Monday, December 18, 2006

Investigating Korean Cinema Pt. 1: Memories of Murder, Oldboy, 3-Iron, and Save the Green Planet!

More and more I'd been reading interesting things about Korean cinema (both very positive and very controversial) and begun to feel I was missing out on something, but I didn't know where to jump in. Then Facets offered a class on Korean cinema and it inspired me to start my own series at home. It's been a blast. Not only have the films been generally very interesting, but watching them as a more-or-less weekly series has reinvigorated me. Watching DVDs in a related series (rather than just higgledy-piggledy) broke the routine, and being able to compare them has been doubly interesting. I plan on curating more of these at-home series in the future. At any rate, I'm about halfway through my series and wanted to get down some of my initial thoughts while they're fresh.

Just as a quick preface, I should admit up front what expectations I had going in. At the back of my mind (mostly, I realize now, because of stuff I'd read about Chan-wook Park), I'd linked Korean cinema with the burgeoning J-Horror scene, something I only know slightly more about (I'd seen and hated Audition, seen the Ring remake, and explored a bit of manga). What the two scenes seemed to have in common was extreme elements of violence and creepy gore. I was imagining something along the lines of cult or exploitation cinema, which generally hasn't been my thing. The last couple years I've actually been watching horror classics for the first time (I led a very happily sheltered life as a teen) and I'm still developing my tastes in the genre, but that's a topic for another post. The Korean scene turns out to be much more diverse and generally excellent than I thought, and by the time I finish the series I feel like I'll be much better able to follow new films as they play the fests and arthouse circuit. Plus, as an industry center (like Hollywood) that aims to entertain a mass audience, I'm already of the opinion that Hollywood has much to learn from Korean cinema.

One other note: some of these films are dubbed for Region 1 DVDs and don't even offer a Korean-spoken soundtrack option (the first two films below), and it's fascinating how different the translations are between the dubbed dialogue and the subtitled version. I found myself turning on the subtitles (on top of the dubbed-only dialogue) for more nuance and cultural insight. The dubbing often simplifies the story, and the American-sounding actors doing the dubbing are occasionally jarring or even unintentionally funny, something I thought had gone out of style decades ago.

I started off with Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok), which is probably my least favorite but, as luck had it, served as an excellent entry point in many ways. Directed by Joon-ho Bong (whose The Host played at CIFF and got tantalizing reviews--thankfully it's supposed to return in January), it's a less sensational outing in what is probably my least favorite subgenre, the serial killer movie. I once loved Silence of the Lambs but have hated every subsequent example I've seen (including most especially the stupidly titled Se7en), which has caused me to put some of the blame on Silence. Memories, however, actually has a lot more going for it than your typical serial killer story. For one thing, you never really see the killer, never get that tiresome back-and-forth between detective(s) and killer. Furthermore, from the very beginning, a fairly significant point is made that rural South Korean police lack the training and resources found in U.S. crime labs (at one point in the story evidence is actually shipped Stateside for DNA testing) and featured in Hollywood film and televison. It became a minor theme of the film which I wasn't sure how to read, not knowing enough about life in South Korea--is the film lamenting South Korean governmental/technological backwardness? From a U.S. pov that was interesting. The bold thing about the story here is that (spoiler alert) the case remains unsolved to the end. Even the bigshot urban detective the yokels bring in to help is stymied. To my mind, the director seems to be using this popular genre subversively. The audience gets some grisly CSI forensics but the films spends a lot of time focused on the details of rural living (from the mattress on the floor which a local cop and his wife sleep on to the sexist hierarchies of the police office). The audience gets some seemingly titillating material but it seems to point to societal problems: the cops beat up the village idiot, but it's clear that their torture and coercion is a reflection of their unprofessional methods and frustration with the elusive criminal. I felt the film was overlong but in the end it seemed more mature and less exploitive than the typical Hollywood entry in the genre. Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.

Next, Oldboy turned out to be the most superficially challenging film in the series so far. Director Chan-wook Park is probably most easily summarized as South Korea's Tarantino. In fact, near the end of Oldboy a character shows up dressed like one of the characters from Reservoir Dogs, beautifully returning Tarantino's gesture of love and respect in Kill Bill (dressing Uma in a Bruce Lee outfit) across the Pacific Ocean--from Hong Kong to Hollywood and then back over to Seoul. (How could the Tarantino jury at Cannes not go for the film?) Like QT but in his own way, Chan-wook is a dazzling filmmaker, a powerfully skillful wielder of images (I can still recall a recurring gesture of a character holding another character from falling over an edge; or the stunning way he plays with something simple like the motif of hands, or feet), and his violence is grisly and memorable (like a tooth being wrenched out of someone's mouth with a hammer). I did rather enjoy the notorious scene in which the hero fights his way through a tunnel of dozens of fighters with nothing but a hammer, but overall the film is empty in its provocation. Its use of incest for shock value in both of its plotlines disgusted me, and I felt the hero was punished unfairly and out of proportion, and from a flimsy motive. The violence may be clever, the imagery occasionally fresh, the direction crisp and clear, but in terms of story and purpose he actually makes Tarantino seem relatively mature. I don't want to judge the guy solely by his most notorious film, so I'll be watching another of his films later in my series, but at this point I'm not expecting much. Rating: 1 out of 4 stars (though for pure visual filmmaking skill it deserves a 4).

3-Iron (Bin-jip) came along at the right moment, encouraging me to go on just when I'd begun to doubt my project. It's a stunning and original film, the kind of special vision you're lucky to get once or twice a year in filmgoing (and, yes, the title does refer to a golf club). I'm not yet sure I'd call it a masterpiece (I hope to watch it again soon) but it certainly marks the director as someone to watch. (An earlier film, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring garnered high praise, and I certainly plan to add that to my series.) I suppose the film would be classified as a drama, but there are elements of a ghost story here as well as romance and even, in a sense, of silent cinema. It's hard to discuss the film without spoiling it, so stop reading here if I've convinced you to see it. As it opens, the plot seemingly concerns a young man who delivers takeout menus, hanging them on people's doorknobs, but in the story's first twist, it turns out that he uses the remaining menus to see who's away from home when he returns at night. When he finds a vacant house, he picks the lock and stays for a while, playing little pranks, eating food and using his cellphone to photograph himself with the strangers' possessions. He meets a young woman this way, a woman who is clearly unhappy and probably abused, and somehow she seems to make a perfect companion for him, joining him in his escapades as a way to escape an unhappy marriage. The film has a unique quality because both of these characters refuse to speak, something that becomes esp. haunting later when they are separated, when the law catches up to them. This is a highly original film, one I look forward to revisiting. Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars.

What makes originality? Is it the recombination of familiar old ideas into something new? If so, Joon-Hwan Jang's Save the Green Planet! (Jigureul jikyeora!) is blazingly original. The American trailer claims: "This is not Horror...This is Not Science Fiction...This is Not Comedy." Exactly, it's all of those things and none, with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" as its theme song. Here's the set-up: a rather crazy man (of the tinfoil-hat, conspiracy-theory variety) is convinced that his boss is a member of a hostile race of aliens. He kidnaps him to torture him and extract information. And his boss isn't the first suspect he's experimented on. At first this seemed to be a weird variation on the serial killer movie (again, just about my least favorite genre), but it's told somewhat sympathetically from the killer's point of view (which is weird) and also with a somewhat comical tone (which is weirder still). As in Silence of the Lambs, the police are hunting for the victim, but here instead of one hero cop, we have two working independently--an old rookie who insists on working alone, followed by a handsome young cop who's something of a protege of the old rookie. I thought that was just one clever twist among many on this Twister mat of a movie. It's also an example of the way the film discourages us from investing any one character with our strongest sympathies. At first I wondered if this was going to be a parable of class warfare, about how the rich and powerful (as represented by the kidnapped boss) screw over the working class (as represented by our...hero?) but even if that's an element here, it's hardly the main point. You think I've given it all away? You ain't seen nothing yet. Overall, this is a slam-bang exercise in absolute genrefuck, and though it felt a little hollow in some ways still the gag with the cop shooting at a swarm of bees with his pistol would have made it worth watching. Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.



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