Showing posts with label the general's son. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the general's son. Show all posts

Friday, December 9, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


See Also:

Born to Kill (1996)

Further Reading:

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

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

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

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.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Jopok Week: Im Kwon-taek's The General's Son (Janggunui adeul) 1990

According to an article from The Korea Times, the first Korean gangster film was Gallant Man, released in 1969.  Following this a flurry of gangland films were released, highly influenced by the contemporaneous Japanese Yakuza pictures made by such prolific luminaries as Kinji Fukasaku and Seijun Suzuki.  Among these was the film series by director Kim Hyo-cheon on Kim Doo-han, a real life prominent Korean gangster in the 1930s who became a politician in the 1950s.  During the heavy censorship of Chung Doo-hwan’s administration (1980-88) gangster films were no longer part of Korea’s movie landscape but they made a comeback in a big way in the early 1990s.

Korea’s revered cineaste Im Kwon-taek has directed 101 films to date, many of those were made in his busier days in the 1960s and 70s, during which time he made a number of action films before attempting more serious works in the 1980s such as Mandala (1981) and The Surrogate Woman (1987), which toured international film festivals and made him, at that stage, the most prominent Korean filmmaker.  In 1990, shortly after the fall of Chung Doo-hwan, Im began his own series on the life of Kim Doo-han with his The General’s Son trilogy (1990-92).  The first film was a huge hit and became the country’s highest grossing film, a record that had been held since 1976 by Winter Woman.  For Im the trilogy was a brief return to action cinema before moving on to the more contemplative Sopyeonje (1993), which once again broke the all time Korean box office record and is considered by some to be the greatest of all Korean films.

The first The General's Son chronicles Kim Doo-han’s unlikely rise to power in the Japanese-occupied Mapo-gu district of Seoul in the 1930s.  The narrative opens with his release from prison, having spent a year behind bars for a petty crime.  With his newfound freedom he returns to a shack under a bridge where a friend of his still resides.  He is a beggar at the very bottom of the social ladder but he is also Korean which makes him equally oppressed by the Japanese occupiers.  He finds work at the local theatre, which is considered the heart of Mapo-gu and his featured prominently in all three films.  He recites lines through a loudspeaker detailing the plots and stars of the theater’s latest offerings as he trudges through the district’s muddy streets with a marching band.  Kim's pay is 10 won a day and two free tickets to the movies.  Proud of himself after receiving his first honest wage he goes to a local bakery only to have two thugs demand to see his film tickets.  Naively, he hands them over and they promptly leave, ignoring his protestations.  Following them outside he continues to demands his tickets back but as they begin to aggress him, he easily fights them away and they scamper off.  Not thinking about what’s just happened he goes back to his table, oblivious to everyone’s stares.  Shortly thereafter a captain in the local gang walks in, slaps him for beating his boys, and offers him a job.  So begins Do-han’s quick ascent in the local gang hierarchy.

It must be said that in some ways the film can seem very tacky.  It looks dated, the sounds in the over-choreographed fights are outrageously loud, and the improbable story is told with little subtlety.  However the film actually has a huge amount to offer and in many respects is very well-made.  Not to mention the fact that its brashness and brevity is positively infectious.  The best elements of the film come together in an extraordinary sequence that mostly takes place in the cinema.

Doo-han now works at the theater, which is gang-controlled, as all sorts of different characters stream in for a screening and we are brought up to speed with many of the relationships in the film as well as how the neighborhood interacts.  The local courtesans, idling their free time during the day, flirt their way in for free while at the other end a group of young boys, in a rather disgusting sequence, try to sneak in through the women’s lavatories only to be caught and beaten, save for one who hides in the isles.  The smell gives him away and Kim grabs him but instead of throwing him out he suggests that he should have brought a spare change of clothes, like he used to do.  A man comes on stage to introduce the film and the lights go down.  He narrates the silent pro-Korean picture as watchful Japanese eyes look on from their censor’s box.  Someone then taps on Kim's shoulder and he rushes outside as a big fight between the top Korean school fighter and a rival is about to start.

Im deftly handles the many elements of this sequence, which reminded me both of Cinema Paradiso, which had just been released the year before, and Martin Scorsese's rich and evocative film style.  There is a great flow, energy, and richness in detail throughout.  It’s pretty electrifying stuff and for me, the highlight of the trilogy.

If you pay attention, there is a lot of attention to detail in the film.  The set of historical Mapo-gu is magnificent though it may not be realistic.  Costumes are very important and also serve to tell the story.  Kim’s attire in particular evolves along with his character.  We first meet him in tattered clothing and as he becomes a member of the gang he begins to wear clean clothes.  One night, after impressing everyone with his fighting skills his boss gives him his leather jacket which Kim then wears with pride.  Soon he his wearing suits and hats, another sign of power, which become flashier and perch higher on his head the more he ascends.

The great strength of The General’s Son is that it is a simple but effective story with plenty of worthwhile subtext that is told with exuberant alacrity.  In effect Im has crafted a film with prescient social commentary within the pleasant trappings of a genre, something that would become very common and be experimented with even more successfully in later years.

See also:

The General's Son 2 (1991)
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: 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

Year  20202019 - 2018 - 2017 - 2016
2015 - 2014 - 2013 - 2012 - 2011 - 2010

2010s (Top 50) - All Time (Top 25)


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Korean Gangsters: Next week is Jopok Week on MKC!

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

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

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

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

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