Im Kwon-Taek’s post Seopyeonje (1993) work perhaps feeds into the more art house desires and pressures from the west but on the cusp of this, his earlier genre film work still managed to show through in his 1990 film The General’s Son. While on its faded surface is a relatively clichéd crime drama with added kung-fu style violence, in between its more ridiculous and pulpy moments, is Im’s well known questioning of Korean identity and culture.
Its period setting is not initially apparent with an absence of any lavish, sweeping signposts to say when the film is set. Its narrative and subtle exploration of cultural practices place it somewhere when silent film was still in cinemas. It doesn’t seem worth navigating through its gangster narrative, especially with its extremely systematic, almost episodic story-line. In context of Im’s later work, it seems very safe especially in comparison to the later time jumps in Seopyeonje and Chi-hwa-seon (2002).
Instead it is better to focus on the smaller moments, the subtle hints towards Im’s more mature and culturally significant future. Before the majority of the gangster action has kicked off in full, a short excursion into the world of a local cinema almost works as a charming short film. The desperation with which a group of young children try to get into the complex hints at 400 Blows-esque romanticism though Im is careful not to go too far down Truffaut’s rose-tinted nostalgia. This is South Korea in the midst of a crisis, not France in a post-war cultural flowering. The young boys have to climb into the cinema through the holes used as toilets to get in and even then get caught and chucked out again.
More interesting is the accurate portrayal of cinematic practices of the time, that of a Benshi acting out the silent film. This hints that the cinema is a Japanese import, further added to by the huge posters outside. This begins to highlight the conflict within the film; that of Koreans against the encroaching Japanese. They are shown to have invaded the most popular aspects of culture showing the huge cinema against the smaller Korean cultures such as the crafts negated to small stalls, still owned and governed by powerful Japanese business men.
The film’s protagonist intends to right these wrongs with his powerful fighting skills, initially fighting off rival Korean gangs before gradually coming to blows with Japanese gangs. The usual gangster tropes are present, from the prostitute house that must be protected, to huge fight sequences only with martial arts rather than Tommy guns. The genre trends begin to rear their head when fight sequences begin with just about every punch, kick and move accompanied by ridiculous Street Fighter style sound effects.
That’s not to say thought that the action isn’t well made. In fact some scenes have clearly had an effect on some Oldboy’s more outrageous sequences with one fight in particular recalling the latter film’s infamous corridor sequence. The violence is however tame and seems much more like a smokescreen to distract from what the conflicts are truly about; that of cultural preservation and a yearning for independence. A back-story between the two, eventually distinguished foes comes to light in the film’s only flashback. It is a clear questioning of the pros and cons of a physical and cultural invasion with an old childhood friendship formed through poverty put to the test through fighting for different sides.
Visually, the film is slightly stifled and occasionally drifts into 1990s television territory. The colours are faded though the direction has some interesting ideas smuggled in. This adds to its more subversive qualities in the same that was used by David Lynch in Inland Empire (2006). Im’s aesthetics are however born out of serendipity. The film’s harmless gangster fun gets away with literally beating up the occupying ideologies, beating it into a literal submission with each opposing figure sadly stating “you win” with each fight with the persistent young idealist.
Im never completely submits to his own questioning though, perhaps leaving the final hurdle into cinematic freedom for Seopyeonje. At almost every moment between the action in The General’s Son, there is a subtle nudge as to what is really being given focus. This uncertainty means that the film stands out from his other work as a lot weaker yet this is also unfair. The General’s Son never claims to be anything other than a crime film with some interesting, period practices of South Korean gangsters highlighted. This is Im’s final subversion before completely coming out as full dismantler of cultural elimination; clawing back all that had been tried to be pushed over the edge through occupation and showing that the actions had happily resulted in an ultimate failure.