Showing posts with label darcy paquet. Show all posts
Showing posts with label darcy paquet. Show all posts

Monday, March 30, 2015

News: 2nd Wildflower Film Awards Reveals Nominees

By Pierce Conran

Following its launch last year, the Wildflower Film Awards Korea revealed the nominees of its upcoming 2nd edition last week. Leading the pack with seven nominees is July Jung's A Girl at My Door, while Han Gong-ju and The King of Jokgu following at five a piece and 10 Minutes, Gyeongju and Hill of Freedom each picking up four.

Friday, February 7, 2014

News: New Wildflower Awards Recognize Independent Korean Cinema

By Pierce Conran

The Wildflower Film Awards (들꽃영화상), a new audience-led initiative to recognize achievements in independent Korean cinema, is getting underway this month. Launched by Korean film expert and founder Darcy Paquet, the awards will be handed out each February to outstanding contributions in Korean cinema's low-budget realm. Winners will be selected in categories for Best Film, Director, Documentary, Actor, Actress, New Actor, New Actress, New Director and Cinematography, in addition to a Documentary Jury Prize.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

MKC Thought Leaders' Corner: January 2013

Welcome to the first MKC Thought Leaders' Corner! We are thrilled to present this new feature where every month we will ask the top experts on Korean cinema a pressing question regarding the Korean film industry.

Without further ado, here is this month's question:

Given the enormous success of Korean cinema in 2012, is there any cause for concern over a rise in streamlined productions as quality gives way to financial interests?

Many to thanks to all the contributors for their time and insightful comments. Responses listed alphabetically, followed by the thoughts of MKC's teammembers.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

KOFA Treasures: Kim Soo-yong's The Seaside Village (갯마을, Gaenmaeul) 1965

Ongoing series on classic Korean film recently made available for free and with English subtitles on Youtube courtesy of the Korean Film Archive.

During this year's 14th Udine Far Easy Film Festival I had the great privilege and pleasure of attending Darcy Paquet’s 1970s Korean cinema retrospective. As it turns out, among the ten features presented, some of my favorites were island dramas.  The three that were programmed (Iodo, 1977; Splendid Outing, 1978; and The Divine Bow, 1979) were fascinating works that were both quasi-horrors and compelling films about women, which highlighted their marginalized roles in society.  Characters in these films, especially women, were either transplanted to remote fishing islands, which for them became sites of horror, or grew up there without ever leaving, any attempts at escape doomed from the outset.

Kim Soo-young was behind Splendid Outing, a film that shares an enormous amount in common with Bedevilled (2010), to the point where it would not surprise me if it was actually the blueprint for Jang Chul-soo’s incendiary film. However, long before that, Kim made The Seaside Village, a stunning and deeply textured work from 1960s Korean cinema, which dabbles in some taboos that would likely not have been tolerated by the government at the time.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Udine Far East Film Festival - Final Thoughts, Top 10 and Awards

Ongoing reports on the 14th Udine International Film Festival which Modern Korean Cinema will be covering onsite.

Last week was my first time at the Udine Far East Film Festival and straight off the bat the only negative point I can think of was that I wasn't there earlier to participate in the entire event.  Regardless it was still a packed week during which I saw nearly 30 films, ate some great food and made a lot of new friends.  I look forward to coming back soon but I'm sure it won't be in 2013 as I'll be making my way to Seoul next month.  That said I do hope to meet up with many of the same people later this year at the Busan International Film Festival.

The highlight for me during the week was the opportunity to soak in the 'Darkest Decade' retrospective on 1970s Korean film.  Darcy Paquet did an incredible job to bring these films, in good condition and many with brand new subtitles, to Italy and furthermore his picks were phenomenal, yielding some of the best Korean films I've seen.  It was a pleasure to see rarer Im Kwon-taek, Kim Ki-young and Yu Hyun-mok films as well as to discover the works of Kim So-young, Ha Kil-young and Kim Ho-sun.  I was particularly drawn to the many island dramas which have added new dimensions to an essay I have been planing on rural spaces as a site of horror in Korean cinema.  Darcy's monograph (pictured) is another wonderful resource and a great complement to the retrospective.

Just like last month's Fribourg International Film Festival (which was also covered by MKC) one of the prevailing themes of the festival's program was filmmaking itself.  Romancing in Thin Air (2011), The Woodsman and the Rain (2011), Vulgaria (2012) and The Woman in the Septic Tank (2011) all featured films within a film and each had their own novel take on the industry.  Despite the global glut of awards bestowed on The Artist (2011), and to a lesser extent on Hugo (2011), I'm still finding that the past year's best films that cast an eye on the medium are those that sadly won't be seen by many.  Although considering the cinephile-ready content, perhaps it's just as well that they feature strongly on the festival circuit above all else.

The great thing about the FEFF was its atmosphere: it's accessible, centralized, friendly and a lot of fun.  There was lots of events and special deals in restaurants for anyone attending the festival.  The Teatro Nuovo Giovanni, the single theater of the festival, was a wonderful venue with four levels.  I stayed down in the pit for all of my screenings and I don't think I would have liked to be seated too high up (some seats were above the screen) but the projections were all top notch.  Udine is also a wonderful little town with numerous restaurants, historic architecture, beautiful squares and everyone's favorite, gelato!  I didn't have much opportunity to visit beyond the town's centre but what I saw was very charming.

Anyone interested in Asian cinema should definitely make their way to Udine at some point in the future and if you do, hopefully I'll see you there!

Below are my favorites of the festival and the FEFF 2012 award winners.

Festival Picks

Top 10

1. Iodo (South Korea, 1977) - Day IV
=2. Punch (South Korea, 2011) - Day V
=2. Sunny (South Korea, 2011) - Day I
=2. The Woodsman and the Rain (Japan, 2011) - Day VI
=2. Unbowed (South Korea, 2012) - Day IX
6. Pollen (South Korea, 1972) - Day IV
7. Splendid Outing (South Korea, 1978) - Day VIII
8. One Mile Above (China, 2011) - Day VI
9. The Woman in the Septic Tank (Philippines, 2011) - Day IX
10. Vulgaria (Hong Kong, 2012) - Day VII

14th FEFF Awards

Audience Award

1. Silenced 4.4
2. One Mile Above 4.2
3. The Front Line 4.16

Black Dragon Award

Silenced 4.24

My Movie (Online) Award

Thermae Romae

FEFF Preview
Day IV Report
Day V Report
Day VI Report
Day VII Report
Day VIII Report
Day IX Report
Blind (블라인드, Beulraindeu) 2011
Dangerously Excited (나는 공무원이다, Naneun Gongmoowonida) 2012
Disney, Nostalgia, and Politics in Sunny (써니, Sseo-ni) 2011
Moby Dick (모비딕, Mo-bi-dik) 2011
Penny Pinchers (티끌모아 로맨스, Ti-kkeul-mo-a Ro-maen-seu) 2011
The Front Line (고지전, Gojijeon) 2011
Unbowed (부러진 화살, Bureojin Hwasal) 2012

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.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Udine Far East Film Festival Day IV Report

Ongoing reports on the 14th Udine International Film Festival which Modern Korean Cinema will be covering onsite.

As I made my way across the Swiss-Italian border early yesterday morning I was informed by the ticket inspector on my train of an unfortunate detail concerning the Italian rail system.  He spoke German and Italian but no French or English so he kept it simple: “STRIKE! NO CONNECTION!” he bellowed with emphatic hand gestures for further clarification.  As it turned out there were some trains running it but it was luck of the draw.  I would wait for a train only to learn a minute or two before it was meant to arrive that it was cancelled.  As a result I slowly made my way across the Italian peninsula, with lengthy stops in Milan, Venice and Trieste before finally arriving in Udine at 11pm, I had begun my day at 4:30am.

Nevertheless I was thrilled to arrive and terribly excited for my first pair of films, both from the 1970s “Darkest Decade of Korean Cinema” retrospective:

(South Korea, 1972)

My very first Korean film from the 1970s was the debut of Ha Kil-jong, who would only produce a small body of work before his untimely death in 1979 at the tender age of 37.  Pollen certainly was a dark film and, though the production of the feature was not always of the highest standard, it was an infectious and sometimes delirious film all the same.  It’s also very difficult to categorize, it was a domestic melodrama to be sure but it was also a sort of psychedelic, horror erotica as well.  Regardless of its classification, it was a fascinating film from a filmmaker who was evidently a keen cinephile, as it draws on a vast array of world cinema influences, including the works of Pasolini, Antonioni and Bergman.

Min-ja is a young girl who lives with her sister whose her husband brings home his protégé one day.  Thus begins a tempestuous affair that, unsurprisingly, leads to disastrous consequences.

There is a great deal of repression and hypocrisy on display in the film and much of what unfolds is affected with a biting and mordant wit.  The house where most of action unfolds is someone called the Blue House, an obvious reference to the building that house Korea’s head of state.  In fact much of the film is informed by the contemporaneous political situation, as I imagine much of the retrospective will be.  The 1970s was very much dark decade for Korea, under the brutal and oppressive authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee.

One of my favorite sequences was a party that takes place in the house.  There is an intense and yet downbeat energy that abounds as the well to do guests seem bent of their own gratification.  They are in a trance, stuck to each other but vacantly staring off in silence as they amble to a pulsating and psychedelic funereal march.  The editing is both languid and frantic as it, along with the piercing cinematography, highlight this macabre dance of the dead.

(South Korea, 1977)

Kim Ki-young is one of the most well known names of classic Korean cinema, having directed the seminal ‘Golden Age’ melodrama The Housemaid (1960), which was later remade by Im Sang-soo in 2010.  While he was an important presence in the Korean film industry in the 1960s, he was not so well regarded in the 70s, though he was no less productive.  Iodo, from the second half of the decade, is an extraordinary film though admittedly a difficult one that would have had trouble finding an audience at the time of its release.

An intense island melodrama, the film incorporates numerous themes into a densely structured but well though out narrative.  Two films almost immediately came to mind as I watched it:  the classic Shinto Kanedo film Naked Island (1960) and one of Korea’s best efforts from 2010, Bedevilled.

Compared to the morning’s Pollen, Kim’s film is a much more polished affair where he puts his experience to good use.  The impressive mise-en-scene is at the same time austere and vigorous.  His film grips you with its impressive and rugged vistas and gets under your skin with its potent undercurrent of paranoia.

Another film that comes to mind is The Wicker Man (1973), here instead of paganism, we are privy to an almost cultish vein of shamanism.  Kim’s film’s uses the rural site as a place of horror.  A locale that cannot be escaped and draws people back.  The motif is a wellspring of thematic material as Iodo not only covers shamanism but rural society, childbirth and motherhood, gender roles and even environmental issues.  What’s amazing is that despite the wealth of topics explored, none feel rushed and, instead, all come together to form an invigorating and often horrifying cohesive whole.

I can’t wait to see Kim’s other retrospective film A Woman Chasing a Killer Butterfly (1978) not to mention his work The Insect Woman (1972) which has been languishing in my in pile for far too long.  This and Pollen were a terrific double punch and I’m dying to see what the rest of the week has to offer.

(Japan, 2011)

Tetsu Maeda’s Sukiyaki was a wonderful and whimsical work that was exceptionally successful in inspiring a reaction from our most important organ.  I speak of course, of our stomachs.  I think that I and the rest of the audience were salivating throughout the film’s entire running time, I know that Fabien Schneider (, who I saw it with, was afflicted with an intense craving for ramen afterwards.

The story is a cute one, if such a word is appropriate in the setting, that focusses on inmates sharing a cell who take their meals very seriously and are about to embark on their annual tradition of recounting their favorite meals in a bid to get some extra helpings during their upcoming New Year’s feast.  The only difference this year is that there is a new cellmate who, at first, refuses the join the proceedings, opting instead to wile away his time sulking in a corner.

The camaraderie of the prisoners is a real joy and in no small part due to the tremendously engaging cast.  They each got their shot at the spotlight when they recount their stories, which mostly tie in with the causes of their incarcerations.  Realism is squarely thrown out the door early and this is a wise decision as on the one hand it makes the film more fun but also makes it accepts that the film depicts a prison that you would want to go to.

Make no mistake though the star of this film is the food, the element that is often not given its proper dues in cinema.  The last Japanese film to make my stomach grumble was Koreeda’s wonderful Still Walking (2008) and many other Asian films have made my stomach ache, such as Taiwan’s Eat Man Drink Woman (1994) and Korea’s Le Grand Chef (2007).

The only worries for me were that at the end of the day it didn’t seem to say a great deal and the precisely structured narrative was almost too episodic.  Those petty grievances aside though, I highly recommend Sukiyaki though implore you not to watch it on an empty stomach!

I really enjoyed my first day at the FEFF where I got to see some great films and take part in a panel on music in film with Korea’s Kang Cheol-heyong (Sunny, 2011) and Koo Ja-hong (Dangerously Excited, 2012) and Taiwan’ Giddens (You Are the Apple of My Eyes, 2011).  I was also thrilled to meet many wonderful people, including Darcy Paquet (the curator of the 1970s retrospective), who is something of an idol for me.  Lastly, I was also interviewed by Antoniya Petkova for CUEAFS!

Greatly looking forward to what today has to offer.

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.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Chilsu and Mansu (칠수와 만수, Chilsu wa Mansu) 1988

Chil-su and Man-su

Park Kwang-su’s debut feature Chilsu and Mansu came at a pivotal moment in Korean history and was one of the films that propelled the Korean New Wave. South Korea had been in a state of perpetual turmoil for decades and the 1980s were particularly difficult following Park Chung-hee’s assassination in 1979 and the tragic Gwangju massacre of 1980. The country was ruled by General Chun Doo-hwan through a despotic rule until 1987 when social unrest reached a boiling point following the torture and death of a university student. After this event Roh Tae-woo and the Democratic Justice Party were able to assume power through a legal and closely contested election. Park Kwang-su was already an influential member of the Seoul Film Group, which he founded, when he embarked on Chilsu and Mansu. Had the film been made any earlier than 1988 it is doubtful that it would have escaped heavy censorship or even have been made at all. Due to the changing political landscape the film was released in its intended form and is now a staple of the Korean New Wave.

The film features two actors who have endured as marquee names to the present day: Park Joon-hoon who plays Chil-su; and Ahn Sung-ki who portrays Man-su. Park was only just starting out in his career but had already received acclaim for previous roles, especially for his part in Youth sketch of Mimi and Cheolsu (1987), for which he won the best fresh actor award at PaekSang Arts Awards. Ahn on the other hand was a well-known actor who had been active since the tender age of 5 and was even in Kim Ki-young’s classic The Housemaid (1960). During the 1980s he starred in some of Korea’s most notable films, including A Fine, Windy Day (1980), Mandala (1981), and Whale Hunting (1984). They would both go on to star together in the smash hit Two Cops (1993) for which they won accolades at the Grand Bell Awards.

Man-su denied his chance to go abroad

Chil-su and Man-su are billboard painters trying to survive off meager work opportunities. Chil-su desperately tries to hide his status as he pretends to be an art student to Chi-na, a girl of higher status that he tries to court, and he also tells everyone that he will soon be leaving for Miami Beach. Man-su is a reserved man who tries to get as much work as he can, he cold calls prospective employers, even assuming provincial dialects[i] until he can find work, and in his off time he drinks heavily. They are both members of the working class and have been relegated to the fringes of society by no fault of their own. Isolation is what brings this unlikely pair together:

“Chilsu and Mansu links its protagonists by their feelings of alienation, one due to politics, the other due to youthfulness.”[ii]

Man-su lives in the shadow of his father, who is in jail for being a communist sympathizer. Having attended higher learning as a youth, he was given the opportunity to work abroad which would have resulted in his having a respectable career when he returned. However, on inspection of his papers he is denied his chance simply because of the political leanings of his father, which he does not ascribe to. This in effect thrusts him to the working class from which he can no longer escape, except through copious amount of soju.

Chil-su on the other hand is a vibrant character who is sociable and seems able to get by, he dreams of going to the Miami he sees in the colorful billboards he is paid to paint, in effect dreaming of escaping to a place that is fictional and which he has a hand in creating. Numerous times during the film he emulates his favorite Hollywood actors, from James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to Marlon Brando in The Godfather (1972). His whole life is a lie, especially when it comes to Chi-na, the pretty girl of higher status whom he falls for, as he doesn't give her one shred of truth.

Chil-su tries to court Chi-na

Chil-su often goes so far as to costume himself so as to present a false image. He wears a military fatigue t-shirt (after he lies to Man-su about his position in the armed forces) and one adorned with an American flag (a place to which he assures everyone his passage is imminent). He even gets Man-su to play a part in his game as he dresses him up as a Parisian artist and they go to a nice club.

Park also finds other ways to visually link his characters together. They work side by side up in the sky as they paint billboards, largely ignored by society. By the narrative’s end they are so inextricably bound that they travel together on a tandem bike, experiencing the emotional highs and lows together. For example, as they return home for the final time before the climax they cycle along a wide, busy road and the bike twists which brings both of them down together. As they briefly land on their rearends, they see cars anonymously drive by, symbolic of a society which passes them by.

Chilsu and Mansu begins with a civil defense drill and we meet our protagonists separately in shots that are both framed by windows they are stuck behind. Man-su looks out the window forlornly and then up at the sky, a minute later we meet Chil-su, who is asleep on a bus before being woken by the conductor and told top disembark due to the drill. This gives us a clear image of who these characters are, Man-su is aware and jaded while Chil-su is unaware and transient due to his youth.

Man-su looks up at the sky

While the film deftly portrays the plight of two divergent members of the working class and the societal marginalization that binds them together, it is the extended climax, which serves as its greatest asset and the one it is justly revered for. Darcy Paquet states that:

“The sequence seems an appropriate symbolic starting point for the Korean New Wave, which was founded on the notion of giving voice to the oppressed, and which also had its share of confrontations with the state.”[iii]

In this sequence Chil-su and Man-su are taking a break from working on a billboard perched above a tall building. They are sitting atop it, feet dangling and drinking soju. Having given up hope on his dreams of being with Chi-na and moving away to the States, Chil-su confesses all his lies to Man-su who in turn takes all his pent up frustration, stands up, and begins to shout at everyone below. He is not saying very much in particular but people begin to notice and soon the police and military intercedes, since, as Nancy Abelman and Choi Jung-ha note:

“…the social gaze at these workers – a gaze that has posited them as protesters about to throw a Molotov cocktail – politicises them, making social activists of them.”[iv]

The conclusion to the film serves as a harsh indictment of Korea under military rule. Two oppressed individuals who have no intention of protesting or being involved in any social unrest wind up dead and in jail due to a paranoid institution which suppresses, and censors, any activity which could be construed as anti-authoritarian. As Kyung Hyun-kim summarizes:

The audible voice of authority...

“The moment they begin to verbalize their frustrations, in their effort to reconstitute their masculinity, they are found guilty by the state, subject to arrests and even death for a crime no one­­ – including the state – knows exactly how to identify.”[v]

Both Chil-su and Man-su may not have a political agenda as they vent to the world from the top of their billboard but although their words do not signify political protest, Park, having placed them in this circumstance, does politicize them, just as the crowds and authority that gathers below have. In the end, since they are unable to successfully integrate with society, Chil-su and Man-su can no longer attempt to do so and their actions unwittingly take them out of it. Chilsu and Mansu spoke to a generation upon its release and paved the way for further works of the Korean New Wave and many elements of this type of social commentary have survived and are featured in a variety of ways in today’s, admittedly far more commercial, Korean film industry.

[i] Kyung Hyun Kim, The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 145

[ii] David Desser, “Timeless, Bottomless Bad Movies”, in Seoul Searching: Culture and Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema, ed. Frances Gateward (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007), 77.

[iii] Darcy Paquet, New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves (London: Wallflower Press, 2009), 23.

[iv] Nancy Abelmann and Jung-ah Choi, “’Just Because’: Comedy, Melodrama and Youth Violence in Attack the Gas Station”, in New Korean Cinema, ed. Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stringer (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2005), 140-141.

[v] Kyung Hyun Kim, The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 151

...vs. the silent voice of the oppressed

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.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Jopok Week: Conclusion and Korean Gangster Films on the Horizon

Kang Ji-hwan and So Ji-sub in Rough Cut (2008)

The gangster film has been a staple since the early days of cinema.  It's heady, larger-than-life blend of action, drama, and thriller tropes as well as the myriad of themes it can explore, makes it a natural fit for the silver screen.  Throughout the last century the genre has travelled across the globe, peaking in different places at different times.  For the last 15 years, one of the most prolific producers of gangster pictures has been Korea:  arguably it has been the most successful.  In their home market, Korean gangster films have enjoyed unprecedented and sustained popularity though the genre has changed in the industry over time.  

One of the aspects that was most discussed this week (chiefly by Connor McMorran and Darcy Paquet) was the Korean gangster comedy, which reached an early high in 2001, when six of the top 10 films of the year were mobster themed features.  Much was said about the reasons for their enormous success as well as the inherent flaws within the sub-genre which lead in part to its early demise.  They eventually receded from the marquees near the end of the decade.  While the odd one is still made today, they do not attract near the same audiences as they did.

Kim Yun-seok in The Yellow Sea (2010)

Darker thrillers with gangster tropes may not have had the same dominance as their comedy counterparts had in certain parts of the last decade but their prevalence and popularity has remained constant throughout the resurgence of Korean cinema.  They have been used as a template to explore the changing landscape and society of Korea as it has become a developed nation and also as a means to consider questions regarding the Korean male in modern times.  In her piece, Rowena Santos Aquino gave us a lot to think about regarding masculinity and beauty in 'jopok' films.

A lot of ground has been covered during 'Jopok Week' and I am absolutely thrilled about the positive response that the many reviews, features, and analyses have received.  Including these closing comments, 17 articles have been published as part of Jopok Week, totaling an enormous 22,500 words.

Cha In-pyo in Mokpo, Gangster's Paradise (2003)

I want to express my sincere gratitude to Connor McMorran, Rowena Santos Aquino, Kieran Tully, and Darcy Paquet who contributed such wonderful pieces on various aspects of Korean gangster cinema.  A huge thank you is also in order for every one of you that took part in, or helped promote the features through umpteen tweets, likes, follows, shares, subscribes, or comments on the various social media platforms.  And of course none of this would have been possible without you, the reader, so thank you so much for taking the time to visit!

After the success of this week, I am keen to do a similar feature in the near future.  Perhaps we can take a look at horror or melodrama in Korean cinema next, or even expand on 'Jopok Week' a year down the line.  I hope you will join me when the next feature does get underway and if you any ideas or would like to collaborate on something, do not hesitate to get in touch (pierceconran [at] gmail [dot] com)!  

I will leave you with a recap of this week's articles and a taste of what's to come for 'jopok' films in 2012:

(by Kieran Tully)


Too Many Villains

The debut film from Kim Harry, who was previously an assistant director on Ha Yu's brilliant A Dirty Carnival (2006), will be released next week in Korea and I think it looks fantastic.  In Too Many Villains, Kim Joon-bae plays an ex-gang member trying to gain custody of his daughter.  Kim is a veteran and has been exceptional in a number of small roles including Romantic Heaven (2011) and last year's Moss but judging by the trailer, this may be a big break for him and I hope it will be.  His look, swagger, and especially his voice feel spot on for this type of role.  I have a good feeling about this one and I hope I get a chance to see it early in 2012.  One of my must-sees for next year!

Nameless Gangster

Yoon Jong-bin's third film (he's still only 32) is a gangster tale set in the early 90s starring Choi Min-sik (Oldboy, 2003; I Saw the Devil, 2010) and Ha Jung-woo (The Chaser, 2008; The Yellow Sea, 2010).  Nameless Gangster has a great look and feel to it and Choi, a consummate actor, seems to have completely immersed himself in the role.  There have been a number of great stills relying on the evocative force of the production design and costumes, which works for me.  Comedy looks to be part of the mix but this is a far cry from the gangster comedies we've been discussing this week.  The trailer looks promising and this is one the films I'm most curious about in 2012. 

The Thieves

Kim Hye-soo, Lee Jeong-jae, Oh Dal-su, and Jeon Ji-hyeon in The Thieves

Choi Dong-hoon's fourth feature has blockbuster written all over it.  The big cast features Kim Yun-seok, Kim Hye-soo, Jeon Ji-hyeon (aka Gianna Jun), Lee Jeong-jae, and Oh Dal-su, and the production was pan-asian and included shoots in Macau.  The Thieves (formerly known as The Professionals) is Choi's third film dealing with professional thieves/gamblers and while no trailers or posters have been revealed yet, the pedigree looks strong.  Kim Yun-seok is on such a roll that it's hard to imagine that he won't bring it home again here.

Kim Yun-seok in The Thieves

That's it for 'Jopok Week', hope you've enjoyed it and thanks again!

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.

Jopok Week: Marrying the Mafia IV (Ga-moon-eui Yeong-gwang 4 – Ga-moon-eui Soo-nan) 2011

To wrap up the film reviews for 'Jopok Week', what better way than to take a look at the latest Korean gangster film to hit theaters, the fourth entry in Korea’s longest running franchise (I think), the Marrying the Mafia series.  There has not been a very high-profile Korean gangster comedy since 2009’s Jeong Joon-ho starrer City of Damnation which was met with middling success.  I must admit that I can’t really remember what happened in the previous installments of this franchise bar the first one but I’m quite sure that they employed the use of some kind of story.

You see, Marrying the Mafia IV (bewilderingly subtitled Unstoppable Family) does not seem to feature any discernible story.  It is a supremely lackadaisical and episodic film that throws together a veritable panoply of minor Korean film stars in an attempt to dazzle us with its sparkling dialogue and zany set pieces.  The problem is that the script is a soporific slapdash of sketches that seems to have been cobbled together by a bunch of babbling baboons.

Earlier this week, Darcy Paquet of contributed an insightful piece entitled ‘The Rise and Fall of the Korean Gangster Comedy’ which laments that producers of gangster comedies often “don't consider them worthy of good craftsmanship.”  There may be no better example of this than this turgid continuation of an already tired franchise which doesn’t attempt to respect its audience (which was significant as it currently ranks as the 10th highest grossing Korean film of the year) with even a semblance of a narrative.

Essentially, the mother of the Marrying the Mafia clan (Kim Soo-mi), which is now running a food business instead of engaging in organized crime, goes to Japan on a business trip and brings her three vain sons and the family’s idiotic assistant along.  What ensues is a series of puzzling vignettes in a forest, a bathhouse, a gas station, a bank, and a Laundromat that don’t even follow each other in any logical fashion.  The loose thread that jumbles all these episodes together is their search for the bank robber who took their money.  They don’t really go looking for him, they just walk around with no aim in mind and bump into him numerous times in different locations.

What you do get is a lot of repetition but nothing clever.  Characters frequently see people but can’t quite recognize who they are and this is presented as a sort of running gag.  Some of the most insufferable elements are the perpetual costumes changes which of course involve men in drag.  Marrying the Mafia IV looks more like a Lady Gaga concert than a gangster film.

The film’s writers gleefully laugh in the face of plot contrivances then have the gall to have their characters reference the laziness of the writing “Dang, we’re pretty lucky.  A bathhouse when we’re dirty, and a Laundromat when we need clothes.”  Subplot (if you can call it that) with Jeong Woong-in and Kim Ji-woo is a total waste of time but is supposedly parallel with main narrative (again I use that term loosely).  The purpose of these scenes is incomprehensible and worst of all, they’re not funny.

Beside Kim Soo-mi’s matriarch, women are portrayed in a very unflattering fashion.  Hyeon Yeon plays a ditzy sexpot who throws herself at Shin Hyeon-joon’s character and prances around in skimpy outfits.  Her presence among the core group makes no sense and once again the writers reference their refusal to put together a logical story by having Kim’s character ask her why she’s even there in the first place!

Connor McMorran, in his 'Comedic Representations of Gangster Culture in Korean Cinema' piece posted earlier this week, points out that it’s “possible that in castrating the masculine aspects of gangster culture, either through male-orientated comedy or by placing the concepts in a female body with franchises such as My Wife Is a Gangster (2001-2006), it allows society to escape from the realistic threat that gangster society potentially poses.”  I would tend to agree with Connor’s assessment and thought about it throughout this film.  They are a particularly non-threatening group of tough guys that would most aptly be labeled sissies.  The biggest laugh for me was in the opening scene when Shin’s character is knitting in a board meeting, talk about a non-threatening gangster!

I can’t really recommend Marrying the Mafia IV to anyone but whether you like it or not will largely depend on what you think of the performances of the ensemble cast.  Kim is pretty good but then again she’s a first class actress, a lot of the other performances were grating for me.  I won’t lie though, I was able to enjoy some moments of this, if only a little.  Then again I can be very forgiving when it comes to Korean cinema plus I was watching a gangster film after a full day of research, writing, and editing for 'Jopok Week'.  If I was ever going to be able to find something interesting in this film, this was the right time for it.

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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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Jopok Week: The Rise and Fall of the Korean Gangster Comedy

By Darcy Paquet

(This essay was originally published in Korean translation in the film weekly Cine21, in January 2009.)

Han Suk-kyu in No. 3 (1997)

Sometimes I wish that Song Neung-han's No. 3 had been made four or five years later than it actually was.  I imagine it being released in 2002 or 2003, and stunning both critics and audiences with its distinctive characters and elegant staging of one gangster's epic, self-inflicted fall.  I guess it would have sold between 5 and 6 million tickets, providing a bridge between popular hits My Wife Is a Gangster and Hi, Dharma and the "well-made" auteur films of 2003: Memories of Murder, A Tale of Two Sisters, Oldboy (never mind that it would have been impossible to assemble the same cast in 2002 as in 1997).  If I could rewrite the recent history of Korean cinema, this is how I would assemble the plot:  No.3 would have saved the Korean gangster comedy.

As it was, No.3 appeared ahead of its time. Korean audiences were not as tuned in to local films in 1997, so word of mouth was slow to spread, and it did not perform very well commercially.  More importantly, the model of a commercial genre merged with a strong auteur sensibility did not really exist at that time.  Song Neung-han stands as somewhat of a lonely pioneer.  This is not to say the film did not have influence:  it helped to launch the career of Song Kang-ho, and it bears some elements in common with the films of Kim Jee-woon, Bong Joon-ho, and Choi Dong-hoon, among others.

Kang Seong-jin, Yu Oh-seung, Lee Sung-jae, and Yu Ji-tae in
Attack the Gas Station (1999)

Some critics point to No. 3 as the starting point of the Korean gangster comedy, but it seems to me that the character and attitude of the sub-genre sprung from another source:  Kim Sang-jin's Attack the Gas Station (1999).  It's not just that Attack the Gas Station was a huge commercial success that featured a prominent brawl with gangsters.  It tapped into the mindset that would provide the foundation for later works.  Anthropologist Nancy Abelmann and education professor Jung-ah Choi analyzed the film in an essay published in the anthology New Korean Cinema in 2005.  To them, the core attitude of the film is contained within the reason given for robbing the gas station:  'geunyang,’ loosely translated as "just for the hell of it."  The casual self interest and rejection of social responsibility contained within that word were representative of broader changes in Korean society, they argued.  For decades, the state had asked Koreans to subordinate the personal and the indulgent for the greater good.  'Geunyang' was a rejection of this logic.

This "geunyang" attitude also reverberated throughout the gangster comedy, re-emerging, for example, in the poster copy for the 2001 film My Boss My Hero ("That's right, more gangsters... Got a problem with that?").  It may not have been a noble sentiment, but it imparted to the films their particular energy.  Many critics considered the famous gangster comedy quartet of 2001 – Kick the Moon, My Wife is a Gangster, Hi Dharma!, My Boss My Hero – to be a shameful regression in the development of Korean cinema, but the films themselves are interesting in many ways.  My personal favorite is My Boss My Hero, for the way it combines melodrama with an ironic sense of moral outrage (given the fact that it is gangsters fighting school officials, in the name of social justice) leading up to a very Korean-style emotional climax.  Hi Dharma is structured more like a Hollywood film, even if it feels very local in its details (its setting in a Buddhist temple, Korean games, provincial accents, etc.).  Both films benefit from a good sense of comic timing and effective narrative plotting, and they are genuinely funny – an achievement that is more difficult to attain than many people assume.

Jeong Joon-ho in My Boss, My Hero (2001)

My Wife is a Gangster may not have been as well crafted as the two films mentioned above, but it remains the iconic example of Korean gangster comedy.  Perhaps the most defining characteristic of these early gangster comedies was their high-concept nature:  you could summarize the plot in a single sentence, and even that one sentence could motivate viewers to see the film.  A friend once told me about a film director from the Philippines, who after hearing just the title of My Wife is a Gangster, burst out laughing and said, "I gotta see that film!"  The movie itself could have been improved in many ways, but its central character played by Shin Eun-kyung (thrown into relief by the great supporting role by Park Chang-myun) is one of the most enduring characters of contemporary Korean cinema.

Taken individually, any of these films would have been interesting but not especially noteworthy – but the emergence of a new trend created something that was greater than the sum of its parts. Viewers who went to see a "new gangster comedy" approached it with a particular set of expectations, and directors could play off those expectations in interesting ways.  Internationally as well, the Korean gangster comedy (however briefly) become a sort of brand.  It's rare for a film industry to successfully create a specialized sub-genre of its own, but there are both commercial and creative advantages to keeping such sub-genres alive.

Park Sang-myeon and Sin Eun-kyeong in My Wife Is a Gangster (2001)

Ultimately, however, the girls high school horror film (launched in 1998 with Whispering Corridors) would prove to be far more successful at perpetuating itself than the gangster comedy.  To ensure that a specialized sub-genre lives on, it isn't necessary to produce only good films.  In fact, even a string of unremittingly bad films can keep a sub-genre alive if they attempt something new and create a sense of forward movement.

Initially, Marrying the Mafia (2002) provided some hint that the gangster comedy might enjoy a long life, but somewhere along the line, producers began to view the Korean gangster comedy as a lemon to be squeezed until all the juice was gone.  I sat through all of those "lazy sequels" that appeared in the subsequent years – films which introduced nothing new to the genre and merely cashed in on fading memories of old jokes.  If the plots of the early films could be summarized in one intriguing sentence, the plots of the later sequels could be summarized as "more of the same."  Sometimes a big hit can do more damage to the lineage of a sub-genre than a commercial flop, if millions of viewers buy tickets only to see for themselves that the creativity is gone.

Seong Ji-roo, Yoo Dong-geun, and Park Sang-wuk in
Marrying the Mafia (2002)

It's perhaps understandable that film critics might look down on the gangster comedy, but it's sadder when the people actually producing the films don't consider them worthy of good craftsmanship.  Personally, I regret the fall of the gangster comedy – I think it had a good start, and it could have evolved into a tradition worthy of pride.  But now, I think it is too late.  With deepest apologies for the sexist metaphor, the Korean gangster comedy is like a Chosun-Dynasty era yangban family that has failed to produce a son.  It will be no easier to revive it, than to start a completely new lineage.

Darcy Paquet is the founder of, and the author of New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves (2009).

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 Update, Korean 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.