“The General’s Son” films are amongst the most famous works of renowned director Im Kwon Taek, undoubtedly one of the most important and influential figures in modern Korean cinema. Although in the West he is perhaps most associated with art house cinema as a result of the success of films such as “Chihwaseon”, which won him the 2002 best director award at Cannes, Im has a long history of more commercial fare, something which is unsurprising considering that he has over a hundred films to his credit in a career that spans more than five decades.
The “General’s Son” trilogy, which was based upon a novel by Hong Sung Yoo, certainly sees Im at the top of his game, being a great mixture of not only history, politics and themes of Korean national identity, but also of action and spectacle, and are packed with bloody, exciting fight scenes. Originally released back in the early 1990s when the Korean film industry was at a particularly low ebb, all three films in the trilogy were huge hits at the domestic box office, and provided a template for the country’s new cinematic wave.
The trilogy is set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and is based on the life of Korean independence activist and fighter Doohan (played by Park Sang Min, later in action blockbuster “Tube”), a young man who is actually the son of a famous general, and who rises to rule the Jong Ro area and to wage his own war against the brutal Japanese invaders. The three films chart his progress from a lowly beggar to street thug, and eventually to respected gang leader and folk hero of the independence movement, a long and difficult journey which sees him fighting countless battles against a variety of powerful foes. As the years go by and the Japanese, led by the cruel Yakuza Hayashi (Shin Hyun Joon) gradually tighten their grip, Doohan’s struggle grows ever more difficult as he finds himself up against all kinds of evil schemes and betrayals, often with only with his own two fists to rely upon.
All trilogies need strong characters to keep viewers coming back, and “The General’s Son” certainly has this in the form of Doohan. Far from being an idealised hero, the film never shies away from showing his flaws as well as heroic qualities, a fact which makes him all the more human, and ultimately more likeable. Thankfully, Im steers clear of the usual cliché of the rise to power genre, with Doohan’s path taking many unexpected turns, being an epic tale which is unpredictable right up until its very end.
The supporting cast are equally effective and relatively free of lame stereotypes, with even minor characters having their own believable motivations, and Im never feels the need to throw in needless subplots or forced resolutions to the many narrative threads. Similarly, although there are a number of female characters who ostensibly act as romantic interests for Doohan, they too are surprisingly well written and play far more important and telling roles than simply falling into his arms.
Above all, Im is a great storyteller, and he allows Doohan’s life to unfold at a good speed which is neither rushed nor languorous, and if anything the viewer is left at the end of the third film still wanting to follow him further. Im manages to pack a great deal into the films, and covers a lot of ground, not only in narrative terms but thematically as well. The depiction of the vicious Japanese colonisation never avoids the awful details, but also never reduces them to pantomime villains. As a result, whilst the three films are nationalistic affairs, they have a certain balance, being as concerned with Doohan’s own personal conflicts as they are with that of the country.
Im’s direction is wonderfully cinematic throughout the trilogy, really bringing the period to life, and he manages to combine a great eye for detail and visual flair with a basic commercial sensibility which helps to ground the films as entertainment rather than history lessons. The action direction from Jung Doo Hong, who was later acknowledged as one of the originators of the gritty Korean action style, working on the likes of “Tae Guk Gi” and “Public Enemy”, is excellent, being brutal and inventive without any excess of style or slow motion nonsense. All three films feature a good number of bloody brawls, many of them involving multiple opponents, since poor Doohan has an unfortunate habit of finding himself up against rather unfavourable odds.
“The General’s Son” trilogy is a must for any serious fans of Korean films who wish to explore beyond the popular new wave, as the three, and indeed most of Im’s works have had a major influence in shaping the country’s modern cinema. Perhaps even more importantly, the three stand as an exciting and gripping saga filled with action and great characters, and should be enjoyed by viewers of all persuasions.
Kwon-taek Im (director) / Song-yu Hong (novel), Sam-yuk Yoon (screenplay)
CAST: Sang-min Park …. Kim Doo-han