Showing posts with label kick the moon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label kick the moon. Show all posts

Friday, June 22, 2012

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Fighting Spirit (투혼, Too-hon) 2011

Baseball film? Think again.

Kim Sang-jin is one of the biggest names of modern Korean cinema.  He got his start with early films such as Money in the Account (1995), Gangster Lessons (1996), and Two Cops 3 (1998) but always as a contracted director behind a big producer like Kang Woo-suk.  It wasn’t until 1999 that he got his real start with the anarchic hit Attack the Gas Station, which was stamped with Kim’s signature style that has since led to hit after hit.  He’s not the first name that comes to mind when considering the box office clout of Korean directors, but you would be hard pressed to name a director who has been a more consistent and impressive force on the Korean box office charts.  Attack the Gas Station became the second highest grossing Korean film of 1999, subsequently:  2001’s Kick the Moon came in at no. 3; Jail Breakers wound up at no. 4 in 2002; 2004’s Ghost House also had a no. 4 finish; and Kidnapping Granny K landed just outside the top 10 in 2007.

The interesting thing about all of these hits is that though they are all quite similar in tone and structure, they were all written by different people.  Kim has actually never written any of the films he’s directed, which is a testament to the force of his directing style and how recognizable it is on its own.  Kim’s best and most enduring works have been deranged blends of gang and youth violence (Attack the Gas Station, Kick the Moon), prison and romance (Jailbreakers), or horror and melodrama (Ghost House).  The common denominators between his films have been warring factions, anarchy, comedy, and immense climaxes between multiple large groups, a funny thing to be known for perhaps but very effective and memorable nonetheless.

Do-hun (Kim Joo-hyeok) caught in the act

In 2010, Kim made a follow-up to his original smash hit Attack the Gas Station The sequel had little of the impact of its predecessor and 11 years later it was no longer relevant to audiences, failing to leave an impression on the box office.  Late last year a new Kim film found its way into theaters with little to no fanfare.  I first heard about Fighting Spirit the week before it opened but I wasn’t aware of who made it at first.  Had I not known that it was a Kim Sang-jin film as I sat down to watch it, I probably never would have guessed it.   

Do-hun (Kim Joo-hyeok) is the star pitcher for the Lotte Giants, he is nearing the end of a brilliant career but he’s become arrogant and complacent in the wake of his success.  He’s been kicked out of his house after cheating on his wife (Kim Seon-ah) and is soon demoted to the minors.  He must now prove his worth to his teammates and to his estranged wife and children.  This brief synopsis seems to indicate a typical up-down-up sports trajectory of a fallen hero who will rise again but actually that isn’t really the case.  It’s nearly incidental that he’s a baseball player as the sporting angle is a front for what the film really is, a family melodrama.  Do-hoon’s wife Yoo-ran develops terminal cancer and this is the real crux of the film.  In fact, Fighting Spirit is essentially a cross between GLove and The Last Blossom, two mediocre 2011 films that appeared earlier in the year.

Park Cheol-min in a rare moment of calm

Kim Joo-hyeok is an actor I quite like who impressed me with his effortless performance in The Servant (2010) and has been doing steady work for years but audiences so far have not responded to his being recast as a leading man as both of his 2011 starring roles, the other being In Love and the War, have been major flops.  It’s hard to blame him since the scripts were so lacking but I wonder if he shouldn’t be more discerning with the projects he chooses to take on.  Kim Seon-ah (She's on Duty, 2005; S-Diary, 2004), as Do-hun’s long-suffering wife, is a little cold in her role, thereby nudging the audience to side with the boyish and charming Do-hun, despite his infidelities.  The representation of her character is proof that as gifted as Kim Sang-jin is, he’s never been particularly adept at handling female characters, they always lack depth in his films.  Park Cheol-min, who plays the Lotte Giants minor team coach, is one of those working actors who appears again and again in Korean cinema.  Last year alone he had eight roles, including Clash of the Families, Sector 7, Spellbound, and Suicide Forecast, which would seem to indicate that he’s well liked.  He’s a very over-the-top performer who tends to grin a lot and gesticulate with mock bravado.  His style never really changes:  it’s more a case of putting him in the right situations.  For instance his performance works in Clash of the Families while it is miserably out of place in Sector 7, thankfully he just about fits into this film.

I understand why Fighting Spirit didn’t make any money:  it doesn’t really know what it wants to be and it is very lacking in passion.  It’s by the numbers in its characterizations, plot elements, and resolutions but irregular in its tone and narrative.  What this amounts to in the end is a great director who, like Do-hun, was at the top of his game but seems to have lost his way.  Kim Sang-jin needs to get back on the saddle before he becomes a footnote in Korean cinema.


Do-hun's estranged family

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.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

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: 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).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Jopok Week: Top 10 Korean Gangster Films

This post was updated on August 14, 2014 and expanded to a Top 12 in order to make room for some more recent Korean gangster classics.

To get us started in this week's celebration of Korean gangster cinema (Jopok Week on MKC), I've compiled my top 10. However, an interesting question is what constitutes a gangster film? There are a number of films which may have made it onto this list but I wasn't quite sure that they fully fit the bill, such as Tazza: The High Rollers (2006), The Yellow Sea (2010), The Unjust (2010), and Moss (2010).  

So what makes a gangster film a gangster film? And more importantly, what are your favorites?

Scroll through the below gallery to find discover our favorites and let us know if you agree.

Intro - 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 - Best of the Rest

Top 10 Lists

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2015 - 2014 - 2013 - 2012 - 2011 - 2010

2010s (Top 50) - All Time (Top 25)