Category Archives: Korean Cinema

Boomerang Family (Ageing Family, South Korea, 2013)

Eating together is a defining part of the Boomerang Family's daily life.

Eating together is a defining part of the Boomerang Family’s daily life.

Boomerang Family was shown at Cornerhouse Cinema in Manchester last week as a screening for my Projecting the World evening class. I hoped that it would be an opportunity to watch a ‘mainstream popular film’ from South Korea – and I think that is what we got.

The film’s title in the UK refers to that increasingly familiar concept of adult children returning to the family home when something goes wrong. Here the returnees are a ‘failed’ movie director and a twice married divorcée with her 15 year-old daughter. They join their older brother, who has not been long out of prison, living in their mother’s small apartment. The film has been variously described as a comedy, ‘black comedy’ and comedy-drama. In the early stages of the narrative it isn’t clear where the story might be heading. Although their sister is gainfully employed and seems to have a future and the possibility of a new relationship, the two brothers seem rather aimless. At this stage, the main interest is in the sibling rivalry now rekindled and the film resembles a familiar UK sitcom idea about a dysfunctional family.

Gradually the individual narrative strands for each family member develop separately and then come together with family secrets slowly revealed. The film has been critiqued for ending up as yet another Korean crime drama (still with comedy elements) but I think that the script is quite careful to give each strand its place in the final resolution. There is, however, a disturbing moment when we do wonder if this has become a very dark drama rather than just black comedy. I was relieved that it pulled back as I found myself engaged by the various family members.

I enjoyed the film’s music but I would have to agree that overall the visual style of the film is not distinctive (unlike many South Korean films I have seen). The film is an adaptation of a novel and I understand that the director Song Hae-sung is known for his focus on performances. The film is well-cast and all the performances are indeed strong. I thought at first that the film wouldn’t work for me, but I found myself being drawn in and alongside the performances I think it was the sense of realism and the use of local culture that engaged me. I’m not sure how many DVDs Third Window will sell in the UK, but I’m grateful to get the chance to see the film and it’s very useful to have mainstream films like this on release in the UK.

Derek Elley’s review for Film Business Asia gives more detail and background.

Here’s the Third Window trailer:

A Blood Pledge (Dong-ban-ja-sal, South Korea 2009)

A cropped version of an original Korean poster.

A cropped version of an original Korean poster.

This South Korean horror film was given a UK DVD release on October 14th from Matchbox. It belongs to a form of teen horror franchise known as Yeogo goedam and re-titled as Whispering Corridors in English. This is the fifth instalment. The first was in 1998 with further films in 1999, 2003, 2005 and then 2009. Each film has a separate title as well as a reference to the franchise. The only elements in the ‘package’ that remain the same are the setting in a girls high school, a group of girls as principal characters and the theme that involves emotional relationships and some form of ‘haunting’. I haven’t seen the 4th instalment but I enjoyed all the others.

A Blood Pledge refers to the suicide pledge taken by four senior girls at a Catholic high school (are they called convents in South Korea?). One of the four does leap to her death from the school roof (the preferred method of suicide in several East Asian films) but the other three appear at school the next morning. The leap is witnessed by the dead girl’s younger sister. She begins to investigate what happened and disputes begin to develop between the other three girls who made the pact. The one who died is clearly going to come back to haunt the others.

Compared to the first film this latest instalment is a very slick and ‘clean’ presentation with fluid camerawork. Much of the action takes place at night and in their school uniforms with similar hairstyles it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the five central characters. There are numerous flashbacks and dream/nightmare sequences that are not very clearly marked as such so it’s quite easy to become confused and the experience of watching can make the viewer feel delirious. As far as horror effects are concerned, there is a lot of blood – but since several scenes are located in spotlessly clean school toilets, the overall effect is quite odd. Otherwise there are the usual bumps in the dark. The most interesting aspect of the film for me is the social commentary that appears at various times. We do learn something of some of the girls’ home lives but oddly we rarely see the teachers in the school (teachers are more involved in some of the other instalments of the franchise). The most overlooked aspect of the narrative in the reviews that I have seen is the Catholicism. I thought suicide was a mortal sin, but little seems to be made of it as an event in school.

A useful interview with Lee Choon-yun the producer (and originator) of the franchise can be found here. It seems that the initial idea came from a Japanese film from 1995 and it was attractive to Lee because he saw a means of drawing on a tradition of ‘legends’ or ‘scary stories’ that circulated in Korean schools. He also tells us that he was motivated by his own views about what he describes as the “repressive Korean education system” which turns out “‘good boys and girls’, punched from cookie-cutter moulds”. He also tells us that:

. . . a girl’s high school was an attractive setting. It’s a space that stimulates male curiosity, a place that men have never been in but are fascinated by. Conversely, for women it’s an environment that they can feel nostalgic about.

The temptation in the UK would be to sexualise the girls explicitly, especially via school uniforms, but the uniforms in this film are modest, tailored and seemingly quite expensive. Somehow, the film’s director Lee Jong-yong manages to deal with familiar social issues about teen sexuality and relationships and parental bullying alongside ‘crushes’ and petty jealousies in a measured way so that he can focus on quite long scenes of angry looks, accusations and pleadings between the girls. His previous important credits include script work on Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) and as Assistant director on JSA (2000) but this isn’t a Park Chan-wook style film.

bloodpledge

The DVD is available from Amazon. I’d certainly recommend the film to anyone interested in horror, teen films or East Asian cinemas generally. It’s not necessary to have seen any of the four previous Whispering Corridors films to enjoy this one but I think you will want to see how different directors handle similar material.. I think that Memento Mori (1999)remains my favourite for the moment, but I must look out for The Voice (2005). All four earlier titles are available in a Region 2 box set heavily discounted, so if you are starting without any knowledge you can now access all five quite easily.

Leeds IFF 2012: In Another Country (Da-reun na-ra-e-suh, South Korea-France 2012)

Isabelle Huppert as Anne with the lifeguard and the umbrella – two recurring features of ‘In Another Country’

I chose this screening based on Isabelle Huppert’s appearance and the vague recollection that the writer-director Hong Sang-Soo was important. I wonder what I might have written if I wasn’t aware of the director’s pedigree? I later realised that this was one of the films in competition for the Palme d’Or in 2012 and that Hong is a celebrated figure on the festival circuit. As I watched the film I had mixed feelings – but I kept watching.

This is a classic ‘festival film’, aiming to please very specific audiences. I would be surprised if Hong’s films get much distribution beyond festivals, but who knows? A low-budget offering, this features a total of seven actors, most of whom play roughly the same characters in three separate scenarios set in an attractive seaside location – little more than a few houses and a hotel/bar in a small bay with a beach. The scenarios are presented through the device of a young woman writing them out – as short stories I thought, but I later read that they were meant to be screenplay ideas. The writer works with her mother in a small hotel/B&B.

In each scenario Isabelle Huppert plays a Frenchwoman called Anne who stays in the B&B and who is first a film director, then a married woman meeting her lover and finally a woman who has just been divorced. Each scenario involves similar characters and settings – a walk to the shops, a stroll on the beach, an encounter with a lifeguard and an altercation with another Korean man involving accusations of infidelity. Huppert speaks English throughout and, since this is ostensibly a comedy, there are several interchanges between characters which depend on mis-communication. The serious discourse underpinning the encounters appears to be a satire on Korean men’s attraction to foreign women and the social consequences of the over-polite exchanges between men and women. I confess that the humour didn’t completely work for me – I could see that it was clever and it was at times amusing, but not laugh-out-loud funny. The repetition of similar jokes and the play around getting drunk on soju began to get tedious after a while.

Isabelle Huppert, who presumably met the director at Cannes (where he has been ‘in competition’ five times) relishes the opportunity to play against type, skittering along on heels or slouching in flats clutching a soju bottle. The overall look and feel of the film is certainly attractive but I was irritated by the abrupt camera zooms (a familiar trait in the director’s style it would appear) and I wanted more about cultural differences in adultery and small talk. I’m clearly not the ideal festival audience. Hong Sang-Soo has won many awards at festivals across the world since the 1990s so I’m probably missing something. Here’s a sequence from the film used as a trailer at Cannes:

My Way (Mai Wei, South Korea 2011)

A Korean soldier in a Russian uniform is captured by German troops in My Way

My Way has been promoted as the most expensive Korean blockbuster yet produced. It has had a handful of cinema screenings in the UK courtesy of the Terracotta Film Festival but it is released today on DVD by Universal in the UK. (Co)writer-director Kang Je-gyu was one of the principal figures in launching the concept of the Korean blockbuster with his earlier films, Swiri (Shiri, 1999) and Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo (Brotherhood 2004). The Korean concept of a blockbuster is slightly different to the Hollywood concept. The term tends to be used for any film that gets a wide release and which attracts a large number of admissions – i.e. the term refers more to distribution and exhibition than genre or narrative. All kinds of films have become blockbusters in South Korea, but often it is their appeal to aspects of Korean culture that is important.

Kang Je-gyu’s films have been blockbusters in both the Korean and the US sense. Shiri and Brotherhood both dealt with North-South conflicts in Korea, the latter with the 1950-53 Korean War and a story about brothers caught up reluctantly in the fighting. This spectacular war film attracted over 11 million admissions in South Korea (about a quarter of the population). My Way has a similar structure and theme as Brotherhood, but takes on an even bigger story that crosses Asia from Korea to the D-Day beaches of 1944. Kang was inspired by a reported historical event – the capture of a Korean soldier in a Wehrmacht uniform by American forces during the D-Day landings. Kang discovered the elements of the man’s story and then added another intriguing element of his own.

My Way begins and ends with a marathon runner during the 1948 London Olympics. The remainder of the 142 mins is a long flashback that begins in 1928 with two small boys racing each other. One is Kim Jun-shik and the other is Hasegawa Tatsuo, son of the Kim family’s Japanese colonial landlord. Tatsuo has his future mapped out as an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army. As a child he revels in the tussle with his Korean friend but ten years later he will face Jun-shik again in an ‘all-Japan’ trial. Jun-shik can’t be allowed to win and instead he is ‘pressed’ into the Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuko (Manchuria). He becomes an unwilling participant (with other Korean pressed men) in the major battle with Soviet Russian forces on the Mongolian border in 1939 – where he again comes up against the now Colonel Hasegawa. Both men are captured by the Soviets and put in a Siberian work camp from where in 1941 they are pressed into the Red Army and after a battle with the Germans they escape westwards only to end up in a German work battalion on the Western Front. During this long trek they work through their personal antagonisms.

The emphasis in the film is on the epic battles fought in Manchuria/Mongolia and on the Eastern and Western European fronts. Kang Je-gyu uses CGI extensively and re-created his version of the D-Day landing at Utah beach in Latvia on a budget of $3 million. The cinema screening I saw was missing most of the subtitles because of a projection problem with the digital print. Since the film includes Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian and German dialogue this could have been a major problem. In reality, although I might have missed some of the nuances, I think that I could follow most of the film fairly easily. Certainly, I was not bored at any point through 142 minutes.

My Way is not an art movie. It’s a popular epic war movie with masses of CGI. It could be compared to Hollywood films like Pearl Harbor (which I haven’t seen) and that seems to be what most US critics have done, seeing it as just another bombastic mindless adventure movie. I think it is the Hollywood Reporter review that derides it as “blowing itself to bits”. I’m not going to claim that the film is an incisive analysis of war in the twentieth century, but I think that it deserves a little more consideration, at least as a project if not as a successful film narrative.

My first thought was that as a rare East Asian film that attempts to represent historical events in Europe, My Way offers a lesson for superior European critics. I felt myself about to scoff at an opening which pretends to be London, before I checked myself after realising that I have no idea what Seoul looked like in 1948 – just as I had little idea of the major battles fought between the Japanese and Russians over the Mongolian/Manchurian border in 1939. Kang has to be applauded for the ambition of his storytelling. He is also very brave to take on Japanese-Korean relationships in the 1930s and 1940s. The strategy for this big budget film was to use major stars from Japan, Korea and China to attract a Pan-Asian audience. Jang Dong-geon (who plays Jun-shik) and Odagiri Joe as Tatsuo have to carry the film. Fang Bingbing has a much smaller role as a Chinese sniper in Manchuria and other than Kim In-gwon as Jun-shik’s friend, pressed into the army at the same time, none of the other characters in the film are developed.

The strategy appears not to have worked in the sense that My Way attracted only around 2 million admissions in South Korea and a fraction of that number in Japan. I haven’t seen any figures for a Chinese release as yet. The Korean producers are looking at a significant loss with a worldwide box office take of only $16 million. On reflection, the loss of subtitles in the screening I attended probably didn’t help me understand the changing relationship between the Korean and Japanese characters and that relationship may be the stumbling block for audiences in both countries. I’m not sure what Chinese audiences might make of the film. The current animosity towards the Japanese won’t help but at least the film does offer an East Asian perspective on events in the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, rather than Hollywood films, My Way resembles Chinese epic productions and I notice that the film’s release in Korea and Japan at the end of 2011 coincided with Zhang Yimou’s latest epic production Flowers of War (China/HK 2011) about the massacre in Nanjing in 1937 – not the best time to release a film about the Imperial Japanese Army, even if the focus is mainly on the Koreans forced to serve in it.

Since I’ve not seen the Hollywood CGI representations of World War 2 battles, I’m probably repeating a well-known observation, but I have to say that the depiction of the D-Day landings in My Way were almost surreal, especially in terms of the massed squadrons of bombers and American capital ships. I was reminded of anime like Graveyard of the Fireflies (Japan 1988) which includes the firebombing of Kobe by the Americans. Here’s an idea of how My Way looks in the US trailer:

War of the Arrows (Choi-jong-byeong-gi Hwal, South Korea 2011)

Park Hae-Il as Nam-yi

This relatively unheralded film turned out to be the biggest box office local film of the year in South Korea, beaten only by Tom Cruise and the latest Transformers film in the chart. Perhaps most surprising about its success is that a large portion of the dialogue is spoken in a virtually extinct Manchu language – so the mainstream audience in Seoul were confronted with subtitles as well as several onscreen titles explaining aspects of the history. If this makes War of the Arrows sound like a dry historical document, fear not. This is a lean and sinewy action thriller.

Outline

Korea in the Joseon period, 1623. A teenage boy and his young sister flee from Seoul after a coup d’état in which their father is killed as a loyal officer of the ousted ruler. The boy Nam-yi has been given his father’s bow and instructed to look after his sister Ja-in. They are taken in by one of their father’s friends in the mountains. Thirteen years later Ja-in decides that she can’t always live in hiding and decides to marry the son of their protector. Nam-yi doesn’t think much of this idea but is forced to accept her decision and prepares to leave. He is by now a cynical man and we get hints of his archery prowess. It looks like he will become a bitter warrior, a kind of Korean version of a ronin in a Japanese samurai film. However, on the day of his sister’s wedding when he has just left town, Manchu cavalry arrive and swiftly take possession of the area. This is the ‘Second Manchu invasion of Joseon Korea’ in 1636. Half a million Koreans are captured and marched away to Manchuria. Nam-yi is now a fugitive looking for his sister and displaying prodigious archery skills in his battles with the invaders. Eventually he will find himself up against a crack squad of Manchu mounted archers who he must overcome to rescue Nam-yi and her new husband.

Commentary

A straightforward conventional action picture, this film demonstrates the strength of Korean Cinema in terms of acting, cinematography and overall presentation. Writer-director Kim Han-min previously directed two other genre films, both described as ‘thrillers’ on IMDB.  War of the Arrows looks wonderful, the action sequences are exciting and there is a novelty (for me, at least) in the concentration on archery skills. I was very impressed by Park Hae-il as Nam-yi (having previously seen him in The Host). The actor does not resemble the usual action hero but he utilises all his skills to make the character convincing. The following excellent review on Koreanfilm.org says much more about the film from a more informed perspective. I agree with the comment that this is much more like a 1950s Hollywood Western in its focus on the characters and the hunt/chase than a conventional historical drama. I’m also interested in the comments about the choice of subject matter – the humiliating defeat of Korean forces during the Manchu invasion – and how this relates to the more typical choice of narratives that fit the ‘national popular’ categories (i.e. Korean War epics or films where the Japanese are the bad guys). The Koreanfilm.org review praises the film but criticises the ‘submission’ to the use of CGI and under current conventions of the action film. It suggests that more focus on the philosophy of the martial arts being practised in a Kurosawa Akira mode would have been a better bet. I’m not really in a position to comment on CGI but this alternative suggestion is one that I didn’t think of when watching the film, but on reflection it sounds an interesting idea.

I’d recommend this film to anyone interested in action films and East Asian Cinema more generally. Here’s the best trailer I could find (try to ignore the dreadful voiceover):

Films From the South #10: The Journals of Musan (Musanilgi, South Korea 2010)

Seung-chul (Park Jung-bum, right) meets the dog who will become his companion.

The quality of films coming out of South Korea continues to be very high. When I read the festival’s blurb on this title I did wonder if it was really a good idea to watch it as the last film of three in an evening session. But around ten minutes in I’d forgotten about my reservations. Park Jung-bum is the writer, director and lead actor in a bleak tale about a North Korean defector (from Musan) trying to survive in Seoul. The film is over 2 hours long and it’s his first feature. But Park was previously an assistant on the much acclaimed Poetry and some of that film’s magic has certainly brushed off onto his own début.

Jeon Seung-chul finds himself sharing a small apartment literally on the edge of Seoul (there is a ‘demolished village’ next to the apartment) with a rather more ‘worldly-wise’ defector, Kyoung-chul, who has already settled into the capitalist culture of the South. Seung-chul struggles to earn a living fly-posting but is physically attacked by rivals, whereas Kyoung-chul has developed a lucrative racket in charging other defectors from the North large sums to send money home via his uncle in China. Seung-chul’s attempts to get a better job are thwarted by the giveaway of his North Korean identity which comes from the ‘125’ code in his South Korean ID number. His only relief from the misery of work and the inhospitable apartment is his visits to a church where he develops an interest in an attractive young woman in the choir – who he doggedly follows across the city.

As my brief plot outline reveals, this is essentially a neo-realist idea with the two obvious references being Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. The former provides the hopelessness of the struggle for a proper job – often a process of one step forward and one step back. Like the old man in Umberto D, Seung-chul also seeks company from a dog – in this case a very appealing puppy. The neo-realist narrative idea is matched by a strictly functional camera style (shot on HD video).  Any danger of sentimentality is avoided by making Seong-chul a very human figure, someone who is sullen and stubborn as well as honest and hardworking. I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot development so suffice to say, things go wrong for Kyoung-chul as well as Seung-chul and in the last third of the film there is more action and an important revelation about Seung-chul’s past in the North. Seung-chul eventually meets the woman at the church and for a moment I was worried that he was going to find ‘salvation’ as a church member. (I’ve no animosity towards organised religion as such, but the idea of ‘redemption’ in this scenario threatened to undermine everything that had gone before.) But this doesn’t happen and the woman proves to be as false and self-centred as most of the other characters that Seung-chul meets.

There is a very annoying programme on UK Radio 4 called ‘The Moral Maze’ in which moral questions are explored by a panel of ‘experts’. I’d like to sit them down in front of this film. Its humanism poses very difficult questions to which there are no easy answers. Seung-chul is not a ‘hero’ as such in the narrative. But it’s difficult not to feel for him and then to question yourself about how you might react if you met him. If you do manage to see the film, have a look at the various reviews and they will give you a flavour of what Park Jun-bum has stirred up in his representation of a character and a situation based, I think, on real events.

I hope the film gets a wide international release and I noted that its Korean backer is the same company, Fine Cut, which was involved in co-producing the Argentinian film Carancho. The character behind Fine Cut, Suh Young-joo has a long history in the South Korean industry and the new company is emerging as an interesting player in the international market for smaller independent films.

Trailer for The Journals of Musan: