Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mr. Gam's Victory (Superstar Gam Sa-Yong) 2004

Korean cinema is very much an industry of genre films: gangster, high school, melodrama, horror and revenge dramas are the most recognizable but recently, sport movies have also had a significant impact in the Korean film marketplace. I came across Mr. Gam’s Victory as I trawled the internet to find a recommended Korean film that I had never heard of before. I understand that Lee Beom-su has appeared as the star of a few films but I was not very familiar with him, having only seen him as a co-star in My Wife Is a Gangster 3, and in minor roles in 200 Pound Beauty and City of Violence. Similarly I knew nothing about writer/director Kim Jong-hyun.

Mr. Gam is Gam Sa-yong, a factory worker who moonlights at a market stall run by his mother and dreams of playing professional baseball. He lives with his mother, his brother and his sister. He is a good worker and is well liked by his colleagues, one of whom is an aspiring actress who is ridiculed by their cohorts. He plays for the company team and learns of tryouts for a professional team, the Sammi Superstars. His co-workers tell him he doesn’t have what it takes to play professionally; he is meek and seems inclined to agree. His mother does not encourage him either. His brother does support him, but seen as he is prone to drinking and gambling, his encouragement isn’t worth much. While on duty in the factory he decides to sneak off and tryout, the wannabe actress sneaks off for an audition at the same time.

Sneaking out for tryout/audition
After a few decent pitches he makes the team. It becomes apparent that the Superstars are far from it and most of the film follows their extended losing streaks. He is not the first choice at base, nor the second, so it takes a while for him to get the chance to play. When this happens it is only to close out losing games, and he does not have the opportunity to make his mark. His chance to start comes during their most important game of the season when they face the OB Bears, who are on a 19-game winning streak, thanks to their pitcher Park Chul-soo, and are looking for another win to break the world record. In typical underdog fashion, only the Sammi Superstars and Sa-yong stand between them and that goal.

The film starts off well, the structure is sound, the plot is clear, the characters and their predicaments are all well presented. However, Sa-yong gets to realize his ambition of playing professional baseball very quickly and subsequently the narrative begins to lag. He does not move up the ranks, does not get any chances to prove himself, and the dynamic in his family does not change very much. The climax, which is the extended game against the OB Bears, is much more entertaining, it is also his ‘0ne opportunity’, just like his brother keeps referring to.

There are a lot of mirrored character trajectories in the film, namely the fledgling baseball and acting careers of Sa-yong and his co-worker, and the two brothers hopes to stirke it big and support their family. Sa-yong and his co-worker skive off for tryouts and auditions at the same time and both make it, although she finds success much quicker. His brother lacks ambition and does not give himself a chance to get his ‘one opportunity’ due to his drinking and gambling. During the final game, which is Sa-yong’s ‘one opportunity’ he gets into a crash at the same time that Sa-yong collides with a player on the field. These three narratives, where each wants to succeed, demonstrate different paths and opportunities. The brother has no specific dream, beyond being rich, and therefore cannot attain it. Throughout the narrative he can only live vicariously through the false image he portrays of his brother, this leads him to storm the field and make a fool of himself when this image doesn’t not match the reality. The actress has a very specific dream and works hard to achieve it, although it is hinted that she may have received help due to her ample cleavage. Sa-yong similarly works hard to reach his goals but is thwarted by his slow pitch and a system that won’t give him his ‘opportunity’. Ambition, talent, chance, and physical characteristics all play important parts in determining the ultimate trajectories of these characters.

A new color TV set
The film begins in black and white and only switches to color when we are introduced to Sa-yong’s siblings, the reason for this being that his brother has purchased a new television and he points out that they no longer have to watch anything in black and white. The previous scenes all feature Sa-yong, in a way it is as if his family is watching him, or at least following his narrative, which will see him end on television. His mother, who disapproves of baseball, also disapproves of the TV. She is older and more traditional; the color set could represent progress and the impending sociological change of the future. In the next scene Sa-yong is on his bed, tossing a baseball up at the ceiling, which is adorned with a poster of an American baseball star. He dreams of playing in America, as it is a symbol of hope and opportunity, a recurring theme in the film.

Mr. Gam's Victory also fits nicely into my discourse on 'Manly Tears'. After losing the big game (the English title of the film is misleading) all the Sammi Superstars exit the dugout, leaving Sa-yong by himself. The OB bears make their exit off the field as well, huddled around and congratulating record-breaking pitcher Park Chul-soo. Sa-yong tries to keep his head down and avoid eye contact with Chul-soo. He raises his head apprehensively and Chul-soo notices him, the rival pitcher nods his head in respect and Sa-yong reciprocates, although awkwardly. When the OB Bears have left the diamond and Sa-yong is by himself, he cries.

So what is the significance of his tears? He mutters to himself that he really wanted to win, that he could have won, but I believe other factors are at work in this emotional display. He has worked very hard to reach this point and is no doubt disappointed that he was not able to notch up his first win but it seems like his tears are a result of the wordless interaction he has just had with Park Chul-soo. Despite losing, he has gained his respect. He has overcome the circumstances of his life, which are dictated by the makeup of society, the recognition he has just received proves this. Thus, the tears are a manifestation of the relief he feels having succeeded in tearing himself from the shackles of oppression.

Sa-yong jogs past a riot squad
The film is set in the 1980s and while it does not go to great lengths to examine the past, it does allude to the political unrest and social dissatisfaction of the time. In one scene Sa-yong goes jogging past a line of riot police right into a group of rioters which forces him into the middle of the altercation. As is the case for many characters in films of the Korean New Wave of the 80s, the working class protagonists frequently have no control over their own destiny and forced to walk a certain path or risk being cast off from society. Mr. Gam’s Victory is more optimistic however, as after the riot Sa-yong does become a professional baseball player and begins to have a say (albeit a small one) in his own future.

The film is based on a true story, and is quite modest in its ambitions. This works both for and against it, as the midsection lacks narrative thrust. It is an enjoyable and fresh take on the baseball film that embraces certain clich├ęs but wisely sidesteps many others. Most significant perhaps is that Sa-yong is not a great pitcher, he is merely decent, but nonetheless his love of the game carries him through to the big game of the final act.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Exploring K-Drama

Despite watching hundreds of Korean films, I have never watched any K-Drama, until now that is! Last night I watched the first episode of Iris, the popular thriller from 2009 starring Lee Byung-hun. I'm not sure why it's taken me so long. Perhaps I didn't want to be disappointed, I hold Korean cinema up to such a high standard! So what did I think? Well, I enjoyed myself watching it, and I will watch more, but I definitely will not recommend this to people if I'm trying to get them into K-Movies. I kind of enjoyed myself despite myself. It was cheesy, flashy without being as sleek as its feature length counterparts. It was also very fetishistic, I know Lee Byung-hun is a good looking guy but it was like his skin was incompatible with clothing, it seemed to expel it constantly.

The first episode provides necessary exposition, military school, college, cute romances etc. Knowing that the age of the stars is around 40, this was a stretch and a little grating but I imagine that as the series progresses, this will become less of a problem. The show exhibits a somewhat different aesthetic than I am used to, it's very crisp but it does look like TV. It's long too, are all K-Drama episode 65 minutes long? I think it's interesting that shows only go on for one season, I like that format, the stakes are just gonna be higher, I hope.

I want to see some other K-Dramas too before I make up my mind about them, I know there are some that are meant to be very good. Iris just seemed like an easy introduction, it features a few stars I know (Lee Byung-hun, Jeong Joon-ho) and it's full of action/spy/thriller elements.

I'm curious to see where this goes.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Memories of Murder: Part IV - Subversion of Genre

Bong Joon-ho is well known for his deft handling of generic conventions; he not only understands and respects their limitations but know how to manipulate them to his advantage without compromising their effectiveness. Memories draws heavily on the long line of detective thrillers that have spewed forth from Hollywood consistently for decades on end. It is a very established genre with extremely recognizable codes and characters: the dual protagonist detectives, the patterns, the anticipation of the next murder, all these things form part of what has consistently remained one of the most popular filmic formulas worldwide. With Memories Bong creates a visceral and extremely effective detective thriller that highlights all of these codes and yet subverts many of them to very satisfying effect.

First of all, it is worth examining the position of this genre within contemporary South Korean cinema. Memories is not the only recent example and it is also not the only one that has some fun with it. An early commercial example after the boom in the industry before the start of the new millennium is Tell Me Something, which stars Han Suk-kyu, easily the biggest star at the time (it was the year after he made Shiri which broke box office records at the time). It was a thorough success and it even garnered an audience overseas and is now available in many countries. In his essay on Tell Me Something, Kim Kyu-Kyun credits how “director Chang skillfully manipulates the expectations of the audience to a generic melodramatic plot in which Su-Yon would fall in love with Detective Cho, only to shock us with the revelation that the serial murders are motivated by a gender-related reason", the director engages with the genre in a very conscious way and ends up subverting it. Since then there has been a rush of modern Korean films that have featured male victims and female antagonists instead of the other way around. In these examples the denouements often show the audience the various motivations behind the brutal murders which often include scarred pasts where fathers or other authoritarian figures end up as the narratives’ real villains. Princess Aurora is an excellent example of this; the end features a flashback sequence that inculpates all of her victims in the murder of her daughter. This revenge formula is quite prevalent in South Korean Cinema, and can be found in Beautiful Boxer and the internationally renowned Park Chan-wook film, Lady Vengeance, both of these films also deal with mothers having to cope with the loss of their daughters and how society has placed them in their precarious situations.

Beyond these serial killer narratives, there are also films like Public Enemy, starring the inimitable Sol Kyung-gu, as a gruff detective who has difficulty juggling his professional and personal life and treads the narrative without ambiguous morality. He is a character who is corrupt, violent and very unprofessional. From a western perspective it is difficult to understand how he could have risen to his current position but this is not unfamiliar in Korean cinema. Much like Det. Park in Memories, his journey is a much more progressive one, which ends in a tidy resolution where he earns the respect of his colleagues and there have now been two sequels to date where he is no longer so incompetent. These subsequent films are not as interesting but were successful at Korean box office although not as popular overseas. Another point worth noting in Public Enemy is the mention of the immensely popular television show Chief Inspector which aired in the 1980s and featured a very famous opening credits song. In Public Enemy, an internal affairs inspector is being shooed away from the homicide department by the chief inspector and in defense he then recites a plotline from a Chief Inspector episode to intimidate him, as if he were reciting from a police manual. The show is so engrained in South Korean pop culture that in this send-up it is taken as fact. Similarly, early in Memories, the local inspectors and Baek (the first big suspect) take a moment to eat and commune in front of the television set as Chief Inspector starts. They all hum along to the tune and comment on it. It’s a great piece of dark humor to see homicide detectives watching a cheesy police show in the midst of investigating Korea’s first reported series of serial murders. In both Public Enemies and Memories, the mention of Chief Inspector speaks volumes about the perceived credibility of law enforcement by the general Korean populace.
Watching Chief Inspector during an interrogation
In Memories, many generic codes litter the screen and while they are often recognizable they are twisted in a way to serve to emblematize the post-traumatic nature of the main protagonists. The second scene of the film is a deliberately generic Hollywood thriller montage in which a theme straight out of a 1980s action film plays over a series of intercut shots of Det. Park interviewing suspects at his police headquarters. He is giving it his best shot but his questions do not seem to be getting him anywhere. His insecurities lead him to insulting the suspects, constantly referring to them as “Damn punks!” or making fun of their physical appearance. He is constantly undermined by the general inefficiency of his procedural skills. Even at this early stage it is easy to see that Park is very much a part of a societal system that he has very little control over. As a detective he has some authority which he exerts by acting rough with younger, less intelligent or less privileged people but once he is confronted by a suspect in suit his tone is immediately more respectful, as if speaking to an elder. He is embarrassed as he tries to mention the female victim’s sexual attractiveness.

The film playfully references Body Heat as Det. Park types up his report at a snail’s pace with his indexes. The content of the report seems trivial and the length of time it will take him to complete point to an inefficient use of time and resources. What’s worse is that when the ribbon is stuck it is the suspect beside him who is cowering in his chair that help him fix it. Instead of thanking him, Park berates him and calls him a “damn punk”. This is the first in a long line of instances where Park will be undermined by those around him when he doesn’t do something right. His reaction to this sort of emasculation throughout the narrative is invariably verbal abuse or physical violence.

The well-constructed montage continues with quick editing and the fast tempo theme as he makes his way through various odd-looking potential suspects. He is friendlier to his last interviewee and this could be for two reasons: he respects a youth that is trying to enter the Military Academy; or he is happy that his lunch is arriving. He argues with the delivery about having asked for a receipt at which point a colleague offers him another one, but this turns out to be a receipt for a bicycle shop and during this time the delivery boy has left. The same shot crossfades to the late in the evening where Park is now alone and sleeping at his desk, he wakes up briefly but goes right back to sleep. He does not seem too pressured to produce results in this murder investigation.
Det. Park asks for his receipt
Detective Such, who is Parks’ much more capable foil in the narrative is a carefully utilized character who at first embodies but later undermines typical generic codes. He is a investigator with a degree who comes from the big city (Seoul) to help with the case. He is very quiet, intelligent, he is a good detective and he is also quite cool, often looking very mysterious while crouched in the background smoking a cigarette. At first he makes many significant breaks in the case and identifies patterns and predicts further murders. However, at around the halfway point of the narrative he begins to hit dead ends and becomes increasingly frustrated by his inability to catch the killer. Early on he demonstrates an unwavering faith in the bureaucratic system when he says that "Documents never lie", but this stance is compromised at the end when he receives the forensic test results that he believes will condemn the suspect that he is certain is guilty of the killings. When the results turn out to be negative he suffers a breakdown and says "this document is a lie, I don’t need it" and tries to administer vigilante justice only to be foiled by Det. Park, the characters have swapped roles in a way.

One scene in particular in the middle of the film is very effective in the way that it depicts both of the Detectives and their affiliation with the generic codes that helped to create them. Having followed bogus leads based on idiotic conjecture and superstition Det. Park and his equally pea-brained partner Inspector Jo have returned to one of the murder scenes at night in an attempt to decipher the face of the killer with the aid of a shaman’s scroll, some ink and some dirt. Clearly, for Park the investigation has hit rock bottom. They hear someone coming into the clearing and hide. It is Detective Suh, he lights a cigarette and begins to survey the crime scene, he has a tape player in his hand and turns it on. It plays the pop song that the killer has been requesting on the radio on those rainy nights before he commits a murder. Det. Park rightly, although hypocritically, points out to his partner that this is a ridiculous technique and it isn’t going to achieve anything when he says "we need science here!" as he hides evidence of his own folly by stuffing the shaman’s scroll into his jacket. Jo then points out "Still, he’s got style"; Suh may not be using a great investigative technique but he looks cool as he doesn’t achieve much, Bong is making light of the proclivity exhibited by Hollywood thrillers of mostly favoring style over substance. Bong injects a great deal of substance into his “generic" narrative but he utilizes the codes so well that he can make fun of the material while also using it to its fullest potential.

Soon another man is heard approaching and Suh ducks away also. This time it is an unknown man who removes a woman’s bra and panties from his underwear and lays them out carefully on the ground and begins to masturbate. It is our natural inclination to assume this might be the killer returning to the scene of the crime, Park even says so. Jo accidentally steps on a twig and after a pause, the man runs off and the Detectives give chase in a thrilling scene through the narrow back alleys of a rural village. They lose his trail and Park begins to berate Jo for scaring him off, he surprises them however by following the sound of dog barks and managing to find the trail of the suspect. This chase leads them into a busy rock mine, where everybody looks the same. Here it is Park who recognizes the man, against the odds, when he catches a glimpse of his red underwear.
Det. Park spots the suspect
Suh has been in control and successful with his techniques up to this point but in this scene it is the other detectives who succeed in apprehending the suspect. Park gloats with his eyes when Suh looks at him, surprised at his skill. Of course, during a ridiculous confession it becomes very clear that this man is most certainly not the killer and we are back where we started. The juxtaposition of these events is very interesting as after having criticized and subverted some generic tropes, Bong immediately injects a huge contrivance with the improbability of catching a sexual deviant at the exact spot of the crime while both detectives are there unaware of the presence of the other. It is most certainly an improbable scenario, yet it shows that Bong engages with these conventions (returning to the scene of the crime, psycho-sexual nature of the suspect, etc.) in a very affectionate manner and knows how to evince an effective thriller from them.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Significance of 'Manly Tears' for the Reclamation of the Male Id in Korean Cinema

Korean cinema features a lot of male characters that have either tried to shelter themselves from the past trauma of their lives, or have been directly confronted with it.  The Man From Nowhere, which I watched last night, may not be the best example of this, but when it's protagonist, Tae-sik, embraces So-mi, the child he saved, he breaks down in tears.  Throughout the film, he has been emotionless, and characters have mentioned that guns being fired right beside him haven't even fazed him.  Just before he cries, So-mi remarks that he is smiling and that it is the first time she has seen him do so.  His embrace with So-mi forces him to confront the loss of his family, I would argue that the sheer force of his history and the trauma he has borne for the last four years overwhelm him the moment the slightest crack appears in his armor.

Won Bin's manly tears
Tears are a very powerful image, and the more seldom their use, the stronger their impact.  The less we expect to see them, the more engaging they are.  They have the ability to convey a great number of emotions: fear, desperation, love, relief, grief, joy, and more.  Often they are more effective than words.  Korean cinema has a strong undercurrent of grief wich stems from its troubled history, and the closer you look, the more you will find.

Manly tears in Korean cinema are a very successful motif that elicit an emotional response because they hint at something greater.  When these characters break down it feels as though their trauma stems from more than their films' narratives, their tears are pervasive and multi-faceted and draw you into something deeper than mere escapism.  The emotional resonance of modern Korean films is a result, in equal parts, of the tremendous, highly-literate talents involved in the industry, and of the historical and psychological trauma that scars them all.  The 386 generation (or 486 by this point) brought all their baggage to these film sets and the tears of the leading men feel like their tears, or indeed a whole nations' tears.  Relief for the end of oppression and grief now that the release forces them to confront it.

Lee Byung-hun's manly tears
Kim Ji-woon's A Bittersweet Life features Lee Byung-hun as the hard-as-nails, ever-composed Sun-woo.  He goes through a narrative that seems him tortured, beaten, stabbed, shot, and of course betrayed, with barely a flicker of emotion.  In the climactic showdown with his boss and all his goons, he asks his former employer why he wants to kill him.  At this point he breaks down and out come the manly tears, he devoted his life to him for seven years and was an obedient and effective servant, but his boss only registers a small grin on his face and doesn't answer his question.  I would read this as the boss representing either the Korean government (of the past) or Korea itself, despite having been subservient to it so long, it could still betray you.  Lost in his boss' silence, he stares into space.  What he sees there is his own reflection in a window, he remembers who he is and his brief loss of composure evaporates.  His employer seems to think he's broken him, what he doesn't realize is that Sun-woo is unable to face his trauma and thus will revert to all that he knows.  This is a poor judgement on his part because all that Sun-woo knows is the cold brutality and cruel efficiency which he passed on to him.  It shoots straight back at him in the form of a bullet to the heart.  Sun-woo dies soon after this act and is thus unable to reclaim his identity, although since his moment past and he refused to embrace it there was nothing left for him to do but die.

The Host features a great deal of crying, although I wouldn't call it manly.  I think there is a lot to be said about it but it will need to sit with me for a little while.  Mainly I wanted to mention it briefly so that I could include the following photo.

Song Kang-ho's unmanly tears
The reclamation of the male Id is an important part of Korean cinema whether it wishes to acknowledge it or not.  The image of men crying in the cinema of Korea is a motif which allows for significant catharsis among the nation's post-traumatic population and is therefore an integral part of it.

These are just two (and a half) examples that come to mind but there are many more out there.  As I list a few more and allow for my thoughts on this topic to germinate, I will expand on this post.  If you can think of other good examples, of other reasons why it may be important, or if you think my theory is baloney, please let me know!

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Man From Nowhere (Ajeossi) 2010

As I previously mentioned, I wasn't very exited about The Man From Nowhere at first but the quiet popularity it has earned gradually managed to sway me, so I sought it out and found some time to watch it last night.  The revenge drama is easily Korea's most popular export to the west, indeed the first Korean film I ever saw was Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, a multi-faceted revenge that, at the relatively young age I saw it, was the most unremittingly bleak thing I had ever witnessed.  At first I hated it, it upset me so, but I was unable to put it out of my head and a week later I felt compelled to watch it again and this time I was mesmerized by it.  I would go so far as to say that it changed the way I viewed film from that point on.  It's brutality and originality certainly had an impact on me but it was really the way it looked, its setting, and its style that left an impression.  Its working class setting, its pale green hues, its mute protagonist, all these set the quiet scene for the most horrific and unfortunate of acts which contrasted against it like gunshots ringing out in the night.  Many great revenge dramas have come out of Korea since (and many other great films also as I've been making a point of mentioning!): Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, A Bittersweet Life, Princess Aurora among others.  Last year alone we saw the release of three: I Saw the Devil, Bedevilled and The Man From Nowhere.

Tae-shik and So-mi
Lee Jeong-beom's The Man From Nowhere is a very standard revenge drama which relies on three things, its style, its violence, and its star, Won Bin.  I say standard because it really is, this revenge drama is unoriginal and, as has been mentioned elsewhere, is essentially a mash-up of Leon: The Professional and Taken.  Cha Tae-shik is a mysterious pawnbroker with a secret past, his neighbors' daughter, So-mi, forms an attachment with him while her mother gets tangled with a drug and organ dealing ring, leading to her death and her daughter's kidnap.  Tae-shik must then go after So-mi and wreaks havoc along the way.

Among its domestic peers, I think this film is closer to A Bittersweet Life than anything else.  It's plotting is simple, it's protagonist is very stoic, and it's focus is on visuals more than anything else.  The Man From Nowhere lags behind as it is not as gripping.  Its story, while straightforward, spins its wheels a little, and while very stylistic, it lacks the flair of its predecessors.  That being said, it is well shot and the sound, while often a little too pronounced, is very effective.

A villain gets his comeuppance
Despite it flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed The Man From Nowhere.  It occurred to me that the motives for the revenge in this narrative were explained but somewhat lazily.  There is on scene where Tae-Shik is tailing an 'ant' and follows him to an arcade.  He is so focused on the one child that he misses So-mi as she walks right past him.  I understand that from a filmmaker's perspective this is a trope that should get the audience going, a near miss.  To me it felt as though it emblematized the film as a whole.  It could have ended right there but our protagonist is more fueled by a desire for revenge (for what happened to his family), even if it is misdirected, than by an impulse to save his neighbor.  He kills wounded foes when they could be left to go scuttle off and lick their wounds, a stabs people a lot more than is probably necessary.  All to what end?  To avenge, to exact revenge, or to sate an audience's palpable need for brutal violence.  Make no mistake, this film is astonishingly violent.


Korean antiheroes letting go
The last shot of the film struck me, as I've seen it a number of times in Korean cinema.  He cries now that it's all over, the Korean male with the scarred past can finally let everything go and express himself.  A quiet, reserved, brutal, emotionless anti-hero is reduced to tears when his history finally catches up with him.  I plan to write a little more on this curious phenomenon.

If you can think of any good examples of strong men crying in Korean films, please let me know in the comments below!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What Should be on the Radar for Korean Cinema Fans

My last post got me thinking, perhaps people haven't had the same opportunity as they've had before to see Korean films because they don't known about them. It could be that the passive fans who found out about Korean cinema from The New York Times or The Guardian don't know what else is out there since most publications that have mentioned these films in the past seldom mention them today.

To give people a chance to catch up, here is a list of films that have recently come out of Korea and those to keep on eye out for in the near future:

The Man From NowhereI wasn't very exited about this project when I first heard about it but now I'm looking forward to seeing it. It still has a relatively low profile but the word of mouth is very strong for this action thriller that seems the channel Leon and Taken.

Available on Blu-ray & DVD in the US, out on DVD in UK on April 11.

Bedevilled - By all accounts an exciting addition to the Korean 'revenge drama' cannon from first time director Yang Chul-soo.

Available on Blu-ray & DVD in the UK. Currently no plans for release in the US.

I Saw the Devil - Another revenge drama, this time from Kim Ji-woon, one of the most marketable Korean directors abroad. It features great performances from powerhouse leads Choi Min-sik and Lee Byung-hun and is a refreshing and uncompromising take on the revenge narrative.

Currently on limited release in US, out on Blu-ray & DVD on May 10. To be released in theaters in the UK on April 29 and on Blu-ray & DVD on May 9.

Poetry - The latest from Lee Chang-dong,  about a grandmother who tries to write a poem as she deals with a failing body and the consequences of an act of her grandchild's.

Currently on limited release in NY. No plans for the UK, but this is only a matter of time.

HaHaHa and Oki's Movie - Both of these well-received Hong Sang-soo films were well received in Korea last year.

Will make the rounds at the festivals this year, perhaps these will see release by the end of the year.

The Yellow Sea - The sophomore effort from the director of The Chaser. It's about a Chinese man goes to Korea to find his wife and ends up on the run after being framed for a murder.

Will be in competition at Cannes this year, so there will be a wait before this becomes available.

Glove - From veteran filmmaker Kang Woo-suk, a story about a hot-tempered former professional baseball player, is sent to the countryside to coach a team of hearing-impaired players.

Recently released in Korea.

The Journals of Musan - The debut from Lee Chang-dong's former assistant director, Park Jung-bum. A North Korean defector has a hard time coping in society.

Will be released in Korea on April 7.

My Way - From the maker of Taegukgi, Kang Je-gyu, comes another war film, this time about a Korean man who dons a german uniform during WWII. It is the most expensive Korean film of all time.

Currently in production, to be released this December in Korea.

Hanji - Im Kwon-taek's 101st feature film.

To be released on March 17 in Korea.

The Battle of Yellow SeaFrom Kwak Kyung-taek, the director of Friend, comes A 3D action film based on the true story of the 2002 gun battle between the North and South Korean navies.

To be released in Korea in 2011.

Snow Piercer - Based on a French comic, this Bong Joon-ho helmed picture, to be produced by Park Chan-wook, will chronicle a train of 1001 cars, which has to carry a large group of the last human beings on Earth after a nuclear war. It's time to start getting very exited about this.

Most Likely will be released in late 2012 in Korea.

The Host 2 - A sequel to the 2006 megahit, is being made in 3D. Bong Joon-ho is not attached to this project.

Aiming for a summer 2012 release in Korea.

Let me know if there is anything you would add to this list.

Korean Cinema Blogathon Week @ NewKoreanCinema.com

I found out that the Korean Cinema Blogathon is happening at NewKoreanCinema.com, it is taking place over March 7-13.

Very happy to see something like this going on, check it out!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Decline in Western Interest for Korean Cinema?

See my companion piece: Decline in Domestic Interest in Korean Cinema?

It is my impression that of late, there has been a lack of enthusiasm for Korean cinema in the west. While I Saw the Devil was recently released in the US and is gaining in popularity, the exposure it is receiving pales in comparison to those which preceded it, like The Host and Oldboy. I suppose it was only a matter of time before this happened and to be honest the recognition that Korean cinema receives now is still far greater than anything it experienced prior to the new millenium.

However some high profile directors are transitioning to making films in the US, we can expect Hollywood debuts from:

Park Chan-wook - He is directing the Wentworth Miller's blacklisted Stocker starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mia Wasikowski.

Kim Ji-woon - Attached to helm Lionsgate's The Last Stand, another blacklisted script starring Liam Neeson.

*UPDATE* Bong Joon-ho - I've heard that after he completes Snow Piercer, Bong will embark on his first US film with J.J. Abrams on board to produce. This will not start until he finishes Snow Piercer, which is said to be in production until 2012.

These directors, as well as Bong Joon-ho, are established but I worry that it will be difficult for other Korean filmmakers to make a similar mark on the international scene. Na Hong-jin made some strides with The Chaser and one hopes that his new effort, The Yellow Sea, can bolster his reputation but I doubt that he will become as popular as the aforementioned filmmakers.

The question though, is why are Korean films losing steam? There has been a decline in attendance in Korea lately but the quality of the work is still very strong. Modern western audiences have notoriously short attention spans and it is quite possible that they have moved on to the new thing. The wow factor of the Asia Extreme branding (an invention courtesy of western distribution companies) has worn off and audiences may have moved on for there sensory thrills. Kim's I Saw the Devil is a case in point, it is very violent, original, and certainly depraved, all prerequisites of this supposed subgenre, but coming after films such as Oldboy, A Bittersweet Life, and Save the Green Planet, which are all surpassed by it in terms of brutality, it lacks novelty.

I think this was the problem to begin with, Korean cinema had so much more to offer than violent revenge thrillers, but everything else was peppered underneath them. Had audiences been exposed to the larger, more substantive Korean industry as a whole, perhaps this could have ensured for longevity. Instead it seems that some mid-level distribution companies (such as Tartan) capitalized on the visceral thrill of the new and unknown and sailed on this short wind of popularity.

As I said I still believe that Korean cinema has a lot to offer and it is only a matter of time before another film can have a significant impact on the international market. I just hope that when this does happen a few perspicacious people will be able to foster a culture of growth and enrich themselves and our viewing habits in the process.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

It's been a while since I've posted and I'm sorry for that. A busy holiday season, work and some writing projects have diverted my attention from this blog which I'm very happy to see is steadily being viewed. I also haven't been watching any Korean films lately. When it comes to the media I watch I go through cycles, currently I'm loading up on classic Hollywood films such as Ball of Fire, Unfaithfully Yours, The Miracle of Morgan Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero, To Be or Not to Be, and foreign classics like Z, La Ronde, The Rules of the Game, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (a superb revelation), and The Exterminating Angel. I have a long list of Korean films that I need to watch, and I have most of them. Here's what I have  in my queue and if you would like me to write on any, please let me know:

1960 - The Housemaid
1961 - Obaltan
1980 - The Last Witness
1987 - The Surrogate Woman
1988 - Chilsu and Mansu
1989 - Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left For the East?
1990 - Black Republic
1993 - Hwaomkyung
1995 - 301/302
1995 - A Single Spark
1996 - A Petal
1997 - The Contact
1997 - The Letter
1998 - Spring in My Hometown
1999 - Whispering Corridors 2 - Memento Mori
2000 - Asako In Ruby Shoes
2001 - Address Unknown
2001 - One Fine Spring Day
2001 - Take Care Of My Cat
2002 - Marriage Is a Crazy Thing
2002 - The Way Home
2007 - May 18
2008 - A Frozen Flower
2008 - Breathless
2009 - A Brand New Life
2010 - Attack the Gas Station 2

I will update soon and I hope that people continue to read what I write! As always, comments are appreciated.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Shifting Modes of Representation in Whispering Corridors - Part I

High school girls are punished in class
Whispering Corridors (Yeogo geodam, 1998) was released during a key time in the modernization of Korean cinema. It came one year after the breakout homegrown melodramas, The Contact (Cheob-sok, 1997) and The Letter (Pyeon ji, 1997) and a year before the first true Korean blockbuster, Shiri (Swiri, 1999). It was one of the early films in the new, prosperous era in Korean cinema, it was also the first horror film to leave a significant mark on the box office. While at this time horror films were similarly gaining traction in Japan, such as the Ringu (The Ring) and Ju-On (The Grudge) series, their Korean counterparts were very specific in their focus, which tended to revolve around teenage girls. Surprisingly, instead of being objects that were overtly sexualized and designed to incite lust, these characters highlighted the sensibility of sonyeo (girls). Choi argues that ‘sensibility’ “provides a conceptual alternative to ‘sexuality’”. Beneath this sensibility evident in Korean horror cinema, she believes that “one must uncover a collective fantasy: a form of female bonding and sexual performance that may or may not be socially sanctioned”. Audiences are given the opportunity to share a similar sensibility beyond their typical demographic. Instead of being drawn in by exploitation and sexual fetishization, they are led to empathize with the protagonists.

Whispering Corridors… …indicts Korea’s oppressive educational system, and this South Korean modes of capitalistic socialization.”

Sonyeo working to get into college
The film is clearly a critique of the harsh Korean educational system but I think that the same things that point to this also act as metaphors for the larger issue of the whole peninsula’s shared historical trauma. The film is inherently violent, just like Korea’s bloody history, and yet most of the protagonists spend their time on screen internalizing their emotions and avoiding conflict. This contrasts strongly with male-oriented Korean high school films such as Friend (Chingoo, 2001) and Once Upon a Time in High School (Maljukgeori janhoksa, 2004), in which the protagonists constantly react physically and often incite violence. As mentioned above, the Whispering Corridors series as well as Kim Ji-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon, 2003) are examples of sonyeo sensibility, where the focus is on “emotional predilections and psychological behavioral dispositions and tendencies”, thus characters do not lash out physically. This style of cinema is well positioned to deal with Korea’s historical trauma. Since the nation’s grief is something that has never fully been resolved and had throughout the 1990s democratization and globalization of Korea been largely swept under the rug, it was a logical move to incorporate these buried anxieties and identity issues in characters that are typically dealing with their own grief which is quietly seething under the surface. Since the 1980s and still to this day, this position has been largely occupied by the post-traumatic males embodied by Park Joong-hun, Sol Kyung-gu and Song Kang-ho in films ranging from Chilsu and Mansu (Chilsu wa Mansu, 1988) to Peppermint Candy (Bakha Satang, 1998) to The Host (Gwoemul, 2006). When Korean cinema branched out to younger audiences in the late 1990s, this was a new way to deal with the nation’s history while also becoming more contemporary and drawing in younger (as well as foreign) audiences.

A young girl look up towards a school on  a dark night
The film starts by very clearly setting out its intent, with a young girl (only visible from behind and below the knees) looking up towards a school on a dark night. This menacing shot indicates someone returning to the scene of a previous trauma. The young girl's trauma is particularly important because of her age, she died young and was thus never allowed to grow old. Her trauma, that turns out to be her suicide, is all that remains of her. Her suicide was brought about by her treatment by the school’s teachers. The first victim is this narrative is an old teacher who feels that the past is about to catch up with her. She is also unable to forget the past and knows that it has come back to haunt her. The young girl embodies Korea and its battered past, or perhaps she could also represent a young victim such as a girl slaughtered during the Gwangju Massacre. Mrs. Park is the older generation which has also been scarred by the past and cannot move forward with these memories permanently etched into their psyches.

The title Whispering Corridors refers to the gossiping girls who roam the schools halls. Perhaps it implies the growing awareness within the minjung (the masses), as they discuss current events and social injustice to the dismay of the authority that tries to eradicate any dissention by scolding the girls for chattering in class.

To be continued...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Memories of Murder: Part III - The Evolution of the Post-Traumatic Male

"Either physically handicapped or psychologically traumatized (sometimes both), many of the characters emblematized the period's frustration when protest against the military government was disallowed." 

Waiting for the inevitable force of time and society
There is an evident progression of character representation if we trace the relevance of this statement from the start of the New Korean Wave, through its end and into modern Korean cinema. At the start, characters that fit this description were either college students or working class protagonists who had no chance to engage positively or successfully with society. Both of these character types, while worlds apart, suffered from an inability of expression and were both systematically oppressed by a government which tolerated nothing but uniformity and obedience. 

This began to change over time and in the year 2000, Peppermint Candy, arguably one of the last New Korean Cinema films, was released.  In this narrative we follow a character's entire life story, although we do not engage too much with him personally as he is more of a window to see certain political events through. The trauma that his character suffers from emblematizes the many consequences of the social ills committed during the periods highlighted in the film. What is important, regarding the previous quote, is that he starts off with artistic and optimistic aspirations for the future but as his life becomes consumed and destroyed by the government and military  he is eventually forced into civil service, where he becomes a detective and is broken down to become part of the system as he begins to reign his own oppression by beating people senseless under the guise of the law. Only in the end of the narrative (the start of the film as it plays in reverse chronological order) does he recognize what society has done to him and what he has become. At this point he removes himself from the tarnished society he admits to living in and being a part of. In Peppermint Candy the suicide of the principal protagonist at the beginning of the narrative very clearly spells disaster, when the character puts himself on the road (more specifically a train track here) and waits for the inevitable force of time and society to finish off his chronological narrative. His induction and subsequent denial of society left him with the knowledge that he had no home to go to and any attempt at recuperation would have been impossible. What  happened in this narrative is that a character that started off by "emblematizing a period's frustration" with the government ends up with him becoming a part of it. 

Back at the original scene of the crime
The natural progression of this logic bings us to Memories of Murder which places the emasculated male as a part of the civil service (again a detective) right from the start and we are never given a clue  about his background or why he may have joined the police. We do not necessarily see him as an oppressive agent, although he is certainly not wothy of much praise, but he is part of the system and  he has no understanding of the consequences of most of his actions although to a cetain extent he learns to deal with this throughout the narrative. By the end, after suffering dificult psychological trauma he leaves the force (we do not know when or exactly why, although we can guess) to become a civilian. He becomes a travelling salesman, permanently doomed to travel the roads of South Korea. We last see him exactly where he started, still trying to make sense of something that has no easy answers on a road that seems long and narrow and may not lead anywhere at all.

"The depictions of emasculated and humiliated male subjects set the stage for their remasculinization", this may not necessaily be true of this narrative but by rejecting his image as a civil servant or pawn of an oppressive government he has to some degree become engaged with his own narrative. He understands the society he lives in that much better and sees how he relates to it however,  he is still far from recuperating his own male subjectivity, to quote Kyung "The dawning of a new modern era is normally punctuated by hope and optimism, but the weight of intense history and its attendant violence loomed so excessively large that it ended up traumatizing, marginalizing and denaturalizing men". The government and the history which it created was so vast and oppressive that, coupled with the pre-existing historical traumas from the rest of the century, it became impossible for post-traumatic males to be given any chance to heal their psychological wounds, within or without the civil service and the society it dominated.


My work has been keeping me on the road recently and I am somewhat distressed to see that I have not added to this blog in over a month. Thankfully my workload has abated somewhat and I am once again in a position to contribute to my own project!

Besides writing pieces on specific films and adding the remaining chapters of my Memories of Murder dissertation, I am also very keen to write some articles on different aspects of Korean cinema. I would gladly entertain expanding on any topics you may have in mind as I want this blog to become filled with discussion points, not just my thoughts. So I encourage you to suggests ideas in the comments section or you can email me.

Finally, thank you all for reading my blog! I was delighted to see that Modern Korean Cinema has accrued over 1000 visits!