Showing posts with label jopok week. Show all posts
Showing posts with label jopok week. Show all posts

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.

Weekly Review Round-up (12/03-12/09, 2011)

A nice selection of reviews this week including a number for The Yellow Sea and three from The Hollywood Reporter.  Since it is Jopok Week here on MKC, I'm happy to note some reviews for A Bittersweet Life and Righteous Ties.



(, December 3, 2011)


(Walter Peck Was Just Doing His Job , December 4, 2011)

(Film Business Asia, December 4, 2011)

(Hanguk Yeonghwa, November 27, 2011)

(The Hollywood Reporter, December 7, 2011)

(Hanguk Yeonghwa, December 6, 2011)

(The Hollywood Reporter, December 7, 2011)

(Modern Korean Cinema, December 2, 2011)

(The One One Four, December 6, 2011)

(Otherwhere, December 7, 2011)

(Hanguk Yeonghwa, December 9, 2011)

(Hanguk Yeonghwa, November 28, 2011)


(Rainy Day, November 27, 2011

(Beyond Hollywood, December 6, 2011)

The Yellow Sea

(Japan Cinema, December 9, 2011)


(Hanguk Yeonghwa, December 7, 2011)

(Rainy Day, December 6, 2011)

My Sassy Girl, 2001

(, December 8, 2011)

Shiri, 1999
(Hanguk Yeonghwa, December 3, 2011)

(Modern Korean Cinema, December 7, 2011

(Modern Korean Cinema, December 8, 2011

(Modern Korean Cinema, December 9, 2011

The Weekly Review Round-up is a weekly feature which brings together all available reviews of Korean films in the English language (and sometimes French) that have recently appeared on the internet. It is by no means a comprehensive feature and additions are welcome (email pierceconran [at] gmail [dot] com). It appears every Friday morning (GMT+1) on Modern Korean Cinema. For other weekly features, take a look at Korean Cinema News, and the Korean Box Office UpdateReviews and features on Korean film also appear regularly on the site. 

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.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jopok Week: Im Kwon-taek's The General's Son 3 (Janggunui adeul 3) 1992

The final installment of Im Kwon-taek’s The General’s Son trilogy was not particularly well-received upon its release in 1992 in Korea.  Unlike the previous two installments, The General’s Son 3 was not the year’s highest grossing film, that honor went instead to Marriage Story, the ‘planned’ feature which is credited in part with the entry of the chaebol into the film industry, who modernized it, paving the way for the technically-superior Korean cinema of today.  Im stopped making actioners after this but he wasn’t absent from the top of the charts for long as his masterful Sopyonje was released the next year and became the first Korean film to cross the one million admissions mark in Seoul, even though the Korean market share of the box office fell to a record low of 15.9% in 1993.

At the start of The General’s Son 3, Kim Do-han is not released from jail, but he is in exile and his gang has been dispersed in Mapo-gu. The Japanese now control the district and Kim leads a peripatetic life, wandering from town to town, making connections and enemies along the way.  The first half of the film sees him on the road in a series of questionably strung-together sequences as he meets characters from previous entries in the franchise and makes some new ladyfriends while the back half of the narrative focuses on his return to Mapo-gu and leads up to the final and long-awaited (sort of) showdown with the local Yakuza gang. 

After an opening film that had quite a lot to say and did so in a balanced, if imperfect, manner, the conclusion to The General’s Son trilogy does little more than rehash themes and story tropes from the previous two films.  It adds nothing new, just presenting us with more fights, nightclub scenes, and women.  The first film affixed a fairly convincing historical and sociological pretext upon the generic template of the gangster film but The General’s Son 3 abandons what made the series a hit in the first place and revels in the threadbare mechanics of genre filmmaking.  Just as in The General’s Son 2, it’s all about the fights this go-round and women, but in a much more sexualized manner than in previous installments.  Gone is the simplicity of its predecssor, which was happy to give us a straightforward story which led from one fight to the next , instead we have to suffer Kim’s perambulations through foreign towns which bog down the narrative and add up to a big waste of time when he finally returns to his hometown.

The depiction of women in The General’s Son 3 was quite problematic and surprising given Im’s involvement.  The main love interest, who is gorgeous, is handled like a commodity when Kim meets her.  He stands up for her and they begin to fall for each other but then he treats her like a piece of meat too, only know she is more than willing to submit. One of the running gags in the film is her screams of pleasure which resound throughout the night. Perhaps Kim Doo-han’s virility is legendary, not that I have heard as such, but this repeated joke smacked of sexism for me. I can say that compared to the other female protagonists in the trilogy, who exit the narratives without having changed from when they first appear on screen, this new character is a little more three dimensional and features an arc which is passably integrated into the main narrative.

There is some attempt at character development, while Kim was a hero figure in the first and fell prey to vanity in the second, his current exile essentially leads him on a path to redemption and he returns to Mapo-gu the conquering hero.  However the characterizations here are not well fleshed out and in any case it is difficult to make anything out in the muddled narrative.  The good news is that it doesn't really matter as they fight scenes, while exceptionally contrived, are still very enjoyable, even if they get repetitive after a while.  We meet new gangs in the new towns and there's even some opium dealing and sex scenes thrown in for good measure.  

My biggest disappointment is that ultimately the film series didn't go explore what I was hoping it would, namely Kim Doo-han's transition from a gangster to a political figure.  It certainly hints at it but the wheels are never set in motion which I thought was a shame.  I suppose Park Sang-min would have been too young to portray an older Kim but now that 19 years have elapsed I imp Mr. Im to consider The General's Son 4 as his 102nd film!  The General's Son 3 is the weakest entry in the franchise but all in all I had a great time with this series despite its flaws and I look forward to revisit it again in its entirety soon.

See also:

The General's Son (1990)
The General's Son 2 (1991)

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

As part of Jopok Week, Modern Korean Cinema will be featuring reviews of three 1997 Korean gangster flicks (Beat, No. 3, and Green Fish), all of which ended up in top 10 of that year.  This prompted me to go back over the receipts of Korean gangster films over the last 16 years and see what I could find out.

There is no question that the Korean gangster film is one of the most prevalent and popular film genres in Korea and I would have been inclined to think that it was second only to melodrama but after a little research I find myself wondering whether gangster films are in fact the dominant genre in contemporary Korean cinema.

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


Shortly before the explosion of Korean cinema, gangster films already seemed to have a firm grasp on the box office charts.  In 1996 there were three ranked in the top 10:  Gangster Lessons (aka Hoodlum Lessons; No. 6, 176,757), Born to Kill (No. 8, 132,261), and Boss (No. 10, 101,078).  Born to Kill will be reviewed by Kieran Tully from KOFFIA a little later this week but I am not familiar with the other films, though I noticed that Gangster Lessons starred both Park Joon-hoon and Park Sang-min (Kim Doo-han in The General's Son, 1990).


As already mentioned 1997 was a big year for gangster films in Korea.  Just as in 1996 there were three of them that wound up in the top 10, however they fared a little better and more importantly, played a significant role in the reshaping of Korean cinema.  I will explore what Beat (No. 4, 349,781), No. 3 (No. 6, 297,617), and Green Fish (No. 8, 163,655) brought to the industry in each of their reviews which will appear later this week.


After a brief hiatus from the top 10 in 1998, three gangster films found their way back in in 1999, scaling new heights for the genre.  Kim Sang-jin's second feature (after Two Cops 3, 1998), the anarchic Attack the Gas Station (No. 2, 960,000), depicting a group of violently apathetic youths with a total disregard to authority was a huge success, was a fiercely original and enormously successful film that helped forge a new identity for Korean film abroad.  Similarly, Lee Myung-se's Nowhere to Hide (No. 4, 687,000), starring big names Park Joon-hoon, Anh Sung-ki, and future star Jang Dong-gun heralded a new, stylistically fresh epoch for the industry.  The third was City of the Rising Sun (No. 10, 329,778) starring Jung Woo-sung and Lee Jung-jae, a film I'm eager to discover.


After another absence from the chart in the year 2000, though heist film Jakarta nearly qualifies, Korean gangster films came back with a vengeance the following year.  2001 was the biggest year for gang films at the Korean box office and this will likely never change.  They accounted for six out of the 10, not only that but My Sassy Girl was the only non-gang film in the top seven.  Four of those were released in the last four months in the year, a very mob-heavy season!

Leading the pack was Kwak Kyung-taek's Friend (No. 1, 8,134,500), a nostalgic look at the friendship through  the years of four boys from Busan.  It's tale of conflicting loyalties, and it's settings, from 80s schools to the modern criminal underbelly of Korea's major port city were huge drawing factors for the film, which became, at that point, the highest grossing Korean film of all time.  My Wife Is a Gangster (No. 2, 5,180,900) kicked off the gangster comedy melodrama trend and would spawn two sequels.  Kim Sang-jin's third film was even more successful than his last.  Kick the Moon (No. 4, 4,353,800) was the first of the year's many gangster comedies and was similar to Friend in that in mined school and gang conventions in a regional setting.  Hi Dharma (No. 5, 3,746,000), which features gangsters in hiding at a buddhist monastery, and My Boss, My Hero (No. 6, 3,302,000), in which a gang captain goes back to complete high school, were both high concept gang comedies which would be followed by successful sequels.  Last was Jang Jin's Guns and Talk (No. 7, 2,227,000) which featured a great script and strong performances from Shin Hyeon-Jun, Shin Ha-Kyun, Won Bin, and Jeong Jae-Young.

2001 was also the year that Korean films finally broke past the 50% market share and these six films accounted for 60% of that or 30% of all theater admissions throughout the year.  Making this hoodlum coup all the more impressive, perhaps gangsters are good for the economy?


Gangster films took the top and bottom spot of the chart in 2002.  Marrying the Mafia (No.1, 5,021,001) paired My Boss, My Hero star Jeong Joon-ho with a gangster comedy melodrama concept similar to My Wife Is a Gangster to kick off its own franchise.  Ryoo Seung-beom made a name for himself away from his brother's films by starring in the uproarious, high school-set Conduct Zero (No. 10, 1,683,533), playing off the popular and socially prescient youth violence theme.  Though it only came in at No. 25 on the chart, Ryoo Seung-wan's (the aforementioned brother) No Blood No Tears would be considered by many to be the best gang film of this year.  Another big hit, Public Enemy doesn't quite fit the gangster mold but subsequent in the franchise would.


2003 featured relatively few gangster themed pictures.  Oh! Brothers (No. 6, 3,125,256) had gangster elements but was more of a buddy comedy, the same could be said for Oldboy (No. 5, 3,326,000) which does feature gangsters in what is probably the most iconic scene of Korean cinema.  Kwak Kyung-taek's Mutt Boy was relatively successful but was not in the top 10.  The second entry in the My Wife Is a Gangster franchise also did well but paled in comparison to its predecessor.

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

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.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Jopok Week: Im Kwon-taek's The General's Son 2 (Janggunui adeul 2) 1991

The second The General’s Son starts off much as the first did.  Our hero, Kim Do-han, is released from prison in the Mapo-gu district of Seoul by the short, mustachioed Korean detective who seems to have it out for him.  The only difference between this and the last installment’s opening is that instead of being a poor kid living under a bridge, released with nothing and facing an uncertain future, now he is a gang boss and he is welcomed by his minions and the citizens of the neighborhood.  He is adored by all, a foreshadowing of his successful later life in politics.

Whereas the original film indulged in delightful world-building, guiding us through a gorgeous period set of the Mapo-gu district and its myriad of colorful characters, the sequel jumps right into the plot.  Previously the focus was on Kim Do-han’s rise but now he is already on top.  The same gang conflicts arise here but while the action and plot moves thick and fast, it seems deliberately contrived though never complicated.  Actually it could be seen as somewhat prosaic, the story details lots of gang to-ing and fro-ing for the sake of inserting ever escalating brawls.  Make no mistake about it, The General’s Son 2 is primarily about fisticuffs, which is both an asset and a hindrance.

Due to this fixation on sprawling fight scenes, a lot of the film doesn’t make sense.  The love interests arise out of nowhere and are quickly forgotten about, and they are briefly tacked back onto the narrative here and there to patch the plot together.  The unification of the various Korean groups against the greater ill of the Japanese is all but gone, and the main arc pitting Kim’s gang against the powerful Yakuzas adds no agency to the narrative as it is just an expansion of the same sotryline from the first film. 

Some scenes add absolutely nothing to the narrative, for example in one near the end of the film a young man pays for his meal and leaves a bakery, he is then accosted by two of Kim’s goons who tell him to hand over his cash.  He refuses and one of them punches him, he then skillfully beats them up, runs away, and never appears again.  It adds nothing to the narrative and actually gives the impression that a new character has been introduced.  In the end the only interesting thing about it is that the role is played by a very young Jung Doo-hong who will be recognizable to Korean film aficionados as the famed stunt director who has choreographed and starred in many of Ryoo Seung-wan’s films as well as staging the martial arts for a number prominent Korean films in the last 15 years.

Just as in the first, the loud sound effects in the fight scenes are very distracting though with time you do get used to them.  What bothered me more was the use of soft focus on the woefully underwritten female characters, some of the strangest and most inexplicable love interests I have come across in cinema.  It seems that Kim Doo-han, as well as being “Korea’s best fighter”, a patriot, and a local hero, was also quite the ladies man, or so this series of films seems to suggest.  The use of soft focus on the female characters is so pronounced that it is nearly blinding.

This time around Im does not go to great lengths to add any historical gravity to the film, instead he unabashedly crafts a straight martial arts and gangster picture.  Kim Doo-han has already been established as the hero so after his exit from prison Im purposefully refrains from using him in fight scenes since, as is often the case with martial arts films, you have to work up to the big boss, even though in this film he is the protagonist and not the antagonist.  The fights start out with Kim’s small entourage, who I don’t believe were in the first film, duking it out mano a mano with low level aggressors before quickly all being involved in a brawl at the same time.  Then we expand from the unit and the scale of the fights increases more or less exponentially.  It’s perfectly preposterous and some of the stunt work, such as a perfect somersault down a flight of stairs two beats after a light knock to the shins, is hilarious, but the sheer enormity and fake grandeur of these sequences are a lot of fun.

Many Korean filmmakers like to go all out.  After seeing so many mass fights scenes in Korean films, such as Attack the Gas Station (1999), Kick the Moon (2001), and The City of Violence (2006), it’s good to know that the root for these can in fact be traced back to older Korean films and not just Hong Kong action pictures, though admittedly this film would have been inspired by them also. 

Aesthetics resolutely win out in The General’s Son 2 and narrative plays only a small part just like in Lee Myung-se’s stunning Duelist (2005), though this is a far less ambitious project.   In the end, see this one for the fights, we got all the story we needed out of the first one.

See also:

The General's Son (1990)
The General's Son 3 (1992)

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: Comedic Representations of Gangster Culture in Korean Cinema

The Flipside of Realism: Analysing the attraction of comedic representations of gangster culture in contemporary South Korean cinema.

By Connor McMorran 

Ryu Seung-Beom in Conduct Zero (2002)
Gangster comedies are undoubtedly a popular genre in South Korea, and have enjoyed continued success since their initial appearance in the mid-nineties with notable films like No.3 (Song Neung-Han, 1997) and Two Cops (Kang Woo-Suk, 1993).  As they have grown in popularity, these films have become highly successful, creating multiple franchises and bringing in large profit margins for relatively low budget films.  In her book The South Korean Film Renaissance, Jinhee Choi discusses their lucrative nature:

“Gangster Comedy targets two holiday seasons; the Korean Thanksgiving holiday, Chuseok, and the Lunar New Year’s Day, Seol. With its growing and proven popularity, gangster comedy can secure the saturated booking that blockbuster films enjoy and be seen on up to five hundred screens nation-wide.”
This provides a valuable insight into the holiday/business relationship surrounding this genre, and it seems akin to the business model behind Lunar Year comedies in Hong Kong, or horror movies released in the West to coincide with Halloween.  Yet despite the obvious conclusion that a holiday season will bring in more ticket sales through there being a more available audience, I feel that for a film to be successful there has to be a deeper connection with the audience beyond availability.  After all, if a film fails to deliver what the audience wants, then surely it would fail at the box office regardless of what time of the year it was released?

Song Kang-Ho in No.3 (1997) 
Could the answer be found in Korean celebrity culture?  There's certainly a case for big name Korean actors and actresses being a main draw for audiences, but on quick analysis it becomes apparent that it tends to be the gangster comedies that brought these stars into the spotlight in the first place.  No.3 is a perfect example of this, which made stars out of Song Kang-Ho and Choi Min-Sik, both of whom could now be seen internationally as figureheads of contemporary Korean cinema.  According to Jinhee Choi, in Korea these comedies are referred to as Sammai, which originates from the Japanese Kabuki Theatre term Sammaine, or third-tier actor.  The Korean usage of the word, applied to film, can be seen as meaning 'cheap'; so with this in mind, we can establish gangster comedy as mid-budget films made with little-known, cheap actors that are released on certain holidays.  Whilst this certainly improves the chances of a generous profit being made, it doesn't provide an answer to why they generate such large profits and, in some cases, create successful franchises.

Which really only leaves two aspects that could hopefully provide an answer, and they both have to do with the content of the film itself – narrative, and characters.   Comedic narratives tend to be fairly nondescript and for the most part generic, relying heavily on set-pieces and cultural/film-orientated nods or references to carry the majority of the film.  Whilst this can prove successful initially, lack of progression breeds familiarity, leading to falling audience numbers – especially in franchise comedies.  So that leaves us with the characters that exist in these films, and whilst undoubtedly comedies tend to feature basic stock personalities – cops, gangsters, slacker students – I think that it is because of the characters that these comedies are successful.

If that is the case, then why does a comedic representation of gangsters equate to high profit margins and cultural acceptance?  I feel that it's human nature to distort perceptions of things we fear to help us cope with them.  Therefore, it's certainly possible that in castrating the masculine aspects of gangster culture, either through male-orientated comedy or by placing the concepts in a female body with franchises such as My Wife is a Gangster (2001-2006), it allows society to escape from the realistic threat that gangster society potentially poses.   After all, films are considered by many to be a means of escapism, and gangster comedies provide the opportunity to laugh at a representation of something threatening, and it allows this to be done anonymously, in a cinema theatre full of people doing the same – with no repercussions for doing so.

Lee Sung-Jae and Cha Seung-Won in Kick the Moon (2001)
Films also are used to convey messages about society; No.3 is quite famously seen as a criticism on the vast majority of South Korean society, not just gangster culture.  This also extends to the majority of gangster comedies, but it's not surprising to see that a lot of their messages coincide with the gritty, realistic gangster films – it's just that with comedies the chances of characters changing their ways and being forgiven is more likely.  You'd be hard-pressed to find a gangster comedy that ever glorifies the gangster lifestyle; instead characters are portrayed as either lazy or stupid, and in many cases these two "qualities" are combined.  The film will then present the gangster lifestyle as the wrong way to live, and chances are the wannabe gangster will either end up falling for a girl and changing his ways, or decide to become a respectable member of society and, you guessed it, change his ways.

Such endings are not usually allowed or offered to characters in realistic gangster films; to let the character get away without being caught or killed is generally seen as a morally corrupt ending, as it could inspire imitators.  This provides another possible reason for the popularity of light-hearted gangster comedy – it provides the gangster film experience but without any (or not as much) of the realistic violence, hard-to-watch scenes and dark or disturbing subject matter.   Instead these comedies provide light-relief scenarios to usually intense, exhausting characters.  Films that provide a humorous outlook on stereotypical characters tend to draw a generous audience, and South Korean cinemagoers in particular seem drawn to the gangster archetype.

Not that gangster comedies are ever aggressively mocking gangster culture, in fact it's only really a variation on the "dumb criminal" archetype you see in films all over the world.  You only have to look at the child-versus-criminal comedy of Home Alone (1990) or the black-humour that fleshes out Guy Ritchie films such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) to notice that not only is it a stereotype that can be found anywhere, but it's a stereotype that (judging by box office) audiences seem to respond to well.  Not that this should undermine the success of South Korean gangster comedies, as they have undoubtedly created a successful business model rarely seen with other reference-based comedy.

Won Bin, Shin Ha-Kyun and Jung Jae-Young in Guns and Talks (2001)
It's almost an obvious statement to make, but without the incredible rise in popularity of the gangster genre in the 90s these comedy offshoots would not exist – it's the fate of anything that achieves a popular cultural status to be parodied.   Ultimately, despite all that marketing and release dates try to help, for films to be successful they need to provide something that the audience is looking for.   It’s clear that gangster comedies, in which characters provide not only laughs but also ease social fears, fulfill those needs.

Recommended Viewing:

·       No. 3 (Song Neung-Han, 1997)
·       Attack The Gas Station (Kim Sang-Jin, 1999)
·       Kick the Moon (Kim Sang-Jin, 2001)
·       My Wife is a Gangster (Cho Jin-Gyu, 2001)
·       Guns and Talks (Jang Jin, 2001)
·       Marrying the Mafia (Jeong Heung-Sun, 2002)
·       Conduct Zero (Jo Geun-Sik, 2002)
Further Reading:
·       The South Korean Film Renaissance: Local Hitmakers, Global Provocateurs (Choi, Jinhee, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010)
Connor McMorran currently lives in Scotland, and has been a fan of Asian Cinema since stumbling across a late night screening of Hideo Nakata’s Ring on TV in 2002.  He has just this year received his Bachelor’s Degree in Film Studies, currently reviews films at his blog Rainy Day, and is hoping to enter further education next year.

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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Korean Cinema News (12/01-12/07, 2011)

Not a huge amount of news this week but a lot of fantastic interviews to make up for it, including from veteran actor Anh Sung-ki and director Im Kwon-taek's, whose The General's Son trilogy is being reviewed as part of Jopok Week.  Also numerous interesting trailers this week and a long clip from the upcoming My Way.

I'm experimenting with the format of the feature by adding some pictures here and there, let me know what you think!


Get Behind the Scenes of Kang Je-gyu's My Way
The biggest Korean film of the year is unmistakably Kang Je-gyu's upcoming WWII film My Way and it really shows in the latest making-of video.  Every aspect about the production, from the large sets to the all-star cast of Jang Dong-gun (The Warrior's Way), Joe Odagiri (Air Doll) and Fan Bingbing (Shaolin, Bodyguards and Assassins), loudly screams blockbuster.   (Twitch, November 30, 2011)

Movie About N. Korean Defector Wins Award at Tokyo Film Fest
Director and lead actor Park Jung-bum's The Journals of Musan won the Special Jury Prize at the Tokyo Filmex Festival that ended on Sunday.  The movie deals with the harsh reality of adjusting to life in South Korea from the point of view of a North Korean defector, and serves as a bitter portrayal of the prejudices he faces in his newly adopted home.  (The Chosun Ilbo, December 1, 2011)

North Korean DVDs
The eternal problem for any North Korean movie enthusiast is how to track the films down.  From sites like Wikipedia and IMDb, and North Korean Films, it’s possible to find out information about a huge number of North Korean titles.  But with mistranslations, inaccuracies about dates it’s not always possible to get an definitive idea about what’s out there.  (North Korean Films, December 1, 2011)

Busan Critics Name Tang Wei Best Actress
The Busan Film Critics Association (BCFA) has named Tang Wei best actress for her role in the local melodrama “Late Autumn.” This marks the Chinese star’s third honorable mention in Korea.  (The Korea Times, December 1, 2011)

You're My Pet Set for Wide Release in Japan, China
The South Korean romantic comedy You're My Pet has sold to nine Asian regions including Japan and China, its local co-distributors KJ-net and Lotte Entertainment said Thursday.  The film, based on a Japanese comic series and directed by Kim Byeong-gon, is slated to show on more than 100 screens in Japan beginning on Jan. 21, 2012 via Toho Co., before getting a wide release in China between February and March.  (The Hollywood Reporter, December 1, 2011)

Actress Kim So-eun Seeking New Challenges
Kim So-eun has expanded her fan base to include older Koreans with the weekend drama A Thousand Kisses. She said she feels she has marked a new stage in her career by broadening her appeal to viewers aged 30 to 70, whereas before she was followed mainly by teenagers and people in their 20s.  (The Chosun Ilbo, December 3, 2011)


It’s hard to believe the talk about actor Ahn Sung-ki, 59, the man who is often cited as a living legend of Korean cinema.  After having been in the public eye for more than 50 years, Ahn has built a reputation for kindness and charity through his work with organizations such as the Korean Committee for Unicef, where he has served as a goodwill ambassador for the past 19 years.  (Joong Ang Daily, December 2, 2011)

Probably the first English-language podcast dedicated to Asian cinema, Podcast On Fire has grown from an untitled one-man recording into a fully blown network of shows covering a wide range of Asian films:  from big-budget Hong Kong and Korean blockbusters and the beauty of Studio Ghibli down to the darker, lesser known and seedier corners of Category III film.  (New Korean Cinema, December 5, 2011)

Choi Equan, the film director who was recently appointed as the head of the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA), is caught between the idea of turning the school into an academic house or a breeding ground of filmmakers who could adapt to the field quickly.  KOBIZ caught up with Choi before his admissions interviews with students for the next semester.  (KOBIZ, December 2, 2011)

Demand for the services of overseas Korean centers is increasing, particularly in light of the sweeping success of “hallyu” or the Korean wave.  A key ingredient in the successful overseas promotion of Korea is the creative mindset and active involvement of people who run such centers, according to a veteran culture official and film expert.  Kim Dong-ho, the founding director the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), is one of the most familiar faces in the Korean film industry.  (The Korea Times, December 1, 2011)

The Master of Korean National Cinema: An Interview with Im Kwon-taek
Renowned Korean filmmaker Im Kwon-taek made his third visit to USC this month for a panel discussion about Korean cinema and his films.  Korean cinema cannot be discussed without mentioning renowned film director Im Kwon-taek.  His films deal with a time period that spans about 500 years – from the Chosun Dynasty, through the colonial period and the Korean War, to the present – and he has persistently probed what it feels like to be a Korean, or more precisely, the pain of being a Korean, surviving each era.  (Asia Pacific Arts, November 28, 2011)


My Way (8 minute clip)



(Modern Korean Cinema, December 5, 2011)

Korean Cinema News is a weekly feature which provides wide-ranging news coverage on Korean cinema, including but not limited to: features; festival news; interviews; industry news; trailers; posters; and box office. It appears every Wednesday morning (GMT+1) on Modern Korean Cinema. For other weekly features, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update and the Weekly Review Round-upReviews and features on Korean film also appear regularly on the site. 

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.