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).

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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).

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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.

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. 

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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.

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Monday, December 5, 2011

Jopok Week: Introduction - Gangster Films in Korea Cinema

Gangsters are among the most common characters in cinema.  We fear them, respect them, are disgusted by them, and want to be them.  They have power, strength, confidence, authority, and they get to do what they want.  They are eminently cinematic, a gangster's tale can be romantic and elegiac while at the same time brutal, sadistic, and depraved.  As a template for the silver screen's adventures we crave to be enthralled by, few genres can encapsulate conflict, narrative, characters, style, and entertainment so effectively.  Although, because it is one of the richest formats for films, it is also one of the most frequently mined.

Look at any national cinema and you will likely find a rich history of gang films.  Hollywood has graced us with innumerable films from the early efforts of Mervyn LeRoy (Little Caesar, 1931), Howard Hawks (Scarface, 1932) and Raoul Walsh (The Roaring Twenties, 1939; White Heat, 1949) featuring such icons as Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and Jimmy Cagney, to the more modern masterpieces of Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, 1972; The Godfather Part II, 1974) and Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, 1990; Casino, 1995; The Departed, 2006) which immortalized Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and the Cosa Nostra.  Japan has churned out countless yakuza pics like Kinji Fukasaku's pulpy Battles Without Honor and Humanity Series, Seijun Suzuki's eccentric Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967), Masahiro Shinoda's artful and cool Pale Flower (1964), Takeshi Kitano's delighfully droll Sonatine (1994) and Hana-bi (1997), and many more.

South Korea also has its history of gangster films.  A number of low-budget actioneers were produced in the late 1960s and early 70s but few are available today (and none in English as far as I know).  Im Kwon-taek brought the genre back with a vengeance in his The General's Son trilogy (1990-92) and in the mid-late 1990s a flurry of stylish and thoughtful gangster pictures emerged.  As the Korean film industry bloomed at the end of the decade, the gangster genre has soared along with it.  There are many gangster films, even more comedy hybrids, and gangsters appear in an enormous amount of other films.

In America, gangster films do not have the same popularity that they used to.  There have been a few successes, such as Scorsese's The Departed and Ridley Scott's American Gangster (2007) but by and large audiences no longer seem to be craving them.  So why are they so popular in Korea?

Aside from being a great storytelling device there are many reasons including the gradual shifting of authority in modern Korean society:  gangsters were once a symbol of fear and power and though they still can be today, a lot of the time they are figures of ridicule, take the Marrying the MafiaMy Wife Is a Gangster, and My Boss, My Hero series for example.  The resurgence of popularity has also been labeled as an aftermath of the 1997 IMF crisis, when the Korean economy nearly shut down after a number of corporate bankruptcies:  high unemployment and unstable futures led to a collective male crisis of identity, youth frustration in particular manifested itself in violence, such as in Ryoo Seung-wan's Die Bad (2000).

I'm thrilled to be hosting this 'Jopok Week' on Modern Korean Cinema where I hope we will explore the genre through a number of examples and features.  'Jopok' is a Korean word which refers to organized criminals/mafia.  There are in fact a number of other words used to describe the korean mafia, including 'Gundal' and 'Kkangpae'.

During the week I will be taking a look at Im Kwon-taek's The General's Son trilogy, No. 3 (1997), Beat (1997), Lee Chang-dong's Green Fish (1997), and I will also offer up my top 10 Korean gangster films (it's been a while since I've done a list!).  I am very grateful to have contributors Connor from the Rainy Day Movies blog who will be taking a look at Korean gangster comedies, Kieran Tully from the Korean Film Festival in Australia (KOFFIA) who will be covering Born To Kill (1996), Rowena Santos Aquino, writer for Next Projection and Subtitled Online, who will be considering male personas in A Bittersweet Life (2005) and The Man From Nowhere (2010), and Darcy Paquet of who will also be examining the rise and fall of the Korean gangster comedy.

I hope you will enjoy this week's content and that you will take part in the discussion, comments are very much welcome and I encourage anyone to submit something during the week.  In addition please join in the discussion on facebook and on twitter using the hashtag #jopok (we'll see if that takes off).


(by Kieran Tully)


Conclusion and Korean Gangster Films on the Horizon


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.

Korean Box Office Update (12/2-12/4, 2011)

Weekend of December 2-4:

Title Release Date Weekend Total
1 Twilight: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 (us) 11/30/11 482,384 775,522
2 Spellbound 12/1/11 420,806 487,861
3 SIU 11/24/11 201,264 838,983
4 Punch 10/20/11 150,737 5,046,804
5 Arthur Christmas (us) 11/25/11 144,574 367,274
6 Real Steel (us) 10/12/11 58,945 3,521,389
7 Moneyball (us) 11/17/11 39,267 602,465
8 Immortals (us) 11/10/11 27,951 1,322,363
9 50/50 (us) 11/24/11 17,663 100,940
10 You're My Pet 11/10/11 4,234 541,356
- Penny Pinchers 11/2/11 1,560 422,686
- The Houseguest and My Mother (1961) 10/27/11 1,543 1,985
- Perfect Partner 11/17/11 1,162 89,371
- Dancing Cat 10/20/11 937 7,150
- King of Pigs 11/17/11 774 17,526

Despite a huge new Hollywood release, Korean films remained very competitive this weekend, managing a 50% market share.  It was a big weekend with 1.56 million tickets sold which was better than last year's 1.25 when Petty Romance opened.  As Darcy Paquet noted in his biweekly box office evaluation for KOBIZ, Korean cinema will have to face off with a number of American tentpole releases in December but this is a very encouraging start to the holiday season.

The new Twilight opened in first place as was expected, the first non-Korean film to do so since October (Real Steel) and only the second since July (Harry Potter).  However its 482,384 opening was a little soft, certainly coming in below my expectations.  From here on out, this frontloaded pic should drop very fast.

Spellbound opened to a very healthy 420,806 this weekend giving Twilight a run for its money.  The multi-genre pic has been garnering some strong word of mouth and may play well throughout December if it can distinguish itself from the many new offerings that will become available.

Last week's one-time champ SIU fell two places, slowing about 40% to 201,264.  The buzz has not been fantastic surrounding the film and it will likely drop relatively quickly out of the top 10 though it will shoot well past the 1 or even 1.5 million admissions mark in the process.

Punch is finally starting to show some vulnerability as it dropped another two spots and lost nearly 50% of its business in the interim.  However its 150,737 take was enough to push it past the 5 million mark and get it to No. 3 on the yearly chart.  It remains to be seen whether it can cross the 6 million milestone, which may or may not be a bridge too far.

The next five spots were all held by Hollywood releases beginning with Arthur Christmas which held onto most of its opening as it added 144,574 to its total.  Real Steel finally saw a substantial drop but it has had a phenomenal run and the 58,945 tickets it sold brought it over 3.5 million admissions.  Brad Pitt's Moneyball dove 60% to 39,267 while Immortals fell 70% to 27,951 and 50/50 also shed 60% for 17,663.

At No. 10 was You're My Pet, which this week secured releases in China and Japan.  It made 4,234 this weekend for a 541,356 to date.

Outside of the Top 10:  Penny Pinchers added another 1,560 to its total; Shin Sang-ok's classic The Houseguest and My Mother (1961) sold 1,543 tickets in re-release; Perfect Partner fell hard to 1,162 and all but guaranteed it won't be crossing the 100,000 mark; Dancing Cat sold another 937 tickets; and King of Pigs added an additional 774 admissions.

The Korean Box Office Update is a weekly feature which provides detailed analysis of film box office sales over the Friday to Sunday period in Korea. It appears every Monday morning (GMT+1) on Modern Korean Cinema. For other weekly features, take a look at Korean Cinema News 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.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Weekly Review Round-up (11/26-12/02, 2011)

A number of high-profile reviews for Na Hong-jin's sophomore feature The Yellow Sea as it opens in major cities across the US.  A number of new of other pieces including on current Korean hits Punch and SIU.


(Joong Ang Daily, December 2, 2011)

(, November 28, 2011)

(The Korea Times, December 2, 2011)



(Modern Korean Cinema, November 29, 2011)

(Flight of the Fangirl, November 27, 2011)

(Anikor, November 28, 2011)

(Seen in Jeonju, November 30, 2011)


(Film Business Asia, November 27, 2011)

(Film Business Asia, November 27, 2011)

The Cat

(, November 26, 2011)

The Yellow Sea


(, November 29, 2011)

(Otherwhere, November 30, 2011)

(, November 30, 2011)

(, December 1, 2011)

(Cine-International, December 1, 2011)

(Hangul Celluloid, December 2, 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.