J.S.A.: Joint Security Area (Park Chan-wook, South Korea: 2000)



A shooting incident in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) leaves two North Korean soldiers dead, one South Korean soldier wounded and a fragile political situation. The Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) gives Swiss Armed Forces Major Sophie E. Jean the task of investigating the incident - a potentially volatile situation given that, despite a confession from one of the soldiers, the statements from each of the Koreas completely contradict each other....

Review

Despite his recent foray into Hollywood with Stoker (U.S.A.: 2013), director Park Chan-wook is likely to, for a while yet, remain best known for his 'The Vengeance Trilogy' - which began with 2002's Sympathy For Mr Vengeance. Prior to that release, the director had broken a run of bad luck at the box office with his film J.S.A.: Joint Security Area (2000) - a wildly successful commercial hit which, became the highest grossing film in Korean history. Based on the best-selling novel 'DMZ' by Park Sang-yeon, J.S.A. is a harrowing political thriller dealing with the difficult relationship between South and North Korea. The subject of Korean reunification had been broached on film on numerous occasions prior to the release of J.S.A. - notably in the blockbuster Shiri (Kang Je-gyu, South Korea: 1999) – but the film still managed to provoke controversy. J.S.A. is a film best viewed with as little pre-knowledge of the plot as possible and is difficult to discuss without giving away at least a few initial details - therefore be warned: the rest of this post contains some plot spoilers...

Opening in the manner of a somewhat conventional thriller, Joint Security Area takes some time in outlining the political background for its investigation in the aftermath of the DMZ shooting. It is established from the outset that the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) - a body given the task of regulating the relationship between the two Koreas – will be required to maintain a position of complete neutrality while investigating, with the adhesion to procedure prioritised over the conclusions of the investigation. This exposition-heavy opening means that J.S.A. feels a little clunky to begin with, this fragile political situation is outlined through some really quite stilted dialogue in English by non-native English speakers. At a push it could be argued that this emphasises the mix of different languages, cultures, histories and points of view surrounding the political process at the DMZ, but in reality these are pretty flimsy and poorly written scenes and, eventually, we find that they add little to the overall effect of the film anyway. Fortunately, despite this awkwardness, what is established well here is a sense of distance - the 'outsider' perspective succeeds in placing the audience in the position of the investigator and provides Park Chan-wook some distance in order to deliver a story that requires its own delicate balancing act. Despite how confusing this may all sound, the careful explanation of the situation is almost certainly one reason why J.S.A. plays well very with overseas audiences who may be unfamiliar with the historical and political backdrop.

It’s only a short while after the initial set-up that J.S.A. begins to properly reveal itself (here's the spoiler part): the big twist - given away in the trailers for the film, I'm not ruining it - is that the soldiers involved in the shooting were all friends. I won't reveal how these relationships develop but narratively J.S.A. takes its focus away from its initial investigative thriller premise. This mis-stepping of the audience from political thriller into character drama is J.S.A.s biggest strength, it's clearly where Park wants to spend time with his characters and it's here that the script and the cast finally come to life. In terms of dream-casting, J.S.A. pretty much nails it: Lee Byung-hun and Kim Tae-woo are the South Korean soldiers alongside their Northern counterparts, played by Song Kang-ho and Shin Ha-kyun. There's a clear rapport between the actors and the unlikely friendships that evolve as the soldiers slowly open up to each other are convincing. Importantly, there's an underlying frisson as the soldiers hesitantly confront their uncertainties about each other, gently prod ideologies and recognise their commonalities. There’s a childlike naïvety to the friendships – at times quite literally as they play silly games and jump around like school kids. It's to the credit of both Parks direction, strong performances and an intelligent script that the balances and simultaneously sidelines the differences between the northern and southern ideologies – a feat pulled off with seeming ease and believability.

Although an ensemble piece, a very young looking Lee Byung-hun plays the soldier who gets the lions share of the screen-time as Sgt. Lee Soo-Hyuk. The soldier who has confessed to the shooting, it’s largely through Lees perspective that we unravel the background of the incident. Flitting between the bleak investigation and the brighter, happier time with friends, Lees every-man contrasts between the light hearted moments and managing to hold a scene intensely - even in complete silence. Kim Tae-woo gets a slightly more dour role but is solid as Nam Sung-Shik. Shin Ha-kyun is on top, likeable form here as the slightly nervous Jung Woo-Jin. It's a pretty small role but Shin makes the most of it with a memorable performance. The actor and character who dominates J.S.A., creating the biggest impression is Song Kang-hos Sergeant Oh Kyeong-Pil. The most difficult of the soldiers to portray convincingly, Song delivers a multi-layered portrayal of a North Korean soldier without resorting to caricature. Oh is a thoughtful and humorous man, aware of the shortcomings of his country but retaining an intense pride. Most importantly – in terms of breaking on-screen stereotypes - he’s charismatic and likeable. It's a brave performance accompanied by some very well written scenes, including a powerful speech, delivered beautifully by Song expressing his pride, hope and faith in his country. J.S.A. emphasises its willingness to recognise two conflicting points of view and to put the differences aside. Despite the difficulties, contradictions and occasional pettiness of either side, there’s no attempt to align each of the two perspectives with each other and this is probably J.S.A.s most important choice – the focus is on the common ground rather than forming a criticism of an ideology. In fact, with the exception of the opening and closing bookends authority figures remain largely off-screen throughout J.S.A. (Swiss Army Major Jean doesn’t really count, she’s effectively been neutered), yet their presence is felt pressing in on everyone involved throughout.

Despite its sensitive subject matter, J.S.A. is clearly designed as a commercial film for a broad audience. A large budget is reflected on screen through its impressive sets (most famously those replicating the famous village of Panmunjom) and its technical quality. Cinematography is by Shiri lensor Kim Sung-bog, who gives the production a slick 'nineties action film' feel and successfully conveys a sense of scale. This style works well and there's some clever uses of framing throughout, as well as one of the finest, most heartbreaking final shots in cinema. There’s a few clichés in the script here which are even less subtle when acknowledged visually1 but these are small mis-steps and there's plenty of scenes which remain in the mind long after the closing credits. Park Chan-wook indulges in some of the visual flourishes that would later become a bit of a trademark, but these are largely visual and structural choices to enhance the narrative and keep everything moving. Despite the glossy leanings towards Hollywood-style thrillers Park pares the central issues down to the connection between a group of men despite the politics and history that surrounds them. There's a refusal to pander to the happy ending or romanticising the situation too much that gives J.S.A. its power. There's no last minute cop-out.

For all of its strengths, it still must be said that J.S.A. does have its flaws. With the exception of a few (very guessable) revelations the investigation of the shooting is largely uninteresting and has few places to go once we've established the key relationships between the soldiers. It's hard not to feel that actress Lee Young-ae has drawn the short end of the stick when it comes to pulling these scenes together, but even a sub-plot involving the background of her father adds little overall. This does, for what it's worth, feels a lot smoother on subsequent viewings - the flaws remain but the oddly emotionally cold bookends are less grating.

For some viewers the 'remove the politicians and the armies and we would all get a long' message may seem too naïve, simplifying the difficult history of North and South Korea far too much. This is a fair point, however this would also be almost be to miss the point: Joint Security Area is clearly a commercial film with thriller elements established on the fears of the relationship between the two Koreas. Where it manages to becomes a more interesting and empowering film is in its ability to locate and touch upon the a sense of hope of reconciliation between two alienated nations rather than a political dissection. It's the simple sense of hope that J.S.A. manages to stir up that manages to be both uplifting and heartbreaking at once.

Over a decade after its original release Joint Security Area remains a powerful and moving film, and it is often rightly referred to as a classic. An important film for many reasons, J.S.A. provided another key moment in the emerging hallyu both domestically and overseas with a controversial subject matter transformed into box-office success, and the emergence of Park Chan-wook - a director whose subsequent output would, for many, define the latest generation of Korean filmmakers.

Alternative Reviews: Korean Film

'Judgement' (Park Chan-wook, South Korea: 1999)


With the exception of some surely-now-near-legendary unsubtitled VHS copies, which always seem get a mention when discussing this subject, both The Moon Is... the Sun's Dream (1992) - the debut feature from director Park Chan-wook and his follow-up Trio (1997) appear to be remaining under lock and key in the vault of their relevant distributors. This being the, rather annoying, case means that the short film 'Judgement' (also known as 'Simpan') is the earliest work from Director Park that we can currently feast our eyes upon. Made and released in 1999, a couple of years after the the poor box office performance of those first two full-length films, and just prior to his 2000 breakout film Joint Security Area - 'Judgement' finds the director playing far from nice.

Which is, of course, good news.

A blackly cynical and at times unexpectedly (or rather, for those already familiar with Park Chan-wook, fairly expectedly) humorous, 'Judgement' takes its inspiration from real life events, inspired by and echoing the collapse of a department store in 1995 which claimed the lives of 502 people. That was a disaster which was blamed on human negligence: the department store collapsed due to over-expansion of the premises. Such a terrible event sounds like a sensitive subject which needs to be broached with care - a gentle touch, maybe - but that's not exactly Park's intention here...

'Judgement' opens with a sombre tone: in a morgue, a radio plays as a reporter details a recent disaster and calculates the amount of money in compensation families of the deceased can expect to receive. A Funeral Director prepares as the parents of a recently deceased girl arrive to identify the body, accompanied by a camera crew are present to record every emotional moment. This scene is abruptly halted when the funeral director announces that the dead girl is, in fact, his own daughter.

Shot in stark black and white with an unsettling visual style that seemingly shifts perspective with each cut, 'Judgement' veers from the taut to the ridiculous - and then off elsewhere – all in the space of a few minutes. Park's short focuses examining the motives of a group of people left to deal with the aftermath of a terrible event and finds that they largely come up short. What initially appears to be a case of mistaken quickly becomes something rather more sinister: the desperation for each of the characters to prove their relationship to the girl, and to - maybe - hide their own motives becomes ever more uncomfortable as the risk of being wrong (or worse, caught in a lie) rises to epic proportions. Park toys with where our own sympathies lie here, throwing them around each of the different figures - until it's absolutely clear that amongst the dirt-throwing the dead girl in the room has pretty much been forgotten. A jarring editing technique manages to mesh visuals, sound and music scores in a manner that never allows the viewer the comfort of sitting back and watching events unfold. Instead, watching proceedings unravel we become implicated in this behavior - the first montage of real-life news footage feels like it is establishing the scene and setting, but by the second montage we have been relegated to voyeurs, rubbernecking on someone elses misfortunes.

Although certainly its a little rough around the edges, and sometimes a little more subtlety wouldn't go amiss, 'Judgement' is the work of a director sharpening film-making skills as if they were knives. This is in stark contrast to Park's next feature, Joint Security Area, which finds the director subtlety balancing the tonal shifts. The short running time and need for a faster pace to effectively deliver the biting script means 'Judgement' requires less than a gentle hand, but there's an evident leap in delivery and impact between this and his next work. Already clear here though through the biting attack on greedy capitalism is the sharp, controlled anger which can be found in the best of Park's work. 'Judgement' also clearly demonstrates Parks skill at combining writing and technical proficiency with extracting strong performances from his cast, with Key Joo-bong on particularly good form here. Even better still is Parks sense of humour which is given reign here (the idea for a beer cooler is almost inspired), particularly in the flashes cynicism which would surface in a big way in 2002's Sympathy For Mr Vengeance. The big difference is that by that point Park seemed to have realized that making the a bunch of really quite hateful people sympathetic can actually be an even more powerful than the – admittedly fun – scorn he pours on them here.

Review: Christmas In August (Hur Jin-ho, South Korea: 1998)


Jung-won is portrait photographer running a small shop in Gunsan. Although he is terminally ill, appearance-wise he appears to be fine and he gives no impression otherwise and tries to avoid discussing the situation with both his friends and family. One afternoon a meter reader by the name of Da-rim arrives at his shop and dramtically insists that he reproduces a photograph for her. An uncomfortable conversation produces an immediate spark between the two of them, although the level of conversation remains polite and limited. When Da-rim arrives back at the shop a couple of days later, Jung-won is pleased to see her and a friendly relationship begins to form between them...

Review

Opening with what initially appears to be the set up for a fairly typical melodrama, Christmas In August begins with a golden autumnal feel, the sounds of a melancholy piano - followed by the chords of a wistful guitar - and a slow, deliberate pace which suggests that we're in line for a fairly pleasant, potentially, run-of-the-mill drama situated on a well-trodden path. If you can't stand the thought of yet another melodrama focused on terminal illness then its fortunate that director and writer Hur Jin-ho is far more interested in bypassing the usual onscreen dramatics in favour of focusing on the smaller moments passing between new and old friends and members of a family facing the reality of a seemingly unavoidable loss in the near future. The result is a remarkable, understated drama which has lost none of its charm in the years since its release, and which remains capable of softening the heart of even the toughest, most cynical viewer - this one included.

The forth highest-grossing film at the domestic box-office in 1998, Christmas In August benefits enormously its casting of the two lead roles. Actor Han Seok-kyu was, at this point in his career, in the earlystages of an incredible run at the box-office, having already appeared the year before in The Contact (Jang Yoon-hyeon, South Korea), No.3 (Song Neung-han, South Korea) and Green Fish (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea) and with Shiri (Kang Je-gyu, South Korea) and Tell Me Something (Jang Yoon-hyeon, South Korea) to appear in the following year and he has since remained an audience favourite. Actress Shim Eun-ha was similarly popular with viewers and although she had at this point made only a couple of films appearances, she was already a favourite of television audiences and despite retiring in 2000 remains a much loved actress today. Both leads have a beautifully low-key and note-perfect delivery here, and there's a remarkable chemistry between them which cements both of their natural performances. The script is a pure masterclass in understatement, utilising vacuums to create tensions under the surface rather than relying on words. The structure delicately unfurls its characters and themes and at a steady pace and requires performances to make light of a script which is weighted between the lines - something which Han and Shim accomplish, seemingly, with ease. A clear example of this is an early scene in which Da-rim asks Jung-woon questions in an attempt to find out some personal details: he never gives her either a direct or honest answer, yet from these answers she manages to learn more about him than if he had been straightforward and open.

Hur Jin-ho chooses to tackle the subject of the illness in a similar read-between-the-lines manner. The viewer is never made aware of the precise nature of Jung-won's illness, in fact it's rendered pretty much irrelevant by focusing elsewhere. On the surface of things Jung-won is a quiet man, uncomplainingly getting on with his life and seeming to forever be working, tidying and cleaning up after himself - suggesting a busy mindset concerned with removing all traces of himself and a refusal to be a burden on anyone around him. Rather than openly prepare for the time when he is no longer around, Jung chooses to suffer in silence and his reticence to discuss his illness is upsetting to his family. His few moments of open frustration appear with his realisation that those around him may be incapable of taking over the jobs that he currently does for them. His solution is to write out lists of instructions, again, tidying and making sure everything is in order. Linked into this is Jung's work as a photographer – a record keeper who captures images of people which will remain long after the present moment has passed. Despite this sounding a little on the nose, Hur Jin-ho refuses to simplify the situation and scenes feel like layers of a much bigger story. Christmas In August is usually referred to as a romantic melodrama, yet the romance can be found here in the moments and connections rather than in a fully blown physical relationship.

Visually Christmas In August perfectly compliments its subject matter. Despite the fact that much of the principal photography took place in the middle of summer, there's a golden hue to everything linking the autumnal season and period of life with aged photographs. There's also much use of framing tools - through windows, doors and camera lenses – underlining attempts to capture fleeting moments. The film is dedicated to cinematographer You Young-gill who sadly died shortly after filming was completed, a fitting tribute to the an artist after three decades of work in the Korean film industry.

Director Hur Jin-ho manages to get everything right with Christmas In August: impressive by any standards but even more so considering this is his feature film directorial début, it feels instead like the work of a more experienced and fully matured filmmaker. It could even be argued that Hur managed to set a standard so high that he and his contemporaries have since struggled to repeat the feat. There's no criticism of Christmas In August to be found in this review - I genuinely struggled to try to find an element which might be considered weak or misjudged but failed miserably – and the film is only strengthened through repeat viewings. The label might seem a little overused, but here it's perfectly apt: Christmas In August is nothing short of a modern classic.

Alternative Reviews: Hangul Celluloid

'Remember O Goddess' (South Korea, Yoon Jung Lee: 2011)



A man walks into a Police Station to report a missing person. He knows the name of the person he's reporting but isn't sure when or where they went missing from. When asked his relationship to the missing person he replies:

'I want to report a disappearance of myself'.

So begins 'Remember O Goddess' - a twenty-five minute short film which managed to pick up a fair amount of interest over the last year or so following screenings at festivals and a Kickstarter project by director Yoon Jung Lee with the intention of expanding the film into a full length feature. So why the interest and how does 'Remember O Goddess' fare in this, its original incarnation?

A slowly and deliberately paced affair, 'Remember O Goddess' may be a low budget production but it doesn't feel like one. It certainly utilises elements recognisably typical of low budget filmmaking – the voiceover, use of beautiful but occasionally disorientating cinematography and a slightly off kilter soundtrack – although here all of these elements work extremely well to move the narrative along. As a viewer we're thrown into the deep end with our confused protagonist - the opening shots from the point of view of a person unseen from within a car begins starts the sense of uncertainty that pervades the piece. Managing to create a sense of drama through growing paranoia, fear and loneliness while at the same time never quite allowing the viewer to fully trust the perceptions of the lost central figure, 'Remember O Goddess' feels heavily like a single fractured element of a multi-layered thriller. Bringing to mind shades of Christopher Nolan's Memento (USA, UK: 2000), the sense of unease throughout is infused with black comedy and, wisely, never clearly outlines its intentions and instead forces the viewer to try to piece together a narrative thread with limited information. We're given an insight into the mind of our lost man through an internal monologue, but questions remain throughout as to whether he is interpreting events correctly.

Lead actor Kim Jung-tae gives a beautifully subtle performance as a man quickly unwinding beneath the surface, while all of the time trying to maintain the appearance of a man in control. Given the brief running time of the short film Kim manages to create a sympathetic and interesting figure of turmoil, despite minimal interaction with others. 'Remember O Goddess' certainly looks great - cinematography by Jang U-yeong is both accomplished and (perfectly) fidgety, while the editing by Mun Se-gyeong gives plenty of space to the confused central figure while creating a disjointed sense of time.

Fortunately Yoon Jung Lee's Kickstarter project was a success and in time we'll be able to see 'Remember O Goddess' expanded into a full length feature. Given how the short transforms its few locations, small number of cast members and brief running time into its strengths, it will be interesting to how director Lee adapts to the expanded format. Despite the promise of a longer story in the future, 'Remember O Goddess' as it currently stands doesn't feel like half a story, it currently works on its own terms as an unsual and atmospheric twenty-five minutes and marks director Lee as someone to watch out for in the future.

The Kickstarter Project page for 'Remember O Goddess' - including the original short film - can be found here, along with further details on the official website.

'Remember O Goddess' will be screened as part of the 3rd Korean Film Festival in Australia on Friday 24th August

Alternative Reviews: Hangul Celluloid

Discovering Connections – The 3rd Korean Film Festival in Australia

Classics, Blockbusters, Animation, Comedies, Thrillers  - in less than a weeks time the Korean Film Festival in Australia (KOFFIA) will kick off with yet another strong line-up of Korean cinema up on the big screen in what is not only its third year in a row but also its expansion to a third major city.

Organised by the Korean Cultural Office the festival has managed to establish itself incredibly quickly, originally launching in 2010 and based solely in Sydney. The success of that first year prompted an expansion for its second outing which found the festival returning to Sydney before travelling down to Melbourne. Once again the festival will be hitting both Sydney (22nd to 28th August) and Melbourne (8th to 12th of September) before, again, spreading its wings even further as it heads over to Brisbane from 27th to 30th of September.

Not only will the festival play host to twenty feature films - see below - but there's plenty of events and screenings based around the screenings. You can expect to see Special Guests (still to be announced), Q&A's and Forums with filmmakers and critics, Cultural Performances displaying elements of both modern and traditional Korean culture, the KOFFIA Short film Competition, there's School Activity Sessions plus the Closing Night in Brisbane on 30th September coincides with the Korean thanksgiving festival of Chuseok and promises to be alot of fun and include highlights from across the festival.

Check out the KOFFIA website for information on the festival (a list of films is below with links to the relevant page on the KOFFIA site) or you can follow them on all of the usual social media channels (links are all grouped on their site) . We'll be posting reviews of some of the films and short films to coincide with the festival, so check back on this site for those.
The 3rd Korean Film Festival In Australia - The Films:








































Help Kickstart funding for 'Remember O Goddess'

You may well have seen or heard of Kickstarter campaigns before now - if you haven't they're basically a way of crowd-funding projects online - and there's plenty of exciting projects being put together by a whole lot of interesting and talented people. One of those interesting and talented people is director Yoon Jung Lee. Having worked within the Korean film industry as a script supervisor on projects such as Kim Jee-woon's The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) and Son Jae-gon's My Sweet, Yet Brutal Sweetheart (2006) Yoon Jung Lee stepped into the directors chair herself to make the short film 'Remember O Goddess'. The short has played at festivals in the US and in Korea. It's very good – you can watch it here:

So that was good, right? Here's the interesting part – director Lee is planning to extend that original short into a full-length feature film, and to do so she's hoping to raise the rest of the money through a Kickstarter project. Simply put: if enough people pledge enough money then 'Remember O Goddess' will become a full-length feature. One of the very cool elements of a Kickstarter project is not only providing the ability for people to ask for help in funding but also in the way they choose to 'give back' to anyone donating money. In the case of 'Remember O Goddess' you'll find that if you pledge $25 or more then at the least you'll receive a copy of the finished feature via download. Of course, every penny helps so donations can be smaller than this – anything from a single dollar. If your pockets are deep enough to help out with an even larger amount then there's additional ways that the production team will say 'thank you', including screen credits and posters.

If you're interested in independent film and would like to help this project to become fully realised then the details for the Kickstarter project can be found here including details of the cast and crew. Below is a short video clip of director Yoon Jung Lee explaining more about the project: at the very least you really should check out the original short film - I did mention it was good, right?...
Links:










Pledge $1 or more: "Please accept our best thanks." Your name in our hearts.

Pledge $10 or more: "Thank you for being there for us." Your name on film website + digital thank-you card

Pledge $25 or more: "Thank you for sharing our dreams." Film download, your name on film website and physical thank-you card signed by the director

Pledge $50 or more: "Thank you for believing in us." Kickstarter special DVD, film screen credit under 'Thanks to,' film download, your name on film website, and thank-you card signed by the director

Pledge $100 or more: "You have encouraged us when we needed encouragement." Kickstarter special DVD; film screen credit under 'Thanks to'; your name on film website; signed thank-you card; film download; pdf of special edition screenplay with film stills and director's commentary; and 12" x 18" film poster

Pledge $200 or more: "Thank you for being a friend indeed and not only in need." Signed Kickstarter special DVD; film screen credit under 'Thanks to'; your name on film website; signed thank-you card; film download; physical special edition screenplay with film stills and director's commentary; and 12" x 18" film poster signed by the director

Pledge $500 or more: "You are truly a blessing in our lives. Thank you for your trust." Signed Kickstarter special DVD; film screen credit under 'Thanks to'; your name on film website; signed thank-you card, film download, signed special edition screenplay with film stills and director's commentary; full-size movie poster signed by the director and the stars; and clapboard used on the set, signed by the director

Pledge $1,000 or more: "You showed us your generosity. We can't thank you enough!" Film screen credit as a co-producer; signed Kickstarter special DVD; your name on film website; signed thank-you card, film download, signed special edition screenplay with film stills and director's commentary; full-size movie poster signed by the director and the stars; and clapboard used on the set, signed by the director

Pledge $2,000 or more: "It's amazing how blessed we are by your generosity." Film screen credit as a co-producer; 1-day guided tour in Philadelphia or Seoul by the director or the producer (to be arranged, lodging and travel costs excluded); signed Kickstarter special DVD; your name on film website; signed thank-you card; film download; signed special edition screenplay with film stills and director's commentary; full-size movie poster signed by the director and the stars; and clapboard used on the set, signed by the director

Pledge $10,000 or more: "You deserve a bigger thank you than what we can give you back!" Executive producer credit in opening titles; signed Kickstarter special DVD; your name on film website; signed thank-you card; film download; signed special edition screenplay with film stills and director's commentary; full-size movie poster signed by the director and the stars; and clapboard used on the set, signed by the director

Unstable States . . . Park Kwang-su Night at the 12 Directors

Park Kwang-su, the former deputy director of the Busan International Film Festival—now fifty-seven years old, and a dean in the National University of Arts’ Department of Filmmaking—was settling onto a stool between two bright banner stands promoting the third event in ‘The Year Of The 12 Directors’ series. There was not much doubt that this man is one of the most important filmmakers to ever be invited to the Korean movie scene in London. The current wisdom, expressed and approved by various scholars in the field, is that Park Kwang-su’s earliest films were instrumental in charging mainstream cinema with a sense of political purpose and ideological critique at a time when the creative industries were still under heavy scrutiny from the state. Chilsu and Mansu (Chil-su hwa Man-su, 1988), Park Kwang-su’s debut feature, perhaps his key film, raised basic questions as carefully but squarely as possible concerning political reform under two of Korea’s major dictatorships. Released three years after the election of the South’s first civilian president, A Single Spark (Aleumda-un cheongnyeon Jeon Tae-il, 1995) brought Park wider attention in the mainstream for dramatising the self-immolation of Jeon Tae-il, a workers’ rights activist who fought for social transformation and better working conditions in the seventies, and who is probably still a household name given that national boycotts concerning labour matters still persist. His other films—Black Republic (Guedeuldo ulicheoleom, 1990), Berlin Report (Beleulin lipoteu, 1991), To the Starry Island (Geu seom-e gago sipda, 1993) and The Uprising (I Jaesu-ui nan, 1998)—pushed on, continuing to underscore the impact of state-sanctioned violence on student protestors and isolating certain aspects of the nation’s history to critique its forward momentum. Today, Park still regards the socio-political scene with the same analytical eye, but he is taking on other assignments, including new films. Meet Mr. Daddy (Nunbushin Nal-ae, 2007), which played here tonight, was full of footballs and kiddies and terminal illness, and left not one dry face in the room.
Park had been doing this kind of thing all day, meeting filmgoers and students for a Masterclass at the National Film and Television School, giving interviews on the Strand, meeting more journalists across town in Piccadilly, and now introducing himself again for a post-film Q&A and a ceremonial round of hand-shaking. He was a paragon of decency, answering in a soft-spoken manner that settled everyone. From time to time he would joke with the interpreter about adding something more in her notebook after he had said his piece and their friendly interaction lightened the tone. But it was clear from the outset that we were facing some pretty stiff time penalties. Dr. Mark Morris, a heavyweight in East Asian film studies and lecturer at Cambridge, was the host and he was about ready to kick us into shape. He explained that Park’s films matched political criticism with artistic integrity, and that no other Korean filmmaker, besides perhaps Im Kwon-taek, had been more influential in steering the course and development of the Korean New Wave. Then without warning he told us all off for not doing any “work” and refused to do a thing more until we plucked from the darkness immediately “some interesting sort of questions that the director might be able to address.” It was one of two humorous moments in the whole evening that stumped just about everyone, and we were in no mood for homework. For my part, I felt like I had been thrown back into a film seminar with a roomful of undergraduates, content enough to know that I did at least have something to say if they planned on dragging me from my seat in order to pound “some interesting sort of question” out of me, but somehow also sensing a greater obligation and duty not to screw with the General Silence. If there’s one thing that university life teaches young students over the course of the first three years it is never to screw with seminar silences. You will survive; moreover, you will make it through with a degree of integrity that makes you more alluring to the opposite sex. And there is nothing more important than that. Besides, there is just no point in trying to force these things. For every snappy-blogger with something to say in real-time for a pocketful of Twitter subscribers there are about eight or nine filmgoers who would rather listen to the director speaking at his own pace in an ordinary interview situation, and then perhaps approach him privately later, on their own terms, without the pain or embarrassment of having their voice carried across a speaker system.
One of the most startling aspects of the Korean movie scene in London is that almost every event arranged by the Korean Cultural Centre is handled like a terrific press opportunity. Today, you can expect to find Cultural Centre staff scrambling up the aisles on both sides of the theatre, once again, documenting the occasion with still cameras for use in some e-brochure few of us will probably ever see … and a girl taping the event far up at the front of the room with two Camcorders will whirl around midway through a session to record the face of anyone stable enough to grab the microphone and speak publicly … No matter what you do, even if you are simply leaving the auditorium, a lens will point at you like a gun barrel. None of this seems unusual to the organisers, whose good-natured terrier-like enthusiasm is also a characteristic of the movie scene, but it is enough to muddle and confuse the brain of the unsuspecting Englishman. And since there’s not a hell of a lot of room in the Apollo and West End Odeons for this level of attention, or for that matter the equipment, the show can rattle the nerves of anybody with anything approaching a red carpet phobia.
The first comments from the director were cool and short. “In contrast to my previous films, which I always prepared and had the ideas for, Meet Mr. Daddy was the investor’s idea . . .” “I don’t know exactly where my ideas come from, but I would choose the story I most wanted to tell people and then go right on ahead and tell it.”
Things got rolling when the subject of censorship under the two major regimes—President Park Chung-hee in the seventies and Chun Doo-hwan in the eighties—was raised by somebody at the back; a good question I felt. It was almost certainly the kind of useful introductory note you wanted to hit in an impromptu Q&A situation. “. . . Indeed, censorship was a very serious issue in the beginning, and I was careful with my films. If we had rubbish on the street in one scene then it would be edited out, or I would otherwise have to substitute scenes in order to get a film distributed.” These cuts would have been imposed by the Public Performance Ethics Committee (PPEC), a government board which screened each and every film produced by a company expecting a licensed commercial release and reviewing it carefully in its pre- and post-production phases to make sure everything was acceptable for the state; when Park submitted his second feature film, Black Republic, in 1990 the PPEC deleted a flashback sequence on the grounds that it depicted, and in all likelihood would have “encouraged,” antigovernment activity. “Nowadays in Korea,” he continued, “it’s hardly an issue anymore, but back then I had to release Chilsu and Mansu on the opening day of the Olympics ceremony, when no one was really paying attention, just to get it shown.”
The audience liked that one. In different circumstances we may well have gone a little deeper with it, for this was a critical period in South Korean history and Chilsu and Mansu a vital product of that time. The Summer Olympics of 1988 was a massive propaganda show intended exclusively for party political purposes. With President Chun Doo-hwan at the helm throughout most of the eighties, any form of legitimate opposition or political protest against the military regime was forbidden and violently repressed. Television, film, radio and print were tightly controlled and used to plug the red scare message with news of impending doom coming from the North. But when Chun went down in 1987, the disputed 17 December election went to his hand-picked successor Roh Tae-woo. The Olympics went ahead as Chun had planned but according to David Black and Shona Bezanson “the combination of widespread internal dissent” and massive international scrutiny at this time “had a signal effect on the pace and peacefulness” of the transition towards democracy. A paper for the John Hopkins University which considered the legacy of the Seoul Olympics said that, on the subject of activism, the Chun government had successfully “constrained radical action” by giving the public (“students and the middle class”) a stake in the Olympic preparations. A more comprehensive study by James Larson and Park Heung-soo found that although the Summer Olympics could not be separated from the Chun government in the mass consciousness, the ideological message nevertheless filtered down, via President Roh, that the eyes of the world were watching and that a concerted effort should be made to “work for the Olympics out of national pride.”
It was in this context that Park’s screen version of Chil-su hwa Man-su, which was deeply aligned with the play directed by Kim Sok-man for the Yonu Theatre Company in 1986, became so valuable. The film and play were almost seen as failures by radicals who were deeply committed to the removal of military influence from all aspects of Korean public life—they pushed, instead, for hard art, plays and films that could beat the crackdown and disseminate their message more widely. But above ground, both Kim’s play and Park’s screen version expressed criticism of the major regimes in unprecedented ways, thus earning a definite place in the history of the cultural movement. Eugène Van Erven, in his 1988 discussion of resistance theatre, explains the political significance of the play, but most of all he points to the value of improving the aesthetics of the theatre movement and migrating “underground” ideas to nervous popular audiences. For his part, Park Kwang-su successfully brought some of these ideas to the cinematic mainstream and to this day he is remembered for it.
Looking back he says that he was simply writing and filming honestly about the basic issues of the day; he had no desire to whip the people into an agitated frenzy, as some might suppose he did, and whatever progressive ideas or questions he teased and prodded in his film were not necessarily isolated from the everyday realities and artistic considerations of filmmaking.
“Every night I would go home, work on the script, then come back and devise the next scene. The first half of the film was very haphazard and I just told the actors to say whatever so we could get it done. But in the second half we had to make do . . . [In retrospect] I think that part of the film is quite weak.”
On this matter, Park includes the film’s most iconic scene: two downtrodden sign-painters, having completed a giant billboard in the city featuring a tanned blonde in a bikini, suffer a total meltdown and release their pent-up frustrations on the general public staring at them below. “In the 1980s, it was illegal for foreign men and women to be models in Korea. Of course, for the last scene in Chilsu and Mansu we had to use an advertisement with a foreign female model on it. Well, the police came and ordered us to pull it down immediately. So I rushed to shoot coverage of all the scenes with the billboard in shot, and then later filmed everything in the other direction.”
The session was going fine, and even though the censorship theme was broken when the next question came in about Meet Mr. Daddy and we were jolted back into the gooey present, Park Kwang-su went with it. But we were fazed by more Morris madness when the questioning was paused for an advertisement. Song Il-gon would be here in the final week of April and if anyone was interested in his debut feature, Flower Island, they were in luck because it was about to kick off the retrospective. “Now how about another question?”
With his most on-the-edge work now behind him, a few in the audience wondered if the director was on permanent sabbatical from filmmaking to prioritise study . . . or would he change his mind some day soon and take on the domestic political arena again: go strong with a batch of films about the conservatives, the American problem, anything. To this, Park said that his hands were tied until the summer break, and though he would be putting together some action later this year he was keen to avoid the political merry-go-round and go straight with a different demographic.
“In the past I focused a lot on the pure arts and theatre, which spoke to a minority audience of educated people. I moved into film in order to communicate with a larger, more-everyday audience, but it transpired that the intellectual viewers picked up on my films again, partially due to my methodology. So the driving question for me remains: how best to communicate with the audience? Back then there was hardly anyone making serious or political films, but today many directors are tackling these issues, anyone can do it . . . It’s time for me to think about what kind of film I should make, and my desire is to communicate with a more popular audience. That’s not to say that I will avoid making films with social and political issues in the future—but hopefully I can produce something that will satisfy that driving question.”
What interested me about his quote there was the emphasis on personal expression. Park has spoken before about needing to steer away from certain audiences, and since he is no longer being pushed by the ideological issues of the day, or by a sense of duty to lift the restrictions on cinematic expression, he sounds more relaxed and optimistic about the market for film. It was the closest we would get that night to a personal reflection on whatever it was that he had in mind next. On that score, there is no shortage of bad motion pictures today in South Korea; a good lot of them are destined for the waste-bin and serve no real purpose other than to sustain the domestic market share and hold it in its current shape. What keeps our interest and hope alive, at least those of us in the West who still see in Korean exports a spirit and conviction that may not necessarily be present or firing satisfactorily enough for our tastes in other national cinemas, are the growing number of socially-conscious filmmakers that occasionally take the harder line and produce something we love that zaps the adrenaline, wires the brain, or unsettles us enough to feel human.
The session over, I left the screening room and headed for the post-Q&A meet-and-greet session in the bar. At a glance it was clear things were busier than they were back in January when the organisers threw the same gig for Lee Myung-se: the ground floor was jammed with people and the bar was just as hideously blue as I’d remembered. Who designed this place? What was their brief? The wall panels had the napped finish of old suede and the glass stairs were thrumming with colours of terrific intensity. It felt like we were aboard the alien ship in a cut-scene from Close Encounters, only instead of reclining on a silvery chair in some sort of dreamy liquid-love state surrounded by waitresses we were strapped onto the spikes poking out from the hood. Not that I would trade all of this for an Odeon. I wouldn’t. I like the Apollo, we are good pals. But the atmosphere provides a certain kick that compels me to wear sunglasses at ten o’clock on a Thursday evening.
As a feature of the 12 Director series the meet-and-greet is often a popular scene. Over by the stairs a block of expectant fans were trying successfully to reach the director for autographs and chummy photos. They came to get a look at a man whose films flirted with, confronted, or simply worked over some of the basic questions of the day regarding political reform, political activism and intellectual debate. A fine legacy. But some fans were very hyped and unless my brain deceived me a few looked set to absolutely strip the director stone-cold naked. These were determined, passionate people. I should probably have stayed around to watch . . . An undignified way to close out an evening certainly, definitely not the proper way to show this man English hospitality, but think of the story. A dozen excitable, pretty Korean women suddenly busting down the good wall of civility and fighting over the director in a love frenzy. Tempting. And I was sure that New Korean Cinema would have found it almost impossible to pass on that story had I turned it in.
But one hour later, I was heading home and flicking through a newspaper—picking up on the residue of a news item which had been making waves at the start of the week about the growing nuclear missile problem in North Korea. A string of images showed a dumping ground of empty oxidiser tanks and a mobile radar tracking system, proof that Tongchang-ri was indeed readying for its mid-April launch of something called the Unha-3. A veritable “slap in the face to the Americans” . . . or so said a professor called John Delury.

The Terracotta Far East Film Festival 2012

The Terracotta Film Festival returns this Thursday (12th April) for another great mix of screenings at the Prince Charles Cinema in London. This years line-up include four films from South Korea - Kang Je-kyu's epic My Way, Kim Ki-duk's Arirang, the romantic comedy Couples and the smash-hit Dancing Queen. Other festival screenings include Sion Sono's latest - Himizu - a special screening of From Up On Poppy Hill - the latest film from Studi Ghibli - and a triple bill of Asian horror screening on Friday the 13th...

Alongside the screenings will be appearances from film directors Guo Xiaolu and Toshiaki Toyoda and actors Da Ching and DenDen in the form of Q&A's and Masterclasses.

Once again the Terracotta Festival organisers seem to have managed to shoe-horn in a wide range of films from a wide range of filmmakers in their line-up and this promises to be one of the festival highlights of the year.
For more details check out the festival website at terracottafestival.com or follow the links below.


Terracotta Far East Film Festival Programme


12th April




A Korean man and a Japanese man meet as enemies, but become each other’s hope. Based on the true event of a Korean discovered among the bodies on D-Day and portrays WWII from an East Asian point of view



13th April




Based on a true story, a man fulfils his dead brother’s ambition and embarks on a cycle journey from Yunnan to Lhasa.





The first film shot in Burma under the censors' radar to give the audience a rare insider's perspective into ordinary life in this fascinating and topical country.





Comedy about a communist village transformed into a capitalist theme park in rural China. Q&A and Masterclass with Director Guo Xiaolu





A group of Yokohama teens look to save their school's clubhouse from the wrecking ball in preparations for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Anime directed by the son of Hayao Miyazaki.



13th April: Terror Cotta Horror Movie Marathon Night in association with Fright Fest









14th April




Kim Ki Duk’s long anticipated documentary about his self-imposed exile and solitude.


Winner of ‘Un Certain Regard’ Award at Cannes Festival 2011.





An inspiring and often comical portrait of two men’s unusual collaboration when a film crew arrives to shoot a zombie movie in a small village in the mountains





A man abandons modern civilization and lives in a secluded cabin on a snowy mountain, sending mail bombs to corporate CEOs. Q&A and Masterclass with Director Toshiaki Toyoda





Action saga produced by John Woo, tells the true story of Taiwan's aboriginal Seediq tribes who were almost wiped out by Japanese colonisers in the 1930s. Q&A and Masterclass with lead actor Da Ching



15th April


Korean Breakfast Double Bill




A cross between rom-com and caper movie with overlapping stories and multiple deceptions.





A comedy about a middle-aged married couple who each pursue their lost dreams.





Indie black comedy in modern day China about the unlikeliest friendship of two characters played by Hollywood star Kevin Spacey and Daniel Wu.





The powerful story of two teenagers’ struggle to live in a dystopian future Japan destroyed by natural disasters. Q&A with actor DenDen

Film Recommendations – Fifteen Films of the New Korean Cinema (Part Two)

This is Part two of a list of Fifteen Films of the New Korean Cinema - Part One of this list can be found here


Friend (Kwak Kyung-taek, 2001)

A good example of the type of Korean films that started to explode at the domestic box-office and helped encourage an interest in Korean cinema overseas, Friend is the story of a group of childhood friends and the way their lives change as they grow up. This manages to tap into popular cinematic genres – a historical gangster drama with melodrama, based on a true story – and is made with real energy and excitement. The cast also became very popular and includes Jang Dong-gun.






Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003)

This happens to be my favourite Korean film from my favourite Korean director but, even though I'm biased, it's an incredibly gripping thriller which follows an investigation into a serial killer. The film manages to show the way the the police attempt to find the killer while at the same time delivers a social commentary on the class system in Korea. It's also a true story. Highly recommended, along with the rest of Bong Joon-ho's films which include the biggest grossing Korea film of all time, The Host.






A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-woon, 2003)

Managing tap into the international interest in Asian Horror at the time as well as to be very successful domestically this is loosely based on a Korean folktale, but director Kim Jee-woon brings a unique cinematic style to it. All of Kims films can be recommended - his first two films, the excellent black-comedy The Quiet Family (1998) and the wrestling comedy The Foul King (2000) are often overlooked in favour of his flashier and more violent A Bittersweet Life (2005), The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) and I Saw The Devil (2010), but all are worth a look.




Save The Green Planet (Jang Joon-hwan, 2003)

Although this was a flop in Korea, it's since become a cult favourite and it's one of the best examples of genre hopping to be found anywhere in the world – something that Korean filmmakers in the early 2000s seemed to manage to do better than anyone. This is the story of a young man who kidnaps a businessman because he is convinced that he's an alien preparing to attack the world. This is a mixture of comedy, drama, sci-fi, action, musical – pretty much everything is in here, and amazingly it works. Great stuff.






A Moment to Remember (John H. Lee, 2004)

Another Korean melodrama which was very popular and is a very good example of the genre. It's a gentle romance which stars a likeable couple (Jung Woo-sung and Son Ye-jin), which gets quite teary when events seem to ensure that they won't be together long. Director John H. Lee went on to make the successful teen war film 71: Into The Fire (2010) and has signed on to direct a remake of the classic John Woo film The Killer (1989). A Moment To Remember is very good stuff, although you'll need a box of tissues handy...




Welcome To Dongmakgol (Park Kwan-hyun, 2005)

A feel-good film dealing with the conflict between the North and the South, Welcome To Dongmakgol is the story of soldiers stuck together in a small village where the villagers are unaware of the war. A beautiful film with a pitch-perfect performances from its cast, this manages to address issues of the Korean war without reducing them to the point of over-simplifying, it's another example of the genre-bending and freshness found in Korean films. Bizarrely this has been released in the UK under its original title and then re-released the seemingly unrelated name of Battleground 625.




The City of Violence (Ryoo Seung-wan, 2006)

Ryoo Seung-wan is probably the most famous action director in Korea right now and who right up until his most recent film, The Unjust (2010) made a series of films that owe much of their style and technique to Hong Kong and early Korean action films. The City of Violence is probably his most polished action film – literally half of the film is made up of inventive action scenes, although it's worth checking out all of his others, including Arahan (2004) which is a martial arts comedy in the vein of Stephen Chow and Crying Fist (2005) - a boxing drama which divides its time between each of the fighters preparing for a match.




The Chaser (Na Hong-jin, 2008)

A mid-budget film that exceeded expectations and did massive business both domestically and around the world, The Chaser is a dark serial killer story with a twist – the killer is caught very early on in the film. It's a tense, brutal film and pushed the director and it's two leads into the big time – they've recently regrouped to make the even more violent Yellow Sea, although The Chaser remains the benchmark.






Castway On The Moon (Lee Hae-jun, 2009)

A feel-good film about a man who tries to kill himself but then wakes up to find himself stranded on an island in the middle of the Han river, Castaway On The Moon is a bizarre film with some amazing visuals and a fantastic central performance. This should be more universally recognised as it's one of the best Korean films in recent years and director Lee Hae-jun is one of the directors that everyone should be keeping a close eye on.





So there you go - fifteen films are from the 'new' Korean cinema. Of course, there's plenty of great films not listed and there's also plenty of great stuff pre-1999. Let me know in the comments box below if you agree or disagree with the choices here and if there's any films that you think I should have included...

Film Recommendations - Fifteen Films of the New Korean Cinema (Part One)

Although I'll admit that I'm not a big fan of 'best of' lists I do recognise that they can often be a shortcut into a subject that the reader may not be familiar with. One the questions I was asked recently by a reader of the site was to suggest fifteen films which would provide a good introduction to the last decade, or so, of New Korean Cinema. I've given plenty of recommendations of different films in the past, but it's a task that doesn't get any easier – the sheer scope of Korea's output means that it's hard to represent every filmmaker, idea, genre, etc. The list below is the answer that I gave a few weeks ago, although I also admitted in my original reply that if I was asked the same question a week later that the list would probably have changed. I may have done so since I originally complied it. I thought it might be interesting to post this at the start of this years Korean Blogathon, so here's Part One of a list of some of the films that I personally think are a pretty good introduction to Korean cinema, given in chronological order and with my original brief comments why I'd chosen these particular titles:
Christmas In August (Hur Jin-ho, 1998)

Although it's not the most popular in the West, the key film genre in Korea has historically been the melodrama. Christmas In August is a brilliantly subdued melodrama in which a photographer and a a traffic warden strike up a friendship. He doesn't tell her that he is dying, and this drama runs throughout the background of this brilliantly acted, beautifully underplayed character piece. It's very moving. The two leads from the film (Han Suk-kyu and Shim Eun-ha) became a massively popular on-screen couple in Korea and they were cast again as the leads in Tell Me Something – a very different film, more akin to the the tone of David Finchers Se7en (1995).




Peppermint Candy (Lee Chang-dong, 1999)

Lee Chang-dong isn't the most commercial filmmaker (in the West he's considered more 'art-house') but his films are very popular in Korea and he tackles subjects such as history, politics, old age, illness and makes very slow but very moving dramas. Peppermint Candy may not be his best film but it's probably his most accessible – it tells the story of a mans life in backwards, starting with his death, and travels back in time over key moments in recent Korean political history. It's very powerful film with excellent performances and a worthy introduction to one of Korea's greatest filmmakers.




Nowhere to Hide (Lee Myung-se, 1999)

There's no other filmmaker quite like Lee Myung-se, in Korea or elsewhere. A director who experiments and toys with the format of film itself. Nowhere To Hide has a very basic plot – a cop is looking for a gangster – but its narrative is told through the most bizarre, unique and visually interesting way possible. The film was distributed in the UK and the US, although audiences seemed to be a little bit confused by it, especially as the distributor attempted to align the film with the recent popularity of Hong Kong cinema, but while Lee Myung-se takes, steals and borrows from all kinds of imagery there's no clear comparison to be made with any other filmmaker or genre to be made. Lees other films are also highly recommended, particularly Duelist (2005) which experiments with style in a period setting.


Shiri (Kang Je-kyu, 1999)

This was Korea's first big-budget blockbuster and it's a bit rough around the edges but its a very interesting cold-war action thriller. Featuring a cast who would all become big stars, including Song Kang-ho (The Host), Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) and Kim Yun-jin (the US television series 'Lost'). The North / South plot was, at the time, bordering on the controversial.








J.S.A. - Joint Security Area (Park Chan-wook, 2000)

A more serious film than Shiri, J.S.A. also deals with North / South relations – its the story of an investigation into a shooting in the DMZ and the North and South soldiers involved. It's still a very powerful film, one of Park Chan-wooks best, and boasts great performances from actors who would become even bigger stars including Song Kang-ho (Shiri), Lee Byung-hun (A Bittersweet Life) and Shin Ha-kyun (Sympathy For Mr Vengeance). Director Park Chan-wook went onto make probably the most well-known Korean film worldwide with Oldboy, which forms part of the 'Vengeance Trilogy' which has been incredibly influential around the globe and is worth checking out.




My Sassy Girl (Kwak Jae-young, 2001)

Romantic comedies are incredibly popular in Korean cinema, and this is still one of the biggest box-office smashes. It's a long film which is divided into three sections and tells the story of a young mans relationship with a girl who doesn't seem to conform to the normal expectations of Korean society. It's a very funny film and was a massively popular across Asia and has been remade several times including a Japanese television series, and both Bollywood and Hollywood versions. Films continue to reference My Sassy Girl today and the two leads (Jun Ji-hyun and Cha Tae-hyun) remain big stars.





Part Two of this list will be posted tomorrow!