Film scholar Gilberto Perez, in his brilliant work The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium, expresses as well as anyone I’ve read the physical experience of watching a film on screen:
The projector…brings the imprint of life to new life on the screen. The images on the screen carry in them something of the world itself, something material, and yet something transposed, transformed into another world: the material ghost. Hence…the juncture of world and otherworldliness distinctive of the film image (1).
Attending a film festival gives one an opportunity to experience what Perez describes many times over, in a radically compressed fashion. Watching 15 films in ten days, as I did, with double and sometimes triple features in one day, is a physically demanding task. Having barely recovered from one intense experience, you must be ready for another, completely different one. In order to convey these experiences in print, it is necessary to step away from the screen for a while in order to have some distance from these images, to reflect on and recognise common threads between these images. I offer this preamble to explain that the following reflections, rather than codified opinions, are instead a work in progress. The dynamism and complexity of most of the films I saw is worthy of far more than the all too brief commentary I can offer here.
That said, the New York Korean Film Festival, now in its fourth year, represents a valuable opportunity to sample one of the world’s most robust and innovative film industries. Notwithstanding the recent interest, at least among the cinephile set, in such films as this year’s Cannes Grand Prix winner Old Boy (Park Chan-wook, 2003), and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, 2003), Korean cinema remains an unknown quantity to most filmgoers. This, I believe, will slowly change as more of these films are released in the States. But at least for now, despite such recent attempts at Hollywood-style blockbusters as Shiri (Kang Je-gyu, 1999), Joint Security Area (Park Chan-wook, 2000) and Taegukgi (Kang Je-gyu, 2004), Korean cinema, at least for the foreseeable future, will remain an arthouse phenomenon. In the meantime, the more adventurous of the filmgoing audience can greatly benefit from the valiant efforts of this festival, and Mediabank, the company that runs it, to give Korean cinema the higher profile it deserves in the US.
What most struck me about a number of the films shown was their strong sense of incisive self-criticism about various aspects of Korean society. Much of the social commentary evident in these films concern such subjects as the continuing patriarchal nature of much of Korean society, specifically its impact on women and the expectations and pressures placed upon them; and how anyone who is considered deviant from the norm are treated. This criticism, in Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003) and The Spirit of Jeet Kune Do: Once Upon a Time in High School (Yu Ha, 2004), takes the form of brutally honest evocations of recent history, suffused with both nostalgia and anger. This year’s festival was entitled “Inner Turbulence”, a seemingly awkward phrase that nevertheless is an apt description of a society questioning itself, in this case through popular cinema. The Festival’s title also reflects the internal nature of this questioning, and the attempts to (or failure or refusal to) reconcile one’s own emotions and beliefs with society’s expectations. The Korean concept of han seems to me to most closely convey this feeling. Han, a difficult term to translate into English, refers to the suffering that Koreans have experienced throughout their history. Some examples of this in recent history are the peninsula’s brutal occupation by the Japanese in the first half of the 20th century, the physical and political divisions resulting from the Korean War, and South Korea’s subsequent struggles with its own authoritarian regimes. Intermingled in this term is the fierce spirit of resistance that has resulted from this long experience of oppression and repression (2). Student, labour and other popular mass movements have been a fixture of recent Korean history, continuing through today. One source of public outrage, for example, is the permanent US military presence in South Korea, exacerbated by the current war in Iraq.
Floating through the Festival films, then, are myriad manifestations of this spirit of resistance. Collectively they create a heady atmosphere of a society engaging its people in a provocatively questioning dialogue. These “material ghosts” of resistance, by presenting to its audience a transformed image of itself, may in turn transform its viewers, creating a spirit of resistance here and now, in the “real” world.
This spirit finds its most exuberant, and violent, expression in The Spirit of Jeet Kune Do: Once Upon a Time in High School, Yu Ha’s reminiscence of high school beatings and Bruce Lee worship. Set in 1978, at the height of Bruce Lee’s worldwide fame, this film is a clinical dissection of the inner workings of institutional violence prevalent in Korea’s high schools at the time. The school functions as a microcosm of Korea’s military regime and the “Revitalizing Reform” movement of the late ’70s, a time when rapid economic progress was a goal to be achieved at all costs. Yu depicts in often excruciating detail the ruthless circle of violence that defines nearly every relationship among the students and teachers. Discipline is brutally enforced by military officers on staff (including a sadistic Vietnam-vet general) and the use of upperclassmen as peer authority figures. In keeping with the pervasive cruelty of the times, the violence spills beyond the school walls. Some examples of this are: Hyun-soo’s (Kwon Sang-woo) relationship with his violent father, a taekwondo instructor; the brawl at a disco; the fight on the school bus over Eun-ju (Han Ka-in), the “Korean Olivia Hussey”. Bruce Lee is this film’s iconic figure of resistance to the established order, the lone fighter of injustice. This idea is made explicit in the film’s English subtitle, which evokes Sergio Leone’s westerns, and its own iconic fighter, the Man With No Name. The film’s characters for the most part don’t passively accept this system; they struggle to find spaces that exist beyond this circuit of cruelty. These spaces can be glimpsed in such elements as Han Ka-in’s exquisite face and limpid eyes; Eun-ju and Hyun-soo’s train trip to the countryside; the restaurant the boys frequent and its lusty proprietress; the porn circulated by the chubby student, Hamburger (Park Hyo-jun); and pop music such as ABBA and Morris Albert’s schlock classic, “Feelings”. However, brutality eventually wins out, culminating in the climactic rooftop showdown that catapults Hyun-soo outside this system, allowing him to escape and find his own way to becoming an adult. Yu Ha, in his unique vision of the past, ultimately trades nostalgia for a steely-eyed indictment of some of the more inhuman elements of recent Korean history.
The lone resister to society’s ills is brought to the present in outrageously demented fashion in Save the Green Planet! (Jang Jun-Hwan, 2003). Jang’s film is a psychedelic portmanteau of comedy, science fiction, conspiracy theory, scenes of brutal torture, and wicked 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) parodies, capped off by an ending recalling Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964). The provocative premise concerns the conviction of Byung-gu (Shin Ha-Kyun), the film’s jittery, pill-popping protagonist, that the chemical corporation CEO (Baek Yun-sik) he has kidnapped and tortured is in fact an alien bent on destroying the earth. Remove the sci-fi element, and you’re not far from the standard arguments of environmentalists against chemical and industrial corporations. Even the film’s title could be a slogan for an environmental group. Despite the film’s outlandish kookiness, there is at least one sense in which it is based in earthbound realities. The trigger to Byung-gu’s madness (if he is indeed mad, which remains ambiguous to the end) may lie in a girlfriend’s death at the hands of police during a protest rally. This image of resistance to corporate control is very much in keeping with the film’s environmentalist themes.
The omnibus film If You Were Me (Yim Soon-rye, Jeong Jae-eun, Yeo Kyun-dong, Park Jin-pyo, Park Kwang-su, Park Chan-wook, 2003) contains the most direct criticism of Korean society in this festival’s offerings. A collection of six shorts commissioned by the Human Rights Commission of Korea, the project’s stated mission is to call attention to issues of prejudice and discrimination. The six filmmakers represented here are some of the most talented emerging directors currently working in Korea. As is usually the case with anthology films, the finished product is of uneven quality. However, it contains at least one outstanding short, Park Chan-wook’s closer, “N.E.P.A.L. Never Ending Peace and Love”, where cinematic aesthetics and social outrage combine to create a brilliant and moving work.
In keeping with the project’s aim, it is significant to note that the contributors include two of the very few working female directors in Korea. One of them, Yim Soon-rye, in the film’s opener, “The ‘Weight’ of Her”, takes on the issue of female body image and the premium society places on a particular standard of female beauty. Yim’s film is a satirical portrait of a girls’ school, where the teacher’s lessons reinforce the importance of maintaining a slim figure and keeping up their grooming. The teachers conduct frequent weigh-ins, resulting in a funny exchange in which a male teacher with a prominent potbelly, when confronted with his own weight problem, answers, “It doesn’t matter how men look.” The punchline is that the school is actually a finishing school for room salon hostesses. The director herself appears in the film’s coda, where she is subjected to a male passerby’s comment about the “fat lady” directing the film.
Jeong Jae-eun, the other female director represented here, contributes the bizarre Kubrick-meets-Buñuel oddity “The Man with an Affair”. This vaguely sci-fi film, complete with an eerie electronic score, is set in an Orwellian high-rise with slogans printed on the balcony walls, such as “Retaliation clouds sound thinking”. This film seems to be making a statement about the tyranny of the majority and how those who are considered different are ostracised. Provocatively, we may be asked here to identify and sympathise with a possible paedophile. The studied weirdness of this piece, while making it a fascinating curio, nevertheless somewhat obscures this film’s connectedness to the project’s aim of highlighting human rights issues.
Yeo Kyun-dong’s “Crossing”, one of the film’s stronger entries, is a funny and poignant semi-documentary portrait of Kim Moon-ju, a physically handicapped man. Yeo divides his film in whimsically titled vignettes as Kim performs such mundane activities as leaving his apartment and crossing the street, which because of his condition become momentous struggles. He must constantly contend with the misunderstandings of the able-bodied people he lives around, for example in the first scene where he attempts to leave his house, and is pushed back inside by a neighbour who thinks he is just arriving home. Resistance to authority is evoked by a friend’s involvement in a demonstration for the rights of the disabled, and his own attempt to cross a busy intersection on his own, which happens to be a popular site for street protests. Kim is forcibly prevented from crossing by two policemen, as he screams in anger and frustration.
Park Jin-pyo’s “Tongue Tie” explores the phenomenon of children having surgery to remove a gland underneath the tongue in order to better pronounce English, specifically the L and R sounds. Park incorporates actual footage of this surgery, rendering these portions of the film nearly unwatchable. Although this extreme strategy would seem to be of dubious value, it is nonetheless effective in rendering in the starkest terms possible the drive for material success in Korea, which in many cases is identified with mastering the English language. Much like the girls in “The ‘Weight’ of Her” who seek eyelid surgery to appear more Western-looking, this drive to learn English seems to represent at least a partial denial of their identity. This is reflected in a quote from a child which ends the film: “I wish the world was mine so I wouldn’t have to speak English.”
Park Kwang-su’s “Face Value”, the film’s weakest entry, is a surprisingly apolitical effort from the project’s most overtly political filmmaker. His previous films Black Republic (1990) and A Single Spark (1995) have dramatised worker’s struggles in recent history. He contributes here a slight, Twilight Zone-style vignette that centres on a man’s confrontation with a female parking attendant, and his contention that she seems to feel her rudeness toward him is justified by her beauty. The story’s twist is contrived and unoriginal, and Park doesn’t have anything particularly insightful to say about society’s attitudes toward perceived beauty.
Park Chan-wook’s “N.E.P.A.L. Never Ending Peace and Love” dramatises the harrowing, and true, tale of Chandra Gurung, who through simply losing her ID, ended up being forced to spend over six years in a series of mental institutions. This occurred because, since she came from a tribe that looked almost identical to typical Koreans, no one considered that she may be a foreigner. Her attempts to communicate in her native tongue were interpreted as mad ravings, causing her to be diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Park films his story in high-contrast black and white, always placing us in Chandra’s point of view. This strategy effectively evokes the fear, isolation and disorientation of Chandra’s ordeal. All those responsible for this injustice attempt to justify themselves in asides directly addressed to the camera. Especially haunting is Chandra’s lonely voice, trying to be understood through walls of incomprehension and misunderstanding. The film’s conclusion switches to Nepal, where the film changes to vibrant colour and the joyous sights of music and dancing, such a stark contrast to the monochrome bureaucratic nightmare we have just left. In the midst of this, the real Chandra, finally reunited with her own people, acknowledges her identity with a fleeting smile.
Korea’s recent past is again brought to life in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, based on a number of actual unsolved murders that occurred in the rural areas outside Seoul from 1986 until 1991. Refreshingly eschewing the cliches of the serial-killer genre, Bong mixes gruesome tragedy with rough-hewn, country-bumpkin humour and an undercurrent of melancholy. The mood of Korea’s then authoritarian government is evoked by the constant nighttime air-raid drills that routinely disrupt the town where the film’s action takes place. In one scene, a detective known as “Combat Boots” stomps a student protester in the same way as he stomps suspects in the investigation. The detectives’ lack of basic resources, such as a working vehicle or a lab for DNA analysis, combined with their incompetence in allowing the initial crime scene to be contaminated, in part was what allowed the murderer to remain undetected to this day. What we are left with in the end is the conundrum of what lies behind an “ordinary face”, in the words of a little girl at the film’s conclusion, who may have seen the killer return to the site of the first murder.
The mourning for the dead that exists as an undercurrent to Memories of Murder, comes to the fore in Park Ki-bok’s poignant documentary, Mudang: Reconciliation Between the Living and the Dead (2003). This film depicts the lives and often marginalised existence of the mudang, or shamans, of Korea. Mudang are exclusively women, one of the few areas in Korea’s patriarchal culture where women held a crucial role. Mudang documents a tradition that is slowly dying, both from its perceived irrelevance to today’s youth-obsessed culture, and from the dwindling number of practitioners. Park’s previous documentaries dealt with the homeless, and Mudang identifies a similar sense of isolation from society, since many of the mudang are now quite old and live a harsh, hand-to-mouth existence. However, a powerfully emotional scene makes clear the importance of the mudang to those they serve. Park Mijung, a young mudang, performs a ritual to reconnect a woman with a son who died in a construction accident. As the mudang becomes possessed with the dead son’s spirit, she sings in his voice, relaying his message to his mother. The weeping and extreme emotion of both the mudang and the dead son’s relatives create an almost unbearably sad scene.
It is commonplace to say that “the personal is political”. However, a few of these films powerfully depict the ways society’s institutions and mores impact people’s intimate lives. The Uninvited (Lee Soo-youn, 2003), which can only superficially be described as a horror film, is an anxiety-ridden portrait of the family, specifically children. The film’s most memorable images all involve children: dead girls riding a train; a baby dropped out of a high-rise window by an unbalanced caretaker; a little boy run over by a truck. Largely dispensing with typical horror-movie mechanics such as sudden shocks and crawling ghosts, The Uninvited is remarkably restrained and marked by its unique tone of brooding melancholy. The film’s sense of horror derives from familial ties being broken or distorted into something grotesque, culminating in the final image of the main character surrounded by his new “family”, a family of the dead. The fact that the film was written and directed by a woman perhaps gives its pessimistic vision of family relationships an additional resonance.
Two comedies, Singles (Kwon Chil-in, 2003) and My Little Bride (Kim Ho-jun, 2004) satirise women’s roles and society’s expectations of them. Singles offers an amusing gallery of romantic complications, fuelled by both the drive for material success and the equally strong pressure to pursue marriage and family. The two female protagonists reject, at least for the time being, society’s prescribed roles for them, one deciding to be a single mother, the other forgoing a man’s support in order to find her own path to happiness. This is a rather bold statement in a society that continues to limit women’s acceptable life choices. My Little Bride may seem like lighter-than-air fluff on the surface, which it is, but it is also a pointed satire of traditional arranged marriages. Anchored by the energetic performance of the almost impossibly cute 16 year-old teen idol Moon Geun-young, the film centres around her arranged marriage to a 24 year-old man by their respective grandfathers. Much of the film’s humour results from their attempts to live as a married couple while pursuing their own seemingly incompatible interests. Although, by Western standards this scenario may have somewhat disturbing undercurrents, as the girl explains, “I’d be married in the old days”. Although everything is predictably wrapped up in a happily-ever-after denouement, this still doesn’t quite erase the film’s keen sense of the absurdity of blindly clinging to outdated traditions.
The personal and political combine in an explosively powerful way in A Good Lawyer’s Wife (Im Sang-soo, 2003), to my mind the best film of the Festival. Im effortlessly combines eroticism, comedy and tragedy into a devastating critique of the institution of marriage. A Good Lawyer’s Wife exposes in a visceral fashion the hypocrisy that lies behind the image of the normal, stable family. This idea is made explicit in the film’s Korean title, which translates loosely as “Family Having Affairs”. The film’s success as both box office hit and artistic achievement is largely due to Moon So-ri’s brave and fearless performance as the “lawyer’s wife”, Hojung. What makes this film so compelling is the deftness with which its combines seemingly incompatible elements: adultery and eroticism; the uncovered mass grave that may be evidence of a war crime; and two major deaths in the family. Images of death, in fact, recur throughout the film, beginning with the very first shot of a dead dog on a bridge, which forces Counsellor Joo (Hwang Jeong-min), the titular lawyer, to stop his car. He is on his way to investigate the mass grave, which he ends up falling into when he arrives on the scene. Joo continues to be associated with death in this way all through the film. Joo discusses the grave with his mistress while he has sex with her, after which he goes home to wash off both the remnants of the grave and the sex he has just had. In another scene, his dying father coughs blood all over his shirt; later in the film he tells his mistress over the phone about a violent sex fantasy he entertained while watching his father die.
This directly contrasts with Joo’s wife Hojung, who seems in every way to be the exact opposite of her husband. While Joo exists in a world of procedures and institutions, Hojung is a dancer, representing creativity and movement. She is especially conscious of her body and connected to it; as a result, she puts a premium on bodily pleasure. The one time we see her having sex with her husband, she cannot feel pleasure and masturbates on the bed next to him to achieve fulfilment. She complains at one point to a friend on the phone, “When you’re married, you’re no longer a woman. You’re really nothing.” Her feelings of constriction in being a wife become a kind of death for her. Her failed attempt at sex with her husband leads to the remarkable scene of her naked gyrations in the dark, where she catches her eventual lover, a 17 year-old high school dropout, spying on her through the window. Her affair with this much younger man resurrects her desire and becomes her rebirth, culminating in the (literal) climax of the film as she finally consummates their relationship, as the rising sun shines through the windows of her dance studio.
Even though the film’s selling point is its frank portrayal of sexuality, even more provocative than this is its implicit equation of marriage and the traditional family with death. This is quite a shocking statement to make in a country that puts such a huge premium on traditional values as Korea. However, as A Good Lawyer’s Wife makes abundantly clear, there are fissures and tensions inherent in such a system, and many of society’s institutions ultimately fail to fully account for how actual human beings feel and behave.
It has been a constant source of disappointment for me that in popular American cinema, engagement with political and social issues has mostly been left to the documentary arena, some recent examples being Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004), The Corporation (Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, 2003) and Control Room (Jehane Noujaim, 2004). In the rare instance that a filmmaker attempts something more ambitious than simple escapist entertainment (two recent examples being Spike Lee’s She Hate Me  and Mario van Peebles’ Baadasssss! ), it is mostly ignored by both the media and its intended audience. It is quite refreshing, then, to see evidence of a popular cinema speaking directly to its viewers, challenging its audience with images that directly confront their own society’s attitudes toward issues that affect their lives. Most of the films I discuss here were popular successes in Korea, rather than esoteric arthouse fare, as they would probably be considered in the US. And it is this spirit of resistance evident in these films which prove Korea to be one of the most vibrant and fascinating areas of world cinema.
- Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1998, p. 28.
- The concept of han is more fully explained in Boye Lafayette De Mente, NTC’s Dictionary of Korea’s Business and Cultural Code Words, NTC Publishing Group, Chicago, 1998, pp. 92–94, and in Eungjun Min, Jinsook Joo, and Han Ju Kwak, Korean Film: History, Resistance and Democratic Imagination, Praeger, Westport, 2003, pp. 8–9. The latter work compares han to African-American blues.