Thursday, August 23, 2012

KOFFIA 2012: Metamorpheses (변신이야기, 2011) and the Impact of Film Schools on Korean Cinema

Part of MKC's coverage of the 3rd Korean Film Festival in Australia (previously published).

One of the aspects of Korean cinema which strikes people the most once they become acquainted with it, is the highly sophisticated level of the production values.  From a technical standpoint, Korean films are often on par or even above their Hollywood counterparts:  cinematography, sound, production design, editing, and even special effects are deftly handled with skill and care.  Wondering how this is the case for a national industry that had been until relatively recently a marginal one is a worthwhile question.  The answer therein lies in examining how a cultural and economic climate fostered this type of change.

During the intense state-driven globalization of a newly democratized Korea in the 1990s, which was known as seghewha, the cultural sector was heavily promoted.  With the creation of a few different motion picture laws that, among other things, provided tax breaks for investment in the film industry, the chaebol, which were large corporations such as Daewoo and Samsung, got involved in film production.  Just as you would modernize any other industry, the film industry’s production standards had to be quickly brought up to speed due in large part to the chaebol’s injection of significant amounts of capital.  However, it wasn’t just money that led to today’s technical proficiency.  I would argue that perhaps more than anything, it was the education of a skilled below-the-line workforce that contributed to the phenomenon.

I myself am an amateur cinematographer and my keen interest in film language, aesthetics, and mise-en-scene are certainly among the reasons that I took such a shine to the Korean film industry or other groupings of cinema such as Hollywood Film Noir and classic Japanese cinema of the 1950s and 60s.  So fascinated was I by the irreproachable and consistent quality of Korean film technique that I briefly considered enrolling in the Korea National University of the Arts to purse an MFA in cinematography.  Even compared to the venerated film schools of America like UCLA, USC, and NYU’s Tisch, the alumni of Korea’s film programs are illustrious.  There are many universities which offer reputable filmmaking curriculums such as the Dongguk, Chung-Ang, and Hanyang universities, and the Seoul Institute of the Arts, but two tower over the rest: The Korea National University of Arts (K’Arts) and the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA). 

Between them, the institutions can lay claim to a significant chunk of Korea cinema’s output over the last decade. Notable directors include Na Hong-jin (The Chaser, 2008; The Yellow Sea, 2010) and Jeong Jae-eun (Take Care of My Cat, 2001) from K’Arts and Bong Joon-ho (Memories ofMurder, 2003; The Host, 2006; Mother, 2009), Kim Tae-gyun (A Millionaire’s First Love, 2006; Crossing, 2008; A Barefoot Dream, 2010) and Im Sang-soo (A Good Lawyer’s Wife, 2003; The President’s Last Bang, 2005; The Housemaid, 2010) from KAFA.  Cinematographers include Lee Mo-gae (The Good, the Bad and the Weird, 2008; Secret Reunion, 2010; I Saw the Devil, 2010) and Lee Sung-jae (The Chaser, 2008; Secret, 2009; The Yellow Sea, 2010) from K’Arts and Kim Hyung-gu (One Fine Spring Day, 2001; Memories of Murder, 2003; The Host, 2006) from KAFA.

The curriculums at these universities feature some great faculty like revered Korean New Wave director Park Kwang-su (Chilsu and Mansu, 1988; Black Republic, 1990).  The primary emphasis, and this is critical, is on practical work.  They make a lot of short and feature films and many of them hold up well to the professional work happening on the outside.  Most of the Korean shorts I see seem to be from K’Arts and each year KAFA makes some very significant debut features, in the last year alone there was End of Animal, Bleak Night, and The House.

Metamorpheses comes from Oh In-chun, a K’Arts graduate who is quickly making a name for himself.  As much as I have just played up the role of Korean film schools, I must say from the outset that Oh stands out as a particularly talented young genre filmmaker whose ample skills are readily evident.  Having recently seen Ryoo Seung-wan’s debut omnibus Die Bad (2000), I can’t help but draw a parellel.  Ryoo’s work has much more thematic and character-based elements but both of these films showcase the pure filmmaking vitality from these late 20s directors that is screaming to be seen by a larger audience. 

Ryoo started out as a genre filmmaker who tackled anything that involved fisticuffs, be it gangsters, boxers, martial artists, or spies, it was pretty clear what interested him.  The same can be said of Oh, I have now seen three of his films, including Luck Day and Cure, and it is easy to see his penchant for horror and action genres, which is pretty much the raison d’être for the young cadra of filmmakers behind My Neighbor Zombie (2010) and this year’s Invasion of Alien Bikini but Oh is much more polished, he demonstrates a very keen appreciation of film technique.

The short film begins with a young man in a car trying to find inspiration for a comic book.  He steps out and grabs some bottles of black garlic juice from his trunk then surveys the scenery of a park.  He then practices what he will say to an attractive female jogger who soon appears.  She drops her mp3 and runs off and then the young man chases after her.  To give away anymore of the film would spoil the surprise but safe to say that what follows is unexpected, a little gruesome, and very entertaining.

The visual techniques and other tricks in the film are extremely impressive and I would be very excited to see how Oh would handle a feature length with a bigger budget.  While the film could easily be written of as a stylistic exercise, it is not without its ideas.  It may not be as deep as Kafka’s extraordinary story which it shares its name with, also conceived in short form, but it mines some of its ideas relating to personal transformation.  Perhaps more than anything, Metamorpheses could be seen as take on Alice in Wonderland, as the young protagonist goes deeper and deeper down a macabre and darkly humoristic rabbit hole of Oh’s creation.  A very strong effort from a bright light in the future of Korean film, looking forward to whatever comes next.


Special thanks to Oh In-chun for generously providing me with a copy of his short!

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