GENERAL’S SON (1990)
A feast of fist-fights as a homeless scrapper rises to the top of a gang as local Korean-Japanese tensions threaten to boil over
Legendary director Im Kwon-taek serves up the first in a trilogy of these gang crime dramas, laying the foundations of what Korean actions films will become in the following years.
It achieves this with a series of rapid action fights that Korean cinema will become increasingly famous for from the later 90s onwards.
General’s Son looks closer to an 80s or even 70s film, such was the embryonic state of modern Korean cinema at the turn of the 90s. Fortunately, the action is handled by Director Im, who has spent decades crafting great Korean films regardless of the support his budget could afford.
Here we follow Kim Du-han (Park Sang-min), who lost his mother at eight years old and now lives on the street earning measly paydays for his singing.
It is not just his vocal chords that are impressive though, as despite his slight stature he is a natural born bruiser, able to manage the mean streets and topple much bigger opponents.
Such fighting ability soon earns him a reputation and attracts the attention of Shin Ma-jeok, the head of a student gang.
Problems emerge in the form of the ambitious Yakuzas looking to expand their power on the streets of Jongro and Du-han becomes embroiled in protecting the Korean vendors of the area.
Du-han eventually becomes the head of the Jongro gang and leads the battle for survival on the streets.
The street fights come thick and fast with almost every minor disagreement or sharp look being settled in a full-on fight. This set-up is worsened by the loser often agreeing to leave the area in shame. It’s not a place to get a long-term rental if there is a chance you might lose a fight.
The Japanese characters in the film are the most stereotypically evil-Japanese-in-a-Korean film additions possible and the narrative arch is sometimes fairly rough around the edges.
However, there are some important elements of this early modern Korean film, with various concepts that get developed as the country and film industry booms later in the 90s. Firstly, that genre-blending approach – this is part rags-to-riches hero epic, part gangster flick.
Then there is the groundwork of the action genre, with those slick, rapid and sprawling fight scenes. It is also the early phrase of the Korean blockbuster, something which does not become fully developed until the bumper budget of Shiri (1999).
Park Sang-min brings plenty of charm to his role as the likable antihero Du-han and considering the film was the most attended of both 1990 and 1991, it was no surprise it produced two rapid sequels.
Plenty of action, stylised violence and the master framer Im in the director’s chair makes this an important film, even if it is more a 1990s amuse-bouche of what the genre could offer compared with the full-plate main courses of the late 90s and 2000s.