Showing posts with label gangster film. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gangster film. Show all posts

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Review: GANGNAM BLUES, a Gorgeously Overwrought Gangster Classic in the Making

By Pierce Conran

Yoo Ha returns to gangster cinema and knocks it right out of the park with his latest, an evocative and immensely entertaining saga that pits a common tale of brotherhood and betrayal against a thrilling period setting mired in violence and corruption. Nine years after A Dirty Carnival, Yoo has maintained his knack for combining genre filmmaking and subtle symbolism, while also elevating his craft to encompass the full range of Korean cinema’s technical knowhow in Gangnam Blues.

Friday, June 29, 2012

NYAFF 2012: Nameless Gangster (범죄와의 전쟁, Bumchoiwaui Junjaeng) 2012

Part of MKC's coverage of the 11th New York Asian Film Festival.

Korean cinema is filled to the brim with genre offerings and one of its most successful areas is with the gangster film.  These are called ‘jopok’ films, which is a Korean word for gangster and we did a whole series on the genre here on MKC not so long ago called ‘Jopok Week’.  Clearly I’m a big fan of gangster films and like many others I grew up on the likes of the Godfathers (Part II is my favorite if anyone cares to know) and Goodfellas (1990) but it didn’t take me too long to get turned onto more far-flung examples of the genre, ranging from Brazil’s City of God (2002), Italy’s The Conformist (1970), France’s Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob le Flambeur, 1956; Le Samourai, 1967) and Japan’s Kinji Fukasaku (Battles Without Honor and Humanity, 1973-76).

Monday, January 30, 2012

Hindsight (푸른 소금, Poo-reun-so-geum) 2011

A few days ago, I saw Lee Hyeon-seung’s new film Hindsight and as I’m sitting at my computer, trying to gather my thoughts on it, I’m beginning to realize just how conflicted I am about it.  As a result I’m having a little trouble figuring out how to begin this review.  I suppose I could start off by saying that it was an admirable effort.  The film is a curious concoction of tropes and devices which are individually recognizable but combine into an unfamiliar whole.  I love to cook and I am a keen admirer of beautiful cinematography so the film already ticks a few boxes for me.  What’s more, it has some incredible moments and above all ambition.

Hindsight was mostly derided upon its release, in large part due to its poor returns, in spite of its major star (Song Kang-ho) and it being the long-awaited return of Lee Hyeon-seung (Il Mare, 2000) to the director’s chair.  Critics were eager to point out its unfocussed narrative and facile portrayal of gangsters, and I can’t fault them for that.  Hindsight becomes almost opaque in its relentless pursuit of aesthetic gratification and desire to be cool.

However, 2011 was a frustrating year to be a fan of Korean film.  While a number of fantastic independent films and a few surprise hits saw the light of day, the majority of last year’s releases were mired in the trudge of routine and by-the-numbers filmmaking.  At worst, a number of last year’s offerings were pedestrian and uninvolved.  While Hindsight is not among the year’s best releases, it does stand out from most Korean films made in 2011.  The reason for this is its ambition to be something different and the care and craft that goes into its making.

Doo-heon (Song Kang-ho) is a retired mob boss who has moved to Busan and enrolled in cooking classes with the aim of opening his own restaurant.  His cooking class partner is the young and stoic Se-bin (Sin Se-kyeong) who little does he know is keeping tabs on him for a rival gang.  She and her friend owe money to a local gang and perform odd jobs as a form of repayment.  Doo-heon’s former gang undergoes a power struggle and the paranoia that ensues ends up on his front door.  Se-bin is a former champion sharpshooter and before long she is ordered to take out Doo-heon despite having grown quite friendly with him.

The main focus of the film is the odd bond between Doo-heon and Se-bin and a lot of the machinations that serve to conflagrate their relationship stem from the overloaded but simplistic side plots involving gangsters and gun dealers.  Doo-heon is not your typical gangster, which you would expect given that he’s played by Song Kang-ho, one of Korea’s great actors who came to prominence after embodying one of the most bizarre gangsters I can remember in No. 3 (1997).  In many ways, his portrayal of Doo-heon reminds of his earlier role as In-goo in The Show Must Go On (2007).  He seems awkwardly charming and harmless, yet he was chosen to be his gang’s next boss.  Se-bin is similarly conflicted as she tails him, she knows who he is but is unable to reconcile his reputation with her image of him.

The mise-en-scene of the film is especially pronounced and sets it apart from the run-of-the-mill productions that were released around the same time.  Lee employs a lot of blue in the art design which showcases the sterile modernity of the rapidly changing environment surrounding the characters.  The Seoul sequences are shot with an eye towards formal compositions while the Busan segments are warmer and more organic in their staging.  The cinematography, lighting, and art design are irreproachable and indeed were recognized at Korea’s industrial awards as Hindsight scored five nominations in technical categories at the 48th Daejong Film Awards.

To me it seemed like Lee was making a commentary on the shifting priorities of modern Koreans by employing the not-so-subtle metaphor of the corrupt, power-hungry Seoulite gangsters.  Even Doo-heon is forced into an empty tower of solitude as he waits out the contract on his head.  By contrast, the more colourful aspects of the film tend to be scenes featuring cooking.  The broths and soups that are concocted are traditional and cobbled together with the ingredients immediately available to hand.  One ramshackle shack in Busan even forces its patrons to make their own food with the fresh ingredients and old cookware made available to them.  Doo-heon is learning to cook throughout the film and gradually, as he improves, you feel his attitude change.  At one point in the film Doo-heon and Se-bin go and see Sunny (2011) in the theater, which renders the past very colourfully in comparison with the present.

Despite its visual splendour, Hindsight often peters out as it seesaws between its lumpy plot strands.  It’s a shame really because one has the sense of a subcutaneous beauty that is only hinted at from our surface vantage point.  There is much passion woven into the fabric of this film but it is haphazard and scattershot and fails to draw you in.  I would say that Hindsight is worth a look, if only for its magnificent allure and the always welcome presence of Song Kang-ho but be prepared to be dissatisfied and left wanting by its end.


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.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Jopok Week: Conclusion and Korean Gangster Films on the Horizon

Kang Ji-hwan and So Ji-sub in Rough Cut (2008)

The gangster film has been a staple since the early days of cinema.  It's heady, larger-than-life blend of action, drama, and thriller tropes as well as the myriad of themes it can explore, makes it a natural fit for the silver screen.  Throughout the last century the genre has travelled across the globe, peaking in different places at different times.  For the last 15 years, one of the most prolific producers of gangster pictures has been Korea:  arguably it has been the most successful.  In their home market, Korean gangster films have enjoyed unprecedented and sustained popularity though the genre has changed in the industry over time.  

One of the aspects that was most discussed this week (chiefly by Connor McMorran and Darcy Paquet) was the Korean gangster comedy, which reached an early high in 2001, when six of the top 10 films of the year were mobster themed features.  Much was said about the reasons for their enormous success as well as the inherent flaws within the sub-genre which lead in part to its early demise.  They eventually receded from the marquees near the end of the decade.  While the odd one is still made today, they do not attract near the same audiences as they did.

Kim Yun-seok in The Yellow Sea (2010)

Darker thrillers with gangster tropes may not have had the same dominance as their comedy counterparts had in certain parts of the last decade but their prevalence and popularity has remained constant throughout the resurgence of Korean cinema.  They have been used as a template to explore the changing landscape and society of Korea as it has become a developed nation and also as a means to consider questions regarding the Korean male in modern times.  In her piece, Rowena Santos Aquino gave us a lot to think about regarding masculinity and beauty in 'jopok' films.

A lot of ground has been covered during 'Jopok Week' and I am absolutely thrilled about the positive response that the many reviews, features, and analyses have received.  Including these closing comments, 17 articles have been published as part of Jopok Week, totaling an enormous 22,500 words.

Cha In-pyo in Mokpo, Gangster's Paradise (2003)

I want to express my sincere gratitude to Connor McMorran, Rowena Santos Aquino, Kieran Tully, and Darcy Paquet who contributed such wonderful pieces on various aspects of Korean gangster cinema.  A huge thank you is also in order for every one of you that took part in, or helped promote the features through umpteen tweets, likes, follows, shares, subscribes, or comments on the various social media platforms.  And of course none of this would have been possible without you, the reader, so thank you so much for taking the time to visit!

After the success of this week, I am keen to do a similar feature in the near future.  Perhaps we can take a look at horror or melodrama in Korean cinema next, or even expand on 'Jopok Week' a year down the line.  I hope you will join me when the next feature does get underway and if you any ideas or would like to collaborate on something, do not hesitate to get in touch (pierceconran [at] gmail [dot] com)!  

I will leave you with a recap of this week's articles and a taste of what's to come for 'jopok' films in 2012:

(by Kieran Tully)


Too Many Villains

The debut film from Kim Harry, who was previously an assistant director on Ha Yu's brilliant A Dirty Carnival (2006), will be released next week in Korea and I think it looks fantastic.  In Too Many Villains, Kim Joon-bae plays an ex-gang member trying to gain custody of his daughter.  Kim is a veteran and has been exceptional in a number of small roles including Romantic Heaven (2011) and last year's Moss but judging by the trailer, this may be a big break for him and I hope it will be.  His look, swagger, and especially his voice feel spot on for this type of role.  I have a good feeling about this one and I hope I get a chance to see it early in 2012.  One of my must-sees for next year!

Nameless Gangster

Yoon Jong-bin's third film (he's still only 32) is a gangster tale set in the early 90s starring Choi Min-sik (Oldboy, 2003; I Saw the Devil, 2010) and Ha Jung-woo (The Chaser, 2008; The Yellow Sea, 2010).  Nameless Gangster has a great look and feel to it and Choi, a consummate actor, seems to have completely immersed himself in the role.  There have been a number of great stills relying on the evocative force of the production design and costumes, which works for me.  Comedy looks to be part of the mix but this is a far cry from the gangster comedies we've been discussing this week.  The trailer looks promising and this is one the films I'm most curious about in 2012. 

The Thieves

Kim Hye-soo, Lee Jeong-jae, Oh Dal-su, and Jeon Ji-hyeon in The Thieves

Choi Dong-hoon's fourth feature has blockbuster written all over it.  The big cast features Kim Yun-seok, Kim Hye-soo, Jeon Ji-hyeon (aka Gianna Jun), Lee Jeong-jae, and Oh Dal-su, and the production was pan-asian and included shoots in Macau.  The Thieves (formerly known as The Professionals) is Choi's third film dealing with professional thieves/gamblers and while no trailers or posters have been revealed yet, the pedigree looks strong.  Kim Yun-seok is on such a roll that it's hard to imagine that he won't bring it home again here.

Kim Yun-seok in The Thieves

That's it for 'Jopok Week', hope you've enjoyed it and thanks again!

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.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Jopok Week: Korean Gangster Films at the Box Office (2004-2011)

For the second part of my analysis of gangster films at the Korean box office I'm going to be a little more thorough and look past the top 10 since figures become more readily available.

Korean Gangster Films at the Box Office (2004-2011)


Mob films failed to crack the top 10 in 2004 but a number performed strongly nonetheless.  However, the two most successful only featured gang tropes within a myriad of generes.  To Catch a Virgin Ghost (No. 12, 1,987,380) featured hoodlums but was mainly a comedy-horror premise while A Family (No. 14, 1,932,304) starring Soo-ae was a family melodrama above all else.  Mokpo, Gangter's Paradise (No. 15, 1,795,700) is another standard Korean gangster comedy, just like the sequel Hi Dharma 2: Showdown in Seoul (No. 20, 1,272,000).  The most interesting gang film of the year was probably Im Kwon-taek's 99th film Low Life (550,000) but it failed to make much of an impression at the box office, it was a period set film that shared more with his previous The General's Son trilogy than contemporaneous gangster films.  Last was another gang comedy A Wacky Switch, which despite starring Jeong Joon-ho (previously in My Boss, My Hero and Marrying the Mafia) was a flop.

While those films that you would more readily categorize in the gangster genre did not make big impressions, a trend was beginning to emerge where films featured gangster characters or youth violence themes within more elaborate hybrids.  Ghost HouseOnce Upon a Time in High SchoolFighter in the Wind, and Arahan all made it into the top 11.


Two gangster comedies made it into the top 10 in 2005, further proof of the enduring popularity of the formula.  The second entry in the enormously successful Marrying the Mafia franchise (No. 3, 5,635,266) improved on the showing of the first and Mapado (No. 8, 3,090,467) transported a gangster and a crooked cop to an island and pits them against a band of old ladies, it would later spawn a sequel.

Further down the chart, Kim Jee-woon's immersive gangster film noir A Bittersweet Life (1,271,595) was a modest hit but became a more successful player on the international scene and still one of the most popular Koran exports.  Mr. Socrates (1,261,965) and Never to Lose (989,573) also worked their way to mid-level showings.  Jang Jin's Murder, Take One and Ryoo Seung-wan's Crying Fist, which featured gangster elements, were also solid hits.


2006 was the biggest year for Korean films at the box office, led but the extraordinary success of Bong Jon-ho's The Host and a remarkably strong slate of films.  Gangster films also performed strongly and there were many of them compared to previous years.

Top of the pile was the follow-up to My Boss, My Hero (2001).  My Boss, My Teacher (No. 4, 6,105,431) nearly doubled the performance of its already very successful predecessor with Jeong Joon-ho's gang captain this time returning to school as a teacher instead of a student.  Next was the third entry in the Marrying the Mafia (No. 6, 3,464,516) franchise, which came very soon after the previous installment (1 year) which had been made three years after the first.  Though it was again very successul it would be a long wait for the next sequel.

Outside of the top 10 there was a number of very strong performers.  The Busan-set Bloody Tie (2,104,716), starring Hwang Jeong-min and Ryoo Seung-beom, played well in the spring.  Ha Yu's exemplary gang tale A Dirty Carnival (2,047,808) played to solid numbers.  Jang Jin's deligthful gang-prison comedy-drama hybrid Righteous Ties (1,744,677) successfully paired Jeong Jae-yeong and Jeong Joon-ho with a clever script.  Meanwhile the third and seemingly final entry in the My Wife Is a Gangster (1,690,465) franchise, which featured a new protagonist, performed well but fell far below the original's benchmark.

Other midlevel successes included Running Wild (1,016,152), The City of Violence (1,196,520), and No Mercy For the Rude (904,802).  However Cruel Winter Blues (570,059) and Les Formidables (361,155) failed to set the box office alight.

Special mention goes to the enormously successful Tazza: The High Rollers (No. 2, 6,847,777) which I would classify as a con artist/professional thieves film which is a bit different but it's a fine line!  All in all 2006 demonstrated that Korean audiences still had a huge thirst for gangster films, be they comedy, drama, or action.


For the third year running two gangster flicks made it into the top 10, both of which incorporated heavy romantic elements into the mix but on opposite ends of the spectrum. Miracle on 1st Street (No. 5, 2,750,457) reteams the Sex Is Zero (2002) leads Ha Ji-won and Lim Chang-jung in a romantic comedy setting with Lim as a hapless hoodlum.  Kwak Kyung-taek delivered the intense and fatalistic romantic opus A Love (No. 8, 2,123,815), which takes place within a gangster setting.

Song Kang-ho starred in of the best Korean gangster films ever made but The Show Must Go On (1,025,781), despite Mr. Song's enormous box office clout, barely managed to pass the one million admissions mark.  Slightly lower down the chart was the gangster comedy The Mafia, the Salesman (947,510), the third Boss, My Hero film, and much further down was Hotel M: Gangster's Last Draw (237,183), another gangster comedy which floundered upon release.

The romantic-gangster pairing proved to be a potent match in an otherwise difficult year for Korean film in general.  Notably, gangster comedies were absent from the upper echelons of the chart, save for Miracle of 1st Street, but this in effect signaled the end of an era.


Just a look at the above posters will give you an idea of the kind of gangster films that made their way to theaters in 2008, namely works with dark themes and storylines.  Na Hong-jin's magnificent The Chaser (No. 3, 5,071,619) featured a pimp trying to find one his girls who has been abducted by a serial killer.  While not overly concerned with gang tropes it nonetheless succeeds in both lampooning low-level, unseemly hoodlums involved in the sex trade while also showing a pretty bleak picture of their existence in an interesting spin on the comedic representation of gangsters.  The third installment in Kang Woo-suk's enormously successful Public Enemy franchise (Public Enemy Returns, No. 4, 4,300,670), starring Sol Kyung-gu, featured Jeong Jae-yeong as a vicious, cold-blooded gang boss antagonist.

Outside of the top 10 Open City (1,613,728) performed well and Jang Hoon's exceptional and fascinating Kim Ki-duk-scripted Rough Cut (1,307,688) was also a solid hit.  Further down, Truck (540,485) was a modest performer.

Just like the previous year gangster comedies did not place high on the charts though.  Unlike 2007, none seem to have been made unless you count the underperforming period comedy The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan and Ryoo Seung-wan's odd spy comedy Dachimawa Lee.  Filmmakers seemed to have moved on from the fad.


In 2009 Kim Yun-seok featured in another protagonist-antagonist film with some comic gangster tones in a relatively serious narrative.  Running Turtle (No. 5, 3,025,586) was very successful and no other film in the top 10 featured gangster elements.  Also performing well were gangster comedy City of Damnation (1,545,132) which featured Jeong Joon-ho as well as other stars from the My Boss, My Hero franchise, and the Cha Seung-won starring Secret (1,035,073).  In limited release, Yang Ik-joon's extraordinary indie Breathless (121,670) had a strong run.

Not a big year for gangster films but they would soon come back in stronger numbers.


2010 featured a number of straight gangster films but also a lot of very successful films that blended gangster conventions into larger narratives, in typical multi-genre Korean style.  The Man From Nowhere (No. 1, 6,182,772) starring Won Bin, was a huge success.  Moss (No. 3, 3,353,897) may not seem quite like a gangster film but in many ways I think it qualifies.  Ryoo Seung-wan's phenomenal The Unjust (No. 7, 2,722,403) incorporated gangster elements in a larger thriller centered around the judicial and enforcement sectors and their criminal ties.

Barely outside the top 10 was Shim Hyung-rae's atrocious American-produced The Last Godfather (2,301,293), Na Hong-jin's excellent The Yellow Sea (2,142,742), the Ryoo Seung-wan produced Sol Kyung-gu vehicle Troubleshooter (1,843,510), and Sung Hae-sung's remake of John Woo's A Better Tomorrow (1,546,420).  The Park Joon-hoon's starring romantic gangster comedy My Dear Desperado (688,832) was surprisingly effective and played better than expected.

Twilight Gangsters, and Kim Sang-jin's Attack the Gas Station 2, featuring gangster tropes had solid numbers.  Perhaps my favorite comic gangsters briefly appeared in Jang Jin's uproarious The Quiz Show Scandal.

A big year for gangsters at the Korean box office, proof that the genre is endowed with a lot of staying power.


The year is not over yet, but the latest installment in the long-running Marrying the Mafia franchise (No. 10, 2,370,074) continued to pull in strong numbers despite the recent disappearance of gangster comedy films from the box office charts.  No other gangster films performed particularly strongly but a number have appeared, including many star vehicles.  The ApprehendersHindsightPainedMoby DickI Am a Dad, and Countdown were all midlevel performers, some more disappointing than others.


Gangster films seem to be here to stay with a number of high profile films set for release in 2012 including The Thieves and Nameless Gangster and I'm sure we will continure to see them in the future.  More and more though it seems like gangster characters might feature in films but not dominate them, not necessary a bad thing.

Korean Gangster Films at the Box Office (1996-2003)

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.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Jopok Week: No. 3 (Neobeo 3) 1997

Though not as slick as later works like Shiri (1999) and Joint Security Area (2000), No. 3 was a presage of things to come in Korean cinema.  A vibrant film made by young people, reveling in anarchy, chaos, poetry, and philosophy. More than the other successful gangster films of 1997, No. 3 ended up being a significant breeding ground for future stars of Korean cinema.  Ask any western cinephile what Korean film stars they know and the most likely answers you’ll get are Choi Min-sik and Song Kang-ho.  Choi, as one would expect, is quite excellent but the stand-out has to be Song.  While he featured in Hong Sang-soo’s debut The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well the year before, it was in No. 3 that he made a name for himself. 

Rather than focussing on plot, No. 3 is more of a character piece involving gangster Tae-ju (Han Suk-kyu), his aspiring poet girlfriend Hyun-ji (Lee Mi-yeon), an aggressive prosecutor (Choi Min-sik), and a very strange hitman (Song Kang-ho).  Through a series of set pieces and discussions between characters, the film covers a huge amount of ground.  It is self-reflexive in its use of black humor, underscoring the absurdity of modern Korean society.  Much has been written and said about No 3 but I would like to draw on a coupe of points.

More than any Korean film that came before it, No 3 employs a myriad of stylistic tricks such as:  Colors; chiaroscuro lighting; composition; monochrome; music; fastforwarding; point-of-view; slow motion; freeze frame; strobe; and breaking the fourth wall (like staring into camera).  That last point in particular showcases how self-reflexive the film can be and braeaks up the narrative for the purpose of enticing the viewer to read the film differently.  The film is also entrenched is Western literature, citing authors like Virginia Wolf and even having a wispy, diminutive characters named Rimbaud, after the famed romantic French poet.  As Korea has changed throughout the 1990s, it has embraced new ideas and progressive Western thought.

One of the more interesting relationships in the film is the one between Tae-ju, the titular gangster No. 3, and Dong-pal, the aggressive, foul-mouthed public prosecutor.  They engage in a couple of discussions which explore the nature of their conflicting lifestyles.  In one, Choi criticizes people who judge a crime’s act rather than it’s perpetrator, a significant question in moral philosophy.  Regarding a crime, do we evaluate it in terms of the act, the perpetrator, or the consequence, as the utilitarians do?  I dare not get into any deep discussion on this subject, lest I expose myself as clueless charlatan but I am fascinated by this distinction. 

On the surface it seems pretty simple as we tend to judge crimes on the act themselves, but it’s easy to consider a few variations which expose the weakness of such a proposition.  Conspiracy to murder is an offence that carries a heavy sentence and does not necessarily feature any act at all if it doesn’t come to fruition.  In such a case, we judge a defendant on intent and the potential grievous harm that would have been inflicted.  Looking at the other side of the coin, it is also possible to judge an act on its consequence rather than the thought and action that led to it.  Utilitarian philosophy, chiefly a product of John Stuart Mill’s mind, and in large part responsible for today’s judiciary system, concerns itself with the aftermath of an act.  How much good came out of it versus bad?  The deliberation as to the balance of the consequence judges the severity of the crime or the benevolence of the good deed.  The most famously cited example for this is the dropping of the hydrogen bomb on Hiroshima during WWII.  Over 100,000 people died, the act it is responsible for the largest toll of human suffering in any single act.  However, the argument stands that countless more people were saved because of it.  Therefore judging on the consequence of the act, the bombing was just.

Dong-pal in No. 3 is part of the legal system that means that he should be principally concerned with crimes but he seems to go beyond his mandate by harassing criminals whose intentions are to commit crimes.  Normally this role is occupied by detectives which his character, with his moral philosophy, violent physicality, and foul language would seem to be a better fit for.  Late in the film Dong-pal shares a drink with Tae-su’s girlfriend Hyun-ji, who says “What I hate is not a sinner, but a sin itself.”  This is in direct opposition to Dong-pal’s philosophy but she asks him to help Tae-su and look on him as a younger brother.  Instead of vilifying the sinner, is it possible to reform him.  Essentially I think the point is to what extent is society to blame and can a figure of authority like Dong-pal prevent crimes by reforming the perpetrator and therefore removing the bad intentions?  Perhaps I’m reaching a little far with this but since the fall of the autocratic Chung Doo-hwan administration in the late 1980s, the role of authority in Korean society has changed an enormous amount.

More than just about any other Korean gangster film, No. 3 features a very strong and well fleshed-out female character in Hyun-ju.  The boss’ wife, while less clearly drawn, acts as a classic femme fatale who, as a result of her domineering affair with Rimbaud, plays a part in setting off the irreverent and chaotic climax, one of the greatest sequences in 90s Korean film.

While later Korean gangster comedies would frequently lampoon hoodlums, cutting them down in size, No. 3 does so in a more interesting fashion.  Tae-ju briefly becomes No. 2 in his gang after displaying his loyalty and wit but he is demoted after being stabbed and Ashtray takes his place.  Ashtray is a big lump of a character who brutally beats people with his namesake, which he stores down his pants, and does little else.  The violence is shocking and far from glorified and demonstrates how unseemly this facet of Korean society can be.  Darcy Paquet’s piece, posted earlier today for Jopok Week, on ‘The Rise and Fall of the Korean Gangster Comedy’, explores what went wrong with later gangster comedies after this promising start.

No. 3 features a number of wonderful scenes, including a great playground fight between Han Suk-kyu and Choi Min-sik, and just about every scene with Song Kang-ho who is hilarious and delightfully strange.  There’s much more to be said about this film than what I have explored but I will wrap up my discussion here.  I look forward to revisiting director and writer Song Neun-han's minor Korean gangster masterpiece in the near future.

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: Masculinity and Beauty in A Bittersweet Life and The Man From Nowhere – Part II

Questions of Masculinity and Beauty in the Jopok Films A Bittersweet Life (2005) and The Man From Nowhere (2010)


A Bittersweet Life

The question of who dies or survives is not a superficial question.  For Sun-woo, ultimately he is the author of the circle in which he becomes ensnared.  This truth is reflective of A Bittersweet Life’s very insular world.  The gangsters in this film hardly interact with the daytime, if they can help it; whatever dealings with the international world that the criminal organisation may have the film does not show or mention.  The irony is that Sun-woo could not help it:  Sun-woo is assigned to look after his boss’ much younger girlfriend Hee-soo for several days while he is away because he is suspicious of her having a boyfriend.  Like a rope that has reached its breaking point, Sun-woo's meeting with Hee-soo unravels the strands of loyalty and honour that had sustained his good standing with his boss.  After tasting a different rhythm and colour of life by accompanying Hee-soo in her day-to-day activities as a student, Sun-woo makes the decision to not kill Hee-soo and her boyfriend.  But what is a gesture of goodwill in the sweet light of day is a death wish in the underground shadows of noir.

The themes of loyalty, betrayal, and revenge; the narrative development of a woman triggering the protagonist's “downfall”; and the jungle of marginalised characters encountered to get to the boss are all there.  But Kim revels in playing with these conventions to bend the jopok under his spell.  One of the film’s distinct characteristics is the segment that bridges Sun-woo’s escape from his boss’ henchmen and his last killing spree.  In this unexpected, comical sequence, which could be a short film unto itself, Sun-woo meets a Laurel and Hardy-like pair of gunrunners and has a great seated showdown with their boss.  It is a bold move because this sequence basically brings to a standstill the dramatic action of revenge, but it showcases Kim’s distinct perspective of things and references the great peculiarity of his previous films like The Quiet Family (1998) and The Foul King (2000).  In this way, Kim demonstrates an incredible confidence in his interpretation of noir as a narrative template as well as visual pleasure.  From a bloody standoff on an ice rink, a muddy buried-alive punishment that turns into a veritable resurrection, the visual motif of lamps and turning on/off lights as a more literal illustration of noir lighting and mise en scène, to the final meeting with his boss at the Melville-esque lounge with the words la dolce vita between them in the background in all its irony, A Bittersweet Life is full of cool, masculine attitude and mood.

The Man From Nowhere

The Man From Nowhere is much more diversified in terms of the scope of criminal activities with which one must contend.  It brings together the Chinese mafia, a Thai assassin, child trafficking, drug trafficking, and organ harvesting to create the formidable criminal web in which pawnshop owner Tae-shik unwittingly finds himself through his acquaintance with a little girl, So-mi, who lives in the same apartment complex as him.  Unlike Sun-woo in A Bittersweet Life, Tae-shik has a backstory – and a tragic family one at that – which informs his conscious reaction to the things that happen to him and the things he witnesses with regards to So-mi.  Even if his actions yield unexpected results, his objective to rescue So-mi never falters.  That he ends up having to confront a big-time criminal organisation and put a stop to their illegal activities in the process is ultimately secondary but convenient and dramatic in a narrative sense.

How Tae-shik gets embroiled in the criminal organisation run by brothers Man-seok and Jong-seok is complicated.  While some regard this complexity as a flaw, it actually reveals the film’s smartness in terms of keeping up with these complex, globalised criminal times.  The parallel strands of Tae-shik finding more about Man-seok and Jong-seok’s extensive criminal operations and the police finding more about Tae-shik’s international special agent background reflect the reality of a more connected, complicated, diverse world.  Lee’s desire to reflect this multilayered reality may also help to explain his decision to have Tae-shik’s most electrifying fights be against Ramrowan, the Thai assassin who works for Man-seok and Jong-seok, instead of the brothers themselves.  Aside from the splendid choreography, the most striking detail about their confrontations is the surprising absence of extra-diegetic music.  The sequence that consists of the silence of their first fight in a bathroom and the pulsating sounds of the dance floor as they stand and face each other as if to initiate a duel, despite the crowd of people dancing obliviously around them, is an effective example of visual and aural contrast and also foreshadows Tae-shik and Ramrowan’s even more vigorous knife fight towards the end.  At the same time, Tae-shik and Ramrowan’s confrontations rise above the story to occupy a whole other dimension unto itself, which accounts for the film’s stylisation.  In this sense, unlike his colleagues, Ramrowan serves less to drive the plot than to affirm and spectacularise Tae-shik’s character.  Ultimately, nothing topples Tae-shik’s coolness and moral sense of self, which affirm each other throughout the film: so guarded of his past, but it tempers his actions in the present.

Angels with Dirty, Pretty Faces

David Thomson writes of Alain Delon in Le samouraï, “[T]he enigmatic angel of French film, only thirty-two in 1967, and nearly feminine.  Yet so earnest and immaculate as to be thought lethal or potent.”  This description of Delon’s taciturn, schizophrenic assassin in Le samouraï is perhaps not the first image of a killer that comes immediately to mind. It certainly does not apply to the majority of assassins or gangsters in cinema, past or present.  In fact, it applies only very rarely.  Not even Ryan Gosling in Drive (2011, Nicholas Winding Refn) fits this bill, regardless of the frequent comparisons made between this film and Melville’s work; marvelous attempt, but not quite.  
Only Louis Koo in Election 2 (2006, Johnnie To) – stunning, menacing, and intensely still all at the same time – is a worthy match.  In contemporary Korean cinema, Lee Byung-hun and Won Bin.

Fans and critics alike frequently discuss these actors’ attractiveness, in terms similar to the ones that Thomson uses above to describe Delon:  “feminine,” “earnest,” “immaculate.”  Any filmmaker who casts these actors must somehow take into account their attractiveness and proceed accordingly, so that part of the interest in these actors in a jopok film – with all of its grimy, sordid violence – consists in seeing how the film uses their attractiveness:  is it downplayed, made more conspicuous?  For the actor, such as Delon, these gangster/noir films are a way to overcome or make rough one’s attractiveness and to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor.

For A Bittersweet Life, Lee Byung-hun’s looks were crucial for Kim Ji-woon.  In a 2009 master class, Kim elaborated on his choice of Lee to play Sun-woo:  “One of the reasons I cast him was that in French noir, the most [well-known] protagonist was Alain Delon.  I thought that Lee Byung-hun is the Korean actor who most resembles him.  Alain Delon doesn't have a lot of dialogue, either.  I worked it in because I thought he was the one who could bring the eyes and aura of Alain Delon.”  Accordingly, Kim shot Lee in close-ups and extreme close-ups throughout the film to express the gamut of overwhelming emotion that Sun-woo must go through without resorting to dialogue.  In turn, Lee brings the eyes, aura, and walk that recall the steely coolness of Delon.  Lee's walk alone conveys a myriad of things, such as in the opening scene where he descends from the sky lounge to the underground bar – the camera closely following from behind – for the first fight scene.  Or in the scene where Sun-woo walks towards Hee-soo to take her home – the camera also closely behind – and then does a quick about-face when he sees her male friend get there before him. The performance is wordless, but Lee gets the giddiness of a schoolboy in love as well as the shyness, vulnerability, and embarrassment that go with it.

For The Man From Nowhere, Lee Jeong-beom also made symbolic use of Won Bin’s pretty boy looks.  Lee speaks of casting Won Bin in a 2011 interview, “In the beginning I had an older character in mind.  But Won's face drew me to him even more.  He has a beautiful face, but when he is not speaking his face is cold.  For example, in the scenes with the child his youthful side would show, while in the action scenes his face grew colder.”  Lee, like Melville with Delon, drew amply from and enhanced the mysterious allure of Won Bin walking quietly but determinedly, looking, and listening intently, or simply standing still in order to create the emotion and mood of scenes.  The film introduces Tae-shik in such a way, which makes the fight scenes and aggressive dialogue all the more impactful.  Ultimately, why The Man From Nowhere works despite its borrowings of kidnapping, busting a drug/trafficking ring, and an ex-special agent rekindling his deadly training plots is due largely to the charismatic tension between the jopok genre and Won Bin’s pretty boy-ness.  The first part of the film relies heavily on this tension, with Won Bin’s face half covered by his hair, while the rest of the film and his subsequent haircut are the consequences of the full-on collision between Won Bin and the ultra-violent, ultra masculine world of jopok.

But what distinguishes Lee Byung-hun and Won Bin from Delon are the “manly tears,” so prevalent in South Korean films, jopok films included.  In both A Bittersweet Life and The Man From Nowhere, Lee and Won each have their moment of manly tears, something that would never happen to Delon’s characters.  What are the roots of this motif (see Pierce Conran’s previous post on MKC)?  Perhaps it goes back to the issue of reviving not just the screen image of Korean masculinity but a particular one that taps into Korean cinema’s history of melodrama and aestheticises masculinity and emotion simultaneously.

Part I of Masculinity and Beauty in A Bittersweet Life and The Man From Nowhere

Rowena Santos Aquino recently obtained her doctorate degree in Cinema and Media Studies.  She is a contributing writer to Asia Pacific Arts.  She has also contributed to other online outlets, such as Midnight Eye and Red Feather, and to print journals, including Transnational Cinemas and Asian Cinema.  She also loves football.  She can be found musing about film and football on her twitter page.

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).

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Friday, December 9, 2011

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.