The Age of Success (성공시대, Jang Sun-woo, 1988)

Age of Success still 3“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.


The Age of Success was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Underground Rendezvous (만남의 광장, Kim Jong-jin, 2007)

Underground Rendezvous posterAt the very beginning of Kim Jong-jin’s Underground Rendezvous (만남의 광장, Mannamui Gwangjang), a group of kindly villagers in the north of Korea are caught by surprise when they unwittingly help to build the 38th parallel – a series of fortifications which will divide them from one another forevermore. Family members are trapped on different sides of an artificial border by a matter of accident rather than choice, a decision effectively made for them by the Americans and Russians amping up cold war hostility in engineering a proxy war over war-torn Korea.

30 years after the villagers sealed their own fates through being overly helpful, the South Korea of the 1980s is perhaps not so different from its Northern counterpart. A brief hope for democracy had once again been dashed and the land remained under the yoke of a cruel and oppressive dictatorship. Young-tan (Im Chang-jung), a boy from a poor village, is determined to escape his life of poverty by travelling to Seoul and studying to become a teacher. However, within five minutes of exiting the station, his country bumpkin ways see his only suitcase swiped by a street thief. An attempt to report the crime only gets him into trouble and so Young-tan is sent to a “re-education” camp in the mountains. Falling off the back of a truck, he gets lost and eventually ends up in a remote village where they assume, ironically enough, that he is the new teacher they’ve been expecting for the local school. The village, however, has a secret – one that’s set to be exposed thanks to Young-tan’s questions about a beautiful lady he saw bathing at the local watering hole.

Young-tan turns out to be a pretty good teacher, though not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. The village’s big secret is that the divided families were so attached to each other that they each started digging tunnels to the other side shortly after the wall went up and eventually met somewhere in the middle where they’ve built a large cave they use for underground reunions. Apparently existing for 30 years, no one outside of trusted citizens on either side knows about the tunnel’s existence. No one has used it to switch sides, the only purpose of the tunnel is for relatives and friends to mingle freely in defiance of the false division that’s been inflicted on them by outside forces.

Young-tan, however, is fixated on the bathing woman who turns out to be North Korean Sun-mi (Park Jin-hee) – the sister-in-law of the village chief. Thinking only of his crush and also a comparative innocent and devotee of the moral conservatism of ‘80s Korea, Young-tan catches sight of Sun-mi and the village chief and is convinced that the old man is molesting an innocent young maiden. He sets out to convince the villagers of this, little knowing the truth and unwittingly threatening to expose the entire enterprise through failing to understand the implications of his situation.

Kim pulls his punches on both sides of the parallel, only hinting at the oppressions present on each side of the border with Sun-mi fairly free in the North, working as the army propaganda officer in charge of the noisy broadcasts which attempt to tempt South Koreans to embrace the egalitarian “freedoms” on offer to defectors. Meanwhile the villagers in the South live fairly isolated from the unrest felt in the rest of the country, continuing a traditional, rural way of life but are also under the supervision of a local troop of bored army conscripts on the look out for North Korean spies. Nobody wants to defect, though perhaps there’d be little point in any case, but everyone longs for the day when families can all live together happily as they used to free from political interference.

Satire, however, is not quite the main aim. An absurd subplot sees the “real” teacher marooned on his own after taking a detour and accidentally standing on a landmine leaving him rooted to the spot on pain of death, but the majority of the jokes rest on Young-tan’s “misunderstandings” as a village outsider, goodnatured simpleton, and bullheaded idiot. A final coda tries to inject some meaning by hinting at the effects of repurposing the truth for political gain and the tempered happiness of those who get what they wanted only not quite in the way they wanted it, but it’s too little too late to lend weight to the otherwise uninspired attempts at comedy.


Currently streaming on Netflix UK (and possibly other territories)

Original trailer (no subtitles)