Beyond gangland?
: mapping the changing genrescape in South Korean gangster film, 1990-2011

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis analyses the generic implications of shifts in the spatial semantics of South Korean Gangster Film (KGF), focusing on the post-2001 period. It argues that this period coincides with a significant expansion of the spatial semantics of the Korean gangster film to encompass corporate, domestic, and rural spaces. 50 KGFs from 1990-2000are analysed to produce a comparative starting point for examining these spatial shifts. Early 1990s KGFs focus on post-colonial themes in period films, associating rural and domestic spaces with ‘good’ gangsters and corporate settings with the ‘bad gangster’. In contemporary films, the genre-scape contracted into an ever darker and narrower urban gangland milieu, erasing rural and domestic space. This trend reversed from 2001, with the genre-scape expanding and diversifying as KGF increased in popularity and production quantity. A corpus of 78KGF produced between 2001 and 2011 is analysed to argue for a significant shift in the dominant KGF narrative concern with the conflict between tradition and modernity. Educated and corporatised, the urban gangster has now become both sign of Korean modernity and agent of modernisation. Therefore, the encounter between tradition and modernity can no longer be situated in the city, and is re-negotiated in a cycle of rural-set films that furnish a national imaginary of shared rural roots reconstructed as virtual memory. Simultaneously, KGFs set in domestic space comprise a sub-genre combining both gangster and Korean melodrama tropes to reconfigure gangland as the world of neoliberal wage labour in conflict with family duties. Overall, the genre articulates the history of South Korea’s compressed experience of modernity and its expression in conflict around the construction of modern Korean masculinity through an ideological combination of advocating both toughness and educated responsibility.
Date of Award1 Aug 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorChris Berry (Supervisor) & Jinhee Choi (Supervisor)

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