Monthly Archives: May 2011

Korean films: a look back.

By Nathanael Griffis

A while back someone, I believe it was Steve, asked me if I could identify any patterns in Korean filmmaking after watching a few Korean films in a row. They all speak Korean and there’s a lot more kicking than in American movies, I thought. Neither truly felt accurate, and I doubt I’ll be able to give an accurate description of prevailing themes, styles, techniques, or ideas.  I did, though, begin thinking about my whole experience and how to discuss Korean films in a general sense, at least as much as one can after having seen ten films. There were five main things I took away from this experience that I was impressed with in Korean films: little color correction, strong female characters, bold unhampered violence, a concern for the framed shot, and experimentation especially in editing for narrative. These things are not unique to Korean cinema, but they stood out to me as something that was of a primary concern within most of the films I watched.

This is the country I've been talking about.

The lack of color correction–by which I mean no computer enhanced color palette (i.e. Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd’s gray scale and red palette, O Brother, Where Art Thou?’s sepia palette, Amélie’s sun-drenched yellow and green, or the blisteringly annoying steely blue of most sci-fi action films like Transformers)–was refreshing. At first it was disconcerting in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance; it felt unpolished. I grew to really appreciate it though, in that film especially, because it lends a realistic feel to the images . Color correction isn’t hard to do. It’s a matter of a few dials, buttons, and toggle switches and you’re all set, so this is not something beyond the filmmakers’ abilities. They consciously choose to shoot with realistic tones. This style is a rarity in American filmmaking. I’m not calling for them to change; I like the difference between the two countries. The use of color correction signals certain themes and genres and allows a director another added level of artistic control. It can be annoying though, especially in poorly made sci-fi and horror, when the color scheme is simply there because that’s the accepted color scheme of a genre. It’s even more annoying on television where, with the exception of reality TV, most procedurals on CBS are given blue tones (just watch an episode of CSI), ABC is garnished with reds and greys, and FOX tends to go with whatever the genre calls for. Sometimes, all the color correction done needlessly all the time becomes tired so I appreciated these films’ decisions to avoid it.

Strong female characters are another large cross-cultural difference. Korea, as I understand it, is much more of a matriarchal society than America, which is almost so individualistic as to be neither patriarchal nor matriarchal, but we tend to slide towards the male-dominated end of character development. Every film I watched, with the exceptions of The Good, the Bad, the Weird and Painted Fire, had female characters at the focal point of the film, and they had depth that is rarely seen in American movies. When a film like Black Swan, which presents strong complex female leads, is released in America, it’s seen as daring and different. (Mind you, Black Swan is daring and different for so much more than just strong female characters, but you get my point.)

In case I never mentioned it, Kang-ho Song = amazing.

Films like Lady Vengeance, Mother, My Sassy Girl, and 3-Iron were striking. The difference to me is that both sexes are given equal consideration and complexity. Female character are not used to bolster the male character, but to play off of each other. The actress’s story is just as important as the actor’s. There is little sense, except in Painted Fire, that women are objects men use, or that men are objects strong women use. Having strong, well-written characters of both genders has removed objectification to some extent in these cases. (Mind you, I’m watching what is considered the best of Korean cinema; it could be different if I watched less highly regarded films.) This is something I wish American films would take a cue from, because strong female characters just improve your story as a whole.

Something where both countries are similar though is in their presentation of bold unhampered violence. By this I mean that violence isn’t pulled away from. It’s a visual experience that causes a visceral reaction. American films have always been preoccupied with violence. It is sometimes a popular criticism of them, but both countries have been moving towards a stark presentation of violence. The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men is the perfect example of this. Along with David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, we’re seeing more realistic violence in film. The difference is that violence is forthrightly presented as more horrifying instead of the slow-motion glorification of the late 80’s and early 90’s. This is not the period of the John Woos and John McTiernans of earlier.

Korean films follow this trend as well–Chan-wook Park, Ji-woo Kim, and Joon-ho Bong especially. Ji-woo Kim is unique in this category, because he still seems to be glorifying violence and presenting an enjoyable spectacle in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, but he uses the stark violence to make the presentation more fluid and exciting. Park’s use of violence is without a doubt horrifying and grotesque at times, while Bong has a sense of grace and beauty built around the extent of the violence he is willing to show. I personally prefer this style and technique for presenting violence. Gore should disturb; it should frighten the audience. We should cringe and turn away from it, not jump up and clap. (I say this, yet I still love a good action flick, but that’s my own personal struggle to contend with.)

The final two things I noticed go together: a strong concern for the framed shot (which most American cinematographers and filmmakers still have) and a desire for experimentation go together. The things Chan-wook Park and Ki-duk Kim do with editing to control the movement of time in their film is fascinating. All of their films have a strong sense of framing. Every detail is placed within the frame for a purpose. This is more than merely skilled filmmaking; it’s really a persistence to continue bettering the art of film. Ji-woon Kim reminds me of early Spielberg, with a panache for exciting stories and a gift for visual presentation. Joon-ho Bong is like Robert Altman reborn and mainstreamed. Chan-wook Park has the gifts of Martin Scorsese, if Scorsese made sci-fi horror movies. I think these filmmakers will be studied in the future for their editing and framing and their impact on film as an art form.

The greatest thing I’ve taken away from this experience is a greater love for the universality of film. Everyone loves stories, and films are such an amazing way to present something as dense as a novel but only as time-consuming as a short story. I want to keep watching more. I missed several, like J.S.A., Peppermint Candy, Simodo, The Man from Nowhere, Secret Sunshine, A Bittersweet life, The Show Must Go On, Barking Dogs Never Bite, and Thirst. If I had to recommend one film that you must watch from the ten I saw, it would have to be Memories of Murder–it’s an amazing and unique experience in film. If there’s one I’m sure people will love, it’d be The Good, the Bad, the Weird.

I don’t know what I’ll do next, but that’s half the excitement of writing.

Korean Cinema #10: Mother

By Nathanael Griffis

If there were any doubts about Joon-ho Bong’s ability as a director and a writer, which there shouldn’t be, the film Mother puts them to rest. It’s not his best film, but that’s just because he made The Host. It is his most mature film and feels the most composed. Mother deservedly took top honors at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards and Asian Film Awards, but was snubbed at the Oscars despite winning several best foreign film honors in critics circles (just a nomination, Academy, that’s all we’re asking).  The film examines the role of motherhood and leaves you with complex questions as to what it means to be a mother. The plot feels simple enough: a mother sets out to prove her son’s innocence in a murder case. The mother naturally has to do some very unmotherly things  to save her son (baking cookies doesn’t solve crimes).

Hye-ja Kim showing off her acting talent as she plays both Napoleon and a mom.

Once again, though, it’s the amazing characters that drive the film. Like in Memories of Murder and The Host, the characters in Mother are relatable and unique. Hye-ja Kim, who has won several much deserved awards for this role (including a best actress Award by the LA film critics, not best foreign actress, best actress, so tell me again why the Oscars skipped this one?) as the mother who teeters between overbearing and touching care. I couldn’t help but see something of my own mother in her. She’s really something of an archetype for mothers, but at the same time a distinctly Korean, and distinctly unique, individual all wrapped up into one.

Bin Won as the troubled son Yoon Do-joon stretches his acting ability greatly. Known mostly as an action star, Won gives Do-joon a haunting touch of empathy. Ku Jin is excellent as well in a supporting role as Do-joon’s enimagtic friend Jin-tae. Every character is, as I’ve come to expect from Bong’s films, an honest, raw portrayal of the dichotomy of beauty and horror within the human spirit.

There’s less humor in Mother than in Bong’s previous films. Some of that could be due to the lack of Kang-ho Song, or possibly to Bong’s maturity as a filmmaker, but enough of it remains to give the same conflicted feelings as in previous films. For example, the film opens on the mother walking through a wheat field and then dancing. It’s a strange and daring way to open a film, and I wanted to cry and laugh at the same time. The difference is that in Mother the humor seems to have a clearer purpose. The mother’s dancing at the beginning and some of the jokes throughout, like a reoccurring scene where Do-joon reacts to being called a retard, become thematically resonant as the mystery unfolds.

Shadow-puppetry? He's clearly the murderer!

It is quite a mystery at that. It’s impressive to see how well put together this film is. Joon-ho Bong’s script is meticulous; no scene is wasted. The acting is superb. It’s a strange detective film that follows an older mother around and not some grizzled detective, but this ain’t Murder She Wrote. Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher, despite being a better detective, would probably have ended up mumbling in an asylum in Maine if she was put through this sort of an ordeal. Bong uses the detective mystery motif not just to entertain, but to parallel the characters’ discovery of their own nature. When it ends, it’s not clean and polished. No one is left unmarred, and they discover that human nature, while resilient, is darker than we might want to believe.

I came away from this film with more questions than answers, though none of them pertaining to the plot. It’s the sort of film that makes you pause and look deep inside of yourself. As you connect and relate to each character, you have to challenge that previous connection as they descend further into the consuming madness of their decisions. The ending is absolutely stunning, especially the final shots of the film. It manages to relay a message of hope but leaves you questioning if hope is the right response or simply the necessary one. You’re left wondering which actions, thoughts, decisions, and feelings define one’s being a mother or a son. Even though you’ve just watched a beautiful film portraying this complex relationship, the film’s goal is not to define the relationship but to make the viewer seek it out and ask what it means.

I’m glad that I finished my journey through modern Korean cinema with this film. I think I’ll probably have to write some larger reflective piece on the experience as a whole, but I don’t want to leave them behind. All ten of these films have given me such a respect for Korean filmmaking that it’s all I want to watch now.