The 2007 South Korean action comedy movie Kim-gwanjang dae Kim-gwanjang dae Kim-gwanjang, also known in English as Three Kims, became an unwitting hit in China. Centered on the slapstick rivalry between three martial arts masters all surnamed Kim, the film entered the repertoire of Chinese digital folklore because of one particular detail. In one scene from the first act of the movie, the martial arts master portrayed by actor Choi Seong-guk has trouble beating a young kid at a fighting videogame, and decides to save his face by making the kid fall from his stool. Before taunting the defeated opponent with a boisterous "You’re not good enough to beat me", Mr. Kim lets out an iconic laughter.
As an archetypal punctum of the poor image, Choi Seong-guk's overacted grin jumped from ripped VCDs and pirate websites into the desktops of creative Chinese internet users, who trimmed the scene down to short video clips or screen-grabbed it as an exploitable visual detail. It wasn't necessary to know anything about Three Kims or Korean cinema to understand and enjoy the laughter circulating across video upload websites and chat windows. Reduced to a barely outlined mask through endless copy-pasting and combined with stylized cartoony characters, the actor's smiling face proliferated in thousands of reaction images and animated GIFs. This genre of digital folklore was commonly referred to as "Jin Guanzhang", from the Chinese translation of the Three Kims movie title.
Over the years, the popularity of Choi Seong-guk’s laughter hasn't abated, and Chinese users continue producing endless iterations of Jin Guanzhang content, from 鬼畜 guichu (auto-tuned video mashups) to 表情 biaoqing (a broad category including animated GIFs, emoticons, stickers and reaction images). While guichu videos are collectively enjoyed through the ‘bullet curtain’ of real-time comments, biaoqing are imported and exchanged in messaging apps like QQ and WeChat, often through group chat-based instances of 斗图 doutu, or 'sticker duels' between users competing in displaying the most original collection of content. Like many other kinds of biaoqing, Jin Guanzhang images are collected in web-based repositories of 表情包 biaoqingbao, or 'sticker packs' ready to download.
The self-reflexive and collaborative exegesis of genres of digital folklore conducted by the authors of wiki entries, news portal articles and contributions to Q&A websites links aesthetic elements back to their original source, consolidating the popularity of Jin Guanzhang content among users. And once something is popular on the Chinese internet, it is bound to materialize on e-commerce websites as themed merchandise ranging from t-shirts and smartphone covers to water bottles and plushes. It was only a matter of time before Choi Seong-guk himself, strolling around a souvenir market in Shanghai, would find his own face printed on a rubber stamp, an event proudly reported by the official news website of the People's Daily.