Friday, October 4, 2013

New Korean Films: Censorships and Restrictions (2013 Week 36)

The Spy

A secret agent working on a delicate issue menacing the security of the country is sent to Thailand to dislodge a terrorist group. He hides his mission to his wife, an air hostess, making her believe that he’s going on a business trip to Busan. His astonishment is then huge when he stumbles on her in the streets of Bangkok, accompanied by another man. Suddenly aware that she may too hide things from him, he then tries to continue his investigation while keeping an eye on the activities of his wife.

This film is already unintentionally known among Korean moviegoers as the most representative of artistic freedom granted to directors. Yes, this is sarcasm. Indeed, we have already spoken a few times of this project on MKC in the wake of the dispute on the desired art direction between the producers and Lee Myung-se, the director approached in the first place. CJ Entertainment finally decided to give this film to who appears to be a more obedient and especially more commercial director, Lee Seung-jun, who had already provided us with Haeundae (2009) and Quick (2011), two big blockbusters with limited interest. And indeed, when I look at the trailer, I feel that CJ gave all its best to deliver the blandest, formulaic and impersonal blockbuster as possible. Action, love, comedy, there is theoretically something for every kind of viewer. And to embody the lead role, who better than Seol Gyeong-gu? It does seem that CJ call him as soon as they seek to explode the box-office, which is quite legit since he has already carried all by himself the Public Enemy trilogy (2002, 2005 and 2008), Haeundae (2009) and Tower (2012). However, he also starred in a very different film, Oasis (2002), in which he already shared the stage with Moon So-ri who also happens to meet Seol again in this new movie. Daniel Henney, the most American of Korean actors, but also a renowned model, will clearly trump seduction that could be important in the success of the film. The Spy therefore naturally dominates actual ticket orders, and distribution looks particularly massive, affecting almost all the country's cinemas. However, critics and the Korean public do not appear to take the bait, as the given grades of both appear not so generous.

Watch the Korean trailer here.


A mother jealous of her husband's extramarital relationship argues constantly with him, while their son is watching impassively and in need of attention from them. As the situation escalates and the mother just missed her attempt to assassinate the father, she turns to her son.

This film too struggled to come up on the screen, but for a whole different reason. First, Kim Ki-duk comes back from far. He had a long period of depression, and after having sung his Arirang (2011) in Cannes, he resumed his usual pace of one production a year (Amen in 2011, Pieta in 2012), more fiercely than ever. But during all his career, it is actually only the first time (I know, this is surprising) one of his films has been condemned with the so-called "restricted" rating by the Korea Media Rating Board, which means that the film could not be screened as it is outside of special theaters dedicated to "restricted " films. This is quite a joke, as this kind of theater actually does not exist in Korea, so it could indeed be seen as an off-the-record censorship. Kim Ki-duk had to send the film twice more and cut out several minutes (I wonder what was the content of these scenes) to be finally approved for public distribution, for mature audiences only. Perhaps this is due to this mishap, or is it a replica of the unprecedented success of Pieta, but the fact remains that Moebius creates a great curiosity in South Korea. It ranks among the most popular films on Naver and Daum, even higher than The Spy, but it doesn’t result in a large number of presales. It must be said that Kim Ki-duk is a director largely unloved by the Korean population, in particular for his thematic and numerous controversies. But this film was selected at the Venice Film Festival , which takes place in this very moment , and it would only need for him to get again a reward from that festival to repeat the feat of Pieta. Among the actors recruited this time, we have the occasion to see again the young Seo Yeong-ju, who began as the leading role in Juvenile Offender, the film currently competing for the Academy Awards. Moebius is going to experience an incredibly wide distribution, given that it’s an independent film, as it will be shown in more than 100 theaters, with a very large share of multiplexes Lotte, CGV and Megabox. This is a proof that another success can be expected from the accursed director.

Watch the Korean trailer here.

Over and Over Again

Gae-tung and his best friend Chang-soo are experiencing a life path so similar that they could be mistaken for twins. Both know only disappointments in love and their work situation is no better. But while Gae-dong has been traumatized by his childhood and remains quiet, his friend is exuberant and emancipated.

The Korean title of this film, Gae-tong-I, is not just the name of the main character, but literally translates as “dog poop”, which is also the term used to describe a good-for-nothing. This small independent production has been selected by Busan Festival in its selection of Korean cinema today. This is a great performance for this young director in his twenties, Kim Byeong-jun, who fetched Song Sam-dong, mostly known for his role in Daytime Drinking. Over and Over Again will be available in a few rooms of Seoul, Incheon and Busan for an adult audience.

Watch the Korean trailer here.


A man with a fulfilling professional life always has much difficulty to approach women and therefore never had a girlfriend. It even becomes a phobia that particularly handicaps him in his activity as a lawyer, making him lose many cases. But one evening, when he returns home in the rain, he sees a woman lying on a pile of garbage, unconscious. He brings her to get her under cover, but when he kisses her inadvertently, their bodies are unexpectedly exchanged.

If you're jaded like me, you certainly couldn’t help but crush your forehead with the palm of your hand while recognizing in this synopsis the hackneyed concept of body-exchange so commonly found in Hollywood. This film is an independent production yet, and comes from Cho Jung-shin, author of Wet Dreams 1 & 2 (2002 and 2005) and Love of North and South (2003), and also a former programmer at Bucheon Festival. The cast also seems to have the contrast usually found in the roles of a traditional romantic comedy, as Lee Su-jung, a so-called racing model, rubs shoulders with Song Sam-dong, an actor who plays in independent films that I have just presented above for his role in Over and Over Again. This film is for adults, but will benefit from a good exposure touching more than twenty multiplexes in cities of large and medium importance.

Watch the Korean trailer here.


A 33 year-old man lives always keeping in mind his dearest wish, to become a rapper. But with the reality that holds him far from his dream and his mother who abuses his patience, he finally no longer bears his present life and decides to take a decisive turn.

This short film of 32 minutes (not 33, strangely) is clearly not the first film of its kind, but can still be of interest thanks to its short format that would allow it to go directly to the essential. It is directed by Jo Seung-yeon, a student who just graduated from Hongik University and who has made several short films. This film is based solely on the actor Choi Seok-yong, aka Top Bob, who is a rapper in his thirties who has long participated to some of the songs produced by Lessang and Epik High, two of the most popular hip-hop acts in Korea. But he is also known for his own albums under the name TBNY and 2wingS duo. The film will only be made available in the independent theater IndieSpace in Jongno neighborhood, Seoul.

No trailer.

Project Cheonan Ship
(천안함 프로젝트)

On 26 March 2010, South-Korean population learned with dismay that the corvette Cheonan had sunk in the waters of the Yellow Sea along with more than twenty members of its crew. The government quickly revealed that it was actually a new military provocation from North Korea, and established an international investigation to confirm this accusation. But three years later, doubts persist. What if the conclusions of the investigation were in fact set up? Then, what actually happened to the ship? Is it acceptable in today’s society to have a doubt about government’s declarations?

The most important film of the week is a documentary that is sure to cause a stir in the mostly conservative press of South-Korea, as well as social networks. I even think that this is the most important film event of the year in Korea, as it demonstrates the important place taken in recent years by documentaries, but also showcase the situation of expression’s freedom in Korean medias. Many enraged comments have already burst onto the web, accusing the creators of this film of collaboration with the devilish North-Korea, or that their denying the facts is putting disrespect for the victims. This tragedy had caused at the time many questions among the population that are still unresolved and worth discussing, some even referring this as a government conspiracy (this attack quickly attributed to the North having occurred a couple of weeks before the election period). This documentary is not only to propose an alternative version of the events, but also to show how different opinions are ignored by Korean society, if not publicly condemned. This is particularly ironic, since the reaction of certain (Christian) religious factions and conservative groups has precisely been to try to ban the movie by bringing the matter to the civil court last month, but fortunately failed despite some reluctant comments from some officials after its premiere at Jeonju Festival. It's with no great surprise that I discovered that the producer of this movie is director well accustomed to controversy, Jeong Ji-young. He is known to have been in the 80s and 90s a rebellious character who has long fought for the rights of filmmakers and the protection of national cinema, particularly during debates on the abolition of censorship, the arrival of American distributors or the maintaining of the screen quota. He had proposed on the big screen his vision of some major historical events with North Korean Partisan in South Korea (1990) and White Badge (1992), but you will recall more easily this director if I mention his last films, like Unbowed (2012), in which he directed his attack against the corruption in justice, and National Security (2012), in which he was showing the moral decay of dictatorship. This film has so far positively intrigued critics, and will be available only in some theaters around Seoul, Busan, and Gangreung. Obviously, the extremely controversial topic should limit its audience to a population whose political orientation is more liberal and suspicious of the right-wing government, which generally corresponds to the younger population of large cities.

UPDATE : In view of the events that followed the film's release, it appeared to me important to inform you as the situation of this film is going to cause a really exciting national debate on freedom of expression for filmmakers that is worth talking about. Following the court's decision not to prevent the release of this documentary, unidentified conservative groups have begun to threaten the theaters that would program the documentary. This has not scared independent cinemas, but Megabox, the big chain owning a lot of multiplexes and principal exhibitor of the film, decided to withdraw the film from its screens only two days after the release, despite the very good results made so far. The reason given is that Megabox is to preserve the safety of the audience, but the producer Jeong Ji-young has stepped into the breach to denounce Megabox for its complacent political action with respect to these conservative groups, while it should have denounced these threats to the authorities. The Directors Guild of Korea and the Korean Film Producers Association have both joined Jeong Ji-young to deplore this disguised censorship, and seek to determine if it is the result of an intervention by any political group. Lee Joon-ik, president of the DGK, warns about the precedent it would establish that would lead to self-censorship of many directors and producers. However, despite the fact that the film is now only available in a few theaters in the country, it does not suffer for all, quite the contrary. Public interest has been increased tenfold, as shows a poll by Max Movie magazine that says that more than half of their readers have developed a desire to see this film because of this new controversy caused by Megabox. Indie theaters seem to try to defend the documentary by adding it to their scheduling, and the independent theater Cinespacejuan located in Incheon even realized for the first time in its history a sold-out on the day of the opening. This unexpected success is now even ennobled by a rare privilege, as it was screened on Monday 16 September at the National Assembly, on the initiative of Choi Min-hee of the Democratic Party (main opposition party), as to support the creative arts against external pressures. Choi also said she would investigate the case of Megabox so that the film can be played again in the theaters of the chain, and that she would consider a new legal basis to prevent this kind of abuse in the film industry. Project Chonan Ship is now on track to take a national political dimension which will have direct influence on the Korean cinema, and that, for a debut film, it’s a fabulous feat.

Watch the Korean trailer here.

New Korean Films is a weekly feature which provide an in-depth look at new local releases in Korea. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Korean Reviews, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time). Reviews and features on Korean film also appear regularly on the site. 

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