Showing posts with label review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label review. Show all posts

Monday, August 11, 2014

PiFan 2014 Review: Horror Comedy MOURNING GRAVE Aims Low But Hits Its Mark

By Pierce Conran

Korean horror has been in the midst of a rough streak for the past half decade. Relying on worn out themes, new works been have trotted out regularly every summer but even with lowered expectations, each year has put forth an increasingly lackluster and listless lineup of new films. Trying his best to buck the trend is the experienced short filmmaker Oh In-chun, who steps up to the feature-length plate with his horror-comedy debut Mourning Grave.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Review: Korean Indie Koala Oozes Charm

Simplicity is in rare supply in Korean cinema these days, so when a film like Koala comes along, it does so as a breath of fresh air. Nary an overwrought emotion, sad backstory nor superfluous tangent can be seen here. Instead, this refreshing new indie is straightforward and endearing as it leaves us to ponder the all too recognizable fates of its young and affable protagonists.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Jeonju 2013: Experimental Echo of Dragon Explores Myths and Emotion (용문, 2013)

Part of MKC's coverage of the 14th Jeonju International Film Festival.

When it comes to what we expect to see on screen, it’s worth considering sometimes just how strict we can be. Though we demand filmmakers to be creative, our definition of originality is actually quite narrow. As the lights dim and projectors roll, we wait for characters to show up and guide us along through their world and regale, sadden or shock us with their stories. Like many others I often lament the lack of ingenuity that plagues much of modern cinema but stick me in front of a film that does away with all standard forms of narrative (as we know them today) and suddenly I’m at a loss to process what’s unspooling before me.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Lack of Focus Hinders An Ethics Lesson (분노의 윤리학, Boonnoeui yoonrihak) 2013

Ensemble casts and high concept scripts seems to be all the rage these days in Korean cinema and An Ethics Lesson, billed as an erotic thriller, is the latest addition to this trend. But as wonderful as Korea's multi-genre concoctions have been in the past, these days, in an effort to push the enveloped ever further, there has arisen a disturbing trend of films which, through the application of an all but the kitchen sink approach, have become whitewashed and bland.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

BIFF 2012 - Opening Film: Cold War (Hong Kong) 2012

Part of MKC's coverage of the 17th Busan International Film Festival.

If Cold War, the opening film of this year’s Busan Film Festival, is heralding a new paradigm for commercial Hong Kong cinema, then I can’t say that it’s something I’m very excited about.  Over-produced and austere, it features strong and slick production values but lacks the confidence, verve or panache of the likes of Johnny To. A potentially interesting tale of internal corruption within the upper echelons of HK law enforcement, the film mostly takes place in brilliant high rises, far from the bustling streets below. The colors are muted, the angles stark, and the production design is far too neat, all of which create a distancing effect: it's hard to get into the rhythm of the film. The lifeless performances, relentless pacing, bombastic staging and needlessly convoluted plot only add to the woes of this disappointing effort from two new directors which ample experience in the field.

Leung Lok-Man and Luk Kim-Ching’s resumes as behind-the-scenes experts, Leung as an art director and Luk as an assistant director (including on the Macau sequences of this year’s Korean blockbuster The Thieves), are readily evident on screen, as the proceedings are immediately swept up in a concisely-edited urban aesthetic. Set pieces, though uneven, are often impressive. Taking a page from To’s book, some of the film’s best scenes are well-constructed sequences of breathlessly combined parallel scenes.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

KOFFIA 2012: Late Blossom (그대를 사랑합니다, Geu-dae-leul Sa-rang-hab-ni-da) 2011

Part of MKC's coverage of the 3rd Korean Film Festival in Australia (previously published).

It’s easy to forget sometimes how rigid the rules can be concerning the technical aspects behind the making of a film.  When done right, everything you see on screen (or hear) is exactly so for a reason.  The rich tapestry of mise-en-scene (basically everything but the dialogue) captures our attention by cleverly drawing us to certain pieces of information.  Through cinematography, sound, production design, costumes, and editing it seeks to tell us a story.  It is the difference between a novel, in which we must imagine all these details, and a film, which seeks to show us a world conceived by its filmmakers.

If you take the time to consider what shots are used in a film, you can see (most of the time) a reason behind their selection.  These little parcels of visual information tell part of the narrative.  There are many choices a director or cinematographer can make when framing a shot and each of these decisions will affect how the story is told.  An example of this is from what angle to frame a character: you can shoot from above, from below, or straight on.  In Late Blossom, which features some exceptional photography, this choice is an important one.  It says a lot about how the film views its characters, the majority of which are senior citizens. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Late Blossom (Geu-dae-leul Sa-rang-hab-ni-da) 2011

It’s easy to forget sometimes how rigid the rules can be concerning the technical aspects behind the making of a film.  When done right, everything you see on screen (or hear) is exactly so for a reason.  The rich tapestry of mise-en-scene (basically everything but the dialogue) captures our attention by cleverly drawing us to certain pieces of information.  Through cinematography, sound, production design, costumes, and editing it seeks to tell us a story.  It is the difference between a novel, in which we must imagine all these details, and a film, which seeks to show us a world conceived by its filmmakers.

Beautiful, intimate framing
If you take the time to consider what shots are used in a film, you can see (most of the time) a reason behind their selection.  These little parcels of visual information tell part of the narrative.  There are many choices a director or cinematographer can make when framing a shot and each of these decisions will affect how the story is told.  An example of this is from what angle to frame a character: you can shoot from above, from below, or straight on.  In Late Blossom, which features some exceptional photography, this choice is an important one.  It says a lot about how the film views its characters, the majority of which are senior citizens. 

Shooting from high up makes a person look smaller and can infer that he or she is timid, lacking in confidence, or occupying a lower social strata.  Conversely, low-angle shots make characters look dominant, authoritative, or heroic.  Late Blossom’s principal protagonists are frequently filmed from low angles.  In this instance, the choice is a mark of respect, as the films seeks to venerate its elderly characters.  Here, the formal structure of the film and its choices echoes the rigid framework of a hierarchical society, although perhaps one that steadily shying away from its outmoded confucian values.

Man-suk (Lee Soon-jae) shot from below
At a time for Korea when things are rapidly changing and its film industry manifests the latest trends and embraces the newest fads, Late Blossom is something of an anomaly.  Its focus is on a way of life that is being passed over for  globalized cosmopolitanism.  It is fixated on the present but only because it has allowed the past to be forgottten.  The characters who we follow live in the world’s second largest metropolis, yet they seem alone and abandonned.  The rapidly-evolving society which they inhabit no longer has any space for them, but still they live on, foraging in the modern urban landscape.

Late Blossom follows the lives of four elderly people in a rundown neighbourhood in Seoul.  Kim Man-suk (Lee Soon-jae) delivers milk and crosses Ms. Song (Yoon So-jeong), who scrapes by by selling scrap paper.  They feel something towards one another and gradually seek respite from the loneliness of their lives.  Meanwhile, Jang Kun-bong (Sung Jae-ho) takes care of wife (Kim Soo-mi) who suffers from dementia.

Snow adds depth to some scenes
Rather than follow a plot-based path, the narrative invites us into the lives of its four protagonists as they struggle to live in modern Seoul.  The film is meditative, sweet, and enormously rewarding.  It is also deceptively simple.  One of those examples of something that seems perfectly effortless while in actuality demonstrating an enormous amount of skill, attention to detail, and artistry.

Aside from visual metaphors (such as pathetic fallacy) and social awareness, Late Blossom succeeds in the technical department. It features some of the most wonderful camerawork I’ve seen all year.  While the lensing is clearly beautiful, it is also intelligent, each shot has a purpose and advance our integration into the story.  One particularly pleasing element of the cinematography were the scenes with snow.  As the snowflakes drift across the urban landscape, those that come closest to camera float by as large out-of-focus white dots.  It’s very engrossing and adds a huge amount of depth to the world we are invited to discover.  You may also notice how some of the younger characters are framed looking down on the elders from a high vantage point, as if peering quizzically on those that have laid the foundation for their progress.

Younger characters look down on elders
The film begins as we follow Man-suk on his scooter doing his early morning routine.  The first time we see his face is from behind a gate.  In effect we are spying on him.  Their is a tacit acknowledgment, on the part of the filmmakers, of the scopophilia that we the audience must naturally engage in as we invade the private lives of the protagonists.  Rather than immediately launch into close-ups, for a long time we see everything that unfolds from a distance.  The effect of peering in is reinforced by the landscape of the neighbourhood.  The composition of the shots reflects the sinuous roads and paths as they wind their way up and down hills.  This style of shooting becomes very intimate when we follow the characters through the ordered chaos of their local society. The location is very much a part of the story, it is omnipresent as Man-suk and Ms. Song make their living traveling its streets.

Many themes are explored during the film, mostly examing how society ha changed in its treatment of elders.  In one sequence, Song visits the civic office where Man-suk’s daughter works to register for an identity.  She is excessively grateful and obsequious in towards its young employees, a reminder of a bygone era when an autocratic administration ruled with an iron fist.  Conversely, the youthful staff are pleasantly surprised to be treated so respectfully and reciprocate by expediting her needs.  While this may be a sign of positive change, representing the evolution of authority in modern Korea, it also alludes to the fact that people are often less than gracious when dealing with civil matters in modern society.  You may also notice certain compositions in the film which place younger characters looking down on the elder protagonists from higher vantage points.  They have moved forward, or up, with time and peer down almost quizzically at those who paved the way for them.  What is the difference between respecting authority and respecting your elders?

Kun-bong and his wife, Man-suk and Ms. Song look on
The anchor of the film is its great lead performers.  Lee Soon-jae, Yoon So-jeong, Sung Jae-ho, and Kim Soo-mi are all fantastic.  It is impossible not to feel all their joy, disappointment, and heartache.  It is as if it were your own.  I was completely taken in by Late Blossom, especially by it’s fantastic leads, involving mise-en-scene, and infectious sweetness.  All but the coldest hearts will be melted by 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).

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, August 25, 2011

Grand Prix (Geu-rang-peu-ri) 2010

Like a great many other males of this earth, I am frequently seized with an insuppressible feeling of revulsion when faced with the prospect of sitting down to watch a romance film. Gender bias aside, I do not think that this feeling is unwarranted. Given the quality in recent years of the romance genre across the globe, there is very little reason for any person, let alone men, to waste their time with the products on offer. It used to be that romance films were among the best examples of cinema for any given period in time. Silent cinema produced some gems including F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), but it was in the 30s and 40s that Hollywood really embraced romance. Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (1939), Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940), Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942), Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), and so many more are all considered to be classics. Indeed even beyond that period and also across the globe, cinema produced magnificent, heartrending, devastating, and brilliant romantic films. I can’t say exactly when it started but at a certain point the beauty, poignancy, lyricism, wit, and levity began to disappear from the genre and what we have today is for the most part a collection of the most astoundingly crass, classless, corporate, consumerized, and commercialized examples of shockingly sexist, hollow, and demeaning drivel. Harsh words but rarely so justly deserved.

Kim Tae-hee's sadface
There are still some great examples, The Notebook (2004) and (500) Days of Summer (2009) among others, represent some of the most worthwhile examples of classical and progressive approaches to the genre. Sadly these are few and far between. For this reason, and innumerable others as you well known by this point, many of us have been drawn to Korean cinema. I am not allergic to romance films because I am a man, I am simply offended by them because I consider myself to be a discerning (and sadly very cynical) film lover. To my shock and wonderful surprise, aside from the great Asia Extreme films that were the introduction for many of us to Korean cinema, I discovered this far eastern Asian cinema was equally adept at making timeless love stories. The first I came across and to date still the most popular export in the genre was My Sassy Girl (2001), a fresh, zany, hilarious, and touching romantic comedy that had the ability to appeal to many demographics. Beyond that there are many romantic Korean films that have moved us, including: Il Mare (2000), The Classic (2003), A Moment to Remember (2004), Someone Special (2004), My Little Bride (2004), and A Millionaire’s First Love (2006), to name but a few.

This is why, unlike anything that comes out of Hollywood, I will give any Korean romance a chance. With this spirit I thought that I would give Grand Prix a chance, a racetrack-themed love story starring the beautiful Kim Tae-hee. Now I know that not every Korean film is going to worthwhile, especially as romance is concerned, but I must say that I was quite taken aback at how truly abysmal this film was. Cloying, saccharine, insincere, vapid, and lacking any finesse and skill, Grand Prix is a film that attempts to be as manipulative as it possibly can and as bad as that sounds, the fact that it is so poorly made and in no way comes anywhere close to affecting us with its confounded opportunism sticks it right at the bottom of the pile.

World's most irritating child
Kim Tae-hee plays a jockey who falls during her race and her horse, who has broken its leg, is put down in front of her. She is so distraught by the experience that she do the only thing she can do and that is to give up her profession and wear pretty clothes while traipsing around the prairies of Jeju island and looking wistfully and longingly at the scenery and other horses. On her travels, or rather the first thing that happens when she steps off the boat, she meets another jockey (Kang Dong-geun) who is a guy she will fall in love with for reasons unknown and is riding the horse that she will ultimately compete with in the Grand Prix of the title. What else happens, let me see there’s a local equestrian center and some old people who are mean to one another because of some longwinded and laughably dark backstory, a frequently topless male model who is just there for no ostensible reason, and the world’s most irritating, uncute, and strangle-worthy child. If these elements can’t combine into a surefire hit then I don’t know what can!

Grand Prix is one of those films that is masterful and awe-inspiring in its complete and all-encompassing ineptitude. There is not one thing that works in this film. The cast: Kim Tae-hee is pretty but can’t really act, she is also the last person I would chose to cast as a jockey; Yang Dong-geun (a replacement for Lee Jun-ki who dropped out to do military service a month into filming) is irritating and a terrible romantic lead; I’ve already mentioned the kid who I would have little reservations dropping off of a cliff; and all the other inconsequential supporting characters are either annoying, dull, or vacuous. The plot is hackneyed, patched together with an odd array of multi-colored and ill-fitting bandaids, and replete with soulless, melodramatic backstories. The production values are okay but there are some real problems with respect to the sound and editing.

The insufferable Yang Dong-geun
It was very difficult to watch this all the way through to the end and despite being stubbornly democratic in my viewing tastes for Korean cinema, especially as I undertake my 2010 film project, I daresay I regret wasting my time with it. There are many far superior mediocre films that deserve your squandered leisure time over this. Don’t make the same mistake I did.

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.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

No Mercy (Yong-seo-neun Eobs-da) 2010

Sol Kyung-gu was the first Korean actor whose name I remembered and after his extraordinary turn in Peppermint Candy (1999) I was convinced that he was someone to look out for. Sure enough, as I poured myself deeper into Korean film I came across Public Enemy (2002) and Oasis (2002), which further cemented him in my eyes as a great actor. After his earlier works, a lot of which were arthouse films, Sol’s career trajectory took a turn. How can I say this, he became a bankable star. Kang Woo-suk’s Public Enemy trilogy made millions and turned into one of the country’s most well-known names. He then starred in an even bigger project, the short-lived highest-grossing Korean film that was Silmido (2003), also by Kang. Beyond that he became a consistent presence at the Blue Dragon and Grand Bell awards (Korea’s most prestigious industry awards ceremonies), the highlight being when he was double-nominated in 2005 for Public Enemy 2 (2005) and Rikidozan (2004). After this it starts to get a little spotty: Another Public Enemy film called… Another Public Enemy (2008); some very successful but somewhat underwhelming blockbusters, Voice of a Murderer (2007) and Tidal Wave (2009); and then in 2010 he made a film about a man connected to the police whose daughter is kidnapped by another man whose bidding he must do to ensure her safety. Wait! He actually made two of those, they are called No Mercy and Troubleshooter.

Sol Kyung-gu in familiar territory
While most of the films that Sol lends his name to these days range from decent to quite good, the problem is that he is horrendously typecast. This is a common phenomenon in most industrialized national cinemas but Sol takes the cake. He invariably plays emasculated men who are single fathers who must protect and/or save their daughters. It is a very specific kind of typecasting and one would wonder why producers think that audiences could still accept him within such confined parameters. The truth is that these films are making a lot of cash, Troubleshooter, his most recent, scored nearly 2 million admissions on the back of his name and a thin premise. It’s little unfortunate that the formula is working as that indicates that we will have to put up with the same Sol characters for a while yet. His best recent role was probably his ethereal cameo in 2009’s wonderful A Brand New Life, which harkens back to the roles that began his career in earnest.

It seems to me that with No Mercy the producers thought they would make a film that ticks a few boxes and lends itself to being marketed overseas under the popular Asia extreme moniker. First off, it stars Sol Kyung-go, who despite my already noted reservations, is one of Korea’s most exportable stars. The premise is dark and twisted and the revenge formula that is predominant in the narrative is nothing new in Korean film. All this is well and good and the film trundles along at a good pace and is never less than engaging. The performances from Sol and the ever versatile Ryoo Seung-beom are strong and production values, if not the best Korea can offer, are top notch. The end of the film is what really gets me, it it was uninspired and worse made me look over that which had already played out very poorly.

Ryoo Seung-beom as the suspect
Sol plays Kang Min-hom a pathology professor who is frequently employed as an expert by the police. After a grisly murder takes place he and Detective Min Seo-yeong (Han Hye-jin) work together to apprehend the killer (Ryoo Seung-beom). They do so but as Kang is at the airport waiting for his daughter he receives word from the jailed suspect through an accomplice that he has his daughter and to see her alive again he must get him out. Thus he must try to mislead the police, perjure himself, taint evidence, and all sorts of degrading and dishonorable things for the sake of his daughter’s life. The past and memory feature prominently as more is revealed of the characters in the film through flashback, which is typical in melodramatic Korean cinema.

*Spoilers ahead

Unlike most Hollywood films but not unsurprising for the local industry, things do not turn out well. This is an interesting phenomenon in of itself but I don’t think this is the best film to discuss it with. But I think that Kang’s malfeasances and the hardships that befall him and other characters have a certain sense of inevitability to them. For example, his daughter was born with a genetic disorder, if I understood correctly she was a hemophiliac. This is both very a propos but also very trite as she will of course be sacrificed and will thus bleed for her family, it would seem this is her destiny.

The end is lifted in big spoonfuls from Oldboy (2003) and given that the production has nowhere near that prestige pic feel, this is a giant mistake which serves to derail what should have been a solid, albeit standard, thriller.

*End of Spoilers*

"Graphic" autopsy
The film tries very hard to be hard boiled and dark. There are a number of autopsy scenes that are meant go the distance to make you squirm (although they look kind of ridiculous) and even some surprisingly graphic sex scenes but they feel tacked on and do nothing to help the narrative. It’s unfortunate that the proceedings become so obvious as the film progresses because I feel that the film had quite a lot of potential. The early red herring that is supposed to explain the murder is far more interesting and original than what ends up happening. Oh well, maybe next time. In the meantime: Mr. Sol, please get a new agent before you become completely irrelevant!

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, August 2, 2011

Murder, Take One (Baksu-chiltae deonara) 2005

With the release of his tenth film earlier this year (Romantic Heaven, 2011), it is a good time to look back over Jang Jin’s impressive output and immense contribution to Korean cinema. Formerly a playwright, Jang has regaled audiences over the last decade with his clever, genre-bending, and socially relevant films. Aside from the ten films he has directed, which include Guns & Talk (2001), Someone Special (2004), and Good Morning President (2009), he has also found great success in the films he has written (some based on his plays) and produced. These include the enormously successful Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005) and the brilliant Going By the Book (2007). What his evident throughout his oeuvre is foremost his sparkling dialogue and his astute bending of generic conventions. His films can all be labeled as comedies but to leave it at that would do him a great injustice. His mordant wit cuts through a society that is still reeling from a past fraught with violence and encumbered by authoritarian governments and an incompetent civil service. His films have taken aim at the police (Going By the Book), politics (Good Morning President), and the media, among other things.

Impressive opening sequence
Murder, Take One uses a clever concept which explores in equal measure the preying eye of the media and the oppressive authority exercised by local law enforcement. The film opens with a fresh murder in a hotel and then showcases its investigation by the police which is, and here’s the hook, being televised nationally. The police exhibit violence, incompetence, and in-fighting, which is typical of Jang’s films and of Korean cinema in general; the media is intrusive, sensationalist, and exploitative; and the suspects all have their motives which fit into one melodramatic trope or another. 

Jung Jae-yeong and his gang
Jang bombards us with a vast amount of themes, ideas, styles, motifs, and genres all throughout the film’s opening salvo which is a virtuoso display of technique and craft as we are brought up to speed on the crime scene and all the characters that populate and surround it. As impressive as the visuals are, what most struck me in this scene was the sound: first of all the great music, but then the build up of voices and sounds blending into eachother. Couple this with the shot which begins by swirling above the victim’s body but then pulling out to reveal the contents of all the adjoining hotel rooms and what you have is a mosaic of intersecting lives. The body and thus the murder are only a small part of the tableau, Jang demonstrates early on that while ostensibly a procedural, Murder, Take One will not limit itself to the search for the answer to one question, who killed the girl? Instead, as it lumbers more or less along that trajectory, it will invite us to learn about peripheral characters and witness a veritable range of interactions. Characters frequently veer into pedantic, irrelevant, and hilarious details. The early interrogation scene is a brilliant display of acting and poor communication which, despite being watched by millions on TV, devolves into a silly argument over linguistics, the irony is sublime.

Cha Seung-won and Shin Ha-gyun argue about language
Without accepting this intention, it will be difficult to appreciate the film. As a procedural it is certainly interesting but it does not follow a satisfying trajectory, as a comedy it often seems to be stop-start and sadly without a firm grasp of Korean (which I do not possess) it appears that much is lost in translation. As other reviewers have noted, the joy of watching this film will come from your appreciation of the bit roles and supporting characters. Jung Jae-yeong, one of my favorite Korean actors, appears briefly as an odd gangster and is hilarious as always. From a technical standpoint the film looks and sounds great, although I wonder if aside from a few key scenes Jang just went through the motions. A lot of the proceedings feel like a 1980s Hong Kong action flick, perhaps it was easier to follow that blueprint for the obligatory procedural scenes which seem to detract from the real focus of the film: the characters and their interactions. 

The final section of the film, which focuses firmly on the case, underwhelms yet still achieves its likely intention of subverting audience expectations. Throughout the film the dialogue is amazing and those who speak it, do so well and with gusto. Shin Ha-kyun, who starts out as a primary character but gently fades away (sadly), is a standout. While not one of Jang’s best it is still a thoughtful and clever addition to his filmography and a valuable and worthwhile entry for Korean film fans.

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, July 28, 2011

Memories of Murder: Part VIII - Conclusion

“The recovery of the self remains as the objective in these films, but … the subjectivity reconstituted or denied in the end is the man’s alone" this may be true of the films of Park Kwang-su and Jang Sung-woo in the late 1980s and early 1990s but Memories does not abide by this strict dictum. In the end Det. Park is left where he started and while he has moved on, clearly nothing has been resolved and the past is as confusing as ever. More importantly, since we know nothing of his personal trauma beyond the work-related serial killings investigation, it would be inaccurate to say that his position at the end of the film’s narrative is a conclusion to his character’s progression. For the film is scarcely about the individual, he is only a symbolic vessel, a metaphorical amalgamation of the post-traumatic masculine id of South Korean males. His experience during the narrative is not his life story; it is a window into a frail national psychology circa 1986. Unlike Peppermint Candy (1999), for example, the bulk of the film (everything expect for the coda) happens in too short of a timeframe and showcases too few personal interactions and relationships to be a comprehensive portrait of one man, it is about a time and a place. Det. Park is our guide to the past and through him we must experience the nation’s subjective conscious. Characters like Park "provided an unconscious sense of urgency through their inability to articulate and their ineffectuality that metaphorically was symptomatic of the terror and trauma ushered by the military regimes“. They continue to do so in the new millennium in films like Memories.

"The l980s was the decade of post-trauma - one that anxiously awaited the replacement of a father-figure of South Korea and the implementation of a social structure alternative to capitalist relations, both of which would not materialize.”

An unsecured crime scene
Memories, made in 2003, unfolds in this period of post-trauma as a means of recuperation. Like other national cinemas, according to Teshome Gabriel “the past is necessary for the understanding of the present, and serves as a strategy for the future". South Korean cinema is not a third world cinema by any means. However, its turbulent past has created somewhat similar anxieties for filmmakers to elucidate upon. The past is the primary point of contention in a large proportion of contemporary South Korean cinema. Most films ignore the past and focus on an idealized present but many cannot let go of a past so traumatic that it can’t help but shape the ever-changing present and by extension their narratives.

Trying to save the evidence
There is an early scene in Memories which showcases the confusion of a society within a very difficult moment of collective trauma. It is a virtuoso two minute steadicam shot that is minutely choreographed and perfectly executed, furthermore it includes a wealth of information. We stand by Park's side, who is smoking a cigarette in a field as he is shouting instructions and giving out to officers for not having roped the area off. The music from the previous scene has trailed off at this point. Another officer calls him over to the dirt road where he shows Park evidence, some footprints. Park circles the area with a stick and enquires as to the whereabouts of the forensics team. He heads back down to the field still shouting questions and instructions; he also refers to the crime scene as "total chaos". We then see a number of cars parked by the main road and notice officers and civilians freely roaming the crime scene. A new character, the chief inspector of police, makes his grand entrance by falling down from the road onto the field, immediately undermining his presence. Park notices him and utters "Jesus, look at him" under his breath. At this point, a number of little children run by him into the field and he shouts at them to leave. Now we move to the centre of the field and we see the victim, dressed in red and dead on the ground. A number of people have gathered around her, including children. The inspectors start to give out about the presence of reporters. They share some brief words before Park hears a tractor behind them. He turns his head and sees that it is heading straight for the footprints. He calls out to it to stop and then starts jogging over to it but the driver never hears him and destroys the evidence. Park discards his cigarette in frustration and is then informed of the arrival of the forensics team, Park curses them as he makes his way to that side of the field only to see them slide down as well. Park calls them "sliding fools". The chief inspector is back in shot and seems somewhat bewildered, he turns around and as he is more or less facing the camera says "What’s going on?" and this is the end of the shot/scene.

"What's going on?"
In this scene, we are given much evidence to condemn the procedural skills of the investigators. Nothing seems to be done right and no protocol is being followed, it is slightly humorous to witness the bumbling efforts of these detectives but the muted colors and the grotesque sight of the corpse severely offset this notion. It is telling to see that no one is listening to these supposed figures of authority because to them all they stand for is subjugation to a hated dictatorship and way of life. They are not attacked since they are not mean-spirited and do not impose hardships on the civilians, they are simply ignored. The scene also underscores the uneasy relation between police and the media. We know beforehand that this is a small town and that these were the first serial killings in South Korea, so it can be fair to state that they had simply never dealt with this type of situation before. This is evident throughout the film, as everyone seems to get a little better at their job as the case wears on but at the same time we are also predisposed with the knowledge that they will never accomplish their mission.

A black hole, symbolic of a shadowy past or uncertain future?
The climactic scene, which is set in 1986, shows Detective Suh, after having seen the dead body of the little girl that he had grown to know over the narrative, drag the prime suspect to the train tracks by a tunnel and mercilessly beat him. Having never seen him use violence before, this heavy outburst is all the more shocking. He has become a desperate man and is at his wits end. As he beats him, there is a shot of the tunnel that eerily moves zooms in. It is very ominous and represents the end of the narrative, a big black hole. Det. Park comes down waiving the document whose content is expected to inculpate the suspect, but this turns out to be inconclusive. This drives Suh over the edge and he is about to shoot the suspect but Park stops him and then stares into the would-be killer’s eyes, desperately trying to figure him out but finds nothing and lets him go. A train comes and separates them and once it has past the suspect is already escaping through the tunnel. Suh runs down and shoots and Park stops him again. They both look down the tunnel and see the man lying on the ground, seemingly dead. But than he gets up and runs into the dark, he is a confusing enigma. The truth is lost forever. It is an extremely dramatic scene which shows us how these male characters have hit the end and may not recuperate any male subjectivity. Suh, as the supporting character has a neater arc where he does change, a little for the worse. Systems he trusted in have collapsed around him and have left him empty. Whereas Park, as the more emblematic character of a generation, hasn’t really changed throughout the narrative but after what he has seen through his eyes (as they are constantly in close-up throughout the film), the trauma has built up so much that he is forced to move on, as we see in the coda.

Searching for answers in vain
After a few shots which briefly establish his family life and line of work, Park stops off at the field which was the site of the first murder. It is a beautiful, sunny day and he slowly walks over to the ditch where the narrative began. He crouches down and peers into it much the same way as he did at the beginning of the film and after a while, a young girl asks what he is looking for, he says nothing and than she mentions that a man had recently done the same thing and had stated that he had "done something here long ago". At first, Park is panicky and quickly his Detective instincts kick in. He asks the girl questions about the man, her answers are less than concrete and after looking around for a while with his darting eyes, Park looks directly into the camera, lost and bereft of answers, and it is here that the film ends.

Back at the scene of the crime, back on the road
Aside from being a visual bookend to the film, this scene does effectively adumbrate the journey, or lack thereof, that Park has undergone. After having extricated himself from the force he comes back to the scene of the crime, seemingly just like the criminal, and although presented with this new information he still lacks the knowledge of how to process it and thus he looks directly at us, the only moment that the fourth wall is broken in the film, as if he is pleading us to help him find his path. "The subjects in Korean painting never seem to avoid eye contact with the viewer. On the contrary, it seems that they accept their role of represented subject, and an audience must accept their role of viewer. This is true also of cinema”, one could side with this interpretation with regards to the final shot, as the intertextuality of the film anchors this as a South Korean film as opposed to just a genre film. By the end of his trajectory, Park is unable to recuperate his subjectivity on his own. It takes very little for the historical trauma he experienced to overwhelm him again and he is incapable of knowing what to do about it. This is why he must end in the narrative exactly where he started because he cannot find his own path, he cannot go anywhere and he has no real destination. While his journey in the narrative has been entirely cyclical, in the end, through his frustrations and failings, we the spectators have gone on an incredible and complex journey with him which has enabled us to delve deep into the repercussions of an immense collective national trauma. We begin and end on a road and like so many characters of the Korean New Wave before him, Park finds himself on it, constantly in search of a home which has been destroyed.

Park looks directly into the camera
Therefore, the film offers up the conclusion that there is no easy way to deal with the serious psychological trauma which has stemmed from countless historical atrocities that South Korean males have suffered in the 20th century. Many people cannot simply forget about these traumatic events and their lives and behavior are heavily informed by this scarred history. However, it is also not simply ignored, with dozens of films released every year that deal with these intense psychological and sociological issues. The fact that these demons are being faced in such a direct fashion is proof that as a nation South Korea is ready to move on from their traumatic history and clearly have successfully been pulling away from it in recent times. In terms of the future of South Korean cinema, it remains to be seen how these historical events will be dealt with by subsequent generations that may not have been personally scarred by these events. Although since social problems are so keenly addressed in contemporary South Korean cinema, it is difficult to imagine that these modes of filmmaking will be forgotten or cast off any time soon.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Possessed (Bool-sin-ji-ok) 2009

Possessed (also known as Living Death or Disbelief Hell) is the first feature from former architect Lee Yong-ju. It is a supernatural horror that, while well shot and ambitious, manages to be low-key and extremely chilling. The majority of this film takes place inside a decaying apartment block which seems to be exclusively populated by women.

The story is simple enough, Hee-jin returns home from college because her sister So-jin has gone missing. She wants to alert the police but her fanatic mother decides that praying is the only acceptable way of finding her daughter. Hee-jin does call the police and we are presented with Tae-hwan a detective who doesn’t really seem to care about the case, until odd events result in bodies piling up in the complex.

A lot of Possessed revolves around a clash between Christianity and shamanism and does so in very interesting ways. The film seems to disdain shamanistic rituals and it also highlights the blind ignorance of fervent Christians. However this cynicism is a little confusing as we are lead to believe that there is something supernatural taking place.  I’m reminded of an amusing scene in the extraordinary Memories of Murder (Salinui Chueok, 2003), when the detective portrayed by Song Kang-ho hits a dead end in his quasi-investigation and resorts to using a talisman from a local shaman at the scene of a crime. The director Bong Joon-ho mercilessly ridicules him in what is a very funny scene. Similarly, the detective in Possessed suggests to his wife that they use a talisman to cure their hospitalized daughter, she is mortified at the idea and chastises him for it. Despite a similar reasoning, there’s nothing funny about this scene, it is dark and bleak. On a side note, the director of this film was an assistant to Bong Joon-ho on Memories, and clearly he picked up a lot from his time with the Auteur.

People in extreme circumstances are often driven to do desperate things and here we have a number of characters who are dealing with daily struggles as well as more personal troubles (a dying daughter, cancer etc.). Lee seems to be examining the reality that people who have been abandoned by society often turn to religion as an escape. Events are exaggerated in this film and yet the desperation of these characters, the acts that they are willing to commit never seem that far-fetched.

I mentioned earlier that all of the inhabitants of the block seem to be women. The only healthy male in the narrative, the detective, is another useless investigator to add to the long line of useless policemen portrayed in Korean cinema. Not only that, his family is in danger of falling apart. Why aren't there any more male characters? There could only be two reasons for this: all the men have gone to make a living for themselves in more prosperous areas or they can be seen, in their absence,  as a reminder of the ever-wandering male of Korean cinema. In fact, the main male character seems only to have stuck around because he is part of the establishment, he certainly doesn't seem to be any good at his job.

The absolute destruction of Hee-jin's family reflects another common trait in Korean cinema. The father is gone and the mother has gone crazy and these negative traits have just been passed on to their children in the form of some kind of demon. Hee-jin had tried to escape by going to college but as she persevered through an illness to get her education she was forced to come home and by the end of the narrative it is unclear whether she will return to her studies.

Hee-jin’s hallucinations involving the crane seem to be of particular significance within the narrative. In China, the crane represents both longevity and purity and this symbolism is used effectively for the development of Hee-jin’s character. During her first night back in her hometown she sees the crane in the local playground, pecking at what turn out to be teeth. Since the suggestion is that these are So-jin’s teeth, the image is quite shocking, how could such a divine creature be feeding on a young girl’s bloody teeth? I think that the crane is trying to save Hee-jin from whatever possessed her younger sister. The evidence that points to this is the moment when she picks up one of the teeth and the crane, who was a good twenty feet away in the previous shot, suddenly snatches it out of her hand.  While not too bothered by Hee-jin’s presence, the crane does perk up and freeze when So-jin may or may not have appeared behind a tree across the playground, it is as if the crane senses evil.

In the final scene, the detective’s daughter is cured of her life-threatening illness, just as So-jin was cured and while in her mother’s embrace she menacingly stares out of the window. She is looking at the crane, that looks white in the daylight, who is standing on a rooftop across the road staring back at her with one eye. The immortal crane is a guardian of sorts, a benevolent force keeping an eye on evil.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tidal Wave (Haeundae) 2009

A fair amount has been written about this film and very little of it is positive. At its core, Haeundae is a mawkish melodrama that serves as a convenient structure for Korea's first disaster film and once again a Korean filmmaker shows how adept and prone the industry is to making genre films. While it may not have worked for everyone, it was certainly effective as a genre picture. Haeundae is a beach town near the bustling Busan and our protagonists are mostly lower-class denizens (seamen, coast guards, merchants, etc.) who facilitate the wealthier vacationers that visit their town. Later, as a a tsunami hits the area, we are drawn into the tragic stories that befall them.

Chief among them is Man-Sik (Sol Kyung-gu) a hapless local who, during the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 inadvertently caused the death of a deep-sea fisher, who was the father of Yeon-Hee, his love interest. Man-Sik is a character that keeps popping up in Korean cinema, a well-meaning, middle-aged man who can really only be described as a bumbling idiot. Since the early 90s these characters have surfaced again and again, they represent the emasculation of a whole nation's males and seem incapable of reconstituting their masculine identity. Sol Kyung-gu has built his career on playing these characters. From his blistering performance in arthouse favorite Peppermint Candy (Bakha satang, 1999) to his portrayal of the inimitable Detective Kang Cheol-jung in the hugely popular Public Enemy series, he has become a star in Korea because many people can relate to his characters in some way. His contemporary, Song Kang-ho, has enjoyed a similar success for the very same reasons. Neither are particularly attractive men, they inhabit roles where they predominantly play bruisers who most often start and end their trajectories on the fringe of society.

The other screen veteran in Haeundae, Park Joong-hoon, was one of the first actors to portray these roles, all the way back to Two Cops (Tukabseu, 1993), incidentally one of the first films by Kang Woo-Suk, the director of the Public Enemy trilogy. His role as the scientist who tries to warn people about the coming tsunami falls more or less into the same category as Man-Sik. At first we see that he holds an impressive position but we quickly learn that he lost the woman in his life and his child doesn't even know who he is. Despite repeated protests to the proper authorities, his warnings are never taken seriously and the beach sirens are only activated when an emergency alarm is set off by a neighbouring country. Even though he has a good job and is good at what he does, no one will listen to him. Granted this is a typical generic trope in a disaster film but the fact that no professionals at any point listen to what he says, even when it's too late, is a little more pessimistic than usual.

Genre films have been something of a specialty in Chungmoro for quite some time now. After exhaustively exploring gangster comedies, romantic melodramas and high school dramas, some of the more prominent and daring Korean filmmakers, such as Park Chan-wook and Kim Ji-woon, took their chances on new genres not typically associated with Asian cinema. The results were Park's vampire effort Thirst (Bakjwi, 2009) and Kim's western The Good, The Bad and the Weird (Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom, 2008). Both were successful and well-received films that embraced and defied their respective genre's conventions. Haeundae follows along this Korean proclivity to embrace and reappropriate film genres and while it is by no means as interesting or as good as the previous efforts mentioned, it still manages to fully embrace a foreign genre and feels one hundred percent Korean. The fact that it is now the fourth highest grossing Korean film of all time only reinforces this.

Another point worth mentioning is the attention that was bestowed on the special effects in this film. Since Shiri (Swiri, 1998), Korean films have consistently improved their production values. For a while now, the nation's cinema has been among the worlds best for cinematography, lighting, production design, sound design and even film scoring. Despite a few spotty efforts, it seems that chungmoro has now conquered special effects too!

The last shot of the film, where the camera pans from Man-sik and Yeon-hee poring through her restaurant's wreckage to Haeundae's obliterated cityscape is difficult to analyze. On the one hand, the content of the scene, the music and the rapidly approaching sunset seem to indicate an optimistic ending, "life goes on" and such. However, I can't help but think that the camera is looking through the skyline to the roads behind it, which would suggest that Man-sik and others like him will still need to wander along a directionless road in search of a home and their identity.