Sunday, March 10, 2013

Why Hollywood Genre Flicks Need Korean Film, Not Korean Filmmakers

(by Peter Gutiérrez)

Here’s a snobby confession for you: I don’t read the New York Times much for insights into international cinema. But when it recently ran a piece entitled South Korean Crossover in Hollywood, I had to pay attention. Rather predictably it compared and contrasted Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, and Kim Ji-woon, taking an approach that cited previous waves of foreign-born directors arriving in the US and making the entire issue seem like one of immigration.

And another confession, as a bonus: I’m no expert on Korean genre films, more like an overgrown fan. Why? Because I’m not there on the ground, in Korea or another Asian market with ready access to the Korean output. That means my sense of “Modern Korean Cinema,” despite my many pieces for this site, is an incomplete one, largely a filtered one, and, at best, a curated one. In fact, for years and years I’ve been relying on events such as the New York Korean Film Festival, which just completed another successful event, to expose me to the best of the contemporary scene. But more than that, NYKFF and other fests have given this American cinephile an admiration of Korean cinema that I can summarize by drawing attention to how genre and non-genre elements are constantly informing and enriching each other. And that’s exactly what Hollywood today needs – U.S. indie films sometimes achieve this artful confluence of the generic and what’s ostensibly more “serious” drama, but significantly they do this on lower budgets and for smaller audiences. I’m greedy, though: I want multiplex fare in my hometown to display the same boldly emotional yet smart and personal aesthetic that I continuously find in mainstream Korean films.

As an example, here are just two of the films screened at NYKFF:

1) Deranged (Park Jeong-woo): yes, I’m deliberately selecting an overachieving B-movie here, because it’s worth comparing (favorably) to a sweeping, international production that’s conspicuously freighted with an all-star cast: Contagion (2011). Both films feature a Dad desperate on his family’s behalf, but I love the way that Deranged presents this character’s financial anxiety and overall (and very un-Matt Damon-like) nastiness early in the film: it makes things horrifying even before the actual “horror” begins. Yes, the film gets incredibly sentimental when said Dad must redeem himself, but that’s why I feel like what I’m calling the “Korean approach” would work in Hollywood releases – you can give populist audiences the kind of emotional experience they expect from a night at the movies without using a black-and-white, Manichean approach to everything. After all, consider the ambivalent moral attitude toward revenge in Kim Ji-woon and Park Chan-wook’s films, and even something like the latter’s JSA, which refused to see the world in us-vs.-them terms despite a reality in North-South relations that would justify such a position.

2) A Werewolf Boy (Jo Sung-hee): sentimentality plays an even bigger role here, in this wonderfully acted tearjerker that manages to be effective as both a romance and a fantasy while not losing the audience for either. What’s more remarkable still is how, having resigned myself (quite happily, by the way) to there being no strong horror elements in the film, I was pleasantly surprised when they did surface. The echoes of something like Edward Scissorhands is obviously felt here, but that and the fact that A Werewolf Boy was a huge hit in Korea shouldn’t be held against it; instead, it points to how deeply felt works that creatively borrow from various genres can succeed at the box office. Sure, Hollywood attempts this from time to time, but usually in the context of a young adult fiction adaptation—in other words, a franchise with a built-in fan following. I’d like to see American/Brit releases that tackle dark material and coming-of-age stories simultaneously that also happen to be the products of original screenplays and vivid, fearless filmmaking. Then again, maybe that’s what Stoker is.

There’s a lot more that can be said, of course, about the critical success of Park Chan-wook’s latest release as well as the dismal failure of The Last Stand, but I’ll save such thoughts for another time. The takeaway here is my quixotic dream that Hollywood would stop viewing such auteurs in total isolation, as creative commodities that can be imported as rare and valuable specimens… but rather grasp that such talents are the flowering of an entire movie culture in which creatives, audiences, and studios all hesitate to view genre fun and artistic expression as mutually exclusive.

Peter Gutiérrez, a U.S. correspondent for MKC, writes for Twitch and blogs on pop culture for School Library Journal.

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).

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.

1 comment:

  1. "....and making the entire issue seem like one of immigration." :) :) :)

    Quite right @ A Werewolf Boy. Willingly fell for the movie, rather it earns the right to wearing its sentimentality so unabashedly on its sleeve..