Showing posts with label kwak kyung-taek. Show all posts
Showing posts with label kwak kyung-taek. Show all posts

Monday, January 13, 2014

Review - FRIEND: THE GREAT LEGACY Shares Little with Original

By Pierce Conran

12 years is a long time in the film world but for Korean cinema it seems like almost an eternity. In 2001 I had yet to seen an Asian film, let alone was I aware of Korean films. Yet when I did dip my toes in two years later, Friend (2001) was among the first Korean films that I saw. With its nostalgic air and easily relatable theme of friendship, delivered through a conflation of coming of age, high school and gangster tropes, it wasn’t hard to see why it became the most successful Korean film of all time. Though its record has since been broken many times over, the film’s reputation lives on.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Pain (통증, Tong-jeung) 2011

Kwak Kyung-taek is primarily known as a maker of manly films, his filmography includes a number of testosterone fuelled works such as Friend (2001), Typhoon (2005), and Eye For an Eye (2008).  So it should come as some surprise that in 2011, his ninth feature was essentially a romance film, or so the marketers behind it would have us believe.  The truth is, Kwak is actually no stranger to romance narratives.  One of his best films is Love (2007) and if the title wasn’t enough of a giveaway, it is a love story, albeit one played in a world of gangsters.

Nam-soon (Kwon Sang-woo) lost his family in an accident when he was young and as a result he no longer feels any pain. He now works as a debt collector whose partner beats him in front of debtors until they pay up. He lives an emotionally barren life until he meets Dong-hyeon (Jeong Ryeo-won), a street stall vendor who suffers from hemophilia. As their unlikely bond grows stronger, Nam-soon gradually opens up and a lifetime of hurt washes over him.

Having seen six of his films I’m still a little undecided as to how good a filmmaker Kwak is.  Friend was a strong feature that prompted such a wave of popularity in Korea that it carried him to the upper echelons of the industry, not least because the film was reportedly based on his own youth.  His films are always polished and are well put together but he lacks a visual stamp, which is a defining feature for many of his confreres in the industry.  Aside from male characters, the most defining characteristic of Kwak’s films is the omnipresence of his protagonist's backstories, they are never free of tragedy or their social class.  Structurally this will be conveyed in one of two ways, either we are presented with the tragedy or poor social setting beforehand as a prologue to the events of the films, such as in Friend, Mutt Boy (2003), and Love, or we discover their traumatic backstories through flashback, like in Typhoon, Eye for an Eye, and now Pain.

Like so many Korean films that have come before it, the source of the protagonist’s anguish in Pain is rooted in a deadly car crash.  Off the top of my head, in 2011 alone, I can think of Champ, Blind, and the popular K-Drama City Hunter that have all used the same trop.  Granted it is an effective tool but perhaps more to the point, it has believability on its side.  There aren’t many accidents that can wipe out most of a family and still be deemed plausible.  Fires (also very popular in Korean cinema) and vehicular collisions pretty much fill out this list.

Riskier still are the ailments of the lead characters.  Analgesia and hemophilia are conditions that we do not encounter on a daily basis, far from it.  So to have two characters suffering from them meet and fall in love goes quite a ways to stretching credulity.  Misgivings aside though, it works surprisingly well.  It’s original and leads to some novel situations while also accentuating the emotional highs and lows of the narrative.  Of course Nam-soon's insensitivity to pain is also a metaphor for the suppression of his traumatic memories, to the point where he can no longer feel them or any thing else.  He holds himself responsible for his family’s death and as a result constantly subjects himself to punishment.  Since he cannot feel pain, this cycle can only accelerate and escalate, never providing any relief.

Throughout Kwak’s films you won’t find many strong female characters.  Even in Love, the presence of the female romantic interest is largely symbolic: the impetus of the film’s actions rest on Joo Jin-mo’s character’s shoulders.  I wondered whether Pain would suffer a similar fate but thankfully Dong-hyeon is afforded much more characterization than previous women in his films.  Perhaps even more successful is the casting of the delightful Jeong Ryeo-won, who was wonderful in Castaway on the Moon (2009).  She’s perfect for the part, equal parts tough, vulnerable, and cute, and as always, a joy to watch on screen.

I think that Pain stands as one of Kwak’s best films, even though it was far from his most successful one.  The only part of the film that drags is the end, which smacks a little of inevitability.  However, it does make reference to the conclusion of Park Kwang-su’s seminal Chilsu and Mansu (1988), whose damaged characters find themselves at an impasse by the film's end.  They stare down into a precipice from up on high, not quite understanding what lead them there and helpless as they await their fate, forced upon them by a traumatized society, which is breathlessly trying to move towards the light.


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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Typhoon (Tae-poong) 2005

Kwak Kyung-taek’s Typhoon was a major blockbuster that hit South Korean screens in the winter of 2005 and wound up with an impressive 4 million admissions. Kwak is no stranger to success, his autobiographical feature Friend (2001) was the highest-grossing film of its time when it attracted 8 million viewers across the peninsula with its tale of boyhood friends following different, and often violent, paths into adulthood. Typhoon reunites the director with Jang Dong-gum, a major star who, as well as Friend, has headlined blockbusters such as Taegugki (2004) and the forthcoming My Way (2011), he has also appeared in foreign language films such as China’s The Promise (2005) and New Zealand’s The Warrior’s Way (2010). The film also stars Lee Jung-jae another big star who has featured in Il Mare (2000) and The Housemaid (2010). Armed with a $15 million budget Kwak took his production across Asia, with various sequences of the film shot in Thailand, Singapore, Russia, and Seoul and Busan in South Korea.

The Vengeful Sin (Jang Dong-gum)
Like many Korean blockbusters that preceded it and those that would follow it, the film derives it central tension from the divide between the Koreas. In this narrative Jang portrays Sin, a North Korean defector who has become a pan-Asian outlaw seeking retribution against the whole peninsula and Lee ass Gang Se-jong, the top Navy operative enlisted to take him down. Throw in some nuclear materials, big ships, submarines, lots of explosions, and a heavy dollop of melodrama and what follows is a fairly standard and messy Korean actioneer. The results aren’t all bad though and as many other reviewers have noted, the production design and many of the set pieces are engaging, and of course the weepy sentimentality, so keenly perfected by Korean filmmakers, succeeds here even though it really shouldn’t.

It's clear that Kwak took a page or three out of Hollywood's book while he made this film. Examples like the Mission Impossible (1995) reference (magazine on the plane, like the 'recommended' movies of the MI franchise), the fancy, high-tech command center, and the general style of the mise-en-scene, are all reminiscent of America's big-budget summer movies. I mention this because what bothered me the most about the film was the lack of focus in its plot. The exposition was far from clear and at many points I found myself unsure of what was going on. I think this is a casualty of the blending of the American and Korean aesthetics and moviemaking styles.

Se-jong (Lee Jung-jae) is briefed a la Mission Impossible
After the success of Friend, Kwak has endured as one of Korea’s most successful directors. All of his films beside Mutt Boy (2003), have finished in the Top 10 for the Year, this streak is not likely to end any time soon with the imminent release the The Battle of Yellow Sea (2011), a hotly anticipated 3D action pic. At his best his films are very effective productions that combine technical skill, pathos, and action, Friend being the most popular example. My personal favorite is A Love (2007), which despite its overplayed Shakesperean dramatics, is a very well rounded piece of cinema and easily the most tightly plotted film in Kwak’s career. He seems to use the same devices and techniques in most of his work and I appreciate that he favors focusing on characters and their stories and uses these to heighten our investment in the action sequences that populate his narratives but with Typhoon this poses a problem. Sin’s sad story is well rendered and easy to understand, thus his motivations are clear but all the diplomatic and military wrangling between the Blue House, and other foreign powers, in addition to the terrorist plot that drives the film, are so haphazard and byzantine that they overwhelm what should be a fairly straightforward thriller. 

Knife fight in the belly of the ship 
Besides Sin’s backstory, Typhoon is also a film which focuses on two alpha males, both portrayed by huge stars with sculpted, masculine physiques. Just like John Woo’s old Hong Kong films, a major element is the friendship that potentially develops between them, even as they stick knives into each other (I could read into this, but I’ll leave it up to you). Se-jong is sympathetic to the plight of Sin and his sister but he cannot condone the terrorism that the outlaw plans to perpetrate, although he is also ill at ease with the dirty tactics employed by the Blue House (Korea’s White House). This potentially interesting relationship is not given enough time to develop and ends up as little more than an afterthought. During the climax, their relationship comes to a head in the belly of a cargo ship, but the subtleties have been glossed over and sidelined by the attempts to make this film a larger affair, replete with international and political overtones. 

I think that if Kwak had stuck with what he was good at, even if he can’t be very subtle about it, and had opted to tone down the political machinations that weigh down the film, Typhoon could have been an effective and engaging pan-Asian thriller. Instead the film is a bit of a mess, interspersed with some good moments and some great music but let down by a poor script and some bad decision-making. A little judicious editing wouldn’t have hurt either.