Thursday, 7 February 2008


Although film culture in Korea is generally very good for cinephiles, it remains difficult to find subtitled Korean films in theatres. Thus, it remains easier to see Korean films on DVD. My own knowledge of Korean cinema is limited mostly to the art cinema made available in the North America, especially directors Park Chan Wook, Kim Ki-Duk and Im Kwon-Taek. However, the best Korean film I have seen is the lesser known Oasis from 2002. I saw the film on a Korean DVD before it was later released in a Region 1 copy and thought it was one of the most savage societal critiques I could remember seeing. The writer-director Lee Chang-Dong had only directed two other films, Green Fish (1997) and Peppermint Candy (2000). Lee came to the cinema late, writing his first screenplay in 1993 at the age of almost 40, having previously worked as a novelist.

I haven't been able to see his earlier films, but recently saw Lee's most recent film, Milyang/ Secret Sunshine, which won an award for actress Jeon Do-Yeon at Cannes. It is a great piece of cinema, and not only for the great performance at its center, although Jeon is certainly deserving of the praise heaped upon her. Lee does a masterful job of both drawing the audience close to the lead character and the emotional violence she endures and distancing the viewer through his use of style. The film belongs with the great melodramas of Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse, but it is really not fair to compare the film with even those masterpieces that came before it. As familiar as the film's story of a melodrama centered around a suffering heroine is, it looks and feels unlike any other film I can remember.

I recently came across an interview with Lee in which he insisted that his new film Milyang (which had not yet been released at the time) was shot very simply, with no elaborate cinematic technique. Watching the film, it is anything but a typically or ordinarily shot picture. There are a number of shots that call attention to themselves because of either their extreme length or the distance put between the camera and the characters. I am thinking of writing something more substantial on the film and its style, but for now I'll point out the most obvious example of this approach.

The two stills above are from two successive shots taken at one of the turning points of the plot. Shin-ae, in extreme distress from tragedies she has endured, stumbles into a church and has an emotional breakdown. As we first hear sobs on the soundtrack, Lee gives us a 85 second shot from the back of the church. Eventually, Lee cuts to Shin-ae breaking down, in another 75 second long take, but by this time the emotional and intellectual response to this is far from conventional and ordinary. Consistently, Lee works to make this melodramatic material both realistically emotional and cathartic while succeeding in placing this suffering in a larger context. Like the earlier love story Oasis, Milyang is a conventional genre film that goes much deeper into examining social issues. That both films can do this without sacrificing the emotional force of the genre material makes Lee's accomplishment all the more impressive. If you want to begin exploring Korean cinema, these two films are a great place to start.

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