“Love only matters when you can sell it” in the nihilistic world of Jang Sun-woo’s The Age of Success (성공시대, Seonggong shidae). The Korea of 1988 was one of increasingly prosperity in which the recently democratised nation looked forward to a new era of freedom, hosting the Olympic Games as a calling card to the world stage. Like everywhere else in the ‘80s however it was also a time in which greed was good, time was money, and compassion was for suckers. Jang’s narcissistic hero worships Hitler and offers a nazi salute to a mockup of a high value note with his own face on it as he leaves for work every morning, but his relentless pursuit of “success” is destined to leave him empty handed when he realises the only commodity he can’t sell is sincerity.
The executives of Yumi Foods, a subsidiary of Mack Gang (Mighty) corporation, are looking for a bright new face through a series of individual interviews. The panel asks each of the prospective new hires to prove their sales ability by convincing them to buy something inconsequential they happen to have in their pockets. Each of the young men fails, until the sharply suited Kim Pan-chok (Ahn Sung-ki), whose name literally means “sales promotion”, dazzles them with a show of intense charisma. He simply offers to sell them whatever is inside his clenched fist. Such is his conviction, the CEO finds himself emptying his wallet, pouring out his credit cards, and eventually borrowing from his friends until Pan-chok is satisfied he’s getting all he could possibly get at point which he opens his fingers and reveals his empty palm. The bosses are annoyed, but quickly convinced by Pan-chok’s explanation that what he’s sold them is “sales spirit” which is, after all, the most valuable thing of all (not to mention exactly what they were looking for). Pan-chok is hired.
Later, we find out that Pan-chok’s routine is an ironic inversion of his childhood trauma. A poor boy abandoned by a mother who became fed up with his father’s fecklessness, he waited alone every day for his dad to come home with something to eat. But his dad was an irresponsible drunkard who could never hold down a job. Like Pan-chok, he held out his fist and told the boy to open his fingers but he was always empty-handed. Hating his father’s incompetence, laziness, alcoholism, and violence, Pan-chok decided that he had to be strong. “Poverty makes you low and pathetic”, he insists. Love, pity, and mercy are for people with no power. “The important thing is to be strong, to win, succeed, possess, and to dominate. Only then will I be happy”.
Pan-chok is a corporate fascist wedded to ultra capitalist ideology in which the only thing that matters is strength and the ability to dominate. He lies, and cheats, and misrepresents himself to pull every underhanded trick in the book to try and get ahead. He goes to war, quite literally, with industry rival Gammi, intent on completely destroying them in order to dominate the market by whatever means possible. Coming up with signature product Agma, he irritably tells his development team that none of their work really matters because the quality of the product is largely irrelevant. Just as in his interview, all Pan-chok is selling is false promise wrapped up in marketing spin. His rival goes on TV to talk the value of tradition to defend himself against a smear campaign Pan-chok has engineered to suggest his products are a health risk, but eventually gets the better of him by playing him at his own game and making a late swing towards ultra modernity.
Pan-chok’s main gambit is seducing a local bar hostess, Song Sobi (Lee Hye-young), lit. “sexual consumption”, and using her as a spy to get info on Gammi’s latest products, but Sobi falls in love with him only to have her heart broken when she realises Pan-chok will discard her when he decides she is no longer useful. He tells her that love is only worth something when you can sell it, but is confounded when she later turns the same logic back on him after selling her charm to seduce the son and heir of the Gammi corporation as a kind of revenge.
Proving that he never learns, Pan-chok’s last big idea is that the only way to beat Gammi’s technological solution is to commodify nature, to repackage and sell back to the people the very things he previously rejected in human sensation. By this point, however, he is so thoroughly discredited that few will listen. His new boss has an MBA from an American university and no time for Pan-chok’s scrappy post-war snake oil salesman tactics. “Only success can set you free”, Pan-chok was fond of saying, but it belied a desperation to escape post-war penury. What he wanted was freedom from hunger, anxiety, and subjugation. He wanted to be a big man, not a small one like his father who always came home empty-handed, so that no one could push him around. What he became was a man without a soul, empty-hearted, consuming himself in pursuit of the consumerist dream. Korea, Jang seems to say, should take note of his lesson.