Tag Archives: Kang-ho Song

Korean Cinema — Secret Sunshine

By Nathanael Griffis

I’d seen a lot about Secret Sunshine, and the plot seemed simple enough. A mother and her son move back to her deceased husband’s home town of Seoul. Everything is going fine until her son is kidnapped. From the synopsis it seemed like a typical Korean crime thriller that was right up my alley. Instead this film completely surprised me, and became an in-depth and honest analysis of man’s relationship to God. This film tackled some of the hardest spiritual and philosophical questions directly without pulling any punches or feeling preachy.

The previous synopsis does not adequately describe the experience this film is. Do-yeon Jeon plays the grieving mother Shin-ae trying to raise her child in a new town. Kang-ho Song joins as the single desperate man Jong Chan who is willing to do anything to make Shin-ae love him. The film tackles difficult questions with respect and never shies away from the reality of the situation.

I’m speaking in broad terms because I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but I’ll do what I can to relate to you the experience at least. This films addresses the fact that a relationship with God is a choice and a solution to grief. It doesn’t show conversion though as an immediate or easy decision. Shin-ae struggles with the decision mocking Christianity as useless, yet somehow is drawn to it. She initially finds peace, genuine peace, after accepting Christ, but that is not enough. A life with God does not simply end all suffering and hardship. Shin-ae begins to wrestle with God over questions like, why does God allow bad things to happen, why is he forgiving of all sins, and why does he still draw us in despite our rejection of him?

What I appreciate most is that it doesn’t water anything down. The characters are definitely flawed: Jong Chan never truly converts, and spends his entire time pretending just so he can get close to Shin-ae, yet he at times makes the better moral decision. Director Chang-dong Lee here challenges the idea that morality is only capable in Christianity, an idea that often, and to my great annoyance, is a the focus of most Christian filmmaking. A person is very capable of making a moral decision without  being a Christian. God doesn’t make us moral; he desires for us to choose to be that way. A person doesn’t have to know him to make that choice.

Shin-ae at one point begins to wrestle with God, actively seeking to destroy him and those who love him. She tempts a church leader toward adultery, attempts to attack people in a prayer meeting, and disrupts a revival conference by playing secular music over an altar call. It might seem boring, but the way it is handled is fascinating. It all has a strong sense of unabashed honesty. The world and Christians are not perfect; we make bad decisions. Frequently ones that have lasting damage.

It’s foolish, pretentious, and dishonest to present an image of Christians as perfect citizens. Christians struggle with the same decisions as anyone, and they don’t always find peace. Yes, sometimes they do, and the movie shows this. It doesn’t disparage God. I believe it shows Christianity, a relationship with Christ, and acceptance of forgiveness as the solution to grief. The church community she attacks and damages is understanding and forgiving. It just presents these issues without the usual rose-colored glasses of Christian filmmaking.

On the technical side, the acting is stupendous. The film never ceases to surprise, and the range of emotion that is asked of Do-yeon Jeon is staggering, but she delivers. Kang-ho Song never fails to impress, and I look forward to him hopefully gaining more exposure to American audiences with Snowpiercer later this year. The direction by Chang-dong Lee shows a rare balance of respect for material blending with excellent filmmaking.

This is not a film I would recommend to anyone. If metaphysical questions about our relationship with God don’t interest you then you’ll probably find this film boring. If you want to see a film that upholds Christians as model citizens and moral action as the ultimate goal of Christianity then this film will probably offend you. If you, like myself, had been striving to find that one film that wasn’t afraid to tackle issues honestly and not disparage God or Christians, but show them in the light of honest humanity, then this film will not disappoint.

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Korean Cinema — The Host

By Nathanael Griffis

This weekend I had an interesting experience that took precedence over my normal writing schedule. Mind you, I fully acknowledge that I have heretofore been incapable of keeping a normal writing schedule, making the divergence from it the norm and the previous sentence moot. Anyway, all qualifications and space-wasting aside, I had a nerd party this weekend. A nerd party is if were you dress up in suspenders and bow ties and watch sci-fi movies–so a normal Friday evening for me but with cake and friends. I brought down my extensive collection of sci-fi films that I thought people would be interested in. More out of the thought to gain the film the slightest exposure I threw in The Host. I was pleasantly surprised when it was chosen. I let them know it was Korean, and would be subtitled. I told them it was a bizarre movie and hard to describe. But they insisted.

I think my trepidation was linked to my love of the film–this was my eighth viewing, and my love the movie only grows with each sitting. Still I was worried, because we’ve had that experience where you sit down to show someone Casablanca and they fall asleep, or think Humphrey Bogart isn’t that cool (for your information he is), so I had my doubts. How would a group of young not-so-into-film people take what is one of the most challenging, thought-provoking, beautiful, horrifying, and straight-up hilarious films ever made?

I’ll explain the movie first, then let you know their response. (I know, I know, you just want the answer, but that’s not how it works–of course, you do have the ability to scroll down, so feel free to use it.) The Host was my very first introduction to Korean cinema, and I owe it a debt of gratitude for that. It was my first viewing of actor Kang-ho Song and director Joon-ho Bong as well, so my debt is massive. I think for a lot of Americans, The Host brought about an interest in the South Korean film industry. We knew the country existed and knew they made films, but for the average American viewer we just lumped them in with China and Japan. The Host exposed Western thinking to a completely unique cultural form of expression.

I think giant monster will beat bow and arrow.

(Editor’s note: Possible spoiler ahead–though all it really gives away is the driving plot point of the film.)

The premise of the film is simple: A monster surfaces from the Han River and starts feeding on people. The monster takes a little girl named Hyun-seo, played by Ah-sung Ko, and her family then tries to find her when they discover she may be still alive. The thing that is so wonderful about this film is that it does nothing you’d expect, but everything that realistically you should. In the real world, four people would be incapable of taking down a monster. They’d make mistakes along the way that often have terrifying consequences, but this is rarely shown in movies. At least not to this extent. Movies go one of two ways for me I think. Normally a character will make a mistake they have to atone for, so they pull up their boot straps go through a training montage with 80’s keytar music overlaid, and become a hero; or they continue down a spiral of destruction that ruins their life entirely and we’re left with a gray-washed frame of their blood-shot eyes to comfort us.

The Host challenges us to see people for what they are: strange, yet loving and lovable, capable of making horrendous mistakes that we can’t forgive them for but also can’t help but see the humanity in them. Kang-ho Song, who plays Park Gang-du, the father of the stolen girl, gives the performance of lifetime. He drives the film through its web of complex emotions. Each scene is a strange blend of humor, tragedy, horror, and social commentary. In one of my favorite scenes, as an example, the family is gathering to mourn the supposed death of Hyun-seo. The characters all react in different ways, but by the end they’re writhing and tripping over each other. It’s disturbing and haunting to see a family so vulnerable, but also comical to see four adults tripping and rolling on top of each other. In the midst of all this a government agent in a full chemical suit comes walking in. It’s a dramatic transition that signals to the audience that we’ve got a Contagion-esque film on our hands, but then he trips. This small moment of slapsticks should seemingly remove any power or chance for this yellow plasticized man to render upon us, and yet when he orders everyone to be gassed and quarantined and Gang-du to be bagged up and taken away, it’s terrifying.

Yep, that would be the look I'd have if a monster just took my kid too.

To discuss this movie further would give away to much. It is a hilarious movie. It is a scary movie. It is a powerful family drama. It is a lasting political commentary. With all of these things coming together I was still concerned it would not be a good group movie, that all my American friends would brush it off as a stupid film they wouldn’t enjoy. For the most part they laughed and cracked jokes liked you’d do at any group movie. The film is ripe for that, though. There are monologues about farts and several moments of out-of-place slapstick. Still their moments of laughter were punctuated by small pauses. Whether or not they took away from the film the same feelings I have for it is yet to be seen, but I can say this for The Host: I had already considered it a masterpiece, but now I know it’s not a selective masterwork that only some will appreciate. This is not 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is better, because it can be enjoyed by all.

I have a passion for Korean cinema and don’t think I’ll ever stop returning to this wonderful country’s films. If you want to hear more about Korean Cinema, check Buried Cinema’s podcast on The Man from Nowhere.


Korean Cinema — Thirst

By Nathanael Griffis

Interesting fact: this poster was censored. The Korean versions are a little more scandalous.

I couldn’t keep myself away, so I watched another Korean film. Once again it has Kang-ho Song, and I liked it. I know you get it by now. I want to watch any film he’s ever been in, but nonetheless I’m still inclined to convince you that you must watch Thirst. Now, for those of you young kids who don’t remember and have been infected by Twilight, vampires are scary, bloodthirsty monsters. In recent years I’ve been frustrated to see vampire movies go one of two ways: either the teen-infused soap opera fable where some monsters are good and the original legend is desecrated, or poorly made horror films where vampires are thoughtless monsters (see Daybreakers, or don’t). Thirst stands so far above both these genres that it ranks up there with Interview with the Vampire, Dracula, Shadow of the Vampire, and Nosferatu.

What makes a good vampire movie is an examination of the basest of human desires amplified into some evil formative monster. What’s so fascinating about Thirst is the small twist of a religious priest becoming a vampire. Through an unfortunate blood transfusion, Priest Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) becomes cursed/blessed as he turns into a vampire. His carnal lusts increase, but they start out small and slowly become out of control. At first he’s content with sucking the blood from a comatose man, but that doesn’t compare with freshly bitten blood. At first it’s enough only to gaze at his friend’s wife Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim), but eventually he must have her. At first it was enough to live his life alone, but his hermitage isn’t as gratifying as having Tae-ju as his vampire bride.

This Vampire bite brought to you by Toshiba and Ethan Allen.

Thirst is another excellent film from writer/director Chan-wook Park. The camera is used wonderfully, and it has a strong sense of reality that adds to the horror. This idea of a realistic monster is hard to achieve and is so frequently missed, especially in vampire films. Twilight, True Blood, and the later Vampire Chronicles movies like Queen of the Damned all butcher this idea. It might look cool to make a vampire run real fast and seem to be a blur, but it takes away from the frightening aspect. It renders the monster too fantastic and therefore more distant. The vampires in Thirst start as humans, and struggle with their humanity throughout, and grow into monsters with only slightly altered powers (light also kills them, which is key, but it shouldn’t have to be). They can jump farther and heal quicker, but none of these things seem unrealistic, because Chan-wook Park doesn’t use CGI but wire effects, and it flows much better. It allows him a cleaner shot as well.

The shots are beautiful as always. Especially the stark contrast of the vampire’s white-washed lair that becomes blood-stained. Lit with halogen lights, it places vampires in the most unlikely of settings, a blisteringly bright room, and turns it into a horrific scene. The scenes in these white-lit rooms and houses signify the greater themes of the film. There’s a real sense of combating moralities and instincts–opposites collide and seemingly coalesce but are always in constant struggle. Park shows us that there is a darker side inside of us that can be unlocked, in this case by the monstrous vampire’s blood, that we’ll always have to contend with, but he never suggests we don’t have choice. Hope in this film is found when the priest decides to take control and finish the vampire problem.

This film is an amazing example of horror and how to make a monster movie. The performances are nuanced across the board. The images are disturbing, the gore is horrific, and sexuality serves the film rather than being abused by it; overall it’s an amazing look at monsters and the terrifying repressed nature of humanity. It’s scary to think that one could desire to become a vampire, but Thirst returns substance to the argument by making vampires truly frightening and morally complex. I highly recommend this movie, but with this caveat: it is full of gore and sex (to be expected in horror and vampire films), so it’s not for the faint of heart. So what do you guys think. What makes a good vampire film? What are good vampire films?

Okay, how do I explain this scene? They're sleeping, and the guy in the middle has a rock. Look, you had to be there.

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.

Korean Cinema #9: Memories of Murder

By Nathanael Griffis

Back in 2007 I was starting to build my appreciation of foreign films, and then I was shown Joon-ho Bong’s film The Host,  and I was blown away. Here was a film that balanced humor, horror, melodrama, sci-fi, and politics, with flawed, complex characters as are rarely seen in cinema. Since then, though, I haven’t seen anything else by Joon-ho Bong, but always wanted to. So I’ve literally been prancing around my apartment like a little school girl giddy with excitement. Thankfully, I was not disappointed, and I’m beginning to suspect the Joon-ho Bong may be one the great filmmakers of our day.

Kang-ho Song as Det. Park. (He's the man in front dragging the other man.)

Memories of Murder is based on a string of unsolved serial murders and rapes that took place in 1986 in a rural province of Korea. The detectives assigned to solve the murder were inept, to say the least. The police force was really not capable of solving a crime of this complexity with the technology at hand. Ultimately, it’s a frustrating moment in Korean history because it was never solved, nothing was accomplished and the countryside was left scarred. It’s a frustrating film, because we see characters go from inept and abusive, to sympathetic and inspired, but still they fail.

This is where Joon-ho Bong is a master. He takes a story that is filled with mean, ugly characters in a disturbed world and doesn’t sugar coat their flaws. His characters, even the abusive cops (for whom he never apologizes), are so viscerally real that while you may not relate to their inhuman, callused stupidity, you recognize it as a glimpse of humanity. The two main rural detectives don’t gather evidence; they torture their suspects into confessing–nothing much beyond punching and kicking, mind you, but inexcusible behavior nonetheless. As a viewer, at first you don’t fully question their motives, but as you see them fail you start to understand the frustration of the country people. The detectives themselves become hardened and depressed as the truth becomes lost amidst their confusion and failure, but it’s their humanizing realization of their faults and acceptance of them that draws you in. It’s challenging to watch as you begin to empathize with the very people who have allowed the a serial killer to escape.

Some shots are just awesome.

As much as the credit for presenting a complex story goes to Joon-ho Bong, the same credit is due to the acting of Kang-ho Song, Sang-kyung Kim, and Roe-ha Kim. Kang-ho Song especially stands out as Detective Park, a self absorbed detective who is not adept enough to catch the killer. It’s haunting to watch him balance comedy and drama, which is something he did in The Host as well. I’ll never forget the scene in The Host where the family grieves for their missing girl as they writhe across the floor in front of her wreathed portrait–I didn’t know whether to cry and laugh, so I ended up doing both. Kang-ho Song started off his acting career as a stage comic, and he’s translated those skills in improv into a unique acting style. In an interview he explained that he’ll improvise most scenes he’s given, as long as the director agrees, because real emotion, whether comedically or dramatically presented, is dynamic and not static. It reminded me of Robert Altman, and the more I think about it the more of Altman I see in Joon-ho Bong. He encourages his actors to improvise within the boundaries of the script. It’s a collaborative style that lends a raw, human feel to the acting and filmmaking. They even improvised several of the fight scenes in this film, to lend a quality of realness to them, so that when a person cringes, they’re truly in pain.

Memories of Murder is a complex and agitating film. It shook me to think that police could mess up so much. A treatise against corrupt law enforcement is common enough, but the film evolves into something. Slowly we see an examination of human nature, an attempt to explain the darkest sides of beings and how we cope with them. There is no tidy ending. The audience has to struggle with the reality of what occurred as much as the characters do. It was not what I was expecting, but that was the director’s intention. We are given a picture of rural Korea so honest, bold, and respectful that you sit up and take notice. Joon-ho Bong knows that character is what is compelling in film. He writes and directs with such honest appreciation for the human condition that I’m drawn in and stunned. This is a film that deserves several viewings and needs to be studied. I don’t just recommend this film–I demand that you watch it.

Next I’ll finish up my Korean film expedition with more Joon-ho Bong and Mother.

Korean Cinema #4: The Good, the Bad, the Weird

By Nathanael Griffis

I love Westerns, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is legendary among them, so I was fascinated when I heard about a 2008 Korean remake by director Ji-woon Kim. The Good, the Bad, the Weird takes the simple story outline of Sergio Leone’s classic Western and places it in 1930’s Japanese-controlled Manchuria. There is little left of Leone’s story, which is a good thing because it allows Ji-woon Kim to provide his own vision.  The story follows the “weird” Tae-goo, played by the awesome Kang-ho Song, who steals a treasure map from the Japanese army that the “bad” Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee) wanted to steal and the “good” Do-won (Woo-sung Jung) was protecting. Did you follow all that, or is it easier to say the weird guy has a treasure map and everyone else wants it.

You're welcome, ladies.

This film is awesome–rife with plot holes and physical impossibilities, but just a blast despite any so called “flaws,” like revolvers that never need to be reloaded, shotguns that miss from close up, artillery that can’t hit anything except the ground, and minor characters whose problems are never resolved. These “flaws” don’t hinder the film but make it all the more endearing. It never takes itself too seriously, and if you take it seriously you’ll be severely disappointed. I was watching it with a friend, who was for the first few minutes pointed out problem after problem and didn’t enjoy the film until he just let it go and lived in the ridiculous nature of what was occurring.

Ji-woon Kim is able to get away with this because he understands the concept of the “plausible impossibility.” We know that a man who just shot five bad guys should have no problem getting the leader of the gang if he has a clear shot, but as long as you show us the dust blast off a wall next the bad guy’s head, we’ll accept that he missed. The action sequences are built upon the impossible and consistently rely on this style to create an enjoyable experience. It feels reminiscent of Indiana Jones in that aspect. The fun is in waiting for the next creatively orchestrated impossible scene to appear. The action is creative and fun, and some of the best I’ve seen in a while. The opening train scene is a great example of how to introduce characters. Tae-goo is introduced by kicking down a door and shooting a bunch of soldiers in the back. He’s a coward and self serving, but endearingly goofy. Do-won the bounty hunter with a bottom-line attitude only aims for the bad guys. Chang-yi takes a malicious pleasure in the chaos and violence he creates. From the framing of the shots, the score, and the costuming Ji-woon Kim utilizes every aspect of film making to build character and conflict in the first fifteen minutes.

No snarky comment. Kang-ho Song is awesome. That is all.

The humor is amazing, and Kang-ho Song shows he’s a master at both sides of the actor coin. The man can make you laugh or he can make you cry. He inhabits a character who is a perennial loser, a foolishly brash petty thief, who can indiscriminately kill and remain likable. His ability to charm an audience reminds me of Tom Hanks. Eli Wallach’s Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly definitely had a comic tinge to it, and his chemistry with Clint Eastwood was great, but here the humor and the redemptive quality of a man who’s been driven from his home is the focus. It was a smart move to shift the focus from the less interesting Do-won to the engaging Tae-goo, and it gives the film its own personality. The story is not nearly as engaging as Leone’s original, and Chang-yi is no Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef). That’s the biggest flaw of the film. Ji-woon Kim missed the intrigue that Lee Van Cleef brought to his scenes. Chang-yi is sadistic but little more. There is an attempt to make him out to be a philosopher type, but little is fleshed out. Also, keeping the numerous gangs and their motivations in order gets quite confusing by the end, but luckily it gets lost in the action and humor.

The end scene still holds true to the classic three-way Mexican standoff. It’s well shot, but can’t measure up to the original and is hurt a little bit by having to maintain a consistent stylized action. The final scene would have been better if it had been less stylized and more realistic, but then it would have been inconsistent, a hard decision for the director, so I don’t want to fault Kim for it. The a lack of the Morricone score hurts too, but that’s forgivable. The music composed by Dalparan and Yeong-gyu Jang is great and keeps the movie flowing, but it doesn’t have the presence and grace of a Morricone score.

Overall, I was ecstatic after watching this. It’s definitely a great group movie, and I suspect it is the type of film that even subtitle haters will stop rolling their eyes at and enjoy. It was a lot of fun, and I really needed something after Chan-wook Park’s heavy and disturbing Vengeance Trilogy.

Next up: Ki-duk Kim’s 3-Iron.

May not be in a graveyard, but it's still pretty cool.

Korean Cinema #3: Lady Vengeance

By Nathanael Griffis

Spoiler Alert: Some key aspects of the film’s ending are revealed and discussed.

Coolest tattoo ever.

Imagine that a producer crossed 12 Angry Men with Seven and The Descent and then let Darren Aronofsky direct it. The result would be something close to Lady Vengeance (called Sympathy for Lady Vengeance in some translations). As a warning, I will be discussing some significant spoilers, because in order to truly analyze this film one has to talk about the ending. I know I held back on Oldboy, but that was a spoiler for which the surprise aspect matters deeply. Lady Vengeance (2005) is Chan-wook Park’s final film in his Vengeance Trilogy, which as a whole is a truly staggering achievement in film making. It is about a 19-year-old girl who is wrongly imprisoned for the murder of a child and upon release hunts down the man, and actual killer, who schemed to have her placed her in jail.

The film starts off reminiscent of Oldboy in many ways, which gave me concern, because I was hoping for something different. Geum-ja Lee (played by Yeong-ae Lee) is released from prison and begins to set in motion her plan of revenge. The music and the film’s visuals show a refined and polished look compared to Chan-wook Park’s two previous films, and there is still the trademark graphic violence and sexuality throughout, but Lady Vengeance examines the morality and spiritual implications of revenge. The entire film surrounds Geum-ja trying to find atonement for her role in the death of the little boy Won-mo. The final scene of Geum-ja pleading with her daughter to live a pure life is the most hopeful of the entire trilogy and shows atonement as a possibility–consequences aren’t avoidable, but one can still find hope and strive toward a pure and good life.

Geum-ja and daughter sharing a lovely moment, while a creepy guy looks on.

Much like Park’s other films this one starts off with multiple character threads that connect together. His editing style is harsh and sudden. Time lapses quickly, and the audience can’t look away for fear of missing something. Geum-ja’s plot to catch Mr. Baek (played by Min-sik Choi, who you’ll remember as Oh Dae-su in Oldboy) reaches a climax about midway through the film, and I was feeling dissatisfied–but then things became interesting. Geum-ja discovers Mr. Baek is a serial killer of children, and realizes she’s not the one deserving of revenge. She finds the parents of the murdered children and offers them all an opportunity to take revenge on Mr. Baek.

What unfolds is one of the most honest, bold, and profound discussions of sin, atonement, and the moral and spiritual consequences of violence. The parents agree they will kill him, but some can’t partake in the act itself. It’s a horrific scene as the parents each get an individually allotted time to exact violence on Mr. Baek. Chan-wook Park takes his time as we watch them literally rip one of the most despicable villains ever to pieces with various knives, axes, hammers, and scissors. They then return to Geum-ja’s bakery and have a heart-wrenching talk over cake. I know that sounds strange, but watching parents sing happy birthday to their dead children is haunting. Every character matters in this film, and the ability to introduce them all in such a short span is something other directors and writers should take note of.

Putting the gun down might make the hug more comforting.

The performances are all around astounding, including small roles from Kang-ho Song and Ha-kyun Shin (who also starred in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). Min-sik Choi is astounding and somehow delivers a human quality to a despicable man who kills children. Ultimately, this film rests on Yeong-ae Lee’s shoulders, and she delivers one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen. In one extended close up of her face she simultaneously laughs and cries with a malicious hint of enjoyment mingled with the guilt of the violence she’s orchestrated. I give a lot of credit to Park, because he consistently gets amazing performances from every actor. The depth of his actors’ performances is impressive when one considers that some are only on screen for a few seconds.

After watching this trilogy I want to see everything Chan-wook Park has done, and I have to say that this is a crowning achievement of the last decade of film. Because people will be curious, I’d say Lady Vengeance is my favorite. Its message of possible atonement gives the violence we see a purpose, and even though I left exhausted and drained, the characters achieve something. They learn and change, and that gives it a head over the others. Then it would have to be Sympathy at #2 for its stunning visuals and more fleshed-out characters. Oldboy is amazing and has amazing action scenes, but the characters leave a little to be desired as a whole.

Next, I’ll be leaving Chan-wook Park behind for Ji-woon Kim’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird.

Korean Cinema #1: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

By Nathanael Griffis

An easy way to find a “buried” film is just to watch a foreign film. Any film will do really, unless it’s on the shortlist with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Pan’s Labyrinth, or Amélie. In recent years foreign films have gained a wider audience in the United States. I meet fewer and fewer people who roll their eyes at subtitles; we’re still in the minority, no doubt, but progress is being made.  In recent years I’ve come to be very impressed with Korea’s filmmaking in particular. Some of the names are familiar enough to our conversations that we can say we’ve heard of them (The Host, Oldboy, My Sassy Girl), but the viewing public doesn’t realize the magnitude of the work being done in Korea.

Therefore, I aim to rectify this unfortunate lack of attention. I’ll watch ten films from the past ten years of Korean cinema that should truly be noticed. I’ll pay attention mostly to four big directors who consistently deliver quality films: Joon-ho Bong, Chan-wook Park, Ji-woon Kim, and Ki-duk Kim. These directors do get mentioned from time to time in film criticism circles, normally under the context of “you should see this movie by fill-in-the-blank,” but I think they deserve better than that.

All that stated, it was hard for me to decide which film to watch first. I was introduced to Korean cinema with Joon-ho Bong’s The Host, which is one of the best monster or sci-fi films ever. I’m not willing to consider The Host a “buried film” per se (Tom, Steve, or Alban are welcome to disagree and write an article if they wish), but Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy is another consideration. Oldboy is part of a thematically connected trilogy of films based around revenge, so I decided I would start with that trilogy from the beginning.

Well, if you're going to be brutally stabbed it might as well be in a red tracksuit.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is Chan-wook Park’s first film in his “Vengeance Trilogy.” Released in South Korea in 2002, it follows the story of two characters as they seek revenge for the loss of their loved ones. The film begins on Ryu, played by Ha-kyun Shin, a deaf and dumb young man who sells his kidney to organ dealers. Through various complications, Ryu and his girlfriend Yeoung-mi (played by Doona Bae) decide to kidnap the daughter of Ryu’s former boss Mr. Park, played by the great Kang-ho Song. Without giving too much away, Ryu seeks vengeance on the organ dealers, and Mr. Park seeks vengeance on Ryu.

No room for bulletin boards and thumb tacks in revenge, huh?

This film is unique and daring, to say the least, and definitely not for everyone. The violence is harsh, and the pace is slow and deliberate. The editing of the film is brilliantly disorienting; time moves fluidly as the director and editor demand it to. Chan-wook Park’s directing is amazing. How and when he decides to expose the audience to the horrors of violence and revenge is haunting. One scene in particular comes to mind: Mr. Park is watching an autopsy and we only see his face, but you hear the entire excruciating process. I had to look away, but was shocked, because I was looking away from nothing.

This is later repeated in a similar scene, but with a different person on the coroner’s table, and it truly highlights the spectacular Kang-ho Song, who I believe is one of the great actors working today. He was the star of The Host, and I’m going to be talking a lot about him in future articles, so we’ll just leave it at that. Ka-kyun Shin as Ryu is also especially fascinating. It’s a challenging job to play a deaf and dumb character. The few scenes where he gets to emit sound are eerie and arresting. Chan-wook Park’s use of silent titles with simple characters on them to represent Ryu’s thoughts is a great way of making the viewer experience Ryu’s world.

This film is simply brilliant and beautifully shot, especially every scene involving the river. It’s evaluation of revenge is a complex picture of compulsion and regret. The characters are driven by an urge to satisfy a thirst for retribution, but consciously realize the consequences their actions will bring upon them.  It’s a bleak picture, and my one regret is the lack of hope. Chan-wook Park never gives us a sense that one could resist the pull of vengeance. Every character regrets the violence they perform, but this knowledge has nothing outside of a reflective effect on them.  I highly recommend this film, but add a word of caution: the violence is starkly realistic and the film eases you into it, so you might not suspect it. Also, the pace is slow. This is a very visual film that takes its time explaining things, and Chan-wook Park expects you as an audience member to do some work to figure out what’s going on. If those stipulations don’t hold you back, then this is a must-see. If they do hold you back, try challenging them, and watch Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.

Oh look, a happy scene to get our hopes up.

In my next article, I’ll continue my review of Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy with Oldboy.

–Nathanael Griffis