Saturday, August 25, 2007

2007 New York Korean Film Festival Review Round-up

Our School (Kim Myung-joon)

This documentary follows a year in the life of a Korean school in Hokkaido, Japan, one of 60 such schools in Japan that educate the third and fourth-generation ethnic Koreans born and raised in Japan. The schools were created after Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonization at the end of World War II. These schools have mainly been supported by North Korea since the country’s division after the Korean War. These schools are more than simply educational institutions: they are a source of national pride, a way for the students to discover their identity as Koreans, and also an escape from the discrimination they experience as Koreans in Japan. Because of the North Korean support, there is much talk of unification between the two Koreas, and a ritual for the 12th grade students is a trip to the “fatherland” of North Korea. This occasions an epiphany for the director while making this film. Since Kim is a South Korean citizen, he is not allowed to accompany the students on their trip to North Korea. “I understood for the first time in my life that my country is divided in two,” he remarks in a voiceover.

Kim examines in great depth the lives of the students and the various circumstances that have brought them to this school. Korean schools have a very hard time in the larger Japanese society, since they are only considered vocational schools, and as such don’t count in the Japanese school system. These schools are also denied the tax benefits that Japanese schools get. Korean-school graduates wishing to go on to Japanese universities must take an extra exam in order to qualify for admission. Nevertheless, these schools afford many benefits for the students. They come to feel pride in their own identity, and they learn to not be ashamed of being Korean in a society that is often hostile to them. The final scenes, in which the graduating class tearfully bids farewell to their school, are very moving, and we feel their apprehension at having to leave this nurturing environment. (Aug. 26)

200 Pound Beauty (Kim Yong-hwa)

This very silly farce would make an interesting double-bill with Kim Ki-duk’s Time, since both films deal with the phenomenon of plastic surgery. Based on a manga by Yumiko Suzuki, the film’s farcical premise concerns Hanna (Kim A-joong), an overweight singer who provides the offstage voice for haughty non-singing pop star Ammy (Seo Yun). She spends her life hidden away from public view, using her voice to make a living; she moonlights on a phone-sex line. She is in love with Ammy’s stage director Sang-jun (Ju Jin-mo). After overhearing a humiliating conversation about herself between Ammy and Sang-jun, she decides to undergo liposuction and full-body plastic surgery, emerging as “natural beauty” Jenny, whose true identity is initially known only to her best friend. Now a conventional beauty, she returns to her old employer incognito to pursue her dream of being a singer. This film owes practically all its virtues to Kim A-joong’s wonderful comic performance. She previously made a great impression in her earlier film When Romance Meets Destiny, and carries this film with great charm and timing, even underneath layers of prosthetics and despite rather cheap jokes based on her size (she falls through a stage; doctors cannot lift her into an ambulance after she OD’s on diet pills). Her first day in her new body is beautifully acted, as she revels in finally being able to buy a dress she coveted in her heavier days, ecstatically twirling in the street to the quizzical stares of passersby. She makes this predictable premise believable, and is a continually riveting presence. The film tries to have its cake and eat it too (pardon the pun), seeming to decry the rigid standards of beauty that women feel compelled to conform to, but at the same time having its happy ending predicated on her physical change. Nevertheless, the film was deservedly a massive hit upon its release in Korea earlier this year, again entirely due to Kim’s flawless performance. (Aug. 24 and 27, Sept. 1)

Unstoppable Marriage (Kim Sung-woo)

This is a rather hackneyed Romeo-and-Juliet romantic farce about a young couple, Eun-ho (pop star Yoo Jin [Eugene]) and Ki-baek (Ha Seok-jin) who has obstacles placed in their path by their bickering potential in-laws: Ki-baek’s mother, a nouveau-riche landowner (veteran actress Kim Soo-mi), and Eun-ho’s father (Lim Chae-moo), a martial-arts instructor and former marine. Kim Soo-mi’s patented foul-mouthed shtick can work in the right circumstances (for example in the far superior comedy Mapado), but here she simply comes off as shrill and grating. Ki-baek’s mother has her sights set on land for a new golf course, but she is thwarted by Eun-ho’s father, who refuses to sell the last bit of property she needs for her course. The romantic comedy clichés come fast and furious: the couple hates each other at first, but after a few plot machinations and a pair of reflective montages, they realize that they’ve found their soul mates. The leads are very attractive and appealing, so the film isn’t quite as painfully banal as it could have been. Still, the mustiness and rather retrograde qualities of this scenario is quite palpable. (Aug. 24 and 29)

Paradise Murdered (Kim Han-min)

This atmospheric thriller is a ghost story crossed with an Agatha Christie locked-door murder mystery. The tiny island of Geukrakdo, or “Paradise Island,” which quickly turns out to be anything but, has its idyllic state ruptured by a series of brutal murders, which seems to dovetail with an old story about a woman who was locked up and starved to death, and whose ghost haunts the island. A young doctor Jae Woo-sung (Park Hae-il), and his assistant Gwi-nam (Park Sol-mi), investigate the murders. While it is a little slow going at first, the careful setting up of characters, as well as the rather shady secrets of the island, pay off in a big way. The denouement is genuinely surprising, and the film as a whole is a diverting, well-written work.

Herb (Huh In-moon)

This melodrama pushes all the familiar buttons, but is no less affecting for that. Sang-eun (Kang Hye-Jung), a 20 year old woman with the mental capacity of a 7-year-old, lives with her loving and patient mother Hyun-sook (Bae Jong-ok). Her imagination filled with visions from the fairy tales she loves, she meets her prince, rookie cop Jong-bum (Jeong Kyeong-ho). Kang, looking startlingly different than in such previous films as Oldboy, Rules of Dating and Welcome to Dongmakgol, successfully embodies the mannerisms and demeanor of a very young girl, and she looks very much like an anime sprite here. The film also adopts a bright children’s book-style palette with fantastical touches. Hyun-sook contracts cancer, a situation that provides the tear-jerking moments of the film. Another complication occurs when Jong-bum sees Jang-eun’s disability card and realizes her condition (although before this happens, he implausibly mistakes her for a lawyer). The film is an effective manipulation machine, and although the scenario is very obvious in its methods of pulling the viewer’s emotional strings, it still hangs together, thanks largely to Kang’s spirited performance, and Bae Jong-ok’s affecting portrayal as the mother.
Between (Lee Chang-jae)

This documentary follows the lives and rituals of the mudang, female shamans who perform exorcisms and help people communicate with their deceased loved ones. Lee’s film focuses on the initiation of In-hee, a young woman who has the ability to communicate with these spirits, and out of obligation to these spirits, decides to become a mudang, which entails self-sacrifice and often physical and psychic damage. The film begins with a startling scene in which In-hee, crying and shaking with fear, receives a spirit while her mentor, Lee Hae-gyong, guides her through it. This is not a life of choice for most mudang, who are often ostracized from their families as a result. The film goes into great detail about the various shamanistic rituals. However, the film’s repetitive structure presents this fascinating material in a rather numbing way. There is also very little insight about the place of these rituals in society, and since we are always looking at this from the outside, it remains a mysterious, impenetrable process. Perhaps this is appropriate to the nature of shamanism, but an earlier documentary on the same subject, Park Ki-bok’s 2003 film Mudang (which screened at this festival in 2004), is much more successful in conveying the emotional nature of these rituals and is much more interesting visually. (Aug. 24 and 29)
Come, Come, Come Upward (Im Kwon-taek)

This film is part of a four-film Im Kwon-taek retrospective. Come, Come, Come Upward (1989) is a Buddhist parable in which Soon-nyeo (Kang Su-yeon, who also played an acclaimed performance in Im’s Surrogate Mother) enters a Buddhist temple to escape her troubled family life and pursue a path opened to her by a kindly priest she meets. She struggles to follow the teachings, but her life in the convent is complicated by a man she saves from suicide who insists on clinging to her for his personal salvation. Soon-nyeo’s superior then sends her out into the world, so that she can decide if she is truly ready to live an ascetic life. Soon-nyeo’s path to enlightenment is contrasted with that of another nun, Jin-sung (Jin Yong-ming), who diligently follows the written teachings and follows the rituals, but still finds herself blocked. She is sent out into the world also, but unlike Soon-nyeo, who throws herself into the hustle of the outside world, with all the sexual and emotional entanglements that entails, Jin-Sung decides to live mostly in isolation from the outside world, interacting with only a sister who accompanies her part of the way, and with two very different men. One is an activist who exhorts her to participate in the social struggles of the nation, and the other is a hermit monk who castrated himself to free himself from worldly desire. Im sets up the two women’s opposing experiences as a dialectical debate about the most effective way to apply Buddhist teachings to the messiness of everyday life. The film seems to be tipped in favor of Soon-nyeo’s position, if only because her story gets considerably more screen time. At the film’s conclusion, the two face each other and stake out their positions. Jin-sung dismisses Soon-nyeo’s actions as “pathetic delusion.” Soon-nyeo counters, “Without any delusion, how can you bring salvation to a deluded public?” We are left with these two irreconcilable paths: Jin-sung’s detachment from the world as a way to think clearly without influence from the world’s turmoil, and Soon-nyeo’s approach of full engagement with the world and the search for beauty within a painful universe. Im’s parable-like approach to storytelling and graceful visuals make this a rich film that resonates with each repeat viewing.

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