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Ma Dong-seok’s heroism grows stale: Some are calling out the star’s most recent films for their depiction of women

Dec 01,2018
From left to right are scenes featuring Ma Dong-seok in “The Soul-Mate,” “The Villagers” and “Unstoppable.” [JNC MEDIA GROUP, LITTLE BIG PICTURES, SHOWBOX]
Just two weeks after the release of thriller “The Villagers,” actor Ma Dong-seok has yet again returned to the silver screen with a new action-packed movie, “Unstoppable.”

This is Ma’s fifth movie this year: he also appeared in the heart-warming drama “The Soul-Mate,” the sports movie “Champion” and the fantasy blockbuster, “Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days.”

Though these films are all different genres, they all fall under what could be called the Ma Dong-seok Cinematic Universe (MCU), which is made of up films in which Ma plays a virtuous character who fights off villains in a series of thrilling and exciting action sequences.

Following a cameo appearance in the 2015 action drama “Veteran” - in which he plays a stationery store owner who bravely intervenes in an intense fight between an evil chaebol businessman and a persistent detective - and the successful zombie thriller “Train to Busan” (2015) - where he plays a reliable husband who fights off lifeless beings to protect his pregnant wife- Ma has come to be seen as a righteous, everyman hero. As his characters stand up for socially vulnerable people while fighting off bad guys, Ma has built up an image as a guardian of the people.

“By appearance alone, Ma’s characters seem like ignorant gang members,” said film critic Kim Heon-sik. “But against expectations, he fights off evil forces to protect the disadvantaged without considering personal gain.”

Over the past few years, this distinct image has been widely embraced, and seen in Ma’s many hit films that followed “Train to Busan,” like “The Outlaws (2017), a film about a local police detective (Ma) and a merciless boss from a Korean-Chinese crime organization, and this year’s biggest hit, the second part of “Along with the Gods.” In the film, he plays a household god who protects a frail elderly man and his young grandson by fighting off grim reapers who try to take the old man to the afterlife, leaving the child an orphan.

But his recent releases, like “The Villagers” and “The Soul-Mate,” failed to capture the hearts of audiences, especially those of women.

Most film critics point to the films’ weak plots as the reason for their poor performances in theaters, but others point to the way female characters are portrayed in the films as a means to enhance Ma’s masculinity.

Ma’s two most recent films depict female characters as victims of violence who need Ma to protect them in dramatic fashion.

In “The Villagers,” Ma plays a substitute physical education teacher at a high school where a student has been kidnapped. With help from the missing girl’s best friend Yu-jin (Kim Sae-ron), Ma tries to solve the mystery and catch the kidnapper. In the process, Yu-jin faces dangerous situations at the hands of an unknown man with an unexplained motive, but she is always saved by Ma’s character.

Following the release of “The Villagers,” one user commented on the movie’s page on a portal site, “Again, a female student is kidnapped by an untouchable pervert with powerful parents, and then gangs get involved. Is there only one director in Korea?”

Similarly, in “Unstoppable,” Ma plays a husband who abruptly turns into an aggressive fighter after his wife (Song Ji-hyo) gets kidnapped. Along his journey to save his wife, there are flashy action scenes where he punches his fist through a door and also lifts up a bulky man, pushes his head through the ceiling and drags him forward.

In the comedy crime movie, “The Soul-Mate,” released in September, Ma plays a widowed father who turns into a hero by saving the kidnapped wife of an unconscious policeman.

One notable aspect of Ma’s characters in all of these films is that although Ma is often attacked with weapons like knives or axes, he never uses dirty tricks and always wins with his bare hands.

“Producers justify the way women are consumed in the movies by arguing that the story reflects reality, and that it contributes to alerting the public of the need for change,” said Kim. “But the way women are represented is based on men’s imagination, and these films reinforce the idea that it is the role of a man to protect and save them.”

Kim further explained that when Ma first earned popularity for his heroic roles, the subjects of his protection were not only women, but people in general. “The essence of Ma’s films is not dividing the gender of victims that require his protection.”

Hwang explained that when Ma’s recent releases were being produced, people did not discuss how women were represented in film. “But changes are expected in the near future following the rise of the #MeToo movement over the past year that has raised people’s awareness about how women are being misrepresented on the big screen.”

Regarding similar roles that Ma continues to play, Hwang said, “[He] is being consumed in a very predictable way. Since he has shown his ability to play other kinds of roles before he rose to fame, it would be [good for his long-term career] if he expands his acting repertoire.”

Meanwhile, Ma is currently confirmed to star in two upcoming crime action movies tentatively titled “Villain Story” and “Bad Guys.”


BY JIN MIN-JI [jin.minji@joongang.co.kr]







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