Darcy's Weblog 2005
2005.12.24: Darcy's top ten of 2005 A total of 85 Korean films were released in theaters this year, which is the highest number since Korea began modernizing its industry in the early 1990s. There are a couple reasons for this: one, the film industry is considered a pretty hot item in Korea these days, and so there is no shortage of companies willing to buy up a production company and invest in films. The other reason is that the Korean Film Council and a few committed distributors like Indiestory have initiated a push to release more low-budget independent films, even if they stand no chance of earning any money. Geochilmaru, Spying Cam, Fade Into You, The Unforgiven, Five is Too Many, Git, Mokdugi Video, Camellia Project, The Crescent Moon, My Right To Ravage Myself, Possible Changes, Chulsoo & Younghee and others all would have really struggled to secure a release a few years ago. Let's hope this positive trend continues.
With production booming in both the mainstream and independent sectors, there was plenty to see in 2005, and very little "filler" (as opposed to the 1990s, when many of the films Korea produced were essentially straight to video titles that received a token release on one screen). I managed to watch about 70 of these 85 films, and while I don't feel too bad about missing Cello or Baribari Zzang there are still many that I regret not being able to catch. (I have also not yet seen The King and the Clown, which opens on December 29 and which looks interesting)
Choosing only 10 films out of those 70 for my top ten list involved quite a bit of anxiety and hair-pulling, even after excluding worthy titles like The Peter Pan Project or Sa-kwa which screened at festivals this year, but which will get their commercial release next year. The Unforgiven, Crying Fist, You Are My Sunshine, Geochilmaru: The Showdown, Love is a Crazy Thing, Green Chair, A Bittersweet Life, April Snow, Bravo My Life and Blue Swallow by themselves would have made a worthy top-ten list, but instead they rank as films that I exclude with much regret.
Darcy's Top Ten Korean Films of 2005
1. The President's Last Bang
2. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
3. Git (Feathers in the Wind)
4. Rules of Dating
5. Blossom Again
6. Welcome to Dongmakgol
7. Tale of Cinema
8. The Magicians
9. This Charming Girl
10. All For Love
Best short film: Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, by Hong Yoon-jung.
I chose Last Bang for its terrific ensemble acting, smooth direction, and for its look back on history with equal doses irreverence and sobriety -- in my mind, just the way to do it. Lady Vengeance I chose for its perfectly controlled execution and for drawing added strength and meaning out of its odd, lopsided structure. Git and The Magicians are both by Song Il-gon, whose career is heading off in fascinating directions, even though festivals and local audiences are both ignoring him. (The Magicians is an extended version of the digital omnibus film commissioned by Jeonju, and is shot in a single take.) This year I have become a card-carrying Song Il-gon fan.
Rules of Dating I chose for its guts and energy, Blossom Again for being completely unexpected despite looking so conventional, and Dongmakgol for keeping so much of its humor and personality despite its blockbuster scale (Typhoon is an instructive counter-example). Tale of Cinema I liked for being such a personal film (the same reason many people hated it), This Charming Girl for its silence and the performance of Kim Ji-soo, and All For Love for juggling its many elements in such an enjoyable and moving way.
As for Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, I must say that in the past couple years I've seen very few Korean short films that really excite me. I'm not watching as many short films as I used to, so perhaps that's one reason, but it seems that as film education in Korea grows more "professionalized", we're seeing less creativity on the part of film students. I may well be wrong about this, and I hope I am, but I can point to only two films from the past two years that grabbed me: last year's Feel Good Story and this year's Where Did You Sleep Last Night. The latter is about two women in a relationship who have a fight, after which one gets out of the car and the other drives off. Their anger soon subsides, but it takes them 12 hours before they are able to find each other again, and this film is about what happens in the interim. The plot itself is quite ordinary, but the progression of events is well-controlled and every small moment in this film carries feeling.
Other highlights of 2005:
* Most exciting film discovery of 2005: Holiday (aka A Day Off) by Lee Man-hee.
* Biggest disappointment of 2005: Duelist
* Favorite non-Korean film of 2005: Tony Takitani (actually a 2004 film but it reached Korea this year -- it was just what I needed on the day that I watched it)
* Favorite retrospective film of 2005: So many, but I think I'll choose Bigger Than Life by Nicholas Ray.
* Most exciting non-film discovery of 2005: The Teaching Company (excuse the off-topic plug... These are college-level courses you can download to your iPod, and they have made riding the subway the favorite part of my day. The courses on classical music, in particular, are highly recommended)
* Resolution for 2006: To write more.
2005.12.04: Is the Korean DVD market about to collapse? The heading of this blog entry isn't something that I made up, it is the title of an expansive feature that was published recently in Korean film magazine Film 2.0. For years now, people have been talking about the sad state of the DVD market compared to other countries. While DVD sales enjoyed explosive growth in other countries from 2000-2005, in Korea the DVD market sputtered, stagnated, and is now shrinking. But whereas in the past the industry used to fret about what needed to be done to kick-start the market, one can feel that this year, people are starting to give up. Small companies like Alto Media are going bankrupt, film companies are considering abandoning DVD releases entirely since they aren't profitable, and even the big Hollywood branch offices have vastly reduced the number of copies they release into Korea for each title.
What went wrong? Most people point to illegal downloading as the biggest culprit. The online market is quite large, with virtually everyone in Korea having access to broadband internet, and with the pirates providing a huge selection of old and new films. (Click here to read an article on downloading that I wrote for KOFIC's website) Clearly, there is potential to make money off of legal downloading if such a service were widely marketed and available, but this has been excruciatingly slow in coming about, partly because there is no clear legal framework in place.
Other factors may also contribute to the weakess of DVDs in Korea. One is that young Koreans almost always go out to socialize with their friends, rather than meet at home where their parents are. Why buy DVDs to watch with your friends when you're never at home anyway? The so-called "DVD-bang" or "DVD room" is another factor -- such places, scattered all throughout Korea, provide small, dark rooms where couples or friends can watch a movie together. These days the movie is often screened over broadband connections on a pay-per-view basis, with a fee paid to the distributor. Although it's legal and provides film companies with some revenue, it also lowers the incentive for young people to build their own private DVD collections.
The crisis facing the DVD market means that in the future we will probably be seeing less of the gorgeously packaged DVDs that Korea has become famous for. There may also be fewer films released in general than there were in the past. The coming year will be crucial... Nobody sees any chance of sales suddenly picking up, the main question is to what extent film and DVD companies will continue to operate in a market where the last bit of hope has been snuffed out.
2005.11.27: Bystanders This fall has seen the release of several not-bad-but-certainly- not-great detective films, such as Never to Lose, Princess Aurora and, coming on December 1, Bystanders. (There was also the detective comedy Short Time that came out in August, which despite being extremely low-brow was probably the most entertaining of the lot). Bystanders stars Shin Eun-kyung, Moon Jeong-hyuk (aka Eric, a singer/TV star who played an assassin in A Bittersweet Life), and Kim Yoon-jin (American TV series Lost) in a story about two detectives investigating a string of murders/suicides at a high school.
The film contains some interesting twists, though it doesn't quite manage to hold them all together in a convincing way. I'll try not to give away too many details, but the most striking aspect of the murders and suicides is that each of them have been "predicted" by small handwritten notes that describe the time of death and the manner in which the victims were killed. Even creepier, the handwriting in the notes points to a student who died in a traffic accident before the murders even took place.
The sophomore effort of director Im Kyung-soo , who might prefer that people forget about his debut film Can't Live Without Robbery (2002), Bystanders is most interesting for the way it takes a conventional detective film and turns it into a social issue film, centered around the problem of severe student bullying (an issue that is often discussed on the evening news in Korea). In this sense, Kim Yoon-jin's role as a bullied student's mother takes on a particular significance, and she does a good job in expressing the horror one might feel at discovering that your own child is being tormented in this way. (I was told that the film is being particularly well received by mothers with school-age children) Meanwhile Shin and Moon play the two detectives, who work well together and are quite close, but who also tease each other quite a bit, providing for comic relief throughout this rather grim story.
I went into this film anticipating very little, but ended up appreciating it more than I expected. (I liked it better than Princess Aurora, which I went into with high expectations and came out of feeling cheated) Still, it's clear that this film could have been much better than it turned out to be. From both an emotional and a logical point of view, it's extremely disjointed, and the more you think about it, the less sense it makes. People who expect movies to fit together in a clean and logical way should probably make a special effort to avoid this one. Ultimately however it does make you think about the issues it raises, so in that sense it offers something new.
2005.11.02: The Beast and the Beauty It's not often that the mere synopsis of a film can provoke feelings of disgust, but that's the reaction I had to the movie which is #1 at the box office this week. Not that it's offensive in any way -- The Beast and the Beauty is about an ordinary guy with a scar on his face who is dating a blind woman. One day she regains her sight through an eye operation, and suddenly our hero is faced with a crisis: all along he's been lying to her, telling her that he's a great-looking stud. What will happen when she finally sees him with her own eyes? Distraught, he goes into hiding, while meanwhile a genuinely great-looking stud happens to bump into our heroine and fall for her.
No points for guessing how this movie ends. Could they have come up with a more hackneyed, predictable, boring storyline if they tried? I was in a grumpy mood when I bought my ticket, and if it weren't for this website you can guarantee I'd have gone to see Cafe Lumiere instead.
As it turns out, the film's not as bad as I was expecting it to be. A lot of the little moments are executed well, the actors are charismatic and overall it's fairly entertaining. The supremely talented Ryoo Seung-beom turns in a nice performance, as you might expect he would, and Shin Min-ah is extremely charming -- you can understand why both men are falling all over themselves for her. I also appreciated that she didn't go all soft and passive at the end, as often happens in romantic comedies. Kim Kang-woo, who played the cool/reluctant skater in The Aggressives, is also nicely cast as an ultra-cool, stylish detective. (This being a Korean film, of course he beats the living crap out of a few suspects, and we're supposed to laugh along)
I'll give the film credit for making the most out of the hand it was dealt, but my question is, couldn't they have come up with a more interesting premise? If a film is effective when handling the little bits, but completely unimaginative in its overall structure, it suggests to me that you have some creative screenwriting and directing talent working under a producer or a company who is completely unwilling to take risks. A lot of people worry that the Korean film industry is dividing into two camps: the established directors who are allowed to make interesting movies, and the debut directors who are only allowed to direct extremely formulaic genre films. That's an oversimplification -- it depends entirely on which producers are involved -- but this film would seem to be perfect support for that theory.
2005.10.24: Korean films in 2006 This week's issue of Cine21 film magazine has an 11-page spread on all the Korean films we can expect in 2006. For me, reading it was like sipping a cup of warm cocoa on a rainy day. I've been asked a couple times about which films I'm looking forward to in the last few months of 2005, and to be honest I have a hard time coming up with an answer. There are some works I'm curious about, and others that I think might turn out well, but nothing that I personally, as a fan of Korean cinema, am dying to see.
That's why reading about what we can expect in 2006 gave me such a warm feeling inside. There are the big titles from name directors that will be sure to get a lot of attention: projects from Lee Chang-dong (probably in late '06, as he's still working on the screenplay), Park Chan-wook (lower-budget HD film about a mental patient who thinks she's a cyborg), Im Kwon-taek (a film with some ties to Sopyonje, apparently?), Hong Sang-soo (he's reportedly trying to decide between three different screenplays), Kang Woo-suk (a big-budget work that is likely to feel a lot like Silmido), Im Sang-soo (another politically-themed work), Bong Joon-ho (monster movie pictured above that is the one I'm most looking forward to), and of course we can expect one or two more features from Kim Ki-duk, although apparently his film about a gun has been postponed.
Apart from these, which bad or good are bound to cause a lot of excitement, there are some others that for one reason or another just feel like they have potential. The following is a very idiosyncratic list of what I'm looking forward to.
Dasepo Girls... This film by E J Yong based on a comic book that is apparently quite twisted seems like it could be really, really interesting. I'm saying that mostly because I have faith in the director's talent, I suppose, but part of me is also looking forward to a work that could beat up a little off-color controversy. It started shooting in mid-October, and is expected in late April.
Bogosipeun olgeul... Kim Hae-gon, who portrayed the gun dealer in A Bittersweet Life and also appeared in Ray Bang, is making his directorial debut in a film starring Jang Jin-young (Singles) and Kim Seung-woo. Kim Hae-gon is also given a lot of credit for the screenplay of Failan, so a lot of people are going to be curious about how he fares as a director.
Yaman-ui bam... Lee Song Hee-il has been making really interesting short and mid-length independent films for a while now, such as Sugar Hill, Good Romance, and a segment in Camellia Project. This will be his first feature film, however, and it would not be a surprise at all to see him break out on the festival circuit. Many of Lee Song's films (he lists his mother's family name together with his father's) deal with gay issues, but he also says that his works are not necessarily popular in the gay community. Indeed, his films can be a bit hard to pin down at times, but that's one of the things that make them so interesting. The one-line summary of his latest work is a gay version of Korea's 1970s hostess films.
Hwang Jin-yi... A film about Korea's most famous kisaeng from Chang Yoon-hyun of Tell Me Something fame, set in the late Chosun Dynasty? Normally I wouldn't be overly excited about a new version of this story, which was previously filmed rather well by Bae Chang-ho in the mid 1980s, but there must be something new and different about this or it wouldn't be made. I wonder who gets cast in the lead role?
Murimgosu... A new film by Yim Soon-rye (Waikiki Brothers), but listed in the action/thriller category? I have no other information than this, but I'm curious.
Romance... A love story from the director of Nabi, starring This Charming Girl's Kim Ji-soo and Bad Guy's Jo Jae-hyun. Sounds interesting to me...
Interesting casting choices in other films include Cha Seung-won starring as a North Korean defector, Im Soo-jung as a woman who rides horses, and Han Suk-gyu and Lee Beom-soo as Chosun Dynasty aristocrats. There will also be slightly more commercial works by independent directors Gina Kim (Invisible Light) and Noh Dong-seok (My Generation). There are many more interesting projects that I'm not mentioning, too. Some of the films listed above may end up being postponed until 2007, or perhaps never even made at all. Still, it's nice to know that on paper at least, 2006 will be an interesting year.
2005.09.14: Sopyonje, other classics to be released on DVD Over the years, I have received more emails than I can count from desperate film fans willing to do anything to locate a subtitled copy of Sopyonje. The problem is, apart from an Japanese version with no English subtitles, the film has never been released on DVD. Finally, however, the hopes of Korean film fans have been answered, and perhaps my inbox will be a little less stuffed in the future.
Spectrum DVD has reached an agreement with production company Taehung Pictures to release 36 films from their back catalogue on DVD. Aside from many later works of Im Kwon-taek (they plan to put out a box set, apparently), this also includes classics like Youngja's Heyday (1975, sort of like the My Sassy Girl of the 1970s), Lee Myung-se's Gagman, Bae Chang-ho's Our Sweet Days of Youth and The Dream, Lee Doo-yong's Bbong, Lee Jang-ho's Eo-u-dong and Between the Knees, and Jang Sun-woo's Road to the Racetrack and Hwa-Om-Kyung.
Spectrum says all of the titles will receive a new telecine and sound remastering, and that the more famous films will include English and Japanese subtitles for the benefit of foreign viewers. The first titles, with Sopyonje and the Son of a General films expected to lead the pack, should start to appear in October.
Other films to be released, besides the ones listed above: Im Kwon-taek's Aje Aje Para Aje ("Come, Come, Come Upward"), The Taebaek Mountains (I think), Son of a General 1-3, Ch'ang, Chunhyang, and Festival; Lee Doo-yong's The Eldest Son, Eop, Dorai; Kim Soo-yong's 1988 version of Mountain Fire; Park Chul-soo's Oseam, Kim Hong-joon's La Vie En Rose, Song Neung-han's Fin se Siecle, plus older works by directors Lee Gyu-hyung, Kwak Ji-kyun, Kim Yu-jin, Kim Yong-tae, Jeong Byung-kak, and Kim Young-nam. Click here for the full list in Korean.
2005.09.07: PIFF announces 10th anniversary program The Pusan International Film Festival is back. Every September they release their program, and then I get to second-guess the programmers about their selections (as if I could do a better job). Naturally I tend to have the strongest feelings about the selection of Korean films, but this year more or less everything in the program seems to be a worthy choice.
We have the major films from earlier in the year, for the benefit of those who haven't seen them yet (The President's Last Bang, Crying Fist, Tale of Cinema, The Bow, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, etc.); we have the bigger of the recent commercial films (Welcome to Dongmakgol, Duelist, April Snow); we have large numbers of smaller or independently-shot films that will be getting their premiere (Lee Yoon-ki's Love Talk and Yoon Jong-bin's The Unforgiven seem to have the strongest buzz). We even have a feel-good drama for the Closing Film in Wedding Campaign (about two rural men who go to Uzbekistan searching for brides), in contrast to past years when audiences had to squirm through The Scarlet Letter or yawn through Acacia.
There are some notable omissions in the program, whose presence will be missed (by me, at least -- maybe nobody else). It may be nitpicking to single out these films given the large number of films that will be there, but Rules of Dating, Git, Sa-kwa and the upcoming You Are My Sunshine will not be in the main program. They may very well be available in the market screenings (open only to ID pass holders), but they'll receive far less attention even if they are. All the above are really interesting departures on the traditional melodrama, in differing ways. You Are My Sunshine, at least, will be sure to be screening unsubtitled in local cinemas, as the film will be going out on 450(!) prints on September 23 following a strong reception at its press premiere yesterday.
The other somewhat interesting choice was that of the opening film, Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times. For the second year in a row, PIFF has chosen a film that first screened at Cannes, and was later re-edited and presented in Pusan. Personally I've been quite looking forward to watching this film, but as a journalist it was a somewhat disappointing choice because there isn't anything to write about that hasn't already been covered at Cannes. Hou is an extremely prestigious choice to be sure, and a person who has a special relationship with the festival, but I always prefer it when PIFF chooses a completely new film, even if it's by a fairly unknown director. Festivals acquire a certain amount of power as they become more successful; they are able to bring selected directors to the attention of large numbers of people. Showcasing Hou will give added prestige to both the director and the festival, but how much more exciting would it be to propel a talented, unknown filmmaker into the limelight? Surely there are some treasures waiting to be discovered among this year's program, from filmmakers that nobody has ever heard of. Besides, if the screening were successful, people would remember it forever as "the PIFF opening night film," but no one will remember Three Times that way. But maybe I should stop complaining... I'll soon be given the opportunity to gorge on more new, exciting films than I could ever possibly consume.
There are also a huge number of special programs, retrospectives, seminars, and other things going on at the festival this year, but I'm afraid I don't have the energy to write about them all here. (Particularly in that I've already written about them for Screendaily and then again for the KOFIC website -- every time a major news story comes out, I have to write about it in triplicate) However we are planning an ambitious PIFF festival report this year, to be written by me, new contributor Aynne Kokas and Adam Hartzell (Adam's first-ever trip to Korea!). More details will be forthcoming.
2005.09.03: Lee Man-hee's A Day Off (1968) I'm back in Seoul now, with huge numbers of films to catch up on. (I flew in too late to attend the press screenings of April Snow and Duelist, so my comments on those will have to wait until their commercial release on the 8th) But it's good to be back. Jeon Do-yeon is on the front cover of Cine21 this week, so all seems right with the world.
Today I took the long subway ride down to the Korean Film Archive to catch a newly rediscovered (?) classic by Lee Man-hee, who will be the focus of the Retrospective at this year's Pusan festival. (Finally!) Lee is one of my favorite directors, admittedly not as original as Kim Ki-young, but a filmmaker with a great deal of talent for creating gorgeous imagery and portraying downtrodden heroes who experience fleeting, bittersweet moments of happiness before being crushed by the harsh realities of life. His first major hit and his last film, The Marines Who Never Returned (1963) and The Road to Sampo (1975), are probably his most famous, but personally I prefer the black-and-white classics from his middle career: Gwiro (1967, translated rather awkwardly by PIFF as "A Road to Return"), The Starting Point (1967), and psychological thriller The Evil Stairs (1964, previously screened at Udine in 2003, and translated by PIFF as "The Devil's Stairway"). Of the films to be screened at PIFF, I'm most looking forward to the thriller Black Hair (1964) and literary adaptation A Water Mill (1966), neither of which I've seen.
Lee's masterpiece is said to be Late Autumn (1966), however no print currently exists in the South and so it's impossible to watch it. However, Shin Sang-ok says that he saw a copy of the film in Kim Jong-il's personal collection up in North Korea. PIFF tried hard to get their hands on a copy for this retrospective, inquiring up North and chasing down rumors that a print might exist in Canada, of all places, but with no luck. Therefore, A Day Off will function as the "discovery" of the retrospective instead.
A Day Off was made in 1968 but then canned and never screened to audiences, as the censors from Korea's military government decided this was not the way they wanted their society to be depicted. In the years to follow, the film simply got buried in the Korean Film Archive's filing system, since it had no year of release attached to it, and since no one had ever systematically pulled out all of Lee's films until preparations began for this year's retrospective. (Incidentally, the Film Archive plans to publicly screen all 22 of Lee's surviving films next year)
The rather downbeat film has a very simple plot, involving a young man (Shin Sung-il) and woman (Jeon Ji-yeon) who seem genuinely in love. The woman is pregnant, but has no money to get an abortion. They don't even have enough money to afford coffee in a cafe, so instead they hang out on the freezing, windswept slopes of Namsan, the mountain located in the center of Seoul. Finally the man goes out trying to scrounge up some money for the operation.
Much of the film is made up of one or both of the main characters walking around Seoul, framed against the backdrop of streetlamps, trees, pedestrian overpasses, or scaffolding. Every shot looks like it belongs in a photo gallery, and I wouldn't have cared if there were no plot or dialogue at all. But there is an absorbing story here, presented with a modern aesthetic. Contemporary viewers might find the ending a tad overstretched or melodramatic, but one must remember the audience and era that this film was made for. What a shame that its intended audience never got to see it.
2005.08.18: This and that It's been a little while since my last update; I'm now in Massachusetts with my family on vacation ("vacation" perhaps in name only, given the amount of work I've had to bring along). Since I flew out of Korea, Welcome to Dongmakgol has turned into a major box office hit, which is expected to easily cruise past 5 million admissions. At the same time, Big Scene (working title) by director Jang Jin also enjoyed a stronger than expected opening on August 12. Jang happens to be the writer and executive producer of Welcome to Dongmakgol (both films were based on his stage plays), so you can imagine he's feeling pretty cheerful this month.
(A note on box office: Recently, my longtime source for nationwide box office totals was discontinued, so the chart on the 2005 page has been thrown into a bit of chaos. KOFIC now provides estimates of cumulative nationwide admissions, but only four times a year. In the meantime, I can get estimates of how much a film has earned through news articles, and I will try to update it with whatever information is available)
Meanwhile, in early August I got a chance to catch the alternate, digital version of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, which is screening in a couple theaters in Seoul. Although it is the same cut as the version on wide release, the alternate version experiments with digital color correction, and seems to have tweaked the sound a bit as well. All in all I liked it at least as much as the regular version.
For the sound, it seems that in a few places the background noise has been amplified to become much louder than it was in the original. In Geum-ja's apartment, for example, we hear loud, distracting noises as she goes about whatever she is doing. It's possible that either (a) this also occurs in the print on general release and I didn't notice it, or (b) that there was a speaker problem in the theater, but my guess is that this was consciously modified by the director for this version only. A lot of the film is meant to be somewhat alienating or odd, such as the opening scene of people dressed in Santa Claus suits. The sound may be just one more example of that.
The more noticeable change in this alternate version is the color. As it is screening from a digital source, the colors in the first part of the film come across as being even more bright and garish than in the original. It isn't a large difference, but the feeling is subtly different. The real change comes about 70% of the way into the film, when Geum-ja makes a discovery which completely changes the course of her revenge. From here on in we get a steady fade to black and white. I had thought that I would miss the colors of the latter part of the film, but the black and white turns out to be just as beautiful as the color. More importantly though, this version emphasizes the fact that after Geum-ja makes her discovery, Lady Vengeance turns into a different movie. Whereas Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Old Boy, and the first 70% of Lady Vengeance are all preoccupied with personal revenge, the last 30% moves in a slightly different direction. (Perhaps it should be considered a coda for the entire trilogy?) Presenting it in black and white is a clever way to highlight this difference.
2005.07.31: Lady Vengeance posts biggest opening ever One could sense there was a lot of pent-up demand to see Park Chan-wook's new film Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, but I think few people expected it to open quite this big. Between Thursday and Sunday night the film has sold an estimated 1.5 million tickets (~$9.5m) throughout Korea, breaking the all-time opening record set by Taegukgi last year. Looking through the web, viewer reactions seem to be mostly positive, although there are a few scattered complaints. Based on this, the film can likely look forward to continued success in the coming weeks.
(One wildcard, however, is the August 4 release of Welcome to Dongmakgol, which is posting even better viewer ratings than Lady Vengeance, and which looks like a sure candidate for a breakout hit)
Meanwhile, it appears that Park Chan-wook's new production company Moho Film won't be hurting for cash anytime in the near future. Lady Vengeance actually earned back all of its $4.2 million budget through pre-sales to other territories like Japan and North America, so everything it earns in Korea is icing on the cake. That's a lot of icing.
2005.07.28: Lady Vengeance invited to Venice Many people predicted that Park Chan-wook's feature-length followup to Old Boy would be invited to screen in competition at this year's Venice Film Festival, and today confirmation came through when Venice announced its complete lineup. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance will be one of 19 films screening in the Competition lineup. Incidentally, the only other Asian film in competition is Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan's Changhen ge.
It appears that no other Korean feature films will screen at Venice, unless there is a last minute addition. However a short film by Hong Joon-won titled Happy Birthday will screen in the short film competition section (Corto Cortissimo).
In addition, a few selections from other Asian countries include Korean actors in supporting roles. Tsui Hark's Seven Swords, which screens as the opening film, features actress Kim So-yeon, while the festival's closing film, Peter Chan's About Love, features actor Ji Jin-hee. Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Invisible Waves, in which actress Gang Hye-jung appears, was rumored to have a strong chance of appearing at Venice, but it is missing from the announced lineup. It's possible that this film could be a late-minute addition to the competition section, as 3-Iron was last year.
Meanwhile, Lady Vengeance has just received its local release, and it has been confirmed that an alternate version of the film will be screened via digital projectors in three theaters in Seoul (Yongsan CGV, Gangyeon CGV, Guro CGV). The alternate version will feature experimentation with the color scheme, but from what I understand, the footage itself is the same.
2005.07.15: Heaven's Soldiers I don't really have too much to say about this time travel comedy/drama, which I caught at a press screening on Monday. Much of the film is a celebration of Korean national pride anyway, which left me as a foreigner feeling sort of like I'd crashed someone else's party.
The basic setup is that a group of high ranking North and South Korean soldiers are having a shootout on the DMZ when a comet scrapes past the earth and sends them back in time to the year 1572 (hate it when that happens). This was a dark period for Korea, when much of the country was battling with marauding armies that had invaded from Japan. However our time travelers soon run into an ill-mannered but resourceful young rascal who says his name is Yi Soon-shin. Yi, as Korean viewers are all well aware, is the man who would later become an accomplished admiral and beat the crap out of the Japanese navy, thus earning himself a permanent place of reverence in Koreans' hearts.
By far the most interesting thing about this film is the characterization of the young Yi Soon-shin, as played by Park Joong-hoon. Yi being a rather exalted figure in Korean memory (he's on the 100-won coin, after all), it was a pleasant surprise to see him portrayed as an impish, antisocial nonconformist instead of a serious young hero. Park's acting really catches the eye, as well -- it's a different look for him, and he pulls it off well. The long hair suits him, too.
Everything else about Heaven's Soldiers is either ridiculous or somewhat distasteful. Oddly enough for a film that calls itself a comedy, it is extremely gory, even after several cuts were made to secure a 15+ rating. This effectively rubs out the lighthearted moments in the film, to the point that you're not really sure whether to call it a comedy, or something else.
Also, maybe it's just me, but I have a hard time getting excited about watching modern day soldiers whip out their machine guns and mow down hordes of Japanese warriors armed with only swords and bows. Scenes like that made me wonder just what the whole purpose of this film was, anyway.
The strange thing about this movie is that it has a huge budget for a Korean feature, something like $7-8 million. Despite this, it feels somewhat cheap, especially in the way it is being marketed. Usually, for big budget films like this, you need to hedge your bets by selling it for a huge price to Japan, but I can't imagine Japanese audiences warming to this sort of thing. All in all, this looks like a sure-fire bomb, only two months after the same company released the similarly-sized bomb Antarctic Journal (though, to be fair to Sidus, they also released the mid-budget hit Rules of Dating in between).
2005.06.29: Voice "Another Whispering Corridors movie?" I've been hearing people say. It seems like the series has been going on forever, particularly in that we had Bunshinsaba last year which, though not officially a part of the series, was set in a girls' high school and may as well have been. This latest installment is called Voice and, according to tradition, it features a debut director and a young cast of debut actresses. Before watching it, I was wondering if this would be the one that would finally finish off the series... a film so bad that nobody would want to make another. But after walking out of the theater, the thought running through my head is "Keep them coming!" If they're all as good as this one, I'll gladly watch one per summer for the rest of my life.
They're calling it Whispering Corridors 4, but Memento Mori 2 might be a better indication of what to expect. I say that with some trepidation -- at least among a certain group of people (myself included), Memento Mori has acquired legendary status with the passage of time. Voice doesn't reach the same heights and is not going to be remembered as well, but much of it recalls the previous film in mood, while moving in different (but not dissimilar) directions in terms of plot and theme. (Gosh... I hope I haven't just killed the movie by making this comparison)
Voice does not start off well. The opening scene feels a bit flat, and the gruesome death that follows is more silly than gruesome. Yet after a funky opening credits sequence (director Choi Ik-hwan has experience in experimental short films, and it shows) the film sets off slowly but surely in creating a real, breathing cast of characters. The film's central axis is the close friendship between two students Young-eon and Seon-min who suddenly find themselves... er... separated, but still able to communicate. Yet as time goes on, this foundation on which the plot rests starts to become a bit less stable.
The film's strongest sequences are in the middle. Look at any given scene, and the direction feels competent but not exceptional. However the accumulated effect is strong. As the film progresses it also gradually gets more complicated and hard to follow... not quite on the level of A Tale of Two Sisters, but a challenge nonetheless. Like Two Sisters, it loses some steam when it tries to explain everything at the end, but the ending's not bad, all things considered.
This summer's crop of horror films may prove to be a bit of a redemption after last year's disaster. I haven't seen The Red Shoes yet, but based on an early edit The Wig seems extremely well made (I'll comment later after watching the finished version). Don't really know anything about Cello, but even if we only end up with two successes this summer, that will be a respectable record.
2005.06.28: Dueling festivals Korea's festival scene is scheduled for a bit of the bizarre in mid-July when the new people in charge of the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan) face off against the former organizers of PiFan, who have launched a rival event in Seoul called the Real Fantastic Film Festival. The latter has about one-tenth the budget of the former, but nonetheless they will both run from July 14-23, competing for the same viewers. Kim Hong-joon, the head of RealFanta, says that they scheduled their festival for the exact same time slot in order to draw attention to the structural and political problems over at the Puchon festival. This is not quite the same thing as Slamdance doing its thing in the shadow of Sundance each year -- in this case, there are hurt and angry feelings on both sides, and each festival is out to make the other obsolete. Most of the local film industry, meanwhile (including, most prominently, Park Chan-wook) have announced they will boycott PiFan. For more information about the background to the whole clash, check out some of the earlier entries in this blog.
Before going any further, I'd like to propose we clear away some lexical confusion related to the two events. The problem is, most people strongly associate the word "PiFan" with Kim Hong-joon and the other staff members who have made the festival famous over the past few years. Thus when referring to the event that will take place in Puchon this summer, people invariably add a prefix or suffix to distinguish it from the PiFan of old, for example: "New PiFan" or "PiFan Two". But terms like "New PiFan" are rather slippery: does it mean the old festival staged by the new people in charge, or the new festival staged by the old people who used to be in charge? Therefore I'd like to propose that we call the two events "GoodFanta" and "BadFanta", which is quite clear and easy to keep straight. In saying "BadFanta" I don't intend any hard feelings towards the organizers of the event in Puchon, except perhaps for the mayor of Puchon who genuinely seems to be a bad man. In fact, the word "BadFanta" is perhaps a bit overgenerous, containing as it does a whiff of anti-establishment cool that the festival probably doesn't deserve.
Attending a festival and watching movies is usually a fairly straightforward affair, but this year an entire moral dimension has been added to the proceedings. Am I the equivalent of a strike breaker if I go watch films at BadFanta? Looking over their program, there are quite a few movies that I'd really like to see, including the two opening films Night Watch from Russia and Battle in Heaven from Mexico (which both screen at the same time?!), and retrospectives devoted to Ko Young-nam and Park Chul-soo (which will probably have no subtitles). Though admittedly, attending BadFanta's press conference was not something to inspire confidence. With the main programmer/festival director wondering aloud if films would be canceled last minute and admitting that the event might not even be around next year, it felt a little like watching a plane go down in flames.
There is also the added complication that GoodFanta won't be reserving tickets in advance for the press. That means we'll be competing directly with ordinary Korean film fans for tickets. That's quite a frightening proposition -- this is, after all, the country where 5,000 seats to the PIFF opening night screening are sold out in less than three minutes. GoodFanta's screening rooms at the Art-house Formerly Known as Hollywood Theater seat less than 300 people apiece. Therefore I'm trying to be realistic about my chances of getting into some of those sci-fi films from the Soviet Union and the former communist counties of Eastern Europe, which forms the centerpiece of their program.
Being a journalist, I suppose I can sidestep the moral dilemma of whether or not to attend BadFanta, as I'll be required to write about both events for my job. I'll try to be open-minded, but admittedly my heart lies with GoodFanta. This whole situation makes me think back to high school, when a motivated and inspiring English teacher (a rarity at my school) was dismissed after he started becoming too critical of the school's administration. I was never able to do anything about it back then, and no matter how much I rant and rave on this site now, the old PiFan is not coming back. Still, the actions of the mayor have done a great deal of damage to Korea's cultural/festival scene, and one would like to hope that the old, original PiFan will be mourned properly.
2005.06.10: This and That... Gang Hye-jung and Park Hae-il's Rules of Dating opens today, and based on advance ticket sales it looks like it's going to be a big hit. I haven't seen it yet (these days I've lost my info source regarding the schedule for press screenings), but it seems to have captured people's attention mostly for its creative casting. Park Hae-il is usually slotted into nice guy roles (see Scent of Love, My Mother the Mermaid), but his most interesting work has been as characters with a significant dark side (Jealousy is My Middle Name, Memories of Murder). In this latest film he seems to have gone all out as a sleazy English instructor looking for sex.
Gang Hye-jung, meanwhile, is solidifying her status as one of Korea's coolest actresses. Unlike, say, Bae Doona (who seems really popular among non-Koreans, but is generally overlooked at home), Gang's fan base seems to expand more and more by the day. With an image that's harder to pin down than the usual pretty-face actresses that dominate popular films, she functions as an appropriate symbol of something about young, modern Korean women. But what that is, exactly, is hard to say. (Her current popularity is also boosted by the fact that she's dating Cho Seung-woo (Marathon), making them the most hip offscreen couple since Bae Doona/Shin Ha-kyun and Ryoo Seung-beom/Gong Hyo-jin went their separate ways)
It will be interesting to see the fan reaction to Rules of Dating. It's portrayed in its promotional materials as a slightly off-color romantic comedy, but I'm told that the actual film is exactly the opposite: dark, unsettling, realistic. All of which has me intrigued. Other recent news:
* Korea's ratings board has just undergone its latest three-year makeover. Under Korean law, the members of the ratings board are chosen by the the Ministry of Culture and Tourism for three-year terms. The new chair will be Lee Gyeong-soon, the former vice chair who took over for Kim Soo-yong when he resigned in January. However there have been some industry grumblings about the rest of the 15-person board, since it includes some former members of the Performance Ethics Board which oversaw governmental censorship through the mid 1990s. Maybe they've been reformed in the interim.
At any rate, Ms. Lee says that she sees sexual content as causing less potential harm to teenagers than film violence (which I'd tend to agree with). Recently there's been a bit of a quiet revolution in film censorship, with films like Fat Girl and The Dreamers being released in Korea completely uncut (i.e. with big closeups of "problematic" male and female anatomy). The old prohibition on showing genital parts on the big screen seems to be breaking down. Nonetheless, the board still makes it clear that they operate on a subjective basis. Tokyo Decadence was recently rejected again, despite having 6 minutes of footage cut, making one wonder if it will ever be released.
* Korea's DVD companies have come up with a new trick. In contrast to other countries, DVD has been pretty much a bust in Korea up until now, with even the most successful titles only selling 50,000 - 100,000 copies. DVD rentals have become rather popular, however. To encourage people to buy rather than rent, a few DVD companies are purposely downgrading the image quality on rental DVDs, roughly to the level of an ordinary video. Japanese feature Blood and Bones is one example, as well as Ryoo Seung-wan's upcoming Crying Fist. The image quality of the DVD that you can buy in stores, however, will be top-notch. It seems a rather extreme step to take, but the weakness of DVD is probably the single greatest problem facing the film industry in Korea right now.
* Finally, the Pusan International Film Festival recently held an early press conference to unveil the plans of their 10th anniversary edition, to be held from October 6-14. The city of Pusan and the government have chipped in an extra million dollars, on top of the festival's usual $4 million budget, to ensure that #10 is something special. The program is expected to swell to 300 films, and to cope with the expected rush of film fans, the number of screens will be doubled from 16 to 33. With luck, that should put an end to perennial complaints about how hard it is for guests to secure tickets.
Several special sections are being lined up for the main program. One is a collection of new films from Asian directors who have won PIFF's New Currents competition section in the past. Tentatively scheduled are Zhang Ming (Pregnancy), Jia Zhangke (an early version of Still Life), Okuhara Hiroshi (A Blue Automobile), K.N.T. Sastry (My Daughter), Lee Kang-sheng (Help Me), and Alireza Amini (The Riverside). PIFF will also launch a new annual section titled "Remapping of Asian Auteur Cinema", which focuses on Asian auteurs from the past that you or I are unlikely to have ever heard of. This year's three directors are Sohrab Shadid Saless from Iran (1970s), Ratana Pestonji from Thailand (1950s-60s), and Teguh Karya from Indonesia (1970s-80s).
Another big one-time event will be the Asian Pantheon section, which brings together 30 better- and lesser-known masterpieces from the history of Asian cinema. I don't have room to list all 30 here, but here are some samples: The Big Parade (Chen Kaige, China, 1985), The Horse Thief (Zhuangzhuang Tian, China, 1986), Dragon Inn (King Hu, Hong Kong, 1967), The Big City (Satyajit Ray, India, 1955), A River Named Titash (Ritwik Ghatak, India, 1973), The Cow (Dariush Mehrjui, Iran, 1964), Close up (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1990), Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1949), Deep Desire of Gods (Shohei Imamura, Japan, 1968), Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse, Japan, 1955), Tsogt Taij (M. Luvsanjamts, Mongolia, 1931), Manila: In the Claws of Light (Lino Brocka, Philippines, 1975), The Leopard (Nabil El-Maleh, Syria, 1972), The Terroriser (Edward Yang, Taiwan, 1986), Dust in the Wind (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 1986), Dark Heaven (Ratana Pestonji, Thailand, 1958), Tahir and Zuhre (Nabi Ganiyer, Uzbekistan, 1952). You get the idea... This particular program will also screen at the Busan Cinematheque for two weeks after the festival ends.
The 10th PIFF will also be hosting a special Asian Film Academy for film students from Asia, and will hold seven academic seminars on Korean and Asian cinema. This in addition to the planned retrospective on one of my favorite Korean directors, Lee Man-hee. It's either going to be heaven or hell on earth, I'm not sure which one... Heaven because there's so much to choose from, hell because even with no sleep, you can only choose a tiny portion of what's available.
2005.06.03: Year of the Melodrama? This year appears to be shaping up as a particularly good year for romantic melodramas. In fact, some of the most interesting experimentation in genre this year is likely to come from films billed as "traditional" melodramas. So far we've already had Git ("Feathers in the Wind"), which may have been roundly ignored both in Korea and among major festivals, but which nonetheless ranks as one of the best Korean melodramas of recent years. Park Chul-soo's Green Chair might be considered a melodrama as well, though that's perhaps stretching the definition a bit. Much more is on the way, however.
Much has been written about the casting of star Bae Yong-joon in April Snow (pictured), but somewhat lost amidst all the hype surrounding the actor and the so-called "Korean Wave" is the fact that we're getting another film from Hur Jin-ho, who most recognize as Korea's leading director of melodrama. Hur's debut Christmas in August (1998) ranks as one of the timeless classics of the past ten years, while One Fine Spring Day (2001) represents a further step towards presenting melodrama in a down-to-earth, non-melodramatic fashion. The stars will likely continue to outshine the film itself when it is released across Asia in September, but I for one am quite excited to see what Hur gives us next.
I'm also beside myself with anticipation for You're My Sunshine, the second feature-length work from Park Jin-pyo (Too Young To Die). Starring the inimitable Jeon Do-yeon together with Hwang Jeong-min (A Good Lawyer's Wife), the film depicts a love story between a sex worker who contracts AIDS and the rural laborer who falls in love with her. Park himself is referring to the film as a traditional melodrama, but he says that in order to distinguish it from regular melodramas he hopes to present it "in as honest a way as possible." From another director, I'd consider that a throwaway comment, but I'm sure that Park is preparing something special for us.
Next we have news that Moon Seung-wook, the director of the low-budget science fiction film Nabi (2001), will soon open shooting on a film called Romance. His main actors will be Jo Je-hyun, the title character from Kim Ki-duk's Bad Guy; and Kim Ji-woo, who won much praise for her acting debut in This Charming Girl. I haven't been able to find many details about the plot, but I'm told that this too is a somewhat traditionally-shaped melodrama. Nonetheless, the cast and director alone are cause enough to hope for a high quality film.
Anther interesting title in the works is Sarangni from Jung Ji-woo, the director of Happy End (1999). Being a big fan of the latter film, I was highly looking forward to this new effort, though I've been told to expect something much more commercial than Happy End. Kim Jung-eun, who starred most recently in How To Keep My Love, stars as a woman in her thirties who falls in love with a teenage student. Meanwhile Min Kyu-dong, the co-director of Memento Mori (which was released two weeks after Happy End) is also returning with his second feature. This film, which translates as "The Most Beautiful Week of My Life", focuses on a range of couples of various ages, similar to Love, Actually (though the filmic style is supposed to be different). Eom Jung-hwa, Hwang Jeong-min, Im Chang-jung, and Kim Soo-ro are among the cast. Also adopting a similar structure is Sad Movie, produced by one of Korea's leading talent agencies, and starring pretty much their entire lineup: Jung Woo-sung, Im Soo-jung, Cha Tae-hyun, Yeom Jung-ah, and Shin Min-ah.
Love Talk meanwhile will be the second film by Lee Yoon-ki of This Charming Girl fame. The film is set, and will be shot in, the Korean-American community of Los Angeles. Finally, there's My Wedding Campaign, set in Uzbekistan and featuring actress Soo Ae from A Family and Jung Jae-young from Someone Special. The plot supposedly revolves around those schemes that match foreign brides with desperate Korean husbands. I'm a little nervous about this one, but we'll see how it turns out...
2005.05.23: Hong Sang-soo's Conte de Cinema Hong Sang-soo's sixth work has wrapped up its screenings at Cannes, and Hong returns to Korea without any awards (with many local news outlets branding him a two-time failure). Whereas his previous film, Woman is the Future of Man provoked outright hostility from mainstream film critics at Cannes the previous year, Conte de Cinema seems to have been more or less ignored by the English speaking press. Partly this may have been because it screened so close to the end of the festival (when everyone was exhausted), and partly it may have been that nobody knew what to say about the film. Although slightly more structured and serious-themed than Woman, it's still an unusual style of filmmaking that hides its creativity beneath layers of self-centered dialogue and passionless sex.
Conte de Cinema (Hong says "there is no English title," so we'll use the French title, which means "Tale of the Cinema") is structured in two parts. As you might expect, each part reflects upon and echoes the other in interesting ways. Actually, the relationship between the two parts is somewhat creative and unexpected, but you can expect that almost all reviews of this film will give it away in the plot summary. I'll avoid mentioning it here, but if you want to watch the film cold, I'd recommend holding off on reading other reviews until after you watch it.
I liked this movie quite a bit. Local critics seem pretty enthused as well: Nam Dong-cheol, the editor of weekly film magazine Cine21, calls it his favorite Hong work to date, and last week's issue has a 13-page spread devoted to the film. Most critics are giving it four stars.
Longtime fans will immediately notice something different about the first story, about a boy who runs into a girl he used to like. (They were unable to start a relationship in the past, we're told, but now they happily hook up for the night) Yes, there is the zoom lens that Hong is using for the first time, which he discussed in interviews while the film was still in production. But even more disconcerting than the zooming in and out is the voiceover narration. At first, it felt hugely out of place, and had me wondering, "What was Hong thinking?" But later on, everything clicks into place.
The humor, of course, is still there, though apparently it failed to register with much of the Cannes crowd. (Local critic Shim Young-seop, in contast, titled her review of the film "A comedy that makes you laugh so hard, tears come out") Yet it also veers unexpectedly into serious themes, i.e. death. The tension between the biting humor and the sobering reminder of one's mortality seems like a new development for Hong.
Last year when I interviewed Hong at Cannes, he said "I'm still negating, I haven't got to the point where I'm over this negation, where I've found these small beliefs that are absolutely affirmative -- something I really believe in and am ready to talk about." The fact that he has called this film his 'second debut' makes me suspect that he has found something positive to work around in this film. Yet in typical Hong fashion, Conte de Cinema doesn't broadcast any clear messages or morals for the viewer to take home. Only after carefully sifting through this work are viewers likely to find the tiny points of affirmation that Hong may -- or may not -- have included. (p.s. newcomers to this director's work are recommended to visit the Hong Sang-soo page.)
2005.05.11: The Bow's unusual release strategy Tomorrow, Kim Ki-duk's 12th film The Bow screens as the opening film of the Un Certain Regard sidebar section at Cannes. On the same day, however, it will also be released in Korea, and in rather idiosyncratic fashion.
Since Kim easily raised all the money he needed to shoot his $1.2m film from foreign sources, he was able to retain the local distribution rights as well as the copyright for himself. This has a lot of advantages. For example, the production company that made Kim's first film Crocodile has since gone out of business, making it rather difficult to arrange for a DVD release, screenings on cable or pay TV, etc. Kim will never have that problem with The Bow for as long as he is alive.
It also means that Kim has complete control over how his film is marketed and released in Korea. And he's chosen a rather unusual method. With the exception of Bad Guy or possibly The Coast Guard, none of Kim's films have ever done particularly well in Korea. So this time he will open The Bow on only one screen in Seoul and one screen in Busan. (Regional areas will follow later, one screen per city.) He hopes the release to last a long time, though -- he's quoted as saying that if people keep coming, he'd love to have it keep screening until the end of the year. (Perhaps an unlikely scenario)
If he can make this work, it will be a really smart move from an economic perspective. Opening a film on many screens at the same time is quite expensive, since you have to make a new print for each screen. And this is, after all, Kim's own money, so it's in his best interest to make sure that release expenses are kept as low as possible. Being only one screen, it's likely to draw a lot of viewers per show, so the theater owner should be more willing to keep it playing for a long time. Even if Kim doesn't sell as many tickets as he would with a wide release, his profits will be higher.
In my personal opinion, a lot of art films in Korea are released on too many screens, so theater owners replace them with more commercial titles after only a week or two. It would be better to choose a smaller number of screens, in the hopes that they could then play longer. This is especially true for directors like Kim who are famous, and have their own (small) devoted fan base. Even on one screen, even if you don't spend much money on advertising, you're guaranteed a minimum number of viewers. Incidentally, the distributor of Hong Sang-soo's A Tale of the Cinema will also be adopting a similar strategy, offering the film to a small number of theaters in return for a commitment to screen it for a longer time.
The other aspect of Kim's release strategy that is drawing notice is his decision to not hold any advance screenings for the press. Kim is quoted as saying (paraphrased), "I think it's proper for journalists to buy a ticket like anyone else and watch it with regular viewers." Kim is famous for his antagonistic relationship with local critics, but it sounds like he's skipping the press screenings not because he's scared of bad reviews, but because he wants to sell a few extra tickets. In some ways this is Kim's ultimate revenge... Even if they trash his latest film, he'll still be pulling in $7 for each critic who sees it.
2005.05.07: Innocent Steps Despite the steady growth of Korea's star system, it seems that very few actors or actresses can be guaranteed to pull viewers into the theater. Jeon Ji-hyun's follow-up to My Sassy Girl -- horror film The Uninvited -- tanked at the box office, and Jang Dong-gun's fanbase showed little interest in watching him in Kim Ki-duk's The Coast Guard. Korean audiences seem to pay more attention to what a film is about, rather than just who is in it.
One wonders about Moon Geun-young, though. It seems like these days, she could turn a film about stamp collecting into a blockbuster hit. This is unlikely to last forever -- her cute routine is already getting pretty over-exposed in advertisements, and Innocent Steps might be the last time that her charm alone can turn a lame pony into a racehorse -- but this latest film marks another box office success to go along with My Little Bride (2004) and A Tale of Two Sisters (2003). I read some online comments by viewers that said if you take Moon Geun-young out of this latest film, you end up with a heap of garbage, and that pretty much sums it up.
In Innocent Steps she plays an ethnic Korean woman from China who comes to Seoul to participate in a "dance sport" competition (in Korea, the words "ballroom dancing" conjure up a rather negative image, and so people don't use that term). Soon we learn, however, that there's been a bit of trickery going on, and she actually doesn't know a thing about dancing. That leaves us the last 90 minutes of the film to watch her transform into an amazing dancer, fall in love with her dance partner, and lose her Chinese accent. (Actually the film deviates a little from the standard generic plotline, but the result is more annoyance than anything else)
To be honest, this movie suffers greatly from the fact that it keeps reminding you of Failan (2001)... for much of the running time I was feeling nostalgic for that much better film. Although Moon Geun-young has obviously put a lot of work into this role, and her dancing was rather good, the unbearably stupid sideplots involving other characters keep stealing screen time from her. We never even really get to see the knock-em-dead dance sequence that you'd expect at the end, unless you count the footage screened over the ending credits. All in all, I felt pretty cheated out of my 8000 won. And finally, this is yet ANOTHER Korean film that makes use of those awful CGI-generated fireflies. Please, make it stop!
2005.05.04: Hong Sang-soo's Conte de Cinema added to Cannes competition The sixth film by Korean director Hong Sang-soo has been named as a late addition to the competition section at Cannes. This is the second year in a row that Hong will compete at Cannes, following the less-than-enthusiastic reception of his fifth film, Woman is the Future of Man. Conte de Cinema is structured in two parts, reflecting its Korean title which can mean either "a story about the (movie) theater" or "in front of the theater". I believe the official English title of this film is A Tale of the Cinema, a direct translation of the French title, but at this point Hong's production company is using the transliteration Keuk Jang Jeon as the title (according to the official transliteration system it would be "Geuk-jang-jeon").
Hong is reportedly calling this his "second debut", and for the first time he makes extensive and obvious use of a zoom lens. The film stars Kim Sang-gyeong (Turning Gate), Eom Ji-won (The Scarlet Letter), and Lee Ki-woo (The Classic).
2005.04.28: Korean films at Cannes It's that time of year again. Cannes has announced the selections for its latest edition, and in contrast to last year, no Korean films have been selected for the prestigious competition section. However, a total of five feature films and one short film will screen in other sections of the festival. Two of the films in particular should draw a fair amount of attention: Kim Ki-duk's 12th film, The Bow, was selected as the opening film of the Un Certain Regard sidebar section, and Kim Jee-woon's action-noir film A Bittersweet Life will receive an out of competition screening in the Official Selection. As an Official Selection film, Kim Jee-woon and his star Lee Byung-heon will be able to walk the red carpet at the festival's main theater.
Meanwhile, the Critics Week section will feature the oddly titled Chinese-Korean co-production Grain In Ear by Zhang Lu. The film tells the story of a Korean-Chinese woman living in rural China who sells kimchi for a living. I've seen this film, and it's really quite impressive... Slowly-paced for much of its running time, it packs a strong punch at the end.
Two more films screen in the Directors' Fortnight section: Im Sang-soo's controversial The President's Last Bang, and Ryoo Seung-wan's Crying Fist. Finally, the Cinefondation section for film students will screen Shim Min-young's 15-minute film Walk On a Little More.
All of these directors will be attending Cannes for the very first time, so with luck this will give their films some publicity and help them to disseminate along the festival circuit. (I won't be going to Cannes this year, so there won't be any festival reports, at least from me...)
2005.03.31: Golden Cinema Awards Today the recipients of the Golden Cinema Award -- chosen by the Korean Society of Cinematographers -- were announced. I'm always interested to see which films they choose for best cinematography, as it's an award judged by one's peers. On the other hand, a look back at the award recipients since 1977 show that cinematographer Jung Il-sung, who many consider to be one of the best Korea has ever produced, has never been awarded, not even second or third prize. It makes me wonder what Jung did to get so ignored -- is he not a member of the Korean Society of Cinematographers, perhaps?
At any rate, this year's awardees were Kim Hyung-gu for Rikidozan (Golden Prize), Lee Jun-gyu for Arahan (Silver Prize), and Seok Hyeong-jing for R-Point (Bronze Prize). The Best New Cinematographer award was shared between Kim Hyo-jin for Liar, Kim Dong-cheon for Bunshinsaba, and Park Sang-hun for Spin Kick.
The Society also gives awards to actors and directors, and here perhaps you get a sense that they're moving out of their league. A perfect example is their choice for the Grand Acting prize of the year, to Jung Jun-ho for his role in Public Enemy 2. That one's had me scratching my head all day.
2005.03.30: Mapado Just when it seemed like the high-concept comedy with mid-level stars had become lodged forever in the pit of box office mediocrity, Mapado comes along to prove you can never quite predict what Korean audiences are going to go for next.
Mapado (the full title is Mapado: All About the Hemp and Widows) tells the story of a low-ranking gangster and a corrupt policeman who, while chasing after a winning lottery ticket, end up on a remote island populated only by five old widows. The film's marketing would have you believe that the widows then proceed to physically abuse and sexually molest the men until they can take no more. In actuality the film is much more laid back: a character-driven comedy where the men bicker with each other and experience culture clash with the widows.
I went to see this film not because I wanted to, but because I felt like I should, but I ended up liking it more than I expected. The hard-as-nails, down-to-earth attitude of the old women contrast nicely with the two scheming men, and director Chu Chang-min never resorts to the kind of silly hyperbole that has plagued most Korean comedies in recent years. The film is also well cast, with the very talented Lee Moon-shik (Hi Dharma, The Big Swindle) as the cop and Lee Jeong-jin from Once Upon a Time in High School as the young tough guy. Other minor roles are taken by Oh Dal-soo, easily recognizable from Old Boy, and the actress who played the high-pitched, borderline psychotic woman in Jealousy is My Middle Name.
On the other hand, there's nothing very new about Mapado, and it doesn't really stick in the memory. It's basically just a well-executed example of the sort of comedy that we're all very familiar with by now. It's doing great at the box-office, though.
2005.03.29: JIFF unveils program The Jeonju International Film Festival, which after PiFan's implosion can now lay claim to being Korea's #2 film event, has unveiled its lineup. Opening the fest will be the digital omnibus film already mentioned on the 2005 news page, with segments by Asian directors Tsukamoto Shinya ("Haze," 25min.), Song Il-gon ("Magician(s)," 40min.), and Apichatpong Weerasethakul ("Worldly Desires," 30min.). (James Brown has more info about Song Il-gon's film on the discussion board) In past years this specially-commissioned omnibus work has screened in other sections of the festival, but it really makes sense if they have such high-profile directors to show it on opening night. It should be interesting, and unfortunately I'll be at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy on that night so I'll miss it.
I'll be there for the closing film, though, which is the highly anticipated Antarctic Journal starring Song Kang-ho and Yoo Ji-tae. This was shot in New Zealand, and is the story of an Antarctic expedition that has a run-in with the supernatural. It's the first film of director Yim Phil-sung, but industry insiders have been talking about him for years because of the short films he made in the 1990s.
JIFF has two international competition sections, one focused on the latest trends in independent filmmaking, and the other on digital film. Special sections will be devoted to Japanese director Somai Shinji, Maghreb cinema from Morocco and Tunisia, and a masterclass with film composers Cho Seong-woo and Kawai Kenji.
For Korean film, there is a separate section called "Korean Cinema on the Move" which includes the world premiere of six feature-length digital works. Two of them are omnibus films focusing on human rights issues: the second segment in the If You Were Me series, with films by Kim Dong-won (Repatriation), Ryu Seung-wan (Arahan), Jang Jin (Someone Special), Jung Ji-woo (Happy End), and Park Kyung-hee (A Smile); plus another omnibus film of animated works by Lee Sung-gang (My Beautiful Girl, Mari), Park Jae-dong, Lee Amy, and others. The other four are Brain Wave by Shin Terra, Five Is Too Many by Ahn Seul-ki, Geochilmaru by Kim Jin-sung, and Reading or Feeding by Jung Kang-woo. Song Il-gon's Git and Kim Hee-chul's documentary The Gate of Truth, which have already screened at other festivals, are also included.
At the moment in Korea there is sort of a mini-boom in independent, feature-length digital films, which shows no signs of slowing down. Last year's discoveries included My Generation, Spying Cam, Ten Ox-Herding Pictures #1: Going Out in Search of the Ox and others. I'm excited to see what this year holds... with commercial filmmaking becoming somewhat more predictable, this is one area that holds the possibility for new discoveries. Jeonju, with its focus on Asian independent and digital cinema, is well-placed to take advantage of this trend.
This year's JIFF will also screen the four recently discovered colonial-era films which I mentioned below. I'm not sure if they will have subtitles or not.
I highly recommend Jeonju for people who are able to attend. It's a quiet but fun event that offers a lot of non-mainstream discoveries. Their website is at http://www.jiff.or.kr. I'll probably only be able to attend for a couple days because of its proximity with the festival in Udine, but with luck a few contributors will be able to write a festival report for the site. Click here for last year's report.
2005.03.27: Catching up Apologies for letting this space fall so silent for so long -- a visit from my parents, heaps of work and our three month old baby have all kept me distracted. Before going on, let me retrace my steps and comment on two of the recently discovered colonial-era films that I was able to see at their public screening in early March: Eohwa (1939, 52 min.) by An Cheol-young and Gunyong-yeolcha (1938, 66 min.) by Seo Gwang-jae. Eohwa now ranks as the second-oldest Korean film that still exists in complete form, and the oldest non-propaganda film. Unbelievably, the film's director was present at the screening. I can't even imagine how he must have felt, watching a film made 66 years ago that was believed to have been lost forever.
Eohwa (translated as "Fisherman's Fire", and pictured right) turned out to be a bit of a puzzler. The story of a poor fisherman's daughter who goes to Seoul after her father's death, the film contains a few striking scenes but is so fragmented that it throws its viewer off-balance. At first I interpreted the jarring transitions and disjointed emotions as an aesthetic strategy on the part of the director, but as the film went on I began to suspect that it may have been due to poor shooting conditions or perhaps lost footage. The second half of the film seems to lack direction as well, though perhaps if I'd understood more of the dialogue it would make more sense. Censorship may have played a role, but it's hard to know for sure. I'd certainly like to see again, as without more background information it's a difficult film to absorb in one sitting. But it didn't strike me or the people I watched it with as a lost masterpiece. This may turn out to be more interesting simply as a record of rural and urban Korea during the colonial years.
Gunyong-yeolcha (translated as "Military Train" by the Film Archive) was made a year earlier in 1938, as a means of rallying Koreans to the cause of Japanese militarism. It tells the story of a train conductor who is tempted by an evil Korean freedom fighter to sabotage a train filled with Japanese soldiers. His conscience gets the better of him, however, and he confesses his intentions to his honest friend and co-worker. (Many subsequent Korean films made in the decades after independence would adopt a similar structure, substituting an evil North Korean spy or Japanese colonialist for the Korean freedom fighter) Ironically enough, this film was quite well made, and displays considerable flair in its cinematography and editing. Perhaps as a propaganda film it was given greater resources to work with, but it's undeniable that from a cinematic perspective, it's a more interesting film than Eohwa. Watching it certainly gives you mixed emotions, however.
What do you do with a film like this? It would be perfectly suited for a film class, to provoke discussion about colonialism and propaganda, while also showing what films of that era were able to achieve aesthetically. But requesting it for a screening at an overseas film festival would make for an awkward situation, to say the least.
Both prints, incidentally, had Japanese subtitles in small print running down the right hand side of the screen. The other screening I caught was the collection of newsreels made shortly after independence in 1945. The most striking thing for me, apart from seeing the architecture of Seoul shortly before the city was flattened in the Korean War, was how American soldiers and dignitaries seemed to be everywhere. On second thought I suppose it's to be expected that Americans would be present at all official functions during the months after the liberation (they were, after all, running the country), but I was still surprised to see an American stand up and give a speech at Hangul Day. It must have been odd for Koreans to listen to an American giving a speech in English in celebration of their native language, which he presumably didn't know.
An update also on the situation with Arirang and the other Korean films rumoured to exist in the Abe collection (see below). The Korean Film Archive is in contact with Japan's National Film Center, but it's estimated that it will take two months to move the 450,000 reels of film to storage, and at least another six months after that to catalogue them properly. Rumours are also swirling about the less than perfect conditions in which the prints were stored (that's putting it nicely). As hard as it may be for some of us, it will be best to be patient and not let our expectations creep too high regarding what might be found.
And moving back to the present day, I know many people are waiting anxiously for news about the two big films that will debut on April 1st: Kim Jee-woon's A Bittersweet Life and Ryu Seung-wan's Crying Fist. I've seen both, and I liked both of them a lot, but I want to write them proper reviews rather than covering them here. Unfortunately I'm struggling through a long essay at the moment, but please bear with me! -- the reviews are coming soon.
2005.02.23: Four colonial-era Korean films discovered Amidst the tragic news of Lee Eun-ju's death comes word of the discovery of four Korean films that were made between 1938 and 1941. These are incidentally not films held by the recently-deceased Abe Yoshishige in Japan, but are instead the results of a search carried out in Chinese and Japanese film archives at the request of Yi Hyo-in, the chairman of the Korean Film Archive. Of the four films, all are shot in the Korean language, although three of the four can be classified as pro-Japanese propaganda films. Previously, the only existing complete features from before 1945 were three Japanese-language propaganda films shot in Korea.
The pro-Japanese films are Gunyong-yeolcha (1938, 66 min.) by Seo Gwang-jae, Jip-omneun cheonsa (1941, 73 min.) by Choi In-gyu, and Jiwonbyeong (1941, 56 min.) by An Seok-young, and the fourth film is a melodrama titled Eohwa (1939, 52 min.) by An Cheol-young. Eohwa centers around the daughter of a poor fisherman who drowns at sea, and various people's efforts to take advantage of her.
Also discovered together with the four films are five newsreels: four made in 1945 documenting Korea's newfound independence and totaling 30 minutes, and one made in 1938 totaling 12 minutes. A special screening of highlights from the films with commentary will be held at the National Assembly for press and special guests on February 28, to be followed by screenings of all films for the public from March 2-4 at the Korean Film Archive's screening room.
Meanwhile, I'm being told to be patient regarding the prints held in the Abe collection in Japan, that both logistically and politically it will take some time to sort everything out.
2005.02.22: Actress Lee Eun-ju Terrible news this morning... Actress Lee Eun-ju, who starred in numerous films including Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Taegukgi and most recently The Scarlet Letter, has committed suicide. She was found in her apartment by her brother today. The reason is still unclear at this point, but Korean cinema has lost a supremely talented and charismatic actress. This news really hurts...
2005.02.11: Is Arirang about to be discovered? Potentially huge news for people who follow Korean film history. According to Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun, a well-known Japanese film collector named Abe Yoshishige passed away on Wednesday at the age of 81. Abe is said to have owned an unbelievable 50,000 prints of classic films, but as he never allowed outside scholars to examine the collection, it is unclear which films are contained within, and what their condition may be. He has named no heir, so Japanese law dictates that the collection will now go into the care of the Japan Foundation. The Japan Foundation meanwhile has enlisted the National Film Center to examine and catalogue all the prints in the collection.
Previously rumours surfaced that Abe was holding a copy of Arirang (1926), Korea's most famous silent-era film that was hailed as a masterpiece, and which was believed to have been irrevocably lost (like the other 140 Korean films produced from 1919-1939). A visiting scholar from Korea is said to have confirmed that an entry existed in Abe's records reading "Arirang / 9 reels / contemporary drama" but it was never independently confirmed that the print existed. Representatives from both North and South Korea visited Abe separately in hopes of persuading him to give up the print, but reportedly Abe believed it to be an anti-Japanese film, and refused to donate it unless the two Koreas were united.
Meanwhile, representatives from the Japan Foundation have expressed hope that the print of Arirang will be found, and also stated that they may request the help of specialists from Korea in locating and identifying the film among the estimated 450,000 reels of film.
The coming weeks and months will bring more detailed information about the contents of the collection. Apparently, Japanese director Mizoguchi Kenji's The Earth Smiles (1925) is confirmed to be a part of it. Abe's father, who collected films together with his son, formerly worked for the Korean Consulate, which may have given him increased access to other silent-era prints from Korea.
If Arirang really is uncovered in viewable condition, this will be the most exciting film discovery Korea has ever made. The film tells the story of a mentally unbalanced man who, while protecting a woman from rape, kills a wealthy landowner's son. As the son is portrayed as being close to the Japanese police, many viewers in the 1920s saw it as a veiled indictment of Japanese colonial rule. A surviving still from the film is reproduced below. (slightly updated on February 17)
2005.02.04: Im Kwon-taek / Red Eye Last night I was presented with a particular challenge: Screen asked me to sum up in 500 words what Im Kwon-taek means to Korean and world cinema.
Im will be the subject of a special tribute at this month's Berlin film festival, where he becomes the first Asian ever to receive an honorary Golden Bear. Seven of his films will be presented at the festival itself -- A Bygone Romance ("Wangshimni", 1976), The Genealogy (1978), Mandala (1981, slightly restored), Gilsotteum (1985), Sopyonje (1993, pictured above), and Chunhyang (2000) -- to be followed by a 20-film retrospective at Berlin's Arsenale theater in the weeks thereafter. Im himself is said to be absolutely thrilled with the honor... he is calling it the highlight of his life in film.
When you think about it, Im is the only Korean director who made major contributions to the cinema of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and the present day. He's currently in the midst of planning his 100th feature film... a rather intimidating number. No film student studying today will ever be able to match the sheer volume of experience that Im has logged behind the camera. When you look at Im's life history too, he has lived through colonization, poverty, war, dictatorship... experiences that many of us can merely try to imagine.
I've been skeptical of some of his recent work -- Low Life and Chihwaseon, for example, not to mention Ch'ang (1997) or Festival (1996) which seem to me a big step down from his earlier efforts (Chunhyang remains his latter day masterpiece). Personally I find his output from the 1980s to be most alluring. He was perhaps less conscious of being a maestro at the time, and his ruminations on tradition, culture, religion and history have the feel of an artist who is discovering at the same time as he creates.
Congratulations to Im Kwon-taek... He deserves his award, and he's given Korean cinema a rich and vital body of work that will continue to be mined for years to come.
Shifting into a different gear now, I also had the chance to watch Red Eye yesterday. This horror film from Kim Dong-bin, director of The Ring Virus (1999), is set on a train from Seoul to Yeosu that has a run-in with the ghosts of a past train wreck. Sadly, "train wreck" might be the best way to describe this picture, despite a likeable and mostly talented cast that includes Jang Shin-young (Springtime), Kwak Ji-min (Samaritan Girl), Kim Hye-na (Flower Island), Lee Dong-gyu (Desire), Lee Eol (Waikiki Brothers), Lee Dae-yeon (Camels), and Song Il-guk (uh, nothing yet).
I rather liked Ring Virus back in its day, but its being the remake of the more famous Japanese film meant that you could only praise it up to a certain point. I was hoping that Red Eye would be the film where Kim unveiled his own vision and aesthetic. But he's let down by a plain, uninspiring screenplay, and he loses all sense of momentum in the drawn-out, melodramatic ending that offers nothing in the way of suspense.
2005.02.02: Jenny, Juno Yesterday was the press screening of Jenny, Juno, a story about a 15-year old boy and girl who discover that, after having things get a little out of control one night, they are expecting a baby. This film from the director of My Little Bride has stirred up a little controversy of its own these days. The Korea Media Ratings Board originally gave it an 18+ rating, despite the complete absence of any onscreen sex, nudity, violence, or foul language (distributor Show East was expecting a 12+ rating). The ratings board instead cited the very idea of the film itself as being potentially damaging to young viewers -- one board member reportedly said, apparently seriously, "If we let this through, soon they'll be making films about elementary school students having sex!"
Anyway, common sense prevailed when the distributor re-submitted the film without any changes and it received a 15+ rating. I came to the press screening with a fair amount of expectation, hoping for a film that that would be both entertaining and appealing to teenagers, but also with a serious side to it, that would make viewers think, "Gosh, this really could happen to me."
For the first 80% of the film, that is basically what we get, and it's quite enjoyable. The film plays off the romantic fantasies of young teens (this couple is about the cutest thing you'll ever see), while also injecting a bit of serious contemplation from time to time. Initially, Jenny (not her real name) and Juno try to come to terms with their predicament on their own terms. As time passes, however, the pregnancy becomes more and more difficult to hide, and they face up to the need to tell their parents.
Although not particularly deep or realistic, the film succeeds on several levels up until close to the end. Then sadly, it drops the ball. A lot of Korean commercial films like to shift gears in the final reel -- usually turning up the melodramatics -- but Jenny, Juno decides to pitch all restraint out the window and go for a sappy, sugar-coated and not particularly convincing ending. The early and middle sections of the film drew their strength from the fact that you could easily imagine this situation happening in reality. The ending, involving an overdone scene at the school gym and a silly taxi chase, is obviously concocted to make the film more commercially appealing, at the cost of its own integrity. It's a shame -- with a simple but touching ending, this film could have been a nice discovery.
2005.01.31: Court orders censorship of Last Bang This space wasn't intended to become a play-by-play of the controversy surrounding The President's Last Bang, but events have pushed me in that direction. Today, only three days before the film will hit theaters, the Seoul Central Court ruled on a legal suit filed by Park Ji-man, the son of late president Park Chung-hee who figures prominantly in the film. Judging that the film could dishonor the former president's reputation (which is apparently illegal?), the court ordered that documentary footage inserted in the film be removed, or it would be barred from release. Although the court acknowledged that the film has the right to fictionalize aspects of the story (a message inserted at the front of the film states clearly that it is a mix of fact and fiction), it ordered that the presence of the documentary footage could "confuse" viewers, and so it cannot be included in the film.
Watching the film set in 1979 must have brought the judge back to the good old days, when pesky young film directors who criticized the government could be arbitrarily thrown in jail and tortured, and their film cut and rearranged at will. I thought Korea had adopted the principles of freedom of expression since then, but apparently you are only free to express yourself when you don't say anything that will dishonor dead presidents.
Shim Jae-myung of production company MK Pictures has said she is flabbergasted by the verdict, but considering pre-sold tickets, the film's investors, and the timing of the marketing campaign, the film will be released in a cut version. The censored footage, including protests against the government and scenes from Park's funeral, amounts to a little under four minutes, and it will be replaced by four minutes of black screen. Meanwhile, the company will file an appeal, and if the decision is reversed then the missing footage will be restored.
Prior to the decision, 150 prints of the film had already already struck, in preparation for its release in three days, so film technicians have their work cut out for them (excuse the pun). The only silver lining to this sordid, sorry affair is that maybe everyone will watch the movie twice -- once with the black screen, and again when, hopefully, the court reacquaints itself with the law and overturns the decision.
2005.01.26: Last Bang loses its distributor As the media storm over Im Sang-soo's The President's Last Bang continues to rage, CJ Entertainment announced today that they have decided to disassociate themselves from the film, giving up distribution rights and recalling their investment (20% of the $4.5m budget). They say the decision was made back in early January, though if that's the case I'm not sure why they waited until now to announce it. I find this very sad. It seems the "political repercussions, or difficulties in financing due to pressure from the establishment" mentioned by Q on the discussion board apparently remain alive and well.
Luckily the film has enough momentum now so that it should still reach theaters. Production company MK Pictures (the company that resulted from the merger of Kang Je-gyu Films and Myung Films) was originally planning to co-distribute with CJ, and now they will take over full responsibility. CJ has at least pledged to help with the logistics of the distribution on an informal basis, given the late stage of the game. Meanwhile the film is drawing furiously polarized responses from viewers, some calling it "garbage" and others calling it a landmark work.
My hope is that the controversy will turn it into a major box-office hit, similar to what happened in Mexico with The Crime of Father Amaro. But honestly, I don't have the confidence to make a prediction. It will go up against some sizeable competition from other films. Park Geun-hye, by the way (the daughter of the president shown in the film, and head of the center-right opposition party) is making a point to go see Running Boy when it opens in theaters tomorrow. I must say, that is sort of a classy way to lodge a protest.
2005.01.25: PiFan chaos More ridiculousness from Puchon... For those who haven't heard, the Puchon Int'l Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan) fired its festival director Kim Hong-joon at the end of December. Kim had really turned the festival around and put it on the map internationally, but apparently the new mayor of Bucheon habored a strong dislike of the man, and so he had him dismissed. The mayor is the chairman of the festival's organizing committee, so he can basically do whatever he likes with the festival. The official reason given for Kim's dismissal was that, as a newly-promoted department head at the Korea National University of Arts, he wouldn't be able to devote enough time to the festival.
So, after Kim's replacement submitted his resignation this week amidst calls for a public boycott, who did the organizing committee name today as the new festival director? Nobody. The three-member programming team, in addition to assembling the entire program, will also have to carry out the duties of the festival director, because there won't be one. That sort of makes you question the official excuse for firing Kim, doesn't it?
The other decision the committee made today was to fire the programming team. They will be replaced soon, assuming they can find anyone brave enough to take on the job. But as of now, with less than six months to go before the event opens, there is nobody in charge of the festival except the mayor himself, who presumably won't be putting together the program.
I'm reminded of some comments made by the Taliban in 2001 as they were demolishing the Buddha rock sculptures in Afghanistan. Paraphrased: "It took a long time to carve these statues, but it doesn't take long to blow them up. Work is progressing quickly." PiFan has made great strides over the past several years, but only as the result of tremendous effort by everyone involved with the festival. Alas, it's only taken three weeks for the mayor to turn the event into a raving basket case.
2005.01.24: The President's Last Bang Tonight was the night... After hearing so much talk about this movie, I finally got a chance to see it, and I'm thrilled. It's being labeled as a political bombshell: portraying a former president (dictator) who still remains quite popular with many members of the Korean populace as basically a womanizing, pathetic loser (the veiled sexual connotation of "Last Bang" is surely intentional). And it is a political bombshell, but it's not politics a la Michael Moore. Im Sang-soo has created an extremely thought-provoking movie that can probably only be fully appreciated with multiple viewings. I'm sure that none of the media attention lavished on this film will be able to do justice to its complexity.
Actually Park Chung-hee (referred to simply as "the old man" in the movie) is sort of a minor figure compared to the head of intelligence, played by Baek Yoon-shik, and his assistant, played by Han Suk-kyu. I see this as a story of a handful of people who decide to take history into their own hands, consequences be damned. Setting things in motion turns out to be far simpler than they or we'd ever expect (is it always this simple?), but of course the forces they unleash are considerable.
Both actors do a fantastic job -- this is one of the best performances I've ever seen from Han, and Baek is simply an acting deity. The film is shot and constructed with as much flair as you'd expect from the director of A Good Lawyer's Wife. The storyline is also enveloped in a macabre humor that is the perfect antidote to the chest-thumping heroism we've been getting in other recent portrayals of Korean history.
At long last, this is a film that fulfils the medium's potential for re-examining history. Films about history are not about "showing it like it was", they're about shattering myths and making you question everything you've previously heard about a particular event. Im Sang-soo's deromanticized, seemingly offhand style accomplishes this better than any other Korean film I've seen. Im is quickly turning into one of Korea's most indispensable directors.
2005.01.18: Another Public Enemy Today's press screening was Another Public Enemy, Kang Woo-suk's followup to the popular Public Enemy (2002). Kang mentioned in an interview late last year that his company's fortunes were riding on this film. If it does badly, he says, Cinema Service may have to give up distribution altogether. We'll have to wait and see if that's actually the case, but at any rate there was a lot of interest and expectation surrounding this new film.
It's not really a sequel in the proper sense, because even though it once again stars Sol Kyung-gu, he plays a different character here (a public prosecutor) and it's an entirely different setting. The general feeling after the screening was that it's an entertaining picture, but it lacks completely the hard-as-nails edge of the previous film. Parts of it are quite melodramatic, in fact. This may be partly due to having Jeong Jun-ho as the "public enemy", rather than the more talented Lee Sung-jae. Jeong's good at portraying the upper-crust sense of entitlement that his character possesses, but he doesn't have the same intensity. The screenplay in general is much softer, too.
Personally, my biggest problem with the film was its length, at two and a half hours. It dwells on establishing character for pretty much all of the first 90 minutes, and only develops its momentum in the final hour. Kang Woo-suk used to be notorious for cutting films down to 100 minutes in ruthless fashion, but in the past couple years he seems to have swung back far in the opposite direction.
2005.01.17: Running Boy One of my favorite weekday activities here in Seoul is to attend press screenings. For the Korean films, these press screenings are usually the first time the film is shown to a public audience -- the world premiere, in other words. Once or twice a week, you get a chance to see a film before any reviews are written or comments posted on the internet. Usually they're held at 2pm at either Seoul Theater or Yongsan CGV, and all you need to do is exchange your business card for a free ticket. ("Free" being a big draw for me too, particularly for the really bad movies that you don't want to fork over money to see).
Today's press screening was Jeong Yun-cheol's Running Boy (the Korean title is simply "Marathon"). It's based on a true story, which is usually a draw for local viewers (a poll last year showed that viewers thought the biggest reason behind Silmido's success was its being based on a true story). Cho Seung-woo plays an autistic boy who likes to run road races, and his mother tries to get a washed-up old coach to train him for running a full marathon.
The film's a huge tear-jerker, and it seemed to work exceptionally well with the crowd. There are certain types of films like I Am Sam which do really well in Korea and Japan, but don't really click with most viewers elsewhere -- this might be one example. Personally I was really not in the mood to watch a tear-jerker of this type, either... maybe it has something to do with having an infant baby at home. But I must say Cho Seung-woo's acting was quite natural, and on the whole it was pretty well made. I'm predicting a sizeable local hit.
2005.01.15: Lunar New Year Films Four Korean movies are lined up for the Lunar (or "Chinese", if you will) New Year holiday, when almost everyone in Korea under the age of 30 goes to the cinema. Sequel Another Public Enemy from Kang Woo-suk and Running Boy, a drama about an autistic boy who runs marathons, will open the week before the holiday. Romantic comedy My Boyfriend is Type B is released on the following week, together with the one I'm most excited about, The President's Last Bang.
From director Im Sang-soo (A Good Lawyer's Wife), the film is supposed to be a sordid portrayal of the last days of the Park Chung-hee administration, before the authoritarian president was shot in October 1979. Without seeing it, Park Chung-hee's son has already assembled lawyers who filed a suit to block the film's release. Park's daughter, meanwhile, is now head of the opposition Grand National Party, so you can be sure that the next few weeks will be filled with controversy... It's about time someone made a hard-hitting film about Park Chung-hee, who is still really admired by a lot of Koreans.