Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Show Must Go On (Uahan segye) 2007

Gangster comedies are something of a specialty in Korea and have been among the most popular films on the Korean box office charts for over a decade. While the outright Korean gangsters films, such as A Dirty Carnival (Biyeolhan geori, 2006) and A Bittersweet life (Dalkomhan insaeng, 2005), have been technically-proficient and high-quality, it is those that have blended family and comedy into the mix that ultimately have brought in the most viewers. Both Marrying the Mafia (Gamunui yeonggwang, 2002) and My Wife is a Gangster (Jopog manura, 2001) were so popular in this regard that they spawned trilogies. The Show Must Go On probably falls in between these two categories. While certainly being an effective comedy, its violence and ruminations on failure, betrayal and family loyalty ultimately set it apart from the slighter fare mentioned above. However, despite the presence of Song Kang-ho, the biggest star in Korea, this effort barely made it over a million admissions.

Melodramas has been a staple for Korean audiences ever since there have hade their own industry and the so-called 'Golden Age' of Korean cinema in the 1960s was dominated by them. Since the resurgence of Korean films in the late 1990s very little has changed in that respect. The most successful Korean film of the 1990s prior to 1997 was Im Kwon-taek's venerated Sopyonje (Seopyeonje, 1993) and in 1997 The Letter (Pyeon ji, 1997) and The Contact (Cheob-sok, 1997) landed at the top of the chart in what was the first year that the industry began showing real signs of life.

In the last ten years, there have been numerous films that have blended family melodrama with other genres. Perhaps this phenomenon began with Kim Ji-woon's feature debut The Quiet Family (Choyonghan kajok, 1998), a black comedy that draws on melodramatic conventions which was popular enough to warrant a Japanese remake by Takashi Miike (The Happiness of the Katakuris). There have been many examples of this cross-blending of film genres, notable examples include: Bong Joon-ho's The Host (Gwoemul, 2006), a melodrama that also plays out as a monster movie, a comedy and even a political allegory, and Youn Je-gyun's Tidal Wave (Haeundae, 2009), a disaster movie that set up its effects-laden climax by being a convincing melodrama for most of its running time.

Han Jae-rim's The Show Must Go On at first seems like a gangster movie but it turns out to be a film about a man trying to keep his family together. Unlike other depictions of gangsters in the Korean peninsula, nothing is glorified in this narrative. Kang In-goo (Song Kang-ho) is a high-ranking mob boss, he wears nice suits and drives a Mercedes and yet he lives in a small, squalid apartment with his wife and child. He does act like a gangster whether he is forcing a hostage to sign a contract or bribing his daughter's teacher for better grades, but these actions never solve any of his problems, as Darcy Paquet said in his review of the film "What works so smoothly in other gangster movies only seems to bring on further complications and embarrassment here. The methods are the same, but the results are slow in coming". Perhaps In-goo is trying to conform to the idea of being a gangster as opposed to being naturally inclined towards this sort of behaviour.

What is very clear from the very start is that In-goo works quite hard. When we meet him in the first scene he has fallen asleep at the wheel of his vehicle during evening traffic and throughout most of the narrative he seems fatigued. Compared to the gangster portrayals that we are used to seeing, In-goo doesn't seem to get too hot under the collar (although he is not altogether levelheaded either) and the only time he ever really shows any energy is when he is forced to fight for his life. What is clear is that he cares very much for his family and seems to want to amass enough funds to buy them a house and send his daughter to study abroad in Canada, just like he did his son. Like other middle-aged males in Korean cinema he seems powerless to do right by his family, despite good intentions and a position of authority. In-goo, the gangster boss who can't handle a few construction workers is just like the hordes of detectives and cops who make so little money that they need to take bribes and can never solve any crimes.

Korean cinema has long made a point of showing citizens who conform to society and do everything it asks and still end up betrayed and left for dead. Considering that I am discussing a gangster film, the following point may be pushing it a little far, but I think In-goo's relationship with his boss is a similar representation: his boss believes In-goo to be more capable than his brother, yet he is ranked below. When the boss's brother tries to kill In-goo because of petty jealousy, In-goo is the one who ends up paying the price.

Roads have often been used symbolically in Korean cinema, most famously in Sopyonje where a pansori practicing family constantly wander along the road. Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok, 2003), also starring Song Kang-ho, begins and ends by a roadside in the country, which represents the circularity of a futile search. The protagonists in these films seem to be searching for lost homes, which can just as easily be interpreted as identities. With the separation of the peninsula and the troubled history and politics of the country many filmmakers simply placed their characters on roads that never seemed to lead anywhere.

In-goo ends up on a road with the corpse of his boss's brother in his trunk, after narrowly escaping his henchmen and a big car pile-up with his life. He is a wounded animal who has been driven to desperation and when is boss arrives, sees what has happened and pulls out a rifle from his trunk, it looks like the end for In-goo. Fortune smiles on him this time though as he is the one who prevails. However, the narrative does not stop here, he goes to jail briefly, joins his friend's gang and finally gets the house he wanted for his family. They don't stay for long, he sends his daughter to Canada and his wife goes with her. Thus, In-goo ends the narrative in a higher socio-economic rank, with his big house and big tv but he is now alone and miserable.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

My Favorite Korean Films of the Last Decade

Since I'm only starting out here, I figure why not let you know a little bit more about my taste in Korean Cinema. So here is a top 10, like so many others, of the past (brilliant) decade of South Korean Cinema:

1. Memories of Murder
2. Peppermint Candy (technically '99, but I can't bring myself to exclude it)
3. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
4. Save the Green Planet
5. My Sassy Girl
6. Mother
7. The Power of Kangwon Province
8. A Bittersweet Life
9. Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring
10. Sad Movie

Honourable mentions:

Oasis, The Chaser, 3-Iron, The Host, Oldboy, Chunhyang, Public Enemy, The Coast Guard, Once Upon a Time in High School, A Moment to Remember, Friend, Failan.

I plan to write articles on all of these films and I'm sure it will take me some time to get through all of them.

I would also love to hear your thoughts and know what your favorites of the last decade were!

Possessed (Bool-sin-ji-ok) 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tidal Wave (Haeundae) 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Modern Korean Cinema

A brief introduction:

I believe Korean cinema to be one of the most vital national film industries in the world and I have been a passionate fan for many years. South Korea's films are high-quality and highly eclectic externalizations of a nation's fears and anxieties but all also its hopes and joy. Besides the ability to be "read" (if you'll forgive the term), K-Movies were a breath of fresh air as we entered the new millennium. A series of carefully crafted genre films and exquisite art films that began to excite and enthrall the world's film lovers.

After a brief hiatus from Korean cinema, I have thrown myself back into one of my favorite hobbies. Only now I would like to share my appreciation with other enthusiasts.