Thursday, April 28, 2011

Memories of Murder: Part VI - Psychoanalysis and Scarred National Identity

"The difficulty of separating the ego instinct (which he [Freud] equated with death) from the sexual instinct (which he equated with life) is attributed to their critical link commonly bound to the libido that is surely sexual, while also "operate[ing] in the ego"."

Freudian analysis of the emasculated males in South Korean cinema is necessary to understand the motivations of their actions within their respective narratives.  From Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud states "[The sexual instincts] are the true life instincts.  They operate against the purpose of other instincts, which leads, by reason of their function, to death".  As Freud states that the life and death instincts are inextricably linked, we can see that this is central to South Korean cinema.  Kyun writes "The death drive and the reconstitution of the elusive phallus posit an inevitable goal of many narrative movements", characters in films such as Peppermint Candy (1999) for example, demonstrate this clearly by positioning self destructive characters on a journey to regain their male subjectivity, often this is exemplified through phallic symbols and more overtly through fleeting sexual union.  In Memories, the life and death instincts abide in a very tight circle and unite paradoxically though incongruous character relationships.  Take Detective Park, the good guy, as stated before he is in search of his male subjectivity, even though he may not be fully conscious of this journey until much later in the film, but his duty throughout the narrative is to tail and catch a serial killer.  Therefore he is following death and his very motivation for actions and subsequently recuperation is an overt path of destruction that we, the audience, know from the start is doomed to failure.  Life will not be gained on his journey; it will only end in various instances, brutally and without explanation.

The image of corpse smash cuts to...
On the other hand, there is the serial killer, whom, while not present physically in the narrative (or at least never proven to be so), is a spectral presence in the film.  While he goes on his rampage of murder, he is in a way following the life instincts. He is also trying to reconstitute his elusive phallus and he does so by raping women, it is a perversion of the sexual instinct but nonetheless it shows a recognizable effort to recuperate.  However, the subsequent murder of his rape victims seems to contradict this, it is as though his path, like all other males in this area of cinema, is doomed to failure.  He engages in an act of violent and un-consensual sexual intercourse but fails to recuperate his male subjectivity.  Therefore his predetermined role as an emasculated male must become true and the narrative forces him to commit murder and draw ever further away from his goal.

...raw meat
However, back to the life and death instincts, it can be stipulated that any serial killer narrative (at least any that involves serial rape) offers a complex reversal of life and death roles.  Memories uses this genre for its own purpose and forces certain conclusions about the remasculinization of Korean males.  South Korean horror films in general have managed, very successfully, to subvert generic codes most commonly associated with Hollywood.  For instance there are a number of female serial killer protagonists that disrupt narratives by littering the screen with objectified male corpses, instead of attractive females.  Kyu Hun Kim, in his examination of Tell Me Something (1999) states that it "draws its horrific power partly from subverting and disrupting male-oriented scopophilia and the objectification of the female subject".  Memories does not reverse the gender roles but it does engage with scopophilia by challenging it.  The victims are for the most part very attractive women but we never see them while they are alive, save for a middle-aged women who is dressed down and a child, we only see their grotesque corpses which are pallid, bruised, contorted, and bug-ridden.  To make matters even worse for us sly editing techniques are used to throw us off balance.  In one case, after having examined the third victims’ gruesome body on the operating table we end on a very graphic and visceral close-up of the corpse only to immediately cut to a similarly framed close-up of blood red meat being thrown onto a red hot grill.  The sight of the corpse of a young child further into the narrative also serves to destabilize us; it even upsets the central protagonists who are meant to be hardened detectives.

Riots break out during a presidential visit
In terms of turning the lens on Korea there are a couple of elements that identify the killer as a symbol of a generation (a very violent one but perhaps not altogether singular).  The man that the narrative identities to us as the probable suspect is only a recent resident of the area.  He came from Kwangju, site of the infamous massacre of thousands of innocent civilians by the military, who reputedly "bayoneted students, flayed women`s breast, and used flamethrowers on demonstrators".  It is no accident that he comes from that particular area.  In addition the film is set in 1986, which was only a few years alter the incident that is viewed as one of the most traumatic for the country and is the lynchpin of the military dictatorship's regime in the 1980s.  Thus we can assume that this suspect is heavily traumatized and,  since he is very young, the massacre was probably the most influential moment of his life.  On the day of the massacre, the students and activists who were targeted, many of whom were women, were dressed in red.  The killer exclusively strikes victims dressed in red and only in the rain (it rained heavily during the Kwangju massacre). The sight of red sets him into a frenzy as he cannot erase the memory from his mind, he can only re-enact it again and again.  Other scenes in the film hint at this possibility, like the civil defense drills at night and in the schools where the children do not take them seriously, but most importantly during the brief presidential visit where riots break out.  The rioters are brutally beaten and Inspector Jo is among the oppressors as he violently attacks women on the street.

Inspector Jo attacking a woman
Joʼs position within the story becomes very interesting when he is later reprimanded by the superintendent for his excessive use of force and goes and goes to get drunk in Baek's family restaurant. It is here that his anger exhibits itself in its most violent manifestation as he brutally attacks the patrons of the bar and even seems to target the women.  He is clearly a part of a system which has compromised him and left him with very little direction but violence; he has become completely indoctrinated.  When he is once again reprimanded for his actions the superintendent kicks him down the stairs.  It isn't the violence that bothers the chief but how his reputation will be affected if the media finds out.  What seems to set Jo off in the bar is a female patrons' response to a news item on television about the investigation of a Detective for police torture and sexual assault when she says that "all detective's dicks should be cut off".  Jo is unable to control himself in light of this implicit attack on his phallns and loses control.  While not a sympathetic character like Detective Park, Inspector Jo does shed some light on what could have caused soldiers to become so violent in suppressing demonstrations in Kwangju. He is a character that has been manipulated so badly by the government that he can no longer control his own emotions and actions.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Korean Cinema News (04/18-04/24, 2011)

A varied selection of articles this week which highlight Korean films at worldwide festivals and upcoming releases which will open throughout the spring.  Also featured is a great article from The Atlantic about the digital underground in North Korea.


The Rise of North Korea's Digital Underground
Robert S. Boynton explores the rise of digital media as a way to proliferate information in North Korea in a new article for The Atlantic.  North Korea ranks dead last in the Freedom House's Freedom of the Press index but a small group of media organizations have popped up and are utilizing ever method at their disposal to get news into and out of the country. (The Atlantic, April 2011)

Lee Myung-se Recruits Seol Keong-gu for New Film
After a four year absence, Lee Myung-se (Nowhere to Hide) is prepping his next directorial effort.  Mister K is the story of a secret agent who must solve a big case to save his country.  Seol Kyung-gu has been cast in the title role. (Hancinema, April 17, 2011)

The Journals of Musan Wins Top Ward at Polish Film Festival
The Off Plus Camera Festival in Krakow, Poland has handed its top prize to The Journals of Musan which keeps adding to its bevy of awards.  It was the only Asian film in competition.  (The Chosun Ilbo, April 18, 2011)

Korean Date Movie Recommendations
Korean cinema is famed for its melodrama and well-made romance films.  Screen Junkies takes the time to pick a few of the best date movies from the country. (Screen Junkies, April 18, 2011)

Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival Awards I Saw the Devil Top Prize
Kim Jee-woon's hard-hitting fan favorite I Saw the Devil was awarded the top prize at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival.  Kim's film is the third Korean work to receive the Golden Raven after Save the Green Planet in 2004 and The Isle in 2003. (The Korea Times, April 20, 2011).

Study Names Hyeon Bin and Kim Tae-hee as Korea's Most Popular Stars
Following a survey last week which declared Won Bin and Ha Ji-won to be the most popular male and female actresses in Korea, a new, contrarian study has been carried out which states that Hyeon Bin and Kim Tae-hee are the nation's most beloved screen icons.   (Hancinema, April 20, 2011)

Korean Short Film Selected for Cannes Film Festival
Ghost, a short film from director Lee Jung-jin, will be competing in the short film section of the Cannes Film Festival.  The competition features 9 shorts and the jury will be presided over by Michel Gondry.  (The Korea Herald, April 21, 2011)

New Film Focuses on Small Village During the Korean War
Korea's JoonAng Daily has profiled upcoming wartime movie In Love and the War, which is slated to open in theaters April 28.   The film tells the story of a small village which welcomes North Korean soldiers in order to survive.   (JoogAng Daily, April 22, 2011)

More Asian Movies to Shoot in Seoul
Following the success of a Thai film which is set and filmed in the Korean capital, two new projects, this time from Malaysia, are currently filming in Seoul.   This growing trend could attract more tourism to the country.   (Yonhap News Agency, April, 22, 2011)

Spring Features Chronicle the Lives of Korea's Past Religious Leaders
Both Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan and the Venerable Beopjeon will be commemorated in films hitting screens in Korea this spring.   The documentary Babo is already on release and Monk Byeopjeon's Chair will be released in May.   (, April 22, 2011)


Fast Five Outshines Korean Releases at Domestic Box Office
Fast Five is Hollywood's first major summer release and has taken over at the Korean Box Office with a strong 396,071 admissions in its first weekend.  Last week's champ, Suicide Forecast exhibited a good hold with a slight 17% drop, while recent hit Clash of the Families is still going strong, having accumulated well over 2 millions admissions to date.  Min Gyoo-dong's The Most Beautiful Goodbye also opened this week with a solid 100,094 tickets sold.  (Hancinema, April 24, 2011)

Korean Cinema News is a weekly feature which provides wide-ranging news coverage on Korean cinema, including but not limited to: features; festival news; interviews; industry news; trailers; posters; and box office. It appears every Wednesday morning (GMT+1) on Modern Korean Cinema. For other weekly features, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update and the Weekly Review Round-upReviews and features on Korean film also appear regularly on the site. 

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Romantic Heaven (Ro-maen-tik He-beun) 2011

Jang Jin’s 10th feature, Romantic Heaven, is an interwoven omnibus film which features three linked stories that deal with themes such as death, love, fate, and the afterlife. Despite the heavy, morbid themes, the proceedings, given Jang’s involvement, take on a predictably unpredictable light air. It is a quirky film that reminds me both of Park Chan Wook’s I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006) and P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), the first for its vibrant and calm representation of heaven, and the second for its structure and one lone supernatural occurrence which will be obvious to those who have seen both.

The title points to two themes, love and death, and approaches them from numerous angles. In the first part, titled 'Mother', a girl fears for her mother who will die if she does not receive a bone marrow transplant. The doctors indentify a donor but as luck would have it he is wanted for the murder of his girlfriend. He is on the run and the girl befriends the detectives that are after him. The second segment, named 'Wife', features a lawyer who has lost his wife and a man who has just been released form prison who wants revenge. The third segment, 'A Girl', is the story of a young taxi driver whose grandfather suffers from dementia. While the man is clearly keen on the girl from the first part, she is not the girl of the title. She is in fact the grandfathers long lost love. The fourth part, 'Romantic Heaven', begins when the taxi driver gets in a car crash and ends up in heaven, in this concluding part of the film, it is also by far the lengthiest, all of the strands come together and we are transported back and forth through heaven and earth.

Death is difficult to handle and each grieves in their own fashion. Through my experience of Korean cinema, Koreans seem to take the mourning process very seriously and often wail, weep, and cry at funerals. The released con’s first stop is his fathers grassy grave. He weeps bitterly on his knees and his friend nonchalantly stands nearby, exhibiting what may seem like callousness at his friend’s misery to a western viewer but what is most likely a force of habit as it is the norm. Each character in this film deals with death differently, from the numbness of the widower, the grandmother who can’t let go of her grandson, to the daughter who, while sad, finds beauty and something to smile about at the moment of expiration.

Creative production design
There is much in Romantic Heaven that I wasn’t quite able to grasp, like the meaning of the headphones and the CDs, although the tightly woven narratives clearly point to meaningful conclusions. As is often the case with omnibus films many elements become contrived as they are forced to fit together, a necessary evil when it works. Jang’s direction, as always, is masterful. The film looks great and is the product of potent creativity. Not one of his best works and probably a little less accessible than his past efforts but as always he displays why he is one of the most consistently worthwhile auteurs in South Korean cinema.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Bestseller (베스트셀러, Beseuteuselleo ) 2010

Production values add to the atmosphere

Along with Moss and Bedevilled, Bestseller is one last year’s rural-set films where local villagers hide an ugly secret or secrets. Each is very different but they all set the countryside as a site of horror and a place for repressed memories. Kang Woo-suk’s Moss is an atmospheric thriller about a son who goes to a village when his father dies and finds that everything isn’t quite right. Soon he begins to suspect foul play in his father’s passing and tries to dig up the secrets of the community, which is lorded over by the village foreman playing by the brilliant Jeong Jae-yeong. Bedevilled shows us an island and a woman who is brutally raped, attacked, and persecuted by the other islanders through the eyes of a visitor from Seoul. Following a cataclysmic event she snaps and exacts revenge in this scopophilic masterpiece. Finally there is Bestseller, which starts out as a creepy haunted house horror when a famous writer gets away from the big city to write her comeback two years after having been accused of plagiarism. A big revelation switches the focus of the film, which becomes a thriller where she tries to uncover the death of a girl who she believes was killed by the villagers.

Director Lee Jeong-ho treads carefully in his debut as he maneuvers through the conventions of horror and name checks half a dozen classic horror films in the process. A writer going off to a big haunted house in the countryside for some quiet to write is basically the plot to The Shining (1980), not only this but just like in the famous opening scene from that film we follow the protagonist from various eerie helicopter shots as she drives to the remote location. Besides this the film also makes heavy allusions to Psycho (1960) and Don’t Look Now (1973). The first half of the film is an exercise in suspense and is very effective. The mise-en-scene is wonderfully executed as the sets, sound design, editing, and cinematography are all top notch. The problem is that it feels like a bit of an exercise and can come off as a little lifeless. Eom Jeong-hwa, an accomplished actress who has some horror experience with Princess Aurora (2005), looks good in the role but sometimes misses the mark with her constant staring and paranoia. This could also be a product of Lee’s direction as he takes such pains to evoke an atmospheric horror. 

Like so many other Korean films, Bestseller deals with past trauma and repressed memories. As I mentioned earlier it does this in much the same fashion as Moss and Bedevilled by situating the trauma, by proxy or otherwise, in a rural environment. The villagers, at first welcoming, quickly turn sour on the writer’s presence as she begins to dig up the truth on the 20-year-old disappearance of a young girl. The secrets they hide are predictably dark and while they do not stem directly from political atrocities, like the revealed trauma of films like Save the Green Planet (2003) and A Man Who Was Superman (2008), they do echo a number of related themes. For one the brutal countryside could be seen as a representation of the North, it could also be seen as a metaphor for the past and how modern Koreans choose to deal with it. Various events in the film point to a manipulation of memory and show us how most characters are deeply affected by it a key concern in Korean cinema. 

Unfortunately the film has some very significant drawbacks, I’ve already mentioned Eom’s performance but far more problematic are the atrocious lapses of judgment in the execution of the finale. There is a supernatural bent to the film that is necessary to complement the style of the first half but this angle is played down during the rest of the narrative until the very end when it comes back with a vengeance. The problem is that the logic of the film goes right out the window. Laws of physics are blithely disregarded, generic codes are awkwardly juxtaposed, and the obvious resolution is forced into place. Ultimately the film is a great display of technique and a competently made horror/thriller with lots of fun twists but it lacks cohesion and focus.


The villagers turn on the writer

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Servant (Bang-ja-jeon) 2010

Kim Dae-woo is running the risk of stereotyping himself, but when the result is a film like The Servant (2010), is this a bad thing? After starting off as a versatile scriptwriter with the films An Affair (1998), Rainbow Trout (1999), and The Foul King (2000), Kim made his first foray into the period film, more specifically the Chosun-era erotic melodrama period film, with his adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, Untold Scandal (2003). His directorial debut came in 2006 with the comedy Forbidden Quest, before his sophomore feature The Servant. Like Untold Scandal, The Servant is based on a famous text, this time the oft-filmed pansori tale Chunhyang. To western audiences the most famous take on this tale is Im Kwon-taek’s Chunhyang (2000), an epic and beautiful version that blends in scenes of pansori being performed in a modern theater with the narrative shot as a representation of the performance. Kim’s version is far less Brechtian but nonetheless engages with the text/song in a thoroughly satisfying manner.

Bang-ja and his master
Chunhyang is a simple tale of woman, named Chun-hyang, and Mong-ryeong, a studious magistrate’s son who fall in love and get married illegally before he must leave for Seoul. During his absence a corrupt magistrate arrives and forces Chun-hyang to become his concubine. She refuses and his faced with death but is saved at the last moment by Mong-ryeong who has now become a Royal Inspector.

The Servant follows much the same pattern but twists the narrative in favor of examining social structures and adding some eroticism. In this version Mong-ryeong is a conceited brat and it is actually his servant Bang-ja who fills the role of the love interest. He is strong, smart, competent, and kind, if a little shady and naïve. He undermines Mong-ryeong, in his quest to have Chun-hyang, at every turn, but not always intentionally. Mong-ryeong leaves for Seoul to follow his studies and Chun-hyang and the servant (who is now a merchant) pursue a relationship, which surprisingly is more or less in plain view of her family who disapprove (because it will not elevate her status) but tolerate it. The ending is also quite different but I won’t go into that here.

Mong-ryeong and the corrupt inspector
2010 seems to be a banner year for eroticism in Korean cinema. In my previous review on A Frozen Flower (2008), I mentioned how nudity and sex, which had previously been very taboo in Korean cinema, are getting more and more prevalent and graphic. Last year brought us the pseudo-erotica 3D film Natalie, the sexually-charged remake of The Housemaid, and The Servant, one of the most sexually-explicit Korean films I have seen. Not only does it feature numerous sex scenes but it also introduces elements of sexual deviance (the inspector who comes to town and tries to take Chunhyang as his concubine) to a tale that is really supposed to be a love overcomes all romance.

The Servant is a well-written and assiduously directed affair, but even more so it features jaw-droppingly gorgeous cinematography and sumptuous production design. Korean cinema constantly amazes me when it produces films for a fraction of the cost of Hollywood yet put all of those pictures to shame. It is also packed with great performances from Ryoo Seung-beom as Mong-ryeong Kim Joo-hyeok as Bang-ja, and even better characters, like Oh Dal-su who is a riot as a lubricious old man who gives Bang-ja tips to woo Chun-hyang. While this is a thoroughly entertaining film I do hope that Kim will try something new with his next feature, I have been forgiving but many reviewers have commented on this film’s similarity to Untold Scandal.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Korean Cinema News (04/11-04/17, 2011)

A lot of festival news this week as the lineups to Canne and the Udine Far East Film Festival were announced.  I have decided to cover Korean box office as well as other industry news and have included under its own heading at the bottom of the post.  Both this and last weekend's box office are covered this time around.


Park Jung-bum, director of much-lauded The Journals of Musan, talks about the difficulties of a low-budget production and his personal reasons for making a risky film about the lives of North Korean defectors in the South.  (JoonAng Daily, April 12, 2011)

The Busan International Film Festival is set to expand funding opportunities for documentary filmmakers.  A new fund is available for documentaries depicting conflict areas and the Busan FIlm Commission Fund has been set up to contribute to post-production costs on high-quality works with meager means.  (Film Business Asia, April 13, 2011)

Entering its 13th year, the Udine Far East Film Festival has announced the films which will be screening at this edition.  The program includes 12 new Korean films, including favorites BedevilledThe Man From Nowhere, and The Unjust, but also many world festival premieres such as Cyrano Agency.  In addition a pair of Korean comedies form 1961 will be screened as part of the festival's Asia Laughs section.  (Udine Far East Film Festival, April 13, 2011)

As part of its 2011 plan to support local filmmaking, the Korean Film Council will: make funds available to foreign co-productions filming in Korea; subsidize labour costs on low-budget films; act as guarantor for films with overseas potential; and invest in contents fund.  The KFC will also work to retrain films crews, develop 3D technology, fight piracy, and more.  (Screen Daily, April 14, 2011)

While none were selected for the main competition vying for the Palme d'Or, three much-anticipated Korean films will screen in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival.  These include: The Day He Arrives, the new Hong Sang-soo; Na Hong-jin's follow-up the The ChaserThe Yellow Sea, which has been recut for the festival; and Arirang, Kim Ki-duk's first film in three years.  (The Chosun Ilbo, April 15, 2011)

Park Jung-bum's The Journals of Musan is the newest in a long line of Korean films dealing with the North in an increasingly more direct manner.  This Washington Post article briefly analyzes the change of North Korea's depiction in South Korean cinema since censorship was relaxed enough to allow it in the late 1990s.  (The Washington Post, April 17, 2011)


Going against powerhouse Clash of the Families, hot off two first place finishes at the Korean box office, Suicide Forecast managed to clinch the weekend crown in a close finish with 279,636 admissions.  Clash of the Families took a big hit but nonetheless gained 265,795 admissions, its has sold 1,827,051 ticket to date.  Also opening this week were I Am a Dad, which had a so-so showing with 70,860 entries, and critical hit The Journals of Musan, which mustered barely over a thousand spectators in limited release.  (Hancinema, April 17, 2011)

Korean Cinema News is a weekly feature which provides wide-ranging news coverage on Korean cinema, including but not limited to: features; festival news; interviews; industry news; trailers; posters; and box office. It appears every Wednesday morning (GMT+1) on Modern Korean Cinema. For other weekly features, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update and the Weekly Review Round-upReviews and features on Korean film also appear regularly on the site. 

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Frozen Flower (쌍화점, Ssang-hwa-jeom) 2008

Steamy sex scenes

Eclectic director Yu Ha’s fifth feature explores yet a new generic territory, after drama in Marriage Is a Crazy Thing (2002), high school angst in Once Upon a Time in High School (2004), and the gangster saga of A Dirty Carnival (2006), A Frozen Flower is period gay romantic thriller, set during the Koryo dynasty. Only a Korean films could embody all of these elements and still be called a success, which it is, but it does create a narrative which can be difficult to know what to make of. Yu Ha was initially reluctant to embrace the period genre, which he felt uncomfortable with, but he decided to embrace it as he sought a change from his previous work. Given how versatile he has been, it comes as no surprise, but I hardly would have thought he felt he was doing the same thing with his previous films, which are each very different works. Yu strikes me as a potential modern Korean equivalent of Howard Hawks as he deftly navigates his way through multiple genres. Like Hawks he leaves his own mark but his films do not feature a uniform style or mise-en-scene, a feature commonly associated with auteurs which Hawks was and Yu is fast becoming.

Hong Lim (Jo In-seong) is the head of a troop of 40 strapping well-trained bodyguards to the king (Ju Jin-mo) who loves him. They have an ongoing relationship that is not particularly well hidden from the other members of the king’s court, including the queen (Song Jie-hyo). Due to pressure from the Yuan kingdom and the possibility of being forced out of his throne because he has no heir, the king hatches a plane, which is to have Hong Lim impregnate his wife as he can’t do it himself. Naturally the queen and Hong fall in love and the king finds out, bringing tensions to a head in the court.

It is an engaging story filled with taboos and erotica supported by a big budget ($10 million) and high-quality production values, although Darcy Paquet in his review notes that local audiences felt some of the production design seemed a little cheap and I would tend to agree. It isn’t the first period Korean film with overt homosexual themes, that would be the wildly successful The King and the Clown (2005), but it is the first one to be so explicit about it. Nudity has not featured prominently in Korean cinema, save for a few short scenes from more risqué directors such Park Chan-wook, but this seems to be changing as sex scenes are now more frequent and far more explicit than they were even five years ago. Most films still refrain from explicit eroticism and for the moment this phenomenon seems nearly confined to period films, like A Frozen Flower and The Servant (2010), a twist on the famed pansori tale Chunhyang, then there’s Natalie (2010), supposedly the world's first 3D porn film, which tanked at the box office.

The film suffers sometimes because of its uneven tone, its self-seriousness can often come off as amusing which undermines the passion of the intimate scenes between the protagonists in the love triangle. The swordplay scenes are very effective, although the numerous fights between Hong Lim and the king are again a little difficult to take seriously as they parade around with massive swords. These phallic symbols bring a new meaning to the terms crossing swords. The climactic battle, which features dynamic sound effects and props and walls being sliced and smashed, is wonderful, it’s just too bad the end seems so silly. All in all, an intriguing story with lots of momentum will pull you in and despite a few missteps, this is one journey worth taking.


Impressive swordplay

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Better Tomorrow (무적자, Mujeogja) 2010

Great production values

Song Hae-sung’s A Better Tomorrow is a flashy remake of John Woo’s seminal 1986 classic which tries hard to refigure the tale of brotherly love in a gangster-riddled modern Busan. John Woo served as an executive producer for this film, which is a co-production between South Korea, China, and Japan, something that would not have happened 15 years ago. Budgeted at $8.7 million, this is a pricy affair with excellent production values and some stunning set pieces, the problem is that the plot is so familiar and drawn out that it is difficult to care.

Ju Jin-mo, last seen in Ha Yu’s gay period epic A Frozen Flower (2008), plays the role of a gangster who tries to go straight and win the affection of his cop brother. Like the original the plot is thin and the outcome can be spotted a mile away. However Woo’s version was a seismic blockbuster that revolutionized the Asian film industry by creating a new type of stylized action film that would be emulated for years to come. This Korean update does feature some great gunfight sequences, but they are short and infrequent throughout the 124 minute running time.

The plot is a major problem in this new version as it cuts out some significant elements, such as the younger brother’s love interest, yet is still half an hour longer than the original. The characters do not have much depth and are often lacking in charisma, especially Song Seung-heun who cannot possibly match Chow Yun-Fat’s iconic cool from the original. It is a difficult task to recreate a beloved character and it is often wise to change the protagonist so as not to invite comparison, but Song's incarnation lacks three-dimensional characteristics.

The divide between the brothers

There are a few minor changes from the original: the gangsters deal in arms as opposed to counterfeit money; and the overseas set piece is set in Thailand instead of Taiwan. The most promising change is that the brothers are North Korean defectors, this also sets up the seeds of the younger brother’s resentment as the elder brother abandoned him when he initially defected to the south. While this could be an interesting premise, appropriate attention is not given to North-South tensions and this becomes little more than an afterthought.

One of my favorite things about Korean cinema is its propensity to hop across genres. This style of filmmaking can irk a lot of viewers but is also the reason many western audiences are so transfixed by these films. The Host (2006), Save the Green Planet (2003), My Sassy Girl (2001), and many others exhibit a deft handling of generic conventions as their narratives fly across horror, comedy, sci-fi, melodrama, action, and social commentary. This is also true of films that have not crossed over to western audiences, in fact it is pretty much the style of filmmaking that many have come to associate with South Korea. A Better Tomorrow does not cross genres and the reason I mention this is because it’s a damn shame that it doesn’t. It severely limits itself by working within the confines of an already limited original. It takes away without adding, it tones down instead of taking it to the next level. This wouldn’t bother me so much but there is so much skill and potential from a technical standpoint that I wish they had given themselves more leeway to experiment and add a real Korean touch.

The film looks great and has a couple of great, albeit brief, action sequences but is let down by an obvious and simplified plot, two-dimensional characters, and a horribly misjudged finale. Although the film was a hit in its domestic market (with over 1.5 million admissions), I think that director Song Hae-seong is capable of a lot better. Having previously helmed Calla (1999), Failan (2001), Rikidozan (2004), and Maundy Thursday (2006), by comparison his latest effort seems decidedly by-the-numbers.


Solid set pieces

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Memories of Murder: Part V - Female Representations

"Yet this absence of the mother had hardly nullified her fascinating and spectral presence, which is structured around the male subject’s unconscious desire to return safely to his place of origin. Even though the mothers are not ubiquitously present they are central to the narratives”

Park's Lover...
The position of female characters within these narratives that centralize around the recuperation of male subjectivity is problematic at best. Volume wise, as characters they are few and far between but what they represent is what is more complicated to ascertain. Some essays attack the fact that all the females in these narratives are seemingly just mothers and whores, sometimes both rolled into the same character. Since these films are dealing predominantly with masculine trauma it is not surprising that women in them are depicted as one or the other of these central male-female relationships. In Memories there are extremely few female characters and they add very little to the plot, which is not to say they are not "ubiquitously present". We learn about Det. Park’s family and up until the very end, where he has built his own family away from his past, the only woman we see that he has something beyond a work-based relationship with is the women he is sleeping with. She embodies both "the mother and the whore", a condensed narrative of sorts. We first see her naked having sexual intercourse with Park and immediately following this they engage in a casual post-coital conversation while she administers him with a vaccine. She sates his sexual appetites as well as giving him medical care and thus embodies characteristics of both a mother and a lover. It is true that the women are present throughout in so much that they effect the psyches of the males and are important to their historical, social, and personal developments, but they hardly appear in physical form and are never fully distinguishable characters as they only serves as emblems of their relationships to the male protagonists "the images of women remain prefixed on the rigid bifurcated conventions of whores and mothers". Since the film is all about character types which symbolize a generation and its subjugation, and problematic relationships with itself it is not altogether surprising that this approach is used. However, it is true that women could play a greater role in a number of these narratives. lt could be that the filmmakers in questions are too concerned with there own personal relationships with the characters they depict on screen to be altogether fully aware of the feminine aspect of the societies they embody. Therefore there is "a misogynistic tendency against women“ that “constitutes perhaps the most visible and disturbing symptom of a cinema that has earned its reputation abroad as consisting primarily of "violent introspective melodramas".
...becomes his mother
The other women in the film have similar traits. Gui-ok, the woman at the station only serves to add a feminine touch to the investigation, she listens to a sappy radio show and notices a song that comes up (however this scene does serve to emasculate the stumped male detectives and superintendent) and also interviews the rape victim who isn’t comfortable around men. This rape victim is an interesting characterization as she has suffered from a very real form of trauma and is so scarred that she can no longer live in society or relate to it in any way. As she explains her experience to Gui-ok, the scene is intercut with flashbacks of her experience, which are terrifying and humiliating. Therefore she cannot be said to be a fleshed-out character in her own right, as she is merely a device from which to extract evidence. It seems that all the females in Bong’s narrative are little more than symbols but a look at his next two films (The Host and Mother) makes it clear that he has the ability to do justice to female representations.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Korean Cinema News (04/04-04/10, 2011)

I am starting a brief industry news section which will run weekly and feature posts on Korean films from a global perspective.  As I dabble with it over the coming weeks, the format and content may well change. Please contact me with thoughts or any suggestions to improve it.


Arnold Schwarzenneger to Star in Kim Ji-woon's The Last Stand?
After two stints as Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenneger's return to the silver screen may come as the star of Kim Ji-woon's US debut The Last Stand, which will come from a blacklisted Hollywood screenplay.  (Ain't It Cool. April 6, 2011)

Poetry's Yoon Jung-hee Honored with French Cultural Order
Yoon Jung-hee, star of the Lee Chang Dong's much-lauded film Poetry (2010), has been honoured with a top French cultural award.  French culture minister Frederic Mitterrand named Yoon an "Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters."  (YonHap News Agency, April 6, 2011)

Independent Korean cinema will be featured prominently at this year's Jeonju film festival.  Short films from Yang Ik-jun, hot off the heels of Breathless (2009), and internationally-renowned woman's director Boo Ji-young will be featured alongside efforts from Im Kwon-taek and others in Korean Cinema Showcase section.  (JoonAng Daily, April 8, 2011)

Bong to Preside over Cannes' Camera d'Or Prize
Bong Joon-ho has been selected to head the jury for the Camera d'Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival, which is given to the best effort from a debut filmmaker.  He has previously attended the festival in competition as part of the omnibus Tokyo! in 2008 and his most recent feature effort Mother in 2009.  (Deadline New York, April 7, 2011)

Lee to Judge Critics' Week at Cannes
Master filmmaker Lee Chang-dong whose last two films, Poetry (2010) and Secret Sunshine (2007), both won awards at Cannes, will return to the festival this year as the head judge for the Grand Jury prize during the Critics’ Week Festival de Cannes.  (The Hollywood Reporter, April 7, 2011)

Upcoming Korean blockbuster My Way will be the focus of a promotional event hosted by this year's Cannes film festival. Kang Je-gyu's My Way, a World War II set film with a record setting 30 billion won budget, is set to be released simultaneously in Korea and Japan in December.  (The Korea Times, April 7, 2011)


Clash of the Families has now spent two weekends atop the Korean box office with a haul of just over 450,000 admissions.  That's a 6% decline from last weekend and its total now stands at 1,375,000.  Late Blossom continues to play well, having just crossed 1.5 million admissions in its 8th week.  This week Clash of the Families will vie with Suicide Forecast for the box office crown.  (Hancinema, April 10, 2011)

Korean Cinema News is a weekly feature which provides wide-ranging news coverage on Korean cinema, including but not limited to: features; festival news; interviews; industry news; trailers; posters; and box office. It appears every Wednesday morning (GMT+1) on Modern Korean Cinema. For other weekly features, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update and the Weekly Review Round-upReviews and features on Korean film also appear regularly on the site. 

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Brand New Life (여행자, Yeo-haeng-ja) 2009

Oomie Lecomte’s film A Brand New Life fills an interesting position in the pantheon of Korean cinema. It is a woman’s film made by a foreigner, and by that token alone it is somewhat of an anomaly. While decidedly European in many aspects, it still succeeds in engaging with many thematic elements commonly associated with Korean cinema. In addition, the film is set in 1975 and features a storyline where characters with unfortunate pasts come and go as circumstances beyond their control dictate.

The film begins with Jin-hee, who is having a great day with her father: he buys her new clothes; they go out to eat; and she rides with him on his bicycle. Then they take a bus, buy a cake, and he drops her off at an orphanage. She catches a glimpse of him as he leaves, and that is the last she will ever see of him. Now she must adapt to her new surroundings and come to terms with the fact that her father has abandoned her.

In watching this film I was reminded of Take Care of my Cat (2001), which also features strong elements of female bonding. Nine-year old Jin-hee has trouble fitting in at first, mainly through her own resistance, it is only when she befriends a slightly older girl that she calms down. Later, when her friend is adopted by Americans, she will begin to act up again. Camaraderie strikes me as an important element of the narrative, and by extension the need for acceptance. All the other girls seem to get along very well, and none are mean to Jin-hee when she first arrives, which we would normally expect. They are polite, well-behaved, and seem relatively happy.

Certainly they are well-treated by the nuns of the orphanage, who genuinely seem to care for them and help them to find homes, but they also seem completely cut off from the realities of Korean society circa 1975. Men are also missing from their lives, and yet the only negative effects felt within the walls of the orphanage are due to men: Jin-hee acts out because her father has abandoned her, and the older girl with the bad leg (whose name escapes me) attempts to take her own life because she is rejected by a young man.

The film is quite short by Korean standards, only 92 minutes, but packs quite an emotional punch during its fleeting running time. Less accusatory than reflective, A Brand New Life evokes nostalgia and asks questions without pointing too many fingers. It is a debut effort from Lecomte and is loosely based on her early years in Korea and I wonder if she will make another film in her birthplace. The young actress who plays Jin-hee, Kim Sae-ron, who was also in last year’s The Man From Nowhere (2010), is a revelation. Sol Kyung-go is also featured briefly in the beginning of the film, although his face is deliberately hidden save for one shot. Since his appearance could not be considered much more than a cameo I wonder if he was included to represent some of the characters he played in his career, Peppermint Candy (1999) comes to mind, where he played traumatized middle-aged men that have most often failed to keep a family together. All in all, a very strong and atmospheric effort that is worth a look.


Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Decline in Domestic Interest for Korean Cinema?

As a follow-on from my previous article about a possible Decline in Western Interest for Korean Cinema, where I posited a notion that far be it that Korean cinema has dropped in quality, it is more likely that viewership has withered as the Korean cinema phenomenon has become a mainstay. I also argued for a different role to be played by foreign cinema distributors (such as Tartan). Today my focus is on the domestic market for Korean films. Since roughly 2007, many commentators have speculated on the decline in market share for homegrown films in Korea. Having reached it's zenith in 2006 at 63.8%, the domestic stronghold over the Korean box office has since fallen below 50%. Certainly, attendance is not what it was in the middle of the last decade, but I think the numbers are slightly misleading. The main figure bandied about when referencing the state of the Korean film market is the percentage of admissions which are for Korean films. Understandable as it is quite symbolic to crack 50% and thus claim that Korean cinema is the ruler of the roost in its own country. I sought ought a few statistics (courtesy of and decided to measure attendance a different way. The figures available to me were the aforementioned market place percentage and the total number of admissions. By simply multiplying the full admissions by the market percentage, I was able to ascertain a new set of figures which, in my years of reading about the Korean film industry, in books, trades, academic papers and otherwise, I have never seen before. In the simple list below, I have put in bold the total number of movie tickets sold for a Korean film in Korea for the year 1996-2010, along with the previous two statistics mentioned.

2010: 68.4 of 146.8 = 46.6%
2009: 76.6 of 157.0 = 48.8%
2008: 63.5 of 150.8 = 42.1%
2007: 80.7 of 158.8 = 50.8%
2006: 97.9 of 153.4 = 63.8%
2005: 85.4 of 145.5 = 58.7%
2004: 80.2 of 135.2 = 59.3%
2003: 64.0 of 119.5 = 53.5%
2002: 50.8 of 105.1 = 48.3%
2001: 44.6 of 89.0 = 50.1%
2000: 22.7 of 64.6 = 35.1%
1999: 21.8 of 54.7 = 39.7%
1998: 12.6 of 50.2 = 25.1%
1997: 12.1 of 47.5 - 25.5%
1996: 9.7 of 42.2 = 23.1%

Going back as far as 1996, the first thing you see is how far Korean cinema has come in capturing a significant chunk of the market place. What makes the rise even more impressive is to compare it to the total admissions, which have more than trebled in a very short time period. I have collated the first two rows of data into a rudimentary graph (figure 1) below:

Figure 1:

This show us that as well as increasing its percentage in the marketplace, Korean cinema basically mirrored the rise in ticket sales. What this proves is that nearly all of the additional tickets being sold up until 2006, were going directly to the Korean film industry. Let's put this in perspective, foreign ticket sale increased from 32.5 million in 1996, to 55.5 million in 2006, that's an impressive increase of just over 70%. Domestic ticket sales increased from 9.7 million in 1996, to 97.9 million in 2006, that is a staggering rise of nearly 1000%.

What about after 2006? Total ticket sales rose for one more year, while Korean sales saw a sharp decline for the next two. 2006 was probably the ceiling for Korean cinema, with The Host breaking records, a slew of other strong films hitting theaters, and the feverish good will towards homegrown products, 2006 hit a peak. 2007 did not have the same marquee offerings for Korean audiences and was greatly affected by the screen quota system, whereby Korean exhibitors must show Korean films for a certain amount of days per year, being slashed in half (from 146 to 73).

After this 'bad year' however, Korean ticket sales went up again and for the last few years have fluctuated along with total ticket sales. The low of 2008 was the same amount of tickets sold to domestic films in 2003, which itself was nearly 600% higher than 1996. Let's look at the graph for the market share for domestic films in Korea (figure 2):

Here we can clearly see the tandem rise and fall of Korean films and foreign imports, respectively, in the Korean film marketplace. The drop and subsequent reversal of market power in 2007-08 is much more alarming in this graph. The fact that admissions are not reflected here does two things: it does not do justice to the immensity of the rise of Korean cinema through to the new millenium and; it does not account for the continuing rise in admissions beyond 2006, thereby presenting a more dire picture of domestic film consumption than is really the case.

I believe that Korean cinema is in great shape and has settled into its groove. As long as Koreans go to the theater they will most likely watch a Korean film roughly ever two visits, and for a globalized market place that revels in the modern, high-tech, savvy, and star-driven films that Hollywood has to offer, this is definitely among the most powerful domestic film markets in the world.