Showing posts with label 2010. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2010. Show all posts

Monday, July 15, 2013

Revenge Week: Hell Hath No Fury... Part I

Part of MKC's Revenge Week (July 8-14, 2013).

By Paul Quinn, founder of the excellent Hangul Celluloid.

Ask almost anyone with even a vague knowledge of Korean cinema about continually prevalent K-film genres or themes and at some point in their response they'll likely mention more than one example from a near plethora of Korean revenge thrillers and cinematic tales of bloody retribution. While any discussion of genre predominance is of course multi-faceted, the fact that a country's cinema can almost not fail to be influenced by its nation's psyche - inherently reflecting trials and tribulations faced nationally - to my mind speaks volumes about the origin of Korean cinema's regular and ongoing use of revenge narratives: By its very definition, revenge comes as a direct response to wrongs suffered, oppression and/or repression and with Korea historically having had to endure not only decades of occupation by Japan - during which time repeated efforts were made by the Japanese to completely eradicate Korea as a nationality, including the banning of Korean language films from 1942 until 1945, when Korean independence was finally secured - but also subsequent years of stringent cinematic constraints and censorship instigated by the Korean government itself, the revenge genre has since provided opportunities for filmmakers to produce searing entertainment at the same time as, perhaps subconsciously, allowing a kind of audience catharsis by way of indulgence in fictional tales of vengeance and retribution where no national revenge could or would ever be sought in reality.

Revenge Week: Recent “Women's Revenge” Films and The Curious Case of Bedevilled

Part of MKC's Revenge Week (July 8-14, 2013).

By Kyu Hyun Kim, Associate Professor at UC Davis and contributor.

Revenge is a mostly human behavior (I am loath to call it “uniquely” human: who knows, maybe there really is a killer whale like Orca, who chased and eventually knocked Richard Harris' brain all over an Arctic glacier, because the latter killed his pregnant mate. No idea what movie I am referencing? Can’t say I blame ya). Animals retaliate but do not dwell on the feelings of resentment, the sense that an injustice was done to them, the way humans do. An ant colony fights back when it is invaded by other colonies. However, when they lose a territorial war, they either get exterminated or absorbed into the winning side's community: there are no “buts” about the outcome. I doubt a soldier ant goes after the queen ant of the invading colony in a suicide mission of avenging her own queen, or deaths of her sister larvae.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Re-encounter (혜화,동, Hye-hwa, Dong) 2010

(by refresh_daemon)

Re-encounter is a Korean independent film that managed to garner a number of awards from festivals as well as a couple of high profile nominations, so it has been on my radar for some time. After watching it, I can easily see how its exploration of loss and coming to terms with unresolved hurt in the past, coupled with a subtle, yet memorable performance from lead actress Yu Da-in managed to convince festival juries and audiences. The film's attention to detail when it comes to the title character's behavior wraps its personal drama together well and although the final act is a touch more forced than the rest of the film, by the time the credits roll, the examination of Hyehwa's character has won so much good will that it's hard not to appreciate the film.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Fribourg 2013: A Brand New Life (여행자, Yeo-haeng-ja) 2009

Playing at the 27th Fribourg International Film Festival (March 16-23, 2013)

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.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Love Story Abruptly Ended: Eighteen (회오리 바람, Hwiori Baram) 2009

Part I of a special MKC feature on Jang Kun-jae.

By Rex Baylon

The beauty and innocence of young love might be the greatest hoax perpetuated by the mainstream media. A couple walking hand in hand together while surrounded on all sides by a bucolic setting, two lovers sitting in a warm cozy diner with a straw in each of their mouths while they share a milkshake, or the hustle and bustle of a crowded noisy street muted by two lovestruck individuals stealing a kiss or embrace. The young and not so young are fed these cliché images to the point that artists can’t help but regurgitate them back to their respective audiences. The romanticism that was first born from the mind of Goethe has mutated into the “Hallmark moment”, sappy, sentimental, and dangerous. At it’s most idealistic, young love offers a safe haven for youths who’ve experienced the joy and elation of caring and feeling protective over someone other than themselves, but at its worst it can be an easy excuse for self-absorbed and destructive behavior.

In Jang Kun-jae’s debut, Eighteen (Hwioribaram, 2009), these two distinctive poles are examined through a very familiar story of young love that ought not to be. Yet, unlike many Korean romantic melodramas this is not a linear narrative charting a relationship from meet-cute to break-up. In fact, it begins months after the break-up. It is a post-mortem love story told mainly through flashback, blending cinema-verite with splashes of magic realism. The young couple in the film are normal run-of-the mill Korean teenagers: they’re attached to their smartphones, they’ve got school and parents badgering them about college, and their idea of the future doesn’t stretch any further than a few months. There is nothing distinctive about their lives or personality.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

CinDi 2012: Masquerade (가면놀이) 2010

Part of MKC's Coverage of the 6th Cinema Digital Seoul Film Festival.

Let me get this right out of the way first, this is NOT about the brand new Lee Byung-hun period pic of the same title which came out in Korean theaters today. My timing may not great, but so be it.

I knew Masquerade was a documentary and based on the one still that was attached to it in the CinDi program. I assumed it had something to do with pantomine or some sort of performance. To say that I was way off the mark would be something of a cataclysmic understatement. Nestled among a crowd of mostly young women, I grew somewhat uncomfortable when the narrative revealed itself to me for the first time. You see, Masquerade is a hard-hitting film about child abuse in Korea and how it is often ignored by society at large.

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.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Oki's Movie (옥희의 영화, Ok-hee-eui Yeong-hwa) 2010

“Let's just read. In such a rotten world only books will save us.”

This line of dialogue, which is spoken early in Oki’s Movie and follows shortly after the statement “Film as an art is dead,” might lower audience expectations if it weren’t delivered with such devastating irony.  With its goofy directness it thoroughly disarms, and so has the opposite effect:  we feel drawn to a film that pokes fun not only at filmmaking but at all our personal and cultural aspirations for the medium.  Let’s start by acknowledging that “the movies” are a sham, writer-director Hong Sang-soo seems to be saying – only then can we hope to redeem them, and ourselves, in even the smallest way.

In this sense, Hong continues to play with the metafilmic approach he’s been using for a while; just check out 2005’s Tale of Cinema, which, like this 2010 film that’s only now getting a U.S. release, announces its cinema-centrism in its very title.  Oki’s Movie is structured as a kind of theme-and-variations piece via four mini-movies, each of which is drolly introduced with a modest credit sequence rendered grandiose by the addition of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.”  At the center of it all is Lee Seon-gyoon, who plays both a burnt-out yet arrogant director and, later, the same character as a lovelorn student filmmaker.  Similarly, Moon Seong-geun plays a trusted mentor, a shady professor, and a romantic rival who actually turns out to be surprisingly sympathetic.  As Oki, the engaging Jeong Yu-mi seems to get less screen time than the two men in her life yet that fits her slightly enigmatic status.  So although the movie that she’s made is presented only in the final 16 minutes, it’s a quiet tour de force that brings together all that came before.

With its shifting perspectives and gently fractured narrative, Oki’s Movie might give the impression of being just another overly cerebral arthouse exercise.  But such an assessment would be off the mark for one simple reason:  it’s consistently, jaw-droppingly hilarious.  No, the humor isn’t broad, and in fact it’s so deadpan that it may prompt a double-take or two – wait, was that supposed to be funny?  While in some of Hong’s other films there’s more ambiguity as to his seriousness at any given moment, Oki’s Movie never lets up in its satire of academia, indie filmmaking, romance, and the manners associated with all three.  In short, if audiences can’t tell that the film is funny, and fully intends to be, then they probably won’t know what to make of it.  Sure, some of the laughs derive from the “humor of the uncomfortable” school, and there’s an Oscar Wilde-like gravity lurking behind the wit.  Hong not only winks at us, but winks at us regarding his winks.  Finally, although lead Lee Seon-gyoon has been in some comedies, it might not be obvious at first that here he’s playing perfectly against his screen persona as a handsome-and-capable leading man (Paju had been released just the previous year, in 2009) by, basically, portraying an intellectual jackass.

Yet for an intellectual jackass he says some pretty insightful things – insightful as to Hong’s own artistic credo, that is.  For example, here’s Lee’s character holding forth at a typical Q&A with a public audience in a screening room:

"My film is similar to the process of meeting people.  You meet someone and get an impression, and make a judgment with that.  But tomorrow you might discover different things.  I hope my film can be similar in complexity to a living thing."

He continues by pointing out how filmmakers have incorrectly been taught to value theme above all else.  "Starting with a theme will make it all veer to one point," he explains, and suddenly we grasp part of Hong’s strategy in this and in his other films.

The problem is, Oki’s Movie definitely does have a theme, albeit one that surfaces gradually and which Hong almost always presents with a light touch.  It concerns the way that passion, for better or worse, can break through all that is false about modern life:  alienation, regimentation, even our own pretenses.  But to realize that passion on a consistent basis – either in terms of romance or filmmaking (which is a stand-in for art and creativity generally) – some form of power seems to be required, whether it’s money, professional credentials, or personal reputation.  And that’s where the trouble starts, as a disproportionate concern for such things can also come to undermine our ability to feel passion with any authenticity.

In conclusion, I don’t want to sound too over-the-top but I’m very grateful that someone like Hong Sang-soo is in his creative prime these days, and that cinephiles have a chance to catch his work on the big screen even if it’s somewhat belatedly.  In fact, if you’re lucky enough to live in or near New York, I’d advise seeing Oki and the equally wonderful The Day He Arrives in as close to a back-to-back fashion as you can.  If you do, afterwards you’ll likely find yourself walking about in a kind of waking dream – disoriented but strangely elated at the same time.  

Oki's Movie will be having a special one week in engagement in New York at the Maysles Theatre from 04/16-04/22.  It will presented as part of the bi-monthly series, 'Documentary in Bloom: New Films Presented by Livia Bloom.'

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 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.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Yellow Sea (황해, Hwang-hae) 2010

Since the days of the New Korean Wave of the late 80s and early 90s men in Korean cinema have frequently found themselves on the road in search of answers, a home and their identity.  In contemporary Korean cinema male characters are for the most part much more comfortably settled within the progressive society of modern Korea and yet their philosophical dilemmas still simmer under the surface, refusing to go away.

Four years ago, Na Hong-jin burst onto the scene with one of the most remarkable debuts in modern times.  The Chaser was an under-the-radar genre effort from a rookie director with two mid-level stars, and yet it became one of the highest grossing films of the year and along with The Good, the Bad and the Weird was also one of Korea’s most popular exports.  Today, in the spring of 2012, Na and his two stars Kim Yun-seok and Ha Jung-woo are among the heavyweights of the Korean film industry.  Kim’s last five films have all attracted well over 2 million admissions; in fact most of them have soared over the 5 million mark (The Chaser; Woochi, 2009; Punch, 2011), a enormous benchmark in the Korean industry that few films have reached.  The charismatic Ha is now one of the country’s top leading men, indeed two of his films topped the box office last month alone (Nameless Gangster, Love Fiction).

For Na’s sophomore feature, the gang got back together again and delivered another worldwide hit in The Yellow Sea, originally released in Korea in December 2010 and presented internationally at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2011.  Just like his first film, Na’s follow up is firmly rooted in genre but disassembles and reconstructs it to further his own ends.  Beginning as an ominous rumble in the distance, the film accelerates to the point that it becomes a heart-pumping descent into despair. 

Ha Jung-woo plays Goo-nam, a down on his luck cab driver in the Yanbian Korean autonomous prefecture of Northeast China who loses at mahjong every night as he hopelessly tries to earn enough money to pay off the loan sharks who funded his wife’s passage to Korea.  He’s offered a job to clear his debt by Jeong-hak (Kim Yun-seok), which sees him smuggled into Seoul in order to kill a man.  He has a week to carry out the contract and while on the peninsula will try to track down his wife whom he hasn’t heard from since she left.

Na’s mise-en-scene is downbeat, gritty and very evocative.  We follow Goo-nam around Yanji, a dirty city full of forgotten souls.  It operates like a lawless border town, steeped in vice and hopelessness.  The film is split into a few chapters which each up the stakes over the last.  Goo-nam’s debasement is the key narrative point for much of the film and more than anything, what defines this is his fractured identity.

Throughout most of The Yellow Sea he find himself in transit or on the run.  He is preyed upon and taken advantage of from the outset; his lack of clear national identity is also the source of his lack of confidence.  There is an early scene which features stray dogs and it quickly becomes clear that this is what he is.  He only fights back through the basest instincts of survival.  Much of the action takes place in boats, buses, cars, ports and roads and Goo-nam is always in danger.  Like the emasculated males that found themselves wandering the roads of earlier Korean cinema, he seeks his identity through lines of transportation but in modern Korea, a country that often seeks to forget about its past, he is not welcome.  He is a visible and painful reminder of an oppressive and traumatic recent history.  Whether jumping off a boat, apprehended on a bus, chased on the street or crashed into while driving a car, he is forced into the wild, away from civilization.  Conversely it is only in these scenes, high up in the mountains, that the threat dissipates.  Despite the looming danger, he is safe in the untouched and austere calm of the outdoors.

The Yellow Sea begins as a gritty drama and thriller, and then turns into a suspense film for its second chapter but then becomes an unapologetic and propulsive action film for the significant remainder of the running time which, though 140 minutes long, is breathless.  It’s an exhausting and sometimes morbid experience to be sure, but the pure energy and raw vitality of the set pieces are exceptionally effective.  Much of the pulsating back half of the film had me short of breath.

Just like in The Chaser, Ha and Kim are exceptional.  Though their roles as protagonist and antagonist are reversed, they are remarkably engaging.  Ha truly embodies Goo-nam’s despair while Kim, despite his dead eyes and listless mumble is one of the most ferocious and animalistic cinema villains of recent times.

I will say that The Yellow Sea is best enjoyed as a genre effort as held under close dramatic scrutiny, it may turn up some unsatisfying conclusions.  A small price to pay in my eyes for what was one of the most invigorating cinematic experiences of the last few years.  While Korean cinema may have a lot more to offer than its thrillers, when a film like this comes along, it’s easy to see what all the fuss is about.

The Yellow Sea is out on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK on March 26th, from Eureka Entertainment.


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.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Weekly Review Round-up (03/10-03/16, 2012)

Another huge Weekly Review Round-up as the Korean blogathon came to an end.  A great wealth of films covered stretching across every time, genre and style you could imagine.



(The One One Four, March 14, 2012)

(Scene in Korea, March 9, 2012)

(, March 10, 2012)

(Scene in Korea, March 10, 2012)


(Unseen Films, March 10, 2012)


(We Eat Lemon, March 10, 2012)

(Film in Asian, March 12, 2012)

(cineAWESOME!, March 11, 2012)

(VCinema, March 9, 2012)

(Unseen Films, March 11, 2012)

(Far East Films, March 11, 2012)

(KOFFIA Blog, March 11, 2012)

(Hanguk Yeonghwa, March 13, 2012)

(Unseen Films, March 10, 2012)

(Hangul Celluloid, March 10, 2012)

(YAM Magazine, March 11, 2012)

(The Montreal Gazette, March 8, 2012)

(Init_Scenes, March 13, 2012)

The Yellow Sea

War of the Arrows


(YAM Magazine, March 11, 2012)

A Bittersweet Life, 2005

(Flying Guillotine, March 8, 2012)

(Rainy Day Movies 9, 2012)

Bad Guy, 2001
(Next Projection, March 12, 2012)

(We Eat Lemon, March 10, 2012)

Dream, 2008
(Next Projection, March 13, 2012)

Duelist, 2005
(Rainy Day Movies 7, 2012)

Epitaph, 2007
(VCinema, March 8, 2012)

Haeundae, 2009
(Hong Kong Rewind, March 9, 2012)

(Orion's Ramblings, March 11, 2012)

(Podcasts Without Honor and Humanity, March 9, 2012)

(Unseen Films, March 9, 2012)

M, 2007
(Rainy Day Movies 7, 2012)

Marathon, 2005

Mother, 2009
(At the Cinema, March 11, 2012)

(Unseens Films, March 11, 2012)

(Korean Grindhouse, March 5, 2012)

(Rainy Day Movies 7, 2012)

Oasis, 2002
(Rainy Day Movies 8, 2012)

Oishii Man, 2008
(Podcasts Without Honor and Humanity, March 6, 2012)

(Rainy Day Movies 8, 2012)

(Rainy Day Movies 9, 2012)

(Rainy Day Movies 9, 2012)

Rikidozan, 2004
(VCinema, March 11, 2012)

Sky Blue, 2003
(VCinema, March 9, 2012)

(Greetings From Movie City, March 8, 2012)

(Oriental Film House, March 10, 2012)

Tigresses, 1977
(Planet Choco Zine, March 9, 2012)

Time, 2006
(Next Projection, March 11, 2012)

Truck, 2007
(Unseen Films, March 9, 2012)

The Weekly Review Round-up is a weekly feature which brings together all available reviews of Korean films in the English language (and sometimes French) that have recently appeared on the internet. It is by no means a comprehensive feature and additions are welcome (email pierceconran [at] gmail [dot] com). It appears every Friday morning (GMT+1) on Modern Korean Cinema. For other weekly features, take a look at Korean Cinema News, and the Korean Box Office UpdateReviews 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.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Top 10 Korean Films of 2010

2010 was a great year for Korean cinema and as here at Modern Korean Cinema I'm going back through Korean film to get a sense of what were the best and most important films through the years.  I'm thrilled to present my top 10 for the year to coincide with the Korean Cinema Blogathon.  I have seen a lot of films from 2010 and the only major omission is Cafe Noir which has yet to find a DVD release, here's hoping there'll be one!

This follows on from January's Top 10 Films of 2011 and I hope to make my way back through to the 90s.

Without further ado, scroll through the top 10 below, followed by some honourable mentions and the year's biggest turkeys:

Intro - 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 - Best of the Rest

Top 10 Lists

Year  20202019 - 2018 - 2017 - 2016
2015 - 2014 - 2013 - 2012 - 2011 - 2010

2010s (Top 50) - All Time (Top 25)


Friday, December 30, 2011

Weekly Review Round-up (12/24-12/30, 2011)

A little slow this week but another wide variety of films covered, good, bad, old and new.



(Modern Korean Cinema, December 29, 2011)

(Init_Scenes, December 27, 2011)

(Hanguk Yeonghwa, December 27, 2011)

(Film in Asian, December 27, 2011)

(Film Business Asia, December 28, 2011)

(Init_Scenes, December 25, 2011)

(Hanguk Yeonghwa, December 23, 2011)

(Hanguk Yeonghwa, December 24, 2011)

(The Hollywood Reporter, December 26, 2011)

(Rainy Day movies, December 28, 2011)

(Wise Kwai's Thai Film Journal, December 24, 2011)

(, December 24, 2011)

(Asian Movie Web, December 27, 2011)


3-Iron, 2004
(Otherwhere, December 25, 2011)

(Korean Class Massive, December 24, 2011)

Hellcats, 2008
(Init_Scenes, December 23, 2011)

(Hanguk Yeonghwa, December 23, 2011)

The Weekly Review Round-up is a weekly feature which brings together all available reviews of Korean films in the English language (and sometimes French) that have recently appeared on the internet. It is by no means a comprehensive feature and additions are welcome (email pierceconran [at] gmail [dot] com). It appears every Friday morning (GMT+1) on Modern Korean Cinema. For other weekly features, take a look at Korean Cinema News, and the Korean Box Office UpdateReviews 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.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Weekly Review Round-up (12/10-12/16, 2011)

30 new reviews this week including a great write-up on Hong Sang-soo's latest from The New Yorker and a series of reviews on Kim Ki-duk's from the Rainy Day Movies blog where Connor McMorran is hosting a fantastic Kim Ki-duk Week.




(Shu-Izmz, December 11, 2011)

(Variety, December 14, 2011)

(Beyond Hollywood, December 12, 2011)

(Pinoy Movie Blog, December 16, 2011)

I Saw the Devil

(The Los Angeles Times, December 15, 2011)

(Modern Korean Cinema, December 11, 2011)


(Twitch, December 13, 2011)

(The New Yorker, December 15, 2011)

(City on Fire, December 10, 2011)

(Inti_Scenes, December 14, 2011)

(Init_Scenes, December 16, 2011)

(Wildgrounds, December 13, 2011)


(Rainy Day Movies, December 14, 2011)

Bad Guy, 2001
(Rainy Day Movies, December 13, 2011)

Beat, 1997
(Modern Korean Cinema, December 9, 2011)

(Modern Korean Cinema, December 9, 2011)

(The Non-Review, December 9, 2011)

Green Fish, 1997
(Modern Korean Cinema, December 11, 2011)

No. 3, 1997
(Modern Korean Cinema, December 10, 2011)

(Rainy Day Movies, December 15, 2011)

(Rainy Day Movies, December 16, 2011)

(Rainy Day Movies, December 15, 2011)

The Isle, 2000
(Rainy Day Movies, December 12, 2011)

The Weekly Review Round-up is a weekly feature which brings together all available reviews of Korean films in the English language (and sometimes French) that have recently appeared on the internet. It is by no means a comprehensive feature and additions are welcome (email pierceconran [at] gmail [dot] com). It appears every Friday morning (GMT+1) on Modern Korean Cinema. For other weekly features, take a look at Korean Cinema News, and the Korean Box Office UpdateReviews 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, December 10, 2011

Jopok Week: Masculinity and Beauty in A Bittersweet Life and The Man From Nowhere – Part II

Questions of Masculinity and Beauty in the Jopok Films A Bittersweet Life (2005) and The Man From Nowhere (2010)


A Bittersweet Life

The question of who dies or survives is not a superficial question.  For Sun-woo, ultimately he is the author of the circle in which he becomes ensnared.  This truth is reflective of A Bittersweet Life’s very insular world.  The gangsters in this film hardly interact with the daytime, if they can help it; whatever dealings with the international world that the criminal organisation may have the film does not show or mention.  The irony is that Sun-woo could not help it:  Sun-woo is assigned to look after his boss’ much younger girlfriend Hee-soo for several days while he is away because he is suspicious of her having a boyfriend.  Like a rope that has reached its breaking point, Sun-woo's meeting with Hee-soo unravels the strands of loyalty and honour that had sustained his good standing with his boss.  After tasting a different rhythm and colour of life by accompanying Hee-soo in her day-to-day activities as a student, Sun-woo makes the decision to not kill Hee-soo and her boyfriend.  But what is a gesture of goodwill in the sweet light of day is a death wish in the underground shadows of noir.

The themes of loyalty, betrayal, and revenge; the narrative development of a woman triggering the protagonist's “downfall”; and the jungle of marginalised characters encountered to get to the boss are all there.  But Kim revels in playing with these conventions to bend the jopok under his spell.  One of the film’s distinct characteristics is the segment that bridges Sun-woo’s escape from his boss’ henchmen and his last killing spree.  In this unexpected, comical sequence, which could be a short film unto itself, Sun-woo meets a Laurel and Hardy-like pair of gunrunners and has a great seated showdown with their boss.  It is a bold move because this sequence basically brings to a standstill the dramatic action of revenge, but it showcases Kim’s distinct perspective of things and references the great peculiarity of his previous films like The Quiet Family (1998) and The Foul King (2000).  In this way, Kim demonstrates an incredible confidence in his interpretation of noir as a narrative template as well as visual pleasure.  From a bloody standoff on an ice rink, a muddy buried-alive punishment that turns into a veritable resurrection, the visual motif of lamps and turning on/off lights as a more literal illustration of noir lighting and mise en scène, to the final meeting with his boss at the Melville-esque lounge with the words la dolce vita between them in the background in all its irony, A Bittersweet Life is full of cool, masculine attitude and mood.

The Man From Nowhere

The Man From Nowhere is much more diversified in terms of the scope of criminal activities with which one must contend.  It brings together the Chinese mafia, a Thai assassin, child trafficking, drug trafficking, and organ harvesting to create the formidable criminal web in which pawnshop owner Tae-shik unwittingly finds himself through his acquaintance with a little girl, So-mi, who lives in the same apartment complex as him.  Unlike Sun-woo in A Bittersweet Life, Tae-shik has a backstory – and a tragic family one at that – which informs his conscious reaction to the things that happen to him and the things he witnesses with regards to So-mi.  Even if his actions yield unexpected results, his objective to rescue So-mi never falters.  That he ends up having to confront a big-time criminal organisation and put a stop to their illegal activities in the process is ultimately secondary but convenient and dramatic in a narrative sense.

How Tae-shik gets embroiled in the criminal organisation run by brothers Man-seok and Jong-seok is complicated.  While some regard this complexity as a flaw, it actually reveals the film’s smartness in terms of keeping up with these complex, globalised criminal times.  The parallel strands of Tae-shik finding more about Man-seok and Jong-seok’s extensive criminal operations and the police finding more about Tae-shik’s international special agent background reflect the reality of a more connected, complicated, diverse world.  Lee’s desire to reflect this multilayered reality may also help to explain his decision to have Tae-shik’s most electrifying fights be against Ramrowan, the Thai assassin who works for Man-seok and Jong-seok, instead of the brothers themselves.  Aside from the splendid choreography, the most striking detail about their confrontations is the surprising absence of extra-diegetic music.  The sequence that consists of the silence of their first fight in a bathroom and the pulsating sounds of the dance floor as they stand and face each other as if to initiate a duel, despite the crowd of people dancing obliviously around them, is an effective example of visual and aural contrast and also foreshadows Tae-shik and Ramrowan’s even more vigorous knife fight towards the end.  At the same time, Tae-shik and Ramrowan’s confrontations rise above the story to occupy a whole other dimension unto itself, which accounts for the film’s stylisation.  In this sense, unlike his colleagues, Ramrowan serves less to drive the plot than to affirm and spectacularise Tae-shik’s character.  Ultimately, nothing topples Tae-shik’s coolness and moral sense of self, which affirm each other throughout the film: so guarded of his past, but it tempers his actions in the present.

Angels with Dirty, Pretty Faces

David Thomson writes of Alain Delon in Le samouraï, “[T]he enigmatic angel of French film, only thirty-two in 1967, and nearly feminine.  Yet so earnest and immaculate as to be thought lethal or potent.”  This description of Delon’s taciturn, schizophrenic assassin in Le samouraï is perhaps not the first image of a killer that comes immediately to mind. It certainly does not apply to the majority of assassins or gangsters in cinema, past or present.  In fact, it applies only very rarely.  Not even Ryan Gosling in Drive (2011, Nicholas Winding Refn) fits this bill, regardless of the frequent comparisons made between this film and Melville’s work; marvelous attempt, but not quite.  
Only Louis Koo in Election 2 (2006, Johnnie To) – stunning, menacing, and intensely still all at the same time – is a worthy match.  In contemporary Korean cinema, Lee Byung-hun and Won Bin.

Fans and critics alike frequently discuss these actors’ attractiveness, in terms similar to the ones that Thomson uses above to describe Delon:  “feminine,” “earnest,” “immaculate.”  Any filmmaker who casts these actors must somehow take into account their attractiveness and proceed accordingly, so that part of the interest in these actors in a jopok film – with all of its grimy, sordid violence – consists in seeing how the film uses their attractiveness:  is it downplayed, made more conspicuous?  For the actor, such as Delon, these gangster/noir films are a way to overcome or make rough one’s attractiveness and to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor.

For A Bittersweet Life, Lee Byung-hun’s looks were crucial for Kim Ji-woon.  In a 2009 master class, Kim elaborated on his choice of Lee to play Sun-woo:  “One of the reasons I cast him was that in French noir, the most [well-known] protagonist was Alain Delon.  I thought that Lee Byung-hun is the Korean actor who most resembles him.  Alain Delon doesn't have a lot of dialogue, either.  I worked it in because I thought he was the one who could bring the eyes and aura of Alain Delon.”  Accordingly, Kim shot Lee in close-ups and extreme close-ups throughout the film to express the gamut of overwhelming emotion that Sun-woo must go through without resorting to dialogue.  In turn, Lee brings the eyes, aura, and walk that recall the steely coolness of Delon.  Lee's walk alone conveys a myriad of things, such as in the opening scene where he descends from the sky lounge to the underground bar – the camera closely following from behind – for the first fight scene.  Or in the scene where Sun-woo walks towards Hee-soo to take her home – the camera also closely behind – and then does a quick about-face when he sees her male friend get there before him. The performance is wordless, but Lee gets the giddiness of a schoolboy in love as well as the shyness, vulnerability, and embarrassment that go with it.

For The Man From Nowhere, Lee Jeong-beom also made symbolic use of Won Bin’s pretty boy looks.  Lee speaks of casting Won Bin in a 2011 interview, “In the beginning I had an older character in mind.  But Won's face drew me to him even more.  He has a beautiful face, but when he is not speaking his face is cold.  For example, in the scenes with the child his youthful side would show, while in the action scenes his face grew colder.”  Lee, like Melville with Delon, drew amply from and enhanced the mysterious allure of Won Bin walking quietly but determinedly, looking, and listening intently, or simply standing still in order to create the emotion and mood of scenes.  The film introduces Tae-shik in such a way, which makes the fight scenes and aggressive dialogue all the more impactful.  Ultimately, why The Man From Nowhere works despite its borrowings of kidnapping, busting a drug/trafficking ring, and an ex-special agent rekindling his deadly training plots is due largely to the charismatic tension between the jopok genre and Won Bin’s pretty boy-ness.  The first part of the film relies heavily on this tension, with Won Bin’s face half covered by his hair, while the rest of the film and his subsequent haircut are the consequences of the full-on collision between Won Bin and the ultra-violent, ultra masculine world of jopok.

But what distinguishes Lee Byung-hun and Won Bin from Delon are the “manly tears,” so prevalent in South Korean films, jopok films included.  In both A Bittersweet Life and The Man From Nowhere, Lee and Won each have their moment of manly tears, something that would never happen to Delon’s characters.  What are the roots of this motif (see Pierce Conran’s previous post on MKC)?  Perhaps it goes back to the issue of reviving not just the screen image of Korean masculinity but a particular one that taps into Korean cinema’s history of melodrama and aestheticises masculinity and emotion simultaneously.

Part I of Masculinity and Beauty in A Bittersweet Life and The Man From Nowhere

Rowena Santos Aquino recently obtained her doctorate degree in Cinema and Media Studies.  She is a contributing writer to Asia Pacific Arts.  She has also contributed to other online outlets, such as Midnight Eye and Red Feather, and to print journals, including Transnational Cinemas and Asian Cinema.  She also loves football.  She can be found musing about film and football on her twitter page.

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