The 2008 New York Korean Film Festival, screening from August 22 to August 31 at Cinema Village and BAM Cinematek, is a mixed bag, much like Korean cinema in general these days. These are tough times, both creatively and financially. According to a recent piece in The Hollywood Reporter, the lowest point this year came this past May, when Korean films accounted for just 7.8% of the box office, the lowest since records began being kept in 2000. This is far from the heights of the so-called “Korean wave” just a few short years ago. Things are turning around, thanks to two recent hits: Kang Woo-suk’s Public Enemy Returns, the third installment featuring Sol Kyung-gu in the lead role; and The Good, The Bad, and the Weird, Kim Jee-woon’s mega-budgeted “kimchi Western” which is on track to perhaps be this year’s biggest hit. Whether the industry can build on these successes to become truly profitable once again is anyone’s guess. To be continued, as they say. However, there are still some interesting films being made, and a few gems here and there, as is borne out by this year’s films, the most impressive so far being the Jung Brothers' historical Gothic tale Epitaph, which I reviewed here when it screened earlier this year at New Directors/New Films. Below are reviews of some of this year's selections.
Once Upon a Time (Jeong Yong-gi)
Once Upon a Time, like Epitaph, is set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, in this case, the very late stages of this period, just before Japan’s surrender and Korea’s concomitant liberation. However, Jeong utilizes a strikingly different strategy in representing this historical time, trading the somber, moody scariness of Epitaph for lively, lighthearted adventure and derring-do that takes more than a few cues from the Indiana Jones films. Much like that 1940’s adventure serial-inspired series, Once Upon a Time revolves around a treasure coveted by the film’s characters, in this case “The Light of the East,” a large diamond that was a legendary relic of the Silla Dynasty, doggedly sought after by a Japanese general (Kim Eung-soo) who wishes to bring it back to Japan as a colonial prize. The general’s quest is complicated by Bong-gu (Park Yong-woo), also known as Kanemura, a conman and master thief who trades in stolen jewels and other treasures on the black market. Bong-gu schemes to steal this diamond, as it will be his biggest game as a treasure hunter. However, a mysterious masked serial thief, known as “Haedanghwa,” gets there before him and swipes the diamond. A major player in this caper is Choon-ja (Lee Bo-young), also known as Haruko, a sexy nightclub singer who is not all she seems. Throw in a pair of hapless resistance fighters and you have the ingredients for breezy, fairly uncomplicated entertainment. However, some elements unique to the historical period of the film carry deeper resonances. For example, there is the suppression of Korean culture by the Japanese, represented here by the Korean taegukgi flag furtively hidden from the authorities and the taking of Japanese names by major characters, which was historically forced on the populace (even though it is treated much more lightly here). The sign outside the nightclub where much of the film is set reads “Koreans and Dogs Not Allowed.” Also, a scene late in the film shows Japanese soldiers gunning down civilians indiscriminately in the street. The film doesn’t dwell on these details too much, concentrating more on action, humor, and the flirtation between Bong-gu and Choon-ja. Once Upon a Time is diverting, unpretentious entertainment with the curiously strong flavor of Hollywood films of the same period, down to the ending which has distinct echoes of The Maltese Falcon. “The stuff that dreams are made of,” indeed. (Aug. 28, 29)
May 18 (Kim Ji-hoon)
Another evocation of Korean history, this time of a more recent period, is provided by May 18, a major hit in Korea last summer. The titular date occurred in 1980, in a tragic incident in which thousands of students and other civilians in Kwangju were massacred by General Chun Doo-hwan’s forces, as the military carried out a virtual civil war against its own populace. The film drops us directly into this situation, with no explanation or background given about the student movement that grew as a result of the brief window of democracy provided by the assassination of President Park Chung-hee the previous year, as well as Chun’s quest to graduate from the head of the military to the country’s new ruler. For Korean audiences familiar with this history, such explanation is unnecessary. For foreign audiences, this will be confusing – a brief trip to a bookstore or library’s Korean history section, or, at the very least, a quick Wikipedia search is recommended before viewing. The historical macrocosm serves as a backdrop to the rather crudely sentimental story of cab driver Min-woo (Kim Sang-kyung, from Turning Gate and Memories of Murder), working to put his younger brother Jin-woo (Lee Yoon-ki, The King and the Clown) through law school. Min-woo tries to set his brother up with Shin-ae (Lee Yo-won, Take Care of My Cat, When Romance Meets Destiny), a pretty nurse at the local hospital, although Min-woo is obviously the one in love with her, always arranging to meet with her under the cover of concern for his studious brother’s lack of a social life. Shin-ae’s father Heung-su (Ahn Sung-ki), a former Special Forces commander, gets wind of the military’s plans to brutally crush the antigovernment protests, and tries to use his influence to stop them, but to no avail. The military occupation soon arrives, a nuclear bomb dropped upon the lives of the film’s characters, as the soldiers beat and shoot people indiscriminately, and the media parrots the government propaganda depicting the entire populace of Kwangju as communist rebels. The first half of the film alternates between crude humor and the budding romance between Min-woo and Shin-ae. After the bloody, brutal suppression by the military, and the civilians’ resistance, led by Heung-su, the film unnecessarily attempts to wring even more tears and emotion from the situation by relentlessly underlining the violent impact of these events on the film’s characters. As significant as the film is, being the first major feature to directly take on the subject of the Kwangju massacre, restraint, subtlety, and nuance are apparently words that don’t exist in the vocabularies of director Kim or screenwriter Na Hyeon, at least as far as this film is concerned. The only thing that prevents May 18 from completely drowning in its soap opera theatrics, which are extreme even by Korean standards, are the appealing performances by its cast, which partially temper the sentimentality. There is a great film yet to be made about this event, but sadly, this isn’t it. For a truly great film that touches on this tragedy, I refer you to Lee Chang-dong’s 1999 masterwork Peppermint Candy. (Aug. 24, 27, 31)
Forever the Moment (Yim Soon-rye)
May 18 screenwriter Na Hyeon also penned the script for this film, also based on a true story. Director Yim Soon-rye's previous films Three Friends and Waikiki Brothers were excellent, sensitively directed character studies that established Yim as one of Korea’s best directors. She is also one of the very few working woman directors in Korea. In sharp contrast to the overwrought schmaltz of May 18, Forever the Moment is infinitely more successful in rendering recent events with sentiment that is truly earned. The film tells the story of the Korean women’s handball team who competed at the 2004 Athens Olympics. It goes far beyond the typical sports-film clichés with beautifully written characters given life by the wonderful quartet of actresses featured here – Moon So-ri (Oasis, A Good Lawyer’s Wife, Family Ties), Kim Jeong-eun (Marrying the Mafia, Blossom Again), Cho Eun-ji (The President’s Last Bang, Driving with My Wife’s Lover), and Kim Ji-young (Innocent Steps, Old Miss Diary). As in her previous films, Yim focuses closely on the vicissitudes of her characters, in this case privileging this over the mechanics and process of the sport that is the presumed subject. At the outset, Mi-sook (Moon So-ri), despite having been part of a team that won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, has come upon financially rough times. Her husband is basically absent from the family, cheated by a former business partner and on the run from loan sharks, leaving Mi-sook to raise her son alone, and forcing her to take a rather humiliating job at a supermarket, barking out the produce specials of the day. Her former teammate Hye-kyung (Kim Jeung-eun) has had a far more successful career coaching in Japan. She is brought back to Korea by the team owner, who drafts her to coach a team that can win gold again at the Olympics. She persuades the reluctant Mi-sook, unwilling to return to a sport which has done very little for her financially, to return to the team. However, Hye-kyung has a rough time getting the team into shape, mostly due to internal conflict between the older star players and the jealous younger upstarts. Her perceived lack of satisfactory progress prompts the owners to replace her with Seung-pil (Eom Tae-woong), a hard-assed male coach who seeks to whip the team into shape using methods learned from European coaches, with strict training regimens and diet supervision. Seung-pil also happens to be Hye-kyung’s ex-boyfriend; she initially quits, but decides to swallow her pride and rejoin as a player. Still, she frequently clashes with Seung-pil over what in her opinion is a needlessly harsh coaching style.
Despite these challenges, the team eventually reaches the Olympics, leading to the final showdown with the Danish team. Even though the outcome of the match is already well-known to Korean audiences (I won’t give it away to those unfamiliar with this story), the latter scenes still retain a sense of tension and suspense. But the sports are mostly a backdrop to the vivid portraits of these women’s difficulties and conflicts with themselves and others, for example fellow player Jeong-ran (Kim Ji-young), a tough woman who runs a restaurant with her husband Jin-gook (Jeong Seok-young), yet who has a more vulnerable side, unable to conceive due to her misuse of pills to manipulate her menstrual cycle so it would not interfere with her training. Much comic relief is provided by team goalie Soo-hee (Cho Eun-ji), who is perennially on the search for a boyfriend, occasioning a nice little scene where she exacts revenge on a blind date (popular star Ha Jeong-woo, in a cameo) who ditches her and whom she overhears insulting her over the phone. With a bracing realism and a refreshing lack of emotional manipulation, Forever the Moment puts these women front and center, allowing the small, moving moments to resonate throughout the piece. Moon So-ri is great as usual, but the real revelation here is Kim Jeong-eun’s performance. This popular TV and film comedienne has recently moved into more dramatic roles, and here she builds on her previous work in Blossom Again to deliver an impressively nuanced and complex role. The film’s Korean title translates as “The Best Moment of Our Lives,” but despite the rather sappy title (slightly better that the nonsensical English one), it is a truly rousing and inspiring film. Millions of Koreans obviously agreed, making this a major hit when it was released this January. (Aug. 24, 27)