Truth and Dare: New York Korean Film Festival 2005
by Christopher Bourne
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The increasing status of Korean cinema is one of the more interesting recent developments of the international film scene. Not so very long ago, South Korean cinema was all but unknown to everyone except the most savvy and diligent insiders. Over the past five years or so, Korean film has increased its international profile, with Korean film becoming more and more of a major presence at film festivals around the world. Such directors as Kim Ki-duk (who achieved the remarkable feat of winning prizes for two of his recent films, Samaritan Girl (2004) and 3-Iron (2004) at Berlin and Venice within the same year), Park Chan-wook (whose Oldboy (2003) was awarded the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival last year), and Hong Sang-soo (Turning Gate , Woman is the Future of Man ) have received considerable (and often controversial) critical attention.
Unfortunately, this attention has yet to translate into increased popularity for Korean films released stateside. Some reasons can be cited for this, for example culturally specific elements that are unfamiliar for moviegoers, or perhaps the specialized (one could say ghettoized) marketing of such recent releases as Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), and Kim Ki-duk’s Bad Guy (2001) as “Asian extreme” cinema. However, South Korea has one of the world’s most vibrant, innovative, and financially robust film industries, and the great variety of this cinema is only barely hinted at in the films that manage to get stateside distribution.
Film festivals, then, represent the rare opportunities to get more of a complete picture of this cinema. “Truth and Dare: New York Korean Film Festival 2005,” running from Sept 2-11, 2005, boasts an impressive sampling of contemporary Korean cinema, both popular and critically successful films. Organized by Media Bank, a New York-based company dedicated to bringing Korean films to the States, the festival is now in its fifth year. The festival runs from September 2-6 at The Lighthouse Theatre in Manhattan and from September 7-11 at BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn. Below are particularly notable highlights of the series.
Park Heung-sik’s My Mother, the Mermaid (2004) is a magical realist fantasy where a young woman, Na-young (Jeon Do-yeon), is frustrated with living with her mother Yeon-soon (Go Du-shim) and her silent, penniless father, Jin-kook (Kim Bong-geun). Na-young works at the post office along with her father, who has put the family into deep debt by cosigning a loan for a friend who died leaving him with the debt. This forces the family to move and Na-young to interrupt her studies. Yeon-soon has turned into a bitter, hardened ajumma (the Korean term for a middle-aged woman), cursing and spitting as she struggles to make money at the public bath. Na-young gets the chance to go for company training in New Zealand, which she sees as a chance to escape from what she sees as her miserable existence.
Na-young’s boyfriend remarks on her resemblance to her mother upon seeing an old picture, a clue to the major turn the story will soon take. Just before she is to take her trip, her father quits his job at the post office and mysteriously disappears. Na-young, at her wit’s end with her family situation, tearfully breaks up with her boyfriend, declaring her wish to live alone and never to marry, and most of all to be nothing like her mother.
However, as she is about to embark for New Zealand, she decides not to go, and instead search for her father. She goes to Cheju Island, where her parents met, as the most likely place to look for him. Without warning, the film takes a turn into magic realism, becoming a time-travel fantasy as Na-young comes upon a young woman who looks remarkably like her, who turns out to be her own mother at age 20. As befitting its function as a magical-realist device, the time-travel aspect is not explained and the film does not get bogged down in the implications and complications resulting from this occurrence. The film concentrates on the courtship between the young Yeon-soon and the village postman, Na-young’s future father Jin-kook (Park Hae-il). Slowly Na-young comes to a deeper understanding of her mother. Yeon-soon is a diver on the island, explaining her habit of spitting, since she dives without gear and spits out the water when she surfaces.
Yeon-soon cannot read or write, and has her younger brother write letters for the postman to pick up, so she as an excuse to see him. Yeon-soon lives alone with her younger brother, having been abandoned by her mother. Yeon-soon’s illiteracy is exposed when she needs help sending a telegram. Jin-kook helps her and offers to teach her to read and write, and their romance blossoms. However, he must leave her when he is transferred to the mainland. He parts with her, leaving her with the book The Little Mermaid (also the film’s Korean title).
Even though the unfolding romance is quite charming, the film’s pace drags in the middle section, with Na-young mostly relegated to the sidelines, observing her parents’ romance. Also, there is a disconnect between Na-young’s parents in their youth and the older people they have become, and it is not clear how they got to that point, other than vague implications of a difficult life, and the father’s wish to return to the feelings and memories of his youth, evidenced by his melancholy visits to the sites of their courtship.
However, these weaknesses are mostly made up for by the impressive dual performance of Jeon Do-yeon, one of Korea’s most talented and versatile actresses. In her previous roles in such films as Happy End (1999), No Blood, No Tears (2002), and Untold Scandal (2002), she invested these radically diverse characters with a fierce vigor and intelligence, and she deftly pulls off her dual role here without extensive makeup or visual tricks. Go Du-shim, as the mother, is also impressive, effectively conveying this hard-bitten woman with a fierce will to survive and determination to be resilient through difficult times.
Kim In-shik’s Hypnotized (2004) is a stylish, erotic thriller that aspires to be Hitchcockian. There are some impressively staged scenes and motifs, for example in the mirrored scenes of Jin-su (Kim Hye-soo) and her therapist/lover Sok-won (Kim Tae-woo) both standing among levitating objects that violently crash around them. Also, the lighted stairs that play piano chords in Sok-won’s office is a nice touch. The sex scenes with Jin-su, involving her doctor and flashbacks of a former lover are suitably erotic.
Jin-su, suffering from borderline personality disorder, is a failed novelist who attempts suicide after learning of her husband’s affair. She is committed to an institution which she soon leaves. Jin-su meets Sok-won again by chance a year later. They begin an affair, during which the doctor manipulates her into having sex with him by using hypnosis. He consequently uses the hypnosis to control her and create the illusion of a passionate affair between the two. The doctor has his own private turmoil, still struggling to cope with his wife’s suicide. The Hitchcock influence on the film is clear in its affinities to Marnie (1964), in which hypnosis is also a prominent device, and the means by which Sean Connery’s character controls and enslaves his beloved.
However, despite the film’s considerable visual stylishness, there is something rather hollow and superficial about the proceedings. Jin-su’s constant trances, for example, after a while become faintly parodic. The film is also needlessly cluttered with unnecessary subplots, such as that of the young girl who claims abuse by her stepfather, who in reality is her real father. The constant shifts between reality and fantasy are overly elaborated and ornate. Hypnotized (or Faceless Beauty, the original Korean title) in the end is a slickly packaged and erotic but ultimately empty and inconsequential film.
Park Young-hoon’s Innocent Steps (2005), a hit film upon its release in Korea this past April, is an unabashedly romantic star vehicle showcasing the ethereally cute and charming young actress, Moon Geun-young. Although the film’s delicate construction would collapse like a cinematic house of cards without Moon’s presence, the film remains an effectively moving, if somewhat clichéd romantic melodrama. Moon’s impressive dance skills (reportedly after three months of intensive training) are given ample screen time.
Chae-ryn (Moon) is a Korean-Chinese girl who comes to Korea to be the dance partner of Young-sae (Park Gun-hyung), whose career was sabotaged by his rival Hyun-soo, who broke his leg and ran off with his dance partner (who subsequently left Hyun-soo). Young-sae’s friend and manager arranges for Chae-ryn to be sent to him to revive his career. However, Chae-ryn turns out to be posing as her older sister, whose fiancé refuses to allow her to travel to Korea. She begs Young-sae to let her stay and teach her to dance, with a major competition only three months away.
Chae-ryn is naive, speaking with a pronounced Korean-Chinese accent, to Young-sae’s annoyance. He must rescue her from unwittingly working as a bar girl. Chae-ryn keeps a jar of fireflies, used in the film as a symbol of true love. Long sequences, which sometimes feel like padding, are devoted to montages of Chae-ryn’s dance training.
They must pretend to be married to avoid Chae-ryn’s deportation. This engenders a comic subplot with two marriage fraud investigators that falls flat. The film improves as it goes along, however, and although as expected the two fall in love, to the film’s credit it avoids a typical happy ending. Although it is obvious that Innocent Steps’ only reason for being is Moon Geun-young, the sheer force of her charisma and puppy-dog sweetness make the film work despite its weaknesses.
Chu Chang-min’s Mapado: All About the Hemp and Widows (2005) is a high-spirited comedy whose central gimmick is the prominent role of the middle-aged women on the titular island. Mapado was a surprise hit this year in Korea, attracting filmgoers of similar age to the women in the film, an audience rarely courted in films these days. Much like My Mother, the Mermaid, Mapado boasts an interesting rural setting and depiction of the ajumma, the tough-minded, hardened-by-life middle-aged Korean woman beyond the stage of placating men and making themselves attractive for them. Mapado offers five examples of the ajumma, played by the veteran actresses Yeo Un-kye, Kim Eul-dong, Kim Soo-mi, Kim Hyeong-ja, and Gil Hae-yeon. Kim Soo-mi, especially, stands out as the hard-bitten and foul-mouthed Jin-an.
Pretty-boy gangster Jae-chul (Lee Jeong-jin) and Chung-soo (Lee Moon-sik), a detective perennially on the take, go to Mapa Island to track down Ggeut-sun, a young woman who has made off with a 16 million won lottery ticket belonging to Jae-chul’s boss. However, they are impeded by the widows on the island, one of whom is Ggeut-sun’s mother, who hasn’t heard from her daughter in years. Even though the women haven’t laid eyes on a man in many years, and one of the women is rather flirtatious with the men, the film refreshingly doesn’t go down the obvious path of making a farce of the women’s sexuality. The women’s characters have remarkable depth and are not portrayed as grotesque caricatures.
Mapado is less stridently slapsticky than other recent Korean comedies such as Hi Dharma! (2001) It is a modest, unassuming film with a considerable amount of charm and gentle humor, enlivened considerably by the performances of its five spirited veteran actresses.
Bunshinsaba (2004), the latest spooky offering from horrormeister Ahn Byeong-ki (Nightmare , Phone ), is an unofficial entry in the long-running “Whispering Corridors” series of haunted girl’s high school films. Ahn’s film features well-worn horror movie hallmarks: long-haired ghosts, figures jumping out of corners and floating ominously in the background. However, beneath this surface, Ahn explores deeper themes of the fear of difference and enforced conformity, and the violent ostracization that occurs as a result.
In a remote village high school, Yoo-Jin (Lee Se-eun), continually tormented by her classmates, calls two friends who are similarly taunted, and call forth a “Bunshinsaba” spirit to punish their enemies. Their efforts are successful in ways that spiral out of their control, as girls begin lighting their own heads on fire. It turns out that Yoo-jin is possessed by the spirit of In-sook, a girl who, along with her mother Chun-hee, was burned to death as a result of the villagers’ fear of their supernatural powers. Along with an art teacher new to the village, Eun-ju (Kim Gyu-ri), Yoo-jin is caught up in the mother and daughter’s latter-day revenge on the villagers for causing their deaths.
Flashbacks detail how In-sook and Chun-hee came to the village and were marginalized. Their violent deaths recall the Salem witch trials, but the scenario has special resonance in a Korean context, in which a homogeneous society, exerts considerable pressure throughout history and in the present to conform to standards set by society and government. In the flashbacks, there is an explicit reference to Park Chung-hee, the authoritarian South Korean president of the 60s and 70s, and his injunction against witchcraft and spiritual practices. This context lifts Bunshinsaba above the typical horror movie, and Ahn creates a palpable sense of compassion and sympathy for those ostracized by the larger society.
Lee Jae-Han (John H. Lee)’s A Moment to Remember (2004) is the sort of tearjerker melodrama which is a specialty of Korean film. Featuring an affecting performance from Son Ye-jin (who starred in The Classic (2003), another notable melodrama), this film contains the familiar elements of impending disease and doomed love which is no less affecting for its obviousness.
Lee uses impressive widescreen compositions to create a visually compelling film, which elevates it above the typical melodrama. The film makes effective use of a boldly implausible premise: Su-jin (Son) is stricken with Alzheimer’s at the age of 28, a fatal blow to her marriage to the brooding Chul-soo (Jung Woo-sung). The Alzheimer’s is an extreme example of the amnesia plot device that has been used often in Korean melodramas, especially TV melodramas such as Winter Sonata. In the case of this film, it functions as a metaphor for the wish of both Su-jin and Chul-soo to escape their painful pasts. Before meeting Chul-soo, Su-jin is recovering from the aftermath of a failed affair with a coworker. She wishes to forget this and move on. Chul-soo, in turn, must deal with his own issues of abandonment by his mother. Su-jin’s forgetfulness results in her first meeting with Chul-soo, involving a forgotten can of Coke, a running bit of product placement that serves a function in the story.
A Moment to Remember transcends the contrivances of its scenario with Lee’s visual schema, Son Ye-jin’s performance, and such beautifully handled scenes as the final scene in the minimart where they met, which will bring tears to all but the most stone-hearted.
Daniel H. Byun’s The Scarlet Letter (2004) is an atmospheric, sexually charged noir that is one of the best films in the series. Byun’s previous film Interview (2000) was a romantic film that enhanced its scenario with a complex chronology and avant-garde visual touches. The Scarlet Letter is more streamlined and commercial than his earlier effort, but it still excels at creating a mood of sexual mystery and morally ambiguous characters, and gradually builds into a harrowing portrait of desires spiraling out of control.
However, watching the film is a somewhat eerie experience if one is aware of recent events outside the film. Popular actress Lee Eun-ju, who plays Ka-hee, the mistress of Ki-hoon (Han Seok-kyu), the detective protagonist, tragically committed suicide in February this year. This gives her scenes an extra poignancy, especially in the film’s latter scenes.
“Temptations are fun,” Ki-hoon says in a voiceover at the beginning of the film. He is a detective carrying on with a mistress, while at the same time genuinely caring for his wife and being a loving husband to her. However, he is also addicted to the excitement and danger of his passionate tryst with Ka-hee, having vigorous sex sessions with her after her gigs as a jazz singer at the Blue Note. He is supremely confident that he can continue this way without getting caught. However, in the tradition of classic noir characters, he gets his comeuppance in due time. He becomes involved in a murder case, and finds himself drawn to the murdered man’s wife, Kyung-hee (Seong Hyun-ah). As he investigates, his world gradually unravels, and myriad secrets are exposed. The Scarlet Letter makes effective use of composition and jazz and classical music to create an dark, ornate world of corruption and temptation. The literary reference of the title and the biblical reference at the beginning of the film to Eve and the apple fit well with the film’s themes.
Spider Forest (2004), Song Il-gon’s spooky and wonderfully convoluted modern fairy tale, proves this director to be one of the most interesting currently working in Korea. Spider Forest’s protagonist, Kang Min (Gam Woo-Sung) is a TV producer who runs a program investigating supernatural phenomena. On a trip to the titular forest, he comes across a cabin where he finds the murdered bodies of his boss, and his lover and coworker Hwang Soo-yeong (Kang Kyung-heon). He chases a fleeing figure, who turns around and knocks him out. When he comes to, he stumbles into a tunnel where he is run over by an SUV. Recovering in the hospital, he finds himself a murder suspect in the double murder case, and Kang Min must struggle to recover his memories.
Song boldly jettisons conventional narrative to present his story using metaphors, allusions, doubling of characters (Kang Min’s dead wife and the photographer are played by the same actress, Suh Jung, best known from The Isle ), and recurring visual symbols. Definitely uncommercial, Song creates a remarkable film that benefits from, even demands multiple viewings.
Lim Chang-sang’s The President’s Barber (2004) offers a lighthearted and comic look at Korea’s turbulent era of the 60s and 70s. Korean films have recently essayed this time period, in such films as Im Kwon-taek’s Low Life (2004) and Im Sang-soo’s The President’s Last Bang (2005). Lim’s film, perhaps to avoid the controversy that surrounded Im’s film, is careful to state in an opening disclaimer that the work is entirely fictional. Also, although the president depicted in the film is obviously Park Chung-hee, the authoritarian leader of South Korea from 1961 to 1979, the film never mentions him by name.
Lim chooses to explore these events through the Forrest Gump-ish everyman, Sung Han-mo (Song Kang-ho). Han-mo is a none-too-bright barber in Hyoja-dong, near the President’s mansion. He wants to live a simple life, and is uninterested (and incapable) of attaining great wealth and status. When choosing a name for his son, with the advice of a fortuneteller, he chooses a name that prophesizes long life and comfort. This is what he values above all else: a simple existence with his wife Min-ja (Moon So-ri, disappointingly underused) and his son Nak-an (Lee Jae-eung) in their little barbershop. When it comes to politics, he naively does as he is told, fixing the election for Park’s predecessor Rhee Seung-man by eating ballots and burying bags of them in the hills.
After helping to catch a man he thinks is a North Korean spy, Han-mo is hired as the president’s personal barber, and for a time he achieves status in the village. However, as Park becomes obsessed with holding on to power by all means, there is a mood of paranoia, and people are rounded up on the slightest suspicion, or no suspicion of all, of disloyalty. Han-mo’s own son is caught up in this, and is taken away and tortured when Han-mo voluntarily takes him to the police station to demonstrate his innocence of associating with North Korean and Communist spies. Despite the film’s mostly whimsical tone, it doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the president’s regime during this time.
Choi Dong-hoon’s The Big Swindle (2004) is a lively heist film, based on a real case of a bank heist in Korea. Enlivened with an appropriately twisty plot, and spirited performances by Park Shin-yang (in a dual role as a magnetic gangster and his diffident bookworm older brother), Baek Yoon-sik as “Master Kim,” the ringleader, Lee Moon-sik (also in Mapado) as Big Mouth the drug addicted fast talker, and the striking Yeom Jung-ah as a comic femme fatale. Choi’s film is a great example of the con film, in which the characters are all actors, and make use of their “roles” to get what they want, which are often at odds with each other.
Kang Woo-suk’s Another Public Enemy (2005), a sequel to his earlier Public Enemy (2002), again starring Sol Kyung-gu as the prosecutor Kang Chul-joong (he was a detective in the earlier film), is not a typical sequel, in two senses. One is that it is not a continuation of the earlier film, Kang being a different type of character, although retaining the same name. Also, it is actually an improvement on its predecessor, in the sense that it goes beyond typical cops-and-robbers mechanics to go deeper into expressing a palpable sense of the injustice of those who use their wealth and power to buy off those who are supposed to be looking out for the interests of the public at large, so that they can operate with impunity. Kang’s quest to take down corrupt businessman Han Sang-woo (Jung Joon-ho) becomes an epic good-against-evil struggle, although not one without moral nuances. Although at two and a half hours, it may on the surface seem like excessive length, this is necessary to fully explore Kang’s themes.
“Truth and Dare” is recommended for those looking for an alternative to both Hollywood fare, and the more heavily promoted indie and foreign films.
Christopher Bourne is a writer and cinephile based in New York City.
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