Thursday, January 22, 2015

New Korean Films: At a Crossroads (2015 Week 3)

Gangnam Blues
(강남 1970)

By Fabien Schneider

In the 1970s, all eyes were turned towards the underprivileged neighborhood known today as Gangnam in the southern part of ever-sprawling Seoul. The prospect of the redevelopment of that area stirred up a hornet’s nest between the corrupted political authorities, real estate agencies and low-life gangsters. Jong-dae and Yong-gi are two orphans who ran away from their children's home where they met and since then struggle every day to survive in their shanty home. When their house is destroyed by mobsters, they get separated and take different paths. Three years later, Jong-dae has now settled down, living a quiet life with the family of his former boss, Kil-su. But this tranquility is put at risk when Madame Min, a real estate investor who has connections in political and media circles, is taking action to get all the rights over Gangnam’s territories. Jong-dae joins her in an attempt to enhance his life. Yong-ki, along with the most powerful gang of Seoul in which he became a highly-ranked goon, is going to fight back, and in the process will meet again his old friend.

Let’s go straight to the point: this new thriller is very smart, at least in regards to the decisions taken during its production. If you want to reach the top of the box-office, you would try to appeal to the widest audience possible. You see, in South-Korea, thrillers traditionally target 20-something young men. So how did the producers of Gangnam Blues managed to make other groups of audiences find interest in it? First, by choosing a historical time that is quite controversial (during Park Chung-hee’s reign) but for which the older generations nonetheless have great nostalgia.

Secondly, by casting an actor who can raise interest among women of all ages all by himself. Lee Min-ho is such an actor, now having a lead role in a film for the first time. Coming from the TV dramas, he already played in Our School’s ET (2008) and Public Enemy Returns (2008), but that was before his impressive breakthrough. If by any chance you happened to be in South-Korea in 2009, chances are that you already know him. At that time, Boys Over Flowers, the drama in which he was starring, was so popular that you couldn’t escape the many ads in the streets. This drama having been aired in all of East Asia, Lee Min-ho’s popularity may also help the film to be sold in those countries. Kim Rae-won, the other lead, had slipped under the radar these last years, but is still remembered for its performances in …ing (2003) and Sunflower (2006). With this movie being rated mature, and the context being prone to criticism echoing today’s politics and economy, expectations are very high. Especially with Yoo Ha directing, since he’s made some of the most exciting films in the 2000s, his best work being A Dirty Carnival (2006), a movie that is often mentioned among the very best Korean thrillers. Showbox is the distributor, and there won’t be any city without a screening scheduled. With all these assets, I don’t see how this movie could sink at the box-office.

Clearer Than You Think
(생각보다 맑은)

Ju-shik is soon graduating from university, and his parents and his friends are already asking him to apply for a job. But the only thing he has in mind at this moment is his crush that he kept for himself for too long. He wishes he could do in the future what he really likes. Eun-sol has a secret relationship with her superior at the office. But despite them having already planned their wedding, she still hasn’t heard the only thing she wants from him: “I love you”. Ye-mi has been touched by the God of Metal and plays guitar in a band with her friend Kang-bo, with whom she started music. But the latter decides to prepare for the university entrance exam, and thus announces that he’s leaving the band. However Ye-mi wants to stay on the music stage. Maro is a nine-year-old dog who is curious about everything. Being left alone at home, he seeks his owner and step out of the apartment. But he soon gets himself lost and enters a dark forest, a new world full of surprises.

Despite the fact that Korea has an abundance of locally produced comics and is fond of the Japanese mangas and animated series, it may seem surprising that animated films seldom make it to theaters. Nonetheless the few films that were made recently were engaging, and I can only be delighted to see one more getting released. This one is targeting a crowd in their twenties, young people who have to figure out what to make of their lives, as implies the tagline: “I want to do what I like. Be it for love or for the future.” This important crossroad can become quite depressing in a society that significantly favors high wages and stability over self-emancipation. I guess this is a situation that the director Han Jo-won had to face herself, since she had already told the story of the guitarist and the one of the dog in short movies (both of them won awards at the Indie-AniFest in Seoul). This movie looks to be a straight compilation of those two shorts, with two other stories made for the long feature. The graphic style is very distinctive; it recalls the nostalgic feeling of the Japanese anime of the 80s as well as the more spontaneous drawings of Mind Game (2004). Critics at Cine21 praised the refreshing youthfulness of the movie. It’s distributed by Indiestory, and will be exhibited only in Seoul, Incheon, Busan and Jeonju.

Watch the Korean trailer here.

New Korean Films is a weekly feature which provide an in-depth look at new local releases in Korea. 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). Reviews and features on Korean film also appear regularly on the site. 

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