Before renewing their association quite emphatically with the hit blockbuster Shiri, director Kang Je-gyu and actor Han Seok-kyu made The Gingko Bed together, a special-effects driven fantasy-horror movie that made a splash at the local box office and a healthy contribution to Korea’s emerging commercial cinema. Since 1996 both Kang (Taegukgi) and Han (The President’s Last Bang) have become superstars of their professions, marking The Gingko Bed as a film of high interest to their fans.
I myself am not really a fan of either Han or Kang. Something about Han’s almost without exception cocky performances rubs me the wrong way, and all of Kang’s big blown histrionics fail to budge me intellectually or stir my emotions. This early work is a bit different, however. Kang hasn’t quite formed his spectacular roller-coaster method, and Han’s off-handed behaviour comes across more sincerely within the overall milieu of the fantastic. On offer here is also a reasonably engaging love story that like so many other ‘passing like ships in the night’ romances features a couple who must cut a swathe across space and time in order to be together.
Horror elements mainly involve the lumbering figure of Shin Hyun-joon, who plays the tormented and thoroughly nasty undead spirit of General Hwang. Hwang is responsible for a fair dose of gore on display in the opening few minutes, but principally his major purpose is to carry the story forward with his unrelenting desire for Mi-dan. Shin’s fierce gaze is put to great effect with Hwang, who looks like he could do some serious pulping of scrawny Mr Han without having to fall back on too many tricks of the demon trade. Well, I guess that must be a different movie.
The Gingko Bed is by no means a classic of Korean cinema, but it is a reasonably successful and enjoyable merger of horror with sword and sorcery type fantasy. The special effects may look dated, but they certainly have a function beyond interfering with the plot in order to steal the attention of the eye and, presumably, the viewer’s sense of story comprehension. Kang, who studied film in New York, clearly demonstrates that he knows how and when to deploy a visually sensational moment, but he manages to tell a pretty captivating yarn while he’s at it. Unfortunately this is a talent he seems to have progressively ignored as he works his way closer and closer to his preferred final destination of Hollywood.
Fans of Bichunmoo, check it out.