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Sassy Girls & Funny Gangsters: Korean Comedies

Feature Article by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2003

This article appeared in Issue 40 of Asian Cult Cinema

Cha Tae-hyeon and Jeon Ji-hyun of My Sassy Girl

Sassy girls... funny gangsters... corrupt politicians... all-out riots... lust-filled teenagers... these are all elements that fans of South Korean comedies should be familiar with. Since the start of the latest 'Korean New Wave' in 1997, the comedy genre has expanded by leaps and bounds, particularly with respect to their prominence at the South Korean box office. For example, while the romantic melodramas "The Letter (Pyeon ji)" and "The Contact (Cheob-sok)" were the two highest-grossing homegrown productions in 1997, comedies have grown their market share in recent years. Seven comedies were counted among the top ten domestic productions in 2001, including the best-selling Korean DVD of all-time "My Sassy Girl (Yeopgijeogin geunyeo)" and a glut of gangster comedies. This trend continued in 2002 with "Marrying the Mafia (Gamuneui Yeonggwang)" becoming the highest-grossing Korean film that year. It also appears that 2003 will be another banner year for comedies, with "Teacher Mr. Kim (Seonsaeng Kim Bong-du)" and "My Tutor Friend (Donggabnaegi gwawoehagi)" currently at the top of the charts, beating out all comers, including popular foreign films like Zhang Yimou's "Hero (Yin xiong)" and Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can".

Along with their resurgence in popularity, the Korean comedy genre has been evolving creatively thanks to the continuing experimentation by the country's filmmakers. As it has been observed, Korean filmmakers have a penchant for mixing up elements from different genres to create unconventional takes on standard formulas-- 'genre-bending'. And while comedy is a long-established genre in Korean filmmaking, having produced a number of terrific 'fish out of water' stories such as Kim Jee-woon's "The Foul King (Banchikwang)" (a meek bank clerk finds empowerment by becoming a wrestler) or Kim Hyun-seok's "YMCA Baseball Team" (a meek scholar becomes a star player on Korea's first baseball team), genre-bending by filmmakers has created a number of new, distinct, and popular sub-genres: the gangster comedy, the romantic comedy, the Kim Sang-jin-style comedy, the sex comedy, and the high-school comedy.

The Gangster Comedy

Shin Eun-kyung and Park Sang-myun of My Wife is a Gangster

Of all the sub-genres to emerge since the start of the latest 'Korean New Wave', perhaps one of the most conspicuous has been the gangster comedy. Though the gangster comedy first came into prominence in 2001, the seeds of the sub-genre were sown in 1997. It was in this year Song Neung-han's "No. 3", a precursor to today's gangster comedy, bowed into theaters. "No. 3" detailed the oddball characters and absurd situations faced by a 'middle-management' gangster played by Han Suk-kyu ("Shiri"), who starred alongside a number of soon-to-be-famous faces, including Han's "Shiri" costars Song Kang-ho and Choi Min-shik, as well as Park Sang-myun ("My Wife is a Gangster") as an assassin who kills people with an ashtray.

Jung Joon-ho and Kim Jeong-eun of Marrying the Mafia

However, it would not be for another four years before Korean moviegoers would see gangsters in a humorous light again. And unlike the comparable sub-genre among Hollywood films, with gems like "Analyze This" being vastly outnumbered by weak offerings such as "Mickey Blue Eyes", the Korean gangster comedy flourished with underworld figures dropped into various 'fish out of water' situations. 2001's offerings included a tomboyish female gangster (Shin Eun-kyung) dealing with love and marriage in Jo Jin-gyu's "My Wife is a Gangster (Jopog manura)", a big boss (Jung Joon-ho) being knocked back down to high school in Yun Je-gyun's "My Boss, My Hero (Doosaboo ilchae)", or gangsters hiding out in a Buddhist monastery in Park Cheol-kwan's "Hi, Dharma". The momentum for this new sub-genre continued to be strong in 2002, with Jeong Heun-sun's "Marrying the Mafia" (where a lawyer is forced to marry a gangster's only daughter after a one-night stand) being that year's highest-grossing film.

Unfortunately, 2002 also saw the popular gangster comedy commoditized into a state of creative bankruptcy by a number of low-rent productions, such as Jo Min-ho's "Jungle Juice" (two bumbling thugs screw up a drug deal and must find a way to pay back money they owe), Kim Seong-deok's "Boss X-File (Boss sangrokjakjeon)" (a group of police officers open a fake hostess bar to trap a wanted gangster), and Lee Yeon-wu's "2424" (a group of police officers open a fake moving company to retrieve evidence among a gangster's possessions). However, with "My Wife is a Gangster 2" scheduled for release in late 2003, the gangster comedy may be restored to its former glory.

The Romantic Comedy

Kim Ha-neul and Kwong Sang-woo of My Tutor FriendCover of Asian Cult Cinema Issue 40

Romantic melodramas have been a long-time staple in Korean cinema, which is probably due in part to the country's long history of censorship by governments, both foreign (such as during the Japanese annexation) and domestic (during the military dictatorships that ruled from the Sixties to the Eighties), making it one of the few 'safe' genres that filmmakers could dabble in. In addition, romantic melodramas have also reflected the aspirations and conflicts of female moviegoers as they transitioned from Confucian mores (e.g., arranged marriages) to a more egalitarian society over the last few decades. Even in today's South Korea, the popularity of romantic melodrama persists, even infiltrating other genre films, such as the espionage-actioner "Shiri". Thus, the romantic comedy is a natural extension of the Korean love affair with the romantic melodrama.

However, it would not be until the summer of 2001 that this sub-genre would truly make a splash with the release of Kwak Jae-yong's "My Sassy Girl", based on an Internet serial depicting the misadventures of a hapless college student and the very outspoken (and often violent) young woman he falls in love with. "My Sassy Girl" elevated Jeon Ji-hyun and Cha Tae-hyeon to superstardom, became one of the most recognizable Korean films around the world, and has ensured that almost every Korean comedy is now equipped with at least one feisty female character. It has also spawned a number of followers, each trying to be the next "My Sassy Girl", including 2003's "Oh! Happy Day", where a young woman (Jang Na-ra) takes aggressive steps to pursue the man of her dreams; the current box-office champ "My Tutor Friend", another film based on an Internet serial where an almost unrecognizable Kim Ha-neul ("Ditto") plays a college student tutoring a spoiled rich kid (Kwong Sang-woo of "Volcano High" fame); and "Perfect Match (Joheun saram isseumyeon sogae shikeojwo)", which stars Shin Eun-kyung as a professional matchmaker who falls in love with one of her clients (Jung Joon-ho).

The Kim Sang-jin-style Comedy

Cha Seung-won and Sol Kyung-gu of Jail Breakers

Though director Kim Sang-jin made his directorial debut with the 1995 comedy "Millions in My Account (Doneul gajgo twieola)", his big break would not come until the release of his 1999 iconoclastic satire "Attack the Gas Station! (Chuyuso supgyuk sa keun)", in which four bored youths take over a gas station and end up upsetting the local social order, setting off an all-out battle royale between gangsters, police, and fast-food delivery boys. Since then, Kim has used the formula in his successful follow-up efforts. The popular 2001 gangster comedy "Kick the Moon (Shinlaui dalbam)" features a gangster (Lee Sung-jae) and a schoolteacher (Cha Seung-won) fighting for the affections of a noodle-shop vendor (Kim Hye-su), while 2002's "Jail Breakers (Gwangbokjeol teuksa)" features Cha Seung-won and Sol Kyung-gu ("Peppermint Candy") as a couple of prisoners who must break back into prison after a successful escape in order to receive a presidential pardon. Similar to "Attack the Gas Station!", both films feature the impulsive actions of a few individuals setting in motion a chain of events that erupt into a chaotic conflagration. In addition, both films also feature misunderstood anti-heroes whose hard-luck lives are recounted in flashbacks, while offering some thinly veiled commentary on Korean society.

Bae Doo-na of Saving My Hubby

Given how well the 'Kim Sang-jin formula' has been in creating box-office hits, it has also been adopted by other filmmakers. Hyeon Nam-seob's 2002 film "Saving My Hubby (Gudseora Geumsuna)" features Bae Doo-na ("Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance") as a young mother who ventures into downtown Seoul after-hours with her baby on her back to rescue her husband from gangsters. Remaining true to the formula, the script offers a few episodes that highlight the rotten underbelly of Korea's seedy nightlife, while Bae's character inadvertently sets off a turf war between two rival gangs. Similarly, Jang Hang-joon's "Break Out (Lightereul kyeora)", also from 2002, revolves around how one man's desire to retrieve a stolen lighter escalates into a showdown between gangsters, politicians, and cops on a runaway train. In addition to the similar narrative structure, "Break Out" employs the talents of Kim regulars Cha Seung-won, Park Yeong-gyu (the gas station manager in "Attack the Gas Station!"), and a scene-stealing Kang Seong-jin (who would appear in "Jail Breakers") as an incessantly chatty passenger.

The Sex Comedy

Lim Chang-jung and Ha Ji-weon of Sex is Zero

2002 marked the first venture by Korean filmmakers into the sex comedy genre, following the lead of Hollywood and the 'gross-out' comedies popularized by films such as "There's Something About Mary" and "American Pie". Both of the Korean sex comedies ended up in the top ten homegrown productions of that year: Yun Je-gyun's "Sex is Zero (Saekjeuk shigong)", where a loser (Lim Chang-jung) tries to win the affections of the prettiest girl (Ha Ji-weon, seen recently in "Phone") at his college, and Jeong Cho-shin's "Wet Dreams (Mongjeonggi)", where a highschooler (Noh Hyeong-uk) tries to lose his virginity to a new teacher (Kim Seon-ah) at his school. Interestingly enough, whereas "American Pie" flopped when it was released in South Korea, these two films flourished due to their decidedly Korean take on the genre. Though both films (particularly "Sex is Zero") dabbled in the scatological excesses of their Hollywood predecessors, they also had romantic melodrama thrown in for good measure. This was most apparent in "Sex is Zero", with the gross-out antics of the film's first half giving way to more emotionally heart-wrenching subject matter in the second, echoing the structure of Yun's previous film "My Boss, My Hero".

The Eighties High School Comedy

Ryu Seong-beom and Im Eun-kyung of No Manners

"Wet Dreams" also straddles the line bordering another sub-genre-- the Eighties High School comedy. With many Korean filmmakers and their audiences entering their thirties, the pull of nostalgia has inspired a number of films that look back at high-school life two decades ago, replete with the appropriate soundtrack selections of the period. For example, Jo Geun-shik's "No Manners (Pumhaeng zero)" (also known as "Conduct Zero") details the often-told tale of a high school ruffian (Ryu Seong-beom of "Die Bad") who becomes torn between defending his place at the top of the food chain or chasing after the nerdy girl (Im Eun-kyung of "Resurrection of the Little Match Girl") he has fallen in love with, only with the visual flourishes and action set pieces (albeit brief) reminiscent of "Volcano High". Similarly, "Bet on My Disco (Hae-jeok, discowang doeda)" features a tough-as-nails martial-arts master (Lee Jeong-jin) who must win a disco-dancing contest in order to rescue the girl he loves (Han Chae-young) from a local gangster.

Will the Laughter Ever End?

How long will comedies continue to dominate the Korean box office? Well, if history is any indication, it may be for a very long time. It has been observed that in times of strife, audiences look to movie theatres and lighthearted fare for escape. This was apparent both prior to and during the recent war in Iraq, where North American audiences elevated a number of comedies to the top of the charts (such as "Bringing Down the House" and "Anger Management"), while abandoning war-related films (such as "Tears of the Sun" and "Basic"). Interestingly enough, the popularity of comedies among Korean audiences has waxed and waned with the economic and political conditions of the peninsula.

Cha Seung-won of Teacher Mr. Kim

For example, three comedies rounded out the top-ten list of homegrown productions in 1997, the year that the Asian Economic Crisis arrived in South Korea, which led to a devaluation of the currency, a rise in unemployment, and a bailout by the International Monetary Fund. However, as South Korea rounded the corner of the economic slowdown in 1999 and 2000, only one comedy made it into the top ten each of those years. However, in 2001, the mood was decidedly more somber as the nation's headlines were dominated by a diplomatic row with Japan over 'sanitized' history textbooks (which even threatened the hosting of the 2002 World Cup by the two countries), a sudden chill in relations between North and South Korea, and of course, the fallout from September 11th. Interestingly enough, in the latter half of that year, the domestic box office was dominated by six comedies. Similarly, the latter half of 2002 had five comedies break into the top ten, coinciding with increased tensions between the United States and North Korea over its nuclear ambitions.

With North Korea, the war in Iraq, and SARS dominating the headlines in 2003, it is of little surprise that four comedies are currently counted in the top ten. This is even less startling news when one considers that the unemployment rate among South Korea's youth (which make up the largest segment of moviegoers) is second only to France among OECD countries. Thus, with social, political, and economic uncertainty likely to persist in South Korea in at least the short term, it can be safely assumed that comedies will continue to be a dominant force at the Korean box office.

The Universal Language of Laughter

Finally, it has been said that laughter is contagious. In the case of South Korean comedies, they may soon be transcending borders and finding a wider international audience courtesy of Hollywood. As a testament to the universality of humor, a large proportion of Korean films on the Hollywood remake slate happen to be comedies. Among the films currently in development are "My Sassy Girl", "My Wife is a Gangster" (with Queen Latifah executive producing and starring), "Hi, Dharma", "Jail Breakers" (rumored to star rappers Method Man and Red Man), "Break Out", and "Teacher Mr. Kim". If these ambitious plans come into fruition, they may very well make comedy the most important genre for expanding the reach of the latest 'Korean New Wave'.

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