Tag Archives: Korean Cinema

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 — The Man from Nowhere

By Nathanael Griffis

We all know the story: secret agent loses wife and child, becomes a lonely drifter, grows close to someone, and is dragged back into the action when that person is threatened. It’s a classic tale that normally involves stupid criminals surprised that the neighbor is apparently Jason Bourne. Advice for all criminals out there: if the steel-eyed neighbor takes out five of your guys, fifty more of your guys won’t help. Make a deal and then you can go back to your human trafficking, gambling, cocaine, or exotic animal munching in peace. Normally this storyline is nothing more than an excuse to have an action star beat up on unfortunate stuntmen, a la The Protector (never take Tony Jaa’s elephant). The Man from Nowhere, is a unique entry into this category.

It’ll probably hurt when he lands.

Never ignoring the tropes of the action-revenge genre, The Man from Nowhere starts simply enough. A quiet pawnbroker builds a friendship with a young girl. The young girl’s mother steals some heroin from drug dealers. Drug dealers kill mother, kidnap young girl, and try to make quiet pawnbroker the fall guy, but what they weren’t counting on was that he was a former secret agent. It’s the kind of ridiculous plot that only works in the movies. The pawnbroker is really Cha Tae-sik, played by Bin Won, who if you’ve been following my blogging you’d note was the semi-retarded son from Mother, who’s grown callused in his lonely drifting through the streets of Seoul, as one does. What this movie does so well is build up the relationship between Tae-sik and the little girl So-mi (played by child actor Sae-Ron Kim) he is trying to save.

Tae-sik is clearly a father figure, but only a figure. He never fully steps into the role until So-mi is taken from him. He constantly pushes her away, treating her poorly and ignoring her. He feeds her and provides a cot for her to sleep on when her mother has kicked her out of the apartment, but he never gives her the love a father should. So-mi sees her own life as worthless and accepts the abuse. She’s been so degraded that she’s adopted the nickname of “Garbage” because her mother wanted to throw her out at birth. A little dark, I know. It’s a dark film. Did I mention these drug dealers are also organ harvesters on the side? Oh, and not just adults, but children, whom they kidnap, let mature, and then harvest. It’s frightening stuff.

Thankfully blood can just be hosed right off the marble.

The realism of such an impossible story is what is truly haunting. The occurrences and situations are all but impossible, but the characters are fully composed and rich. The film has a wonderful picture of the psychology of the criminal, the working poor, and the abused child. There is a scene in an alley where So-mi confronts Tae-sik about his callused nature, and I challenge anyone not to cry. Adding to the realism is a surprising band of police that aren’t idiots. Normally in films like this the police either have to consciously back off and let the vengeful killer accomplish what they cannot, or they’re incompetent and constantly screaming lines like “who is this guy?” and “where did he come from?” That’s not the case. Tae-sik is pursuing the drug dealers/organ harvesters, and literally a step behind him are the police. It builds tension and provides for a satisfying and realistic ending, because in the real world if you slaughter some twenty people, drug dealers or not, the police don’t look too kindly on it.

What is truly a revelation here is Bin Won. The actor builds on his past performance in Mother and delivers a nuanced action performance. The entertainment value of film is never forsaken, and Bin Won brings an excellent edge to the action scenes. His cold brutality towards those who’ve threatened So-mi is never one dimensional. There’s guilt brimming with each villain he dispenses, but he seems to take a strange pleasure in it all. The final scene, just as a sidenote, is the best knife fight I have ever scene, bar none. It’s rare to find an action film with this much depth, because they typically end up transcending the genre and aren’t thought of as action films: Indiana Jones, The Matrix, and Inception come to mind. This film really is a must see. I know I say that about a lot of films, but I have no caveat for this one. Just watch it, it’s on Netflix, or here at Hulu if you don’t want to pay and don’t mind the ten commercials.

Even his fingernails are mad!

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 Cinema: I Saw the Devil

By Nathanael Griffis

I Saw the Devil is a classic revenge thriller–the man seeking revenge normally sees reflected in himself aspects of the killer. We know the story: psychopath rapes and kills the fiancé of a secret agent who then goes on a spree of morally compromising actions, becoming more and more like the psychopath himself. The only thing is, the secret agent Kim Soo-hyeon seems to have taken a page from Edmond Dantès and toys with his psychopathic victim by catching and releasing him.

Byung-hun Lee about to do some revenge gardening.

Eventually succumbing to the thrill of the kill and drifting into psychosis himself, Soo-hyeon (played by Byung-hun Lee) is different from most revenge thriller protagonists in his complexity. He doesn’t lose his soul entirely like Edmond Dantès, become a heroic martyr whose actions are justified like John Creasy in Man on Fire, or stay morally ambiguous in the vein of Dirty Harry. His shrinking humanity and the consequences to his remaining loved ones who become victims of the psychopathic Kyung-chul (played by Min-sik Choi) keep him grounded. The final shot is of Soo-hyeon walking away crying, but with just a hint of a satisfied smile. Revenge has ultimately not left him fulfilled; it hasn’t brought back his fiancé; it’s only brought more pain and suffering to those around him, but it was necessary.

The acting is superb in this film. Min-sik Choi probably shouldn’t be allowed out in public around blunt objects, or sharp objects for that matter, or how about we just scrap the whole thing and keep him in a little actor box where we let him out to portray some skin-peelingly horrifying role. From Oldboy­ to Lady Vengeance, he’s one haunting performer with a frightening penchant for using hammers. Simply put, he’s one the best actors in South Korea, if not the world.

Min-sik Choi doing something. Sometimes it's better if you don't ask.

Byung-hun Lee stretches himself a bit here. He’s not just a pretty-boy action star like he was in G.I Joe or The Good, the Bad, the Weird. He can deliver a menacing glare well and works up some tears. It’s not a tour de force, but he’s worthy of praise for stepping out of a comfort zone and never reducing himself to his sex appeal. The rest of the cast is fine, but given little to do other than scream in pain, whimper, look confused, or do cop stuff like yell at Soo-hyeon and allow him to do what they can’t.

This movie is a mixed bag. Unlike a lot of revenge thrillers, this one is clearly in the horror genre. Director Jee-woon Kim was doing something new with The Good, the Bad, the Weird; he’s more known for grisly horror thrillers like A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life, but I kind of prefer his entertaining action. Perhaps it speaks to his talent as a horror director, but he’s knows just how far to push the gore envelope. Several scenes in this movie had me cringing and reaching for the remote, but just as I was ready to fast-forward, skip, or shut it down, he’d cut away. It was scary how much this got in my head. My imagination started to play with me and I no longer needed his grisly presentation. He knows what to show and what not to show. It’s more horrifying to see Min-sik Choi dragging a plastic-lined box of appendages across the screen than seeing him chop up a body.

Still, the gore felt a little too excessive. The presentation was done with a enough professional touches and skill that it horrified and sickened to the right degree without feeling exploitative, but the concurrent violent scenes did become visually deafening. Revenge thrillers, and horror films for that matter, are better when the violence and gore are focal points, staggered between moments of calm that horrify you. This is the basic reason Paranormal Activity is so affecting. The viewer comes to dread the night scenes, because they want to return to the peace of the day. There are really only three scenes of violence in A History of Violence, plenty of father-son time in Road to Perdition, and even Sweeny Todd has songs that don’t involve throat-slitting. There are not enough peaceful moments in I Saw the Devil, so it rockets forward and becomes more of a chase movie. By the end I had had enough of the gore, and it took away from the performances and the over-arching theme, which I do think is a deeper look at revenge. Kim should have taken a page from Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, which is extreme in its violence but has enough calm story-building to allow for an enjoyable viewing experience. There’s only so many times one can watch a skull get bashed in or someone stabbed with random hardware.

There’s also the issue of plot holes. The police seem unwilling or incapable of stopping either Kyung-chul or Soo-hyeon, even though at several occasions they have the option to do so, including a moment where Kyung-chul willing surrenders and they inexplicably wait three minutes for Soo-hyeon to show up. It felt really forced. Then there’s Soo-hyeon’s strange insistence to drive on the wrong side of the road in an attempt to cause traffic accidents. Despite popular opinion, you don’t get to the bad guy quicker by dodging oncoming SUV’s.  The characters also seem immortal until the director Kim decides they’re not. It apparently is not a big deal to have you skull cracked, Achilles tendon ripped out, several stab wounds, broken wrists, and stepping on a fish hook to boot. I mean I think I could wage war with a secret agent with those sorts of injuries, right?  These sorts of faux pas were charming and fit in The Good, the Bad, the Weird; they added to the comic aesthetic and allowed Kim to stage some amazing action scenes. Here they seem out of place and distracting. They only convolute the plot and weaken what are interesting characters.

Psst... psst... behind you....

As a horror thriller, this movie’s pretty good. It’s kind of disappointing to see Kim’s ability to get good performance from actors and frame some wonderful shots ruined by plot holes and the laws of biology and physics (stupid science ruins all the fun). In the end though it’s his own fault for focusing too much on the violence, which overruns the interesting ideas of monstrous actions demanding monstrous responses, the line between humanity and psychosis, and the universality of pain (even killers have families that a certain unhinged secret agent could harm). Unless you’re a connoisseur of foreign horror, or just horror for that matter, I would avoid this film. It’s not easy or enjoyable to watch, and the little art that shines through is not worth the images you have to bear. If horror’s your genre, there is a lot to learn from Jee-woon Kim’s execution of several scenes, but the overall package is a little light of substance.

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 #8: My Sassy Girl

By Nathanael Griffis

I, in stereotypical male fashion, avoid romantic comedies, but I’ll get to that in a moment. My Sassy Girl is not your typical romantic comedy. It follows several tropes of the genre, while eluding the pitfalls. In some ways it’s almost a satire of romantic comedies. I found myself surprised how much I liked this film. My expectations were to walk away from it with my suspicions confirmed that rom-coms can entertain and do little more. I do want to shed some light on the problems I have with rom-coms, but first let me say that My Sassy Girl is not one that should be avoided.

My Sassy Girl is an adapation of a novel that the author, Ho-sik Kim, pulled from his own life, no doubt taking liberties as writers do. (Side note: the actual title Yeopgijeogin geunyeo translates to The Bizarre Girl not My Sassy Girl, but My Sassy Girl is a more marketable title.) It’s about a boy named Kyun-woo, played by Tae-hyun Cha, who falls for “The Girl,” played Ji-hyun Jun. The Girl, who surpisingly is never named, has a low tolerence for alcohol, a penchant for ordering others around, and a sadness buried beneath an whitewashed exterior. The film follows the growing relationship between Kyun-woo and the Girl. At times it’s hilarious and poignant, and director Jae-young Kwak shows a deft ability to balance the two.

Thematically it reminded me a lot of the recent film (500) Days of Summer. Unlike that film, though, My Sassy Girl went on to become a massive hit; it is the highest grossing Korean comedy of all time. It deserves the accolades. The characters are distinctly unique but still relatable. Kyun-woo can show strength and confidence, but also a soft fragility and unwilliness to use his smarts and talent. The Girl’s bizarre behavior is rooted in some deep scar from her past, and beneath it all we see her grow and mature. The beauty of the film is in seeing these two flawed characters grow and fall in love and really examine what it means to be in a relationship.

Oh right, I forgot, the standing-under-a-tree-reading-a-letter cliche.

Jae-young Kwak understood he was making a romantic comedy and allows his film to operate within the boundaries of the that genre. We get classic staples, such as the lead male as a struggling writer, a group of comic relief buddies around Kyun-woo, overbearing parents, chin-pinching aunts, meeting in the rain; all the classics are here, and they’re all used to a purpose. The director does unique things with our expectations though. On a few occasions the film flashes forward to when the relationship is at a point of possibly ending. The film will cut from an image of Kyun-woo to an older man with a resemblence to Kyun-woo. Within seconds, though, we see either The Girl or someone else un-aged and are reminded that only a short amount of time has passed. This flash-forward moment is not uncommon in romances (see The Notebook for example) and has been used for ages. Kwak recognizes this and uses it as a way to signal that while we are watching a romantic comedy, we should not expect it to bend to the rules of that genre.

The film is full of wonderful comedic moments. It satirizes samurai films and Hong Kong action movies. The editing style is fresh, and the music isn’t overbearing. It’s an example of how to make a romantic comedy right. Too often romantic-comedies objectify romance itself and in the grander scheme the concept of love becomes objectified as well. My Sassy Girl presents the real struggle and pain of a relationship while showing how our expectations and perceptions of romance can get in the way.

I’ve been bothered by romantic-comedies for the same reason I imagine people are bothered by action films: they take their subject matter too lightly. Now, who wants to sit down and watch a droll discussion of the nature of love? No one (except maybe Ingmar Bergman). Romances should be happy and funny. Shakespeare’s comedies end in marriage. They’re happy, but they don’t assume that happiness is achieved through some magical whimsy. I’m bothered by the perception in romantic comedies that the words “I love you” or “I’m sorry” have some magically redeeming effect and signal the end to all unhappiness in life. It frequently seems that little needs to happen between two people except the exchange of a few words for all wrongs to be righted. Little attention is paid to the persons themselves and the way they relate to each other. In other words they miss the relationship and objectify love as something that can be earned or some mystical gift that can’t be explained.

Goofy faces = love.

Here’s an example: In Leap Year, Amy Adams plays what amounts to a self-absorbed New York socialite bigot. From the moment her character arrives in Ireland she sees their culture as stupid and openly mocks and abuses the people. This naturally causes the rustic Irish male lead played by Matthew Goode to fall in love with her. In the end neither character changes and Matthew Goode naturally accepts Amy Adams for who she is and all is well. Loving people despite their flaws is a good thing; it shows love is more powerful. What typically happens though is that people just tumble into love in some mysitical sense: at first they don’t relate, they fight all the time and then their eyes lock and, voila, love conquers all while rain mats hair to their face and hides the tears that have been buried in thier hearts.

On the opposite side there are other films like Adam starring Rose Byrne who is in a relationship with a man who has Asperger’s syndrome. The usual climax occurs where Rose Byrne’s character confronts the man and demands he tell her why she should be with him. He responds with “I need you,” which some of you might note is not “I love you,” so naturally their relationship will be a failure.

In Jerry Maguire when Renée Zellweger says “You had me it hello,” she’s not discounting Tom Cruise’s speech of love, but showing us that the speech isn’t the focus. It’s everything that’s come before it, and you don’t need some stirring, teary-eyed blubbering to confirm that. (It helps, but you don’t need it.) Knocked Up handles this concept nicely as well. Seth Rogan’s character, upon entering the delivery room, is screamed at and threatened by Katherine Heigel, but he doesn’t waste time on a stirring speech. He asserts that he’s here and that he thinks this relationship is going somewhere. At no time does the psuedo-Hollywood “I love you” moment happen. The proof is in his commitment to her. They may not even be in love (I contend they aren’t), but the relationship is given strength through their mutual struggling and enjoyment of life together.

Of course the greatest of them all, When Harry Met Sally, has all the cliches, a climactic speech of love, several dinner scenes gone wrong, and kissing. The difference is that it’s discussing and exploring the difference between friendship and relationship. To top it all off it also explores the effect of sex, and it doesn’t sugarcoat anything. If you go even farther back, in films like Roman Holiday or The Philadelphia Story romance is treated as a complex theme and what it means to be in love is examined, not merely presented.

Love is not some toggle switch hidden behind a person’s pupils that a phrase or the perfect environment will set off. My Sassy Girl understands this. In the film, the Girl tries to replicate all the right “romantic” moments that she’s had in a previous relationship. She forces Kyun-woo to become the dream boyfriend, which he is not. Kyun-woo, though, in a beautiful show of humility, goes along with it, and throughout learns who the Girl is, and falls in love with her. The Girl, upon realizing what she loves about Kyun-woo, is drawn to who he is in reality and not who she’s been shaping him into. They still have that magical destiny-drawing-them-together moment, but by that time we’ve seen their love materialize.

I don’t pretend to fully understand the nature of love, and I don’t begrudge people the enjoyment of a light-hearted romantic comedy, but I can’t help but be bothered everytime I see a concept so rich and exciting as love between two people encapsulated in a phrase, expressed in a bouquet, experienced in a single moment between bed sheets. Love is many brilliant things, and it’s refreshing to find films like My Sassy Girl that understand this. The film is a must-see for everyone: it’d make a great date movie, or group movie, or even a lonely-Tuesday-night-and-I-want-a-pick-me-up movie.


Also if you want a samurai fight scene.

Next I’ll be watching Boon-ho Jong’s Memories of Murder (which may have a different tone.)

Korean Cinema #7: Painted Fire

By Nathanael Griffis

Painted Fire is an example of a movie that does several things right–I’ve rarely seen a discussion of art so accessible to the viewer–and then there these glaring flaws. I want to say from the beginning that I like this film. I enjoyed watching it and I have a lot of respect for the director Kwon-taek Im ,who’s made over 100 films since starting in 1961. The acting is amazing. The art work is profound and gave me a new respect for Asian art and artists in general. But… no wait before I point out all the egregious  missteps in the film, I’ll give it its dues.

Painted Fire, also known by the title Chihwaseon, is a biopic released in 2002 about the Korean painter Dhowon, whose given name was Seung-up Jang. Dhowon painted and grew to prominence during the tumultuous late 19th-Century Korea. At that time Korea was fluctuating between various dynasties and Japanese and Chinese occupation. The country’s confused political and cultural identity becomes reflected in Dhowon’s growth as an artist as he is trying to find himself. This is normally a pretty cliched story line, the artist who has to throw off the shackles of what he’s been taught and discover a unique technique, but the discussion of art is so honest and raw that it gives this tired storyline a fresh feel.

Dhowon painting

Dhowon’s complex, and somewhat unlikeable, character arc is handled with masterful nuance by Min-sik choi, whom you might remember from Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Triliogy, but here he is playing a very different character. Choi presents us with a picture of an artist who never finds his footing and merely responds to the genius talent inside him. This is a wonderful chance for the director to give an honest look at 19th-century Asian artwork. It gave me a wonderful appreciation for the themes, genres, and symbolism of classical art pieces.

Personally I’ve never put much stock in art genres like landscape, bird and flower, or even portrait, but the cultural power of painting is so marvelously represented in this film that I regret not giving Asian artwork its appropriate respect. I was fascinated by how precise they had to be with imprecise tools. They had only one or two brushes, and maybe a stick of charcoal, but they used the instruments so perfectly and had such an understanding of depth and shadow that they needed very little more than the brush and ink to convey some of the truest, most inspiring works of art. Anything could become a canvas for self expression or symbolic meaning. It all felt very organic. I would feel pain when Dhowon would find some innocuous flaw in a seemingly perfect painting and destroy it, because I saw something more than beauty in the swathes of ink.

All that said, let’s get on to the mean stuff. This is the first true historic biopic I’ve seen in Asian cinema (I’m not saying their aren’t others, just that this is the first one I’ve watched), so maybe I missed some things in translation, and because of that perhaps take my critique with a grain of salt.

This film has a very troubled timeline, it doesn’t balance characters well, and women are treated as little more than sexual muses. The timeline is the most troubling aspect to me. The director makes indiscriminate cuts through time with little signal to the audience. I know in an earlier article I appreciated this is in Chan-wook Park’s films, but that was because Park might jump forward a half-hour, not 16 years. There’s a scene, for example, were Dhowon as a boy runs away; this then cuts to his master walking through a marketplace were he is accosted by a teenager who says he’s Dhowon; then cut to an adult Dhowon being pressed into art school. I’m not using creative license here–that’s a sequence of three cuts in a row. There’s no explanation, and it makes the whole experience jarring as this continues throughout the film.

It becomes especially taxing on supporting characters who materialize at the director’s whim and disappear with each regime change. The regime changes will cause anyone but an Asian historian some trouble. Large political issues are thrust quickly upon the viewer and then forgotten equally as fast. Perhaps these time issues led to my interpretation of weak female characters. Besides a matronly bar owner and few noblewomen, the majority of Dhowon’s interactions are with kisaeng, which are akin to geishas or concubines, but those terms are not truly adequate. The problem is that the kisaengs are a complex social entity in Korean history. They were sexual objects, but also supposed to fulfill motherly, medicinal, musical, and educational roles in society all while maintaining a social status equal to slaves. It’s this level of complexity that is missed, and unless you understand it watching this film, you would assume Dhowon is going around taking advantage of every young woman he possibly can.

It’s tough to say I would recommend this film. I want to recommend it because of it’s discussion of art, and the cinematography of Il-sung Jung is quite arresting, especially in the final shot. The glaring timeline issues are so basic and the weak supporting characters so overwhelm the film that I’m torn. It should be noted that a lot of critics disagree with me. This movie is highly praised by most criticism I’ve read. Kwon-teak Im tied for the Best Director award with Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love) at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival for this film, but by that timed Im had become a living legend deserving of some recognition. So I could be wrong (but I’m not).

If you love art this film is a must. If you like coherent narratives then avoid.

Next I’ll be watching My Sassy Girl.