The late-1980s and early-1990s were bleak times for the Korean film industry. Market liberalisation had just opened the industry’s doors to Hollywood film companies, who quickly set up local offices and established a rival system of distribution. Audiences for local productions were in decline, with spectators favouring big budget entertainment from America, as well as Hong Kong martial arts and action movies, over films made closer to home.
Korean filmmakers needed to devise ways of combating the encroachment of foreign cinemas. Veteran director Im Kwon-taek’s solution was among the most successful. Producing a series of pictures immersed in the cultural traditions and tumultuous twentieth century history of the Korean peninsular, Im stirred the national (and nationalist) sentiments of local viewers and gave them a reason to return to theatres. The remarkably popular Sopyonje (1993) represented the pinnacle of Im’s strategy, but earlier he also achieved a great deal of success with The General’s Son, which established a local admissions record and showcased some of the important pre-conditions for the commercialisation of Korean cinema during the 1990s.
The General’s Son awakened the modern Korean gangster film, spawning two direct sequels (both directed by Im) and countless imitations of its stylistic typography. Im deploys a rich array of graphical elements, stocking the gents with trilbys and black leather jackets, draping lurid traditional garments around the ladies, filling the background with kitsch wallpaper, exaggerating the cheekbones and jawlines of his stars with hard top lighting. The generic codes are so emphatic that when Doo-han strolls into frame wearing a pristine tailored white suit, it’s self-evident that he’s just gained leadership of the gang. On several occasions, the imagery and staging is wonderfully arresting. A delicately arranged close up of a rival gang member, one eye concealed beneath the brim of his hat until he gently lifts his head to reveal a strangely hesitant stare that cues a flashback. Or the interior tracking movement that precedes one character opening a door to reveal a room behind, just as a second character at the far end of the room opens a door to reveal yet another space and suddenly create three planes of action in depth.
While Im is more famous in the West for his austere pictures that converge on European art cinema (Sopyonje, Chihwaseon) the General’s Son series highlighted Im’s range and his capacity to produce commercial works responsive to the immediate industrial environment and the demands of consumers. The General’s Son was also a return to Im’s Golden Age roots as a director of macho action pictures. Hailed in the 1980s for his sensitive depiction of Korean women in films like Surrogate Mother, Im’s nation building films of the 1990s are largely occupied by rebellious male figures who divest excess energy in drunken rampages and fisticuffs. As a consequence, the fight scenes that arise quite naturally out of the plot gave Im’s production team the opportunity to create bloody fight sequences that offered a contemporary alternative to the action cinema imported from Hong Kong and the West.
Doo-han’s martial preferences include the close observation of his opponents, switching the foot he leads with, and following up rapid fist and knee jabs with long flying kicks. Throughout the picture he becomes involved in various one-on-one street fights and inn brawls. Im keeps it interesting by diversifying the antagonists: a stocky Korean wielding a knife in each hand, a Japanese Judo master, a ruthless local who shadows Doo-han’s fast kicking style. Far from a martial arts film, The General’s Son nevertheless counts as a valid entertainment option for the machismo inclined. At times the picture even veers towards the elliptical rough and tumble of a Shaws production, with some scenes proving to be quite confusing at first glance (Who’s that? Where are we now?) and numerous events unfolding through literal explanation rather than more subtle forms of storytelling. It’s not quite a case of the plot serving the fight sequences, but it’s interesting to note how closely Im negotiates the frenzied internal logic of the B-movie.
Aside from the nation, Im’s other fascination here and in other films (like his recent gangster picture Low Life) is the cinema. Doo-han’s gang activities are centered around a 1930s movie theatre, where the citizens come to hear his words of wisdom as well as watch silent pictures narrated by the Korean language equivalent of Japan’s benshi. In one interesting scene, the Korean narrator clearly paints the Japanese colonisers as bad guys, which is quite a clear statement from Im about both the ideological power of silent film so interpreted and the veracity of these kinds of dangerous contributions to anti-Japanese sentiment among the film community. I suppose Im is also trying to set himself up as something of a modernist filmmaker, with this moment acting as a self-reflexive gesture to his own act of historical interpretation within this film text.
The General’s Son is deliberately large on national chest-thumping and Japanese stereotyping. Im understood that the domestic market would react favourably to mass-market movies that dressed-up history for pleasurable consumption rather than didactic education. Given the picture’s historical milieu and Im’s creative approach to history, there is a strong sense of the The General’s Son being realised with dated techniques. Modern viewers will thus be rewarded for their appreciation of the Korean film industry’s financial decline in the early 1990s, not to mention their awareness of Korea’s restrictive non-developmental film policies throughout former decades.