and nearly dipped into a recession. 

Many critics and academics, assert that “the revival and popularity of the jop'ok cycle in the post-IMF period can be seen as a consequence of  and a response to, the national economic crisis” (Shin, 2005: 123).  Friend (2001) in particular is mentioned in this argument.  While I agree to some extent that the prevalence of social identity crises and anxieties in young men depicted in contemporary Korean cinema can be attributed to this cataclysmic financial event, I believe there is much evidence that would argue that this trend was already in evidence before the crisis.

None of the aforementioned films could have been designed with the crisis in mind since it happened in July, months after all of the productions had wrapped.  The gangster film made its comeback earlier in the decade with Im Kwon-taek’s The General’s Son trilogy, of which the first two installments topped the Korean box office charts for 1990 and 1991 (as far as locals films are concerned).  Earlier this week, as I examined gangster films at the Korean boxoffice, I also noted that three gangster films from 1996 wound up in the top 10 as well.  However, the works from 1997 are more notable as they bear much more similarities with the supposed post-IMF crisis gangster cycle of films.  Each has its own stake to that claim but I want to talk about Beat which was not only produced before the crisis but I believe to be the precursor to Friend.  Aside from a similar narrative, they share the same themes and explore similar social mores and anxieties of the young male in modern Korea.

Min (Jung Sung-woo) is a high school student who likes get into fights with his friend Tae-su (Yu Oh-seung).  He is sent to a new school and makes a new friend, Hwan-gyu (Lim Chang-jung), and meets Ro-mi (Ko So-young) while Tae-su gradually falls in with the local mob.  As the narrative progresses Min is torn between joining Tae-su down his criminal path and a more virtuous life with the upwardly mobile Ro-mi.

As many films would do subsequently, such as Die Bad (2000), Friend, Conduct Zero (2002), and Gangster High (2006), Beat examines apathetic youth violence and how it can lead to gang integration.  Though in addition to quantifying the role of male peer pressure, machismo, and home situations in this violence, it also throws in something remarkably modern:  brand fetishization.  Min’s love interest, Ro-mi, asserts early on that anyone interested in “sex, screen, or sports is a loser” and she is relentlessly studious though she presents a vain and feckless exterior to her equally studious classmates.  Min wears a Nike shirt modeled after the Chicago Bulls player Dennis Rodman and covets Tae-su’s motorbike.  Inaddition, early on in the film Min is auctioned off at a bar by Hwang-gyu and Ro-mi buys him for $100.  This in effect commodifies him, which can provide an interesting reading of Jung Woo-sung’s star status.  He’s never been viewed as a consummate actor and relies more on his looks and physique.  Aside from fetishizing him, Ro-mi’s purchase of Min switches the genders roles as he becomes her servant.  She is very frank with him and puts him down at every opportunity though eventually she can’t help herself, she loses her composure and falls for him.

It’s interesting to consider the purpose of the brand worshipping in Beat as it coincides with frequent references to America.  Examples include Min’s shirt, Hwang-gyu’s rapping and ostentatious clothing, and especially Ro-mi’s use of English aphorisms and her made up enrollment in a New York university.  While the ideal of America may no longer be quite so vaunted in these times, back in 1997 it very much embodied a dream of escape, personal gratification, and the pursuit of happiness.  Min dreams of achieving something, though it is not clear what, and moving past his childhood marred by his promiscuous and absentee mother.  For Ro-mi, her lie, machinated by her parents who wish to live vicariously through her, hides the truth of a psychiatry stint.

Much of the first half of Beat focusses on the extraordinary pressure put on children to succeed academically.  Ro-mi’s stay at a mental institute seems to result from this, though it is never explained.  Of course it was probably triggered by her friend’s suicide on a subway platform before her very eyes, after failing a test.  She probably blamed herself as immediately before she had boasted of a top score, keep in mind her friends believe that she does little work at all and socializes most nights.

Min’s stay in high school may be brief but he suffers similar problems as his mother berates him for not doing better but clearly she is not a good motivator and her behavior, which incongruously coexists with her aspirations for him, may be what leads him to his violent behavior, though at heart he seems rather sweet-natured.  Eventually he disrupts the school order by smashing up the teacher’s office which, after a brief rush of power and adrenaline, gets him thrown out of the system and will eventually lead to gang integration, despite an honest and initially rewarding attempt at a business venture with Hwang-gyu which gets violently shut down by the government as their establishment is demolished.  The sequence brings to mind the brutal repression of the student demonstrations of the 1980s.

I’m rambling a bit but the more I think about Beat, the more impressed I am by it, it seems to combine some of the social relevance of the Korean New Wave, which unofficially ended a year earlier with Jang Sun-woo’s A Petal, and the aesthetics and themes of modern Korean film.  In light of this analysis the leap between Beat and Friend seems far less pronounced, indeed production values sem to be the greatest disparity.  Though the film is no stylistic slouch as it employs Wong Kar-wai’s cool step motion film style that he employed throughout the 1990s, though later Korean films would be far more important to developing Korean film style.  There also something to be said about the homoerotic vibe between Min and Tae-soo, I suppose it might be a facet of their shared machismo and hyper-masculinities.  Beat stands as one of the first great jopok films of new Korean cinema, see it if you get a chance.


See Also:

Born to Kill (1996)

Further Reading:

Shin, Chi-yun, "Two of a Kind: Gender and Friendship in Friend and Take Care of My Cat," in New Korean Cinema, ed. Shin Chi-yun and Julian Stringer (New York, NYU Press, 2005), 123.

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 UpdateKorean 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.

Jopok Week: Born to Kill (본투킬, Bon tu kkil) 1996

By Kieran Tully

I must admit, I probably approached Born to Kill (1996) in the wrong manner, one in which I thought it would be a good companion piece to Beat (1997) given their similarities.  After all, both films star Jung Woo-sung as an unstoppable fighting machine; are about gangsters; feature a leading love interest; are from the late 80’s and possess the style, music, and colour associated with the 80’s; and have titles beginning with the letter B.  At the end of the day, that is all they share in common.  Maybe it wasn’t fair to come in expecting something similar in quality to Beat.  Ultimately, Born to Kill is not as good a film and on a week celebrating Jopok, I recommend you stick to something else.

The film is about a professional killer (named Kil, which did get a laugh out of me when referring to its Korean meaning) who seems to be totally detached from society.  The only connection he makes with others is with the end of his silver dagger or the sole of his boot.  We soon learn the back-story of Kil (played by Jung Woo-sung) and come to understand he was an orphan, once raised by a crime lord.  Somehow he got out of this environment and is now taking hits for money.  Guess who is next?  The kingpin who raised him.  It is a dilemma that tries to give the film some kind of backstory but ultimately it falls flat.  There is a lot of gang rivalry, with double cross after double cross, and Kil always ends up being caught in the middle of them.  The most interesting Jopok aspect of the film is Kil’s sole use of a large Bowie knife rather than guns, bats, or 2x4’s.  This leads to 3 things: lots and lots of stabbings, some intense eye-gouging scenes, and an important role in understanding who he is and how he became Kil.

Naturally, Kil soon crosses paths with the gorgeous bargirl Soo-Ah (Shim Eun-ha) and eventually falls in love with her.  It’s a story we’ve seen before, even in 1996.  So, what’s new?  Kil has never been with a girl, doesn’t drink, or even socialise except for with his pet monkey Chi-Chi. Luckily.  Soo-Ah is brazen enough to intrude into his life and literally forces herself into his apartment, his bed, and soon, his heart.  Without much effort, she inspires him to break free from his self-imposed shell, that is until she finds out what he does to put all that cash in the fridge.  This leads to some complications, sacrificial beatings, and even a water-launched attack scene at a fishing village that Kim Ki-duk surely made an homage to in The Isle (2000).

Summing up the plot has already become tiresome as it’s fairly generic.   I was surprised at how little happens in the film, as Kil constantly stares off in silence.  However, the film genuinely picks up pace every-time Shim Eun-ha is on screen, and while it’s not her most accomplished performance, her talent is clearly evident.  For an actress with such a small filmography, any fan of hers must seek out this film, even if the subtitles are well below par.  Speaking of which, the picture quality of what seems like the only available copy is quite poor, as the colours look slightly off and there are frequent imperfections in the picture.   The biggest mistake in the film was the decision not to allow Shim Eun-ha more singing time on-screen.  A smile came across my face whenever she did appear, so I must give her credit for that.

The film lacks drama, which is something Beat never had a problem with.  Maybe it was the addition of a 3rd main character that stopped this from moving forward at a faster pace, or in any direction.   The action has some nice set pieces, with a reasonable last stand in a night club (mind you, there was no flying kick or glass shattering throw we haven’t seen before).  Jeong Doo-hong is involved as he is with nearly every Korean gangster film, but fights disappoint.  Jung Woo-sung himself improved greatly in just a year for his star role in Beat, both in terms of acting and martial arts performance.  The two leads are relatively well rounded, but the middle segment of the film where this is developed doesn’t really fit with the rest of the movie.  Its major downfall is that it doesn’t go far enough to establish the ‘multimoods’ Korean film has become famous for.   It’s just a short romantic tale in the midst of a gang war, and while it was my favourite part, it simply belongs in another film.

The film is written by a combination of Song Hae-seong (Director of Failan, 2001; A Better Tomorrow, 2010), Lee Moo-yeong (Writer of Joint Security Area, 2000; Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 2002), and Director Jang Hyeon-soo, who began his career as a screenwriter on genre pics, often involving gangster storylines, including the acclaimed film noir Rules of the Game (1994), with Kang Je-kyu and Park Joong-hoon.  Since then most of his entries have been romantic tales, including his latest offering, the romantic sex-comedy Everybody Has Secrets (2004).  Unfortunately their individual talents don’t quite feature here.  The middle segment did work quite well, but the problem is the weak gangster bookends that encapsulate it, with fairly average action scenes and a convoluted story.   Given this is Jopok week, I feel bad focussing on the negatives of those parts, but simply put there are many more entertaining and creatively made Korean gangster films out there.  Some elements of religion are added for depth, and Soo-Ah’s slimey agent could have been explored further. 

The film was edited by the notorious Park Gok-ji, who along with being the wife of Park Heung-sik, has edited classic gangster films such as The General's Son 2 (1991), The General's Son 3 (1992), No. 3 (1997), My Wife Is a Gangster (2001), A Better Tomorrow, and to an award winning extent on A Dirty Carnival (2006).  What I found even more interesting was when I discovered she had edited just as many successful romantic classics, such as Seopyeonje (1993), The Gingko Bed (1996), The Contact (1997), Lies (2000), and Failan.   Utilising both genre approaches here, she does an OK job, but slow motion is heavily over-used and strange sound effects are littered over a synthetic soundtrack.   I know at the time it was common to slow down and stylise entire fight scenes, such as the opening scene in Nowhere to Hide (1999) or the closing to Beat, which both worked great, it’s just unenthusiastic in Born to Kill.  But hey, for a year where Gok-ji edited The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well and Crocodile, I will give her the benefit of the doubt. 

Born to Kill was the 8th highest grossing Korean film of 1996, not too bad considering a week after it opened, the mammoth beast of Two Cops 2 launched, a film that would go on to take the number 1 position for the year, reeling in 6 times the box office earnings of Born to Kill (Figures refer to Seoul admissions, courtesy of  There were definitely better things to come for Korean film and specifically Korean gangster films.  Noticeably, production values picked up from the late 90’s, and stories became larger and more interesting as they encompassed all aspects of gangsterhood.   The ‘New Korean Wave’ was often mislabeled as ‘New Hong Kong’ cinema when it emerged, but if that label does indeed apply to some Korean films, Born to Kill is probably one of them – given its style and content (though quite poor).  Go watch Beat instead as it’s great fun, but if you are looking for a darker, less emotional ride or are a fan of Shim Eun-ha, check out Born to Kill.

Kieran is Marketing and Festivals Manager of the Korean Cultural Office in Sydney, where he coordinates a weekly film night (Cinema on the Park) and the Korean Film Festival (KOFFIA).  He is currently completing a Masters of Arts on Asian Film in Australia, has worked at more than 15 film festivals across Sydney, and writes about film on the blog Tully’s Recall.

See Also:

Beat (1997)
Green Fish (1997)

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 UpdateKorean 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.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Korean Gangsters: Next week is Jopok Week on MKC!

Next week will be Jopok (Korean Gangster) week on Modern Korean Cinema!  I'm currently panning an essay on Ha Yu's exceptional A Dirty Carnival (2006) and in seeking to develop my arguments I have gone back to rediscover older Korean gangster films.  Sadly I have not been able to get my hands on any of those made in the 1960s and 70s but next week I plan to review some of the following significant Korean gangster films of the 1990s:

The General's Son (1990)
The General's Son 2 (1991)
The General's Son 3 (1992)
Beat (1997)
Green Fish (1997)
No. 3 (1997)

If anyone would like to contribute a feature or piece on any Korean gangster films please feel free to drop me a line at pierceconran [at] gmail [dot] com.

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 UpdateKorean 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.