Showing posts with label north korea. Show all posts
Showing posts with label north korea. Show all posts

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ideological Barriers and Invisible Borders in Poongsan (Poong-san-gae, 2011)

Kim Ki-duk is one of the filmmakers who initially drew me to Korean cinema.  The first film of his I saw was The Isle (2000), which was, in a French edition, packaged together with Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy (1999).  While the films may have been very different they were also a fantastic double bill that complemented each other in many ways.  I wasn’t as shocked by the violence as I may have been because I had already seen Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and before dipping into Korean cinema, had more or less exhausted Takashi Miike’s catalogue up until that point (around 2003).

Imagery in Poongsan
Park’s film, while harrowing, was a pure piece of cinema brimming with adrenaline and the pure pleasure of filmmaking.  Lee’s poignant drama was elegant, realistic, literary, and propelled by social issues and recent Korean history.  Kim’s effort was slow and laconic, it was violent while at the same time elegiac.  The Isle had an artist’s touch and was unlike anything I’d seen before, just as the previous two films were.  Indeed I was very lucky to have selected the three Korean films that I did as my introduction to the nation’s cinema, the hooks were in deep from the start.

There were a few traits I noticed in The Isle that come up again and again in Kim’s filmography, which I quickly sought out (though I have yet to see Address Unknown, 2001, and Birdcage Inn, 1998).  The first was his preference for mute (or almost mute) protagonists.  Being that Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was my first Korean film and that The Isle was my third, it certainly seemed to me as though I had stumbled on a typically Korean trait.  Besides a large quantity of Kim’s films, there are numerous mutes in Korean cinema, including but my no means limited to: The Way Home (2002), Sad Movie (2005), and No Mercy for the Rude (2006).  The phenomenon is so prevalent that it is deserving of its own piece, which I intend to write in the light of the staggering success of Silenced (aka The Crucible/Dogani).

Messages of separated families
The second trait, which sadly is unavoidable, is his prevalent misogyny.  The horrific violence perpetrated against his female victims is shocking.  Some say that he demonstrates certain actions to make a point and show a patriarchal society for what it is but it is not just the actions inflicted on women in Kim’s films that concern me.  What bothers me more is the way they are portrayed: they are frequently submissive, which is understandable in certain situations, but are also frequently shown as ignorant, petty, and self-serving.  This applies to many of his female characters and it goes beyond artistic choice and deliberate representation.  It appears to be innate and as much as I admire and respect Kim Ki-duk as a filmmaker, I can’t help but see him as a sexist and this can cause problems for me when I view his work.  Then again Hitchcock was a notorious misogynist and I unabashedly love his films.

So after this rather long preamble I would like to discuss the first film to be released in Korea with his name attached to it after his three-year hiatus. Poongsan was written by Kim but it was directed by Juhn Jai-hong.  Although unlike his previous protégé’s films, like Jang Hoon’s Rough Cut (2008) and Jang Chul-soo’s Bedevilled (2010), which were firmly stamped with those emerging cineastes’ talents, this is definitely a Kim Ki-duk film.

Poongsan cigarette
Poongsan is the name of a brand of cigarettes and it is also used to identify a mysterious individual (Yoon Kye-sang) who transports items across the DMZ with extraordinary athleticism in the face of great danger.  He brings messages and items to and fro between separated families (they are pinned on a wall for him to see), but he nevers utters a word and it is hard to understand his motivations.  The National Intelligence Service (NIS, the Korean FBI) gets wind of his operation and enlists his services to bring back the wife (Kim Gyoo-ri) of a prominent defector (Kim Jong-soo) who is cooperating with them.  He indicates that he’ll bring her back in three hours.  He finds her but she is initially reluctant to trust him and causes problems on the way back across the border.  After she is reunited with her husband, Poongsan is apprehended.  What ensues is both a strange story of attraction, and a thrilling cat and mouse game between Poongsan, the NIS, and the North Korean spies who get involved later.

Early on the film succeeds in hooking us by leaving us with many unanswered questions but its elliptical nature and reliance on imagery and metaphor add complications.  It’s difficult to say exactly what kind of a film this is.  It’s an arthouse flick but it also features action scenes and espionage, it’s comes down to the viewer’s taste as to whether this succeeds.  I was able to let it go, just about, but it did make the film uneven. 

Crossing borders
One of the metaphors that I’ve already mentioned is the main character’s silence.  He doesn’t seem to be a mute, he’s just decided not to talk.  The question is why?  People on both sides of the border ask him what side he’s on, and since he travels back and forth a lot, perhaps he feels that instead of pandering to one ideology or the other, it is less complicated to forgo communication altogether.  At least this way he can be trusted, as everyone in the film seems to do without any hesitation.  He is also a wandering male without a home, a man so thoroughly displaced by the separation of Korea that he cannot help but incessantly travel back and forth across its fortified border.  He does so easily and brazenly, he does not recognize it, perhaps for him, it isn’t even there.

As far as its portrayal of ideology goes, the film takes a hard line and paints everything in stark black and white.  The NIS is shown as being paranoid and tyrannical, the same way that other South Korean films portray North Korean agents.  In effect Kim seems to have created the Poongsan character as a surrogate for himself, he does not ascribe to one idea or the other and all he sees is each side’s hypocrisy and dishonesty.  The defector’s ideology is also brought into question, like Poongsan he has crossed lines. He has done so by switching his allegiance from the North to the South, but unlike him he is caricatured as a tyrant, he is shallow, petty, jealous, violent, and authoritative.  Ultimately his ideology comes in second place to his greed and ego, which quickly transcend it. 

The defector and his wife
Chaos abounds out of a desire for rigid structure from both sides. The perpetual cat and mouse game played by the North and the South is disturbed and brought to a quicker, and thus uncharted, conclusion when an unknown element doesn’t fit into their equally dogmatic codes.  Poongsan does not seem to have a side but perhaps the unquantifiable aspect is not his political non-affiliation but the love that blossoms between him and the defector’s wife, which all the other characters seem fascinated by and try to use to their own advantage, with disastrous consequences.

The third act goes to great lengths to ridicule the NIS and the North Korean agents by exposing their hypocrisy and pitting them against one another. Unfortunately, this only happens at the expense of the main thrust of the narrative.  A risky move but it delivers a solid finish due to some well thought-out and unexpected narrative machinations.  Kim Ki-duk is a man of few words but he takes many liberties with logic and the dissemination of information which is the film’s greatest drawback.  Poongsan is a flawed film, but it is also clever and fascinating, it invites you to draw your own conclusions.  A very strong comeback, though I still can’t get excited about Arirang or Amen, though I’m sure I'll see them when I get the chance.

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).

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Korean Cinema News (04/18-04/24, 2011)

A varied selection of articles this week which highlight Korean films at worldwide festivals and upcoming releases which will open throughout the spring.  Also featured is a great article from The Atlantic about the digital underground in North Korea.


The Rise of North Korea's Digital Underground
Robert S. Boynton explores the rise of digital media as a way to proliferate information in North Korea in a new article for The Atlantic.  North Korea ranks dead last in the Freedom House's Freedom of the Press index but a small group of media organizations have popped up and are utilizing ever method at their disposal to get news into and out of the country. (The Atlantic, April 2011)

Lee Myung-se Recruits Seol Keong-gu for New Film
After a four year absence, Lee Myung-se (Nowhere to Hide) is prepping his next directorial effort.  Mister K is the story of a secret agent who must solve a big case to save his country.  Seol Kyung-gu has been cast in the title role. (Hancinema, April 17, 2011)

The Journals of Musan Wins Top Ward at Polish Film Festival
The Off Plus Camera Festival in Krakow, Poland has handed its top prize to The Journals of Musan which keeps adding to its bevy of awards.  It was the only Asian film in competition.  (The Chosun Ilbo, April 18, 2011)

Korean Date Movie Recommendations
Korean cinema is famed for its melodrama and well-made romance films.  Screen Junkies takes the time to pick a few of the best date movies from the country. (Screen Junkies, April 18, 2011)

Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival Awards I Saw the Devil Top Prize
Kim Jee-woon's hard-hitting fan favorite I Saw the Devil was awarded the top prize at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival.  Kim's film is the third Korean work to receive the Golden Raven after Save the Green Planet in 2004 and The Isle in 2003. (The Korea Times, April 20, 2011).

Study Names Hyeon Bin and Kim Tae-hee as Korea's Most Popular Stars
Following a survey last week which declared Won Bin and Ha Ji-won to be the most popular male and female actresses in Korea, a new, contrarian study has been carried out which states that Hyeon Bin and Kim Tae-hee are the nation's most beloved screen icons.   (Hancinema, April 20, 2011)

Korean Short Film Selected for Cannes Film Festival
Ghost, a short film from director Lee Jung-jin, will be competing in the short film section of the Cannes Film Festival.  The competition features 9 shorts and the jury will be presided over by Michel Gondry.  (The Korea Herald, April 21, 2011)

New Film Focuses on Small Village During the Korean War
Korea's JoonAng Daily has profiled upcoming wartime movie In Love and the War, which is slated to open in theaters April 28.   The film tells the story of a small village which welcomes North Korean soldiers in order to survive.   (JoogAng Daily, April 22, 2011)

More Asian Movies to Shoot in Seoul
Following the success of a Thai film which is set and filmed in the Korean capital, two new projects, this time from Malaysia, are currently filming in Seoul.   This growing trend could attract more tourism to the country.   (Yonhap News Agency, April, 22, 2011)

Spring Features Chronicle the Lives of Korea's Past Religious Leaders
Both Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan and the Venerable Beopjeon will be commemorated in films hitting screens in Korea this spring.   The documentary Babo is already on release and Monk Byeopjeon's Chair will be released in May.   (, April 22, 2011)


Fast Five Outshines Korean Releases at Domestic Box Office
Fast Five is Hollywood's first major summer release and has taken over at the Korean Box Office with a strong 396,071 admissions in its first weekend.  Last week's champ, Suicide Forecast exhibited a good hold with a slight 17% drop, while recent hit Clash of the Families is still going strong, having accumulated well over 2 millions admissions to date.  Min Gyoo-dong's The Most Beautiful Goodbye also opened this week with a solid 100,094 tickets sold.  (Hancinema, April 24, 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. 

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.