Korean Films at MIFF 2004

Ten features and one omnibus film from South Korea screened at the 53rd Melbourne International Film Festival. Of these, I can’t comment on Natural City, Samaritan Girl and If You Were Me since I neglected to see them. From inquiries and overheard conversations, it seems Natural City received a warmer reaction than might have been expected, and given my tastes Samaritan Girl was probably the Kim Ki-duk I should have forced myself to watch. Unfortunately, If You Were Me was very much under my MIFF radar and I have no idea how audiences responded to it.

Memories of Murder and Old Boy were absolute standout pictures this year, which given their reputations was not a huge revelation. A little more surprising was how well they performed in light of the substantial array of excellent Asian films on offer (all the non-Miyazaki Studio Ghibli films, Nobody Knows, Tropical Malady, Breaking News, 20:30:40, Men Suddenly In Black). I’ve come away from MIFF loaded with thoughts and feelings about Memories and Old Boy, even while plenty of other pictures captured my attention (personal favs: Last Life in the Universe, South of the Clouds, Golden Swallow, My Neighbours the Yamadas). Is that a sign of their relative quality or some kind of a putative Korean-alism? I showed (forcefully … guiltily) the Old Boy DVD to three people in three days upon returning from Melbourne, which could be an indicator of either I guess. That the hoodwinked spectators in question nodded sagely at Old Boy’s obvious merits, asked involved and detailed questions about the story (about why youthful Yu Ji-tae is cast opposite Choi Min-shik, what the deal is with all the red herrings early in the story, etc) and sat still a lot longer than I expected speaks volumes for the excitement and captivation generated by the film itself.

Memories of Murder was a thankful smash success for director Bong Joon-ho whose deftly observed Barking Dogs Never Bite failed to pack multiplexes. It seems that Korean filmmakers can get away with a single instance of box office poison, but two strikes in such a commercially inclined cinema is probably enough to fan all but the titans (such as the Kang’s Je-gyu & Woo-suk) back to the dugout. Memories is a crime thriller based on a real serial killing episode in Korea in the mid-1980s. It is as much about interrelations among the solitary female and several male detectives as it is about murder, mayhem and chasing the killer. It’s Se7en without the stupid gimmick, L.A. Confidential without the dime novel vernacular, and unlike those films doesn’t mind poking fun at its heroes and the bent system they work in. Bong never allows the story to miss a beat: routine concerns like compiling evidence, conducting excessively rigged interviews, beating on suspects, and growing to love thy comrades in detection are expertly handled to maximise clarity and impact. At some point in the always engrossing encounter we gradually realise that the whodunnit plot is being overtaken by a character study, one that shows us how the investigation is emotionally scarring the overtly masculine detectives. When push comes to flying kick in the chest, even tough guys can lose their innocence.

Old Boy is the most exciting movie I’ve seen in ages. Rialto Entertainment have scored the local release and if they handle it diligently I expect they’ll be happy with the returns. This is the one film we can safely show all those people who have abruptly ended our enthused conversations with “oh … Korean cinema, eh? I’ve never seen a Korean movie…” Safely? Well, so long as those viewers can withstand oodles of hideous oral wreakage. We knew from Sympathy for Mr Vengeance that helmer Park Chan-wook was a little preoccupied with the Cinemascope mangling of human bodies. The addition of Old Boy’s gruesome operative procedures via claw hammer to Park’s motif cache is bound to have us on our toes upon future journeys into his relentless deterministic universe. And yet he is no shameless merchant of the cheap and vulgar. Park sustains his shock-them, rock-them aesthetic with superbly envisaged, expertly configured audio symphonies and visual patternings. The music is attention grabbing, swiftly bleeding from classical to pulsating electronica across the often savagely abrupt changes of scene. Cutting rhythms likewise contrast throughout: rapid editing links with visual abstraction (chasing Escheresque memories in high school), longer takes emphasise qualities of space (the flat mural look of the corridor fight scene). Joint Security Area stamped Park as a thoughtful dramatist and meticulous storyteller; Sympathy demonstrated his darker ambitions, playing looser and betraying perhaps a smidgeon of disregard for his doting audience. With Old Boy, Park and his production team return to the emotionally taut scripting of JSA, avoid Sympathy’s downward spiral (or do they?) and deliver the coolest inconsequential fantasy since Brian DePalma’s underseen Femme Fatale. See it before it gets dated.

Of the other Korean pictures, only A Good Lawyer’s Wife will stick in my imagination for a while. The performers are gifted with intricate characters and, via evasive handheld camerawork, ample space to roam. Hwang Jeong-min and Moon So-ri as the husband and wife are held at simmering point by director Im Sang-soo, who carefully shuns blatant melodrama at crucial moments. I’d never noticed Hwang before, whose work is especially good: you can feel his internalised confusion as he tries to figure out ways of expressing all the glorious contradictions of ‘the modern lawyer’. Dialogue is incredibly exacting, sustaining momentum. Babble is eradicated, allowing the characters to compellingly open up (the mother’s farewell at the airport) or declare the final, threatening word (the lawyer’s reaction to the news of his wife’s infidelity). We’ve seen this story before, but the nuanced handling is fresh.

On the other hand, Sword in the Moon miserably disguises its national division allegory in the final monologue, ruining for me its marginal success as a swordplay intrigue. This picture utterly divided audiences, though, with the genuine affection of some countering the exasperation of others. Moon certainly plays tough at the end, sparing no trauma for its heroes, but unlike say Musa it lacks the charm or bravado to encourage emotional investment. I don’t doubt its sincerity, but I have to question its blunt methods.

From the Silmido screening I attended, I can report that local audiences remain impressed with the noisy, macho, bombastic slick of the post-Shiri Korean blockbuster. Seeing it on the big screen for the first time, I was again underwhelmed by the blitz on my senses and emerged wondering about the place of history amid all the hype. Follow the link above for my steadfast impressions, or if you like ignore them and pick up Eastern Eye’s soon to be released Region 4 DVD.

Another film that positions me in the minority is Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, a Berlin Film Festival winner, US audience pleaser and all-round warm-hearted atoneheart piece. Similar to his The Isle, which I do like, action takes place on and around a magnificent lake setting. I have a predilection for Autumn so perhaps naturally found it the sequence that best captured and utilised the beauty of the scenery. There’s a moment where a character exits frame and focus is thrown to distant trees where reddish brown leaves tremble in the breeze … it’s gorgeous. Unfortunately, the rest of this film is tainted by a stubborn focus-lock on the over-inflated voyage of Kim’s personal auteurist redemption. In order to tell his story of transgressive characters redressing their inhumanities, Kim analogously strips away from his aesthetic the unnerving cruelties that defined him as a badass auteur on the edge. My problem with this is that nothing much is left over; he drains the pond but it was already devoid of the fish he wanted to get. Given the shallowness of his formal preferences, Kim’s corporeal insertion of himself into the Winter sequence (where presumably we’re meant to learn something from watching him exercise) is the final straw in this analysis. Hesitant, uncertain, lacking things to express and ways to express them, the author presents himself for display and consumption … successful cinematic redemption maybe, but only in a transparent and insufferable form.

Unlike most of Kim’s frequent works, I wish I had nice things to say about Hong Sang-soo’s Woman is the Future of Man. I was a little disappointed with this meandering piece, which traces the nostalgic misdirections and persistent frustrations of two argumentative, equally dissatisfied males. It’s not a particularly lucid work, and given the ineptitudes of the central characters, who I suppose we’re not actually meant to like, Hong is asking an awful lot of the audience, especially a tiring festival audience encountering this as maybe the third or fourth picture of the day. Fans of Hong will find stylistic things to appreciate, like his signature refrains, and I wouldn’t say that Woman diminishes my good feelings towards his oeuvre, but its understated meaningful qualities were either lost on me, not thoroughly expressed, or oddly formless in the process of creation. Woman’s Cannes inclusion this year augers well, I hope, for Hou hsiao-hsien’s latest, the snubbed Café Lumiere.

To finish on a slightly higher note, A Tale of Two Sisters is a polished brain-bender that craftily interweaves generic elements (horror, supernatural thriller, psychological character study, family melodrama) to feel similar to — but not quite like — other recent East Asian films designed for maximum creepiness (Audition springs to mind). You never know quite what’s going on, which is okay during the film, but a little frustrating once the credits roll and somewhat annoying when days later things still haven’t fallen into place (but I guess some people don’t care about whatever the hell it was lurking beneath the kitchen sink). Sisters takes you for an enjoyable ride, but don’t be surprised if afterwards you feel more like a donkey than a thoroughbred. Once again for a Korean genre film, the script doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s meticulously executed and the production values relative to the budget are astonishing. This is one of those films that tries hard to assert itself as an object worthy of cult interest, multiple websites and infinite speculation. For many I’m sure it succeeds, but apropos to all that extra-textual stuff, and given the abundance of available pop-culture narratives like this, for me it’s like missing a taxi … why hang around contemplating what ifs when you can just get the next one in the rank?

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