Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Good, The Bad & The Kimchi: Reflections On The New Korean Cinema

Giving My Undivided Attention to a Divided Nation's Cinema

I've been watching nothing but Korean movies of late, trying to make up for an unwitting blind spot in my Asian cinema filmography. Let me clarify that: I've been watching South Korean movies because North Korea produces arms, not films (at least not non-propaganda films). Pulgasari (1985), described as a "socialist Godzilla movie," is the only North Korean feature film that has gotten any international attention, and that only because the director and his wife were kidnapped from South Korea and the movie was executive-produced by Kim Jong-Il himself! But I digress...

It's been said that South Korean Cinema is the new Hong Kong and, as far as being a critical darling with Western audiences and critics, I'll buy that comparison. Let's face it, the films coming out of Seoul these days are hotter than any spicy squid dish at your local barbecue joint, making South Korea the top dragon in contemporary Asian Cinema, especially when it comes to horror films. Though most Americans wouldn't know director Park Chan-wook from Parks Sausages, they do know Oldboy is a great horror movie that can be found in any Best Buy or Blockbuster. (Never underestimate the appeal of violence to right-to-bear-arms Americans!)

Riding the Korean New Wave
It's rumored that the resurgeance in Korean cinema came about in the late '90s when someone pointed out to then President Young-sam that the profits from Spielberg's Jurassic Park were equal to the export of 60,000 Hyundais. Whatever the motivation, the watershed year for Korean cinema came in 1999, when the big production action film Shiri (aka Swiri or 쉬리) became known as "the little fish that sank Titanic," out-grossing James Cameron's blockbuster Hollywood import to become South Korea's all-time box office leader at that time. (About the metaphor: "Shiri" is a type of freshwater fish indigenous to the DMZ area between North and South Korea.)

(Shiri was subsequently out-grossed by 2001's Friend, while Titanic dropped to #7 in South Korean box office receipts after being topped by four other 2001 domestic films: #3 Joint Security Area, #4 My Wife Is a Gangster, #5 My Sassy Girl and #6 Kick the Moon).

By the way, the female assassin in Shiri was played by Yunjin Kim, best known to American audiences for her subsequent role as Sun-Hwa Kwon on the ABC television series Lost (2004-present).

As critic Anthony Leoung, author of Korean Cinema: The New Hong Kong, observed:
After spending many years taking a backseat to big-budget Hollywood imports, Korean filmmakers reclaimed the country's movie screens as nine homegrown productions earned a place in the box office top 20. South Korea's film industry no longer needed to rely solely on the country's quota system (where all cinemas are required show domestic films for 146 days of the year) for financial viability, as a 'New Wave' of filmmakers, schooled abroad in Europe and the United States, returned home to create commercially-viable films that appealed to domestic audiences.

So how did Korean cinema find its Seoul? Let's backtrack a bit.

On the Road To Hong Kong
I was a hardcore HK film fanatic back in the early 90s when this genre was still a relatively well-kept secret in Chinatown-deprived towns like Baltimore and can still recall making treks town to Po Tung Trading store on Park Avenue with my otaku pal Big Dave Cawley (King of Men) to buy VHS bootlegs of the latest Hong Kong laserdiscs and DVDs starring Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and Chow-Yun Fat or directed by Tsui Hark, John Woo or Ringo Lam. Now you can get any Chinese action or martial arts film in the world - including all the dire drek - from populist mall retail outlets like Suncoast Video.

Hong Kong? Phooey!
Let's face it, the Hong Kong film industry was aleady slouching toward mediocrity by the mid-'90s, and fell apart after the 1997 reunification with mainland China and the subsequent exodus of talent to The West (specifically Hollywood and Vancouver). Other than a few films from the Pang Brothers (who rejuvenated the HK horror genre with The Eye and The Eye 2 - though I found both to be terribly overrated, especially the "sequel" that squandered the talents of superbabe Qi Shu in a ludicrous plot), arthouse darling Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love, 2046), and the resurgeance of the action film thanks to the Infernal Affairs franchise (the inspiration for Scorcese's The Departed), the pickings out of HK have been pretty slim. For my money, they reached their nadir in 2004 with Jackie Chan's execrable New Police Story (Xin Jing Cha Gu Shi).

You Rang?
Then the rise of the Asian horror genre, first in Japan - thanks to Hideo Nakata's 1998 surprise hit Ringu, followed by his Ringu 2 and Dark Water (all remade in the West), Takeshi Miike's Audition and Ichi the Killer and Takashi Shimizu's (highly overrated) Ju-On series (also remade in the West as The Grudge and The Grudge 2) - shifted attention away from Southeast Asia to the Sea of Japan region where South Korea now reigns supreme.

That top dog status is mainly due to Park Chan-wook's Oldboy (올드보이) - the second entry in his "revenge trilogy" that also includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것 or Boksuneun Naui Geot, 2002) and Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨 or Chinjeolhan Geumjassi, 2005) - which took the horror film world by storm in 2003 and put South Korea on the international cinema map.

I first heard about Park Chan-wook via an intriguing article in the New York Times Magazine ("Mr. Vengeance," April 9, 2006) and was hooked thereafter. Before turning his attention to horror, Park had enjoyed success with his monster 2001 hit JSA: Joint Security Area, which dealt, like Shiri (Swiri) and so many Korean political films, with Reunification Blues. It certainly didn't hurt that Park's Oldboy protagonist was Min-sik Choi (whose breakthrough film was 1999's Shiri), arguably South Korea's most compelling screen presence and charismatic star. Physically he bears an uncanny resemblance to an Asian Charles Bronson, and like Il Bruto, has made his mark as a heavy in action films, despite his theatrical background.

Before that, I had only seen one Korean film even close to the horror genre, the 1967 Godzilla-wannabe Yongary, Monster from the Deep (Taekoesu Yonggary), which was directed by the "nice" Kim Ki-duk (not to be confused with the bad boy director of the same name responsible for The Isle, Bad Guy, and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter). And the only other Korean video I had ever seen was the great live-action Korean TV knock-off of the Japanese video game Streetfighter, which I remember really liking - sample clip is shown below:

Korean Streetfighter: Who needs subtitles?

But the horror groundwork had already been set before Oldboy thanks to genre films like the Korean version of Ringu, Ring Virus (aka 링(링 바이러스), and the "horror high school" trilogy Whispering Corriders, Memento Mori and The Wishing Stairs. (This was actually a trilogy in name only, with different casts and directors, and was only considered a trilogy because the films took place at all-girl high schools).

Curiously, while South Korean cinema constantly looks to Hollywood and Tokyo horror movies for inspiration in its remakes - Tell Me Something parroting David Fincher's Seven, Ring Virus, Phone, Unborn But Forgotten and countless other haunted ghost knock-offs aping Ringu (the latter film also managing to imitate Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse (Kairo) and the US's - Hollywood has so far only considered two Korean movies worthy of a Western makeover and both are comedies: My Wife is a Gangster (Jopag manura, 2001) and My Sassy Girl (Yeopgijeogin geunyeo or 엽기적인 그녀, 2001). My, my, indeed. The American remake of My Sassy Girl, starring Jesse Bradford and Elisha Cuthbert, and directed by Yann Samuell is scheduled to be released in 2007 .

To understand South Korean cinema, you really only need to follow the work of a few major directors, among them Park Chan-wook, "Bad" Kim Ki-Duk (The Isle), Kim Ji-Woon (A Tale of Two Sisters, The Quiet Family, Brotherhood), Lee Chang-dong, and arthouse darling Hong Sang-soo (Woman Is the Future of Man, Turning Gate). And for my money, add Im Sang-soo (director of 2005's brilliant The President's Last Bang) to that list. Most of these directors belong to the "New Wave" generation who came to age in the late '90s. According to Darcy Paquet of, this new generation announced its arrival in 1996, years before 1999's Shiri made its big box office splash.

...beginning in 1996, a new generation of directors began to take over the industry. Arthouse master Hong Sang-soo made his debut with the award-winning The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (1996), which weaves the experience of four characters into a single story. In this and his subsequent films, Hong built a reputation for his honest depiction of the cruelty and baseness of human relations. The year 1996 also saw the debut of controversial filmmaker Kim Ki-duk, known for his rough but visually striking film style (largely self-taught) and his tendency to shoot films very quickly on a shoestring budget. Unlike most other leading Korean directors, Kim's films such as The Isle (2000) were first championed internationally, rather than by local critics. Then in 1997, Lee Chang-dong made his debut with Green Fish. A former novelist, Lee would eventually win a Best Director award at Venice for Oasis (2002), and also served as Korea's Minister of Culture and Tourism from 2003-2004.

Lee Chong-dong is currently getting a lot of good press for his latest film, Secret Sunshine (밀양, 2007), which is making the rounds at Cannes and other film festivals.

Blind Leading the Blind
As a clueless Westerner to whom the Far East means Maryland's Eastern Shore, I was a Korean film tourist, walking in darkness, strictly on the outside looking in. Thankfully, I got a quick education thanks to recommendations from my friend Sook and the excellent Asian film section at Baltimore's best video store, Video Americain. My conclusions? There are a lot of great Korean films, mainly in the horror and independent/arthouse genres, a lot of drek (mainly cheesy comedies and attempts to imitate Hollywood and Japanese genre films), and some in-betweeners.

Following are trailers for the good Korean films I recommend seeing (after all, why bother listing the bad ones I've seen? Life is too short to waste it watching bad movies!)

South Korean Films You Need To See

Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
Genre: Horror

Oldboy trailer:

What more need be said about this classic? It even got name-checked after that Virginia Tech student shooting spree, when it was mentioned that the killer was carrying a hammer a la protagonist Dae-su Oh (Min-suk Choi).

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2002)
Genre: Drama

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance trailer:

IMDB plot summary: "This is the story of Ryu, a deaf man, and his sister, who requires a kidney transplant. Ryu's boss, Park, has just laid him off, and in order to afford the transplant, Ryu and his girlfriend develop a plan to kidnap Park's daughter. Things go horribly wrong, and the situation spirals rapidly into a cycle of violence and revenge." Shin Ha-kyun is terrific as deaf mute Ryu and Bae Du-nae is characteritically kooky as his crazy Marxist girlfriend Cha Yeoung-mi.

Lady Vengeance (aka Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) (Park Chan-wook, 2005)
Genre: Horror

Lady Vengeance is none other than Lee Yeong-ae, star of South Korea's insanely popular historical soap opera Dae Jang Geum (aka Jewel in the Palace, TV series 2003-2004) - a series whose fans include North Korean despot Kim Jong-Il! - as well as Park Chan-wook's earlier hit JSA: Joint Security Area (2000).

Lady Vengeance trailer:

IMDB summary: "After thirteen and half years in prison for kidnapping and murdering the boy Park Won-mo, Geum-ja Lee (Dae Jang-geum's Lee Yeoung-ae - reportedly Kim Jong-il's favorite actress) is released and tries to fix her life. She finds a job in a bakery; she orders the manufacturing of a special weapon; she reunites with her daughter, who was adopted by an Australian family; and she plots revenge against the real killer of Won-mo, the English teacher Mr. Baek. With the support of former inmates from prison, Geum-ja seeks an unattained redemption with her vengeance."

Dae Jang Geum
Genre: Historical Soap Opera, TV series

I haven't seen this historical soap opera depicting the hardships of a female cook in the royal palace during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), but it's widespread popularity - not just in South Korea but throughout Asia and Korean communities in the USA - would seem to qualify it as essential viewing. It's so popular that on a recent diplomatic visit to Pyongpang (10/3/2007), South Korea President Roh Moo-hyun offered DVDs of the series to North Korean leader (and film fanatic) Kim Jong-il, who is known to be a fan of Lee Young-ae, the star of the series.

The Host (Gwoemul) (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)
Genre: Sci-Fi/Horror

Great Korean monster movie with social and political twists (Westerners are evil, natch) and a great cast that includes the outstanding Song Kang-ho (JSA: Joint Security Area, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, The Foul King) and Bae Du-nae (Take Care of My Cat, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Ring Virus).

IMDB plot summary: "The film revolves around Park Hee-bong, a man in his late 60s. Park runs a small snack bar on the banks of the Han River and lives with his two sons, one daughter, and one granddaughter. The Parks seem to lead a quite ordinary and peaceful life, but maybe a bit poorer than the average Seoulite. Hee-bong's elder son Gang-du is an immature and incompetent man in his 40s, whose wife left home long ago. Nam-il is the youngest son, an unemployed grumbler, and daughter Nam-joo is an archery medalist and member of the national team. One day, an unidentified monster suddenly appears from the depths of the Han River and spreads panic and death, and Gang-du's daughter Hyun-seo is carried off by the monster and disappears. All the family members are in a great agony because they lost someone very dear to them. But when they find out she is still alive, they resolve to save her."

My Sassy Girl (Kwak Jae-yong, 2001)
Genre: Romantic Comedy

My Sassy Girl (엽기적인 그녀; literally, That Bizarre Girl) is a 2001 South Korean romantic comedy film partially based on the true story told in a series of love letters written by Kim Ho-sik, a man who posted them online. This film takes the (regurgitated) cake for most gratuitous vomiting scenes. I don't recall ever seeing a movie with more graphic vomiting in it - not even the Exorcist - all played to comic effect.

The film was extremely successful in South Korea. When My Sassy Girl was released throughout East Asia, it became a mega blockbuster hit in the entire region, from Japan, China, Taiwan, Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia, to the point where it was drawing comparisons to Titanic. Through positive word-of-mouth, the movie eventually became one of the most popular South Korean films among Asian Americans in the United States.

An American remake, starring Jesse Bradford and Elisha Cuthbert, and directed by Yann Samuell is scheduled to be released in 2007

My Sassy Girl English trailer:

My Sassy Girl Better Korean trailer:

The President's Last Bang (Geuddae Geusaramdeul) (Im Sang-soo, 2005)
Genre: Drama

See this movie that's been called the South Korean Dr. Stranglove! It's stylish and perhaps my favorite non-Horror genre Korean film. A look at the life of President Park Chung-hee and the events leading up to his real-life assassination.

Take Care of My Cat (Goyangireul Butakhae) (Jeong Jae-eun, 2001)
Genre: Drama

Take Care of My Cat is a coming-of-age film chronicling the lives of a group of five young women (Lee Yu-won, Ok Ji-young, Lee Eung-sil, Lee Eung-ju and my favorite Korean actress Bae Du-nae) one year after they graduate from high school, showing the heartbreaking changes and inspiring difficulties they face in both their friendships and the working world.

Wikipedia: "Though critically acclaimed in its native South Korea, the film's box office returns were not so great, prompting a "Save the Cat" movement involving film-industry professionals to try to increase viewership before its theatrical run would be cut short. The film went on to many international film festivals as well, where it received awards and special mentions.

The film is the debut work of director Jeong Jae-eun, who would later go on to direct the 2005 film The Aggressives."

The Isle (Seoum) (Kim Ki-Duk, 2000)
Genre: Psycho-sexual Drama

Mute Hee-Jin (played by the totally hot Jung Suh) is working as a clerk in a fishing resort in the Korean wilderness, selling baits, food and occiasionally her body to the fishing tourists. One day she falls for Hyun-Shik, who is on the run for the police and rescues him with a fish hook, when he tries to commit suicide. But that doesn't begin to describe the eerie kinkiness of this disturbing, yet fascinating film by Korean "bad boy" director Kim Ki-Duk. Maybe this picture will suffice; it's the equivalent of sexual "foreplay" in this movie:

And I love the isolated fishing posts visited by hot prostitutes subplot. Why couldn't this work at Maryland's Deep Creek or on the Eastern Shore? All we are asking is give (a) piece a try.

JSA: Joint Security Area (Park Chan-wook, 2000)
Genre: Action, Drama

IMDB summary: "In the DMZ separating North and South Korea, two North Korean soldiers have been killed, supposedly by one South Korean soldier. But the 11 bullets found in the bodies, together with the 5 remaining bullets in the assassin's magazine clip, amount to 16 bullets for a gun that should normally hold 15 bullets. The investigating Swiss/Swedish team from the neutral countries overseeing the DMZ suspects that another, unknown party was involved - all of which points to some sort of cover up. The truth is much simpler and much more tragic."

The Ghost (Ryeong) (Kim Tae-kyeong, 2004)
Genre: Horror

Ji-Won, a teenage girl suffering from amnesia, discovers that she is somehow connected to a group of people who are being killed off one by one by a vengeful ghost. The best water regurgitation horror film ever.

A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-woon)
Genre: Horror

A Tale of Two Sisters trailer:

I still don't understand the narrative exactly, but this film held my interest and was downright creepy. I still need to see Kim's The Foul King and The Quiet Family, which is supposedly his dark comedy masterpiece.

The "Ghost School" Trilogy
I would be remiss without mentioning this particularly popular South Korean girl's school horror trilogy:

Whispering Corridors (Yeogo Goedam) (Park Ki-hyeoung, 1998)

Momento Mori (Yeogo Goedam II) (Kim Tae-Yong, 1999)

Wishing Stairs (Yeogo Goedam 3: Yeowoo Gyedan) (Yun Jae-yeon, 2003)

A staircase leading to the dormitory of a remote boarding school usually has 28 stairs, but every so often there appears to be 29. When someone steps on the mysterious extra stair, the horror begins. First a teacher seemingly commits suicide, then other strange things start to happen. When in doubt, look for the ghost to be a vengeful girl student who committed suicide years ago.

Korean Cinema Books:
Korean Cinema: The New Hong Kong by Anthony Leong

Korean Cinema Articles:
Reunification Blues (Chuck Stephens, Village Voice)

Korean Cinema Links:
Han Cinema (Korean Movie and Drama Database)
Anthony Leong's Movie Reviews Archive (many Korean films reviewed)
An Intro to Korean Cinema (Peter Rist)
Dae Jang Geum/Jewel in the Palace official site

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