This Side of Parasite: New Korean Cinema 1998–2009
Two decades before his inspired turn in Parasite (2019) as a chiseling patriarch—The Man With No Plan—Song Kang-ho became a symbol of new wave South Korean cinema by starring in a pair of iconic films as the movement was beginning to swell, in 2000: The Foul King and Joint Security Area.
Both were box-office successes, but Kim Jee-woon’s Foul King is the more commercial film, The Karate Kid retold as a comedy in which Song’s always-late, always-lowly bank clerk, Dae-ho, learns to confront bullies. His boss, one of the angriest white-collar supervisors in cinematic history, chews out Dae-ho in public, and puts him in headlocks at all opportunities. Not even the bathroom is off-limits. Dae-ho also faces harassment at the hands of kids he passes on his walking commute. They smash his cellphone, but he manages to piece it back together. The skittish yet resourceful creature whom Song portrays could be the backstory to his role in Parasite.
Dae-ho’s life changes when he comes upon a shabby flier pasted on the door of a rundown gym. Wrestlers are needed, and the uniforms are free! He barges in and expects the retired wrestler who owns the gym to train him, but instead it’s the severe daughter, played by Jang Jin-young, who shows him the ropes. Dae-ho, his spirit freed in the ring, becomes the Foul King, a persona known and loved for cheating. As the masked miscreant, he’s not above throwing powder in the eyes of his opponents (including referees) or stabbing them with what is hopefully a prop fork.
Kim Jee-woon’s focus isn’t on the action; instead, he lets Song’s supple face tell the story. The agony of defeat, the thrill of victory, and the anxiety from seeing a rival seducing his secret love at an office karaoke party.
Song does an about-face in JSA, Park Chan-wook’s high-stakes thriller set in the Korean demilitarized zone. No matter what Song expressed in Foul King, he remained genial. Not so in JSA. His North Korean Sergeant Oh can put on the dead expression of someone accustomed to combat, but he has also learned to compartmentalize. The sergeant can break into jocularity when among his closest friends, or “brothers,” as he calls them: fellow border guard North Korean Private Jung (Shin Ha-kyun), and their South Korean counterparts Sergeant Lee (Lee Byung-hun) and Private Nam (Kim Tae-woo). The murder of one of them is part of an incident that threatens to escalate tensions between the North and South.
Much of the film is told in conflicting flashbacks strung together with the narrative of an investigation by the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission. It’s an awkward structure, and the going is smoothest when the focus is on the bond among the four men. The ties are established when Sergeant Oh saves Sergeant Lee’s life by disarming a partially tripped mine. After the incident, the two South Koreans cross a border-straddling bridge to hang out in the North Korean guardhouse. At times, the mix of confessions and antics recalls The Breakfast Club, minus the girls and plus alcohol.