Kim Doo-Han is a regular street beggar who's just happy to have any sort of stability. But as an excellent street fighter living in the streets of occupied Seoul, he quickly an essential part of the war to take back the streets from the Japanese. Or, more accurately, to keep the Japanese merchants and gangsters from encroaching any closer than they already are- as many humiliations and indignities as the Koreans have suffered, losing Jongno, the heart of Korea's traditional economic system, is just too much.
"The General's Son" is a peculiar combination- both a gangster flick and a folk hero epic, it adapts the tropes of both to give the visceral thrill of gangster beatdowns coupled with nationalistic spirit. In these most simplistic terms, the movie succeeds quite well. The fights are impressively hard-hitting. While the sound effects are goofy at points, the fights always look genuine and the punches look like they hurt. They're everything I could ask for in a fist fight.
The patriotic spirit is also well done. Kim Doo-han is likable. He only uses his street fighting abilities for altruistic ends- he has little interest in advancing himself beyond just living comfortably. Kim Doo-han values his friends and helps anyone who he sees as being in trouble. Of course, the amount of problems solved by punching are limited- so a lot of the time he just listens.
Something that really surprised me about "The General's Son" is that its women characters, often ignored in the gangster genre, play a surprisingly central role. Many scenes are set at a gisaeng house. The portrayal is neither romantic or tragic. These women, like everyone else, are just trying to get by. A surprising amount of attention is paid to their problems- and how they're in the unenviable position of having to consider Japanese clients when the Japanese are the ones wrecking their country.
The soundtrack is also quite excellent. It exists in a strange plane that's neither traditional Korean music nor a modern fighting tempo. It's an excellent match to the tone of the mvie writ-large- just as Kim Doo-Han is at a crossroads in life, Korea, too, is experiencing rapid change that's difficult for its people to adapt to. The music is an intriguing, inventive twist that greatly livens up the proceedings.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said if Kim Doo-Han character arc. While he fulfills his basic narrative role, we learn little about him or his motivation beyond his basic archetype. While his story is fun, it's not terribly substantial- at least in a good way. The overall gangster plot gets increasingly convoluted as the story goes on, and to the casual viewer it gets difficult to keep track of all the names.
These problems keep "The General's Son" from greatness. It's a well-made period gangster movie, but there's not that much to appeal to people who aren't fans of the genre. Regardless, "The General's Son" is the very first Korean blockbuster, and is quite interesting to watch in the context of broader Korean film history. In terms of normal history, too, there's also a fair amount of material about the Japanese occupation. So for these reasons, too, there's definite grounds to warrant giving this movie a look.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The General's Son""
by HanCinema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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