Saturday, October 2, 2010

Myung-se Lee - Gagman (1989)

Description: Lee Jung-sae (Ahn Sung-ki) is "Your forever lover boy who gets bigger with your love, love, love, your lark on a sunny day, . . .". He is our funnyman, a Charlie Chaplin impersonator who is trying to impose himself as a debut director on an unwitting, actual director, because along with envisioning himself as Chaplin, Lee envisions himself as one of the last remaining true connoisseurs of cinema. On his way to realizing his fictional portrayal, he picks up the talkative, portly barber Moon Do-suk (Bae Chang-do), and the confident, assertive Oh Son-yong (Hwang Shin-hye) as actors in crime. I say 'in crime' because Lee's film morphs into an action film when handed real rifles. And as Lee's impositions upon the movie industry become tiresome, he finds he must seek alternative means towards funding and completing his film. It's then that Oh suggests they engage in a little method acting, Bonnie and Clyde (and Clyde) style, robbing banks.

Lee Jung-sae is a dreamer. He is the connecting link in a film that weaves dreams within dreams. His nightclub acts become dark recesses into the subconscious while still retaining a realism that disorientates the viewer into identifying what's real and what's but a dream. In retrospect, director Lee Myung-Se's debut introduces us to a theme mixed throughout his future oeuvre. Dreamy images are very much a part of Director Lee's later films, sometimes seemingly replacing any hint of a connecting narrative. Recall the motion and shadow play of Nowhere To Hide and the colors and choreography of Duelist. I have yet to see M, but from interviews I've read, Director Lee envisioned, enacted, and entitled the film from dreams. Although Gagman is nowhere as visually appealing as those films since production values of South Korean cinema in the 1980's weren't up to the level they are now, you can see the seeds of Lee Myung-se's later realized vision in this debut.

But director Lee's filmography is not the only one to reflect upon here. The vast career of actor Ahn Sung-ki is also important to consider. Although Ahn has done comedic roles, this role requires more than the typical comedy. The film is not that funny. (Although the intentionally obnoxious phallic symbolism from the camera angle chosen to reveal Moon's admiration for rifles should be a definitive scene for those who still psychoanalyze the screen.) I say this as a Modern viewer and as a non-South Korean viewer. As Tony Rayns noted in his Seoul Stirring: 5 Korean Directors, quite a bit of the comedy involves in-jokes for South Koreans in general, and South Koreans in the movie industry in particular. For example, Moon, the barber-turned-actor decides to get eye surgery because he believes that would make him more popular as an actor. According to Rayns' essay, this is an in-joke for South Koreans well-versed in the tabloids of the time since a real-life director turned actor did just that. And since Moon is played by real-life director Bae Chang-ho (Whale Hunting, My Heart), this in-joke gets more meta with every actor-ly turn. And this in-group comedy helps deflect some of the overly-rigid stones of globalization arguments that might be tossed onto such a film. Yes, Gagman's imitation of Chaplin and loving monologues about Western films might hint towards a Westernization of South Korea, but many of the jokes still require a local knowledge.

But regardless of the comedy caught or missed based on ones placement in space and time, all viewers will pick up on the mood of the film as not comic, but tragic. These Chaplin impersonations are tempered by discomfort. Lee Jung-sae is a man lost in his dreamworld, allowing him to be swept away towards tactics that are foolhardy when not dangerous. The use of Chaplin here is to forward the funnyman as the impotent, clumsy 'everyman' "bumping up against unsympathetic forces, bureaucratic or domestic" (see Lorraine York's book Literary Celebrity in Canada, pg48, where I learned that Canadian author Stephen Leacock was a progenitor of this funnyman-as-everyman tradition). Director Lee has admitted to Rayns that moments of character Lee's dialogue (such as the seaside monologue) are autobiographical. It's nice to see that in all that fumbling up against an industry yet to shine, Director Lee reached a brighter future than character Lee in Gagman.

By Adam Hartzell.

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(English hardsub)
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