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Gangster Films: The Yin and Yang of Korean Film Culture

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Gangs have always been one of cinema's favorite arguments, not only in the West where the mafia gave Hollywood decades of stories to tell, but also in Asia, where some of the oldest crime organizations have become the subject of countless films. What would Japanese Cinema be without the yakuza films of Fukasaku Kinji and Kitano Takeshi, or Hong Kong without its triad films? Even Korea has its hoodlums and assorted gangsters populating films and TV dramas for decades. Called "jopok" (short for "jojik poknyeokbae", organized crime society), these gangs have made their mark in Korean history ever since the colonial period, but how can we explain the last ten years' boom, bringing to the forefront a genre that rarely made much of a mark in Korean Cinema history?

Formation Years

By definition organized crime societies, be it to fight off Japanese imperialism in the early 20th century or each other during the brutal and tragic Korean War, have been active in Korea for over a century. But why did Chungmuro suddenly wake up and smell the roses, pumping money and ideas into this new cash cow called jopok films? To understand that, we should go back to the late 90s when, thanks to the IMF crisis, Koreans lost most of the faith they had in the government. With many businesses closing down, harsh economic conditions after decades of continued growth, and dim prospects for the future (expectations which thankfully didn't prove right), it's easy to understand why gangsters suddenly lost much of the negative aura they had in the past. After all, most of Fukasaku Kinji's crime films were based on the fact that with poverty and anger comes crime. Saying gangsters suddenly became the new hottest thing in town would be silly, but they were far from the Public Enemy No.1 they were pictured as for most of Korea's economic growth.

If we consider Kim Doo Han the first true gangster in Korean history, then all the movies made in the 70s representing him as the epitome of machismo kitsch proved the genre is not too young. Legendary director Im Kwon Taek filmed a trilogy of films centered around the figure of Kim Doo Han, who was a gangster, but also a freedom fighter who ruled the streets of JongRo during the Japanese colonial period. The General's Son and its sequels were big successes, not only anticipating the impressive industry growth starting in 1996, but also reviving the country's interest in action films, a genre which had been largely ignored for most of the 80s, at least when it came to mainstream films.

The early to mid 90s were years of transition, when just about everything was changing in Chungmuro, from distribution methods to production values, even film culture itself. During those turbulent years, a few classics of the genre emerged, such as Rules of the Game with a young Park Joong Hoon in splendid form, and The Terrorist which starred Choi Min Soo, fresh off the incredible success of the landmark TV drama The Sandglass and shedding his comic image once again for a role which would change his career forever. Terrorist was also one of the first films to show the talent of master action choreographer Jung Doo Hong, a mainstay on most of Korea's most famous films of the genre.

Also interesting was Kim Sang Jin's Hoodlum Lessons, a strange hybrid of gangster film tropes and Korean style-comedy, urging some critics to hail Kim as the Korean Kitano, even though his move to straightforward comedies in later years would wash off those expectations. Still, the true turnaround came with No. 3, one of the most brilliant black comedies Korea has ever seen. Starring Han Suk Kyu and Choi Min Sik, the film is a brutally honest, hilariously irreverent look behind the scenes of Korean gangs, their delusion of grandeur, and the backstabbing and corruption. No. 3 is not only famous for its near perfect script, but also for the phenomenal display of ad-lib by a certain Song Kang Ho, who back then was just a theater actor trying to make it in the film world. His legendary delivery (all over TV shows for years, with comedians trying to copycat his stuttering gangster wannabe persona) eventually led him to gain exposure, another reason to be thankful to director Song Neung Han.

Another shot in the arm for a genre that needed serious momentum came from the most unlikely of directors. Putting together a bunch of shorts with a budget that would likely not even cover catering for the latest blockbusters, Ryoo Seung Wan made history with Die Bad. A Scorsese meets Chang Cheh with a touch of Chungcheong Province flavor, Ryoo's debut shocked everyone in the industry, bringing to their attention his younger brother Ryoo Seung Bum as well. Ryoo would later go on to become one of the top directors in the country, and some still contend that Die Bad is his greatest achievement. But then 2001 came, and the word jopok became a trend in a way nobody could ever expected.

My Film Needs a Gangster

Hi, Dharma, My Boss, My Hero, Kick The Moon, My Wife is a Gangster, and of course Friend. If you're a Korean cinema fan you should know more or less all of these films, but the fact that all of them were tremendously successful gangster films released in 2001 is quite remarkable. Even within a genre that had just started as a mainstream trend, diversity was above the norm. Hi, Dharma was about a group of gangsters finding refuge in a Buddhist temple, mixing with the completely opposite customs of the local monks in what's still one of the most enjoyable Korean comedies of recent memory. My Boss, My Hero brought gang boss Jung Jun Ho back to high school, with all the salad dressing that comes with it. Directed by one of the most successful comedy directors in the country, Yoon Je Gyun of Sex is Zero, the film led to two sequels (My Boss, My Teacher and The Mafia, The Salesman) and even a Japanese TV drama of the same title.

My Wife is a Gangster, if anything, was another chance to see how underrated actress Shin Eun Kyung was. Playing a hard character for most actresses, Shin not only excelled, but also rebuilt her image around the tough woman leading a gang of pathetic losers. Kick The Moon, another success for director Kim Sang Jin of Attack the Gas Station, paired two old schoolmates in a strange situation, with the outcast becoming gang boss and the tough guy ending up as teacher. But of course the biggest sensation were the eight million tickets sold by Kwak Kyung Taek with Friend. A touch of Scorsese and that incomparable smell of the streets of Busan made the film one of the first Korean works to crack the international market, and of course made its stars Jang Dong Gun and Yoo Oh Sung even more popular.

The years between 2001 and 2003 saw a lot of interesting gangster films, perhaps the most underrated being Cha Seung Won and Kim Seung Woo's Break Out. But the other side of the coin also emerged, with countless comedies bringing back the same old characters: country bumpkins with little brain and quick tempers throwing themselves around with the help of their pungent dialect. Add a few sex scenes, the customary action piece here and there, and you're served. First it was critics doing their job and bringing up the issue, but then the public also followed through: gangster comedies not only were all too similar, the image Korean Cinema created around gangsters was a little outside the realm of reality. It was time for a little change.

The Not So Sweet Life of Gangsters

Take any of the major gangster franchises in Korean Cinema and you'll come up with a certain idea of what their life might be. The My Wife is a Gangster (now at three films), Marrying the Mafia (three as well), My Boss My Hero (three again), and Hi, Dharma (only two) series all present the gangster as the stupid big brother you never had. He fights well, he's even a little cute, and most importantly, deep down inside is not such a bad person. He's after all a sort of Robin Hood in designer clothes. Only he swears a lot more. A lot.

Thankfully Friend's director Kwak Kyung Taek wasn't the only one thinking the world of gangster was just the perfect opportunity to make silly comedy, as shown in his follow-up Mutt Boy, much smarter than its title might suggest. With jopok comedies outside of the major franchises almost always failing, some directors started exploring the dark side of the crime world, with not surprisingly excellent results. Most impressive of them all might just be Kim Ji Woon's masterpiece A Bittersweet Life, part Melville but also with Kim's unmistakable wit and his usual visual splendor. The film showed Lee Byung Hun had all the cards to succeed as a serious actor, when he didn't worry about Korean Wave TV dramas pumping up his name value and wasting his talents.

Also notable is Yoo Ha's A Dirty Carnival, brutally violent but also with a strange, quiet power emerging throughout the film. Choi Ho's magnificent Bloody Tie, starring a stunning Hwang Jung Min, showed the drug underworld and gangs controlling the Busan of the post IMF with admirable panache. Han Jae Rim's recent The Show Must Go On sees Song Kang Ho as a middle-aged gangster struggling to balance family and work.

It seems gangster films are finally starting to mature a little, escape the easy trappings that brought the genre to the limelight. It's a sign that the industry has understood the traps hidden under such a tempting theme. The fact current films are exploring the underworld with a little more intelligence shows Chungmuro has finally cracked the surface, and is now ready to bring the genre to new heights.

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Published December 10, 2007

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