The corruption of an innocent amid a whirlwind of political and social upheavals is not a fresh cinematic theme. But what if it is crafted by one of Korea's best directors? Im Kwon-taek
's "Raging Years", the director's 99th film, duly deserves a closer look.
The film portrays the steady, yet perhaps inevitable, deterioration of the character of its protagonist against the backdrop of political chaos, military dictatorships and rampant corruption, spanning from the late 1950s to the early 1970s.
We first encounter Tae-woong (Cho Seung-woo
) as a high school boy who apparently puts great value on brotherly friendship, when he marches into a classroom to avenge the beating of a friend.
Quick kicks zap around the screen and bodies fly all over in the first of the film's many action sequences. What's most important to the plot, however, is that a boy named Seung-moon plunges a dagger into Tae-woong's thigh and runs away. Limping and cursing, Tae-woong manages to find his attacker's house and put forward a symbolic demand: Since you put your dagger in my thigh, it is you who must pull it out. Urged to comply by his angry father, a politician known as a man of principle, Seung-moon gets the dagger out of Tae-woong who is on the verge of fainting. The hard-to-believe scene plays out in front of Seung-moon's older sister Hae-ok (Kim Gyu-ri
Romance quickly and briefly takes center stage and Tae-woong marries Hae-ok, who becomes a stereotypical Korean wife with almost unlimited patience for her husband's extramarital affairs and unconditional support for his failed business ventures.
Then, Tae-woong climbs the ladder in an organized crime ring that dominates the bustling Myeong-dong district in downtown Seoul in the 1960s and builds a career in the corruption-laden construction business, which relies on profitable U.S. military contracts.
While Tae-woong struggles to survive, the major historical events of the 1960s also play out on screen. In 1960, Korea experiences a critical moment in its postwar history when the Army carries out a massacre of students protesting the corrupt President Syngman Rhee. This incident - the April 19 Revolution - is followed the next year by the May 16 coup in which Gen. Park Chung-hee comes to power. Tae-woong, however, remains totally indifferent to these epoch-making events.
It is not clear how Tae-woong's life is affected by these social upheavals. He seems to be a cardboard character, not one who asks serious questions about his existence. As far as we can tell, he's just a simple gangster, routinely running from other thugs after a round of meaningless fistfights.
Cho Seung-woo shines most when he handles heart-pumping fighting scenes, many of which seem dangerous, with a flair. Intentionally or not, Im does not show us the character's wicked side or shed light on his psychology. The result: Tae-woong stubbornly remains a "cool guy" who shows off his fighting skills but never develops as a three-dimensional human being.
Im may be suggesting that the new power elite of retired Army generals during the Park Chung-hee period, who collude with gangsters willing to kick in bribes in return for lucrative government-initiated dirty construction projects, somehow bring about the moral degradation of the main character.
But the political message is not spelled out and we are left to wonder why the director has chosen to juxtapose historical events with those in Tae-woong's life.
Viewers will be delighted, however, with the intricate sets that have superbly resurrected the Myeong-dong of the 1960s, dotted by upscale fashion shops. Even for those with no memory of this particular period, Im has brought to life the area surrounding the Mido Theater, the top-notch social venue for trend-setting Seoulites where only the best films were shown. Keep your eyes on the theater's changing billboards since one of the works on display - well, it may ring a familiar bell.
The film's realistic portrayal of Myeong-dong, which is built on a 1,800-pyeong open set in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, is its strongest point.
Im's masterly touch is also hidden in other details. Twenty truckloads of small objects - ranging from antique furniture to movie posters to school textbooks - were provided to make the set as authentic and realistic as possible. Some 20,000 items of clothing, including 80 specially tailored by fashion designer Hong Seung-wan, also heighten visual realism.
The only problem is that expectations are running fairly high after Im infused a soaring pride into the Korean film industry by winning the Best Director Award at last year's Cannes Film Festival for "Chwihawseon".
For any viewers disappointed in the story, the good news is that when "Raging Years" ends its lifespan at the box office, Im is expected to start working on his 100th film, which will be a truly "historic" work for the Korean cinema.
By Yang Sung-jin