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[Hancinema's Film Corner] Fighting?! Korean Cinema and the 'Mock Charge'

2012/11/10 | 751 views | Permalink

The 'mock charge' is indeed a curious phenomenon in Korean cinema. This "threat of violence" is usually used when there is a real, or perceived, power difference between two parties; as well as a strong desire to express it. In modern Korean cinema it can be seen in almost all genres, and performed by, well, anyone really. This simulated act of aggression is now an iconic element performed by Korean actors, and actresses, and has become a hallmark of Korean cinema's power relations onscreen. But what is a 'mock charge' and how exactly is it used in Korean cinema?

The term is more commonly associated with large land mammals, and has been observed in the behaviour of elephants, lions, hippopotamuses, and rhinos. The idea is that when an animal feels threaten they will often perform a simulated action designed to ward off that threat. Elephants, for example, will often flap their giant grey ears, kick up some dirt, stomp around, and even add a light trumpeting to their performance. Rhino's have considerably smaller ears and nasal passages, so their charge more close resembles the real deal. Koreans, I have observed, seem to favour two actions that seem to fill the requirements of 'the charge'.

The first can be likened to the sharp jerking head/body movements of, let's say, an aggressive chicken; or perhaps it is also like a snake spitting venom. This kind of charge is often use by someone who is extremely powerful as the effort required to pull it off is minimal-yet the reaction (or 'flinch') is quite significant. It's almost more of a muscle spasm, a tensing and tweaking that speaks/represents a calm and explosive power. Like many other 'mock charge' variants, this rush is often accompanied by a cold stare, a sneer of sorts and, depending on the age restriction of the film in question, maybe even a little bit if cussing. I seem to remember that Jeon Hi-hyeon had this technique well mastered when she appeared along her submissive boyfriend in the 2001 romantic comedy "My Sassy Girl"; in fact she may have even advanced it to the point of being just simply 'a look'. Head gangsters and mob bosses, as well as police chiefs and detectives, are also known to frequently make use of this poetic act of bravado and potency, but here they often go a little further with the type of threat they perform.

The 'open-palm raise' (or sometimes an actual fist is used or weapon/object is held) is the second most common type of mock charge identifiable in Korean cinema. This is where the dominant's hand is raised to the intended recipient and, thus, more closely resembles, and sometimes results in, the actual act of aggressive or violence. Again, there is usually strong eye movement associated with this technique, the sneer advances to a wicked curling of one side of the mouth, and the foul language is better pronounced between other, more godless, war cries. It can be more subtlety executed to, and actually only escalates to a fight when the charge is ignored, challenged or the subject needed more convincing. Most Korean action comedies contain this form of charge, but even serious dramas and crime related films tend to make use of it to.

Although the 'mock charge' may be more prevalent in, say, the action comedy, the gangster flick, or crime drama, it can generally be easily identified once we understand where it is being used-its context. As mentioned, the charge is a performance or demonstration of power, thus it can most likely be identified within any organisation (police or mob), group (students, friends, family) or relationship (wife-husband, teacher-student, police-criminal). In other words, the charge can, potential, occur within all 'relationships' seen in Korea films. If there are two or more individuals, then the charge can be, and often is, incorporated to show who is in charge.

Because the mock charge can take place in such a wide array of social interactions, its effect is harder to pin generalise to. Consider, for example, Choi Min-sik's character Ik-hyeon in Yoon Jong-bin's 2012 crime drama "Nameless Gangster". Ik-hyeon is technically 'a nobody' in this underground crime world, making his mock charges particularly comical as they yield not results or filching from his, significantly more powerful, co-criminals. This is actually one of the film's main riving points, as Ik-hyeon's ignorance is contrasted to the hard and cruel world of the gangsters he gets caught up in.

In Jeon Man-bae's "I Am a Dad", Han Jog-sik (played by Kim Seung-woo) is all about exerting his power over those he encounters (be it the actual criminals, co-workers, or one innocent and emotional battered nurse). What I find hilarious about character's like this is they will mock charge all day long, but when it comes time to actually hit someone it will be a standing kick to the chest, rather than a punch as threatened, that strikes the first blow. Don't ask why, but it's the kick (and we are talking street-style here, dropkicks and such) that seems to be the preferred method of inflicting damage; again ironic because Korea is famous for its mastery over its national martial arts Taekwondo, the form and finesse of which is largely absent in your average Korean fight scene The point is that the charge and its aftermath have to be considered within the context of the film in question, as it is utilised in too many forms and variants to be possible isolated outside, simply, products of power, or can it?

Although the mock charge, as well as the flinch that should follow, may not be uniquely Korea, it is still a prevalent feature in Korean cinema. The Korean mock charge seems to be genre-less and exists wherever power between people needs to be established or stated. It is also, despite seeming initially like a masculine trait, used by women and men alike, just as long as agency and authority are being represented it all seems above board. Individuals don't hold the rights to it either. Groups, usually gangs, often engage in a series of collective mock charges, like a school of fish flaring out of formation, as they decided on whether 'they' are more powerful than the threat. As you can see the 'mock charge' is alive and well within Korean cinema; so next time you are watching a Korean film... Fighting?!


- C.J Wheeler (


* Christopher is a film writer and a graduate arts student at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He lived and worked in South Korea for four years and there he channeled his passion for film into the Korean cinema scene. Driven by his rampant cinephilic needs and Korea's vibrant cinema, Chris now enjoys watching Korean films and writing about what he thinks of them.

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