Vicious Circuits
Korea’s IMF Cinema and the End of the American Century
Joseph Jonghyun Jeon

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Company Men

Salarymen and Corporate Gangsters in Oldboy and A Bittersweet Life

In a moment of repose near the end of Oldboy (Oldŭboi, 2003) after all the violence, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) seeks the help of a hypnotist to forget the recently acquired knowledge that his new lover is actually his long-lost daughter. When the hypnotist instructs Dae-su to imagine himself back in the room where the film’s bloody climax had just wrapped up, the film explicitly depicts the content of Dae-su’s semiconscious imaginings as the hypnotist’s voice leads him to the window: “When I ring my bell, you will be split into two persons.” We hear the bell, the room goes dark, and we see Dae-su’s reflection in the window. “The one who doesn’t know the secret is Oh Dae-su,” she continues; “the one who keeps the secret is the monster.”1 As part of her method, she directs the monster to walk away and die. The Dae-su that remains, however, the one who does not know the secret, is surprisingly not the embodied figure that occupies the physical space of the apartment, as we might expect, but the blurry reflection in the glass, a dim, degraded image of Dae-su’s face that abides as residuum despite the departure of its embodied referent (fig. 7).

Oldboy explicitly references the Korean IMF Crisis in the late 1990s as the historical background for this emptied-out figure when we see government officials signing the bailout agreement in a neatly edited montage during the incarceration scene, a montage that compresses the highlights of a larger story about Korean global capitalism into a few minutes of screen time. Comprising the years that he was forcibly removed from Korean history, and the same years that Memories of Murder omits entirely, Dae-su’s incarceration calls attention to the dramatic effect of the period by leaving it absent. But unlike the deliberate vagueness of Memories of Murder, Oldboy focuses on a specific and iconic figure of the post-IMF moment that functioned as synecdoche for crisis victims writ large, the salaryman. If the most immediate changes brought on by the crisis and bailout restructuring were massive corporate layoffs, then the salaryman was the most conspicuous figure in this drama, not least because of the frightening rise in suicides among the demographic, most famously accomplished by jumping off the bridges crossing the Han River in Seoul. Oldboy thus begins with a scene of Dae-su at the police station, dressed in the familiar corporate garb of those of his group and drunk from the kind of stress-release drinking typical of salarymen. It is no coincidence, furthermore, that immediately on his release, Dae-su (only temporarily) saves a man in a business suit who is about to jump off a building. This displacement from Dae-su to the stranger on the building reflects Oldboy’s larger move from a focus on a specific figure to the situation that determines it. While it is tempting to think of the monster that walks away from Dae-su as his job, Oldboy presents his situation more abstractly. Although it resembles the relationship between the salaryman protagonist and his CEO antagonist, the perverse relationship between Woo-jin and Dae-su invokes this scene of literal employment under the larger rubric of the power dynamic implicit in the credit relationship that epitomizes the changing economic conditions of the period—particularly in cases of overwhelming indebtedness—at the level of both interpersonal and interstate relations. The salaryman in this systemic schema becomes, more than a sympathetic victim, a pivotal discursive site that indexes a larger problem in the wake of the IMF Crisis.

FIGURE 7. Dae-su’s reflection in Oldboy (Show East, 2003).

Illustrating the plight of such men in a short story originally published in 2005 called “The Salaryman,” Krys Lee employs a kind of second-person naturalism to universalize the protagonist’s broader milieu in a manner that echoes Oldboy’s abstraction away from literalism. She describes the situation: “Just last month, after his company released him, an acquaintance of yours drowned off Seongsu Bridge in the Han River. The truth of his suicide was muzzled so his wife and children could subsist on the life insurance money. Nightly the nine o’clock news parades such stories. These clips, rare to Korea before the 1997 IMF Crisis destroyed the job-for-life policy, are suddenly so ordinary that when you attended your acquaintance’s funeral, your mourning felt like forgery.”2 Following the formula, two pages later, the protagonist is laid off. After a few more pages he loses hope in the meager prospects offered at the local employment center and falls into a despairing life of homeless struggle at Seoul Station, an iconic site for IMF-crisis suffering. And though the story ends before the protagonist suffers the same fate as that of his acquaintance, his fate seems clear. For Lee as for Oldboy, the salaryman is a quintessential victim of the IMF Crisis, and a figure that occasions thought about broader social patterns.

Taking up this diagnostic invitation, the trope of the residual reflection seen at the end of Oldboy reemerges almost immediately in Korean IMF Cinema to index what comes to seem a parallel labor situation in specifically kkangp’ae (gangster) films, most notably just two years after the release of Oldboy in Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life (Talk‘omhan insaeng, 2005). In Korean, such criminal organizations and the men who work for them are usually called geondal or jopok, while the term kkangp’ae refers more to street hoodlums and their gangs. I have chosen the term “kkangp’ae film” to highlight a central characteristic of many of these narratives: the aspiration of the lowly protagonist for something like corporate rising. Although the kkangp’ae is a thug at the bottom rung of the ladder, these narratives tend to focus on the few who are able to rise above grunt work and humble origins by joining the managerial class. To venture a generalization, pre-IMF kkangp’ae films, particularly those interested in criminal organizations, tend to focus on class mobility in general (as in Lee Chang-dong’s 1997 film Green Fish), while post-IMF kkangp’ae films tend to locate this mobility specifically within a structure modeled on large businesses (as in Yoo Ha’s 2006 film, Dirty Carnival).3 A shift in degree rather than kind, elevating one’s class position becomes subsumed within the problem of climbing the corporate ladder. Such a ladder is rendered somewhat literally, for example, in the 2015 Korean television drama Last (Laseuteu), in which the top members of a criminal organization are actually numerically ranked and governed, accordingly, by a rigid hierarchy that allows for challenges up and down the rankings. In similar fashion, post-IMF kkangp’ae films interrogate corporate work by locating it in something that is like, but not quite, a corporation, in which the kkangp’ae figure, like Dae-su, resembles, but is not quite identical to, the salaryman. In Jang Sun-woo’s classic depiction of the rise and fall of a salaryman in The Age of Success (Sŏnggongsidae, 1988), the idealized figure of the salaryman abides the protagonist’s fall. After a meteoric rise in the firm, Kim Bang-chul (Ahn Sung-ki) ultimately fails to live up to the image; crucially, however, the image itself remains valorized when Kim’s spot is taken by another upstart. In contrast, in Oldboy and A Bittersweet Life it is the sustainability of the salaryman as a category that is degraded, a degradation figured by the residual reflection. These are in a sense glass-ceiling narratives (epitomized by residual figures on glass) in which the limit point is not, say, stagnation in middle management but death.

In A Bittersweet Life Kim Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) is a former kkangp’ae now in a high-level position, the duties of which include everything from accounting nightly receipts to managing the club’s staff, though he does have to revert to beating up unruly patrons from time to time. Despite the apparent security implied by his favored position in the organization, he is cruelly punished for failing to carry out the murders of the boss’s cheating girlfriend and her lover. Upset by this unexpected devaluation of his devoted service, Kim retaliates, and in depicting the ensuing body count, the film reprises not only the revenge narrative of Oldboy but also its iconic reflection scene. After Kim’s death, the film flashes back to a shot of him looking out the window of the club that he manages before all the trouble began, focusing on the dim reflection in the glass without his actual body in the foreground (fig. 8). The camera eventually switches to a position opposite him now outside the window where we see him shadowboxing (another nod to Oldboy) and then finally back to the image in the glass before the credits roll.

FIGURE 8. Sun-woo’s reflection in A Bittersweet Life (CJ Entertainment, 2005).

This tweak on the residual reflection in Oldboy, as reflecting the face of a dead kkangp’ae instead of an absent body, becomes increasingly prevalent in subsequent Korean films in this subgenre. A film that depicts the corrupt intimacy between Korean government, journalism, and organized crime, Inside Men (Naebujadeul, 2015), for example, reproduces this iconic moment a decade later, in fact, with the same actor, Lee Byung-hun, in a similar role. The shot also appears at the end of Im Sang-yoon’s A Company Man (Hoesawŏn, 2012), another film about a criminal organization that is fashioned after a corporate workplace. As in A Bittersweet Life, the film flashes back in dénouement, in this case to a moment long ago on the subway, as a young, less-jaded Hyeong-do (So Ji-sub) prepares for a job interview at the company where he will work for the remainder of his life as a hit man. As in A Bittersweet Life, the shot is residual in these cases, not because the body is physically absent as it is in Oldboy but because it either captures the reflection of a dead man in a flashback occurring immediately after his death or else foreshadows death as an eventuality. Each of these three films specifically depicts dead gangsters who had progressed to management in their respective organizations enough to think of themselves as company men, no longer upstart thugs, having faithfully devoted their service to a criminal firm, which is imagined to function identically to its more legitimate corporate counterparts.

The bloody endings in these films play out the tension that these characters seem to encompass, between violent criminal and diligent salaryman. In so doing these kkangp’ae films about the dream of rising toward the impossible ideal of the salaryman help contextualize Dae-su’s fall from corporate to criminal world. Indeed, the criminal organization becomes understood as the only place in which the desire for the life of a salaryman can persist in a residual afterlife given the transformations in corporate employment practices brought on by the IMF Crisis.4 Both kkangp’ae films and Oldboy idealize and render this life impossible; and the failure of the characters to occupy the position of the salaryman indexes the historical shift in which such possibilities become foreclosed. The residual image at the end of Oldboy and reprised in A Bittersweet Life thus reflects the salaryman’s diminishment and newly felt precarity in a post-IMF era of exploding unemployment.

This chapter will thus focus on these two films in generic relation to the post-IMF kkangp’ae film. By rendering kkangp’ae as explicit employees within the hierarchy of an explicitly corporate criminal organization, A Bittersweet Life’s homage to the Oldboy residual shot realizes a tension that is latent in Park Chan-wook’s film. On the one hand, Dae-su’s diligent investigation, though compulsory and forced by Woo-jin’s insistence, models a specific form of labor, that of the devoted salaryman working for a large corporation, despite the fact that Dae-su is not actually an employee of Woo-jin’s company.5 On the other hand, what we might call Dae-su’s work, the work of investigation, consists also of a good deal of violence, and thus resembles the kind of duties, more bitter than sweet, that Sun-woo must ultimately revert back to in A Bittersweet Life despite newer managerial responsibilities.

Both Dae-su and Sun-woo might be described as performing irregular labor (pijŏnggyujik). Invoking here the technical sense of irregularity—low-wage, short-term work without benefits—the term becomes important in the post-IMF period, when irregular labor increased sharply in Korea, leaving the promise of lifetime employment, a once defining characteristic of chaebŏl work, a legacy of the past. A key element of the IMF’s restructuring program was labor flexibility, and the unusual nature of work for both Dae-su and Sun-woo figures the new instability that the implementation of this directive brought to the lives of workers. By 2014, as stated in a Ministry of Employment and Labor report, more than half of the workers employed by chaebŏl were considered irregular.6 The depiction of devoted, if irregular, labor in the space of illegal business in these films thus lays bare what remains only just beneath the surface in Korean corporate culture: fictions of corporate decorum are fantasies because the boss would rather kill than pay.

We should not fail to observe, however, that the residual reflection is also a reification. The salaryman functions to subsume the larger issues of the IMF Crisis into a tidy figure that broaches broader, systemic issues even as it narrows the perspective through which such issues are viewed. Although the salaryman functions as a discursive linchpin for the Korean labor structure in general, the implicit focus of the figure on white-collar male employment occludes a much broader fallout. By drawing our focus toward individual rather than systemic pathologies, it is a figure that simultaneously elides the full reach of the socioeconomic dynamics it encompasses. The chapter will thus conclude with a comparative analysis of Filament Pictures’ Helpless (Hwach’a, 2012), in which the conditions of insurmountable debt that occasions a revenge narrative in the previously discussed films produces, instead, a survival story in which the fantasies of agency in the former genre give way to the resignations of the latter.

Requiem for a Salaryman

Historically, the figure of the salaryman was an ideological construct, in which the nesting of labor into nationalism allowed corporate ambition to be understood as patriotic sacrifice, its material rewards notwithstanding. This powerful ideological apparatus was buttressed by corporate life itself at the chaebŏl, the massive state-supported conglomerates given tax and market advantages to compete on a global scale,7 which actively appropriated a Confucian heritage. Controlled by powerful families and passed down from fathers to sons, these chaebŏl famously operated on a patriarchal model in which salarymen were promised lifetime employment. Using Hyundai as an illustration and North Korea as an analogy, Bruce Cumings has suggested the extremes to which working for a chaebŏl inspired and demanded deep devotion: “The typical Hyundai worker drives a Hyundai car, lives in a Hyundai apartment mortgaged by Hyundai credit, gets health care from a Hyundai hospital, sends his children to school on Hyundai loans or scholarships, and eats his meals at Hyundai cafeterias. . . . In the same way that Kim Il Sung built a Confucian-influenced hereditary family state in North Korea and called it communism, the Korean chaebŏl have built large family run hereditary corporate estates in Korea and called it capitalism.”8

Although this was all largely fantasy, the appropriation of familial and Confucian discourses for the sake of capitalist expansion became a potent cocktail because it placed modernity on a continuum with traditional values, such that fealty to one’s job felt like devotion to one’s family and country. Modernization became a seamless continuation of the past, not a rupture. This is not to say that all workers bought into this paradigm or that financial considerations were irrelevant, but the discursive fantasy of the chaebŏl did idealize work, and this fantasy pertained especially to salarymen, whose relative proximity to the actual families that ran the chaebŏl magnified the power of discourse. Carter Eckert has made sense of this ostensibly odd coupling of modernity and tradition, rooting the marriage in late nineteenth-century Korean reformist scholars “steeped in a long neo-Confucian tradition that emphasized communitarian values and were interested in capitalism primarily as a way to augment the wealth and power of the country to save it from imperialist domination.”9 Lacking any tradition that valorizes personal profit and the individual pursuit of wealth (Adam Smith and John Locke), Korean capitalism, Eckert argues, instead stressed the unselfish, “nationalistic orientation” of its enterprise.

Because of this ideological scaffolding, the IMF Crisis was not only an economic catastrophe but an epistemological rupture as well.10 The massive layoffs represented not only a breakdown of the economy but also a breakdown of corporate paternalism. During the crisis there was a prevailing sense that the chaebŏl had overreached and required restraint. But in fact, what seems to have happened as a result of IMF-mandated restructuring might be narrated as a corporate bildungsroman: the chaebŏl that survived bankruptcy grew up by rationalizing its strategies, ruthlessly cutting inefficiencies (particularly in labor), and becoming more streamlined for global competition. Hyeng-joon Park and Jamie Doucette have demonstrated that, far from being chastened under the rallying cry against cronyism, the chaebŏl have grown tremendously in wealth and power since 1997, becoming more smoothly integrated into the flows of transnational global capital.11 This newly minted transnational flexibility also meant that the chaebŏl could continue on without the atavistic burden of nationalist duty. In retrospect, the IMF bailout restructuring demands gave chaebŏl cover for their subsequent transformation.

In the opening sequence of Oldboy, the inebriated Dae-su is immediately recognizable as one of an army of men put to work for the chaebŏl. At the time, the actor who played Dae-su, Choi Min-sik, had made a mark for his role as a laid-off salaryman in Happy End (Haep‘i endŭ, 1999), a film about a man whose wife has an affair with her former lover. The emasculated protagonist figures the pervasive humiliation endured by many former salarymen through a period of unemployment that, for Choi’s character, seems to have no end, despite his diligence in trying to find another position. Interestingly, Oldboy borrows some key features from the film, including the use of a picture album to narrate the arc of a transgressive sexual affair (extramarital in Happy End, incestuous in Oldboy). Also, the framing of Dae-su for the murder of his wife echoes the plot device at the end of Happy End.

Salarymen like those portrayed by Choi Min-shik were asked to sacrifice, working long hours for the chaebŏl and, by extension, for the nation.12 Befitting such a figure, Dae-su turns to work in response to Woo-jin’s manipulative game. Beginning from his imprisonment after the initial period of shock and despair, Dae-su becomes dedicated. He sheds flab from his body, digs through the wall with a chopstick in hopes of escaping, and fills notebook after notebook with earnest confessions. Once freed, he pursues the mystery set before him by Woo-jin with singular determination, not hesitating to torture someone for information or to fight thugs.13 Apropos of the film’s emphasis on displaced figures of labor, the iconic fight scene that takes place when Dae-su returns to the prison facility is memorable for its strange, protracted quality. Nearly three minutes in length with no cuts, the scene moves left to right through a long hallway and thus has a comic strip feel, appropriate given the film’s derivation from a Japanese manga. The fighting feels more like physical toil than it does in the typically fast, dizzying choreography of Hollywood action films. The scene even contains numerous pauses in the action during which Dae-su doubles over and gasps for air while his adversaries lie writhing on the ground before the fighting resumes. In a promotional interview, Park Chan-wook explained that the shot took two days and seventeen takes, leaving Choi Min-sik exhausted, since it had to be performed in its entirety for each take.14 In a nation that once boasted the longest workweeks in the world, the fight scene emblematizes Dae-su’s salaryman work-centered orientation.

It is no surprise, then, that Woo-jin, the scion of a rich family and a figure of corporate authority in the film, has a heart problem. Although the film leaves the details of his professional life unaddressed, by all appearances he has assumed authority over the family business. He lives in the penthouse of a tall glass building, more like a corporate office than a home, and is followed around by business advisers.15 So even though Dae-su’s career as an actual salaryman ends with his abduction at the beginning of the film, his life from this point on seems nonetheless bound and framed by Woo-jin’s authority, which Dae-su ultimately affirms at great personal expense. Indeed, Dae-su’s protracted labor at Woo-jin’s behest might be read as a cynical rejoinder to the promise of lifetime employment that proved empty after the IMF Crisis. At one point in the climax of the film Dae-su calls out to Woo-jin in remarkable language: “Ŭrŭshin hoejangnim!” The subtitles of the film’s DVD edition translate the phrase as “Sir! Boss!” The Korean word hoejang refers, however, not just to any boss, but usually to the head of a chaebŏl, and the suffix -nim turns the address into an honorific. Not a form of address often used metaphorically, it might translate more literally as “Awesome Chairman!” Thus, at this crucial point in the film, Dae-su addresses Woo-jin in the very manner that a salaryman would address the chairman of the chaebŏl, revealing in stark terms his understanding of their relationship and of the specific type of authority that Woo-jin wields, despite the crucial fact that Woo-jin was never his actual employer.

Oldboy addresses the discursive instability that characterized life in chaebŏl employment at this transitional moment, at which workers were motivated, as Kang Su-dol puts it, “either by appealing to the older kinds of patriotism, or by laying stress on flexible adaptation to ‘the times of globalization and information.’16 If the chaebŏl historically cloaked the demands of profit in the guise of older Confucian practices that foregrounded familial relations, then the film enacts a somber parody of these historical practices in Dae-su’s perverse labor, through which he becomes a subordinate character in Woo-jin’s family drama. Different in this respect from his counterpart in A Bittersweet Life, Dae-su’s only indirect relationship to the figure of authority (i.e., he is not a literal employee) redirects emphasis toward his abstract condition in a changing economy rather than in his specific circumstances. Framed in this manner, Dae-su’s labor comes to play out a deep-seated anxiety about the efficacy of work and the autonomy of the laborer in the wake of the IMF Crisis. His efforts, however diligent, are already accounted for by Woo-jin’s plan.

Notes

1. Oldboy (Olduboi), dir. Park Chan-wook (2003; Tartan Video, 2005), DVD.

2. Krys Lee, “The Salaryman,” in Drifting House (New York: Penguin, 2012), 93–112, 93–94.

3. See Chi-Yun Shin, “Two of a Kind: Gender and Friendship in Friend and Take Care of My Cat,” in New Korean Cinema, ed. Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stringer (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), 123; and Jinhee Choi, The South Korean Film Renaissance: Local Hitmakers, Global Provocateurs (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2010), 63. I am bracketing off high school films and comedies (both discussed by Choi) that compose significant subgenres under this larger rubric.

4. The limit of the kkangp’ae’s ability to rise marks a dynamic similar to the one Andrew Hoberek discusses in his account of the postwar growth of the middle class in the United States. Against the current nostalgia for the postwar middle class in contemporary American culture, Hoberek demonstrates that such nostalgia misremembers the initial anxiety that inhered in the transition from ownership to salaried labor. In kkangp’ae films it is typically the point at which the kkangp’ae feels emboldened or entitled to transcend the bounds of wage labor that he experiences violent rebuke. See Andrew Hoberek, The Twilight of the Middle Class: Post–World War II American Fiction and White-Collar Work (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 9.

5. The film is full of what Keith B. Wagner terms “fragments of labor” or “iconographic elements of the working class or ‘salarymen’” that “litter Park’s mise-en-scène,” including, in the case of the latter, “briefcases, dark-colored business suits, topcoats, and black umbrellas for Seoul’s damp climate.” See Keith B. Wagner, “Fragments of Labor: Neoliberal Attitudes and Architectures in Contemporary South Korean Cinema,” in Neoliberalism and Global Cinema: Capital, Culture, and Marxist Critique, ed. Jyostna Kapur and Keith B. Wagner (London: Routledge, 2011), 217–38, 217.

6. Jeon Jong-hwi, “Ministry: More Than Half of Chaebol Workers Are Irregular,” The Hankyoreh, July 11, 2014, http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_business/646581.html.

7. For a discussion of chaebŏl see Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (New York: Norton, 1997), 326–31.

8. Bruce Cumings, “The Korean Crisis and the End of ‘Late’ Development,” New Left Review 231 (1998): 43–72, 64.

9. Carter J. Eckert, “The South Korean Bourgeoisie: A Class in Search of Hegemony,” in State and Society in Contemporary Korea, ed. Hagen Koo (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 95–130, 117.

10. See Rob Wilson, “Killer Capitalism on the Pacific Rim: Theorizing Major and Minor Modes of the Korean Global,” boundary 2 34, no. 1 (2007): 115–33, 127.

11. Hyeng-joon Park and Jamie Doucette, “Financialization or Capitalization? Debating Capitalist Power in South Korea in the Context of Neoliberal Globalization,” Capital and Class 40, no. 3 (2016): 533–54, 549–51. See also Martin Hart-Landsberg, “The South Korean Economy: Problems and Prospects,” in Marxist Perspectives on South Korea in the Global Economy, ed. Martin Hart-Landsberg, Seongjin Jeong, and Richard Westra (London: Routledge, 2007).

12. See Roger L. Janelli, Making Capitalism: The Social and Cultural Construction of a South Korean Conglomerate (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 109–15.

13. For an account of the film’s treatment of incarceration and torture within a post-9/11 milieu, see Hye Seung Chung and David Scott Diffrient, Movie Migrations: Transnational Genre Flows and South Korean Cinema (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015), 188–207.

14. Chan-wook Park, interview, Neil Young’s Film Lounge, August 22, 2004, www.jigsawlounge.co.uk/film/parkchanwookinterview.html.

15. See Liese Spencer, “Revenger’s Tragedy,” Sight and Sound 14, no. 10 (2004): 18–20. Park Chan-wook is quoted: “Usually when you look at the smart places where rich people live you want to live there too, but here I wanted viewers to feel the opposite” (20). For a compelling reading of Woo-jin’s penthouse see Wagner, “Fragments of Labor,” 234–35.

16. Su-dol Kang, “Labour Relations in Korea Between Crisis Management and Living Solidarity,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 1, no. 3 (2000): 393–407, 394.