Gangsta's Paradise: The Mob In Korean Cinema

by Diana Ushkar


Korean culture is unique and interesting in every way, including cinematography. The two most popular genres in South Korean cinema are drama and crime, which are also famous all over the world. In this article, we will focus on the genre of crime.

Movies about organized crime are indeed widely popular among South Korean viewers and directors. It's not just about the amount of movies specifically about the mafia that are produced every year, as even if the mob is not the key feature of the story it is still mentioned in some way. Let's take, for example, Squid Game (2021), where the character of Jand Deok-soo was a criminal. This feature leads us to a thought that the vision of the mob in Korean cinema is a wide cultural phenomenon that at first glance might seem weird at first sight. The point is South Korea is famous for its high public security level: it's absolutely safe to walk around big cities at any time, so it's easy to believe that there's almost no crime in the country. In actuality, things are a bit more complicated: crime does exist, but some specifics make it invisible for most people. The mob in South Korea operates across the country, but the primary field of its interest is the black market and illegal business, that's why most people don't come in direct contact with criminals. It may be that the mystery that revolves around the criminal business is one of the reasons this topic is widely represented on the big screen: everyone knows it exists, but hardly anyone will ever witness it in real life. Apart from this, the mob is an important social mechanism of South Korea as it involves a lot of people, including minors that are getting more and more involved in the criminal field every year. Considering this, it becomes apparent that the mob is a core part of South Korea, so the great amount of criminal movies should no longer surprise us. Let's see how the criminal underworld is represented on screen.
One of the most famous Korean movies is Oldboy (2003) that tells a story about Oh Dae-soo who was held in captivity for 15 years, during which he could only eat fried dumplings, watch TV and dream about revenge on his mysterious captors. Finally liberated, the character picks up the trail of his kidnapper, who is surprisingly part of organized crime. The mob in this movie is represented through the character of Lee Woo-jin – the reason for Oh Dae-soo's sufferings. However, he is not a cliche villain. Once a story unfolds, we find out his tragic biography and through his pain we understand his motivation. To him, crime is a way to get justice, because gangsters can go beyond limits and do things the police would never dare to do. The desire for revenge also gets Oh Dae-soo onto the slippery slope of cruelty and violence, showing that for characters the cure for pain is above the law.
The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil (2019) is another raucous Korean movie. This is a story about a cop and a gangster working together to cage true evil – a mysterious cruel murderer. The mob is not the main wicked element in the movie, but is somehow a guardian of justice. The difference between gangsters and the police in the movie is in the selfish motives of the mob and their cruel ways of conducting business, but this doesn't make the gangsters the villains for the viewers. In fact, a collaboration between the mob and the police sometimes occurs in real life. It may seem at first that in the film the police turn their blind eye to the illegal criminal operations in the shadows. In real life, the police are aware of organized crime, but usually don't get in the way of their business, because it is in the criminal underworld. The mob is somewhat of a police for the criminal world: they keep everything under control and in order, so the police are just making sure the mob is not going beyond the limits.

In The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil the mob's boss is played by Ma Dong-seok who is a rather famous actor. He also played a criminal in Unstoppable (2018). Kang Dong-cheol used to be a gangster but gave that up to live a happy life with his wife. Once his wife is kidnapped by the local gang, he is forced to return to a life of crime once again to save her. There are two images of criminals in the movie: on one side it is Kang Dong-cheol, who is kind and fair and does everything to avoid conflicts (he even tried to make a deal with the kidnappers), but on the other side there is a miserable band of gangsters. Through such contrast the movie introduces the idea that the affiliation with crime doesn't make you a bad person in itself. Crime is a way of achieving your goals and pursuing opportunities.Everything depends on how you use these opportunities; it is always a moral choice.
The same idea can be found in Hindsight (2011), which tells us about Doo-hyeon. He used to be a part of organized crime, but now he's no longer in that business. He's living out his life, dreaming about opening his own restaurant and attending cooking courses. There, he meets Se-bin, who wins over his heart immediately. But the young girl is not that simple: she turns out to be a hitman who was sent to kill the main character. Doo-hyeon is a gangster, but he's so soft and caring towards everyone and especially Se-bin that the kind feelings prevail over violence and death. The movie shows that even gangsters have fragile hearts: "A person who aspires to kill you would never cook such delicious food," says Doo-hyeon.
A Better Tomorrow (2010) is a story about the mob's boss Kim Hyeok, a hardened criminal wasting his life away. As the story unfolds, we see that he is haunted by the memories of leaving his little brother and his mother during their escape attempt from North Korea. His mum was beaten to death, and his brother was imprisoned. The story makes it clear which way Kim Hyeok chose, the crime being the only opportunity for him to get revenge for the struggles that his loved ones had faced. Here is the theme of "violence (or pain) breeds violence". The same theme is explored in Deliver Us from Evil (2020). The main character, In-Nam, can't leave the life of crime, because he's forced to save his kidnapped daughter. At the same time he is haunted by the killer, whose brother, the mob's boss, was killed by In-Nam. The violence and revenge become a vicious circle with no way out (apart from death). Though the viewers do understand the motivation of both characters, the feeling of despair suggests that the violence is not the right solution.
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