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The Medium as the Message: Cinematic Intertextuality in Im Kwon-Taek’s The General’s Son

November 10, 2009 | By

Korean gangster films of this period, however, often interweave within the narratives and their modes of representation, commentaries on the relations between the two.

Since Alias, Jimmy Valentine (Maurice Tourneur 1915), the gangster film has been a staple of the American film culture, growing in tandem with the efflorescence of organized crime and its attendant perverse glamour. The genre itself traversed the world, and each new host cultural transformed it according to historical and cultural situations and the political fantasies it came to serve. This essay is part of a larger survey Korean gangster films from the early 1990s to the present whose aim is to delineate their tendency for self-reflection. It is common sense to maintain a distinction between the cinematic image and the terrible reality of the gangster, but the power of the former tends to affect one’s sense of the latter. Korean gangster films of this period, however, often interweave within the narratives and their modes of representation, commentaries on the relations between the two.

Personal/National History as Film History

In 2000, Im Kwon-taek’s film Chunhyang was nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes; in 2002 Im won that award as best director for Chiwaseon, thus securing his position as internationally acclaimed director, and doing much to solidify the Korean Wave on the world stage. But these were his ninety-seventh and ninety-eighth films in a directorial career that began in 1962. Despite his prodigious output, Im’s work did not achieve consistent commercial success, until 1990, when he made the gangster saga Janggun ui Adeul [The General’s Son ]. This was the biggest box office hit in Korean history up until that time, and in fact, so successful, Im had to make two sequels.

 

The Medium as the Message:Cinematic Intertextuality in Im Kwon-Taek’s The General’s Son The film is a macho-action flick in the form of a bio-pic. It follows the early life of Kim Du-han (1918-1972), who strong-armed campaigns against communists and suspected communists in the 1940s and 50s enabled his right-wing political career. He was elected to parliament in 1954 and again in 1965, and known as a colorful and dangerous loose cannon [1]. Kim seems a particularly odd choice as subject for Im, who was raised in a family of leftists and partisan who fled persecution at the hands of groups like those that Kim led [2]. But The General’s Son deals only with Kim’s youth, as a street-beggar who ascended to the leadership of the Korean gang ruling the downtown Chungno neighborhood of Seoul during Japanese colonial rule.

The film takes at face value the major legends surrounding Kim Du-han. First of all, that he was the son of Kim Gwajun, the general in the Korean Independence Army who allegedly led a campaign against the Japanese army in Manchuria that resulted in 3,000 Japanese deaths without a single Korean one. Secondly, that Kim himself was such a powerful and talented street fighter that he at times defeated as many as twenty armed and unarmed men with his bare hands. The myth of Kim’s prowess makes for great action choreography but also underwrites a rather simplistic narrative of Kim’s rise to power. The notion of Kim’s patrimony, however, is fundamental to larger thematic questions the film raises (perhaps in spite of itself).

By linking Kim Du-han to the freedom fighter, the film raises the status of the outlaw to the rebel. Indeed, the significance of the independence movement –its violence seen as valiant struggle against injustice, adds another dimension to the fact that under colonial rule, the clear division between the legal and the extra-legal is suspended. Du-han lives in the Chung-no neighborhood, which is the “Korean” quarters – across the way from the upscale Chungmuro neighborhood reserved for the Japanese (and renamed by them Honmachi – “Main Town”). Du-han must negotiate his way among the Korean gangs of Chung-no and the Japanese gangs of Honmachi. But the criminal intentions and violent forms of intimidation practice by the Japanese gangs only echoes the criminality of the Japanese authorities – the police, military, and judicial system. And the Korean gangs who victimize fellow Koreans actually can be reasoned with, unlike the Korean collaborationists in the police force. This legal limbo allows the film to celebrate Du-han’s actions without seeming to endorse organized crime. By the same token, the exclusive focus on this period allows the film to isolate Du-han colonial “heroism” from his post-liberation right-wing thuggery.

 

The Medium as the Message:Cinematic Intertextuality in Im Kwon-Taek’s The General’s Son Although the main narrative trajectory consists primarily in Du-han beating up ever-more powerful opponents, there is a collateral history involving the cinema at the time, that merits attention. Virtually every milestone in young Du-han’s life is marked by a moment in Korean-Japanese film history. The film opens when the hapless teenage beggar is released from prison- where he had been sentenced to a year for sneaking into a Japanese movie theater. It is only at the film’s conclusion does Du-han learn the reason for such a severe sentence-the Japanese wanted to keep close tabs on the son of such a formidable enemy of the empire.

Du-han finds his first job as a sandwich board barker, advertising films playing at Chungno’s Woomi Theater. We see him walking the streets wearing the board and announcing the film Jeonghwa Hongryeong Jeon [The Story of Jeonghwa and Hongryong] (Hong Gaemyeong 1936). “Starring the great Moon Ye-bong!” he shouts. Both the plot and the star are allusions that are far more significant than mere historical details.

The film is a famous tale of two sisters, doted on by their father, Officer Bae, but killed by their evil stepmother. Moon Ye-bong (1917-1999) plays the ghost of Jeonghwa who successfully pleads for justice to the magistrate. The story lends itself to an allegory of Korea’s suffering at the hands of the Japanese colonial invaders. And the parallel between Kim Duhan’s and the sisters’ father creates a parallel between Kim’s personal plight and that of his suspended nation.

The acclamation of Moon Ye-bong’s name also evokes an intertextual excess. Moon was one of the most beloved actresses of the 1930s and early 1940s [3]. But her appearance in several high-profile pro-Japanese propaganda films made it difficult for her to remain in the south after the liberation. She fled to the north and continued her long film career in North Korea. She was so valued there that Kim Jong-il himself sent flowers to her grave [4]. While the plot of the film serves proto-nationalist interests, the image of the star exposes the volatility of the politics of affect and representation in the flow of history beyond the moment at hand.

The Medium as the Message:Cinematic Intertextuality in Im Kwon-Taek’s The General’s Son

When Du-han is attacked by two thugs attempting to steal his movie tickets, Du-han’s successful defense attracts the attention to the thugs’ boss, “Double-blade” who invites Du-han into his gang and gets him a job inside the Woomi Theater. This move takes place against the background of an internal division in Chungmuro. Rivalry for territory among Korean gangs makes impossible any sense of Korean solidarity against the Japanese. When Du-han takes the new job, two major gangs, the “Bandits” and the “YMCA” gang are about to engage in a final battle outside the theater that will determine who will prevail. This happens as Du-han works the matinee of the film Kukgyeon “National Border”. The irony of the title is multiple: as part of the Japanese empire, Korean is neither a nation nor does it enjoy an integrity of its borders. Secondly, the question of the national “border” is reflected in the battle for territory within Chungno that will result in one faction responsible to hold its borders against Japanese encroachment.

But the ambivalence or multivalence of the “border” is echoed in the ambiguity of which film the title refers to. The first Kukgyeong was made in 1923, directed by Kim Doosan, and the second Kukgyeong was made in 1939 by Choe Ingyu. Although neither film is extant, the plots are known. The scene recreated in Im’s film resembles the first film more closely. If it is the former, this means that the narrative of the plot works independently from the progression of film history. Du-han’s first moment is marked by a film from 1936, but his next moment by a film made 13 years earlier. On the other hand, the incidents in Du-han’s life (as filmed) cover only one or two days, but are marked by the three-year leap between the first and second film. The plot is a chronological progression, the film selection an associative one. Furthermore, the allusion to Choe Ingyu functions in a way similar to the allusion to Moon Ye-bong, and even expands that earlier reference. Choe was a cinematographer and director who made several well-distributed pro-Japanese films – several with Moon Ye-bong. Their film Cip eomneun cheonsa [Homeless Angels] (1941), that praised the Japanese benevolence to homeless Korean children was even screened in Japan, despite its language being Korean [5]. While Moon Ye-bong fled to the north, Choe attempt to make amends for his earlier work by filming a pro-liberation melodrama in 1948, Jayu Manse [Hooray Freedom]. Nevertheless, Choe “disappeared” in the early 1950s, purportedly into the North under circumstances that remain unclear.

The scene of the screening is very complex. Inside the theater we see a reconstructed scene in which two Korean thieves part and plan to meet in Harbin, a plan that foreshadows Du-han’s own flight to Harbin in the sequel. We also see the Japanese police censors in the back, reading a Japanese translation of the script, while the pyonsa, the live film narrator, recites a plot and recreates dialogue blatantly anti-Japanese understood and enjoyed by the audience literally under the noses of the monolingual oppressors. Meanwhile, outside the theater, the YMCA gang battles the Bandits beneath the huge posters announcing Kukgyeong, and banish their opponents, fallen before the entrance of the theater.

The film’s penultimate battle is between a now powerful Kim Du-han and his most formidable opponent- both in terms of prowess and in terms of Japanese cultural capital. Maruoka is a black belt Judo champion sent by the government to train soldiers and police. He is a descendant from samurai and lives by samurai ideals. Du-han brings a bilingual aid when he challenges him to make sure each understand each other perfectly. Thus the “ultimate battle” is also the first real attempt at full communication between the Korean hero and the Japanese authority. Du-han chooses as the site the square in front of Woomi theater. Through his interpreter he identifies himself as “Kim Du-han, leader of the Chungno Neighborhood,” and explains his choice of location by saying that “Woomi theater is the heart of Chungno which is the heart of Korea.” Maruoka accepts this perfectly, and respectfully matches Kim Du-han’s introduction with his own introduction as a “Samurai of Japan.” And as a samurai, he guarantees Du-han that the Japanese police will not interfere.

The fight is ferocious yet honorable, resulting in Maruoka’s unconscious body carried away by Japanese police.

Far more interesting than the implausible but predictable outcome is the site itself. Looming over the combatants are three enormous posters announcing, not a Korean film, but a Japanese film: Kokushi Muso (Itami Mansaku 1932), starring the legendary Kataoka Chiezo (1903-1983) [6]. The film features two samurai who duel each other only to discover they have the same name. The title of the film roughly translates to “National Warrior Without Twin” – ironic since the warriors prove to be twins of each other. Thus in some ways the assimilation of Korea to Japan marked by the intrusion of Japanese film into the Korean theater is offset with the suggestion of a common code of honor and strength among the two opponents, of the possibility of Korea eventually gaining recognition from Japan. It is further (sadly) ironic that in 1965, when Korea and Japan normalized relations, the Japanese contingent most enthusiastically responsible were essential Korean-Japanese war criminals who had become successful yakuza after their release from prison by the GHQ [7]. Thus the point of victory, defeat, and victory within a larger oppression becomes for the contemporary spectator another scene of contradiction and compromise – that between politics and mythology, between criminality and justice, and between fantasy and responsibility.

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Earl Jackson Jr is professor of Cinema Studies at Korean National University of the Arts, author of Strategies of Deviance, and numerous articles. Contributed to the script for the film Viewfinder (Kim Jeong, 2009), which premiered at Pusan International Film Festival. He is the Co-director (with Kim Soyoung) of the Trans-Asia Screen Cultures Institute.
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