The newest edition of the New York Korean Film Festival, which unspools this year from August 25 through September 3, 2006 at the ImaginAsian Theater, BAM Cinematek, and Anthology Film Archives, has as this year’s theme, “Wounding and Healing.” This refers to the characters in this year’s films, who for the most part suffer both literal and figurative wounds to their bodies and/or psyches. The festival arrives at a time when in the U.S. Korean cinema, much like most foreign cinema in this country, has yet to make a major impact beyond the art houses, if even there.
The films are still for the most part released by small distributors with little in the way of marketing budgets, all but ensuring a marginal place in the general film landscape. One telling example is the case of The Host, the latest film from Bong Joon-ho, one of Korea’s most distinctive talents.
Bong’s film, which concerns a sea monster, created by pollution caused by the U.S. military, which rampages the country, is currently enjoying mega-blockbuster status, already shattering box-office records, and well on its way to being the biggest success in terms of audience admissions in Korean film history.
The film’s U.S. distributor is Magnolia Films, a small, independent distributor that while having the reputation of consistently releasing films of high quality, nevertheless cannot command the attention of the general media, and it seems almost a foregone conclusion that the film will be mostly ignored and will have a brief theatrical life.
The festival also comes at a time when the screen quota in Korea has been cut in half as part of a free-trade agreement with the U.S. which greatly reduces the number of screens that are required to show local films. While the ultimate impact of this change remains to be seen, the Korean film industry seems to be as robust as ever and to have suffered no immediate adverse effects, as can be witnessed by the phenomenal success of The Host.
In this country, most people’s exposure to Korean cinema is secondhand, through remakes, most recently The Lake House, a remake of Il Mare. Also promised are domestic versions of such hits as My Sassy Girl, My Wife is a Gangster, and Oldboy. I am not personally as opposed to the idea of remakes as many are. At worst, it will add to the mediocre product that already floods Hollywood; a few more is no tragedy. The original films will still exist, and if it adds more money to the coffers of Korean film companies to make innovative and surprising films as some of the films screening at this year’s festival, then I for one am all for it.
This year’s typically eclectic selection includes romantic comedies, period films, crime films, and distinctive independent films. Yang Yoon-ho’s Holiday, set during the 1988 Seoul Olympics, is inspired by the true story of a convict who protested the draconian “care and custody” laws which arbitrarily added years to sentences for minor offenses. In order to impress the visiting foreign athletes and dignitaries, local officials aggressively “cleaned up” ramshackle settlements to sanitize the landscape and eradicate as much of the presence of the poor as possible. Holiday marries heart tugging melodrama and gritty prison drama. Although this is a rather odd mix, and the film is not exactly subtle, the sense of outrage at the injustice of Korea’s criminal system comes through loud and clear.
The inmates in the film, although branded as criminals, in many cases, are driven to petty crime through poverty and desperation. The prison warden, in contrast, is almost comically evil, seemingly lacking only a huge moustache to twirl. Gang-hyuk (Lee Seong-jae), a petty thief, runs afoul of the law when, during a protest of a settlement clean-up, his brother is shot by a trigger-happy policeman who later becomes the warden of his prison. He and the other inmates successfully engineer a prison break during a transfer to another prison. Their freedom is limited and fleeting, as they are continually pursued by police and forced to rob and commandeer houses for money and shelter. The final standoff, set to the Bee Gees song which provides the film’s title, provides and intensely moving emotional catharsis.
Kim Dae-woo’s Forbidden Quest is a sly, saucy sex comedy, intermingled with darker elements, set in Korea’s Joseon Dynasty, the same period as E J-yong’s Untold Scandal, which Kim scripted. The explicit eroticism that fueled Untold Scandal is largely absent here, and exists mostly in the sexual jokes and dialogue, which is quite appropriate to the film’s subject. Forbidden Quest focuses on the life of a literary artist, and how such an artist uses others and sacrifices himself in the obsessive pursuit of his art. The film’s Korean title translates literally as “The Indecent Scholar,” and the title character Yun-Seo (Han Seok-gyu, in a wonderfully comic turn) adrift and considered cowardly and disloyal by his family stumbles upon and underground pornographic publishing industry, and quickly finds himself drawn into this world, and he abandons his literary writing to pen erotic novels of his own.
He enlists the Justice of the Peace Gwang-heon (Lee Beom-soo), an amateur artist, to illustrate his books, engendering the film’s best comic scenes, as Gwang-heon tries to figure out ways to realistically depict sexual activity, shown in the film in a priceless scene in which CGI is used in a unique demonstration of sexual positions. In the course of his literary career, he begins a clandestine affair with the King’s concubine Jung-bin (Kim Min-jung), and she becomes the unwitting muse and model for his novels. This situation, in the film’s final third transforms this film from sophisticated comedy to a dark revenge tragedy. Kim has created an impressive debut with Forbidden Quest, offering a lively, visually stunning, and a unique contemporary take on period drama.
Many of this year’s films offer fascinating twists on familiar genres. Jang Jin’s Murder, Take One, based on his own stage play, has a similar premise to an earlier Hong Kong film, Breaking News, in which a murder investigation becomes fodder for reality television. Jang’s typical inimitable style, verve, and swift pacing are all present here, as well as his frequent star, Cha Seung-won, as the detective barely tolerating the ubiquitous cameras as he attempts to solve the case. While the film doesn’t quite work as media satire, he does inject a genuinely surprising twist that comes into play in the solution of the murder.
A major hallmark of contemporary Korean cinema is its distinctive approaches to romantic comedy. Kim Hyeon-seok’s When Romance Meets Destiny, although saddled with a sappy English title, is smarter and more genuinely affecting than its unfortunate moniker suggests. Taking a page out of Hong Sang-soo’s cinematic playbook, Kim’s film has a binary structure illustrating the romantic failures of two brothers. Older brother Kwang-shik (Kim Joo-hyeok), pathologically shy around women, is unable to express his feelings for Yoon-kyung (Lee Yo-won), a classmate he has spent seven years pining for.
His younger brother Kwang-tae (Bong Tae-gyu) is perennially on the make, constantly changing sexual partners and stamping coffee-shop cards to mark his sex sessions. The script is consistently clever, and successfully transcends the clichés inherent in the material with visual tropes collapsing the past and present and an emotionally moving air of poignancy, enhanced by the impressive performances by its cast. And any film in which a screening of Fellini’s La Strada is the catalyst for a major change of heart in one of its characters is a special one indeed.
For my money, though, the highlight of this year’s festival is the rare opportunity to see films by Lee Man-hee, one of the greatest Korean, and for that matter, the world’s, directors of the 60s and 70s. He worked in many genres: melodramas, war films, noir thrillers, always bringing an intensity, expressionism, and consummate mastery of cinematic form.
Four of his best films are screening this year: The Devil’s Stairway (1964), an amour-fou thriller featuring a doctor caught in a murderous love triangle; Water Mill (1966), in which a drifter finds himself enslaved by both his blind devotion to a woman he meets in the village and his debt to a despotic landlord; A Road to Return (1967), where a bedridden writer and his self-sacrificing wife suffer the tragic consequences of life imitating art, and vice versa; The Road to Sampo (1975), his final film, in which an ex-con, an older man, and a prostitute they meet along the way make a journey to the titular town, the changing landscape mirroring the transformations of the film’s characters and their quest to reclaim a past that ultimately proves irretrievable. Anyone who wishes to truly understand Korean cinema owes it to themselves to see these films, which will screen at BAM on August 30 and 31.