Saturday, 12 March 2011

Jeonju Film Festival and Jeonju Digital Project

The Korean blogathon concludes today, so I thought I would contribute one final post for the week. Thanks to Martin at New Korean Cinema and to cineAWESOME! for hosting this week. You can find the blogathon's link page here.

In less than two months, the 12th Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) will open (April 28-May 6). This will be my fourth year attending, and it is my favorite of Korea's festivals, even more so than the Pusan (now Busan) festival. It does not attract the same prestigious new films as Busan, but it makes up for this with its retrospectives and JIFF master classes. In 2008, I was able to attend a screening of Bela Tarr's 8 hour SATANTANGO, followed by a Q & A with Tarr. In 2009, there were master classes with film critics Raymond Bellour, Richard Porton, and Adrian Martin. Last year, film directors Bong Joon-ho and Pedro Costa gave extended lectures as part of the master class program. These are experiences other festivals rarely offer, and why Jeonju is such a popular destination for true film lovers. Another unique aspect is the annual Jeonju Digital Project, in which three filmmakers are given 50 million won (approximately 50,000 dollars) to make a roughly 30 minute short film (the actual running times vary from 12 to 43 minutes, although most are close to the 30 minute mark). The festival has attracted a great range of directors, including many of the last decade's most prominent international auteurs. The full line-up is:

2000: Park Kwang-su, Kim Yun-tae, Zhung Yuan
2001: Jia Zhang-ke, John Akomfrah, Tsai Ming-Liang
2002: Suwa Nobuhiro, Moon Seung-wook, Wang Xiaoshuai
2003: Bahman Ghobadi, Aoyama Shinji, Park Ki-yong
2004: Bong Joon-ho, Yu Lik Wai, Ishii Sogo
2005: Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsukamoto Shinya, Song Il-Gon
2006: Darezhan Omirbayev, Eric Khoo, Pen-ek Ratanaruang
2007: Harun Farocki, Pedro Costa, Eugene Green
2008: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Nacer Khemir
2009: Hong Sang-soo, Kawase Naomi, Lav Diaz
2010: James Benning, Denis Cote, Matias Pineiro
2011 (upcoming): Jean-Marie Straub, Claire Denis, Jose Luis Guerin

I have seen the 2009 and 2010 projects, and have purchased the box set issued by the festival that includes the 2000-2008 films. I've been (slowly) making my way through these films, and thought I'd offer a couple of reviews for two of the Korean films in the collection: Park Kwang-su's (2000) and Bong Joon-ho's Influenza (2004). Park and Bong are representative of two different movements and generations of Korean cinema. Born in 1955, Park made his feature debut in 1988 with Chilsu and Mansu and became one of the major figures of the Korean New Wave with such socio-political dramas as Black Republic (1990) and A Single Spark (1995). Over the past decade he has become less prominent within Korean cinema, as the shift has been made to the less politicized and more mainstream New Korean Cinema. Bong represents this newer movement. Born in 1969, he made his feature debut in 2000 with Barking Dogs Never Bite. He has gone to huge success over the past decade with Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006), and most recently Mother (2009). While certainly not without social interest, Bong's work is less directly political and certainly more exportable than the films Park and other New Wave filmmakers were making.

Despite this, the two films, perhaps because of their short, digital form, have certain similarities. Most notably, both are about the technological changes within the culture and the effect of this on individual characters. is a contemporary, Korean take on a familiar art-house genre, the film about filmmaking. The plot revolves around Hayan, a former internet porn star (hence the title) working in an art house film who is nevertheless subtly pressured into a nude scene.

The film opens with digital images of her porn site, and then with news that she will be starring in a "Chungmuro art film". The first dialogue is of Hayan on her cell phone, talking about the scene she is about to shoot and claiming it is not a sex scene, but a love scene, very different from the porn she used to make.

However, during the "love" scene, the director decides he needs to film her without any underwear, for "technical" reasons. Hayan eventually agrees, but the film ends by stating that she did not return after the first day of shooting, and that her website remains down. At first, the familiarity of the plot and theme makes the film somewhat off-putting, and there is a certain obviousness and didacticism here, things that are not uncommon in Park's work. However, by the conclusion, it ended up working for me.

While the exploitation of female actresses and their bodies is well-known and established, the actual emotion on Hayan's face as she fakes an orgasm has a visceral power. Park's cutting from this to the images on her porn site make for an effective conclusion, partly because it leaves open some interpretation to the audience. Why is this experience worse for Hayan than the porn films? Is it simply her shattered expectations? Is it the fact that she is not in control of the means of production? Has she realized her porn background has forever marked her as simply a porn actress and nothing more? is not as full and original a treatment of these themes as many of its art cinema predecessors, most notably Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (1963), but given its form it really can't be. What it does (at least partially) successfully is update this theme to the contemporary digital age.

Influenza is a film even more concerned with digital technology, as it is filmed entirely with CCTV footage, tracing a single man's descent into crime. There are ten different scenes, beginning with the man, Cho Hyuk-rae, contemplating suicide (November 12, 2000) and ending with him trapped and about to be captured following a robbery and assault.

Given the limitations of the running time and budget, Bong created a rather ingenious narrative and stylistic form, limiting himself to this kind of primitive, early cinema, moving from black and white to color, and even including one camera that pans, although mechanically and without concern for capturing the action. It also contains a great deal of social commentary, although without any explicit agenda. We can see the forces at work that cause this man's fall, reducing him to a homeless man who has to turn to crime. And the constant surveillance itself feels like part of the oppression, the idea that one man's life can be tracked and turned into a cinematic entertainment without his knowledge. Watching the film, especially the conclusion, I was reminded of Jafar Panahi's Crimson Gold (2003). I do not know it was a direct influence, although Bong's Memories of Murder and Crimson Gold both played at many of the same festivals that year (Cannes, Toronto, Hawaii, Rotterdam). Like Panahi's great film, the crime here is seen within its context. It is not as rich a film in its social observation as Crimson Gold, but given the short form, Bong is able to create something special here, in my opinion his best work besides Memories of Murder.

Of all the Jeonju Digital Project films I have seen so far, my favorite, not surprisingly, is Hong Sang-soo's Lost in the Mountains. You can read my review from 2009 here.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Top Ten Korean Films

As part of this week's Korean Blogathon, I thought I would contribute my Best Ten Korean films. Although my consumption of Korean cinema is far from comprehensive and heavily weighted towards certain auteurs, I have now seen enough films to provide a decent list. I decided to include only one film per director in order to vary the selection. My hope is that it provides a good introductory guide to the best Korean film has to offer. Also, the list is biased towards films of the past two decades. Part of this is because I have not seen a wide variety of classic Korean films, but mostly it is because I think contemporary Korean cinema surpasses its classic period, unlike the cinemas of America or Japan. This is mostly due to contextual factors. I have no doubt that under different conditions, directors like Kim Ki-young and Yoo Hyeon-mok could have made films that were the equivalent of John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, et al. But however interesting classic Korean cinema is (and it's one that is increasingly fascinating to me), I do not feel it compares aesthetically to contemporary Korean films. That said, here is my list:

1. SECRET SUNSHINE (Lee Chang-dong, 2007)

Finally receiving a release recently in North America, this is the Korean film that has stayed with me the longest. I'm a huge fan of Lee's 2002 OASIS, and while the social relevance of that film and his recent POETRY is greater, something about the style, performances and existential themes of SECRET SUNSHINE make it resonant in a way few movies have. The film so obsessed me that I wrote a long article trying to analyze and understand it (it's available here). I still don't believe I have. Not that I'm complaining. Other great films by Lee: PEPPERMINT CANDY (1999), OASIS (2002), and POETRY (2010).

2. LIES (Jang Sun-woo, 1999)

Director Jang Sun-woo spent the 1990s creating a number of provocative movies, such as ROAD TO THE RACETRACK (1991), FROM ME, TO YOU (1994), A PETAL (1996), and BAD MOVIE (1997). In 1999, he finally went all the way with his adaptation of the censored Korean novel LIES. It was censored and cut here in Korea (as was BAD MOVIE), only appearing uncut at festival screenings and eventually on foreign DVD releases. I first saw the film at the 2008 Chungmuro film festival here in Seoul, and thought it was one of the great films about not only sexuality and eroticism, but also Korean society as a whole. My original review is here. Also by Jang, A PETAL is essential and important viewing.


My favorite current director, Hong Sang-soo has made 11 features and one short film in the last 15 years. All are very good and worth seeing, thus selecting one of his films as a stand-out is difficult. I chose VIRGIN STRIPPED BARE because of its beautiful black and white look and its narrative complexity, a structure so challenging that critics continue to debate its significance. You can see my original review here. Other Hong films demanding serious consideration here are WOMAN IS THE FUTURE OF MAN, NIGHT AND DAY, LOST IN THE MOUNTAINS and OKI'S MOVIE.

4. AN AIMLESS BULLET (Yoo Hyeon-mok, 1961)

For a brief period of time in 1961, the Korean film censorship laws lessened, and Yoo Hyeon-mok took the opportunity to sneak in this great post-Korean war drama, reminiscent of the great Hollywood noirs. The bleakness of the film and its view of Korean society is rather stunning, unmatched by anything in Korean cinema until the birth of the Korean New Wave in the late 80s.

5. CHRISTMAS IN AUGUST (Hur Jin-ho, 1998)

Hur Jin-ho is the master of understated melodrama, and CHRISTMAS IN AUGUST is a near perfect example of the form. The plot outline of a young photographer who is slowly dying and the relationship he forms with a young girl sounds hopelessly maudlin, but is transformed by Hur's patient style. That a film that departs from the stylistic norm of intensified continuity so greatly could be such a box office attraction shows how adventurous Korean audiences of the late 90s were.

6. SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (Park Chan-wook, 2002)

The first in Park's Vengeance trilogy, followed by the Cannes winner (and box office smash) OLD BOY and completed by LADY VENGEANCE. OLD BOY is probably the most accessible and crowd-pleasing of the three, while LADY VENGEANCE the most thorough in its deconstruction of revenge. SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE has a nice balancing of the two, avoiding the contradictory virtuosity of the violent set-pieces of OLD BOY while not sacrificing storytelling momentum in the manner of LADY VENGEANCE's final half. All three films work best together as a whole and represent Park's height as a director thus far.

7. TAKE CARE OF MY CAT (Jeong Jae-eun, 2001)

The only film on my list by a female director, who are still under-represented in Korean cinema. I saw this film at the 2008 Women's International Film Festival in Seoul, and was struck by how different it was from other female-centered films made in the west, in particular, the lack of focus on the character's relationships with men. Jeong's concern was to center the action around the young women, all recently graduated, and how their friendships change as they enter the adult world. In an interview after the screening, Jeong revealed that she constructed the story out of fragments of her own experience, and the result shows, with hardly a false note in the entire film. Original review here.

8. MEMORIES OF MURDER (Bong Joon-ho, 2003)

Within a serial killer genre that has really worn out its welcome since David Fincher's SEVEN in 1995, MEMORIES OF MURDER was able to bring something new to the table, managing to make a great entry into the genre while also critiquing it from within. Everything that critics said about the overly praised ZODIAC applies much more to Bong's masterpiece. Despite the success he achieved with THE HOST and MOTHER, this remains his best work. Original review here.

9. A GOOD LAWYER'S WIFE (Im Sang-soo, 2003)

I was first introduced to Im Sang-soo's cinema through his 2005 political satire THE PRESIDENT'S LAST BANG, a work I admired (especially for its politics) but didn't really love as cinema. The film he made previously, A GOOD LAWYER'S WIFE, is both socially astute while also being a superbly shot drama. It also features another amazing performance from the greatest of Korea's seemingly endless roster of incredible actresses, Moon So-ri. My original review is here. Also see Im's great reworking of THE HOUSEMAID.

10. THE HOUSEMAID (Kim Ki-Young, 1960)

While I personally may prefer Im Sang-soo's remake, Kim Ki-young's 1960 original is the more complex and disturbing work, a deft mixture of melodrama and horror that makes great use of Kim's interest in Freudian themes. The sympathies here are rather divided, with both the family and the housemaid shown to be monstrous in their own ways. The framing device also shows a modern self-awareness within this classical Korean text. My original review is here.

Honorable mention:

HAPPY END (Chung Ji-woo, 1999)

CHILSU AND MANSU (Park Kwang-su, 1988)

GILSODDEUM (Im Kwon-taek, 1986) and CHUNHYANG (Im Kwon-taek, 2000)

MADAME FREEDOM (Han Hyung-mo, 1956)

MY DEAR ENEMY (Lee Yoon-ki, 2008)