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  • Alexander Wardach

EDUCATION THROUGH FILM: KOREAN ACTION-THRILLERS

Train to Busan (2016)

Possibly my favorite film of this series, Train to Busan was a refreshing display of the trite zombie-apocalypse genre. The power behind this film, like all of the films in this group, was the introduction of a flawed protagonist. While every protagonist in a good film has flaws, mostly all of these protagonists experienced family issues. The narrative of these films as trekking the arc of a person in a state of disarray, either mentally, emotionally, or circumstantially, throughout a narrative that strategically confronts their issues, is a core characteristic of Korean cinema. Exit, Parasite, The Truth Beneath are only a few of the countless films which employ this powerful filmmaking tactic that makes the stories so compelling.


A core cultural representation of these themes can be seen in the end of the film by the only two survivors: a mother carrying an unborn child and a young girl. After reading An Ji-yoon’s article “Korean mother in contemporary thriller films: a Monster or just modern?” and discussing these specific roles in Korean cinema, I was interested in unpacking the message of the ending of the film. The role of male dominance is a typical characteristics of action films, whether in Korean cinema or Hollywood. Train to Busan is no exception. In the film, the three main male characters, Seok-woo, Sang-hwa and Yong-guk, are seen defending the passengers on the train, specifically the female characters, Seong-kyeong, Soo-an and Jin-hee. While the men are successful in the beginning, the eventually must sacrifice themselves so that the women will be safe—with the exception of Jin-hee who turns into a zombie and attacks Yong-guk. The sacrificial acts of these characters finally lead to the sole survival of Seong-kyeong and Soo-an. Although the film ends soon after the death of Seok-woo, the ending creates a bond between the female characters which creates the imagery of a mother-daughter relationship. The role of the mother is the catalyst for Soo-an and Seok-woo’s journey to Busan in the beginning, which only fits to create the parallel that emerges at the end. Although Train to Busan is not a female-centered thriller to the degree described in the “mother thrillers”, the ending does serve as a base for a shift in the patriarchal structure, wherein Seong-kyeong must protect her unborn child as well as Soo-an. Seong-kyeong loses her husband, her expected future, and her role as a wife, to uphold the responsibilities of protection and sacrifice to put her “children” first.


Another aspect of the story, unfortunately having aged poorly, is the involvement of government regulations and a quarantine status in the country. There is one specific moment in the film where the characters on the train are watching a news broadcasting that the government “has the situation under control”. This could not be farther from the truth. However, the integration of this statement serves more as a parallel to Korean culture and government control wherein the political figures control media and the news, and thus what is released as public knowledge to the country. Political oppression is a large factor of Korean history, and elements of this film are no exception. The government does not want the citizenry to think that they are weak, unprepared, or simply failing the country. The inclusion of small details like this is what makes Korean cinema so fascinating as a product of the country’s history.


The Outlaws (2017)

The only film in this series that was based on true events, The Outlaws addresses the topics of cultural and institutional ties in action-crime between South Korea and China. The two core opponents in the film are a gang from the Garibong-dong in the Guro District, Seoul and the Heuksapa gang from Yanbian, China. Although this is not an example of one of the co-productions described by Shim and Yecies, the depiction of the rivalry between Koreans and Chinese members of a criminal ring connects different countries. While this choice was not constructed for an “end result” in viewership or production success because the film is based on the true story of the “Heuksapa Incident” in 2007, the connection between multiple cultures in film does widen the pool of the projected turnout. A typical characteristic of action-crime films in the United States is the inclusion of a European antagonist, usually Russian or German, however in The Outlaws the cultural affiliations are shifted to fit the truth of the events depicted. While this fact may seem obvious in necessity, the importance of China as a global market makes this depiction especially interesting. In an article by Tracy Liang, the statistics of the Top 20 Foreign Films in China Box Office – Release Year 2017, shows that sixteen out of twenty Hollywood releases in China were action films. As producers and distributors within the South Korean film market, the depiction of Chinese gangsters as villains in an action-crime film is especially interesting.


Delving towards a subset of my focus for this paper, in watching The Outlaws and Train to Busan, I looked at the performance of Dong-seok Ma, which I will parallel with the observations of Choi Min-sik’s performances in Oldboy and I Saw the Devil. Without much knowledge on the filmography of these two actors, I immediately noticed differences in their technique. Dong-seok Ma is more of a “type” actor, whereas Choi Min-sik is much more of a “character” actor. Dong-seok Ma’s powerful physique and intimidating glance is enough to create magnificent storytelling. Without forcing or focusing on playing into a character, Dong-seok Ma’s stillness and quiet power lend itself greatly towards his intensity when it appears. This is both as the man he is playing in the films and as the man himself. On the other hand, Choi Min-sik is much more of a character actor who plays with bold polarizing choices to create memorable characters. Although Dong-seok’s characters are prominent because of their intensity and raw grit, Choi Min-sik’s characters are much more “playful” and transform the actor into a level of unrecognizability as the character.


The relationship between true events in the history of Korea and the subject matter of the narratives in the action genre has been a factor in some respect with each film here. However, with each film having its own “emphasis” within the scope of the topics I outlined in the introduction, The Outlaws was most compelling in portraying these ties between fact and fiction because of its depiction of true events. Rarely do film inspired by true events fit into the action-crime genre, but The Outlaws stood out in the filmography of Korean cinema as being able to tell a true story, send a powerful message about Korea’s gang history, and craft compelling characters within a dramatized narrative.


Oldboy (2003)

Another possible contender for favorite in this collection of films, Oldboy details a slightly earlier period of action thrillers in South Korea. Of this series, Oldboy is the only film which has been subjected to an American remake. During my previous response to Jennifer Jung-Kim’s article “My Sassy Girl Goes around the World”, the topic of remakes and adaptations arose, specifically in dissecting the film Oldboy by Park Chan-wook and the Hollywood remake by Spike Lee. The almost experimental nature of the production’s filmmaking choices, in cinematography, editing, directing, and writing, led to an extremely unique piece of work that stands as a true cinematic masterpiece and one of the best films of the twenty-first century. Thus, within the Korean film market of action-thrillers, Oldboy was a natural point of focus for US filmmakers.


The role of family and institutions plays a major and twisted role in Oldboy. Without going into excessive detail, family relationships are the catalysts for the core conflicts in the story. Several incestual acts are depicted in the film as acts of secrecy and vengeance. While there is a brother-sister relationship that sets the base for the following beats of the film, the father-daughter relationship is the most unnerving. The patriarchal system is a core aspect of South Korean culture and a prominent characteristic of Korean cinema. However, the film turns the concept of the protective father-figure on its head when it challenges the very foundation to which the relationship is based upon. The sickest fact of the story is that Dae-su Oh still carries out the responsibilities of the protector towards Mi-do, however he does so as a lover and not as a father. Albeit he did not know the truth behind his actions until the end. This major twist completely questions the familial structure so engrained in South Korean culture and opens the obscenities that could occur in a grimy reality of crime and corruption. This characteristics of the “behind the doors” foulness of society is a similar factor in The Man from Nowhere, with attention to the darker realities that are not typically addressed in public life—such as incest and human trafficking.


Another key characteristic employed by the film, is the involvement of institutional and cultural influences. In New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves, author Darcy Paquet states that “[Dae-su Oh’s] suffering in this bizarre makeshift jail is party physical… but mostly mental. …yet there is something in the situation faced by its protagonist that seems to echo the pent-up frustrations of life in pre-democratic Korea”. The nightmares of Korea in the twentieth century, such as Japanese colonization, division of powers into North and South, and political oppression, are strategically and creatively interwoven into the frustrations of the characters in the film. Even though their struggles are different, the frustrations are motivated by a national understanding and relation to those general feelings. The symbolistic parallels between the character Dae-su Oh and the filmmakers lends itself to the power of Korean cinema and the potential to create a deeper piece of cinema, especially within the action genre which can be seen as sometimes surface-level, that connects these important threads between the narrative and Korean society.


The Man from Nowhere (2010)

Similar to Hollywood’s Taken or John Wick series, The Man from Nowhere examines a form of action that ties to ex-military involvement. This crime, drama, thriller portrays another gritty and gruesome representation of vengeance in film. Like many other films in the South Korean action genre, the production details the severity of pain, the raw nature of brutality, and the motivations for why these vengeful actions could be justifiable. The film immediately made me think of Die Bad and Director Seung-wan Ryoo’s depiction of male aggression as very tribal and unforgiving. Although the stylistic and filmic choices were extremely different, the similarities in savagery of action-crime storytelling were apparent.


In terms of the portrayal of the flawed hero, the widower protagonist depicts a connection to the youxia as popularized by Chung Chang Wha’s action filmmaking. In “Restoring the Transnational from the Abyss of Ethnonational Film Historiography: The Case of Chung Chang Wha”, the author discusses the parallel between an attention to integrity and chivalrous heroism as a filmmaker and as a compelling character in an action film. The ties made to a strong familial connection and horrific loss for the protagonist supported the motivation for heroism as a debt. In many action films, the hero is seeking retribution for a personal loss; however, the power of this film was the symbolism between Jeong So-mi and Cha Tae-sik’s unborn daughter. This choice, similar to a plot point of Hollywood’s The Equalizer, was an incredible display of South Korea’s utilization of the youxia as a pillar in action filmmaking and the level of investment and honor the viewer has towards the film.

Military personnel also appear as a thread between The Man from Nowhere and I Saw the Devil. Both protagonists have a past in the force that reveals itself when motivated by the endangerment of those around them. From the beginning of the semester with Welcome to Dongmakgol, the importance placed on war and military involvement in the history of South Korea has been apparent. Multiple events surrounding government strife, political opposition, and foreign takeovers, have cemented the theme of military involvement in the timeline of Korean history, and thus Korean cinema. In The Man from Nowhere, Cha Tae-sik is revealed to have been a part of military intelligence. When the detectives learn about this, they devise a plot to email the White House in the United States with a threat, disguised as Cha Tae-sik, so they can get access to investigate his past. The filmmakers’ use of threading foreign governments serves as a parallel to the many foreign relations, positive and negative, that Korea participated in, and the effects of these relationships. The search for Cha Tae-sik’s past leads the police to the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and with their help they discover Cha Tae-sik’s identity and military involvement. The integration of government and military service as a factor in the character study, makes the protagonist much more engrained in the specific culture and period in time. Violence in action-thrillers, such as this, is not arbitrary, nor is it crafted without clear motivation based on the cultural and institutional pillars specifically found in South Korea.


I Saw the Devil (2010)

Although the dark depiction of violence and retribution has been a commonality between many films in this group, I Saw the Devil stood out as especially dark, even compared to most American action-horror thrillers. The first film that came to mind in the horror genre was the recently watched film, A Tale of Two Sisters. Horror in South Korean cinema has begun to solidify itself as a “coin”. One side of the coin deals with action-horror as a psychological reflection of society and the other side of the coin explores more of the grotesque and fearful ominous nature of horror. I Saw the Devil is especially interesting because it seems to land on the coin’s edge. The film’s horror revolves around a psychotic serial killer, cannibalism, kidnapping, and mutilation. These horrific themes are akin to typical “slasher” horror: a maniacal killer with no fear and no respect for morality. However, I Saw the Devil exemplifies the psychological and self-reflective nature of action-horror that makes Korean cinema so unique. In Daniel Martin’s article on “Sadness and Suffering in South Korean Horror” the author draws a line between two key characteristics of the horror genre between South Korea and the US. American Hollywood productions are known for their usage of the “innocent protagonist” that the audience is supposed to sympathize with because of their moral purity. Although in South Korean cinema, the opposite is true: the protagonist is rarely innocent.


In this case the “hero” is beset with a deep motivation fueled by extreme pain and loss. While the innocence of the protagonist is initially apparent, the film evolves to show the wrongdoings that the protagonist himself enacts. The plot revolves around a serial killer who is trapped in a catch-and-release scenario with the husband of one of his victims. The husband, Kim Soo-hyeon, catches, tortures, and releases the serial killer, Jang Kyung-chul, until his plan goes horribly wrong. Kim Soo-hyeon’s motivation is to inflict as much pain and fear onto Jang Kyung-chul as Jang Kyung-chul inflicted upon Kim Soo-hyeon’s wife. However, in the end, Kim Soo-hyeon admits to underestimating Jang Kyung-chul, as Jang Kyung-chul’s continual releases only put more lives in danger. The shift from the protagonist acting out of understandable motivation for seeking revenge for his late wife, to the protagonist almost subconsciously acting out of self-satisfaction. Although Kim Soo-hyeon thinks he is doing what is right, he learns that he is only endangering more lives in the process. This psychological shift of the protagonist acting to inflict fear and pain, creates small threads of relation between the “hero” and the “villain”. As a result, the power of South Korean action-horror in this case is the self-reflective nature of viewership, wherein the film forces the audience to consider how far they would go if such an atrocity had occurred to a loved one. The appearance of this characteristics is what makes the genre so powerful in Korean cinema compared to similar pictures in Hollywood. Levels of meaning and understanding create a bond between the audience and the filmmaker, thus creating standout productions in a genre usually filled with cliches.

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