The Quiet Family
Kim Jee-Woon’s dark comedy from 1998 arrived pretty early in the Korean New Wave and was popular enough that it inspired a remake by the Japanese director Takashi Miike called The Happiness of the Katakuris. The storyline is simple: a family moves into a large house in the mountains with hopes and dreams of running their own hotel. They wait patiently for the occasional visitor, but the guests all die soon after arriving. As the bodies start to pile up, the family scrambles to protect themselves, their business, and their reputations. Despite the grim premise, the movie feels a little lightweight at times. It’s certainly a “smaller” film than the rest of Kim’s filmography. He is responsible for the Korean horror classic A Tale of Two Sisters (which also inspired a remake, the American The Uninvited), the silly, big-budget Manchurian “Western” The Good, The Bad, The Weird, as well as the gory and intense serial-killer movie I Saw the Devil. Kim is an impressive director who has shown a lot of variety in the types of movies he makes while proving he can make good use of a large budget. Like the work of fellow South Korean director Park Chan-wook, his movies are quirky, graphic, and visually stunning. Compared to his more recent work, however, The Quiet Family seems downright quaint. Another fun thing about the movie is that it features Song Kang-ho (The Host) and Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) very early in their acting careers.
Speaking of Song and Choi in early roles, they both appear again in 1999’s Shiri (or Swiri as it is sometimes spelled), the movie that has been most credited with kick-starting the New Wave. Director Kang Je-kyu would later make Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, a film about the Korean War that I covered here earlier last month. Shiri, thankfully, is not as saccharine as Tae Guk Gi, but it is still just as offensively clichéd. North Korea’s best sniper (a woman!) is sent to South Korea as a spy to assassinate various government officials and orchestrate a large-scale terrorist attack. Meanwhile, a couple of South Korean agents investigate this situation. The movie tries to play coy about the identity of the female sniper, only showing her from behind or wearing sunglasses, but this is largely unnecessary because the big reveal is telegraphed from the very second she walks onscreen. Spoilers – she’s the fiancé of the guy who is investigating her! (I immediately recognized the actress, Kim Yun-jin, and spent a good portion of the movie trying to remember where I had seen her/ heard her voice before. When I figured it out, I nearly kicked myself: in America we know her best as Sun from Lost.) In any case, Shiri is a goofy but kind of fun action movie that was obviously influenced by Hollywood conventions, so it’s easy to see why it was popular, opening the door for better, more creative South Korean films to gain attention throughout the world.
Everyone drinks beer, even small children.
Everyone smokes, and they really like Zippo lighters.
The preferred mode of suicide is jumping off things, and people jump off things a lot – even things that aren’t that tall. They seem very sure about the fatality of jumping from a second floor window or balcony.
In fact, lots of death by falling in general: suicide, homicide or accident. Probably because guns are largely unavailable to Korean civilians… come to think of it, the only people I’ve noticed carrying guns in the movies are gangsters and military. Even the cops have to use tasers.
Hey, DHL delivery men are everywhere!
The cities are corrupt and full of dark secrets.
Rural communities are corrupt and full of dark secrets.
Do not go into the woods for any reason, unless you are a ghost or a killer looking for places to dump dead bodies.
If there is only one woman living in a remote area, there’s a 100% chance that she is the regional prostitute.
Movies are more like novels, cycling through several different plot lines, shifting conflicts, and large casts of characters. This is why so many films are 2 1/2 hours long, yet seldom feel boring. There’s always something happening. This is a big difference from American movies, which can often belabor a single thin plot-line for 80 minutes and still feel too padded out.
There’s always that one person who wails and carries on at a funeral while everyone else is stoic and silent.
Snipers always turn out to be pretty ladies. Subversive! Also subversive: female cops and serial killers.
Eyelid surgery is never not creepy, and bad things usually happen to the girls who have it (those vain whores!).
So many people play piano.
People in small towns really don’t like outsiders, especially if they come from the big city.
Buddhist traditions seem to mesh well with the more benevolent aspects of Christian ideology. Sure, you will always have judgmental, fire-and-brimstone bible-beaters, but you also have prayer through meditation, and serenity and generosity as a form of spiritualism.
I’m not saying all of these things are true of life in South Korea (any more than Hollywood movies represent the life of the average American), but the movies create their own reality revealing what a different culture finds entertaining. Hint: it’s not that different from what we do. Sex, violence, explosions, anxieties over failure and the search for a good life.
I had hoped to make a post about “Korean War Movies” this past weekend, but then I got struck down by the world’s most annoying head cold, which left me unable to do anything except watch movies and stare at Cracked.com for hours straight. Another hitch in my plan: the four movies I had chosen for War Weekend, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, R-Point, Silmido, and The Front Line, weren’t all about the Korean War, at least not directly.
Only two of the films dealt explicitly with the war. The first was Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War, and the second was The Front Line. The Brotherhood of War is about the relationship between two brothers and how they are affected by the war. The older brother, Jin-tae, is a shoe shine who wants a better life for his younger brother, Jin-seok, and works to send him to college. At the start of the war, Jin-seok is coerced into the army; Jin-tae boards the train in an attempt to retrieve his younger brother, but the military forces him into service, too. Jin-tae does everything he can to protect the vulnerable and intelligent Jin-seok, taking on riskier and more challenging missions in the hopes that Jin-seok will be sent home to preserve the family line. Eventually, Jin-tae’s recklessness pays off, not in sending his brother home, but in helping himself ascend the military ranks; soon it’s no longer clear whether the humble shoe shine has turned ruthless and ambitious or if he’s just making necessary sacrifices.
The Front Line delivers less family drama and more political intrigue. Taking place closer to the end of the Korean War, the film focuses on the numerous battles that would define the exact border between the two states. Specifically, the two armies fight over Aerok Hill, which changed hands continuously throughout the war. Following the commanding officer’s death by friendly fire, an agent from the Defense Security Command is sent to the front lines to investigate a possible mole in the Alligator Company, the group of South Korean soldiers tasked with defending the hill. The investigator soon finds that there is no mole; instead, soldiers from the North and the South have been exchanging messages and gifts by way of a secret compartment as the hill changes hands from army to army.
Of the two war movies, I enjoyed The Front Line the most. Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War was an important, expensive, and popular film when it came out, and it’s worth noting that the battle scenes are spectacularly made, with all the explosions and horrific gore. But if J.S.A. was a Spielbergian political drama, Brotherhood of War is a war movie by James Cameron. The battle sequences go on far too long, so impressed with themselves that one battle sequence is immediately followed by another battle sequence, while everything else pertaining to the relationships between characters is schmaltzy and melodramatic. Every time the choral, string-laden, emotionally manipulative theme music started up, I wanted to gag. The development of the main characters didn’t go much beyond “stoic, protective big brother” and “trembling, doe-eyed little brother.”
The Front Line also had impressive battle sequences, but this movie had the advantage of being anchored to an interesting and specific location. The image of soldiers climbing up the steep hillside as it literally crumbled beneath them was very striking. The plotline was mostly formless, moving from conflict to conflict: clandestine trading between enemies, repressed traumatic memories, a mysterious sniper, betrayal between friends – but this kept the film moving along at a nice pace, unlike Brotherhood, which spent two and half hours beating the same dead horse (I have to protect my brother!). I also enjoyed the assortment of characters more (as well as their camaraderie), especially the enigmatic, almost serpentine, morphine-addicted acting commander.
In between watching these Korean War movies, I took a little detour into the horror genre with R-Point, which actually takes place during the Vietnam War (Korean soldiers fought on the side of the U.S.). R-Point has a great premise, but the movie is so convoluted in the second half that I’m not even sure what I watched. The movie begins at a South Korean base in Vietnam when a soldier’s voice comes over the radio, pleading for his platoon to be rescued. The catch? That whole platoon was killed six months ago.
A troubled commanding officer is sent to the “R-Point” with eight other misfits to investigate the situation and bring back any soldiers who might somehow still be alive. When they arrive, they find a stone marking a mass grave; a hundred years earlier, the Chinese slaughtered scores of Vietnamese and threw their bodies into a lake, which was later filled in to become the site of a temple. The stone warns that anyone with blood on his hands will not return. Naturally, the soldiers ignore the warning and trudge on, setting up camp at an abandoned French mansion. So creepy, so far.
As they start their search for the missing platoon, however, things get less scary and more nonsensical. The characters make stupid decisions, relying too heavily on the “lets split up!” method of search and rescue, even after this proves to be a bad idea time after time. Also, everyone deviates from every plan, with predictably disastrous results. Didn’t these soldiers learn any kind of discipline in the army? It’s also hard to tell, after a while, who is haunting whom. Which may be the point, I guess. War is bad for everyone, the Koreans, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the French, that sniper girl they killed on their way in, the lost and now possibly spectral platoon… Atrocities must be punished. Those with blood on their hands will not return. Maybe I wasn’t paying much attention (I was sick and probably a little delirious), but it just didn’t work from me. However, I did like the bleeding radio with the spooky voices coming out.
The most pleasant surprise of my “War Weekend” was Silmido, a film that isn’t even about war. Loosely based on real events, Silmido is about “Unit 684,” a team of death row inmates and other convicts who were assembled by the military in 1968 to assassinate Kim Il-sung of North Korea. The film documents, in brutal detail, the rigorous and inhumane training regimen the thirty-one men underwent, not only so they would be in peak physical condition, but so they could withstand torture without revealing information if captured during the mission.
They are finally sent on their intended mission, after months of physical and psychological abuse, eager to carry out the assassination – but they are immediately called back because the powers that be have decided that the country’s political climate has changed. Rather than upheaval and revenge, the people want peace and reunification. The team returns to the military camp and the men are forced to stay there until a decision is reached. Suddenly lacking a purpose, and extremely uncertain about their fate now that the mission has been cancelled, the men of Unit 684 grow increasingly restless.
My memory of details is a little fuzzy (again, sick and delirious) but I was completely engrossed in the story of these men, the treatment they endured from the military, their hopes of redemption through political sacrifice, and the complete anarchy that occurred when their one saving grace was ripped away from them. The military is a huge force. The government is a huge force. This group of thirty-one criminals tried to rebel against the reality they had no agency of their own in the face of such institutional power. They only barely comprehended that they were pawns in the bigger game. They thought participating in the assassination would give their lives meaning beyond their crimes and ruined reputations. But, naively, they never considered that they were disposable until it was too late.
Anyway, this was War Weekend. Thanks for following along.
A few of my friends have approached me about this month’s topic — South Korean movies — somewhat befuddled. Why Korean films? they want to know. Is this “a thing?” The short answer is, yes, this is a thing. All of the movies I’ve watched this month were made within the last fifteen years, the result of a movement called the Korean New Wave.
In the article “New Wave of Pop Culture Redefines Korea,” writer Andrew Salmon outlines the factors involved in creating this new wave. At the end of the 80s, South Korea started the process of democratization, and within a few years the strict censorship laws started to loosen up. Not only did the free flow of information across borders allow South Korea to absorb more Western culture, it also became easier for Korean film, music, and television shows to get distribution in other countries – including the U.S (Salmon).
By the time the late 90s rolled around, many of the filmmakers who would be crucial to the New Wave had come into their own, feeling liberated to take greater artistic risks that would have been prohibited in the earlier, more authoritarian era. The first big hit that ushered in the wave was 1999’s Swiri (or Shiri, as it’s also called), an action movie that became an international success and allowed for bigger budgets and a global market.
Salmon’s article claims that the New Wave more or less ended around 2005 when Korean films became mainstream enough that they were no longer novel, but simply part of the international cinematic landscape. An article from Yahoo! Voices, “The Rise (and Wane) of Korean New Wave Cinema,” partially attributes the bust to changing screen quota laws. The screen quota law was another crucial factor that had encouraged the wave: the law required that Korean films be shown in theaters for 146 days of the year, giving more exposure to burgeoning local talent. But in 2006, the quota was reduced to 73 days, meaning that all the other days of the year, theaters were free to show Hollywood and other countries’ movies (“Rise”). Even in South Korea, the demand for native filmmakers had declined.
Through watching these movies, I’ve come to know many of the big name directors associated with the wave. The two most prominent figures are Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho. Park made a splash in his home country with the release of J.S.A. (which I covered here earlier in the month), a film that deals movingly with the forbidden friendship between North and South Korean soldiers at the border. But he gained international recognition when Oldboy won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. His style is flashy and often violent, brightly colored and full of dark humor. It’s easy to put his films in the same class as Quentin Tarantino’s arty/ultraviolent ouvre (and Tarantino himself has championed Park’s films), except Park doesn’t make distracting or self-conscious references to other movies like old Q does. Basically, he makes movies that are endlessly entertaining and badass in ways that a 15-year-old boy would love – but creative, unpredictable, and sentimental enough to elevate them beyond the sometimes gruesome material.
Bong Joon-ho’s films are a little harder to describe. Often darkly comic, his stories tend to focus on covert actions that ripple out to affect an entire community and then dissect the relationships within that community. He made a breakthrough with his 2003 film Memories of Murder, a true crime drama about a rural serial killer in the 1980s. I saw it a year or two ago, so my impressions are hazy, but it was impressive and chilling, an interesting character study on the local police and detectives who were investigating the case. Very reminiscent, in some ways, of Fincher’s Zodiac. American audiences would know Bong best as the director of 2006’s The Host, a big budget genre-hopping monster movie with elements of horror, slapstick, and political satire. This was the first Korean movie I ever saw, and it left me curious to see more. His best film, however, is probably 2009’s Mother, about a murder that may or may not have been committed by a developmentally disabled teenager and his mother’s attempts to cover up the crime.
Other notable Korean directors include:
Kim Ki-duk (Samaritan Girl; Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring; and The Isle, which I’m writing up soon)
Kim Jee-Woon (A Tale of Two Sisters; The Good, the Bad, the Weird; and I Saw the Devil)
Im Sang-soo (The Housemaid, and The President’s Last Bang)
Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine and Poetry)
Kang Je-kyu (Swiri and Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War – which I plan to watch this weekend).
So, again the question: Why Korean movies? The average American moviegoer often feels alienated by foreign films, especially ones from Asian countries. We feel that we lack the cultural literacy to understand the customs, character motivation, the sense of humor, and sometimes the difference in culture even changes the way we recognize emotional expression. It doesn’t help that much of what finds success through the festival circuits lean toward the “arthouse” side. I think Korean movies are interesting because, based on what I’ve seen, they’re generally more palatable to Western audiences’ tastes. There’s a lot of quirkiness, humor, action, and schlubby, underdog characters who are easy to identify with. The films show that the country probably has a ways to go as far as sexism is concerned, but otherwise they defy the Western stereotype of the coldly aloof, conservative overachiever. It’s hard to say how much of the filmmaking style and characterization in modern Korean cinema is the result of Hollywood’s influence and how much of it reflects the true local culture. At this point, it’s probably a chicken-egg question.
The way the films meld Eastern and Western attitudes and aesthetics makes them feel fresh, even if you’re watching what might ordinarily be a garden-variety crime thriller or revenge fantasy. Many of the tropes (cops, murderers, prostitutes, ghosts, mental institutions) are familiar, but we’re seeing them through a new set of eyes with a different set of cultural circumstances. The way Hollywood clashes with Seoul, Communism with Capitalism, and Buddhism with Christianity all makes for a viewing experience that’s one part thrilling and one part comforting. Not all of the movies I’ve been watching fall under the New Wave umbrella — as many of them were released post-2005 — but they’re clearly carrying on the legacy as they broaden their appeal and assert their right to compete in the global market. For better or for worse, Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho are making their Hollywood debuts in 2013 with Stoker and Snow Piercer, respectively. And the cult popularity of Oldboy has prompted an American remake headed up by Spike Lee, a development that has been very controversial among fans of the original.
Recommended Places to Start
I’d advise checking out something by either Bong or Park, since they’re the most popular — and with good reason; both make films that are sleek and accessible. For Park, I recommend either Oldboy or Joint Security Area (avoid starting with Thirst. It’s great, but kind of messy and inscrutable). For Bong, watch The Host. If you like that, proceed to Mother and Memories of Murder. If you like horror movies, check out A Tale of Two Sisters. It’s a little on the confusing side, but eerie and beautiful. The American remake, The Uninvited, was apparently terrible.
Until next time, annyonghi-kjeseyo.
Director Park Chan-wook makes films that are stylish, brutal, funny and surprisingly touching. He is best known for his 2003 cult classic Oldboy, which is part of a thematically (but not narratively) connected “Vengeance Trilogy,” alongside Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance. More recently, he used his bloody aesthetic to put a new twist on the vampire genre with Thirst in 2009.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, which was released after the trilogy but before Thirst, is a kinder, gentler affair, but still has Park’s characteristic bite underneath the candy-coated exterior. The story follows Young-goon, a girl in a mental institution who refuses to eat because she believes she is a cyborg. She talks to vending machines, meditates on the simple pragmatism of a boiler, and “recharges” with a battery between her index fingers. I’m a Cyborg would rest comfortably beside the work of Michel Gondry, with its romance between two damaged souls, quirky peripheral characters, and brightly-colored fantasy sequences with flying and singing.
If this all sounds a little too cute, you should know that the film opens with Young-goon slitting open her wrist so that she can insert wires into the wound; in the moments that follow, she gets electrocuted when she tries to plug herself in. Park lets us know right away that, even though this movie is whimsical, he’s not fucking around.
The movie focuses on another inhabitant of the hospital, Il-sun, a young man who wears masks, hops around like a bunny, believes he is vanishing, and proclaims himself anti-social. Although he claims to have no sympathy or care for anyone – and he does seem adept at manipulating the other patients’ delusions – he develops an interest in Young-goon and works desperately to convince her to eat before she dies of starvation.
(Tangent: I just learned that the actor who plays Il-sun is a very popular Korean pop star. That’s so exciting! He’s called Rain! And apparently he was also in Ninja Assassin, which I have not seen. But he is kind of fucking adorable in I’m a Cyborg, so I can see why all the girls would swoon for him.)
The way the film deals with mental illness is interesting, but potentially exploitative. The patients all seem to be relatively harmless (Young-goon’s violent revenge fantasies notwithstanding) and mostly happy, making hospitals seems like quirk-fests full of zany and colorful characters. We have the woman who believes her “magic socks” can make her fly, the girl who yodels in her von Trapp fantasy, and a guy who walks backwards and apologizes for everything. For each person in this film, insanity is not so much a defect, but simply a world of his or her own making that happens to be at odds with the “normal” world. I’m kind of okay with the “quirkiness” of mental illness as presented here because, even though a lot of scenes are played for comedy, the the film presents the characters as they want to see themselves; Park treats them with sympathy and takes their desires seriously.
Il-sun may be the least crazy of them all because he seems to understand that the craziness, including his own, all comes down to world-building – which is why he’s so good at infiltrating everyone else’s world. He can make other people believe what he wants them to believe through the power of suggestion, and in the case of saving Young-goon from starvation, he convinces her to believe what she needs to believe in order to survive.
Verdict: CHARMING AS FUCK
Once October ended, I briefly debated whether I should continue writing about horror but then decided that I could experiment with dedicating each month to different types of films. Right now I’m on a Korean movie kick. Korean movies seem to segue nicely away from horror, with their wicked flare for gore and busting taboos.
I don’t really know a whole lot about Korean culture, and I’m definitely not a film scholar, but I know that South Korea has had something of a cinematic golden age in the last decade or so, producing interesting and globally successful directors like Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook. Bong is most well-known for the popular monster movie The Host, and Park for his cult-favorite Oldboy. Park in particular has gotten a lot of attention stateside recently, with Spike Lee beginning production on an American remake of Oldboy and Park himself debuting his first Hollywood film, Stoker, which releases early next year and stars Nicole Kidman.
It’s hard to say what draws me to Korean movies. They provide a nice alternative to the American aesthetic, with new cultural mores, twisty-turny plots, and run-times that can often try your patience (the 80-minute movie doesn’t seem to have caught on over there). But like a lot of American films (especially indies), they don’t hold anything back, whether it’s an unflinching kitchen-sink character drama or an action film with all the explicit sex and violence you can stomach. At least, that’s what I’ve observed so far.
The move from writing about horror to writing about Korean films is a little daunting. Horror is a genre I’ve grown up with and I’ve watched more scary movies than I could ever count; I’m very familiar and comfortable with the genre conventions. I’ve watched a decent amount of Korean movies, too, more than the average person, but not quite enough to make any coherent, intelligent statement about what defines these films, culturally or stylistically. A month won’t make me an expert, but I hope to start seeing some patterns.
These are the movies I have seen. The next ones on my to-watch list are I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay and Joint Security Area (both films by Park) Feel free to suggest others that aren’t on the list that are worth tracking down:
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Barking Dogs Never Bite
Memories of Murder
A Tale of Two Sisters
I Saw the Devil
The Good, the Bad, & the Weird