Korean Cinema in 2002:
Impressions and Top-Ten Lists
This page is devoted to readers' impressions of Korean cinema in 2002, together with the obligatory top-ten lists. Some of the films discussed were made in 2002, others that were produced earlier made their way into overseas theaters. These essays are intended to be a personal reflection on how readers experienced Korean cinema over the past year.
For me to take notice of a trend, it has to be fairly obvious. Much of what I have to say, I am sure has been said elsewhere and more eloquently, but here are my two cents.
One of the best events in the film industry was the triumph of Too Young To Die over the Censorship Board. Most people may know how this film depicting explicit sexual acts between senior citizens challenged the sensibilities of the censors and was nearly banned. However, after substantial publicity, the ban was removed and the movie was allowed to be shown in its entirety in local cinemas. Likewise, Road Movie, a drama which dealt frankly with a gay relationship, passed the censors without problem whereas a few years earlier it never would have passed.
The increasing recognition of Korean movies at major international film festivals may be one of the reasons that the censor board is loosening its iron grip. The international community is beginning to recognize that some of the best movies in the world are coming out of Korea and it showed that recognition by bestowing prestigious awards on Oasis, My Beautiful Girl Mari, and Chihwaseon. Many other Korean films were shown at festivals around the world.
2002 was the year that the term 'Copywood' was coined in reference to productions of big-budget Hollywood-style imitations designed to be 'blockbusters'. While imitating styles and plots of foreign movies has a long history, it reached its pinnacle with the releases of R U Ready and Resurrection of the Little Match Girl. Local audiences gave these bloated movies a well-deserved snubbing however and hopefully we have seen the end of this trend.
Instead of the blockbusters, Korea was treated to quiet hits. The Way Home, Marrying the Mafia, Sex Is Zero, and Wet Dreams were surprisingly successful at the box office despite their modest budgets and relatively unknown casts and/or directors.
Perhaps to capitalize on the increased overseas market, or perhaps an indication of the increased use of English nationwide, a record number of Korean features this year were given English titles as their main title (as opposed to having a Korean title and later being assigned an English one). Twenty of the seventy movies, I considered (however briefly) before writing this, had English titles rather than Korean. That is almost 30%. These included Turn It Up, Who Are You, Over the Rainbow, Surprise, Yesterday, etc.
Unfortunately, the 'comic-gangster' genre, a personal dislike of mine, remained strong and Koreans also saw the first spoof of Korean movies with Funny Movie -- but it failed to live up to its title.
Below I have listed my top ten choices for 2002.
Tom's Top-Ten Picks:
1. The Way Home -- My favorite movie of 2002. The Way Home hit all the right notes. The story, featuring a young boy raised in the city and accustomed to the instant gratifications of modern life, is forced to stay in a rural mountain home with his mute grandmother, is simple and straightforward. Even though he often comes across as a brat, the boy's actions in the movie are 100% believable. The theme of the film is nostalgic while not being overly sentimental. The scenery and cinematography were amazingly beautiful and the story of how Kim Eul-boon was chosen to play the grandmother seems as if it was fate taking a hand. I also like how this story takes a theme common in older Korean movies and reverses it. There are dozens of examples of movies from the 50's all the way up to the early 90's of people from the country moving to the city and being forced, often comically, to adapt to modern life. Fortunately this film avoids the slapstick comedy or patronizing attitudes that were found in those old movies. Instead what we have here is a movie with heart.
2. Oasis -- When I select movies that I enjoy it is often the story that causes me to choose one over another. This is not the case for Oasis. Here it was the acting, easily the best that I have seen this year. Moon So-ri delivers a powerful performance. One can easily be fooled into thinking that she actually has cerebral palsy. Sol Kyung-gu is also convincing as the ex-con who falls in love with her. I am sure that this will find its way to the top of most people's lists. It does not lead mine however because I was not as enamored with the story as I was with The Way Home. It also seemed ready made for the international art scene rather than being concerned about release domestically.
3. Bad Guy -- Whatever you think of this movie, you cannot deny that it is controversial. Rarely have I discussed a film for so long after viewing. The motivations of the characters, believable or not, were the subject of passionate conversations with my friends. There are also a lot of nice touches and images that take more than one viewing to register. The cinematography is dark but the glaring neon often gives a surreal feeling to the film. One will either love it or hate it, but it is one film that is hard to ignore.
4. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance -- Speaking of dark films... When this film was being advertised, the papers were calling it 'hard-boiled'. I know hard-boiled sometimes means tough but I wasn't exactly sure what it meant when applied to this film. I went in expecting something like Say Yes and came out numb. I hadn't felt like that since I saw Seven years ago. This film is brutal. The violence and the emotions chew you up and spit you out. Definitely not for everyone.
5. Chihwaseon -- A beautifully filmed movie. Life in ancient Korea springs from the screen in breathtaking shots. While the acting and the story are first rate, the cinematography is what made this film worth watching for me.
6. 2009 Lost Memories -- This movie would have ranked higher on my list if it hadn't been for the last 20 or 30 minutes. Prior to that, it was quite a well done alternate history and mystery. When it got into time travel, the plot unravelled but I am willing to forgive that due to the performances offered by the primary players.
7. My Beautiful Girl Mari -- This is a beautifully animated story that deserves the awards it has been getting. I have been bored to tears in recent years with movies like Avalon or Final Fantasy -- animation done completely with CGI and based on video games. Mari is an original story animated in a flowing style that, rather than trying to be realistic, instead tries to be fantastic. And it succeeds. Hopefully this will be a start for Korea's previously undistinguished animation to build upon.
8. Bet On My Disco -- I am not going to try to defend my position on this movie. I liked it. Maybe it was the chemistry between the cast or because of the recreation of 80's styles. Maybe it was the throwback to another theme common in old Korean movies--girl forced to work in hostess bar/nightclub/coffee shop to earn money for her sick father/mother/brother/child or the originality of the method she must be rescued (by disco!). It is a movie that sets out to entertain and it does. What more can one ask?
9. Phone -- Another guilty pleasure. I am a sucker for horror movies, but the genre rarely gets much respect. Of course, 99% of the genre does not deserve much respect... However, as with Bet On My Disco, Phone sets out to achieve its goals and is successful. It manages to be frightening and entertaining. What guaranteed it a place on my top ten list however, was the performance of the little girl, Eun Seo-woo.
10. KT -- A fictionalized account of the events occurring leading to the kidnapping of Kim Dae-jung in the 1980's. Rarely do Korean films deal with this era when a military coup overthrew the democratically elected government. A Petal does a good job of showing the Kwangju massacre, but there are not many other films that go into the politics of the time. I would have liked to give this film a higher rank, but it would have had to have been more historically accurate than it is.
The final slot on any list is always difficult to fill. From what I know if it, I suspect Road Movie might have found a place on my list, but I have not seen it. I briefly considered Champion, Turning Gate, and Sex Is Zero for the final slot but settled on KT because of its subject matter. Any of those three are worth an honorable mention.
IT WAS A WONDERFUL YEAR FOR KOREAN FILM. . .
DEPENDING ON WHERE YOU'RE COMING FROM
"Whether acknowledged or not, virtually all critical discourse is part of a conversation that begins before the review starts and continues well after it's over; and the best critics allude in some fashion to this dialogue, however obliquely. The worst usually try to convince you that they're the only experts in sight."
I was reading Rosenbaum's book Placing Movies when I wrote this. And I'm glad I did, because it held me back from going off on Travis Crawford's trite treatment - OK, it didn't hold me back completely - of the state of Korean Film in his article, "The Good, The Bad, and The Mediocre," in the November/December 2002 issue of Film Comment magazine. Reading his commentary about the Korean Films packaged at the Toronto International Film Festival this year was like entering Bizarro world. Crawford was often found providing antonyms for the adjectives I would use to describe the same Korean films. For example, Crawford describes JEONG Jae-eun's Take Care of My Cat (2001) as "unfocused and overpraised," whereas I find it under-praised and one of my problems with it is that it's too focused. Whereas Crawford finds the minimalism of PARK Ki-young's Camel(s) "tedious," I find it refreshing. And you don't want to hear the wrath I must keep under wraps upon reading Crawford refer to HONG Sang-soo's Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors as a "misfire."
But, as Rosenbaum states above, criticism is conversation. The world of criticism goes back and forth with praise and condemnation of directors, actors, genres, and the cinema of different countries as part of the conversation that is reading others' work or hearing commentary through the cinephile grapevine. Crawford's reaction to Korean Cinema could have been predicted the moment the United States finally opened her eyes to Korean Cinema. U.S. Film magazines continually look for the next big thing like any other U.S. medium. Then, after the next big thing is supposed to change the big picture, the next big thing must be beaten into a little, pulp-ish thing to make room for the next next big thing. The November/December 2002 issue demonstrates this little mise-en-scene within a mise-en-scene in its celebration of Thai Film, in a wonderful article by Chuck Stephens, as the latest big thing. I give Thai Film about two years before it receives its lashes from the obligatory wet noodle. Knowing how these industries work, that of film criticism and film magazines and media in general, I can step back a little and turn my boil down to a simmer. (I mean Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors is a "misfire"? Since when is a masterpiece a misfire?)
I must admit, however, that I've also noted a little concern in Darcy's written voice this year. He doesn't appear to be as impressed with the Korean films that were released in 2002. Particularly concerning this year's Pusan Film Festival, he noted disappointment regarding the few new films offered in the program. Of course, Darcy's awe is still present when talking about LEE Chang-Dong's Oasis or PARK Ki-Young's Camel(s), he doesn't sound as excited with this year's crop of flicks as I've read him in the past. Along with Darcy, the chorus on the koreanfilm.org board has abounded with notes from quite a few posters claiming the decline in the quality of films put out this year. Thus, respecting the opinions of Darcy and my fellow posters, I am more open to this interpretation of the 2002 Korean Film year as not one of the best years for Korean Film.
Yet, I propose an argument in opposition to these claims of a Korean Cinema slump. I argue that 2002 was the best damn year yet for Korean Film . . .
. . . at least in the United States.
Let's look at the facts. No less than eight Korean Films made the U.S. arthouse circuit this year (Shiri (KANG Jye-gu, 1999), Chunhyang (IM Kwon-Taek, 2001), Nowhere To Hide (LEE Myung-Se, 1999), Lies (JANG Sun-woo, 2000), Tell Me Something (CHANG Yoon-hyun, 1999), Take Care of My Cat, The Way Home (LEE Jeong-hyang, 2002), and The Isle (KIM Ki-duk, 2000). The Way Home was the first Korean Film picked up and distributed by a major Hollywood studio. (And they actually let us see it!) According to Anthony Kaufman's article on indieWIRE.com, "Why Studio Remakes Don't Suck," major Hollywood studios picked up three Korean films this year for possible future release in a re-written, Americanized form. These were PARK Kwan's Hi Dharma (2001) by MGM, KWAK Jae-yong's My Sassy Girl (2001) by Dreamworks, LEE Hyun-seung's Il Mare (LEE Hyun-seung, 2000) by Warner Brothers.
The first book about Korean Film published in the United States was released this year and was all Im all the time, Im Kwon-Taek: The Making of a Korean National Cinema, edited by David E. James and Kyung Hyun Kim. Along with an impressive retrospective in Chicago in November, five of Im's films were shown at the Smithsonian. HONG Sang-soo received a much-deserved retrospective at the University of California, Irvine, in October. The San Francisco Bay Area had its second annual Korean Film Festival in Berkeley with a sizable crowd for its main feature My Sassy Girl. Writer Terry Hong informed me, along with the information about Im's films showing at the Smithsonian, that George Washington University had a Korean Cinema colloquium which was attended by PARK Chul-soo (301/302, 1996, and Kazoku Cinema, 1998). While New York had an exciting turnout for its 2nd Korean Film Festival, the largest of its kind held abroad, colleges like Dartmouth College had Korean Film Festivals and The University of Iowa had it's third. Hell, I even stumbled upon a tiny Korean Film Festival in Chico, California.
When you look at this list of U.S. Korean Film happenings, add to it that our man PARK Joong-hoon was well featured in Jonathan Demme's The Truth About Charlie (2002), recognize that the Korean-American film Better Luck Tomorrow (Justin Lin, 2002) was picked up by MTV films for eventual distribution, witness that Rick Yune was the bare-shirted, bad guy messing with James Bond in Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002), and appreciate that Margaret Cho's second live-comedy film, The Notorious C.H.O. (2002), was enthusiastically received, it was a pretty impressive year for all things Korean and film in the U.S..
So, whether or not I'll come to agree with some on the board - if the Hollywood Biggies allow me to see the rest of the 2002 Korean Films - remains to be seen. But from what I have seen, I'm still sticking with KFilm. I was still impressed with the crop of films I got to see this year, and that's without having an opportunity yet to see Oasis, Too Young To Die (PARK Jin-pyo), Road Movie (KIM In-sik), or The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (JANG Sun-woo) films that are argued to be the best the year had to offer by many on this board who've seen them.
If this marks the year Korean Film has long last entered the conversation in the U.S., here are the Top Ten Korean Films that I found most worth listening to this year.
10) Bungee Jumping of Their Own (KIM Dae-seung, 2001) - This, along with Memento Mori (KIM Tae-young and MIN Kyu-dong, 1999) and what I've heard about Road Movie, demonstrate Korean Cinema's interesting take on how to present lesbian and gay worlds to those who might not be as open to such relationships. It begins as a cheezy melodrama soap opera, a genre that, like Mexico and Hong Kong, Korea is well known for. But the twist in the middle brought a new layer of camembert to the genre. However unintentional, this film centers the Queer triptych mentioned above. By portraying strong enough Straight Allies within their Queer Queries, our more homophobic Aunts and Uncles just might be willing to extend a place at the table.
9, 8) My Beautiful Girl, Mari (LEE, Sung-gang, 2002) and No Blood, No Tears (Ryu Seung-wan, 2002) - I place these films together because I love the style of each. My Beautiful Girl, Mari provided me with such lovely images as Namoo floating through living dog clouds and the marvelous worlds inside marbles. It kept me and my comic book artist friend transfixed even though we were watching it on the crappy TV I had at the time. No Blood, No Tears showed that, in Ryu's Korea, the rain falls anything but plainly on this wonderful garage of characters, parading the exceptional talent in Korea's acting pool. Kick Ass kicking ass.
7, 6, 5) Beautiful Survival (IM Sun-rye, 2001), The Way Home (LEE Jeong-hyang, 2002), and Take Care of My Cat (JEONG Jae-eun, 2001) - Im's video documentary, which I saw at the 2nd Annual Bay Area Korean Film Festival, provided a wonderful expose on the trials and obstacles for Korean women aspiring to take their seat in the director's chair. During the festival, I had heard comments from some random person that Jeong is difficult to work with, (read: she's a bitch). Im's documentary put that comment in context, chronicling the bitch you have to be sometimes as a Korean woman director to survive a system that continually tries to pull that director's chair out from under you. Although I found Lee's first film, Art Museum By the Zoo (1998), uninspiring, my friend and I found ourselves crying at the end of The Way Home. Yes, it's manipulative, but sometimes I enjoy being manipulated, thank you. And Take Care of My Cat is what we need more of, that is, quality tales of girls coming of age that aren't filtered, (or should I say "focused"), through the hormones of boys. The sisters are sure doing it for themselves, and with a (Ms.) vengeance.
4) Barking Dogs Never Bite (BONG Joon-ho, 2000) I finally went and bought myself a Region Free DVD player this year. No longer can The Man tell me what I can see. And no longer can The Man keep such gems as this lovely taboo tale of chases on foot, dreams dressed in yellow hoods, and stories of Boiler Kim. I'm still racing around the apartment complex with LEE Sung-jae and BAE Doona accompanied by the jazzy chaos of the soundtrack. This film is well deserving of all the accolades I read when I joined the Board two years ago. And Bae, who will show up one more time on this list, is now officially one of my favorite Korean actresses.
3) Turning Gate (HONG Sang-soo, 2002) - Hong stands alone. He is the director who convinced me to stick with Korean film, and he has yet to disappoint me. Yet when I first saw this film, at home on my old crappy TV, I wasn't sure what to make of it. But when I saw it on a big screen, as it's meant to be seen, I saw another engaging Hong exploration in what our everyday patterns expose about us. Hong's tropes of unsexy sex and deflected distractions heighten our human capabilities by limning our frailties.
2, 1) Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (PARK Chan-wook, 2002) and Camel(s) (PARK Ki-yong, 2002) - Two Parks at different ends of the spectrum of doing what you want with what you have. PARK Chan-wook given free reign after the huge success of JSA (2000) takes the money and runs with a film he's been dying to make and we've been dying to see but just didn't know it. SONG Kang-ho and BAE Doona continue to impress, providing further spot on performances. Sang takes his character over the brink without taking the viewer over the edge. PARK Chan-wook holds nothing back to show us that Vengeance is no ones; it only leads us down a dead end road. On the other side of the do-what-you-want spectrum is PARK Ki-yong who does more with less than most big budget directors could ever dream of. Perhaps this is because most of those big-budget directors don't dream in black and white. A refreshing, meditation in minimalism, PARK Ki-yong spends $75,000 and gives us $75,000,000. We get to know the characters as they get to know themselves and learn about ourselves in the process, if we're willing to look into this digital mirror. PARK Ki-yong takes us on a long drive at the end, more fulfilling than any Sunday drive to the cinema I'd taken before.
LONG LIVE KOREAN FILM!!!
(Note: Travis Crawford from FILM COMMENT has written in with his response to Adam's essay. To read the exchange between both writers, click here.)
Kyu Hyun Kim
As of July 22, 2003, I have watched forty-two Korean films released in 2002, only counting ones transferred to DVDs in a correct aspect ratio, or presented in 35mm prints at various film festivals and other venues. Considering that I watch anywhere between 250 to 300 movies a year (about two-fifth of which in regular theaters or revival houses, the rest mostly in DVDs: the number of VHS tapes I rent has significantly declined since 2000... These days, I only occasionally seek out VHS copies of the extremely rare movies not yet released in DVD), this was a rather sizable chunk of the total number of movies I watched last year. Overall, 2002 was an excellent year: there were enough wonderful films to make selection of the ten best a difficult task.
There were several quirky, eccentric films with non-conventional main characters that left strong impressions with me, despite being snubbed at the box office. There were exquisite moments in L'Abri (Bus, Bus Stop), in many ways one of the best acted movies of the last year, but it was too low-octane in terms of drama: it threatened to slip into dreariness. Still, I would have hoped that it did better with both critics and the viewing public. Likewise, it would have been nice if Saving My Hubby, with a star-making performance by Bae Doo-na, probably the actress of the year for 2002, could generate one third of the box office returns for Marrying the Mafia. A Bizarre Love Triangle vanished from the theaters in one week, squashing my hopes to see the film during my visit to Seoul in December 2002. (Thank God for San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival!) Whatever happens with the screen quota system or fortunes of individual production companies, the domestic distribution network of Korean films must be reformed, so that these unclassifiable movies can have a chance, without having to turn themselves into political causes celebres a la Too Young to Die.
Of course, not all is lost when such experimental cinema shot in digital video as Camel(s) did receive theatrical release, to excellent reviews. I must confess that I was afraid that it would turn out to be an interminably boring Dogme-style effort, but sincere performances of the leads Lee Dae-yun and Park Myung-shin allowed me to access their inner turmoil of the characters, making for a fascinating and rewarding viewing. I have to mention, though, that my patience was sorely tested in a few sections, especially during the noodle-eating scene ("Chwap chwap chwap... kaduduk kaduduk ...slurrrp... Do you know this market in Shinchon?").
Gangster comedies did just fine in terms of box office throughout 2002, producing at least one genuinely entertaining mojo, Break Out, with a side-splittingly hilarious (and surprisingly moving) performance by Cha Seung-won, before descending into the bottom of the barrel, quality-wise. Horror films were in low ebb (expected to bounce back in a big way in the latter half of 2003), but An Byung-gi, staying within the confines of genre conventions, produced a memorable sophomore effort in Phone. The most significant cinematic trend of the year may have been the nostalgia boom for 1980s, resulting in affectionate little gems like Bet on My Disco and the "My Nike" segment from No Comment, although Kwak Kyeong-taek's Champion failed to generate the attention showered on his earlier Friend and did nothing to change my reservations about his films.
The feature animation breakthrough My Beautiful Girl Mari is heavily nostalgic like many Korean movies made in 2002 (more or less lifting its setup and some characters from Yu Hyeon-mok's Sea Anemone), but the nostalgia here is unmarred by macho posturing or exclusivism of childhood comradeship: it is exceptionally gentle, evocative and conciliatory. The visuals reflect this attitude of the filmmakers, and they achieve their most stunning effects when they forego dramatic overstatement (and sophisticated computer graphics) and instead show us unfolding of the small-scale magic in everyday life. The movie could have had stronger narrative pull, and Nam-woo's character becomes unbearably irritating on occasion (I am resigned to the obnoxious, self-indulgent behavior of Korean boys in their cinematic incarnations), but this still is a haunting film well worth repeated visitations.
As for big-budget Hollywood-style blockbusters, the less said the better. The fact that some Korean filmmakers keep insisting on slavishly copying Hollywood formulas while others protest the encroachment of the American cultural empire illustrates the strange contradiction of the Korean cinema industry.
One film regularly featured in the best of 2002 lists but not in mine deserves a brief mention. Although visually a beautiful film, The Way Home left me unmoved. I do admit that the film is a well-made fairy tale, a perfect family film in which the urban bourgeois adults can secretly assuage their collective guilt about their undereducated, underprivileged parents left over in the countryside. What lessons their children can learn from watching it are open to question: that not being able to eat uncooked Spam and drink Coke for a while is okay?: that not having a grandmother literally incapable of protest, complaint or expression of autonomy is a sucky thing? Am I heartless for resisting the charms of The Way Home? Well, the Tin Woodsman from Wizard of Oz did pretty well without one...
Now the only "must watch" film from 2002 that I have not gotten hold of yet is Sex is... (Saja seong'eo). I hope to catch up with it soon, and I will put it into the candidate list for the best 2003 films.
So here goes my list of 10 best Korean films released in 2002, needless to say, a very subjective and cranky list full of prejudices and skewed perspectives. I never take off my multicolored glasses when I watch a Korean film!
"Leaving a healthy guy like myself unable to sleep... you are the thief who stole my heart!" "Damn thieves!" "Boo hoo hoo hoo..." --Minister Min's colleague reading his "suicide note" at his wake, and the mourners responding.
10. YMCA Baseball Team:* I am not a sports fan at all. The only sports that I can actually do, without causing some serious bodily harm to myself as well as those around me, is cross-country skiing. My ignorance about soccer, baseball, basketball, golf and any other sports dealing with spherical instruments tiny, small, big and really big is absolute. The point is, whatever made me deeply appreciate this deceptively unassuming period comedy was not its subject matter.
YMCA Baseball Team is a charming, relaxing entertainment, but its lack of ideological axe to grind and artistic pretensions paradoxically makes it a powerfully subversive commentary on the way Koreans perceive their modern history. Even though the story itself follows a predictable arc of the colonized Koreans against the Japanese colonizers, the director/scenarist Kim Hyeon-seok infuses the film with the wide-eyed perspective of a contemporary Korean freshly discovering the past. His endeavor is ably supported by detailed but unobtrusive production design, evocative cinematography and wacky and creative music. The film's spirit is perfectly captured in the glowing star-performance by Song Kang-ho, and the funniest sequence in the movie involving a switcheroo between Ho-chang's love letter to Jeong-rim and her father's written denunciation of the Japanese. History in YMCA Baseball Team is no longer an oppressive chimera nurtured on rigid ideological platforms and moral certitudes, but is reconstituted as a field of artifacts that continuously enter into new relationships with us who live in the present. The film introduces fun-seeking open imagination into the act of grappling with the past: and counter-intuitively, by doing so, it restores dignity and relevance to the historical subjects.
In the lovely epilogue of the director's cut, Ho-chang's great-grandson, a pitcher for a little league team, encounters the vision of Ho-chang. At first glance, the distance between 1905 and 2002 seems unbridgeable, but when we can imagine our ancestors as having the same aspirations, fears, desires and frustrations as we do today, it disappears. We then finally realize the artifacts of the past --the faded photographs, the Court Inspector's medallion, the blood-stained and torn yangban's overcoat --speak to us with living voices. The kid, trusting his great-grandfather's gentle beckoning and reassuring smile, throws the ball, reaching out toward the apparition from the past.
It is the single most moving final image from a 2002 Korean movie.
*Note: this ranking is given to the director's cut of YMCA Baseball Team, unfortunately (so far) only available as a part of the special edition DVD.
"Do you like it when I turn like this?" --Kyung-su to Seon-yeong, gyrating his penis inserted in her vagina.
9. The Turning Gate: Hong Sang-soo's films are meticulously designed, constructed, and realized. They are faithful to the grammar of "artistic cinema," and instantly recognizable as such. Their Rubic's Cube narratives encourage the viewers to watch them again and again, to discover the clues and codes hidden in the throwaway gestures and dialogues. His films, via their "minimalist" set-ups and compositions, seek to keep his characters helplessly exposed under our gaze. And yet, these characters are not just plucked out of "real life:" their seeming "naturalism" is a ruse.
The Turning Gate is less self-consciously "arty" than his previous works, Power of the Kangwon Province and Virgin Stripped Bare by His Bachelors, but it is, I feel, one gigantic, nasty snicker at the "love" and "meaning of life" as understood by modern Koreans. When, in an early scene, a producer-friend of Kyung-su solemnly intones, "I know it is difficult to live as human beings... but let's not become monsters," one is not sure whether to laugh out aloud or cringe in embarrassment. But when Kyung-su repeats this same dialogue to his drunk-as-a-sperm-whale writer pal, there is no proper reaction other than laughter, at the very inanity of people who can possibly mouth these lines as if they are serious. From then on, the more characters behave like unredeemable dorks, the funnier the film gets.
Throughout the movie, I found myself laughing my lungs out: The Turning Gate was indeed one of the funniest Korean movies from 2002. I felt guilty not including the film in this list, after having so much fun at the expense of the film's characters. However, I am not sure I could really describe my experience as having "enjoyed" the film. The Turning Gate may well be a perfect example of postmodern art cinema: the viewers are invited to be voyeurs at this simulacrum of real life, (not the "real" real life, but the sand-papered, peephole-punched, cinematic "real" life) where the dialogues and situations are depleted of all "meanings," political, philosophical or emotional, where the characters act out their "natural inclinations" in the way that allows the viewers to pretend that they identify with them, all the while deriding their dunderheaded behavior.
I am certain of one thing though: I am mighty glad that my life is not unfolding in a Hong Sang-soo film. At least, I hope it isn't.
"Dumb bastard. Know what's the sorriest thing in the world? Being stupid." --KGB to Dokbul
8. No Blood No Tears: Unfairly branded during its initial release as a capitulation to the temporally convoluted caper-film subgenre popularized by Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, No Blood No Tears is in many ways every bit as ambitious as Ryu Seung-wan's debut film Die Bad, even if its virtues are not as readily apparent.
The film features typecast-smashing performances from Jeon Do-yeon and Jeong Jae-yeong, and is fantastically cast with older actors including Lee Hye-young, still quite glamorous, Paek Il-seop as a hippopotamus-like middle-rank boss Chil-seong, Kim Young-in and Pak Chan-gi as two aged loan sharks always three steps behind their "client," and Shin Gu, the paterfamilias in Christmas in August and The Foul King, amazing as the churchgoing gangster boss KGB with the heart of a cobra.
In terms of stylistic flourishes, No Blood No Tears is possibly the most dazzling Korean film released in 2002. A dog-fight between Jeong's Dokbul and the KGB's enforcer (the martial-arts coordinator Jeong Du-hong), dressed in a natty black Mao jacket and walking around with an erect stature of a public works inspector, is going to remain a classic of its kind. Inevitably, some of these outre and eye-popping touches clash with one another. Consequently, there is less of a coherence of the tone in this film, ironically, than in Die Bad, which was put together from separately made three shorts.
And yet, behind its sneaky humor and extravagant violence lies an unwavering gaze of an auteur, sharply intelligent, sympathetic yet tough-as-nail. No Blood No Tears in the end reveals itself as the patented Ryu Seung-wan brand of Cinema of Pain, in which only those who know the taste of their blood and their tears deserve to be delivered from Hell.
"What do you think will happen from now on?" "Well... I don't think it will work out between us." "Probably not." -- Conversation between Mi-heun and In-gyu, after which they spontaneously break out in smiles.
7. Ardor: The documentary director Byun Young-joo's feature film debut was perhaps the most underrated Korean film of 2002. Ardor painfully observes the disintegrating subjectivity of a once-content housewife, whose shell of a bourgeois nuclear family is smashed like an eggshell with an absurd ease one night. The film, after establishing the background for Mi-heun's deterioration, moves away from the standard melodrama toward feminist grounds: its focus never strays away from Mi-heun (a great role for the under-appreciated Kim Yun-jin) and it dares the audience to feel her shattering headaches, experience the hellish ennui of her life with her husband, listen to the resonances and discordances Mi-heun's "inner music" produces with other women, including her mother and daughter, and taste the perky highs and petty disappointments of her love affair. And yet the movie is no screeching political tract. Director Byun refuses to glorify Mi-heun's choices: neither does she lose compassion for other characters.
When Miheun finally meets and begins an extramarital relationship with a seemingly callous lothario (In-gyu, played by Lee Jong-won), a country doctor with a wife enjoying a jet-set life in Seoul, the heavy-breathing rolling in the hay fails to materialize, despite extensive nudity. The two damaged souls seek each other out, not with the romantic desperation or cocky nihilism so familiar from other movies, but with sorrowful recognition of each other's mirror images.
In the end, Ardor succumbs to the cliches of melodramatic manipulation, but until then, it provides a heart-wrenching glimpse into the feminine self sundered apart, stitching herself together with Sysiphian efforts. It is a true adult romance, perhaps bound to be neglected in this era of colonization of the cinema by comic books, TV series and video games.
"Give me an honest answer. Do you like Susan or Kyung-ah?" --Na-young to Jung-pil
6. Conduct Zero: Like where to begin? The direction is tight. I mean as tight as Calvin Klein's jeans on Brooke Shields,' er, lower parts. Not stretched like overcooked ramen noodles. This movie doesn't strive for "comedy," it's already got barrels of wit. No stupid sex jokes, no crummy slapstick, no weepy sniffy three-hanky plot Pretzels, no pukey-sweetie goody-two-shoes characters, no disgustingly horny cretinous hangdogs, no drooling psychopaths who pass for "interesting" kids in other movies of this kind, no Nazi-concentration-camp-guard or "duh-where-is-my-chalk" imbecile teachers.
The cast is singularly-bodaciously guh-reat. First of all, the kids in this movie look tall, you know? In most teen movies they never bother to show the kids in full stature, interacting like normal human beings with their environments. The goofy and weird kids here look like normal kids with goofy and weird expressions, instead of human chipmunks and rhesus monkeys. I had no idea that Im Eun-gyung could act: after all, my image of her was that of the living mannequin she played in Resurrection of the Little Match Girl. In this movie, she wears a pair of dinner-plate-sized glasses, sure, and gobbles up a half-eaten dumpling found in a garbage can, but is totally winning. She's got the speech pattern of a nerdy-but-perky well-to-do '80s girl perfect! She is so convincingly shy yearning for a first kiss, adorable beyond belief! As for Ryu Seung-bum and Gong Hyo-jin, how can I put this without sounding like a weenie fanboy of the couple? Well dish it, I am the number-freaking-one weenie fanboy of theirs! They are fabulous together, they are fabulous on their own, they are just so frigging talented, they completely disappear into their roles. I've never seen the kind of chemistry between any major Korean stars in last 5 years as Ryu and Gong casually sling over their shoulders in their scenes with minimum of dialogue ("What are you doing here?" "Just passing by." "Go ahead and pass by then.").
All this would be more than enough for any ordinary movie, but in addition Conduct Zero contains two CGI-based "fantasy-action" sequences that are just so gong-dang creative and audacious. There is more inventiveness and sheer sense of fun in the first five minutes of Conduct Zero than in any Korean blockbuster-wannabees released last year. And to cap it off, the movie sneaks in pathos and clear-eyed sympathy toward the characters without ever turning mawkish or manipulative. I think Hollywood and Japanese filmmakers making nostalgic teen flicks should buy prints of Conduct Zero so that they can study how the director Jo Geun-shik and screenwriters Lee Hae-yung and Lee Hae-sung did it so well. Hey man I even loved the Korean hip hop songs heard in the soundtrack!
If somebody had told me last year, "I think next year we are gonna see a teenage comedy set in a 1980s high school that's going to shape up to be a totally cool movie without a shred of storytelling incompetence, contemptuous manipulativeness, pretentious pseudo-artistic stylistics, out-of-control sentimentality, slavering capitulation to the CF-addled teenage mentality," my response would have been "Dream on, pal." Yech, I am so freaking happy that I was proven wrong!
Conduct Zero rules!
"I have an absolute confidence... that I won't be found out." --Yeon-hee to Jun-yeong
5. Marriage is a Crazy Thing: I won't repeat what I wrote in my review, except that I love, I mean I really do love, this svelte, sexy, sardonic piece de resistance. Sure, it is not as cinematically inventive as some other films in this list, but no other Korean movie has a couple bickering and splitting over bean sprout bibimbap, either.
"Let's have one groovy fun time together!" --Grandpa to Grandma during their truncated wedding ceremony.
4. Too Young To Die: Pak Jin-pyo's startling use of sexuality can find parallels only in such world-famous films as Oshima Nagisa's In the Realm of the Senses. But the real reason I love Too Young To Die is that it is such a life-affirming vision, that speaks of the hard-earned truths about life and death, transcending cultural differences, language barriers and our assumptions about cinema: for whatever else may happen to us, we are all humans, and as such we all have sexual desires, and we all grow old.
Thank you, director Pak, for holding out for your vision.
"Is it okay... if I just love you?" --Daesik to Sanghwan
3. Road Movie: If Too Young To Die is the ageless Tai-chi master who subdues ten muscle-bound young warriors with a flick of her wrist, then Road Movie is a battle-scarred drifter-swordsman, wrapped in worn garments, slashing open a steel armor with a flash of blade. But he also plays a soulful tune with his flute, the music that brings tears to the enemies' eyes, tugging at their sleeves to let go of the swords.
The movie keeps alive the heritage of socially conscious, character-driven "angry young man" films of 1980s, made by such luminaries as Pak Kwang-su, Lee Jang-ho and Bae Chang-ho. Tough, open-minded and altogether brilliant, Road Movie is the kind of Korean film that most clearly demonstrates what Korean film is now, as opposed to what it was ten years, nay, five years ago.
"When a woman says... I want to sleep with you... you don't know what it means?" --Gongju to Jong-du
2. Oasis: There are always elements in a Lee Chang-dong film that leave me vaguely dissatisfied. Oasis is not an exception. I did not feel the quasi-O. Henry climax of the film brought the character dynamics to a successful resolution. The coda felt tacked on to satisfy the need for an emotionally satisfying closure. Jong-du is given too many breaks, stacking the deck against his (admittedly slimy) family members. (There is also that... forced sex on a disabled person issue, but let's set that aside for now)
And yet, Oasis is great filmmaking pure and simple, that signals one of the culminating points for the literary social realism which have dominated the high-culture end of Korean cinema for the last 40 years, but what is truly surprising about the film is how generous and forgiving it is. If Peppermint Candy and Green Fish unflinchingly illustrate the loss of humanity and depletion of love that Koreans had faced as they struggled through the turmoil of 1980s, Oasis shows that love is not lost, that humanity may be recovered. Fantasy and dreams, once scorned out of the canvas of Korean filmmakers as the opiate of the masses, are rehabilitated into the pigeons made out of light and the beautiful South Asian dancer and her baby elephant, blessing the disadvantaged but undefeated Gong-ju and Jong-du, shut out from the "normal" routes of communication and social interaction. Oasis is a statement about hope, and a powerful confirmation of the (artistic) imagination that breaks through the reality and reforms it.
"I know you are basically a good kid... so you know why I must kill you, don't you?" --Dong-jin to Ryu
1. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance: There are two absolutely certain things in my life. One is that my cat, Guru, loves my wife, his true owner. The other thing is that Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a masterpiece. I won't go into discussion of the movie itself again... I anticipate numerous occasions in the future in which I will contribute my share to letting the cinephiles of the world discover this unique film. Someday, if the stars align right, I hope I could write a 150-page book just on Sympathy.
It seemed that 2002 was filled with extremes, more so than the several years that preceded it. On the high end we had some truly brilliant movies that will be remembered many years from now. On the low end there was dreck like Emergency Act 19 and She Brings Us Danger. Of course, every year has its stinkers, but this year it seemed that the range in quality was wider than usual.
Perhaps we can point a finger to the Korean film industry's own brand of "irrational exuberance" that saw huge sums of money surge into the industry in 2000 and 2001. With so much cash sloshing around, it became much easier to finance bad movies that perhaps wouldn't have been made in leaner times. This cuts both ways, however -- Park Chan-wook would never have had the opportunity to make his magnificent Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance before Korea's boom.
There were 77 Korean films released in 2002; I tried, but didn't quite manage to see all of them. Many of the films I enjoyed and admired, but couldn't find room for on my list. Park Chan-ok's debut Jealousy is My Middle Name would also have made my list, but it won't get its local release until 2003, so I'll save it for next year.
I also made a special effort this year to watch a lot of older Korean films, and some of these were fantastic. Ones that stand out for me include Shin Sang-ok's Evergreen Tree (1961), for its youthful idealism that feels almost like Communist socialist realism; Lee Man-hee's devilish The Evil Stairs (1964) about a doctor who murders for selfish gain, and suffers the consequences; Yu Hyun-mok's Guests Who Arrived by the Last Train (1967) for its color schemes, its crazy pop artist and the actress Moon Hee (and for alerting me to the fact that Yu Hyun-mok isn't as stodgy as he lets on); Kim Soo-yong's Mist for its brooding tone and the energy of its heroine; and Lee Jang-ho's Fine Windy Day (1980) for Ahn Sung-ki and for portraying how Seoul rose up out of nothing as everyone moved in from the countryside.
But back to 2002... My list is made up of films that surprised and intrigued me, and which I personally enjoyed. I'm a bit schizophrenic in my personal tastes -- I'd probably be one of the few people in line to buy tickets if they screened a double feature of Camel(s) and Boss X-file, and (more embarrassing still) I'd probably have an equally good time in both screenings.
10. Conduct Zero / No Blood No Tears -- I'm going to cheat and squeeze in two films at #10. In some ways they have a lot in common, although one is far more violent than the other. Conduct Zero is a creative, funny, and touching view of the ruthless world of high school in 1980s Korea. No Blood No Tears, on the other hand, is set among a crime-infested underworld, but it is just as creative in evoking the brutality of that world. Both films focus on individuals who try to break free from their surroundings, but their burdens are not so easily shaken off.
9. Too Young To Die -- This film was shot with obvious passion, both that of the director towards his subjects, and that of the two leads for each other. The film has a real point to make, and it was refreshing to see this elderly couple's fearless and overflowing appetite for life. It was also nice to see a film of personal vision, shot independently on a minimal budget, make an impact on the local industry.
8. Bet On My Disco -- A great movie, although I think some of the background music (not the pop songs) really detracted from the film's underlying bite. I love that the movie is content to focus on character, and doesn't worry about starting up a proper storyline until halfway through the film. I also really like the last scene, in part because it is somewhat arbitrary and weak -- it seems more a wink at the viewer than an effort to build a proper Hollywood ending. The film's creativity and uniqueness lie in its quirks and dorky charm, and I like that it's willing to just go with that.
7. Camel(s) -- Love it or hate it, this film has real character. Apart from just being a minimalist film, its black and white digital images and the uncomfortable dialogue between its leads give it a real flavor. What I find most interesting about it is its exposition -- how we know absolutely nothing about these characters at the beginning, and then we are drip-fed small hints that clue us in on their history and what they are doing together. There is also a fair amount of what seems to be useless dialogue, but on second thought it tells us a lot about the two leads. If we care about them, the film has a lot of interesting things to say about them.
6. My Beautiful Girl, Mari -- On a purely abstract level this animated film produces some gorgeous, unforgettable images. Closer to a painting than a novel, Mari seems to tell us more on a psychological level than it provides us in narrative. Though many people fault it for this reason, it seems improper to criticize a Matisse for its lack of story.
5. Resurrection of the Little Match Girl -- Okay, so shoot me (preferably not with that plastic gun). Everybody hates this film, and moreover most Koreans seem to think it immoral, due to how much money it cost (a remnant of Korea's anti-consumption drive, I think). Nonetheless when I walked out of the theater I had that humming in my head that you only get from really good cinema. I'm not sure how best to defend my reaction, other than that I found it inspiring that a film would depart from so many norms and just do whatever the hell it wanted. I liked that it would stretch scenes or effects beyond any level of prudence. The film is antisocial and perhaps a bit cold, but perhaps it appeals to an antisocial streak in myself as well...
4. Turning Gate -- For me, this film (much of Hong's work, actually) is something that I admire more than I connect to on a personal level. Nonetheless Hong's distant, perhaps cynical view of humanity's callousness and fumbling desire is perfectly realized. The timing, the acting, and the way he manipulates our point of view are so expertly done that he makes it seem effortless. I'm very curious to see the future directions Hong will take as a filmmaker. As he builds a larger collection of work it will become more and more difficult for the world to deny him a place among its top auteurs.
3. Saving My Hubby -- A bombshell of a film, and I mean that in a good way (though it did bomb at the box-office). Slightly hysterical in parts, this movie captures perfectly the disorientation felt by our heroine Geum-soon at being thrown into marriage at too young an age, and finding oneself among the colored hell of Seoul's night life trying to rescue her husband. The various characters, good and evil, that come across her path provide a telling portrait of humanity in all its heights and depths.
2. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance -- On another day I might have listed this first -- it's clearly one of the most accomplished and astonishing films of recent years. It's not a film I would recommend to all people, given the strength (as opposed to the explicitness) of its violence and its dark themes, but for me it's an instant classic that will only become better with time. Fantastic acting, hugely accomplished camerawork and lighting, haunting sound, a simple but thought-provoking story... Korean cinema can be really proud to list this film as one of its own.
1. Oasis -- Like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, this film is like a banner announcing the arrival of a major filmmaker. Not that Lee Chang-dong had been ignored or undervalued before, but Oasis made it clear that he can stand on an equal footing with the very best contemporary directors. It will take some years for him to get true international recognition, but with his talent, it's clearly only a matter of time. This is the movie made me into a card-carrying Lee Chang-dong fan.
Consolation prize for the unjustly overlooked: Park Hee-jun's Are You a True Guy?. Yanked from most theaters after only three days, this film deserved much better, following the (fully justified) roasting of the director's first movie Dream of a Warrior. For me, Are You a True Guy represents hope that even when we have sunk to the lowest level, we can pick ourselves up and return with a quality effort. Too bad that movie theaters didn't give this film a chance to build up any positive word of mouth. Although far from perfect, it's a nice little film.