Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The 3rd 'Yeonghwa: Korean Cinema Today' at MoMA - Preview

New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is kicking off its 3rd edition of Yeonghwa: Korean Cinema Today tomorrow and the event, which features an eclectic array of arthouse and commerical films until its conclusion at the end of the month. Our US correspondent Peter Gutierrez offers up his views on a trio of featured works below (Helpless, Mirage, and A Fish) while I've chimed in with my own two cents on the new Lee Sang-woo film Fire in Hell.

More reviews will appear over the coming days and anyone in NY should do their best to check out this great event. The wonderful lineup, which includes In Another Country, Blind, Pink, Stateless Things, Jesus Hospital, Poongsan, From Seoul to Varanasi and some Shin Sang-ok films, can be viewed in full by following the below link:

A thoughtful, often engrossing quasi-thriller, Helpless is careful to set its somewhat familiar crime-and-investigation tropes in a world where, despite the presence of monstrous acts, there are few actual monsters – at least not ones where we’d expect to find them. In this sense writer-director Byun Young-joo has crafted something closer to a social drama, albeit one made more accessible to populist audiences by its sudden jolts of violence and thick layers of mystery. Hence the “quasi-” in quasi-thriller: there are some nice moments of suspense, and an effectively noirish mix of curdled romance and a down-and-out private investigator, but with its self-conscious air of tragedy and top-heavy emphasis on its themes of female identity, the film’s popcorn appeal diminishes considerably by the time it concludes.

For some, however, this unmistakably literary feel (the story is based on a novel) will make Helpless a memorable experience, as will the likably gritty performance of Cho Seong-ha as the investigator. Lead Lee Seon-gyoon is well cast and well directed here, with his brand of understatement (so effective in films as diverse as Paju and Oki’s Movie allowing us to be drawn slowly into his desperation. As his fiancé, Kim Min-hee may, in fact, be too well cast: her lack of affect is perfect for certain scenes, but at the same time we never quite get a sense of why Lee’s character is so attracted to her in the first place—she seems perpetually in a daze. One possibility is provided by his career as a veterinarian, since we can’t help but feel that he initially viewed her as just one more poor, helpless creature that required his care. Of course over time we gradually come to realize the ambiguity in the film’s title and in its fatalistic contention that, to some extent, we’re all powerless when it comes to certain types of adversity. (Peter Gutiérrez)

Screening Schedule:
Thursday, September 20, 2012, 4:30 p.m.
Saturday, September 22, 2012, 8:00 p.m.

Equal parts assured and ambitious, Yang Jeong-ho’s first feature is the kind that’s tailor-made for that old accolade, “Here’s a talent to keep an eye on.” For pretty much the entire running time of Mirage we are kept wondering about the ultimate connection between its three closely related storylines, which means that a good portion of the film is enthralling, or nearly so. Yang’s script sees twenty-something author (Mun Jeong-ung) revisiting his old stomping grounds while flashbacks to his teen years increasingly hint at both turmoil and mystery, particularly as regards to a close friend (and social outcast) played by Shin Jae-seung in an accomplished turn. The third narrative track concerns our protagonist’s clearly autobiographical novel that focuses on incidents that occurred when the youthful characters travelled to a remote island in search of a wormhole. That’s right: a wormhole, as in a science fiction flick.

It says something about Yang’s skill as a director that he handles a variety of styles and generic elements in the course of telling his three stories. Still, that success may come at too steep a price as one plot strand concerning school bullies (harrowing despite the theme’s prevalence in Korean cinema) emotionally overshadows the rest of the narrative. With an ending that sits on the border of enticingly mysterious and elliptically open-ended, Mirage may leave some audiences with the impression of being less than the sum of its parts. But if viewed as a grand allegory rather than a coming-of-age story or quirky fantasy, there can be little doubt as to its success. After all, it does a terrific job of dramatizing the wormhole of life that all of us enter –we enter as youth and suddenly emerge on the other side, older but not wiser, wondering vaguely how we got there and whether it’s possible to return.  (Peter Gutiérrez)

Screening Schedule:
Friday, September 21, 2012, 4:30 p.m.
Tuesday, September 25, 2012, 8:00 p.m.

First, a confession: I have not seen A Fish – another first feature, this time from Park Hong-min – in 3D, and so cannot comment on how effectively it uses that format. However, I can say that it’s probably awesome in that respect. Why? Well, I don’t mean in terms of sheer spectacle (it’s not that kind of film, and in fact has a rather low-budget aesthetic), but in terms of immersing the audience in the kind of metaphysical possibilities that the movies promise and that real-life generally cannot provide. And I say that because A Fish already does this in all its 2D glory.

Second, a clarification: the real world can provide answers to the more profound mysteries of life, but usually not to the average person. A shaman, in contrast, is thought to be capable of communing with worlds that the rest of us can’t see, and that’s the premise out of which the haunting events of A Fish proceed. Not thinking too much or too hard about why his wife has become a shaman, but determined to track her down and bring her home, a college professor sets forth on an odd, slightly Jim Jarmusch-like journey to reclaim her. That’s the plot – ostensibly.

On the one hand, A Fish wears its allegorical meanings on its sleeve: even if we weren’t sure how the title relates to the tale of the professor and his wife, Park inserts a couple of Waiting for Godot-style existential fisherman whose amusing yet disturbing chit-chat makes us wonder if the film is positioning us as the anglers, the fish, or perhaps the bait. On the other hand, A Fish does little to tie its various pieces into a tidy package for the audience. Using minimal music, stark settings, off-kilter humor, and lots of fog, Park seems much more intent on inducing a trance-like state among his viewers. For me, his efforts not only work, but reflect one of the reasons I’m drawn to cinema more than other art forms. Others, I fully realize, may not be so generous, and feel that A Fish is too slow, too boring, and, most of all, too nebulous.

I can respect those opinions even while disagreeing with them whole-heartedly. From where I sit, the film explains just as much as it needs to – if one wants more from it, watching it again might be a good strategy. Even then, not everything will fit together, and I take joy in that. Proving that the greatest special effect of all is the simple cut – nothing else has the power to disrupt time and space so utterly – Park mixes this artful editing with exceedingly smart dialogue and grotesque line readings to create several moments of utterly Lynchian creepiness. All in all, A Fish is a terrific combination of experimental film, spiritual odyssey, and paranormal horror. If that sounds like something you could go for, then jump right in.  (Peter Gutiérrez)

Screening Schedule:
Wednesday, September 26, 2012, 4:30 p.m.
Saturday, September 22, 2012, 5:00 p.m.

Lee Sang-woo is a director who is quickly making a name for himself in Korea's independent fim scene as a purveyor of controversial fare. At first glance he seems like a younger version of Kim Ki-duk but a little familiarity with his work refutes this notion as Lee has a much for pronounced penchant for humor, as dark and morbid as it can be. In fact this is the element that separates his work from most of the other dour Korean arthouse productions ou there. He revels in depravity and pushes his characters beyond any acceptable boundaries. He doesn't care if he offends you but the shocking acts depicted or referred to in his films are surprisingly palatable as a result of his humor. He also works very quickly: following his 2008 debut Tropical Manila, Fire in Hell, which debuted at this year's Jeonju International Film Festival, is already his 6th feature.

Over his short but intense career as a filmmaker, Lee has been developing his style. Last year's Barbie may have been his most mature and polished work but Fire in Hell, though much messier, is evidence of Lee looking to push himself as a filmmaker. He explores new ground and experiments with a wide array of new cinematic techniques, particularly in the aesthetics department, such as with his combinations of cinematography and set design. As these are experiments, not everything works but many elements do fall into place, yielding snippets of enthralling cinema.

Fire in Hell is a blend of a couple of different ideas which explores, sexuality, religion, and family. It is not altogether cohesive, likely a result of Lee not taking enough time to refine his themes into a more thoughtfully constructed script, but it is nonetheless a fascinating and beguiling work from a creative mind exploring his craft. (Pierce Conran)

Peter Gutiérrez writes for Twitch and School Library Journal and has also written about pop culture for The New York TimesTribecaFilm.Com and The Financial Times.  He can be counted on for too-frequent film and pop culture updates on Twitter via @Peter_Gutierrez.

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 Korean Reviews, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time).

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