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[HanCinema's Film Review] Authority and Power in Korean Cinema


The representation of authority in modern Korean cinema has me perplexed. The power and agency public organisations should hold is lacking, with institutions being portrayed as weak, incompetent and unprofessional. This is not a judgement but rather an observation that recent films such as "Silenced" and "Poongsan" have confirmed. Political corruption, police incompetence, and individual responsibility seems to be some of strongest themes running through contemporary Korean cinema.

The 2011 film "Silenced" has sparked outcry from the Korean public as the true-life story, on which is was based, remains unresolved even in this cinematic retelling. The Korean populous has refused to accept the results of the investigation and have sited a number of laws and procedures they want to have change in order to prevent another tragedy from occurring. Similarly, "Children", also released earlier this year, was based on another unresolved case of abduction that failed to yield any satisfactory results or convictions. True-life cases continue to make their way to Korean cinemas and seem to feed the stereotyping of Korean authority figures. Films such as "Memories of Murder", "Silenced", "Children..." are indeed works of fiction but there are many other films, not inspired by real-world events, that pose and present the same philosophy on public authority in Korea.

Korean films based on unsolved cases

I have yet to watch a Korean film where the police are a professional outfit, whose omnipotence is unfailing in the face of public threats. In most films, the power seems to fall on the individual and their own abilities and sense of justice. Consider a genre that Korean cinema has become renowned for, the revenge thriller. From "Old Boy" to "The Chaser", institutionalised authority is either abandoned, ignored, rendered impotent, or subverted. The 'law' is not as all seeing as most western films would have it. Instead, it falls on the shoulders on individuals to act out their justice (e.g. "I Saw the Devil" and "The Man From Nowhere"), acting mostly outside public organisations and authorities. The Korean obsession with the revenge thriller genre typifies the culture's dissatisfaction with not only its police force, but with all public power that seemingly transcends the individual. Frustration, it seems to me, is driving some of biggest themes I've seen in Korean cinema.

 Public Power and Representation

 The police are goofy, unprofessional, and impotent. It's almost like an inside joke within Korean cinema as they are perhaps mirroring a public consensus on the incompetency of their police force and public power holders. This paradigm of powerlessness is embedded within so much of Korea's cinema and its hard not to question or identify.

"Memories of Murder": Incompetence and police brutality

 In "Mother - 2009" and "Memories of Murder" there are a number of scenes that contain re-enactments of suspects' crimes. A public showing aimed at displaying to the public and media the police's potency and ability to achieve results. This attempt to portray authority as 'powerful' is contradicted by the very means through which they attempt to portray themselves. In "Memories of Murder" the suspect who is forced to partake in the re-enactment is seemingly innocent, but the need for results supersedes actual justice. Even in "Mother - 2009" the detectives have the right man but still they are clueless and unconvinced, driven by public approval and their image instead of true conviction and solid policing. So unsure is Korea's authority that they no longer prioritise legitimate results and instead value public and organisational approval.

"Mother - 2009": Criminal re-enactments and false justice

Bureaucratic acknowledgement is a strong motivator, it would seem, as the hierarchy within public organisations rules the roost. "The Unjust" is good example here as corruption on all levels is the name of the game. Public prosecutors, detectives, politicians, all are involved in some way as the measure of success is weighted on inter-organisational scales rather than public ones. It's a paradox that is hard to digest as the public is fed want they apparently desire.

Eastern Vs. Western Portrayals of Public Power.

I have come to consider the stark difference between Hollywood's portrayal of power and Korea's. In most western cinemas, organisational power is unrelenting, all-powerful, and absolute. The authorities will get you, no matter where you run or hide, they will find you or yours. The police are sharp, professional, pragmatic, and goal-orientated. Shows like "CSI" and even "Lost" are based upon the notion that highier authorities are ever-present and their influence is constantly felt. Crime shows are very popular in Korea, on any given night there are a large number of them showing, mostly from the U.S. Maybe it's a yarning for competence and trust in governmental institutions or maybe its something else entirely. But the difference between the two nations portrayal of power is undeniable.

"The Apprehenders": Comical relief and inter-organisational conflict

Where is Korea's Horatio Caine or James Bond? Love them or hate them they get results. Where is the power and respect for government agencies we see in so many American and other western spy and thriller films? Organisations like the L.A.P.D, the F.B.I, MI6, and the C.I.A have accumulated such robust cinematic meanings that one almost fears them without reason. Whether you are a westerner or not, organisations like these seem to have too much power and their reach is frightening and all too real.

 On the other end of the spectrum there is Korean cinema that has no equal or anything close for that matter. Police are almost cartoon as they blunder around the screen, tripping over each other and cursing one another for their errors. Korea's N.I.S (National Intelligence Service) and Seoul's S.M.P.A (Seoul Metropolitan Police Service) are not framed in any favourable light and seem to act as ineffectual plot hinges most of the time as opposed to trusted law officials.

"Children...": False conflict and closure

It is not my intention to impose America's cinematic representation of power onto Korean cinema. It is only my goal to contrast the two in order to show the stark differences that exists. Perhaps American cinema could do well to humanise its law agencies, and in doing so strip them of the 'fear factor' they emit. But as far as Korean cinema goes the manner in which law and authority is framed is an interesting phenomenon that, like other world cinemas, is not doubt a product of their socio-political histories and the collective consciousness that results.

"The Chaser": Working outside the law

Film is a medium that inherently predisposes the viewer to certain positions of power and/or powerlessness. There is a complex play between the screen images and the culture from which they emerged. Recent Korean history offers insight to why Korean cinema has chosen to subvert authority and displace power to the individual. A sense of helplessness perhaps is being voiced, a dissatisfaction with agencies and organisations that hold power over the public. Corruption, abuse, mismanagement, unprofessionalism, incompetence, and impotency all seem, to continually emerge in Korea cinema in one way or another. It's a fascinating phenomenon that I will continue to keep my eye on and seek answers for.


-C.J. Wheeler (

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