Darcy's Weblog 2006-2008

2009.01.18:  Darcy's top 10 Korean films of 2008.   I had two major goals for the year 2008: one was to finish writing my book, and the other was to try to breathe some life back into this website. If you are strict about the dates, I suppose I failed in both resolutions, although I did manage to finally send my manuscript to the publisher in the first week of January (six months late). There is still some editing to do on it, but it should be published on schedule in this coming August or September. More about that later...

I hadn't counted on physical problems being my biggest challenge last year, with the RSI in my arms finally reaching a point where I had to stop typing altogether from September. But I've managed to train myself how to use voice recognition software, and in the meantime my arms are healing. The one thing that is especially difficult to do with voice commands is to update the site, but thankfully there are some people who have generously offered to help me.

In the Korean film industry, the general mood in 2008 reached a new low. Companies continued to struggle, and there were a lot of bad films that seemed to display the signs of cut corners or a lack of polish. However if you separate out the good films and consider them as a group, it wasn't such a bad year. Particularly encouraging was the critical and/or commercial success of a number of debut films, including The Chaser, Crush & Blush, Rough Cut, and Scandal Makers.

I rearranged the list below on several occasions before stopping at the current configuration. I have very warm feelings towards the top seven films in particular. I hope that all of them live long in people's memories.

 the chaser 1. The Chaser -- for the genius of its execution, rather than its originality. Director Na Hong-jin may have a long career ahead of him.

2. My Friend and His Wife -- this 2006 film by Shin Dong-il finally received a theatrical release in November. A comparatively low budget, emotionally wracking film that lurches left and right but never loses control.

3. Night and Day -- less tightly wound than many other Hong Sang-soo films, this is one of my favorites.

4. My Dear Enemy -- the directing prowess of Lee Yoon-ki is less obvious in this film than in This Charming Girl or Ad Lib Night, because he lets the amazing acting performances of Ha Jung-woo and Jeon Do-yeon dominate.

5. Crush & Blush -- it's at number five, but this is my emotional favorite because of its weird energy and bad attitude.

6. The Good, the Bad, The Weird -- exciting, funny, quirky, explosive, original, even if a bit thin.

7. Rough Cut -- somehow every part of this film worked really well, and it was hugely entertaining too.

8. Frozen Flower -- a sexy epic period drama that offers up little original, but breathes new energy into familiar settings.

9. Life Track -- a co-winner of the top prize in Pusan in 2007 that was released theatrically in 2008. Anguished and grim, this is a Chinese-Korean coproduction by an ethnic Korean director living in Yanbian.

10. Scandal Makers -- at long last, a Korean comedy that despite being thoroughly conventional, is directed with skill and flair.

I realize that there may be little information about some of these films on the site right now, but I'll try my best to get to them in the near future.

2008.09.27:  State of the website.   This is turning out to be a year of trials. I've had pain in my arms (repetitive stress injury) for a couple of years now, but recently it has gone from bad to scary bad. I haven't been able to write with pencil and paper for close to a month now, and after typing even a short e-mail the pain lingers for hours. Actually the pain is not hard to deal with, but if I try to type through the pain it gets much worse in a very short time, and I have no choice but to stop. Emotionally, it's a real struggle.

So I'm dictating this now with voice recognition software, and it seems my only option it is to look for students in Seoul who can type for me in return for an hourly wage. I'm going to try keeping my hands off the computer for a month, and continue treatment for it, then maybe things will improve. In the meantime, I have found some help for the website so hopefully updates will continue. My book, meanwhile, is 80% done, but it feels like I'm running a marathon with a sprained ankle. Let me also issue a blanket apology to all the people whose emails I haven't answered in recent months.

The Korean film industry is also in dealing with its own crisis, but in the next couple months at least there are a number of very interesting films. Rough Cut, a debut film by Jang Hoon, has a lot of people buzzing this month. You can read my review of the film here. My Dear Enemy, by Lee Yoon-ki and starring Jeon Do-yeon, opens this week, and it is also worth getting excited about. Meanwhile, I must confess to being a huge fan of the film Crush and Blush, though I guess most viewers will hate it. Filled with shrieking and hysterics, it is nonetheless the most original film Korea has produced in years.

And of course, the Pusan International Film Festival opens on October 2. The past two years, I've been too busy with my duties as a journalist to write a festival report for this site. This year, I hope to make up for that, even if I have to struggle with this stupid voice recognition software! (Long delayed festival reports from Jeonju and Puchon will also be up shortly)

2008.05.11:  May, the month of classic films   The most exciting Korean films scheduled to appear in theaters this May all happen to be made decades ago. This is because the Korean Film Archive (KOFA) is holding a festival to commemorate the official opening of their new cinematheque and film museum. It is also because the lineup of new contemporary films this month looks like the crumbs left at the bottom of the cookie jar. Not to denigrate those few low-budget films that have secured a release -- I haven't seen them yet, and they may turn out to be OK -- but as a measure of the current state of the Korean film industry, it's pretty depressing. (June and July, at least, should be better)

Turning Point of the Youngsters But the classic movies are indeed big news. The festival's opening film, which screened on Friday and again on Saturday, was the recently re-discovered 1934 silent feature Turning Point of the Youngsters. An original nitrate negative of the film was discovered in Korea last year by the son of a former theater owner. It was then handed over to the Archive, which arranged for restoration work to be done in Japan. Eight of the film's nine reels were salvaged, making for a 73-minute feature.

Most notably, Turning Point of the Youngsters (it seems like a more natural translation would be Crossroads of Youth) is now the oldest Korean film in possession, and the first film from Korea's silent era which is available for viewing. (There is another Korean silent film, The Prosecutor and the Woman Teacher, from 1948, but this is an odd exception because it was only shot in silent format because some older film stock happened to be available. At that point, it had been over a decade since Korea had switched over exclusively to sound)

Turning Point of the Youngsters As in Japan, Korean silent films feature no intertitles but are instead screened to the commentary of a live narrator (called a "byeonsa" in Korean, or "benshi" in Japanese). To fully revive the experience, KOFA staged a show with live music, onstage singing, and the narration of a byeonsa dressed up in 1930s-style clothing and speaking in a period dialect. The byeonsa was film and theater actor Jo Hee-bong (Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater), the narration was written by Oh Ryu-mi, and overall direction of the screening/performance was done by Family Ties director Kim Tae-yong.

It was quite an impressive experience, actually. I once read a fascinating article about how, in the West, musicians who accompanied the screening of silent features in the 1910s could drastically affect the viewing experience based on the tone of their music -- and would sometimes, if they sensed the crowd to be bored, even mock the film with sarcastic music. (For anyone who might want to track the article down, it's by Tim Anderson, in the fall 1997 volume of Cinema Journal) For a byeonsa, who not only describes what happens onscreen but throws in all manner of comments, the effect is vastly multiplied. A KOFA employee told me that at first, when planning this screening, they intended to do it "straight", and maintain a respectful, serious attitude towards the film. But later -- and I feel this was absolutely the right decision -- they decided to let the byeonsa throw himself into the melodramatic narrative and insert comedy when appropriate. The end result was very involving and funny, and it never felt disrespectful.

Turning Point of the Youngsters The film itself, about a brother and sister who come from the country into Seoul and encounter modern life (and heartless playboys) for the first time, would never be mistaken for a masterpiece. It is directed by An Jong-hwa, who made 12 features between 1930 and 1960. It also features Shin Il-seon, who starred in the lost classic Arirang (1926). Its biggest charm for modern viewers is probably the way in which it presents upper-class 1930s Seoul as if to the eyes of a first-time viewer. Many viewers of that time period would probably never have seen a golf course, an elevator, or the interior of an upscale restaurant. And we too, of course, take a similar perspective watching it today.

There is only one more screening scheduled, this one without the performance/narration, on May 21 at 5:30pm (seeing it in this way will be infinitely drier and more confusing, I'm sure). But the Saturday screening I saw was completely sold out and the young audience went crazy over it, so I think that KOFA will have to plan to do this again sometime.

Hong Gil-dong In the meantime, they have the rest of the festival to finish. And in addition to a selection of overlooked Korean classics, restored films from around the world, a screening of early-twentieth century footage of Seoul, and more, they have another surprise for the closing film: Korea's very first animated feature, Hong Gil-dong (1967). Tom Giammarco wrote a great introduction to the film in his Brief History of Korean Animation, Part II. It was believed to be lost, but recently the film was discovered in Japan and returned to Korea. There is one (unsubtitled) screening only, on May 25 at 7pm. If you plan to be there, buy your tickets early.

2008.04.09:  A summer without horror?   This week's issue of Cine21 asks a scary question: could it be that not a single Korean horror film is released this summer? Usually producers of horror films aim specifically for the summer season, given that a tradition of sorts has emerged over the last decade. As the weather heats up, viewers seem to look forward to something to scare their socks off. But this year they may have to do with imported horror, because production companies have apparently decided that the genre needs a rest.

Black House No less than six were released between May and August last year (in order: The Evil Twin, which was actually produced in 2005, Black House, Cadaver (aka The Cut), Muoi, Epitaph, and Someone Behind You). However none of them really met box-office expectations. Black House, the highest grossing of the group, sold 1.4 million tickets, but given the high profile cast and its big marketing push CJ Entertainment was hoping for a bit more. The Evil Twin, Muoi and Someone Behind You qualify as major flops. At the same time, Asian horror doesn't sell as well on the international market as it used to.

Given the much-discussed crisis in the film industry, and the scarcity of investment these days, it seems that (probably without intending to) all the major distributors have ended up bypassing the tradition this year. There is actually one lower-profile project that went into production in February that the Cine21 article didn't mention. With a Korean title of Oetori ("Loner"?), it is directed by Park Jae-sik and stars Jeong Yu-seok, Chae Min-seo and Goh Eun-a (pictures of the cast here). But we'll have to wait and see if it actually secures a release in the summer.

Meanwhile, The Guard Post (which mixes genres, but is probably closest to horror) was released last week, and though it opened at #1, ticket sales were still pretty low. Other companies are supposedly developing horror films for the future, but they won't be ready for the summer season.

2008.04.02:  Jeonju, and a note to readers   First let me start this blog post with some personal news, since it is likely to affect the site. My work life is going to be changing this spring: first of all, I have decided to stop writing for Variety. I enjoyed the time I spent as the magazine's Korea correspondent, but I've been feeling overwhelmed recently, and just need to simplify my life a bit. I also need to spend less time on the computer, because the arm pain (RSI) I have is sometimes quite severe. So I'm hoping to concentrate most of my film writing on this website, and maybe get back to doing some teaching to replace the lost income. (Or, with luck, I may finally get a proper sponsor for the site).

I'm also in the process of writing a book. It won't be officially announced until the manuscript is in, but it's an entry into the Short Cuts series published by Wallflower Press in the U.K. It will examine the changes that have taken place in Korean cinema from the 1980s until the present, while also giving a basic overview of the political and social developments that transformed Korea in that time period. My deadline for the initial draft is the end of June, so perhaps sometime next year we can see it in print.

Those are my two goals this spring: finish the book, and put the mojo back into this website. Wish me luck.

JIFF poster In the meantime, I thought I would comment a bit on this year's Jeonju International Film Festival, scheduled for May 1-9. The full program was revealed yesterday at press conferences in Jeonju and Seoul. The opening film is from Japan, Manda Kunitoshi's The Kiss ("Seppun"), and the closing film will be the fourth installment of If You Were Me, the omnibus films sponsored by the Korean Human Rights Commission. Whereas If You Were Me 1, 2, and 3 were mostly focused on the issue of discrimination, this time around the focus will be on the challenges facing young people in today's Korea. The five directors chosen are Kim Tae-yong (Family Ties), Pang Eun-jin (Princess Aurora), Lee Hyeon-seung (Il Mare), Yoon Seung-ho (Milky Way Liberation Front), and Jeon Gye-su (Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater). It strikes me as a more difficult subject to portray well than issues related to discrimination, but we'll see...

I'm also excited about a new documentary by Kim Dong-won, whose Repatriation (2004) was maybe the best Korean documentary ever. The new film, a 60-minute documentary titled 63 Years On, tracks down former comfort women (i.e., women forced into sexual slavery during WWII by the Japanese military) living in Korea, China, the Philippines and the Netherlands. This topic has been covered before in Korean documentaries, most famously by Byun Young-joo's The Murmuring (1995), Habitual Sadness (1997) and My Own Breathing (1999), but Kim's take on this subject is sure to be interesting.

There will also be around 10 brand new Korean independent features, mostly by debut directors. These days, so many low-budget HD works are being made that it's a real challenge to keep up with them. I'm not complaining, mind you -- though some are inevitably very bad, others are well made, so that talent spotting at festivals like Jeonju is becoming a more engaging sport. As for films from other countries, there will be retrospectives on Bela Tarr, Alexander Kluge, cinema of the former Soviet central Asian republics, and Vietnamese cinema.

If any of you readers are living in Korea and have never been to this festival, I strongly urge you to take some time and go. There's something about the small city, the festival's focus on the films, and the great food that makes it feel completely different from Pusan or Puchon. My head is clearer when I am in Jeonju, and I feel more like a cinephile. This year I'll be able to stay longer than usual at the festival, thanks to its dates being pushed a little later (in the past it always conflicted with the Udine Far East Film Festival). So I hope to discuss more about the films and issues at this year's JIFF in a festival report.

2008.01.03:  Top news stories of 2007   Since these days I haven't been able to keep up with the old news pages or newsletter, I thought I would take this chance to look back at the top news stories of 2007 (from my perspective, at least). It's been an eventful year, as always!

#1. Crisis, Crisis, Crisis.  The never-ending news story this year has been the recent troubles of Korean film companies. Admissions are going down, exports are crashing, the cost of making movies continues to rise, and audiences seem to be re-kindling their interest in Hollywood films. It's still too early to tell where all of this is going, and part of it may just be a case of overly inflated expectations, but certainly the mood this year has been grim.

Jeon Do-yeon and Cannes #2. Jeon Do-yeon wins Best Actress at Cannes for her role in Secret Sunshine.  Korea's highest profile acting award since Kang Su-yeon won in Venice in 1987 for Surrogate Woman couldn't have happened to a more deserving person. Here's hoping that her next film, a low budget art film by Lee Yoon-ki, boosts her growing international profile.

#3. The uproar over D-War.  Korea had a taste of its own culture wars in August, when Shim Hyung-rae's mega-budget monster D-War hit the screens. Independent director Leesong Hee-il ridiculed the film and the hype surrounding it, comparing it to 1970's-era excitement over the export of toasters to the U.S. Furious fanboys responded with a massive, homophobic-tinged attack on his blog. Critics sparred on TV talk shows, viewer rating boards on the internet turned into angry battlegrounds, and Shim himself publicly sulked about how nobody in the Korean film industry respected him. Even I got called some rather choice names on the internet after I slammed it on Cine21's critics board, though nobody ended up attacking this site. All this over an infantile and rather incompetent monster flick that ultimately bombed in U.S. theaters... was it really worth it?

Jun Ji-hyun #4. Korean actors go international.  The Korean Wave seems to be fading in many respects, but a string of top Korean stars were cast in international projects in 2007. Jun Ji-hyun (aka Gianna Jun) will take the lead in Blood: The Last Vampire. Actor/singer Rain will take a small role in Speed Racer. Jang Dong-gun stars in Laundry Warrior, which is being shot in New Zealand. Song Hye-gyo will headline a small New York-set U.S. independent film. Lee Byung-heon will get a small role opposite Josh Hartnett in I Come With the Rain. Jang Hyuk took an English-speaking role in a Singapore film. And there continues to be interest in other actors as well. In the coming year, we'll get to actually see all of these films, and find out if they're any good...

#5. Telecoms companies move into the film industry.  In terms of business news, one of the biggest new trends is the newly active role being taken by Korea's biggest telecoms companies. SK Telecom will launch its own film division in 2008. KTH is funding expansion by its subsidiary, Sidus FNH, into distribution. Both companies will also likely become active in IPTV (internet protocol TV), which many hope will become an important future source of revenue for local films. Is this the start of a new era?

#6. US-Korea FTA deal concluded (but not ratified).  This free trade deal, which still may not happen if either legislature rejects it, will have a greater effect on the TV industry than on the film industry. Nonetheless, one clause of the treaty "locks in" the recent reduction of the Screen Quota, and there will also be an extention of copyright from 50 to 70 years -- which will affect classic films.

Labor deal ratified #7. First film labor deal concluded.  Lower ranking Korean crewmembers have struggled through with miniscule pay and virtually no benefits or insurance for years, while actors and other top talent have seen their salaries skyrocket in recent years. This labor deal is intended to improve things for people on the lower rungs, though unfortunately the timing is not great -- it came into effect just as the industry was embarking on a widespread effort to lower budgets. Only a few films have complied with the new labor rules so far, but in time it may become the new industry standard.

#8. IndieSpace opens.  Seoul and other major cities have a number of arthouse theaters, but the newly-opened IndieSpace is the first theater devoted entirely to Korean low-budget independent films. Each film that debuts at the theater will play for two weeks, and through this venue we should be able to watch a lot of films that weren't available before. Great news!

Megabox #9. Megabox sold to foreign investors.  Megabox ranks as Korea's third or fourth biggest theater chain, and this year it was sold to a consortium of investors headed by an Australian bank. There may be less to this than meets the eye, as Megabox's sister company Showbox has signed a long term deal to continue operating the company. But personally, I wish all of the big theater chains would be sold off. It's not healthy or fair to have the biggest distributors owning and operating so many movie theaters across Korea.

#10. CHIFFS holds a successful first edition.  There is certainly no shortage of film festivals in Korea -- a recent Film 2.0 article says there are more than 40 of them registered with KOFIC -- but the successful launch of the Chungmuro International Film Festival in Seoul (CHIFFS) was good news. Unlike most festivals, CHIFFS features almost no new films, and instead places its focus on great movies of the past. There were large numbers of old Korean films screened, as well as Hollywood classics, Asian musicals, director retrospectives, and more. Also, though some other festivals have troubled to attract viewers, CHIFFS had close to 70% of its seats filled. I'm looking forward to the second edition, scheduled for the end of August.

2007.12.01:  Thoughts as the year nears its end   There's a very interesting, wide-ranging debate going on over at the Korean Film Discussion Board about where Korean cinema stands now after ten years of growth and commercial development. Have commercial pressures overwhelmed the industry? Creatively, does Korean cinema provide any meaningful alternative to Hollywood at this point? What can we expect going forward?

D-War I'll contribute my thoughts about those specific issues on the board, but now also seemed a good time to consider the "numbers" for 2007 (not pretty) to see what we can make of them. First, perhaps we can consider a couple predictions I made a year ago about industry trends, namely (a) There will be about 80 Korean films released in 2007, down from 107 in 2006; and (b) Total annual admissop for the first time in a decade. It seems, first of all, that I was wrong about (a) and right about (b).

There will total about 108 Korean films released this year, including everything from low-budget independent films to D-War. This large number makes me suspect that the talk we hear about a crisis in Korean film finance needs to be put into context. Certainly on an individual level, many producers are struggling mightily to find funding for their projects. But it seems to me that the number of people trying to make films these days is much, much higher than it was a couple years ago. If everyone who wanted to make films was able to find investors, I bet we'd have 200-300 movies made each year. It's true that a certain kind of investor (venture capitalists, partial investors) seems to be dropping out, but at the same time a couple big companies like SK Telecom and KT are now moving aggressively into the film industry, so I don't expect a crash in production next year either.

Sex is Zero 2 (I argued in another column for Cine21 that because of the structure of the Korean film industry, a crash will not mean that the number Korean films made will suddenly drop, it will mean that we see an unending stream of boring, $3 million films that try to imitate the successes of the past. Is that what is happening now?)

Regarding (b), the final numbers won't be in for a month or two, but I'm guessing we can expect a drop from 2006's all time high to about 2005 levels. This in itself is not a disaster -- the last ten years of uninterrupted growth were a very special situation that will not be repeated. Normal film industries do slightly better one year, slightly worse the next, depending on the quality of films released. Korea has now become a normal, developed film industry. However looking only at admissions for Korean films, it's a bigger drop, because local movies accounted for over 60% of tickets sold in 2006, and a little over 50% this year.

Love This points to maybe the bigger issue, which is that Korean audiences just don't seem as excited about local films anymore. It's still not clear to me whether this is a cyclical thing, due to a lack of interesting movies this year, or the first sign of a longer decline. After all, 2004 was a pretty bad year (the numbers for March to December were ugly), but 2005 and 2006 were much better. And the second half of this year has been an improvement over the first.

I'll post a top ten list and my thoughts about the year in a creative sense later, but still, from a commercial standpoint, there was very little to get excited about. Maybe this can be linked back to the pessimism that hangs over the industry these days -- maybe it's more difficult to make exciting commercial films than it used to be. But none of the top ten grossing Korean films of 2007 were unusually fun to watch.

2007.10.03:  This and that   First of all, I think I owe readers some sort of apology or explanation for the glacial pace at which the site has been updated this year. (Alas, I think the glaciers are moving faster than I am these days) I've always tended to make progress on this site in spurts, whenever some free time appears, but this has been a particularly unforgiving year, work-wise (despite the fact I'm no longer doing subtitles). I've also been dealing with serious carpal tunnel issues in my arm for over a year now, which has affected the site in particular because I've had to cut down on the amount of typing I do. It's somewhat better now, but dealing with this has been an extremely frustrating experience... Anyway, I don't want to turn this into a litany of excuses, but I wanted to say please bear with me, and I hope to turn things around soon. In the meantime, some random comments:

* I'm writing this on the train, on my way down to the 12th Pusan International Film Festival. As more and more film festivals appear in Korea these days, it's becoming increasingly difficult for these events to draw large crowds. In the past couple months I've attended both the 1st Cinema Digital Seoul (CinDi) festival and the 8th Seoul International Film Festival, but the organizers of both events PIFF 2007 Poster were really disheartened by the low turnout. PIFF, however, seems to have avoided that fate: even before the start of the event, more than 118,000 tickets have been sold, compared to 84,000 at the same time last year. This is really encouraging, though I'm not sure the reason for this sudden jump. In fact, most people I've talked to have seemed unimpressed with the program compared to previous years. A new, much more convenient ticket system has been put in place this year -- could this explain it? As for the Korean films screening at the festival, it looks like very small-scale, independent films will be in the spotlight this year. Most of these directors will be completely unknown to the international critics and programmers flying in to Busan, for example An Seul-ki who directed Five is Too Many a couple years ago, or Kim Dong-hyun who made A Shark. We'll see how it turns out -- I'm not expecting there to be as many outstanding new Korean films as there were last year, but if there are two or three discoveries, then PIFF can probably count it as a success. Unfortunately, a lot of the more interesting recent commercial films such as Epitaph, Wide Awake and Shadows in the Palace are missing from the program, even though they found room for movies like Hwang Jin Yi (yawn) and Paradise Murdered (shrug). As for me, Variety will once again be publishing PIFF festival dailies, so I'll be hard at work and probably won't get the chance to watch more than two or three films (sob).

* I've just recently returned from a trip abroad, first to my sister's wedding in Kentucky and then to the San Sebastian International Film Festival in Spain for a few days. From this year I've been working as a delegate (advisor) for San Sebastian, and I Shadows in the Palace have to say it is really a beautiful city and a great event. There were three Korean films there this year: Shadows in the Palace (pictured) in the main competition, Epitaph in a new directors sidebar, and The Show Must Go On in a section for works that have screened at other festivals. All three films were received fairly well, though some gruesome scenes of fingernail-ripping in Shadows in the Palace sent numerous viewers heading for the exits. It also sort of confirmed for me that well-made, creative mainstream Korean films occupy an unusual place in the established Western festivals that traditionally celebrate arthouse cinema. Some critics, especially younger ones, are very enthusiastic about them, while others are turned off by the genre elements. The films are certainly viewed in a different manner than they are in Korea...

* No major hit films at this year's Chuseok holiday in September, although Kwak Kyung-taek's Love seems to be doing pretty well. (I haven't seen it yet, but will be watching it soon) My personal favorite among the bunch was Lee Joon-ik's The Happy Life (pictured). I The Happy Life admit that at first I viewed the success of King and the Clown as sort of a fluke, but after watching Radio Star and then this film, I've become sold on director Lee. His strong storytelling skills allow him to turn completely ordinary, predictable material into really engaging films. The Happy Life centers around three middle aged men who decide to revive the rock band of their youth. Sound unappealing? -- Give the film a chance. His next project will star the highly appealing actress Soo Ae in a story about a young woman who travels to Vietnam during the war in the 1970s as a singer, in an effort to meet up with her husband. The producer tells me this will be something unique, "war seen through a woman's eyes". Shooting will start later this year.

* Lastly, I don't think I've mentioned this here yet, but my second child is due to be born later this month. The doctor says it's another boy -- oh my! Jamie's looking forward to having a younger brother.

2007.07.31:  A film from North Korea: The Schoolgirl's Diary (2006)   I don't usually get the opportunity to write about North Korean films on this site, which is an unfortunate omission. I'm told that (in contrast to the past) there are now ways to access films from the North in Seoul, but I'm having such a hard time keeping up with South Korean cinema that so far I haven't pursued it. A couple weeks ago, however, I had the opportunity to watch Jang In-hak's The Schoolgirl's Diary ("Han nyeohaksaeng-ui ilgi", 2006), which was an eye-opening viewing in several respects.

The Schoolgirl's Diary North Korea made only two feature films in 2006. This one was by far the more successful, supposedly selling 8 million tickets across the country. I'm not sure to what extent box-office figures in North Korea can be trusted, but scholar Leonid Petrov, who gave a short talk before the screening, says that on a recent trip to North Korea nearly everyone he met had seen it and was happy to give an opinion on it.

Indeed, while it may strike Western viewers as a bit bland, its portrayal of young North Koreans is comparatively provocative at home -- assessments of the film were often split by age, Petrov said, with older viewers being more critical. Perhaps the most notable example is the unexpected opening shot, which is a close-up on a Mickey Mouse backpack. As the camera pulls back, we see a crowd of schoolchildren, all wearing Mickey Mouse backpacks (imported via China, we can probably assume). We are then introduced to our heroine, Su-ryeon, whose biggest goal in life appears to be to live in a modern apartment complex. A rather materialist dream, one might say.

In truth, though, Su-ryeon (played by rising star Pak Mi-hyang, pictured above) seems most upset by the lack of attention she receives from her scientist father. And understandably so -- he is so devoted to his work in the city that he barely even sees his family at all. On the rare occasions he is home, he acts in ways that frustrate or embarrass his daughter. Su-ryeon finds herself growing bitter towards her family, and unsure what to do with her own life.

This ultimately redemptive tale has received unusual attention outside of North Korea, with a Paris-based company (Pretty Pictures) buying French language rights last year after its screening at the Pyongyang Film Festival. This spring Pretty Pictures was screening the film to potential buyers at the Cannes Film Festival's market.

The Schoolgirl's Diary For me The Schoolgirl's Diary is strongly reminiscent of mainstream 1970s South Korean cinema, in its look and production values, and also in its style of storytelling. I can't say the film drew me to the edge of my seat, but it did provide a few interesting contrasts with films from the South. For one thing, I can't think of any South Korean film that contains a character quite like Su-ryeon's younger sister, a dorky tomboy soccer player who was played by a real athlete. The film's emphasis on athletics was rather interesting (in one scene, for example, Su-ryeon wins an argument with a classmate by beating her in a footrace).

One of the other people at the screening was professor Stephen Epstein of the Victoria University of Wellington. He told me that the film was consistent with something that he found in an overview of recent North Korean literature. In virtually all of the short stories he read, the main character expressed some form of doubt about life, work or society. Although they come around in the end, realizing the value of devoting their lives to the state and to the general welfare, the implication is that the public easily identifies with doubting characters of this type. You might consider it an indirect admission about the morale of ordinary North Koreans that could not be stated in direct terms.

2007.05.30:  I love HD films   OK, after two days I've almost stopped giggling to myself about Jeon Do-yeon's prize at Cannes. I've grown accustomed to seeing her accept best actress awards at all the local awards ceremonies, but seeing her take the trophy in Cannes was a particular thrill. Now on to other topics...

My Scary Girl It's becoming clear that I have a built-in bias. I love HD films. It's getting to the point that I want to collect them, they way some people collect rare stamps or antique vases. I can't say its the actual medium that attracts me -- in fact, I'm still somewhat more attached to the look of real 35mm film. But in today's Korean film industry, a small space is opening up for a new kind of filmmaking on HD video. They tend to be smaller-scale films that tell human stories with fewer of the commercial constraints faced by ordinary mainstream films. They occupy a middle ground between arthouse, independent, and mainstream commercial films, and while few of these films stand a chance of becoming hits, they don't need to be -- because they're shot (relatively) cheaply on HD. If you're a debut filmmaker in Korea these days, your best shot at making a feature with any degree of creative freedom is to shoot one of these modest HD films.

My "collection" of HD films so far include the comedy My Scary Girl (pictured above), horror film Roommates (aka D-Day), silly high school comedy Girl by Girl, and Korea's first-ever HD film from back in 2002, Kim Eung-su's Desire (which understandably drives most people up the wall, but I could watch it again and again). I'm not necessarily saying that all are great films, but they all have a human scale to them that has won me over. (As far as I know Song Il-gon's recent films were shot on ordinary digital, not HD, otherwise they'd be included too)

The Wonder Years The latest addition to my HD collection is The Wonder Years (the Korean title translates as "Thirteen Years Old, Su-ah"), which will be released on June 14. It's a film that will struggle to sell tickets at the box office, or to screen at the bigger international film festivals, but it's extremely likeable nonetheless and elegantly put together. It tells the story of a quiet thirteen year old girl who feels a strong disconnect with her single mother, at the same time as she is having trouble making friends in school. The story is ordinary, but the directing by debut filmmaker Kim Hee-jeong is sensitive to the girl's feelings, and the acting is strong. I've seen the work of teenage actress Lee Se-young in other films before (When I Turned Nine, Lovely Rivals), but she seems a different person here -- it really opened my eyes.

Thankfully we will have more HD films to look forward to. The Korean Film Council will partially finance ten HD films this year; local TV stations are starting to sponsor films (given that they're moving towards HD broadcasting); and production company Sidus is also readying a comedy that looks structured on the same business model as My Scary Girl. I think you have to consider this a good thing -- at the moment, the Korean film industry can use all the aesthetic diversity it can get.

2007.05.09:  The year to date   It's been an interesting year so far for Korean cinema, though I think few people would consider it a good year. One gets the same feeling for the individual films and for state of the film industry itself: there's a lot of talent there, but lately the parts have not been coming together. Despite the endless talk of a crisis, I don't think anything's fundamentally broken with the film industry. But yes, we are going through a rough patch.

The films released in 2007 so far include a lot of near-misses, in my opinion: Im Sang-soo's An Old Garden (some might disagree), Lee Sung-gang's animated film Yobi the Five-tailed Fox, and Park Jin-pyo's Voice of a Murderer, to cite three examples. All three have some great moments, and are worth The Show Must Go On watching, but seem to lack an overall coherence. Han Jae-rim's The Show Must Go On (pictured) is a bit more successful in creating a well-formed (if overlong) whole, and it's a great showcase for Song Kang-ho's formidable acting abilities. I wouldn't call it a great film, but it's very good. Then there's Im Kwon-taek's Beyond the Years, which mostly left me with the feeling that I had missed something. It's very possibile I did: watching it without subtitles, I didn't catch a lot of the dialogue, so part of me is holding back from making a final judgement on the film. Still, for me it seems a far step down from the achievement of Chunhyang, Im's best film of the past 15 years.

As in every year, there have also been a lot of films that are just plain bad, or so unambitious that they are a real bore to sit through. Actually I have a lot of catching up to do in my viewing, but among the ones I haven't seen yet I only have any real expectations for the documentary Our School (which incidentally is setting a new My Son attendance record for Korean documentaries). One unexpected disappointment was a film I saw yesterday: Jang Jin's My Son, which seemed to have a lot of potential. The story of a convicted murderer who after 15 years is released from prison for one day to visit his son, it just simply didn't work. The humor, plot twists and understated craziness of Jang's great Someone Special (2004) resonated beyond the film itself; in My Son it all just feels artificially constructed.

My personal favorites so far this year are Pruning the Grapevine (which screened at Pusan last year), Skeletons in the Closet, and Soo. Pruning the Grapevine is not for everyone, but if you enjoy slow-moving, introspective films like Ad Lib Night, then this is highly recommended as well. Religious skeptics, don't let the Catholic themes scare you away.

Jeong Yun-cheol's Skeletons in the Closet (formerly called "Shim's Family") starts off a little too cute; the opening narrative montage didn't work for me at all. But the film soon settles down into a well-acted, quirky, thoroughly enjoyable family drama. No, it's not a masterpiece, but it's the feel-good film of the year for cynical viewers. In Soo some ways it's the polar opposite of Jeong's first film Marathon. Meanwhile the revenge flick Soo by Korean-Japanese director Sai Yoichi (aka Choi Yang-il) is thoroughly conventional, but executed with so much gusto that you have to love it. (Actually, a lot of people didn't love it at all, but I did) The violence gets really over the top towards the climax; cinematic realists will be outraged at seeing a man still walking after being so thoroughly sliced, gored, speared and punctured with a thousand different weapons. But really, who cares? The film is true to its own world view.

I haven't mentioned Kim Ki-duk's fourteenth film Breath, which was released on April 26, and which screens in competition at Cannes. Once again, I'm not a fan of his films -- I've always been a little puzzled by what other people see in them, so perhaps I'm not the best judge of them. But I can say that Breath is probably closest to 3-Iron in being somewhat restrained and (in his own way) poetic. I liked it for the most part, although the portrayal of Kim's first gay character is less than convincing, and the film's ending feels lazy, wrapping everything up much too neatly.

Secret Sunshine So that brings us up to the beginning of May. Lurking just around the corner, however, is a work that seems almost certain to become the film of the year: Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine. Amid gnashed teeth and pulled hair, I missed the May 1 press screening of this film, so I will have to wait for its May 24 release. But from what everyone says, it sounds like a devastating and supremely accomplished film. Local critical praise covers all aspects of the film, but is rallying particularly around actress Jeon Do-yeon. It seems likely to rank as one of those classic performances that are remembered many years into the future. I can't wait to read the reviews from Cannes.

2007.03.28:  Jeon Ji-hyun --> Gianna Jun   What's in a name? The news was released earlier this month, but I only managed to stumble upon it today: the Sassy Girl, Jeon Ji-hyun, has adopted a new name for her first excursion into Hollywood filmmaking. She could have chosen worse -- Gianna is a pretty name, and apparently she chose it because it sounds similar to her name being called in Korean ("Jihyun-ah!" -- though in that case the stress would be on the last syllable). I'll try to ignore the fact that it also strongly recalls for me the word "Giordano" (the fashion label that she has modeled for all these years). Certainly Gianna will be easier for most Westerners to remember and pronounce than Ji-hyun.

Jeon Ji-hyun For those who haven't heard, Jun is taking the lead role of Saya in Blood: The Last Vampire, which is an English-language, live-action adaptation of the popular Japanese anime. The film opens production this month in Argentina, before moving to Los Angeles and China for further shooting. It's scheduled for a release in summer 2008.

As an aside, I'll be really curious to see how much interest the film stirs up in Korea. Korean viewers showed absolutely zero interest in Park Joong-hoon's supporting role in The Truth About Charlie in 2000, and more recently, The Curse of the Golden Flower (no Korean stars) sold considerably more tickets than Battle of Wits (with Ahn Sung-ki) or The Promise (with Jang Dong-gun). But Blood is arguably the highest-profile international casting ever for a Korean star.

I have mixed feelings about referring to our starlet as Gianna. If I were her manager, I would most certainly have encouraged a name change. With the exception of Chow Yun-fat or Zhang Ziyi, who had a $100 million box office hit in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to back them up, most Asian stars find their careers to progress much more smoothly with a new name. I was just listening to a radio broadcast yesterday when Kal Penn ("Kumar" from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle) was saying that the number of scripts he received jumped up immediately after he simplified his name.

On the other hand, one of the biggest reasons Westerners have problems with Asian names is because they aren't sufficiently exposed to them. If she were to become famous in Hollywood with her name still intact, it would represent a minor victory of the sort worth cheering about. Personally I like the fact that I can write about all these Korean stars and directors using their real names.

But admittedly, Hollywood stars all change their names, too. It's not like Winona Ryder was born with that name. And sure enough, Jeon Ji-hyun's real name is Wang Ji-hyun, which in Korean is, well, just not sexy. Maybe I should change my name too? (It sounds pretty hideous in Korean)

2007.02.17:  Top Ten Korean Films of 2006   I know, I'm a month and a half late. Already two of my predictions for 2007 have been proven wrong, and I'm just now getting to my top ten list for 2006. Dear readers, forgive me.

As usual, these are selected from the films that received a theatrical release in 2006, so works like Pruning the Grapevine -- which was one of my viewing highlights of last year -- will be included in the 2007 list. Also note that I included The Magicians in last year's list, assuming that it would never get a theatrical release. Happily, I was proven wrong, but I'm not going to list it twice.

Drawing up my list was in some ways easy. Of the 100+ films released last year, for me there were three standouts (Grapevine, which will be released next week, would have made four), and 15 other films that made my short list. To be honest, I don't have especially strong feelings about the order of films #4-18. I like all of them very much, and all were a mix of exciting strengths plus the occasional flaw.

Darcy's Top Ten Korean Films of 2006

Woman on the Beach 1. Woman on the Beach
2. Ad Lib Night
3. The Host
4. Family Ties
5. My Scary Girl
6. Tazza
7. Host & Guest
8. Bloody Tie / A Dirty Carnival (tie)
10. Roommates

Special mentions (in no order): Grain in Ear, The Peter Pan Formula, The City of Violence, Dasepo Naughty Girls, Sundays in August, No Regret, Solace, I'm a Cyborg but That's OK

Hong Sang-soo's films do sometimes feel like successive volumes in a single work, so it can be hard to compare them. When describing books, we don't usually say, "Chapter two was excellent, but I'm not so sure about chapter four." Nonetheless, Woman on the Beach proved to be a particularly dramatic chapter in Hong's ongoing work, and it has certainly revived critical interest in the director. In this instance, I'm happy to lend my voice to the chorus of praise.

The low-budget, introspective Ad Lib Night by Lee Yoon-ki was clearly an improvement over Love Talk, and for me was even more exciting than his debut This Charming Girl. I love the way that he charges every moment of this very simple, potentially boring story with mystery and deeper resonance. The acting is fantastic, and the fact that this film was made with TV money and shot in two weeks gives me hope for the future creativity of Korean cinema.

As for the tie at #8, I find it very interesting to compare these two films: the former which was more popular with domestic critics, and the latter which was highly praised by the few foreign critics who have seen it. A Dirty Carnival is more vivid in my memory at this point, likely due to the strength and clarity of Yu Ha's storytelling. I still do have problems with the romance elements of the film, however -- it baffles me how he can resort to such cliches (in this and in Once Upon a Time in High School) after proving he can present relationships in a very realistic and innovative way in Marriage is a Crazy Thing. Bloody Tie, meanwhile, was one of the premiere acting showcases of 2006, and presented its setting with a vividness and color that was really exciting.

Other high points and low points of 2006:

* Favorite classic Korean film viewed in 2006:  Spring of the Korean Peninsula (1941), Lee Byung-il.
* Biggest disappointment of 2006:  The musicals (Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater and The Fox Family)
* Worst film of 2006:  Hanbando
* Favorite non-Korean film of 2006:  Linda Linda Linda (Yamashita Nobuhiro, Japan)
* Favorite retrospective film of 2006:  The Naked Kiss (1964) by Samuel Fuller.
* Favorite DVD viewing of 2006: Trouble in Paradise (1932) by Ernst Lubitsch.

2007.02.06:  Best and Worst English Titles of 2006: Final Tally   First of all, thanks to the people who took the time to respond to the poll which I announced below on the best and worst English titles of 2006. I had 17 responses in total, including my own, which was enough to produce some interesting results (though I don't think I'll be writing up a Korean press release -- I think I'd need at least 30 votes for that).

In general I was surprised at the range of opinions. There were no less than 18 films that received votes in both the "Best Five" and "Worst Five" categories. It seems that the unusual titles draw more attention, and produce both highly negative and highly positive reactions from viewers. Nonetheless, a broad consensus did emerge, so here are the results (click here for a full list of 2006 titles, with transcriptions of the original Korean title):

I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK BEST TITLES:

I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (6 "bests" - 2 "worsts")
A Dirty Carnival (5 "bests" - 1 "worst")
The City of Violence (4 "bests")
The Customer is Always Right (4 "bests")

Special mentions: No Mercy For the Rude (4-1), Dasepo Naughty Girls (3), No Regrets (3), The Host (3), Woman on the Beach (3).

Bad Utterances WORST TITLES:

The Bad Utterances (6 "worsts")
Hot for Teacher (5 "worsts")
Holy Daddy (4 "worsts")
Educating Kidnappers (4 "worsts")
My Captain, Mr. Underground (4 "worsts")
Oh! My God (4 "worsts")

Special mentions: Vampire Cop, Ricky (4-1), Lump of Sugar (3), Hearty Paws (3).


I have to admit, nobody else voted for my own personal favorite title of 2006, which was Sundays in August. It's simple, it rolls off the tongue, it has a literal meaning which makes you a little curious, and the words themselves conjure up the image of a lazy summer day. But if this poll has taught me anything, it's that there are a wide variety of opinions out there! For full results, you can download this Excel file. I'll try to hold this again next year as well, and feel free to add your comments to this thread.

2007.01.12:  Please Vote for the Best and Worst English Title of 2006!   Over the years, one of the most common complaints I've heard about Korean films are their English titles. Probably the most frequently-cited example of a bad title is Bungee Jumping of Their Own, but there are many other titles that have attracted derision. In an effort to recognize good titles when they come -- and to provide a friendly admonishment to poorly-chosen titles -- I am holding this poll for the best and worst English titles for Korean films in 2006.

I originally planned to set up a special form on this site for people who want to vote, but I'm really short of time this week so I'm just going to keep it simple. Please follow these instructions:

    1. Click here to see a complete list of Korean films from 2006, and their English titles.

    2. Compose an email message to darcy@koreanfilm.org.

    3. In the email message, write: (a) where you are from;  (b) five of the best English titles of 2006, in any order -- in other words, titles that sound nice and would make you interested in watching the film. You don't need to have actually watched the film;  (c) five of the worst English titles, in any order; and  (d) a general rating for all English titles from 2006, with 10 being the best and 1 being the worst. If you want to add additional comments, I'll collect them to post with the results.

If I get enough votes, I plan to write up this information in a Korean press release and forward it to film news sites and magazines, etc. But I need a lot of votes for this to happen, so please send me an email, and ask your friends to do it too! Results will be posted here after they are all collected.

Seeing as these English titles are targeted at both native and non-native speakers of English, anyone can take part in this poll, as long as you read English well enough to understand this post. If you'd like to join a discussion of this topic, click here.

2006.12.28:  Predictions for 2007   Before putting together my top ten list for 2006, I thought I would stick out my neck and make some predictions for next year... perhaps a foolhardy task, given the unpredictable nature of the Korean film industry.

Voice of a Murderer     VOICE OF A MURDERER is going to be a major critical and popular hit (at least 6 million tickets) -- This movie by Park Jin-pyo which stars Sol Kyung-gu, Kim Nam-joo and the voice of Gang Dong-won strikes me as the only sure-fire hit of 2007. Of course, I expect there to be other big successful films in 2007, but looking through the production charts I don't see anything else that has such an air of inevitability about it. If I were investing in Korean films, this is the film I'd most want to be a part of. It's based on a real-life kidnapping incident from the early 1990s, in which the son of a well-known news broadcaster was kidnapped. Park himself worked on a TV documentary covering the incident, so he's perhaps uniquely positioned to turn this into a harrowing and engaging film. Besides, he strikes me as a director with real breakout potential. The trailer is out, and it's fantastic. The movie itself will be released on my birthday, February 1st.

    There will be about 80 Korean films released in 2007, down from 107 this year -- This may just be stating the obvious, rather than a prediction per se. The bubble that we saw in 2006 appears to have recently burst, and at the moment there are considerably fewer mainstream films going into production. This is probably a good thing in terms of the film industry's long-term health, actually -- since DVD is essentially dead in Korea, films can only hope to earn back their budget through the theatrical market. Too many films in the theaters at the same time, and everybody loses. At the same time, however, the number of low-budget independent films is likely to continue rising. KOFIC runs a program that provides financial support to independent features, and over 70 projects applied this December. A quick glance down the list of applicants shows that there are a lot of filmmakers with scripts to shoot these days (though obviously not all of them will be able to find funding). More and more of them are getting small-scale releases as well.

200 Pound Beauty     Korean comedy will make a comeback -- The year 2001 was probably the high water mark for Korean comedies, with the release of My Sassy Girl, My Wife is a Gangster, Hi Dharma, My Boss, My Hero, and Kick the Moon among others. Since then, however, there's been a sagging of creativity, with a lot of derivative films with predictable humor and bizarre storylines. Starting in 2003, audiences also became more interested in director-centered works: Memories of Murder, Old Boy, A Tale of Two Sisters, etc. By now, though, it seems that audiences are in the mood for comedy. Witness the strong commercial success this month of 200 Pound Beauty, a fat-girl-becomes-thin comedy whose central premise is a bit offensive, but which is nonetheless pretty well written and executed. There are also other reasons why film companies will be focusing on comedy. Given a sharp drop in revenues from international sales, and increasing costs at home due to new labor laws going into effect in July, pressure on film budgets will be higher than ever in 2007. Comedies are comparatively cheaper to make, and offer the potential of big box office success. Keep an eye on Kwak Jae-yong, Yoon Jae-gyun and Park Jeong-woo, comedy directors who may be making a comeback this year.

    Kim Ki-duk will fight with the press, and will not release his new movie in Korea -- I feel pretty confident making this prediction.

    Total annual admissions will drop for the first time in a decade -- At least 150 million tickets were sold in 2006, compared to only 42 million in 1996. In the past ten years, young Koreans have turned from occasional moviegoers into wildly enthusiastic ones. But this constant growth can't go on forever, and 2007 is likely to be the year when it slips back a bit. (Surely it's unlikely that two films will sell 12 million tickets each, such as in 2006) Expect numerous gloom-and-doom reports from the Korean press, with -- rightly or wrongly -- the reduction of the Screen Quota being blamed for the slump.

Secret Sunshine     Jeon Do-yeon will win Best Actress at Cannes -- You may consider that I'm going out on a limb here, motivated by my fanboy appreciation of the supremely talented Ms. Jeon, but let me state my case. She is the star of Lee Chang-dong's long-awaited new film Secret Sunshine, which is scheduled to be completed in May (i.e. the same month as the festival). I consider this film almost a shoo-in for the competition section, as Lee Chang-dong is very well known to the Cannes organizers, both as a filmmaker (Peppermint Candy screened in the Critics Week section in 2000), and as the former Minister of Culture. Heck, earlier this year the French government presented him with a Medal of Honor. So it's quite likely that Jeon and Song Kang-ho will be walking the red carpet next May. Furthermore, the little I've heard about her role suggests that it's going to be pretty emotionally intense, giving her an opportunity to showcase her talent in all its glory. Of course, I have no idea what other actresses she will be competing against, but I have a feeling that the selection committee will be saying to themselves, "Who is this actress, and why have I never heard of her before?!" Which might give her a little edge over more famous actresses.

2006.11.22:  Korean cinema's heyday?   In many ways, the last few months have been a time of remarkable success for Korean films. First, The Host smashed everything in its path in August, on its way to setting a new box-office record. Then September turned up some statistics that would surely be hard to find anywhere else in the world, except perhaps for India: for this one month, local cinema took 82.7% of the market, and Hollywood films took only 5.4%. Hollywood films were even outperformed by Japanese cinema, which took 7.3% on the back of The Sinking of Japan and Sway. October was more of the same, thanks to the runaway success of Tazza, with a Korean market share of 83.1% and Hollywood taking only 13.2%. It seems very likely that in 2006, Korean cinema will once again set a record for market share (probably over 60%) and total admissions.

Love Me Not But you'll have to forgive me if, despite the numbers, I feel a lack of energy in mainstream Korean cinema these days. November has been a particularly blah month. The Moon Geun-young starrer Love Me Not looked pretty on the screen, but was wholly predictable and unexciting. Some people told me they walked out halfway through. Cruel Winter Blues with Sol Kyung-gu was somewhat more interesting, especially the nice exchanges between Sol and Na Moon-hee, but it was not a film to get really excited about. The other commercial releases this month, such as How the Lack of Love Affects Two Men, Educating Kidnappers, Who Slept With Her?, Sunflower and Once in a Summer all seem to be blah, blah, blah (though I admittedly haven't seen all of them yet). Mainstream audiences seem to agree.

No Regreats On the contrary, it's Korean independent films that are looking up these days. There were plenty of great new low-budget features at Pusan this year, and some of them are even doing okay at the box office. Leesong Hee-il's debut No Regrets opened on 6 screens and did amazingly well, selling 12,000 tickets in four days. The film's production company says that no low-budget Korean film has ever sold so many tickets so quickly. Meanwhile, Lee Chang-jae's Between has set a new record for local documentaries with 24,000 tickets sold. As a whole, both Korean and other Asian arthouse releases are doing better this year than they have for a long time.

I think I know the reason. Although part of it has to do with the Korean Film Council's financial support for arthouse theaters, which gives more opportunities to small films, the main reason is that committed cinephiles are starting to turn away from mainstream Korean films. In the past, viewers who would read up on the new films at Cannes and Venice, and would occasionally catch a retrospective screening, would also find time to watch the higher-profile Korean films that came out. Now my impression is, except for true event films like The Host or Tazza, they aren't bothering. More and more cinephiles are telling me, "I don't watch Korean films these days."

Taste of Tea But specialty releases are doing better than ever. Japanese films especially are hot! hot! hot! It seems that there is a small but very committed fanbase supporting Japanese cinema. It's not so much the big blockbusters, or the arthouse titles, but in-between films like Sway, The Taste of Tea (pictured), Maison de Himiko, and Tony Takitani that have people excited. Sponge, the hottest small distributor in town (and the one with the most Japanese titles) held an independent Japanese film festival a few months ago, and they were selling out shows as fast as they could print the tickets. The reason? For Korean viewers, these films (and the actors in them) feel like something new.

Admittedly, casual viewers are still crowding in to see the big Korean films, and I expect this to continue for some time. But a couple things are becoming clearer. One is that (to a certain extent) things are looking up for film diversity in Korea -- more and more people are taking an interest in small foreign or independent films. The second is that, eventually even casual viewers may start to lose their enthusiasm for Korean films. When that happens, will they turn to Hollywood films? Japanese films? Or will they become less interested in moviegoing in general?

2006.10.31:  Thoughts on PIFF 2006   For many people, the Pusan International Film Festival is just that: a film festival. Still, a large number of guests who attend PIFF don't actually watch any films -- there's too much else going on to afford the luxury of spending time in the theater. I tried as hard as I could this year to avoid falling into the latter category, but I still ended up watching only 5 films in 10 days. So my festival wrapup is unlikely to be as interesting as those of other attendees.

Traces of Love First, the films: opening night feature Traces of Love (pictured), coming-of-age/ premeditated murder flick Gangster High, quirky debut Driving With My Wife's Lover, Shin Sang-ok's rediscovered 1962 feature The Arch of Chastity, and my one non-Korean film, Patrick Tam's After This Our Exile.

Traces of Love fell somewhat short of my (high-ish) expectations, in an unexpected way. It seemed that in Bungee Jumping of Their Own, director Kim Dae-seung was really strong with small details, but in this latest feature this turned out to be the biggest weakness. The overall structure of the film is interesting, and certain elements like the collapse of the department store was executed really well, but ultimately I didn't find it as memorable as I was expecting it to. Partly I guess this is because Kim Ji-soo's character is too uniformly sweet and optimistic; it's a bit hard to see her as a real person.

Gangster High Gangster High, in contrast, came in slightly above my very low expectations. It fits within a special subset of "guy" films from Korea that glorify violence for 90% of their running time, before turning to extreme violence at the end as a way of criticizing violence. It's a strange strategy, and it never really works, but I can say about this film that it was nicely shot and the characters were a bit more charismatic than usual.

Driving With My Wife's Lover is a film with a lot of creative energy in its first half, that loses a bit of steam in the second. People were divided about this one; some felt that it was straining too hard to be quirky, while others were charmed. Jo Eun-ji (The President's Last Bang, My Scary Girl) is certainly charming as usual, and I liked it for the most part, though it doesn't rank as a real stand-out viewing for me.

Arch of Chastity Shin Sang-ok's The Arch of Chastity, meanwhile, is quite interesting and satisfying, even if I wouldn't rank it up there with Flower in Hell, Evergreen Tree or Eunuch. I found it interesting that he chose to set the film in the early 20th century, at a time when old traditions (such as the prohibition on widows' remarrying, the subject of the film) were starting to lose their grip for some people, but not for others. It's the film's perspective on social issues that I personally found most interesting.

The last one I saw was Hong Kong director Patrick Tam's After This Our Exile, which is his first film since the 1980s. I guess this was the most enjoyable of the five movies I watched. It is nicely shot, and it tells an involving story about a boy who is left to live with his father after his mother runs off. There's a sort of obtuseness to the work, from the director's statement printed at the start, to the obvious message Tam is trying to tell, and the music is also used in a way that calls attention to itself. The way the shots are stitched together is slightly disconcerting, in a non-subtle way. Normally I'd find that sort of thing annoying, but here it all just seems to work. It feels like a film that's being told from experience, from an older director who has earned the right to make his points (to lecture, if you will) in a somewhat obvious way. It all gives the film an interesting rhythm and perspective. I didn't even mind the long running time.

PIFF Opening Ceremony As for the rest of the festival, much of the attention focused on Pusan's first full-fledged film market. The decision to launch a market was one that I still have mixed feelings about, given that other festivals like Toronto (probably the closest Western equivalent to PIFF) have been highly successful without one. Since the American Film Market in Los Angeles takes place only two weeks later, Pusan will always in a sense be operating in its shadow. The point of a market is to facilitate the buying and selling of films, but apart from some Southeast Asian buyers (who will not be traveling to LA), most companies seemed content to talk now, and seal the deals later at AFM. Indeed, the overall level of business was not much greater than last year, when PIFF hosted sales booths but did not call it a market.

Other related industry events such as the PPP and BIFCOM seemed to go well, though, and as usual Pusan served as a fantastic place for people to meet and talk informally. That's the festival's real strength, actually (apart from its program) -- PIFF is one of the best places in the world to network and meet new people. Some jokingly call the event the Pusan International Drinking Festival, but that's not a putdown. Meeting people is a hugely important part of doing business.

PIFF Opening Ceremony As for me, I was hard at work on the seven PIFF Dailies published by Variety. Thankfully they all went off without a hitch, and everyone seemed pleased with the end product. For us on the Variety staff, it was also a chance to actually meet each other face to face. To date I've known most of the people in LA only through their email addresses. Everyone on the staff seemed to hugely enjoy Korea as well. If it happens again next year, I imagine there will be fighting in the LA office over who gets to go.

My final impressions of this year's festival are mostly positive, and it seems that critics were happy with the selection of new films in the program too. The only concern I have for PIFF is that it might be entering a stage when it is trying to do too much. To date, just about every year has featured the launch of some ambitious new program, from the Asian Film Academy for film students last year to this year's Star Summit Asia which focuses on the region's star power. Everything has been fine up until now, but I hope that in the coming few years PIFF slows down its expansion a bit and focuses on making the many small improvements (such as fixing the ticketing system) that could turn it from a good festival into a great one.

2006.10.11:  PIFF 2006   There's only a day left now before the 11th Pusan International Film Festival opens with a screening of Kim Dae-seung's Traces of Love. I'm typing this on a train down to Pusan; I'm going a day early to prepare for a series of daily issues that Variety will publish at the event. It's the first time Variety is doing this, with no less than 20 people flying in from LA and other parts of Asia to pull this off. It's not really a stars-and-events type of publication; as in Cannes or Berlin, most of the coverage in the dailies will focus on news announced by companies in attendance, film sales, and reviews of new films at the festival (not my responsibility). Six issues will be published in total -- all in English and distributed for free.

PIFF 2006 Poster The impetus behind this is the festival's launch of its Asian Film Market. Basically it's a big exhibition for buyers and sellers of films, as well as an effort to draw all its industry events under one umbrella and give them an even bigger profile. From the festival's point of view, it's an expensive ($3 million) and somewhat risky venture, considering that the much bigger American Film Market takes place in early November. From my point of view, it means that I have to more or less give up the dream of going to Pusan to watch films and discuss them with friends. In other words, I'll be working day and night and probably watching fewer films than I did in Seoul the week before. But I guess I can't really complain; this is my job, and there are much worse ways to make a living.

Ad Lib Night I did manage to watch in advance a couple of the films that will premiere at this year's festival, so let me provide some quick recommendations. Lee Yoon-ki wowed a lot of people with his debut This Charming Girl in 2004, then disappointed many with his follow-up Love Talk in 2005. I don't think people will be disappointed with his latest, though -- Ad Lib Night is a great film, shot in just a couple weeks but displaying great cohesion and energy. It's based on a Japanese novel, about a woman who agrees to "stand in" as the daughter of a dying man on his deathbed. My only complaint is with the music.

Pruning the Grapevine, meanwhile, is a film by Min Boung-hun, who studied in Russia and shot two films in central Asia: Bee Fly and Let's Not Cry. His third feature is shot in Korea and is both very different and yet somewhat similar due to its symbolic/spiritual overtones. It focuses around a man studying for the Catholic priesthood (in a fantastic, intimate performance by Seo Jang-won of The Unforgiven). I'm guessing the last five minutes may lose a number of viewers -- it in effect becomes a religious film in these final scenes -- but regardless of your thoughts about religion, it's a fascinating film.

People Crossing the River Let me also recommend a documentary, People Crossing the River. The film portrays the contemporary relationship between Japan and Korea through the eyes of four people: an elderly Korean man fighting for reparations from the Japanese government for workers who did forced labor in World War II; an ethnic Korean woman who grew up in Japan, and who stages solo stage productions on Korean culture; a Japanese minister who fights on behalf of minorities and the dispossessed in Japan; and a Japanese high school student who participates in a club devoted to Korean culture. With no narration, we are left to connect all the dots in our own way, but these particular four people are an excellent prism through which to view Korean-Japanese relations in a much more intimate and specific way.

I'm sad to say that I will not be able to write a PIFF festival report this year; I think my other commitments will be too demanding, and if I do manage to scrape up some time I'm going to focus on regular reviews. I will, however, be maintaining a special critics poll focusing on Asian films in the New Currents competition section. If you're at the festival and you see any of these films, please drop me an email -- everyone is welcome to participate. We may also have a photo essay from the festival... check back for more updates.

2006.09.19:  Chuseok films   It's time again for the big autumn holiday of Chuseok, which means that we can expect a number of high-profile Korean films to be released. Actually, these days you get high-profile Korean films released just about every month of the year, but still...

Last year the big films were Duelist, April Snow and Marrying the Mafia 2, none of which stirred up much excitement among critics. To their credit, Duelist ended up winning over a small number of highly partisan fans, and April Snow was a major hit in Japan, even if it bombed in Korea. Marrying the Mafia 2, meanwhile, was a huge commercial hit, even though viewers' comments were not particularly flattering. Seeking to cash in on this unexpected gold mine, production company Taewon Entertainment quickly slapped together Marrying the Mafia 3 (opening this week) and has already announced Marrying the Mafia 4.

Maundy Thursday This year's Chuseok looks much brighter than last year's, however. Leaving aside Marrying the Mafia 3, there are at least three potentially huge films opening in the next week or two. Maundy Thursday is already out and selling tickets like crazy; it's a melodrama about capital punishment based on a best-selling novel and directed by Song Hye-sung, the man who brought us Failan. Kang Dong-won (Duelist) and actress Lee Na-young (! - I'm a fan) take the lead roles, and more or less pull it off, despite concerns that the superstar gloss on them would distract from the seriousness (?) of the story. Just before watching it I was overcome with negative feelings towards the film -- it seemed like an opportunistic, slickly packaged attempt to take an important political issue and milk it for cash. It turns out I was right... but I kind of liked it anyway. It's well-directed, and manages to pull you in so that you empathize with the characters. The film pulls its political punches and may have too much Christian imagery for some, but as a nice-looking tear jerker with a bit of directorial restraint, it's not bad.

Radio Star I had similar doubts about Radio Star, for the opposite reasons. It seemed that director Lee Joon-ik, after the smashing success of King and the Clown, had decided to take advantage of his new power to go all sappy and old-fashioned on us. ("I've earned some political capital, and now I'm going to spend it!") The story of an aging rock star who moves to a rural town and discovers community values and friendship just did not strike me as appealing at all. And while I love both Park Joong-hoon and Ahn Sung-ki, who appeared together in Chilsu and Mansu (1988), Two Cops (1993), and Nowhere to Hide (1999), I was worried that the new film would just taint the memories of their great collaborations of the past. The entire project seemed to have failure written all over it.

Now, after seeing it, I'm convinced it's going to be a huge hit. Yes, it's sentimental and somewhat predictable, but Lee and his regular screenwriter Choi Seok-hwan's strengths in storytelling manage to overcome all of that. Park and Ahn's acting do not undergo any major transformation (as they did in Nowhere to Hide), but they way they are used in this story makes it possible for even teenagers to relate to them. I can't say that on a personal level it's one of my favorite films of the year, because it's just not my style, and I don't think the film has any real international potential, but within the context of Korea it's a slam dunk.

Tazza The third big film coming up this month is Tazza, based on a Korean cult comic book and directed by Choi Dong-hoon of The Big Swindle fame. It's the story of a group of card sharks who play a game called "hwatu" that Koreans are familiar with but which will leave non-Koreans clueless. Choi has already become a minor directorial star for his debut film, which local critics loved even if it went nowhere internationally. The buzz after yesterday's press screening (which I missed, unfortunately) was electric, with people saying that it surpasses The Big Swindle on several levels. With a strong cast (Cho Seung-woo, Baek Yoon-sik, Kim Hye-soo, and Yu Hae-jin), audience interest is strong and it, too, is looking like a major hit.

2006.08.10:  It's about time   Finally -- we will be able to watch the uncut, original version of The President's Last Bang. The Seoul Central Court today decided to overturn a ruling from February 2005 which obligated production company MK Pictures to remove four minutes of documentary footage from Im Sang-soo's film. The President's Last Bang Being a court decision, the ruling applied not only to the Korean release but also to all screenings and DVD releases of the film worldwide. As one of the lucky few able to catch the original version at its press screening before the ruling, I can say that -- though it won't transform the way you watch the film -- the cut documentary footage provides quite a different emotional tint to the film's final moments.

The court issued some stirring words, including the line, "We must broadly confirm the right of free expression concerning the depiction of public historical figures." Nonetheless, it was not a total victory for MK Pictures. The court did decide that several scenes were an unjust smear on the character of the former president, and they ordered MK to pay Park's son 100 million won ($105,000). In recent months I've heard that Korean laws concerning slander are much broader than in many Western countries -- and apply to the dead as well as the living -- so such fines are not unheard of.

I've yet to see an official response from MK Pictures, but director Im Sang-soo is quoted as saying he fully understands the court's concerns and he is grateful for their decision to allow for the restoration of the film's original version. No word yet on plans for a re-release of the DVD, though MK has said in the past that they will do this.

2006.07.23:  Notes from PiFan   The tenth anniversary edition of the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival has now ended. PiFan is struggling to recover from a boycott and assorted other problems last year which badly damaged the festival's relationship with its audience. This year has thankfully been much more stable and "normal," as a new leadership and programming team try to make a new start. Nonetheless, the event is struggling to win back its audience: Cine21 reports that attendance through its eighth day was only 35,000, which is more than last year but well under the 80,000 total for the 2004 edition. Only 6 screenings sold out (compared to 51 in 2004), and the number of local guests attending the event plummeted. There were also problems with missing subtitles and other screening accidents, as detailed on the Korean Film Discussion Board.

I spent more time at the festival than I might have otherwise, since I was on the short film jury. With only ten shorts to consider, it was not an overly difficult assignment, so I had time to watch many features as well. (Mostly foreign films -- the Korean selection was a little sparse except for the retrospectives) My favorites were the Danish film Adam's Apples (which ended up winning the top prize for features), about a Neo-Nazi doing community service at a rural church; Severance, a hilarious new British horror film that online Korean film guru Djuna describes as "Dilbert Meets Friday the Thirteenth"; and the old Italian made-for-TV horror film Venus of Ille by Mario and Lamberto Bava, despite a very poor quality video screening. My favorite short was actually the Korean film The Storyteller, but the rest of the short film jury did not agree with me. ^ ^

Yoon Jung-hee But the big thrill of the festival for me was a chance to meet the veteran actress Yoon Jung-hee, part of the famed "troika" of actresses who made their debut in the mid-sixties and become phenomenally popular. (The other members of the troika are Moon Hee and Nam Jeong-im) Among the 300+ films Yoon made are masterworks like Kim Soo-yong's Mist, Shin Sang-ok's Eunuch and Lee Seong-gu's The General's Moustache. Since the mid-1970s she has been living in Paris with her husband, the famous pianist Paik Kun Woo. At PiFan she served on the feature film jury.

Yoon comes across as extremely well-spoken and smart. She says her favorite contemporary Korean films are Bong Joon-ho's Barking Dogs Never Bite and Hong Sang-soo's The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well. She also professed to a liking for Kim Ki-duk's works. When asked when she retired from acting, her response is, "I haven't retired!" She still receives scripts on occasion and hopes to make more films, though she has yet to find a project that she's comfortable with.

Most surprising for me was her story about how she and her husband were almost kidnapped by the North Korean government in the late 1970s, around the same time that Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee were in Pyongyang. Asked to perform in a piano concert in Vienna, they were then diverted and a group of people tried to coerce them into traveling to Yugoslavia. They eventually found refuge in the U.S. embassy.

Overall feelings about this year's PiFan? I am still angry about the mess that was made of the event last year by the mayor and other interfering politicians, but at the same time I don't want the festival to die. Aside from the Yubari festival in Japan, which is much smaller and is facing a funding crisis this year, PiFan is the only fantasy film festival in Asia. It would be a shame to see it fall apart, and I like the new leadership who are heading the festival this year. PiFan is promising that they will learn from the mistakes made this year out of inexperience, and I'm confident that they will do a good job next year. The big question is, will the audience come back?

2006.06.26:  Hanbando   Today was the press screening of Kang Woo-suk's latest prospective blockbuster Hanbando, a so-called mix of fact and fiction that (to put it plainly) seeks to play off Korean nationalist and anti-Japanese sentiment in order to make cartloads of money. It's being touted as one of the two major releases of the summer, together with Bong Joon-ho's The Host. We're just now reaching the stage where posters are covering the city and the press is devoting serious air time to the film and its rather outlandish premise.

Hanbando Certainly, the people who designed and packaged this film know which buttons to push. The Japan presented in the film is the embodiment of scheming evil, and since no patriotic Korean is allowed to defend the Japanese government under any circumstances, Kang can freely accuse them of whatever historical or imagined sin that he wishes. By invoking issues such as the territorial dispute over the Dokdo Islands, Hanbando is guaranteed to get a lot of free press.

I imagined that Hanbando might hit Korean theaters like a multi-tonne bomb, with some viewers worked up into a frenzy over the heinous acts committed by the Japanese in the imaginary future, while other, more thoughtful types would be too scared to criticize the film for fear of being branded traitors to their country.

But after actually seeing it, I'm not so sure. Kang is unlikely to suffer any consequences for playing the nationalist card, or for concocting a scenario which seems rather far-fetched, to say the least. However he may suffer more serious real-world consequences for making what is in the end a pretty boring film. Much of Hanbando's two-and-a-half-hour running time is devoted to men in suits sitting around tables holding tense conversations, with another big chunk of time devoted to people digging in the dirt. I'll be the first to admit that my non-native language skills may have prevented me from fully appreciating the film's complexities, but this just doesn't look like a movie that is going to set the world on fire. Distribution power is such that even bad films can sell millions of tickets (I still haven't got over seeing My Boss My Teacher attract 6 million viewers), but suffice it to say that my money's on The Host.

2006.06.14:  Sol Kyung-gu cast in new Park Jin-pyo film   Up-and-coming director Park Jin-pyo has announced that his next project, called That Man's Voice (my translation of the Korean title), will star Sol Kyung-gu. It's based on a true story about a news anchor whose child is abducted. In fact, when the crime occurred in the early 1990s Park was assistant director on a TV program that covered the incident in detail. He says that of all the TV work he has done, he has never been able to forget this story.

The role should be a pretty intense one for Sol, and it is likely to bring him back into the spotlight after recent works like Rikidozan and Lost in Love sort of sank into obscurity. (He also plays a gangster in the upcoming film Cruel Winter Blues)

But personally, I'm most excited about seeing another film from Park after Too Young to Die (2002), his segment "Tongue Tie" in If You Were Me (2003), and You Are My Sunshine (2005). Perhaps because he followed a different career path from most Korean directors (having started out making TV documentaries), he seems to always take a fresh approach to the subjects he covers. He is also quite comfortable handling strong content, which keeps his films consistently interesting. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Park's career develop similar to that of Im Sang-soo, who is now tracked by major festivals.

That Man's Voice (financed by CJ Entertainment) starts shooting at the end of June, and should be finished by winter.

2006.06.04:  Local petitions for the release of Kim Ki-duk's Time   I have not seen Kim Ki-duk's latest film Time, a relationship film that centers around such things as physical appearance and plastic surgery. As some readers may be aware, Time has been selected to screen as the Opening Film of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival on June 30, but there are no current plans to release it theatrically in Korea. After the disastrous single-print release of The Bow organized by Kim himself last year, when audience interest was minimal and the theater screening the film pulled it after only a week, Kim has stated he has no intention or desire to release his films in Korean theaters anymore.

time It seems that several factors have contributed to this unusual situation. Kim has always had a contentious relationship with mainstream Korean society, given his upbringing and his sense that privileged classes treat working class people like dirt, more or less. Several years ago I interviewed Kim for an article in Screen International and his voice began to shake when he talked about this social divide. This sense of rage probably contributed a great deal to the unique energy of his early films.

At the same time, Kim has always had a poor relationship with the Korean press, particularly after some critics attacked the way he handles gender issues in his films (for myself too, this has long been a sticking point). Kim still seems to harbor some resentment against the local film community, and to mainstream audiences as well. His decision not to release the film is probably a mixture of hurt feelings, together with a realistic assessment that he may not earn back the money it takes to strike prints and put the film in theaters. Since the funding he receives from abroad is more than enough to cover the cost of his films (it's already been sold to 30 countries), he has no practical need to go through the headache of organizing a release.

Yet there are at least some people in Korea who want to see his latest film. Earlier this spring, local critic Jung Sung-il published a long article in Cine21 decrying the situation facing Kim's films, and arguing in favor of a release. These days, a movement is slowly building to get the film into theaters. The latest development is an online petition which is aiming for the participation of 10,000 people (The Bow ultimately sold about 1,400 tickets). Although this is basically targeted at local viewers, those who can navigate in Korean and wish to sign their names can do so via Daum, Naver or Cyworld.

Update: On June 9 it was announced that the local distributor Sponge has bought domestic distribution rights to Time, and will be releasing it in August...

2006.06.01:  Indieforum scaled back   In 1996, the same year that the Pusan International Film Festival was launched, another groundbreaking film festival debuted in Korea. In the ten years since, Indieforum has served as one of the premiere showcases of Korean independent film, presenting short films, independently produced animation, documentaries, and digitally-shot features. Many arthouse directors who were spotlighted in Pusan, such as Song Il-gon (Flower Island), Park Chan-ok (Jealousy is My Middle Name) or Noh Dong-seok (My Generation) were familiar names to Indieforum regulars well before they made their first feature.

Indieforum Last year this week, Indieforum was celebrating its tenth edition with a well-organized ten-day event. This year will be different: bumped out of its customary late May/early June slot, Indieforum 2006 will be a scaled-down, four-day affair from July 20-23, with the first two days devoted to seminars considering the state of Korean independent cinema, and retrospective screenings taking place during the final two days. In other words, Indieforum will no longer be a place to discover new voices in Korean independent cinema.

A lack of funding and sponsorship is blamed for the changes. Indeed, competition in the festival arena has become fierce in recent years. New short and independent film festivals backed by corporate sponsors such as Asiana Airlines, Mise-en-scene cosmetics, or CJ-CGV have cropped up, joining other events that have surer access to government or philanthropic funding, such as the Green Film Festival in Seoul or the long-running Seoul Independent Film Festival (co-presented by the Korean Film Council). As government support of arthouse theaters and other such venues increase, viewers have a wider and wider array of cinematic choices each weekend. Wider choice is of course a good thing, but the basic forces of economics always remain in play, and it looks like Indieforum, the most truly independent festival of them all, was left the most vulnerable. I find this quite sad... Indieforum was my favorite Seoul-based festival.

An article by professor Kyung Hyun Kim in the November/December 2004 issue of Film Comment, titled "Risky Business: The rise of Asia's new Hollywood and the fall of independent Korean filmmaking," seems particularly prophetic today. In it, he singles out the Mise-en-scene Genre Film Festival as representative of new trends that are pushing Korean independent cinema closer to the mainstream. The event has been highly successful in presenting and evaluating short films through the lens of genre, with sections judged by some of Korea's most famous actors and directors. I don't mean to single out this festival or overlook its own ability to discover new directors (Yoon Jong-bin of The Unforgiven won a prize here before making his debut, after all), but the fact that there is no longer room for a festival like Indieforum is a sad milestone alongside the road on which Korean cinema is now traveling.

2006.05.07:  Jeonju and Puchon   May 5 marked the closing day of the Jeonju International Film Festival, which has to rank as one of the most pleasant filmgoing experiences in Korea (if you're into independent/arthouse film, that is). The top-ranked Pusan festival is certainly more glamorous, more energetic, and offers a wider selection of films to watch, but the furious pace of the event can be exhausting at times. JIFF on the other hand is JIFF set in a quiet regional city and offers lots of films and great Korean food in a relaxed setting. It's been several years since I've been to JIFF, since it tends to overlap with the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy. This year I managed to catch the last couple days of the festival, however, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. (A festival report from several of us is on the way)

JIFF enjoyed its most successful year ever, with about 10,000 more paying customers than in 2005. This stands in stark contrast to the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan), which hit a low point last year after a spat with the Puchon mayor that escalated into a widely observed boycott (for more details, read last year's entries on this blog). This year, PiFan will try to resurrect itself. Will it be successful?

My guess is that it will, although it will probably take a long time before it replicates the success it had under former festival director Kim Hong-joon. This year's event, scheduled for July 13-22, has a new festival director (veteran director Lee Jang-ho, who also oversaw the first PiFan) as well as a new programming team. A recent press conference outlined what they have in store for this year (in addition to the usual competition section, etc.), including retrospectives on Italian horror cinema (Mario Bava, possibly Dario Argento, etc) and Japanese director Ishii Teruo. Together with the Yubari Fantastic Film Festival in Japan, a special "Kids' Fanta" competition section will be added with young judges from Korea and Japan. Finally, the festival will partner with the Korean Film Archive to present some classic Korean films with formerly censored segments re-inserted. The re-constructed "directors cuts" to be presented include Ha Kil-jong's March of Fools (1975), Lee Won-se's A Small Ball Shot by a Dwarf (1980), Lee Doo-yong's The Last Witness (1980), and Lee Jang-ho's own Children of Darkness (1981). This for me is likely to be the highlight of the festival -- let's hope they include English subtitles!

Several people have asked me in recent weeks if RealFanta, the rival festival held by Kim Hong-joon and PiFan's former programmers alongside last year's PiFan, will run again this year. This is not being planned; actually, Kim had said all along that he intended RealFanta to be a one-time event, held as a form of protest. Although there was discussion last year about possibly trying to set up a new festival at another time of the year, this has not materialized and the former PiFan team has moved on. Kim, in fact, will be organizing a major Kim Ki-young retrospective in Paris late this year. You will be sure to be hearing more about that on this site as the date draws closer...

2006.04.12:  Shin Sang-ok, 1926-2006   The news of veteran director Shin Sang-ok's death caught me by surprise. Even at 80 years old, he and his wife -- the fabulously talented actress Choi Eun-hee -- projected such energy that it never even occurred to me that he might be sick. I wasn't aware that he had received a liver transplant in 2004... in recent weeks his condition had suddenly worsened.

Shin Sang-ok It's hard to overestimate Shin's impact on the Korean cinema of the fifties and sixties. He not only directed at least a dozen top-notch films that can knock your socks off, but he founded the biggest film company of that time period and was a huge influence on younger filmmakers. Under different historical circumstances, he likely would have continued on as a recognized master of Asian cinema, but conflict with the South Korean military government destroyed his career and robbed him of even the slightest bit of artistic freedom. He was famously "abducted" to North Korea in 1978, but even if he had continued to live in the South, his career had been taken from him.

I'll mention just a couple of his films that rank as highlights of my film-going career, though a list of his must-sees stretches as long as my arm. Evergreen Tree (1961, pictured below) is a masterpiece, charged through with more youthful idealism than any other Korean film I have seen. Choi Eun-hee and Shin Young-gyun play a young couple in love who decide to move to the country and work as teachers for undereducated children. Often when you say a film is filled with sincerity, you mean it as veiled criticism, but Evergreen Evergreen Tree Tree is sincere in a way that I don't think can be done in today's world. It's also campy in parts, and feels sometimes like a communist youth film -- again, in this instance, I mean that as a compliment. Like every film Shin has ever directed, it is not available on DVD, but I anxiously recommend it to anyone lucky enough to catch a screening.

The costume drama Eunuch (1968) is another film of his which I fell in love with. I first saw it at Shin's retrospective at PIFF in 2001, but then a year later or so KOFIC asked me to revise the subtitles for a new print. I had to stay up until dawn to finish them on time, but I don't think I've ever had as much fun with subtitles as I had on that film. Sexy, unpredictable, full-throated, a mishmash of styles that all come together perfectly... Eunuch is the perfect crowd pleaser, something that would be laughably outrageous in the hands of another director. And how can you not fall in love with dialogue such as this?

"No, father, I'm in love!" / "You mean that eunuch?!" / "But father, you made him a eunuch!" / "I should have chopped off his head instead."

It may seem inappropriate to cite dialogue like this at a person's death, but Shin himself was always mischievous, daring, and eager to push the envelope. Perhaps that's why his films remain so exciting to watch from a contemporary perspective. They were made in another era, but never really felt comfortable within that era -- in some ways they fit better into ours. It's terribly sad to bid the man farewell, but his films are still among us, and we need to try harder to give them the exposure they deserve.

2006.04.04:  Thoughts after the first quarter   It's the beginning of April, so the year is one-quarter of the way through. Despite the fact that a large number of screens have been tied up in the showing of a single film from late 2005, King and the Clown, we've had 25 Korean features released in that time. That means that we're on a pace to have 100 local releases in 2006. Given the current furious rate of production (Korean film companies are apparently looking to borrow cameras from Japan and China, because all available sets are being used), we may end up with quite a few more than 100 -- over twice as many films as were released in 1999, the year I launched this site. Certainly it's a great development for viewers (though if I were an investor I might be feeling a bit nervous right now).

Forbidden Quest I've seen 21 of those 25 releases. Off the top of my head, the most memorable would include Grain in Ear, The Magicians, Forbidden Quest, and Bewitching Attraction. The international co-production Grain in Ear is more strongly influenced by trends in Chinese cinema than in Korean film, but it's exciting to see this sort of co-operation between two filmmaking cultures -- particularly when the result is such a strong film. The Magicians made my top ten list for 2005, because I guessed incorrectly that it would not receive a commercial release this year. That's been a pleasant surprise.

Bewitching Attraction I wrote about below -- predictably, the film fell off a cliff at the box office once viewers got a taste of it. I'm curious to see what becomes of its international career. Finally, Forbidden Quest was a quite interesting film, though it was also somewhat self-absorbed and long. Particularly as the film crawled through its very extended ending, you could sense the audience saying, "Okay, okay, just hurry up and die!" Yet the very concept of the film was intriguing -- a respected nobleman of the Chosun Dynasty, suddenly finding himself an enthusiastic writer of pornographic novels. Visually sumptuous, it's also a film that likes to wink at its audience with modern jokes. Some of the period dialogue went over my head, so I'd like to see it again with subtitles, but the film remains fresh in my memory.

There were other interesting efforts this year too. The low-budget Family Matters is a look at a couple who have been married for seven years, and the troubles they are facing. It's the kind of film that makes your stomach hurt as you laugh along with the jokes. Actress Kim Ho-jeong, of course, is fantastic. It's nice to have her appearing more regularly in new films, as we near the five-year anniversary of her best actress award at Locarno for Nabi.

See You After School gets my vote as the most enjoyable comedy so far this year. Certainly, it's a million times better than the atrocious My Boss, My Teacher, which earned far more money.

Lastly, there were a couple sections of omnibus films that were impressive. My favorite part of If You Were Me 2 was Jung Ji-woo's simply-stated and heartbreaking short on North Korean refugees. The entire omnibus was quite satisfying, so it's good to know that we have a third edition coming up at the Jeonju festival this month, with contributions by Hong Ki-seon of The Road Taken, Kim Gok and Kim Sun of Capitalist Manifesto, and others.

I also very much liked Good-bye, the middle section of One Shining Day. The film as a whole deals with Korea's relationship with Japan, on the 50-year anniversary of the end of the colonial era. For the film's protagonist, a high school boy from a broken family, Japan exists more as an abstract idea, a place where his mother has gone. Swindling cash to finance a one-way trip to Japan, you can see in his face that he expects better things there.

P.S. The real discoveries of this year to date have been Sweet Dream (1936) and especially Spring of the Korean Peninsula (1941), two newly re-discovered Korean classics. I promised reviews in my post below: they are coming, thanks for your patience.

2006.03.08:  Bewitching Attraction   Well, that wasn't what I was expecting. Moon So-ri's latest film is being marketed as a slick, sexy, scandalous romantic comedy about a gaggle of men chasing after a foxy female professor. Can marketing companies be sued for libel? Not that I'm disappointed -- the end result is far more interesting and original than what I had anticipated.

Bewitching Attraction Let's start with a more honest description of the film. Bewitching Attraction (Korean title: "The Discreet Charm of a Female Professor" -- alluding to Luis Bunuel's film, I assume) is a scathing, deadpan, depressing, startling, very funny look at several professors at a dysfunctional rural university. It's an art film, not a romantic comedy -- in fact, it would fit nicely in a Cannes sidebar section like Critics Week or Un Certain Regard. Moon So-ri does indeed play a sexy professor (specializing in dye), but she's as petty and absurd as any character you might find in a Hong Sangsoo film. A two-hour glimpse into her love life is enough to make your head hurt. The men who surround her, meanwhile, are having no better luck at meeting the challenges thrown up by everyday life.

I'm not even going to go into the plot, but it's the sort of film that makes you chuckle and wince at the same time. After the credits roll, when you think back on it, it's considerably funnier than when you experienced it directly. The pacing is slow and deadpan -- a tempo more commonly associated with Japanese films than Korean ones. Within the context of Korean cinema's output so far this year, it's like a fresh breeze wafting into a stifling room.

This marks the directorial debut of Lee Ha, who won several awards for his austere student film Can I Love You?. I had assumed that this was another case of an artsy film student going commercial in order to make his debut, but turns out I was wrong. Lee will be a director to watch.

Moon So-ri, of course, excels in her role, but it's not a role that I think anyone would ever have expected her to take. The character she plays is distasteful -- arrogant, petty, cruel -- but not in a flamboyant way. The part as written is completely over the top, so it's a tribute to her well-known acting talent that it all comes across feeling so natural.

I still can't believe that they're marketing this as a romantic comedy. It's like a romantic comedy's evil twin. I should go back and watch this with a regular audience, rather than a group of journalists, just to see the shocked expressions on everyone's faces.

2006.02.18:  Three more colonial-era films discovered   Korean film history just got a little broader. After having four features from the thirties and forties discovered last year, now there is news that three more complete films from the colonial era have been recovered from archives in China. Yang Ju-nam's 47-minute Sweet Dream: Lullaby of Death (1936, pictured) now ranks as the oldest surviving Korean film, and it sounds like it's quite a jewel. The story of a wife who abandons her family to go live with another man, the film is described by Korean Film Archive employees who have seen it as highly accomplished in a technical and cinematic sense, and more scandalous than Madame Freedom which was made two decades later. It was the debut work of Yang (1912-), who was best known as a film editor, and who would later go on to make more films in the fifties and sixties.

Sweet Dream: Lullaby of Death Discovery #2 is Spring of the Korean Peninsula (1941), the debut film of Lee Byung-il who made the fantastic Wedding Day in 1956. The 84-minute Spring is a melodrama about a film director and an actress who fall in love, but who are faced with a crisis when the director is thrown in jail. Finally, Discovery #3 is Straits of Joseon (1943, 75 minutes) by Park Ki-chae, about a married couple who are divided when the husband leaves for war and is wounded. This was the second to last film made by Park, with the final one being a lost feature from 1948. Advance word on these films, made during World War II when Japanese censorship had reached its height, is that they are also considerably accomplished in a cinematic sense.

All three films will be screened at the Korean Film Archive in Seoul from Thursday to Sunday, March 2-5. The films will be presented in digibeta format, and included among the screenings are the four features and newsreels that were discovered last year. More information is available in Korean at KOFA's website.

Needless to say, I will be there, and no matter how busy I am during that week you can expect a review of Sweet Dream. Does news get any better than this?

2006.02.02:  A Millionaire's First Love   On Wednesday I caught the press screening of this new film by Kim Tae-kyun, the director of Volcano High and Romance of Their Own. It ended up being rather a lot like Romance of Their Own in structure: a snappy first half featuring attractive young people acting cool, and then a hugely overdrawn, melodramatic sobfest in the second half.

A Millionaire's First Love Let's cut to the chase: if you've watched a fair number of Korean movies aimed at teens, then there will be nothing the slightest bit unusual or unexpected in this story. Millionaire centers around a rich, selfish high school student who is forced to give up his Ferrari and transfer to a tiny school in the country in order to secure his fortune, due to a condition in his grandfather's will. After Nature and Country Life duly change him into a warm, understanding person, he experiences a Tragic Love. In other words, this film consists entirely of slight variations on plotlines and characters that we have seen many, many times over the past several years.

But there is something unexpectedly good about this movie: debut actress Lee Yeon-hee. At first I thought it was only me who was utterly captivated by her screen presence, sitting in the theater with this stupid grin on my face that I hope nobody else noticed. I assumed that it was merely an instance of me going soft in the head. (It happens sometimes...) But I found out later that many other critics seem to feel the same way about her.

Surely it's much more difficult to leave an impression on viewers if you're cast into one of these stock melodramatic roles that offer up no interesting dialogue or no unusual character traits. But despite all that, she managed to pull it off.  (Part of me wants to compare her in a small way to Audrey Hepburn, but I know that's an unspeakably cruel comparison to make... I take it back)  The image she projects is also somewhat different from the standard young actress -- she has a very new-generation feel to her, a little bit like Im Soo-jung.

I'm going to predict now that if she ever gets a really good role to play, she's going to emerge as the next major young-generation star. Of course, there's no guarantee of that ever happening. Many of the most talented directors, who write the most interesting roles, tend to stick with established actors. But if I had a magic wand, I'd cast her opposite Rain into the new Park Chan-wook film, I am a Cyborg.  (For those who haven't heard, Gang Hye-jung has pulled out of this project, saying she needs some time off)  I know only the most basic outline of the plot, but I'm sure Lee would make a captivating cyborg.

2006.01.29:  An insane month   Let me just say I'll be happy to have put January behind me. Personally it's been tough, due to an explosion of work and then much more seriously, due to a tragic death in my wife's family (her young cousin in a motorcycle accident).

My Boss My Teacher From the viewpoint of Korean cinema, it's just been a bit weird. It's been encouraging to see King and the Clown do so well, although despite the fact that I enjoyed it, I don't really understand *why* it's so popular (pretty male actor notwithstanding). On the other hand, it's been a bit annoying to see My Boss, My Teacher do so well. This is the worst Korean movie I've seen since... what?... My Wife is a Gangster 2? No, I think it's worse. And this is coming from someone who enjoyed the original. I can forgive a movie for being poorly structured, uninteresting, incomprehensible, completely uninspired, etc., but what really bugs me about this film is that it's 125 minutes long. If they'd just kept it at 100 minutes, that would have been 25 minutes x 2.5 million viewers = 1.04 million hours in a single week that people in Korea could have spent doing something more productive or interesting.

Then of course, at the end of the month came the explosive, if not entirely unexpected news that the Screen Quota system is to be slashed. For me, it meant rushing to finish three Quota-related articles for Variety in 24 hours. Supporters of the quota held an emotional press conference and vowed to keep fighting with protests and rallies. The Finance Ministry apologized to the film industry and tried to stifle their giggles of joy. The next morning, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism made the official announcement, together with the unveiling of plans to essentially adopt the French model of film industry support: $400 million over five years, a new 5% tax on tickets, support for independent film, digital film, arthouse film, you name it. All of these ideas were apparently hatched independently of the Korean Film Council, which is technically the body that is supposed to draft and carry out film policy.

Now, everybody hates the Ministry of Culture. Filmmakers, still furious about the quota reduction, told them they could take their money and stuff it. Exhibitors, who are supposed to be the prime beneficiaries of a quota reduction (though in reality none of them seem to care), were extremely displeased to learn of this new 5% tax on tickets. Ordinary viewers are also complaining about the tax. And even the Americans who fought so hard to kill the quota must be wondering if they should have just kept their mouth shut. In today's industry, the quota really has no effect at all -- it's more of a safeguard in case the local industry collapses one day. A 5% tax, on the other hand, will take large piles of cash directly out of the hands of the Hollywood majors.

I wish I had the energy and guts to write a really long piece about the quota. It's a hugely complex topic, and the more you learn about it and think about it, the more complicated it becomes. But at the same time it's become so politicized that its actual effect on the film industry seems to have been overlooked entirely. To both sides it's become a symbol of a certain mindset or philosophy towards culture in general, and the symbol matters so much that no compromise of any sort is permitted. Buried underneath the rhetoric and error-filled news reports is a really interesting and instructive story that may never be properly told.

2006.01.01:  Winter box office   The beginning of this year's winter vacation has seen an unusually large number of big films hit theaters. Therefore there's been quite a slugfest at the box office, as each distributor scrambles to book its film onto as many screens as possible. There have been more than a few black eyes as well: Chen Kaige's film The Promise and Kwon Sang-woo/Yoo Ji-tae thriller Running Wild, both of which seem likely to draw a lot of interest from viewers, had to give up hopes of a December release and move to January.

Typhoon As for the films which did manage to secure a release, it has been rough sailing for many. On December 14, Typhoon, probably the highest-profile film of the lot, made use of CJ Entertainment's distribution power to open on a record number of screens and trounce King Kong. However two and a half weeks later, there's been a clear shift in momentum between the two. Despite press releases trumpeting Typhoon's quick pace to 3 million admissions, word of mouth has been less than enthusiastic, and it's starting to look less and less likely that the film will reach its break-even point of 5 million tickets. Meanwhile, everyone is talking about King Kong, viewers are giving it fantastic ratings, and it's the hardest ticket in town to buy. (I myself have tried several times to buy a ticket, but shows are consistently sold out) Might the ape come back to overtake Typhoon in the end?

Two more Korean films were released on December 22: The Art of Seduction (which did pretty well) and My Girl and I (which tanked). Audiences seem to have made the right choice here: The Art of Seduction, while not particularly well-written, is entertaining enough, while My Girl and I (the remake of Japanese film Crying Out For Love in the Center of the World) is sappy, annoying and but a dim shadow of the Japanese film (which itself was no masterpiece).

Meanwhile, three more big films debuted on December 29. The Chronicles of Narnia looks to be fairly popular with audiences, but it's unlikely to put up gaudy totals given its competition. Blue Swallow, a hugely ambitious and expensive biopic of Korea's first civilian woman pilot Park Kyung-won, looks like it's going to crash. Monday's box office figures will tell more, but word of mouth has been weak and the film has probably been hurt by accusations that call Park's nationalist sentiment into question. This is sort of a shame: although not a great film, it made a lot of interesting attempts and doesn't deserve the Rikidozan badge of failure.

The big surprise, however, has been King and the Clown. Compared to its seasonal competitors, this film has the least star power and would seem at first glance to hold the least interest for young viewers. However, viewer ratings are sky-high and its performance in its first weekend has been gangbusters. Set in the Chosun Dynasty, it centers around a couple of clowns who satirize the king and eventually get dragged in front of his court. I'm told it's very funny in the first half, and very dark in the second. I'd write more about it, but I haven't seen it yet because, as with King Kong, I couldn't get any tickets this weekend. More about this intriguing film later...

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Darcy Paquet / Koreanfilm.org