“The General’s Son” is a re-release of the 1990 film by Im Kwon Taek, a director with over a hundred films to his credit and a career which has spanned more than five decades. Undoubtedly one of the most important and influential figures in modern Korean cinema, Im has been one of the first to receive recognition outside his native land, most notably with “Chihwaseon”, which won him the 2002 best director award at Cannes . “The General’s Son” is one of his most popular films, the first part of a trilogy and a major box office success during its original domestic release.
The plot is based on the actual life of Korean independence activist and fighter Kim Doohan, beginning with his early years growing up as a beggar in the Jong Ro area — which many saw as being the symbolic heart of the country — during the Japanese oppression. Doohan becomes involved with the resident street gangs, moving rapidly up the ranks due to his considerable fighting skills and fierce bravery. It transpires that he is actually the son of a famous Korean general who is currently embroiled in struggles against the invaders, and Doohan himself gradually takes on a similar role, uniting the gangs, residents and student idealists, and fighting back against the cruel Japanese.
The film is obviously a heroic, patriotic piece, and as such is perhaps likely to mean more to Korean viewers, or those with knowledge of the history of the time. However, the plot itself is generic enough, based upon themes of courage and pride which should give it a universal appeal. Although fairly predictable, and offering no real narrative surprises, “The General’s Son” is nevertheless well told, and works both as a depiction of a man’s personal battle to take his place in the world, and that of a nation attempting to throw off the shackles of tyranny.
The main problem with the narrative is that Doohan’s character is never really explored beyond his actions, and some of his motivations and acts of bravery, though merited by circumstance, would have benefited from deeper exploration. This is a shame, as the character is an interesting figure, and his fascinating emergence from the violent gang world to become a statesman and political figure deserves more in depth examination. As a result, his character does not develop significantly during the film, and he is easier to sympathise with as a symbol rather than an individual, which robs the film of some of its emotional impact.
Similarly, a number of plot points and thematically important supporting characters are glossed over or mentioned only briefly, serving to only undermine the narrative. This is especially true towards the end, when a couple of plot twists are hurriedly introduced to slightly confusing effect.
Although “The General’s Son” is lacking in character development, and is rather clumsy in revealing some of its secrets, it is well paced, with a number of fight scenes to keep things interesting. The film comes across as a mixture of a serious, fact based historical drama and an action packed gangster film. This is an odd combination which is surprisingly successful, and though perhaps not quite offering enough for purists of either camp, it is in general very entertaining.
Im directs with a rich cinematic flair and a great eye for period detail, which helps to bring the Jong Ro area and its inhabitants to life in a convincing fashion. The fight scenes are brief and somewhat one-sided, though exciting and shot from a number of interesting angles which give them a gritty, realistic feel. The director’s style is measured and pleasingly unobtrusive, in sharp contrast to the flashy editing and gimmicky techniques of modern cinema.
“The General’s Son” is a worthy film, and for the casual viewer, it’s a good sample of the large body of work from its director. Whether taken as a slice of patriotic drama, or an action film with more depth than the genre usually offers, “The General’s Son” deserves to be as well known outside Korea as some of the director’s more artistically inclined and weighty efforts.
Kwon-taek Im (director) / Song-yu Hong (novel), Sam-yuk Yoon (screenplay)
CAST: Sang-min Park …. Kim Doo-han