Monday, April 11, 2011

Korean Cinema News (04/04-04/10, 2011)

I am starting a brief industry news section which will run weekly and feature posts on Korean films from a global perspective.  As I dabble with it over the coming weeks, the format and content may well change. Please contact me with thoughts or any suggestions to improve it.


Arnold Schwarzenneger to Star in Kim Ji-woon's The Last Stand?
After two stints as Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenneger's return to the silver screen may come as the star of Kim Ji-woon's US debut The Last Stand, which will come from a blacklisted Hollywood screenplay.  (Ain't It Cool. April 6, 2011)

Poetry's Yoon Jung-hee Honored with French Cultural Order
Yoon Jung-hee, star of the Lee Chang Dong's much-lauded film Poetry (2010), has been honoured with a top French cultural award.  French culture minister Frederic Mitterrand named Yoon an "Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters."  (YonHap News Agency, April 6, 2011)

Independent Korean cinema will be featured prominently at this year's Jeonju film festival.  Short films from Yang Ik-jun, hot off the heels of Breathless (2009), and internationally-renowned woman's director Boo Ji-young will be featured alongside efforts from Im Kwon-taek and others in Korean Cinema Showcase section.  (JoonAng Daily, April 8, 2011)

Bong to Preside over Cannes' Camera d'Or Prize
Bong Joon-ho has been selected to head the jury for the Camera d'Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival, which is given to the best effort from a debut filmmaker.  He has previously attended the festival in competition as part of the omnibus Tokyo! in 2008 and his most recent feature effort Mother in 2009.  (Deadline New York, April 7, 2011)

Lee to Judge Critics' Week at Cannes
Master filmmaker Lee Chang-dong whose last two films, Poetry (2010) and Secret Sunshine (2007), both won awards at Cannes, will return to the festival this year as the head judge for the Grand Jury prize during the Critics’ Week Festival de Cannes.  (The Hollywood Reporter, April 7, 2011)

Upcoming Korean blockbuster My Way will be the focus of a promotional event hosted by this year's Cannes film festival. Kang Je-gyu's My Way, a World War II set film with a record setting 30 billion won budget, is set to be released simultaneously in Korea and Japan in December.  (The Korea Times, April 7, 2011)


Clash of the Families has now spent two weekends atop the Korean box office with a haul of just over 450,000 admissions.  That's a 6% decline from last weekend and its total now stands at 1,375,000.  Late Blossom continues to play well, having just crossed 1.5 million admissions in its 8th week.  This week Clash of the Families will vie with Suicide Forecast for the box office crown.  (Hancinema, April 10, 2011)

Korean Cinema News is a weekly feature which provides wide-ranging news coverage on Korean cinema, including but not limited to: features; festival news; interviews; industry news; trailers; posters; and box office. It appears every Wednesday morning (GMT+1) on Modern Korean Cinema. For other weekly features, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update and the Weekly Review Round-upReviews and features on Korean film also appear regularly on the site. 

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Saturday, April 9, 2011

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

Oomie Lecomte’s film A Brand New Life fills an interesting position in the pantheon of Korean cinema. It is a woman’s film made by a foreigner, and by that token alone it is somewhat of an anomaly. While decidedly European in many aspects, it still succeeds in engaging with many thematic elements commonly associated with Korean cinema. In addition, the film is set in 1975 and features a storyline where characters with unfortunate pasts come and go as circumstances beyond their control dictate.

The film begins with Jin-hee, who is having a great day with her father: he buys her new clothes; they go out to eat; and she rides with him on his bicycle. Then they take a bus, buy a cake, and he drops her off at an orphanage. She catches a glimpse of him as he leaves, and that is the last she will ever see of him. Now she must adapt to her new surroundings and come to terms with the fact that her father has abandoned her.

In watching this film I was reminded of Take Care of my Cat (2001), which also features strong elements of female bonding. Nine-year old Jin-hee has trouble fitting in at first, mainly through her own resistance, it is only when she befriends a slightly older girl that she calms down. Later, when her friend is adopted by Americans, she will begin to act up again. Camaraderie strikes me as an important element of the narrative, and by extension the need for acceptance. All the other girls seem to get along very well, and none are mean to Jin-hee when she first arrives, which we would normally expect. They are polite, well-behaved, and seem relatively happy.

Certainly they are well-treated by the nuns of the orphanage, who genuinely seem to care for them and help them to find homes, but they also seem completely cut off from the realities of Korean society circa 1975. Men are also missing from their lives, and yet the only negative effects felt within the walls of the orphanage are due to men: Jin-hee acts out because her father has abandoned her, and the older girl with the bad leg (whose name escapes me) attempts to take her own life because she is rejected by a young man.

The film is quite short by Korean standards, only 92 minutes, but packs quite an emotional punch during its fleeting running time. Less accusatory than reflective, A Brand New Life evokes nostalgia and asks questions without pointing too many fingers. It is a debut effort from Lecomte and is loosely based on her early years in Korea and I wonder if she will make another film in her birthplace. The young actress who plays Jin-hee, Kim Sae-ron, who was also in last year’s The Man From Nowhere (2010), is a revelation. Sol Kyung-go is also featured briefly in the beginning of the film, although his face is deliberately hidden save for one shot. Since his appearance could not be considered much more than a cameo I wonder if he was included to represent some of the characters he played in his career, Peppermint Candy (1999) comes to mind, where he played traumatized middle-aged men that have most often failed to keep a family together. All in all, a very strong and atmospheric effort that is worth a look.


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, April 6, 2011

Decline in Domestic Interest for Korean Cinema?

As a follow-on from my previous article about a possible Decline in Western Interest for Korean Cinema, where I posited a notion that far be it that Korean cinema has dropped in quality, it is more likely that viewership has withered as the Korean cinema phenomenon has become a mainstay. I also argued for a different role to be played by foreign cinema distributors (such as Tartan). Today my focus is on the domestic market for Korean films. Since roughly 2007, many commentators have speculated on the decline in market share for homegrown films in Korea. Having reached it's zenith in 2006 at 63.8%, the domestic stronghold over the Korean box office has since fallen below 50%. Certainly, attendance is not what it was in the middle of the last decade, but I think the numbers are slightly misleading. The main figure bandied about when referencing the state of the Korean film market is the percentage of admissions which are for Korean films. Understandable as it is quite symbolic to crack 50% and thus claim that Korean cinema is the ruler of the roost in its own country. I sought ought a few statistics (courtesy of and decided to measure attendance a different way. The figures available to me were the aforementioned market place percentage and the total number of admissions. By simply multiplying the full admissions by the market percentage, I was able to ascertain a new set of figures which, in my years of reading about the Korean film industry, in books, trades, academic papers and otherwise, I have never seen before. In the simple list below, I have put in bold the total number of movie tickets sold for a Korean film in Korea for the year 1996-2010, along with the previous two statistics mentioned.

2010: 68.4 of 146.8 = 46.6%
2009: 76.6 of 157.0 = 48.8%
2008: 63.5 of 150.8 = 42.1%
2007: 80.7 of 158.8 = 50.8%
2006: 97.9 of 153.4 = 63.8%
2005: 85.4 of 145.5 = 58.7%
2004: 80.2 of 135.2 = 59.3%
2003: 64.0 of 119.5 = 53.5%
2002: 50.8 of 105.1 = 48.3%
2001: 44.6 of 89.0 = 50.1%
2000: 22.7 of 64.6 = 35.1%
1999: 21.8 of 54.7 = 39.7%
1998: 12.6 of 50.2 = 25.1%
1997: 12.1 of 47.5 - 25.5%
1996: 9.7 of 42.2 = 23.1%

Going back as far as 1996, the first thing you see is how far Korean cinema has come in capturing a significant chunk of the market place. What makes the rise even more impressive is to compare it to the total admissions, which have more than trebled in a very short time period. I have collated the first two rows of data into a rudimentary graph (figure 1) below:

Figure 1:

This show us that as well as increasing its percentage in the marketplace, Korean cinema basically mirrored the rise in ticket sales. What this proves is that nearly all of the additional tickets being sold up until 2006, were going directly to the Korean film industry. Let's put this in perspective, foreign ticket sale increased from 32.5 million in 1996, to 55.5 million in 2006, that's an impressive increase of just over 70%. Domestic ticket sales increased from 9.7 million in 1996, to 97.9 million in 2006, that is a staggering rise of nearly 1000%.

What about after 2006? Total ticket sales rose for one more year, while Korean sales saw a sharp decline for the next two. 2006 was probably the ceiling for Korean cinema, with The Host breaking records, a slew of other strong films hitting theaters, and the feverish good will towards homegrown products, 2006 hit a peak. 2007 did not have the same marquee offerings for Korean audiences and was greatly affected by the screen quota system, whereby Korean exhibitors must show Korean films for a certain amount of days per year, being slashed in half (from 146 to 73).

After this 'bad year' however, Korean ticket sales went up again and for the last few years have fluctuated along with total ticket sales. The low of 2008 was the same amount of tickets sold to domestic films in 2003, which itself was nearly 600% higher than 1996. Let's look at the graph for the market share for domestic films in Korea (figure 2):

Here we can clearly see the tandem rise and fall of Korean films and foreign imports, respectively, in the Korean film marketplace. The drop and subsequent reversal of market power in 2007-08 is much more alarming in this graph. The fact that admissions are not reflected here does two things: it does not do justice to the immensity of the rise of Korean cinema through to the new millenium and; it does not account for the continuing rise in admissions beyond 2006, thereby presenting a more dire picture of domestic film consumption than is really the case.

I believe that Korean cinema is in great shape and has settled into its groove. As long as Koreans go to the theater they will most likely watch a Korean film roughly ever two visits, and for a globalized market place that revels in the modern, high-tech, savvy, and star-driven films that Hollywood has to offer, this is definitely among the most powerful domestic film markets in the world.

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 clichés 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 @

I found out that the Korean Cinema Blogathon is happening at, 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.