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To Catch a Whale: A brief History of Lost Fathers, Idiots, and Gangsters in Korean Cinema

By Hyun-Suk Seo

Hyun-Suk Seo Received MFA at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Currently a PhD candidate at Northwestern University. Makes experimental videos and installation works. Recently completed a doctoral thesis, “The Shock of Boredom: The Aesthetics of Absence, Futility, and Bliss in Moving Images”. Currently teaches at the Department of Theater and Film, Dankook University in Seoul, Korea


Outcasts at the Core

Recovering from the long slump under the military regimes, Korean cinema has finally found and fully exploited the ultimate key to commercial success in the early 2000's: organized criminals. From hard-boil action to tear-jerker and romantic comedy, from low-budget realism to blockbuster loaded with computer graphics, the prominent thematic core featuring jopoks, or organized criminals, as protagonists has penetrated and reshaped genre conventions, star values, gender traits, and box office rules.

The list of recent films that exploited this theme can hardly be exhaustive. The trend gained the decisive momentum when melodrama Promise added to a tough and dangerous mob boss some traits of tenderness and thoughtfulness. The gangster-turned-lover has gradually become a popular prototype as Failan, Kick the Moon and My Boss, My Hero bent the dichotomy of the good versus the evil. My WIfe is a Gangster, Friend, Hi, Dharma, Guns and Talks likewise elevated jopok characters beyond the level of ambivalence. Though antisocial in the very basis, their wits and self-given charisma overcame the actual societal attitudes against gang violence.

Dangerous and boastful, the heroic outlaws in these recent commercial hits recover what cops, soldiers, teachers, and fathers could never secure: dignity and self-respect. Jopok characters may never meet the conventional standards for proper "heroes," but they certainly demand the viewers to rework the criteria of heroism. Their outsider status reserves a space for mental integrity and ethical purity that incapable fathers, distrusted cops, and other fragile icons of the limitary era could never fully assume. They certainly are in a better position to prove themselves to be fun, romantic, reasonable, and even morally righteous than any other social groups. More importantly, the homosocial hierarchy that they belong to functions as a closed micro-world, within which they ultimately redefine and exercise manhood. Mutual devotion and group integrity became the ultimate virtue of masculinity that the audience agrees to honor. Representations of male bonds, often refined with wit or black humor, rationalize and even glorify their physical violence and anti-social aggression. Cinema has indeed become the fantastic haven for the otherwise alienated social group, laughter, romance, goal accomplishment, and other usual cinematic tricks enhancing its integrity.

The Absent Father in History

The privileges that these antisocial outcasts enjoy have never been so visible in any other male prototypes in the history of Korean cinema. Korean films, in fact, have hardly nurtured any proper male heroes in the past. Swords, guns, good looks, and other legitimate props couldn't secure an altar of icons as they did in Hollywood or Hong Kong. The historical chain of Japanese occupation, war, modernization, and military oppression has left very little room for ideal male images on silver screen. Instead, there has been a long parade of fallen fathers, involuntary outcasts, shameless beggars, tramps, idiots, losers, castrated servants, and other socially and mentally dysfunctional beings. Oppressed, victimized, alienated, frustrated, and tormented, the male protagonists of Korean films have submerged in the depth of bottomless failure, agonizing hopelessness, futureless incompetence, and even destructive self-contempt. Even the most beloved male icon of the 1960's confirmed this unspoken crisis of manhood in Youth With Bare Feet (1964): "I am useless! I am rubbish!"

It is the rise of realism in the early 1960's that nourished the most candid exposure of deprived manhood. In Yu Hyeon-Mok's landmark film The Stray Bullet (1961), the postwar devastation is visible in the deep mental wound of the head of a poverty-stricken household as well as in every corner of the family shack. Thoroughly deprived in every part of his miserable life as a father, husband, and eldest son of an extended family, the fallen hero literally collapses to a hysteric numbness at the very end of the film. Antonio still had his family at the deepest pit of his life in Bicycle Thief, but the Korean Neorealist sensibility didn't leave a room for such privilege.

The fallen father is a readily visible prototype repeated in some of the most successful films of the 1960's, including The Housemaid (1960), The Horseman (1962), Romance Papa (1960), and Pig Dream (1960), to name a few. In the nuclear families depicted in these films, the Confucius ideology only comes in as a burden for the tortured fathers, granting anxiety and fear instead of dignity and authority. The economically disabled fathers' suffering deepens when they realize they can't meet the societal expectations.

The tortured patriarchy continued to reign over the diegesis of Korean films, as the father figures were either undignified or simply absent. The visible absence of charismatic fatherhood, in fact, continues to be a chronic symptom until today, allegorically reflecting the absence of political mentor in the era of military oppression. It wasn't until the age of Rambo and the Terminator that a proper name of the father was pronounced in Korean cinema. Partly in an effort to compete with the enormous popularity of the hard bodies from Reaganite Hollywood, Im Kwon-Taek devised a physically strong and politically judicious fighter in The General's Son (1990), who learns the true identity of his long-lost father to be a famous military leader against the Japanese colonialists. This rare symbolic pronouncement of the father's name grants the young hero the ultimate reason for being and just cause for his future violence. The formula for ideal heroism seems precise, perhaps too conservatively so.

The Long March of Fools

Im's call for the proper father is an adequate response to the loss and lack of the father. It is indeed this evident absence of father figures that the young heroes of the 1970's and the 1980's had suffered the most from. Even the most apolitical and religious depictions of youth confirm to this tendency. For example, the inner world that the tormented Buddhist monk finds himself within in Bae Yong-Gyun's Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left for the East? (1989)is harshly empty, his only mentor silenced by death. This painterly film captures the mental desolation of the postwar Korea under continuous military oppression in a poetic portrait of an agonized and disoriented youth suffering from the absence of the paternal mentor.

It is in some of the most pronounced political gestures that the agony of absent paternal guidance became most visible. In The March of Fools (1975), a film that was severely censored under President Park Jung-Hee's tightened dictatorship, American-educated Ha Kil-Jong depicts two frustrated and confused college boys as an implying gesture of resistance against Park's military coercion. The lack of direction and goal leads them into a deeper predicament as they find no father, teacher, or mentor to guide them through the darkness of the oppressed youth. Not unlike Bae's monk's impediment, these secular youngsters' deceptively bright world is thoroughly devastated and vacant, granting no hope for the future save an escapist fantasy to "hunt a whale" in the vast ocean, an inaccessible object that metaphorically signifies male virility. The fragmented, episodic plot structure with no motivation or goal leads Byung-Tae, one of the "fools," to the illusory "whale" in a passage that can be taken only by death.

The march of lost youth goes on in the 1980's, after military leader Chun Doo-Hwan seizes the country following the assassination of President Park. Unemployed, impecunious, intellectually incapable, and socially unsuitable, Lee Jang-Ho's deadened young protagonist in Declarations of Fools (1983) alludes to deeper psychological ruin than what Ha's college boys showed. The film is deceptively apolitical and naïve. The crippled dummy's numbness is given no obvious cause, and the narration makes no reference to the political situation. In his Oshima-influenced Brechtian discourse, however, director Lee shows enough signs of his own frustration by jumping off from a building top in a brief cameo appearance during the first sequence. The less than manly protagonist has to suffer in the world that the director leaves behind, failing even the simplest mission that he gives himself, to kidnap and marry a beautiful college girl, when the girl of his dreams turn out to be a domineering prostitute.

Bae Chang-Ho's Whale Hunting (1984)depicts in a totally different light the same suicidal college boy of the same original novel by Choi In-Ho that Ha's resistance film was based on. Rock composer and singer Kim Soo-Chul stars in this romantic comedy at the peak of his career, making the film one of the biggest hits of the 1980's. The repressed idiot has the same fantasy and same character traits as Ha's Byung-Tae but different friends and goal. Bae's Byungtae is surrounded by some of the advantages of the Hollywood-influenced genre traits, including bright humor, quick wit, sex, and a goal-oriented plot. Even better, instead of the equally incapable college mate, he's given an elder mentor in his search for a "whale": a philosophical beggar. The simple plot configuration involves simple icons: a college boy, a prostitute, a beggar, and a gangster. The narrative that balances between goal and conflict unfolds as the unintelligent college boy tries to take a numb prostitute back to her hometown with the guidance of the beggar against severe jopok obstructions. The innocent boy's passion for this hard and dangerous journey, which simply comes from the fact that he gave away his virginity to the prostitute who had been forcefully captivated in the brothel by the gangsters, becomes a harmonious and melodic, however dangerous, tale not dissimilar to Dorothy's search for Oz. The plot is driven by romance, friendship, courage, conflicts, and wit, and needless to say, the goal is accomplished at the end.

The Whale's Demands

Unlike Ha's dark vision of the harsh reality, Bae's fast-paced witty gestures lighten up the otherwise skewed, somber world of the less than heroic youngster. His alienation and lack of confidence in the society turns upside down when he encounters the street-wise and sometimes charismatic tramp, or "the boss," played by Ahn Sung-Ki, the most popular actor of the 1980's and the 1990's. Two outsiders maintain a contractual vertical relationship, through which the elder demonstrates manhood, intelligence, and wisdom for the youngster to look upon. The mentor shows everything a young man has to learn to be properly masculine, psychologically, physically, and sexually. This rare father figure of the 1980's is a near perfection, except he is only strong in words, not in action, not even able to fight for a penny in the rough world.

This incompleteness in the father figure is forcefully compensated by another character at the most unexpected plot twist when the dumb boy finally reaches the small island that his lover belongs to. Dumfounded by their own accomplishment, the three companions stand still to admire the clearly visible goal of the plot across the blue sea, just before the tenacious gangsters make their timely appearance for the final conflict of the narrative. The climactic duel between the good and the evil is concluded rather quickly, for the physical strength of the pseudo-family is no match to the gangsters'. The fatherly tramp is subdued and overthrown at an eye's blink, and the victory of the illegal violence seems evident as the jopok boss finally claims and starts dragging away the resisting woman of his illegal possession. With no competitive fighting skill or strength, the young weakling refuses to give up his first love and makes his last feeble resistance by dangling strenuously on the jopok boss's forceful leg. The final overturn of the obvious power relation is initiated not from the desperate idiot or his subdued mentor, but from the numb prostitute, who dramatically breaks her long silence and clearly spells out her will for her wounded lover and his enemies to bear. The logic of her lesson is self-sacrifice, instructing the boy not to trouble himself for her sake and to accept the reality; she claims that she will willingly follow the gangsters back to their brothel on the condition that they spare her friends' lives. Moved by the numb girl's shocking vocal enunciation of selfless wish, the jopok boss decides to leave behind everyone alone along with the strong impression of his heroic smirk. The three protagonists don't quite restore their dignity and pride but certainly recover their shared goal and melody, thanks to the unexpected benevolence of the evil man.

"They Aren't Such Bad People."

This overturn of the social evil may reflect the director's interests in Christian virtues, and yet the affect it creates holds an important clue to understand how jopok has stolen the hearts of Korean audiences and taken the status of the hero. Unlike Ha's and Lee's subversive intentions, Bae's box-office-friendly wit is far from being an explicit political statement. Nevertheless, Whale Hunting faithfully reflects the defeatist sentiment that Chon's violent regime has induced. The cinematic affect in the final duel activates forced reconciliation with and reluctant acknowledgement of the dictatorial, violent force. Its emotional effect reduplicates the Stockholm syndrome, in which the oppressed within an isolated power relation accepts and honors the unjust force behind the confinement of their freedom, as did the hostages of the armed bank robbers at Kreditbanken in Stockholm in 1973. The goodness displayed by the coercive oppressor may be slight, but this slightness is exactly the magic potion. A thin slice of mercy perfects the shaky superiority. With the unexpected signs of good intention, the evil chaser assumes supreme authority and supremacy. With the last heroic smirk, the abuser magically turns every bit of his former ill deeds into solid integrity of what is defined as "manhood."

However ironic, this dramatic ambivalence of good and evil explains how the coercive heroism marched into the vacant seat of the father. This perverse psychological mechanism serves as the salient narrative logic in many recent jopok films, putting together the fragmented pieces of male heroism long lost in Korean cinema in one hard body: physical strength, charismatic presence, willful action, and a token of mercy. In countless examples, the social outcast turns into the benevolent hero, who ultimately allows the grand illusion of the "whale" to be a concrete accomplishment. With the magical combination of coercive violence and slight mercy shown at decisive moments, the aggressors determine the course of the plot as well as the fates of other characters, let alone his own dignity, and it is this determination that fulfills the desperate demands of the hero-hungry audience. This is to say that it is the very ambivalence of social evil and ethical benevolence itself that earns commercial success in Korean cinema, not necessarily graphic violence, machine guns, or hard muscles.

Fools and Heroes

It is important to note that the parade of fools never came to a complete halt even after the general's son claimed his idealized father in 1990. Most of the popular Korean films in the 1990's maintain cynical glances over the society by preserving the core of the plot for socially alienated, mentally incompetent, and sexually frustrated young males as protagonists. Hovering above the young protagonists of such young auteurs as Jang Sun-Woo, Hong Sang-Su, and Kim Ki-Deok is the very legacy of the ruined youth of the past generations. The Road to the Race Track, Lies, The Day a Pig Fell into a Well, The Power of Kangwon Province, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Crocodile, and The Isle portray young unmotivated men, who face no visible obstacles and at the same time bear no goal or dream. Life is disturbingly hollow and destructively meaningless, their desire fragmented, and their frustration aimless. The loose plot structure of these films lacks causality or narrative goal, deepening the agony of the passionless, the bored, and the restless.

It is this continuous, profound lack of charismatic male presence in such films that the excess of jopok balances out to. In other words, the place for heroes has never been reserved inside the dominant society of the cinematic diegesis. Heroism had to come from its outskirts, and the history tends to honor some repeating narratives, as it happens to be the armed and organized outsiders like Park and Chon who seem to make their way into success with the magic combination. Cold fists, proud shoulders, and a good smile sell.


The following films are available to purchase on DVD at HKFlix.com. Click below for more information on each film.



Kick the Moon