Friday, December 26, 2008

Korean Cinema

Almost all the films that I have come across from South Korea have been from 2000 onwards making my cinematic education with South Korean cinema only a recent one. Here is a list of South Korean directors whose films I have seen in the last few years:

Park Chan-wook:

Lady Vengeance (2005)
Three...extremes (2005, final short Cut)
Old Boy (2003)
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
Joint Security Area (2000)

Bong Joon-ho:

The Host (2006)
Memories of Murder (2003)

Kim Ki-duk:

Time (2006)
The Bow (2005)
3-Iron (2004)
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter..and Spring (2003)
Bad Guy (2001)
The Isle (2000)

Single titles from other directors:

Woman on the Beach (2006, Hong Sang-soo)
Secret Sunshine (2007, Lee Chang-dong)
Soo (2007, Sai Yoichi)
The King and the Clown (2005, Lee Jun-ik)
Save the Green Planet! (2003, Jang Joon-Hwan)
My Sassy Girl (2001, Kwak Jae-young)
Il Mare (2000, Lee Hyun-seung)
Natural City (2003, Min Byung-chun)
Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (2004, Kang Je-gyu)
Repatriation (2003, Kim Dong-won)

While it is much easier in my city to find older Japanese or Chinese films, tracking down South Korean films prior to the 1990’s is next to impossible. I put this difficulty down to only a local deficiency within North America and didn’t think much of it. But in Issue #34 of Film International Soo Jeong Ahn points out that this inability to know older Korean cinema extends to other parts of the world.

Korean films made before the 1990s are largely unknown in the West. South Korean cinema has only very recently and very rapidly emerged onto the international cinematic stage....Within the global art-house circuit, older Korean films have been less acknowledged than their Japanese and Chinese counterparts. For instance, in Britain the prevailing image of Korean cinema is largely constituted of particular films made by contemporary Korean film-makers. Comparing Japan and Korea in a Guardian article, for example, the director of the Edinburgh International film festival, Hannah McGill, associated Japanese cinema with the ‘golden era of Kurosawa and Ozu in the 1950s’ while placing the golden age of Korean cinema in the ‘present’ (early 2000s) rather than the ‘past’. In Korea, however, the golden age is considered to be the period of the 1950s and 1960s.

Soo Jeong Ahn’s article (Re-imagining the Past: Programming South Korean retrospectives at the Pusan International Film Festival) begins with a Q&A involving Bong Joon-ho which followed a French screening of his The Host. Even Bong Joon-ho points out classic Korean cinema did exist yet remains largely unknown.

Q: In the past 10 years, Korean cinema has spread rapidly in France, where it is much loved by local audiences. Considering the fact that Korean cinematic history boasts no great master such as Kurosawa Akira in Japan, isn’t this global spotlight amazing?

A: Have you ever wondered why classic Korean films have long been unknown in Europe? The absence of information about old Korean films may be attributable to Korea’s history. I don’t think the quality of Korean cinema at that period was inferior to other countries in East Asia. While Kurosawa was making films in Japan, there were quite a few film auteurs in Korea whose work was of an equally high standard.

The purpose of the article by Soo Jeong Ahn is to discuss the political decisions behind the Pusan film festival in picking retrospectives of older Korean film-makers Kim Ki-Young and Shin Sang-Ok. Although, I am more interested in the fact that the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) is showing older Korean films than concerned with the motives why PIFF chose to select a particular director’s works. If PIFF continues to screen older Korean films, then there is a chance that in the future Korean retrospectives might even tour the World and even get released on DVD.

A spotlight, finally...

I wanted to throw a net out to see how many older Korean films I could capture. I was also looking for works from directors I was not familiar with. I came across the following films:

Black Republic (1990, Park Kwang-su)
City of Rising Sun (1999, Kim Sung-su)
Dirty Carnival (2006, Ha Yu)
The Restless (2006, Cho Dong-oh/Jo Dong-oh)
Black House (2007, Shin Terra)

While I managed to get films from different directors, most of the films were still new. Although getting a single title from 1990 seems to be a little achievement. But overall, I think getting older Korean films will be a work in progress.

The films...

Three of the films (Black Republic, City of Rising Sun & Dirty Carnival) involved a gangster element while The Restless was a martial art/sword fighting flick whereas Black House was a horror film.

If I had turned the volume off Black Republic, I would have initially pegged the film as Chinese as the setting of an old mining town reminded me of the Chinese film Blind Shaft. But after the gangster element makes an entrance in the film, I would have guessed that Black Republic was inspired from old 1960’s Japanese films. In the end, Black Republic stands on its own but given my lack of familiarity with older Korean films, I fell back on cinematic examples from Korea’s neighbours to pin the film’s look and feel.

The Restless features some amazing fight sequences and special effects. Unfortunately, the promising first 20-30 minute set-up involving good vs evil souls is sacrificed for the stunning visuals and eventually the story suffers. Black House is one of those horror films with many false endings. At the hour mark, the twist is revealed and the film could have ended yet it continues on towards a fitting resolution, which is provided about 25 minutes later. But the film does not end then and carries on for another 10 minutes. After which, when everything is finally resolved again, the film ends with the message that pure evil never really dies and appears to take on a new form.

The pick of the films was the gripping Dirty Carnival. While the film starts off as a gangster flick, things get interesting when the gangster, Byeong-du, runs into his old school friend Min-ho. The two share memories in a cafe and head to a old reunion with other friends where Byeong-du meets his old school flame Hyeon-ju. The entire setup among the friends has shades of the reunion from Hong Sang-soo’s Women is the Future of Man and has a very easy flow to it. Min-ho wants to be a film-maker and is struggling to get a realistic script written about gangsters. Byeong-du offers to help Min-ho etch out realistic gangster characters for his film by offering advice and introducing Min-ho to other gangsters. Trusting in their friendship, Byeong-du confides about his real life killings to Min-ho only for Min-ho to include the exact real life murder scenarios in his film as opposed to creating a work of fiction. When Min-ho’s gangster film becomes a hit, Byeong-du is under pressure from his gang members and boss to kill Min-ho lest all the crimes of Byeong-du are revealed to the rival gangs. Byeong-du finds himself in a tough bind and struggles to maintain both his friendship with Min-ho and relationship with Hyeon-ju.

Dirty Carnival breathes new life into the over-worked gangster genre by focussing more on the characters and their relationships. Even though there are some edgy and rough fight sequences involving bats and knives, they are put on the back burner when the film within a film element takes center stage. During key moments in the film the background score is similar to the music one finds on a merry-go round carousel signifying the cyclic nature of business in the gangster world -- round and round the crime business goes and when one gangster gets off the high horse, another is waiting to take his place. There is no time to rest because if one stops, then they will surely get knocked off and crushed.

Ratings out of 10

Dirty Carnival: 9
Black Republic: 8
Black House: 6.5
The Restless: 6
City of Rising Sun: 4


nitesh said...

Very informative post Sachin. Thank you for sharing them. It’s quite true that the older Korean films, presumably before the Korean New Wave are really hard to find. Not only that there are hardly any information on these films.

I grew up watching Korean films during my formative years of cinephilia, but like most cinephiles across the world it was films that crossed borders after Park Chan Wook’s JSA that I think has stuck with everyone. It’s strange how the notion that ‘Korean’ cinema as such only came into dominance in the last decade or so makes us slightly blind to think that their history didn’t exist before that.

I think lack of knowledge and information is really a dangerous thing and hope I can track the older Korean films…somewhere.

Sachin said...

Thanks Nitesh.

Actually the more I thought about it, Korea was the only country whose films I had not seen prior to 2000 until recently. Now my benchmark is 1990 :)
Still it was amazing to think that was a complete vacuum right there. I have seen older African, South American films but Korea stood out. Logically if one thinks about it there was no way that the new film-makers from Korea could have started coming up with such interesting and cutting edge works without their nation having a history.

So, I too will keep my eyes open for older works. I am quite curious now :)

irish said...

look here

Sachin said...

Thanks Irish. This is a 5 year old post and thankfully in the last few years, many older Korean films have become available. There is another youtube channel (Korean film archive) which has many Korean films from the 1940's-90's. I have only started to view some of these.