Showing posts with label park kwang-su. Show all posts
Showing posts with label park kwang-su. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Fribourg Intl. Film Festival: Huh Jong-ho Interview

Last Friday morning I had the opportunity to sit down with Huh Jong-ho, the director of Countdown, which was screening in the main competition of the festival.  His film was awarded the FIPRESCI award during Saturday's closing ceremony.

Born in 1975, Huh is a graduate of the Korea National University of Arts and was an assistant director on Park Kwang-su's Meet Mr. Daddy (2007) prior to making Countdown, which is his debut film.

We covered a range of topics in our long discussion, including film schools, first time directors in Korea, the future of the industry, plans for his next project and much more.

I would like to thank Director Huh and his translator Kyung Roh Brannwart for their time, as well as Gunnar Gilden, the Press contact for the FIFF for setting up the interview.


Was it your choice to cast Jeong Jae-yeon and Jeon Do-yeon?  And if so, why did you cast them?

It’s really difficult to work with big stars.  As I was writing the scenario I already had these two actors in mind and after finishing it I worked with my producer to get in touch with them and luckily it worked out.  Jeong Jae-yeong, the main actor of the film, has had many roles, often playing soft characters.  The way I saw him as a director, I felt he had a very urban feel with a lot of solitude.  I was interested in him from the beginning and he was the first person to be cast in the film.

What was it like to work with them?

With Jeong Jae-yeong, at first the relationship was very professional but now we have become very good friends.

In the last few years, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of Korean films from first time directors and often we don’t hear from them again.  Could you comment on why this happens so often?

As you know there are a few very famous directors who have met with success from critics but are also commercially successful.  This commercial success is a very important factor nowadays, a lot of young directors try to make something great and successful but it has become difficult to meet both of these demands.

With first time directors, is it true that there is an element of control from the studio, where they may not be completely free to pursue the project the way they want to?

Luckily, in my case I was afforded the freedom to do what I wanted to do.  The studios have adopted the system of Hollywood, where the producers are very much involved from the writing itself to the filming where they make comments after each first shot.  So it’s very controlled.  But it’s not just the producers, the investors have a lot of say too.

With Countdown we were very lucky to have a very well known producer, Oh Jung-wan, who has worked a lot with Kim Jee-woon.  He has also worked on many other big films, like E. J. Yong’s Untold Scandal (2003).

South Korea has an extraordinary film school system that has done much to bring the industry to a very high technical level.  As a graduate of the Korea National University of Arts (K’Arts) how do you view the role of these institutions in the industry?

I was very much influenced by my school especially since while I was there, the equipment we used was actually better than that used in the industry.  The ex-president of the school saw Jurassic Park (1993) and then realized that movies have much greater commercial potential than say, selling a car.  So he created the school and made a lot of investments to improve it and made sure it was stocked with the very best equipment.  While I was there I made short films and had access to the best possible equipment for editing and sound.  After I left I didn’t feel that there was much of a gap with what was being used in the industry.  It was an easy transition.

On the subject of K’Arts, your first big job in the industry was as an assistance director for Park Kwang-su’s Meet Mr. Daddy (2007).  Was he your teacher in K’Arts and is that how you got involved in the project?

That’s true, during my last year at the school he was a professor.  Lee Chang-dong was also an assistant director for Park back in the 1990s and after I graduated he became a professor at the school.

After having him as a teacher, what was it like to work for him on set?

It is impossible to theoretically learn how to make a movie so while I was in school I would take my camera, go out and film and I would then talk with professor Park.  Later, as I worked for him, it was great to witness how he works on his own projects.

What are your influences as a filmmaker and which ones did you draw on for Countdown?

I couldn’t find many references for my film as the main character isn’t really a good person and he undergoes a transformation at the end.  I wasn’t able to find a textbook example of this.  But I’m sure that the many Hollywood, Japanese and French films, especially crime ones that I’ve seen have influenced me and can be seen on screen.

Some Western spectators have had trouble with the end of Countdown, namely the melodramatic conclusion that brings to light the backstory of Jeong Jae-yeong’s character.  There are also many other recent Korean films that are similarly constructed.  Could you comment on this phenomenon?

I understand and agree that there are many films that have this melodramatic aspect that is commercially motivated.  But for me the initial inspiration was the ending of the movie, the relationship between the man and the son.  At first the movie wasn’t called Countdown, its initial title was ‘My Son.’  For the beginning of the movie I adopted the action and crime genres as a way to tell the story. 

That’s very interesting, personally my favorite part of the film was the end.  So is there an element, and I'm not necessarily talking about your film, that studios like to throw in melodrama to attract audiences?

In my case it was different, as the studio had already agreed to the initial idea before the script was even written.  The car chases and various actions scenes actually account for very little screen time in the film and they were low budget and thankfully effective.  The studio was surprised to have these scenes added and in any case as a director I am interested in these genres so the film became a bigger project.

In other cases though, as you say, I’m quite sure the studio is very interested in adding these elements.

I was very happy to hear you mention during your film’s introduction at last night’s screening that you are working on a second film.  Could you tell us a little bit about it?

Even last night and when I was making my first movie I realized that there is a complication when different genres are mixed up.  For my second movie I want to be more straightforward and focus on one genre.  The film does not have an official English title yet but its literal name is Happy Country.  It’s set during 1979 and based on the events surrounding the assassination of the Korean president Park Chung-hee by his chief of intelligence.  The main character is not going to be one of the people responsible for the assassination but one of their lawyers who has completely different political convictions but defends his client nonetheless.

That’s very interesting, as there have been a number of successful courtroom films coming out of Korea recently, including Unbowed (2012) and The Client (2011).  Park Chung-hee’s assassination has already been captured in the famous Im Sang-soo film The President’s Last Bang (2005), how will your film compare to that?

Im Sang-soo’s film is more of a black comedy whereas with my point-of-view I’m trying to give an honest account of the characters involved, it will be more dramatic.

The Korean film industry, in its modern incarnation, is still quite young and undergoes constant change.  What do you think the next few years have in store for the business?

It’s true that we had a big setback between 2006 and 2009, less movies were made during that period.  Now it’s coming back again and a lot more movies are being made.  I think that the investment companies have settled down now, before it was a little shakier but it has become more solid.

Before we used to call the film industry ‘yeonghwa pan’ which means it’s a small place where we used to know everyone.  But now there are a lot more people working on different projects.  We even have a big Chinese market and some projects are specifically made for that country.  So commercially we are stronger and I think things will continue that way.  Although with this increasing industrialization we may run a risk of losing the special character of the Korean film industry.  What investors want is for the Korean film industry to become the Asian Hollywood so there is a bit of a danger.

CJ Entertainment is such a huge company and sometimes it seems like their trying to take over the entire world.

Now we don’t always film with 35mm as there are a lot of digital movies and as a result it has become possible to produce movies with very low budgets.  Because of this the contrast has also become quite big.  There are the big budget movies made by CJ but at the same time there are a lot of smaller independent films.  Sadly there is nothing in between.

Yes and that’s a bit of worry.  Although a lot of these smaller films are also being funded by bigger companies.  For instance the Korean Academy of Film Arts’ (KAFA) student features are all partly funded by CJ.

It’s a bit like a big supermarket trying to control everything!

I actually have a question from one of our readers.  Lauren, an English teacher currently based near Busan, wants to know what your favorite Kimchi is!

Kimchi? (laughs)  My favorite is baechu, this is the most common type of kimchi.

Finally, could you please tell us what some of your favorite Korean films are?

I really appreciate Lee Chang-dong’s older movies, especially his humanity which is really profound, not to mention his research.  Whenever I watch his movies I think ‘I’m going to do the opposite, I’m going to make a commercial movie!’ 

Thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

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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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.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Jopok Week: The Alice in Wonderland Trajectory and Other Thoughts on Lee Chang-dong's Green Fish (Chorok mulkogi) 1997

My third review of 1997’s important Korean gangster films is actually on the first one that was released (February) during the year.  Lee Chang-dong’s Green Fish repositioned concerns of the Korean New Wave filmmakers, such as Park Kwang-su and Jang Sung-woo, into a narrative with much more commercial appeal.  After Gangster Lessons, Born to Kill, and Boss all featured in the top 10 Korean films of 1996, the gangster movie was a hot trend and Green Fish did indeed perform very strongly, landing at No. 8 the year it was released.  After penning Park Kwang-su’s To the Starry Island (1993) and A Single Spark (1995), Lee burst onto the scene with his debut, starring Han Suk-kyu, hot off the success of the previous year’s No. 1 Korean film The Gingko Bed and Song Kang-ho in a smaller role.  Both would feature later that year in No. 3.

“The refiguration of the urban space reconstitutes the familial relations that in turn destabilize the premodern values and ethics.”

Kyung Hyun Kim makes this point early in his ‘At the Edge of a Metropolis in A Fine, Windy Day and Green Fish’ chapter in his seminal volume The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema.  Lee’s film very pointedly and adroitly examines the encroaching urban crawl as it swallows Green Fish’s protagonist’s humble countryside home upon his return from conscripted military duty.  Lee presents the effect of this rapid urbanization in a very literal manner as Mak-dong’s large family unit has been shattered.  His father is dead, his mother seems to have gone a little cuckoo, his brother is a paraplegic (a precursor to Lee's third film Oasis, 2002), and his other siblings, including a young club girl and a degenerate, drunk detective, have spread apart.  The large brood cannot seem to function in the new urban and suburban space, chiefly the home of small nuclear families.

After an opening credits sequence which features a collage of pictures of Mak-dong’s family and home from years past, before Seoul loomed on the horizon, Green Fish begins with a scene on a train.  Mak-dong is returning from the army and is sticking his head out between carriages.  He looks to the left and sees an attractive woman do the same, though she is oblivious to him.  Her red shawl comes undone and floats down towards him, whipping across his face.  Back in the carriage he notices a trio of young thugs harassing her and gets involved only to get soundly beaten.  They get off at the next stop and he trots after them with a heavy object and whacks one of them across the head before scampering back to the train, but it’s already leaving so he must run away. 

Having left his bag on the train, he is now without any possessions.  This, coupled with the new landscape he comes home to, indicates an inevitable new beginning for him.  As he stands in his house’s door frame, he discards his military jacket, Lee opts to shows this using slow motion.

The train motif indicates the modernization of society, much in the same way that locomotives featured in some of the greatest Hollywood western films like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969).  Lee would employ train motifs even more prominently in his next film Peppermint Candy (1999) as his camera followed one in backwards shots in between the film's reverse chronological sequences. 

The red shawl is important because of its color, which indicates lust, love, blood, and the criminal underworld and because it covers his face. From the moment this happens, Mak-dong has begun to tread on a descending path into the underbelly of modern Seoul.  The woman is Mi-ae, the lover of Mak-dong’s future gang boss and she serves as an unwitting femme fatale.  It is his infatuation with her that ultimately leads to his downfall.

But Mi-ae is not Mak-dong’s only reason for eventually assuming a role as a low-level gangster.  His masculinity is put into question since he can’t fend a few young bullies and because at the time of his return, he is unable to prevent his mother and sister from performing demeaning duties for income.

The thugs who disrespect Mi-ae and gang up on Mak-dong represent an apathetic and displaced youth prone to violence.  Chung Doo-hwan’s autocratic regime fell in 1988 and with it a certain respect for authority.  Despite Mak-dong’s uniform which identifies him as a soldier, the youths attack him anyway.  Another example of this in the film is when Mak-dong rides in his brother’s egg truck.  After he gets pulled over for running a red light he manages to convince the cop to take a 5,000 won bribe.  He gives him a 10,000 note and the policeman agrees to go get him some change but then drives off.  Mak-dong and his brother then drive after him, swerving beside him and yelling at him to stop the car over an intercom.  It’s a funny reversal of roles but also a little alarming that they feel they can behave this way in the face of authority even if the cop is shown to be corrupt, though they are complicit in this.  Such behavior would never have been tolerated in Korea in earlier years.

For me the most successful element of the film is the staging of Mak-dong’s descent into criminal life.  I’ve already examined his initial encounter with Mi-ae but the next time he sees her it is as a reflection in a telephone booth in an unseemly part of Seoul.  He follows her through evocative red lights and past a clownish, foreboding club marketer, who pretends to shoot him in the head, into a big club.  She is a singer and appears on stage as a vision of white.  Mi-ae is the white rabbit and Mak-dong has followed her down the rabbit hole.

Later, Mak-dong gains entry into the gang world not by showing off his wits but by being violent and recalcitrant in the face of perceived authority in the form of Song Kang-ho’s hoodlum character.  Just before he is asked to do a job by the gang boss, he is in the main hall of the club.  The boss and Mi-ae enter and sit at a booth, she whispers something in his ear and he then shouts for the music to come on.  She gets up to dance to a spooky Tom Waits song and ambles in a slow, sultry fashion.  It’s a delightfully odd sequence that could nearly be part of a David Lynch film but it fits into Mak-dong’s Alice in Wonderland trajectory.

Next he is in a karaoke hall which features a scantily clad American exotic dancer performing on giant collage of TV screens.  Does this indicate that Korea’s globalization and contemporary fetish with American culture coincide with a debasement of morals?  Mak-dong goes to the bathroom and sings along to the song being performed, he stops at: “An unworthy son has this sin”.  He stares at himself in the mirror and then hangs his head before smashing his fingers with the door of a stall.  At first this seems like an act of self-mutilation borne out of guilt for the path he has embarked on. 

In the next scene he begins to harangue the patron who sang the karaoke song until he becomes annoyed enough to take a swing at him.  Mak-dong pretends that the patron has broken his fingers.  It turns out that this is his first job for the gang but he seems to revel in this self-destructiveness and willingly takes on the pain and he is later admonished by his boss for his youthful disregard for his own health.  Mak-dong’s self-destructive behavior continue when later he smashes a bottle over his head as people boo at Mi-ae on stage.

In a famous scene that was given tribute in Ha Yu’s exceptional A Dirty Carnival (2006), Mak-dong murders a rival boss in a bathroom and stuffs him in a stall.  Just before this he burns Mi-ae’s shawl.  Does he do this as he recognizes that he has become an active agent in his own debasement?

I find Mak-dong’s character arc to be brilliantly handled by director and writer Lee and performer Han.  The story itself is not very original but it is executed well and reappropriates the construct to highlight certain pressing themes in contemporaneous Korea.  Besides the few elements I’ve briefly discussed, Green Fish has an enormous amount to offer, a lot of which reveals itself on subsequent viewings.  It may not reach the heights of Lee’s later films but it stands as one of the most important works of 90s Korean film.

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.