[TOPPLING THE TROPES] Pushing back against ‘criminal’ narratives: Ethnic Koreans from China are often portrayed as dangerous in films, creating hurtful stereotypes

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

[TOPPLING THE TROPES] Pushing back against ‘criminal’ narratives: Ethnic Koreans from China are often portrayed as dangerous in films, creating hurtful stereotypes


Scenes from “Midnight Runners,” left, and “The Outlaws,” right. Both films depict ethnic Koreans from China as criminals and the neighborhoods they live in as dangerous places. [LOTTE ENTERTAINMENT/KIWI MEDIA GROUP]


The streets of Daerim-dong, western Seoul, are filled with colorful neon signs and crowded restaurants. [JEON TAE-GYU]


Avid moviegoers may notice some tropes that have become increasingly popular in local films over the years. There always seem to be some roles that are reserved for certain kinds of people, or certain topics that call for certain types of characters. Whether true or not, some stereotypes seem to grow stronger with every film.

Are these tropes representing the truth? Or are they only reinforcing stereotypes or impressions people have that may not be totally accurate? Through the series, the Korea JoongAng Daily will take a look at some of the popular tropes in local films and take an in-depth look at how they affect the communities of the people they portray.

In 2017, actors Yoon Kye-sang and Jin Sun-kyu were praised for their fearsome depiction of gangsters who also happened to be ethnic Koreans from China in the popular film “The Outlaws.” That same year, “Midnight Runners” depicted Daerim-dong - the western Seoul neighborhood that is home to many ethnic Koreans from China - as a shady, dangerous place teeming with sex and human trafficking.

Even the recent box-office hit “Extreme Job,” which sold over 10 million tickets domestically, featured ethnic Koreans from China as gangsters looking for trouble.

The recent trend

Despite what audiences have seen in many recent films, ethnic Koreans from China were not always portrayed as evil in film. Yet they did start to become a subject of interest for filmmakers nearly a decade ago, when “The Yellow Sea” (2010) became a box-office hit, mainly due to actors Ha Jung-woo and Kim Yoon-suk’s portrayals of ethnic Koreans from China. Their haggard appearances that clearly showed that they had been through a lot and their natural-sounding accents were praised by audiences who found their characters refreshing.

Yet “Midnight Runners” really cemented the image of ethnic Koreans from China as being a part of crime organizations when they cast the entire Daerim-dong neighborhood as the heart of criminal activity. In one scene, a taxi driver tells one of the main characters: “There are many ethnic Koreans from China here [in this town], and there are a lot of criminals living here without passports, so even the police aren’t around here. Don’t wander around the streets [at night] if you can.”

After the film’s release, objections arose from Daerim-dong residents who said that the film purposefully defamed their neighborhood, and they even went as far as forming a committee to officially protest the film’s production company and demanded that the film not be shown in theaters.

The company ended up apologizing for damaging the community’s reputation, but made it clear they had no intention to halt screenings of the movie.

When their protests failed to bring down the film, the committee filed a suit against the company, but the court took the side of the company in their November 2018 decision, saying the “other Koreans who are in charge of the human trafficking organization are portrayed as comparably more malicious than the ethnic Koreans from China who operate the illegal system. The director’s intentions were neither malevolent nor specifically trying to damage the reputation of a certain ethnicity. Moreover, there are no specific connections between the characters [in the film] and the plaintiffs.”

When “The Outlaws” was being filmed in Garibong-dong, western Seoul, the residents protested its production, telling media they were worried the film would portray their neighborhood negatively. After the release of the film, the production company said that the crew had only filmed some parts of the neighborhood for background scenes, but that most of the productions had been done on-set.


A look at the numbers

These incidents show the effect that movies can have on the communities they portray and beg the question: What are they like in real life? Are they as threatening in reality as they are portrayed so convincingly on-screen?

The answer seems to be no. According to crime rate statistics provided by the Korean Institute of Criminology and Statistics Korea, while Chinese - including these ethnic Koreans from China - have the highest crime rates among foreigners living in the country, that is due to the fact that they make up the largest proportion of domestic foreigners, as they currently make up almost 50 percent of total foreign population.


Left: Kim Doo-hyun, owner of multiple Chinese restaurants in Ansan, Gyeonggi. Center: Oh Myeong-uk, owner of Myeongbong Banjum in eastern Seoul. Right: Seok Cheon-young, a third-generation ethnic Korean from China. He came to Korea to study theology. [JEON TAE-GYU]

‘Full of lies’

“[We appear] too spiteful and evil,” Oh Myeong-uk, 51, the owner of popular restaurant Myeongbong Banjum near Gwangjin district, eastern Seoul, which specializes in skewered lamb. “I talk about the films with my friends, and we think how we are depicted in films is exaggerated and full of lies. Most of us just came to Korea to work.”

According to Oh, biases against ethnic Koreans that come from China have grown stronger due to recent films, although he admits that domestic policies for foreigners have become more friendly than when he first arrived in Korea in 1992.

“When I came to Korea, I had to pay a considerable sum to attain my visa,” Oh said. “But now, people are randomly picked by drawing lots, yet I know that a lot of people are passed over.”

When asked why so many ethnic Koreans in China come to Korea to work, Oh replied that working conditions are much better in Korea than in China. “Also there are stereotypes about ethnic Koreans within China that grew worse when China and Korea’s diplomatic relations soured due to the deployment of [the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) antimissile system in 2015].”

Kim Doo-hyun, 41, another owner of multiple Chinese restaurants in Ansan, Gyeonggi, provided a metaphor that tactfully explained the situation of ethnic Koreans in China. “We are like the daughter-in-law who has come to live in her husband’s house,” Kim said. “Our home is Korea, but we are staying in the husband’s place.”

Kim also thought that Koreans may hold stereotypes of his community because they’ve been separated for so long. “All of us come from the same blood, but it’s as if we were adopted by another country called China. Even though we’ve returned, Koreans may still treat us like strangers.”

Still, Kim wants to remind people that what they see in the films does not represent his community. “I also thought I knew Korea well before I came here, but there were lots of differences once I experienced the country myself,” he said thoughtfully.

Shifting perspectives

“[Ethnic Koreans from China are] still considered strangers to others,” culture critic Ha Jae-geun pointed out. “The crimes that some of them have committed are sensationalized in the media, planting negative images in people’s minds that the neighborhoods they reside in are scary - and that has also affected films.

“Although movies reflect social norms, how films portray certain communities can also reinforce social norms, which is why the film industry should always be introspective about its work.”

Another film critic, Oh Dong-jin, said that the production companies should always take care when approaching such matters, as their films can distort the truth. “Nevertheless, I believe that it is an illusion to say that films have a profound impact on society,” Oh said. “Movies - in a direct or indirect way - influence society, but that is not the law. The public has the ability to distinguish between the truth and stereotypes.”

Seok Cheon-young, 31, a student studying in Korea, admitted that while there are still people out there who do bad things, the same is true for everywhere else in the world. “There may be other ethnic Koreans from China who do bad things like in the film,” he said. “But what’s portrayed in the films doesn’t represent all of us, and we hope audiences can separate entertainment from reality.”

BY LEE JAE-LIM [lee.jaelim@joongang.co.kr]
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)