Sunday, 22 September 2013

Korea - Tools for research: the Movies

I've watched a lot of Korean movies in the last couple of months - I should say South Korean, as I haven't yet come across any North Korean movies that are easily accessible.  I'm sure North Korea has a movie industry - it's well known that Kim Jong-Il was a massive fan of the movies - but there are very few North Korean movies available in the West. 

By contrast, South Korean movies are, like Japanese movies, becoming increasingly popular in the West. I watched Park Chan-wook's Oldboy (2003) long before I started researching Korea for this blog.  We seem to like Japanese horrors and Korean thrillers.  Western directors are even making Hollywood versions of East Asian blockbusters, although they're rarely as good as the originals.

One thing I noticed about Korean cinema is how violent Korean movies are!  Almost every movie I watched had high levels of violence, often against women and I found it a little bit disturbing.  I'm beginning to wonder whether or not this reflects a high level of violence in Korean society?

So, here are the movies I watched, in the order that I watched them:

You only need to watch one movie to learn everything you need to know about Korean culture and that is The Host (2006) dir. Bong Joon-ho.  I really enjoyed this movie, with its scaly-green river creature, iconic shots of the Nam River and a very funny performance by Song Kang-ho - it's an incredibly political movie and has a lot to say about the presence of the US army in South Korea.  It's the highest-grossing Korean movie of all time, having sold 13 million tickets at the box office. 

I wasn't quite as keen on A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) dir. Kim Ji-woon - based on a well-known Korean folk tale, I found the plot very confusing and wasn't quite sure what was going on for most of the movie.  I guess knowing Korean culture better might have helped.

I absolutely loved Joint Security Area (JSA) (2000) dir. Park Chan-wook - it's an incredibly sweet story - despite the action-movie-sounding name - and I'd highly recommend it, as a 'feel good' movie that shows how people are just people, regardless of which side of a political border they live on.  I think this movie, more than any other, brought South Korean cinema to the world's attention.

Although, mostly set in the US, I thought it would also be important to watch The Manchurian Candidate (1962) dir. John Frankenheimer and starring Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh and (bizarrely) a stunning performance from Angela Lansbury - I didn't realise Angela Lansbury did proper movies, as I mostly associate her with the TV series, Murder, She Wrote.  The movie is partly set during the Korean War and has a fantastically complicated plot involving Communist brain-washing!

Park Chan-wook made Oldboy as part of a trilogy of films and I watched the other two movies in the trilogy - Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) - I guess Park Chan-wook is mostly responsible for my impression that all Korean movies are violent and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance was particularly violent with an interesting vigilante justice element that made me scream at the big screen - 'No, no, don't do it!'  I noticed with Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and other Korean movies, a peculiar obsession with heroes (or anti-heroes) who are disabled - the main character in this movie, Ryu (played by Shin Ha-kyun) is deaf/mute and Chan-wook cleverly plays around with sound, to give us an idea of life in Ryu's world.

Also featuring a main character who doesn't speak during the entire movie, I really loved 3-Iron (2004) dir. Kim Ki-duk.  With Joint Security Area, this was my favourite of all the movies I watched.  It's a pity about the title though, which gives the wrong impression in English - I much prefer the Korean title,  which means 'Empty Houses'.  It's a beautiful story and oddly romantic. 

I was a bit bored by Natural City (2003) dir. Min Byeong-cheon - the first Korean Sci-Fi I've ever watched.  I'm a fan of Sci-Fi, so I was a bit disappointed, as the plot wasn't really up to much and, like A Tale of Two Sisters, I wasn't always 100% sure of what was going on.  An interesting thing about futuristic/science fiction movies is that they seem to recreate the past, when trying to imagine the future and I felt with this movie, quite ironically, that I was getting an insight into what life was like in Korea in the Joseon dynasty - apart from the flying saucers and computers that is!

Although I'd seen South Korea's most famous LGBT film before, I wanted to re-watch No Regret (2006) dir. Leesong Hee-il (South Korea's only openly gay film director) with a greater awareness of Korean culture this time.  It's a great movie and cautiously optimistic, although it shows how difficult life can be for gay men in South Korea (I can't even imagine how hard life is for gay men in North Korea).  It has a strong storyline and is tender, violent, passionate and dispassionate in equal measure. 

Last, but not least, I watched The Housemaid (2010) dir. Im Sang-soo - this was a great movie, about the exploitation of a maid in a modern Korean household.  The Housemaid was nominated for the Palme D'Or at Cannes Film Festival in 2010 and I would highly recommend it.  Im Sang-soo is an interesting director and I would like to watch more of his movies. 

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