Seen in Jeonju

Archive for January, 2010

Director Oh Sang-hoon

16th January 2010

oh sang-hoonOriginally posted October 17, 2007–In the course of making my exams this semester, I was going through my computer files when I stumbled upon a series of articles I translated years ago from the magazine Film2.0.  I had done them just for practice and had looked up every other word in the dictionary until I understood everything. This first interview was originally conducted by reporter Lee Ji-hoon and appeared in Korean in the October 31 issue of Film2.0.  If you wish you can view the original article here:  It was written at the time when his debut film, The Greatest Expectation was released in 2003. Oh has since gone on to release Cracked Eggs and Noodles in 2005. 

I know that you began your career as the assistant director of <Man With A Gun> in 1995, but what did you do before working on that and how did you get into movies?

When I was a high school student, I decided that I was going to make a movie.  I started writing a scenario when I was in my first year at Gwangseong High. I would work on it right through some of the more boring classes. One day, in my final year of high school, my classmate, Park Shin-yang(1) asked me about majoring in movies and the performing arts. I asked him, “Why? Are you going to be a director, too?” But he said no. I suggested that he apply to Dongguk University and that’s where he ended up going. I had heard that Jungang University had an excellent film department so I applied there, but I failed to enter. I felt terrible. I decided to take a year off to rest and then try to enter Hanyang University. The next year, when the application period came around, I asked my mother for the application fee. It was only W8,400 (2). I will never forget that price because my mother refused to give it to me.

Did she think it was too expensive? Or was she against you majoring in film?

No, it wasn’t that. My mother sometimes has these prophetic dreams. She’s actually pretty good at making predictions.  She said that I would fail if I applied to Hanyang. It was partly that and partly the fact that my two older brothers and my sister had similar experiences when they re-applied to colleges after failing to enter the first time. Anyway, she didn’t give me the money and I was furious.  That same evening, my sister called.  She had a friend who was a sophomore at Jungang University and she had arranged a meeting for me with the teacher assistant in the film department. To this day, I don’t know why the teacher assistant agreed to meet with me. I was afraid of being rejected again, but I was told that I wouldn’t fail a second time. The next day, I told my mother that I wanted to apply to Jungang University and she handed over the application fee without a word.

It seems you had a hard time entering school. You must have studied hard once you were in.

I wasn’t so interested in studying. More than anything, I wanted to make a movie. Here’s the story. It was my first semester at the university and I learned that the school had a policy about not allowing the freshmen to use the school cameras or other equipment.  I was so bored because of that rule. The classes were boring too.  I wanted to make a short movie right away, but I had no money. I looked for a way around this situation. I heard that the Board Of Human Rights supplies three scholarships to students in the amount of W100,000 each. I went to the teacher’s assistant and said to him that I wanted to receive those scholarships but he told me that they were based on need and were reserved for poor students.  I told him that I was the poorest of the poor, I was so poor I couldn’t even eat…. Not only to him, but I told this sob story to each of the students who received the scholarship and I wound up with the W300,000. Getting the film was no problem. I told the teacher’s assistant that I was going to make a movie and needed film. The school had recently changed over to buying color film so there was this huge surplus of black-and-white film that nobody wanted. The camera was more difficult, but I kept pestering him until he let me borrow one. After making the film, I had about W30,000 left over so I used it to buy drinks.

You like to live dangerously!

I guess you could say that, but I always consider the circumstances.  I think the most dangerous thing I did was when I was in the army (3). Don’t tell my mom this story, she would go crazy!  I had to go to the army after my sophomore year, but to me it felt as if I had gone to prison. I was always thinking of some way to get out of there. Then, someone in my corps got TB so he was excused from boot camp. I thought to myself, “That’s how I will get out of here! I will catch TB!”  I had never been very bright but that was just crazy. Whenever I had a holiday or a leave of absence, I would go to the hospital dressed as a student and try to find a way to catch tuberculosis.

Are you crazy?

Well… I think so. Anyway, I couldn’t find anyone who had TB.  I realized I was being an idiot and gave up. But, just a few days later, someone in my barracks developed appendicitis and got a leave from the army so he could receive surgery. My superiors said that it was usual to get a lengthy leave when one had problems with their appendix.  I thought, “Ok! This is it!” From that day I began to pick up pebbles from the ground and swallow them to irritate my appendix. I would eat about three or four a day. Why didn’t I get appendicitis? My friend eventually came back to active service but by that time I had adapted pretty well to military life.

So, you started to make movies after you were discharged?

Of course I wanted to. However, most men have difficulty readjusting to civilian life after the army and having to re-enter school.  I was no different.  I decided I wanted to make a movie, but I was in the dark as to how to begin. I didn’t feel like I had any choices in my life and that things were beyond my control.  I was feeling very nervous; my pulse rate was always over 120.  As time went on, I couldn’t sleep, my head would be spinning and so forth. Then this day came where I was supposed to take pictures for my friend’s wedding. I was all set to go but my mother told me that we had to go to my hometown–in Haenam!  I said, “What am I supposed to do about the wedding? I promised my friend!”  But it didn’t make any difference and I went to Haenam.  There, my mother had arranged for me to be at the receiving end of an exorcism with a shaman(4)! Actually, I found it very interesting. I watched what they did very closely–they splintered branches, jangled some bells and spit a lot–it was a little weird but fascinating.  When it was finished, we returned to Seoul.  And, believe it or not, I felt like I had recovered from my nervousness. I was feeling positive about everything.  Before the exorcism, I was afraid of meeting people and I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. I had felt that even beggars were better off than me.  But within one month of that ritual, everything was great. I was on top of the world! Life was wonderful! Anyone I looked at seemed joyful to me and I would think, “Ah, how happy he looks!”

So, after this turning point you joined the crew of <A Man With A Gun>?

No. After I graduated, I made a tv drama, a show called Global Music, and a few others. I worked at these for a few years but I felt like I was going crazy.  I really wanted to get out of that. I thought to myself that I ought to make a movie, but I didn’t know where to start and I had no plans. Then I remembered that directors Kim Ui-seok and Jang Hyun-soo had been just a few years ahead of me at school. By that time, director Kim had made a few movies so I looked him up. I begged him to take me on. He let me work together with him on <A Man With A Gun>.  But after we finished, I didn’t feel as if I had achieved anything.  At the end of the shoot, Director Kim went with Kang Woo-seok to Cinema Service and I was left to find my own way.  That’s when I saw the two Jangs. That is, directors Jang Sun-woo and Jang Hyun-soo.  Jang Sun-woo was in the middle of making his documentary <Cinema On The Road> so I could not join with him. I instead approached Jang Hyun-soo who was working on <Born To Kill> and I met director Song Hae-seong, who had a minor role in Jang’s film. Director Jang allowed me to join the crew, but I still felt frustrated. Why were other people my age succeeding and I was still stuck like this? So after the filming concluded, I left.

So you had nothing to do?

Nothing to do? I wouldn’t say that. I worked continuously. I just didn’t get paid! From that time until now, I was hungry and unemployed. That lasted for seven years. Immediately after <Born To Kill> wrapped up, I started working together with Song Hae-seong. He was preparing to film a movie set in Incheon and I had to move there. But the movie went bankrupt and I was screwed. I was not going to let that happen again. I would prepare in advance. I decided to write a book and began working on a melodrama called <The Second Autumn>.  I wrote it together with <The Greatest Expectation>’s producer Song Chang-yeong. He told me these stories about a taxi driver, but not all of the episodes were interesting. But then there was the time when I turned on the radio and caught one of the stories I sent in being read on the air. It was so moving! I suggested to Song that we bind together five chapters as a book. I thought that would be good enough . That Saturday, Han Seong-gu called me. He was Cha Im-pyo’s manager at that time working on the tv drama, <You And I>.  He had read my book and it had made him cry. He said that we had to meet the next day. I didn’t want to leave my house on Sunday, but he insisted that I had to meet him somewhere. I finally told him that if he bought me a drink, I would meet him. So we drank.  I took the best story of those five chapters and years later, Popcorn Film where Han works, made it into <Lover’s Concerto>.

But <The Second Autumn> was never made into a movie.

We couldn’t make it. Han Seong-gu wanted to produce the movie himself but he failed to gather investors although that didn’t cause the end of the project. Song had also gathered a line of investors but the two sides couldn’t see eye-to-eye and the production fell apart before it got started. However, during the year that this was going on, I grew very attached to that manuscript. I developed a habit of editing the book everyday, even if it were only one word. Even with all that, there was still one part of the scenario I was unhappy with. I just wasn’t satisfied.  One day, while sleeping on the roof, I heard thunder in my dream. I woke up with a start and went down to my desk.  I sat down and I wrote and edited. It was strange because everything was going so smoothly. I finished it all with no strain.  When I looked at it the next day, I thought that it was perfect. I was ready to push forward and make it a movie, but as I said, I failed again. Why? Because it was the late 90’s and melodramas had gone out of style.

You failed twice to get that book made into a movie. Do you continue writing?

Of course. There’s no other way for a director to get his debut. After <The Second Autumn> failed, I went to a certain production company so they could read my work. They came back with things like, this story is good, but you should lose this part. When I showed him my next draft, his expression while reading it was just lukewarm.  I lost my temper and swore. If they didn’t like it, then I wasn’t going to worry about it. I could work alone.  Around that time, someone gave me a script to read.  I looked at it and thought that it was the worst thing I had ever read in my life. But as time went on, it grew on me and I said, “Ok, let’s do it.”  We did have a problem though. Neither of us had any experience.  I was just a beginner and had only the passion of a novice to guide me. We read and studied the script for six months and then we finally gave up. Over those seven years I would often start projects only to abandon them before they got off the ground. Those seven years were a really long, hard time for me. Finally, though, I was able to put together my current team and make <The Greatest Expectation>. The original idea belongs to producer Song. I wrote the first draft along with Kim Hyeon-cheol who gave me the nickname ‘Booting Diskette’, and the screenplay was completed by brothers Lee Won-hyeong and Lee Won-jae.

Was it possible to live like that for seven years?

Absolutely. I had only bus fare in my pocket during two of those years. I starved all morning until I made my daily trek down to the Chungmuro movie studios. I would be so hungry but I couldn’t say anything directly. If my stomach rumbled and made noises I would laugh and say “What is wrong with my stomach.”  I survived this time only because I had no shame. One of the good points about Chungmuro is that there are many places where you can drink soju at night.  I ate more of the sidedishes that came with the soju than I did rice.  Alcohol became my staple. I lived like a drifter. Then one day, a friend told me that he was going on a backpacking trip to India. He asked if I could watch his house for him. So, I was able to stay at his house on top of a mountain. His original plan was to stay three months but then it became six months. I told him to take his time and come back whenever he wanted.  Finally he returned after a one year trip. Once while I was staying there and very hungry, I found a package of ramen noodles.  I boiled the water to cook the noodles and when they were ready, I just sucked them right down without even chewing. After finishing I was still hungry. I had so many difficulties at that time.   When I left there I went to live with my good friends Hae-seong and Kim Hae-gon. Hae-gon and I couldn’t be closer than if we were real brothers. We used to try to get jobs together. After Hye-seong left to make the movie Failan, the two of us continue to rent a room together.

So you’re not married yet?

Married? What are you talking about? I can’t afford to fall in love. In the 37 years that I have been alive, do you know how much money I’ve saved? All together about 1 million 500 thousand won. How can I get married on that?

Then let’s try talking about The Greatest Expectation. Tell me about the casting.

Actually, I didn’t handle that part of the project. That was done by Kim Tae-gu, director of <The Last Defense> and <Emergency 19>. How could I be entrusted with casting after I had failed so many times? Anyway, I was finishing up on the script and everything was moving so fast. At first, we thought Im Chang-jeong and Kim Jeong-eun would be best as the leads.  They are respected actors. We sent the scenario first to Chang-jeong and he agreed to do it immediately but he had one requirement. He wanted us to contact a large distribution company so we got in touch with CJ Entertainment.  Within a day after sending them the scenario, CJ agreed to handle distribution.  The company also suggested Kim Seon-a as the lead actress.  I have to admit that she has a very different image than what I expected. When we met to discuss a contract, I saw how thin she had become.  Afterwards, I sat down with the other writers, Won-heong and Won-jae to discuss what kind of humorous defect we could bring to her character. We wanted to make it something that the audience would feel comfortable with. What was there about Kim Seon-a?  Then it hit me.  We could compare her mouth with a butthole and once we give her that image it would be fixed in the minds of the audience.  Seon-a accepted the suggestion without protest and you can find these comparisons here and there in the movie.

It was funny when Kim Seon-a’s mouth was compared with an anus– and her acting in that regard was quite natural.

The movie was funny on that point. Even though I’m the director, I would often have to re-shoot a scene because I was laughing too hard.  We made a lot of bloopers but I never lost my temper with the staff. Then there was Seon-a’s first scene where Mi-yeong was eating noodles in the comic book shop.  It reminded me of that pizza commercial that she had made so I said to her let’s make this scene like the pizza ad. I told her to eat all the noodles at once and then realize that they are too hot so you spit them all out. So that’s how we shot the scene and we did it in one take.  It was as if she had been practicing it for a long time.  From then on, Seon-a was the mood-maker on the set.  If you’ve ever made a film, you know that most of the staff are embarrassed while they are acting, but while making this film, we all laughed all the time.  Actually, I think that sound is more important than image.  I spent about sixty percent of the time not watching the monitor and only listening to the scene.  That is especially true of the scene at Hwang’s house where Im Chang-jeong’s character Chang-shik goes to look for Mi-yeong.  I was seated far away and only listening to it through the headphones. The sound was wonderful. It was going so well. But at the end of the scene we made a mistake. So we shot four more takes and finally on the fifth take we got it sounding the same as the first. I asked Seon-a, “What do you think?” and she said “Isn’t it the same as the first one?” So I said, “Ok, let’s go with this one.”  Seon-a looks as though she doesn’t know what’s going on, but inside she is aware of everything.  Chang-jeong is really smart.  I often let him adlib his lines.  Not only him, but also Kim Su-mi and some of the other actors.  They did a great job. I don’t think that a director necessarily has to give directions, he just has to do the preparations.

I heard that over the course of the shooting, Chang-shik’s character changed from how he was originally written.

That’s right.  I had no idea that Chang-jeong would do such I good job. I didn’t expect it.  But he gave me the form and style I was looking for.  There was no huge differences but as things went on, we would have to make changes, it was often Chang-jeong who carried us through. He frequently helped Seon-a too when she was having a difficult time with her lines or acting. On the other hand, when a scene required sensitive emotions, Seon-a would take the lead.  In fact, there was a lot of give and take on the set of this movie and that is the way a good movie gets made. Through striking a balance between each others strengths and weaknesses.  There was one time when Seon-a was saying all her lines through clenched teeth. I thought she had gone crazy and asked what the problem was. It turned out that she was pretty sick and had to spend some time in the hospital.  The filming schedule ran pretty late because of her.  Honestly though, while their were many trying times on the set, they only made me appreciate when things went well.

As the director, you must have been pretty worried while you were filming.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t.  I don’t think I can be nervous. Some people ask me about my impression after returning to films after a seven year absence.  I tell them that I don’t worry about it.  Before the press screening, none of the staff were able to sleep except me. I slept soundly.  I remember though that I got into a fight in my dream.  I think I am unable to be nervous because of the way I lived my life during the previous seven years.  Did you hear what I said after the preview?  I told the reporters, “Please don’t curse me, I did my best.” That means, “I really did my freaking best and if you say anything bad about this movie, I’ll kill you!”  That’s what I meant.

Are any of Chang-shik’s episodes from your experiences when you were unemployed?

Yes. Of course they are.  You remember the scene where Chang-shik is going to collect the reward but in the morning he finds that his bags have disappeared. I had that same experience and some of what he says is exactly what I said.  Not only Chang-shik. There is some of me in his brother, Chang-hun.  So I said at that time, “Today I am Chang-hun, tomorrow I will be Chang-shik.” Actually this movie, there is not supposed to be a cross-section of an unemployed man. It is a movie which everyone can identify with.

I think this breaks a lot of the stereotypes found in other romantic comedies

I don’t think there is anything special about breaking out of a genre. A genre is just a kind of rule. It’s very easy to break. Just jump that wall and go the opposite direction. But I guess that most people have difficulty in doing that so you get a lot of stereotypes in a genre. A nice thing about genres is that they come in and out of fashion. If you like a certain genre, don’t worry, it will probably be back soon.

I heard that you originally didn’t like comedies.

I really love tear-jerking melodramas.  However, the popular idea about movies are that they are entertainment.  I was able to play around a lot in this movie.  For example, we did a scene where we placed actress Jo Mi-ryeong on a rolling board and pulled her across the set as Seon-a looked in a mirror as a spoof of many horror films. I asked my cinematographer if it was ok to pull off a joke like that and he said it was no problem.  That made me happy.  I was very lucky that I was able to work with many experienced people whom I respect and they all taught me a lot. Actually, the laughs in this film don’t come from outright comedy, but from the situation.  We all felt a strong conviction that was the way to go.

So if <The Greatest Expectation> goes well, you will be getting a lot of money?

Huh? I will just be getting a director’s fee.  If I have a little extra, then I will give it to help out other newcomers who want to break into the industry.  I didn’t get that kind of help.  First of all, though, I will change my apartment and get out of that small rental I have now.  And of course, a director’s job is not steady work so I should save something for my old age.



(1) Park Shin-yang is now an actor and has made such films as <White Valentine> and <The Univited>

(2) The application fee was about 8 US dollars.

(3) All Korean men are required to serve approximately two years in the military unless excused for health reasons. While there is some flexibility as to when, most men serve when they reach 21 years old which generally requires them to take a leave of absence from college between their sophomore and junior years.

(4) Shamans are mystics who can communicate with the dead, tell fortunes, and perform a wide variety of ceremonies to appease the spirit world.  An excellent explanation of shamanism can be found in the documentary <Mudang: Reconciliation Between The Living And The Dead> available on DVD with English subtitles.

I should really thank my friend, Jin Yoon-seok, whom I remember as patiently answering all of my questions about grammar, idioms and vocabulary.

Posted in Directors, Interviews | Comments Off

The Evergreen Tree (1961)

10th January 2010

evergreen treeOriginally posted April 18, 2009–There is no denying that the late Shin Sang-ok was one of the best and most important directors during Korean cinema’s  ’Golden Age’. His works such as The Red Muffler, Mother and the Houseguest and The Thousand Year Old Fox. At a time when the Korean film industry became mired in cookie-cutter melodramas due to government control, Shin was able to continue to create excellent works that would draw international attention. The Evergreen Tree screened as part of a retrospective at the 53rd Cannes International Film Festival and, at the time of its release, won numerous awards. It was also released in the late 80s on video as part of the Shin Sang-ok collection which included the movies listed above. However, the Evergreen Tree was not included in the recently released DVD set of Shin’s works. After re-watching the film last night, I can understand why it was passed up–at least for now.

The film is set in the 1920s when Korea was under the colonial rule of Japan. Yeong-shin (played by the Choi Eun-hee–Shin Sang-ok’s wife) and Dong-hyeok (Shin Yeong-gyun) graduate from college with a cause. They plan to bring education and modernization to farmers living in the rural area of their birth. When they arrive, the pair immediately gets to work, Dong-hyeok builds a village hall and starts aiding the farmers while Yeong-shin tries to gather the children to form a school. However, the villagers at first resent and resist the pair. It is not until one child, Ok-bun, takes the inititive and and learns to read under Yeong-shin’s care that the villages trust the pair and allow their children to be taken from the fields and taught reading, writing and math.

As their success grows, the pair comes under scrutiny by the Japanese officials and their supporters in the area. Dong-hyeok is arrested and Yeong-shin is forbiddent to have more than 30 students in the village hall she has been using for teaching.  Truthfully, the hall she has been using is too small and the officials were not entirely in the wrong in limiting her class size.  Yeong-shin begins construction of a school building on her own and soon has the entire community pitching in. They complete the school in time for Dong-hyeok’s return. However, exhausted from the work and the stress, Yeong-shin collapses and dies leaving Dong-hyeok to carry on her work alone.

This is definitely NOT my favorite work of Shin. The story strikes me far too much of being like the ‘New Village’ propaganda even this film was made just before that policy officially began. However, the film was popular enough to spawn a remake directed by Im Kwon-taek in 1978 and the film, Viva the Island Frogs (1972) borrows heavily from this movie as well although no credit is given to the writers of Evergreen Tree. For me, the saving grace of this film is the acting. Choi Eun-hee delivers the performance of her life as the impassioned Yeong-shin and she fairly glows while she is delivering her lines. The ever-present Heo Jang-kang and Do Geum-bong appear and it was nice seeing them in roles where they were not the villains of the piece. Shin Seong-il also appears in this film and is many scenes, but usually in the background. It was still early in his career and he did not yet have the star power that he would later acquire so most of his scenes in this film are non-speaking parts.

If this film were to be released on DVD, I would not pass it up. However there are many more movies I would select before this one.

Posted in 1960s, Review | Comments Off

Dolai (1985)

10th January 2010

dolaiOriginally posted April 23, 2009–There are certain things I refuse to do. One of these things is to call the movie Dolai by its original English title of Crazy Boy. It cheapens the movie a little in my opinion. Even worse however is the strange English title the Korean Film Archives is choosing to use for this movie, Imbecile.  There is no basis for calling this film by a new English name, when it already has one! The IMDb says this film was also known as ‘The Fool’ which it wasn’t…ever. The Fool is the other random name that the Archives was calling this film until a few months ago.  I think the original Korean name, Dolai, works just fine and that is what I will call the movie throughout this  review.  Dolai is the representative action film of the 1980s, spawning three sequels, one each year following the release of the first and ending with Dolai 4: Dune Buggy in 1988.  The success of the movies can almost entirely be credited to lead actor Jeon Yeong-rok and his portrayal of the title character.  Jeon, still famous and active today as a singer, has the acting chops to carry the scimpy plot of the film and make it worth watching.  The action in the movie draws heavily from the fighting style of Jackie Chan–although the fights are not choreographed quite as well as a Chan film.

Although he is the star and the focal point of the film, Jeon receives sixth billing in the original cast lists. Ahead of him are the members of all-women singing group he manages, Thriller. Most of the members of the group treat him with very little respect, using him to carry and fetch for them as the hurry off to different venues to perform. However, although they are busy, they recognize the fact that they are just a third rate band and often wonder how they can break out of the rut they are in. Some blame the fact that they have no money–that it takes money to make money. Others blame their manager, Hwang Seok-ah whom they have nicknamed Dolai–which means someone who is foolish in Korean. One member, Hyeon-ju, just thinks they should work harder. She may be right. All the women, except for Hyeon-ju, are more interested in catching rich men for themselves than they are in a career in the music industry. This causes no end of trouble for Dolai who acts as their human chastity belt.

Whether they know it or not, Dolai is the groups protector.  And he not only protects Thriller. Dolai is willing to risk his life for anyone who has suffered an injustice. One of the women chides him and accuses him of thinking he is Superman whenever he comes back from a fight. But even though Dolai comes back bloodied and bruised, he always seems to win. Dolai inherited that characteristic from his father, a policeman on the force who was killed in the line of duty. At time he does carry this to the extreme, but he takes great pride in acting as the group’s ‘mother hen’ and Lord help any who would harm them.

It seems that the members of Thriller are constantly stalked by danger and actually do need Dolai’s protection. Thugs at a bus stop, pickpockets, perverts, burgalars and corrupt bar owners are among the minor dangers they face daily. More dangerous are the drug runners, rapists and the men who want to enslave the girls as prostitutes.  When the unthinkable happens and Dolai fails to protect one of his charges, she is drugged and brutally gang-raped. Afterwards, still in shock, the young woman attempts suicide. This seems to spell the end of the band. The members go their separate ways and Dolai takes a job as a mechanic. But there is still a chance that the team may be brought back together and unite to face the forces that have gathered against them.

Dolai is not a bad film. It does suffer from a few technical problems–such as absolutely no consideration for whether it was day or night when the film was edited together (this is especially evident in the events leading to the final confrontation–How long were they riding the motorcycle?)  It also suffers in its ‘action’ sequences, particularly when vehicles are being used. Car chases are way overused in many American films and tv shows–they were not as common in Korean movies particularly in this period, but director Lee Doo-yong tried. However, there is nothing thrilling about car chases and accidents when they seem to happen at 10 miles and hour.  The same can be said for dirt bike battles.  But these are minor points and I could enjoy the film despite these problems.  But there is a bigger one. Leering Camera syndrome.  The camera is angled in such a way as to be looking directly into the actresses crotches or straight at their asses–and it is done in a very uncomfortable style. It forces the audience to do the very action that Dolai punishes characters in the film for doing.  There are several scenes like this–the worst is when a burgalar breaks into the house where the woman are sleeping. Presumably the thief is rummaging throught draws and closets, however the camera ignores him and instead slides up the inner thighs of each sleeping woman and lingers on their panty clad bodies. What comes next with the long kitchen knife makes this scene even worse (even though the slumbering woman is rescued in time)  There is no nudity but I would be surprised if the actresses didn’t feel violated.  I felt violated just watching it…

With the suicide of young television actress Jang Ja-yeon back in March of this year, Dolai once again seems topical. In the movie, the owner of the club where the girls are singing approaches their manager with a proposition. If one the members of Thriller sleeps with him, then the club will help promote the band and make them stars. In her suicide note, Jang explained pretty much the same thing happened to her except her manager pimped her out rather than beating up the man who made such an offensive offer.

Dolai is available on DVD with English subtitles but it is a movie that is definitely not for everyone. If you are used to watching older Korean movies and are aware that the pacing and techinical factors of filmmaking were not at the standards of today, then you may enjoy the story and acting despite significant problems of the film. It is not a film I would recommend as a ‘must see’  movie but it was important at the time it was released and remains a good example of Korean action films of the 1980s.

Posted in 1980s, Review | Comments Off

Modern Boy (2008)

10th January 2010

modern boyOriginally posted April 26, 2009–I was really expecting to like this movie. It has two actors I really enjoy watching (Park Hae-il and Kim Hye-soo), it was directed by a man with a track record for making good films (Jeong Ji-woo of Happy End and Boy With a Knapsack from If You Were Me 2) and it is set in a time period that I usually find very interesting. Unfortunately, it is the story that ultimately brings this movie down and, while I don’t regret watching it, the movie cannot be considered more than a pleasant waste of time. It definitely will not leave a last impression once I stop trying to figure out the gaping plot holes that really have no explanation.

The story revolves around the self-proclaimed ‘god of romance’ Lee Hae-myeong (Park Hae-il). Lee s living the high life in 1937. He is a collaborator, working with the Japanese Colonial Government as a City Planner. He also helps his father earn a small fortune by supplying him with insider tips for land speculation. With his powerful friend Shinsuke (Kim Nam-gil), Lee knows that he lives and mingles among the richest and most influential people in Korea.

One night, while entertaining Shinsuke, Lee is introduced to a singer named ‘Laura’ (Kim Hye-soo).  Hae-myeong falls for her at first sight. Using a complex scheme which involves kidnapping her manager/cousin, Lee is able to ingratiate his way into her life. He works his way into her affection well enough so that even when his deception is discovered, Laura, whose real name is Cho Nam-shil, still agrees to be with him. In the morning, she packs a lunch for him and sends him off to work in the government building. Later that same day, an explosion rocks the building which Lee soon learns was centered in his office and the remains of his lunch box seemed to have been the source.

Hurrying home to find all of his expensive clothes have been stolen, Hae-yeong  is off on an extended search for Nam-shil, now using the names Natasha and the-voice-of-Yoko. This brings him into conflict with both the Korean Independence Army and Japanese police who come to suspect that Lee has met Nam-shil husband, ‘Terror Park’ whom they believe responsible for a deadly terrorist attack in Shanghai.  He tracks down Nam-shil who denies that she had anything to do with the explosion and apologizes for selling his clothes claiming that she had no choice. He takes her home again prior to his being arrested by police and when he returns later that day, he finds all his belongs missing.

Supposedly, Hae-myeong’s actions in the film are to show how much he loves Nam-shil. In fact, they only serve to prove how gullible and foolish he is. That he would fall for her charms once is easy to believe. That he would be tricked twice is impossible.  Also, we asked to believe Lee’s transformation into a patriotic freedom fighter. At one point in the film he mentions that he had always dreamed of being Japanese because of the wealth he associated with them. Afterwards, it seems at every point in the movie, including the end, that he would throw his newfound patriotism away to live quietly in another country with Nam-shil as his wife.  A scene at the end has Lee ‘remembering’ a conversation with Nam-shil in which he professes that he wishes to see Korea free as well. However, this does not fit into the continuity of the film and is more likely a fantasy discussion which helps Lee rationalize his current situation.

The script also asks us to believe that Nam-shil eventually falls in love with Hae-myeong. I found that equally implausible. She is a woman possessed by her cause. He is a pleasure loving simpleton. Her apology to him for putting a bomb in his lunch rings hollow: “After you left for work with the lunchbox, I regretted that all I would be to you was a bad memory.” Excuse me?  If the bomb had worked as she planned, he would be dead!

As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest problems with this movie were the plot holes. Chief among these is why Shinsuke set his friend up with a woman he believes to be the wife of a terrorist? Their friendship is extremely close. It seems to me that if the purpose was to seduce ‘Laura’ for information on her husband, Hae-myeong would have done it for the asking.  It would have made for a more believable, and more interesting movie. And did Shinsuke forget that he was the one who introduced them? Why did he act as he did in the prison? The whole interrogation sequence was hard to swallow.

The acting in this film is very good and the sets are extremely well made. However, the movie itself was fairly forgettable. Watch it if you can, just don’t go in expecting too much. 2 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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Coma 1: Birthday Party (2005)

10th January 2010

coma 1Originally posted May 17, 2009–In 2006, the Jeonju International Film Festival screened a five-part film entitled Coma. Although produced by OCN-TV and Sio to air on television later that year, the festival’s directors felt it worthy of showing as part of their Korean Cinema on the Move section.  The project was overseen by director Kong Su-chang (R-Point, GP-506) who also directed the first and final chapters, Birthday Party, Doctor Jang Seo-Won).  The second chapter was directed by Jo Gyu-ok (who has only done short films to date). The third, Necklace, by Yoo Joon-seok (Invisible 1–a short film) and the fourth chapter, Crimson Red, by Kim Jeong-gu, original author of Resurrection of the Little Match Girl, comprise the other 50-minutes chapters of the film.

Birthday Party opens with terrified members of the hospital staff trying to prevent a wall from being taken down. The wall reveals a sealed room. Although the demolition crew seem unimpressed by the dusty operating room they find behind it, the nurse is clearly terrified and hurridly backs out of the hall. The other member of the hospital staff shakily re-attaches a paper charm meant to keep ghosts at bay to the bed. As he leaves, he sees something that sends him screaming from the building shouting “They opened the room! It’s still alive! It’s alive!”   All-in-all a very effective beginning that sets a creepy atmosphere.

The man’s hystronics are witnessed by insurance representative Yoon Yeong. She has come there to oversee the transfer of a coma patient, So-hee, unclaimed by relatives. The insurance company has been paying for her care as whatever happened to to So-hee was said to be the hospital’s fault. However, with the hospital closing, the obligation of the insurance company has come to an end.  Yoon Yeong visits the patient and cross-references the hospital records and discovers several discrepencies that get her very suspicious as to the identity of the coma patient.

Ten years earlier, Yoon Yeong’s sister Hye-yeong disappeared from the same hospital. Numerous flashbacks reveal that Yeong was partially responisble for the disappearance and during the times she was with her sister, Yeong was downright cruel. In her defense, Yeong was just a child and behaved selfishly as children do. However, the vengenful spirit haunting the deserted hospital walls does not agree that Yeong was not to blame. Left alone in the empty building, Yeong experiences terror like she has never known as something tries to help her celebrate her birthday.

The Birthday Party is an interesting chapter and can be watched as a movie unto itself even as it sets up mysteries to be explored by later chapters.. Kong Su-chang’s characteristic time-jumping flashbacks, seen in both of his feature length films, are prominent here and cause may cause some confusion–especially in the scene where Yeong is locked in the empty morgue–but it all sorts itself out. 

Coming next: Coma 2: Crack

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Coma 2: Crack (2005)

10th January 2010

coma 2Originally posted May 17, 2009–The mystery continues. Previously we witnessed the events leading up to the disappearance of Hye-yeong. At the start of the chapter, we witnessed demolition and salvage workers opening up a mysterious sealed room in the basement of the hospital. In the second chapter we are witness to a horrific tragedy that occured therein and how events in the past are related to the future.

Nurse Kang, who had little if anything to do in the first chapter, is the focus of this film. She knows  a lot about the workings of the hospital. For example, she knows that the director of the hospital is addicted to morphine. She knows where he keeps a great deal of money. She knows that she has handsome doctor Jang under her thumb as long as she keeps his secrets. And she knows that his patient, So-hee is standing in her way.

As in the first film, there are many flashbacks. Nurse Kang’s flashback’s reveal that she was part of a coverup that partially explains the fate of Hye-yeong.  The girl was discovered, already bloodied (how?–that is not yet revealed) and Kang rushes her to the operating theater, assuring the still-conscious girl that everything is going to be ok. When next she enters the theater, the young nurse Kang is horrified to see the un-anesthesized child screaming in terror and pain as a fountain of blood erupts from her stomach. The hospital director and Dr. Jang are present and it is strongly implied that the director’s drug use is responsible for the accident. Kang wraps the girl’s body, clothes, and a creepy laughing doll in plastic and gives them to the strange old janitor Choi for disposal. What she does not know is that the girl is still alive and calls out to Choi to save her. Nor does she know that the scary doll will be making appearnace again..and again..and again.

The knowledge that Hye-yeong survived leads us to believe what most viewers of chapter one may have already suspected, that coma patient So-hee is actually Hye-yeong. But it does seem to be so simple.  Something has been freed from the hospital basement when the seal was cracked (hence the title of this film). There is a brief glimpse of an experiment being conducted on So-hee by Dr. Jang in which he tells her that he is sending her “to Heaven again and this time she must tell him what it is like when she returns.!”  There is another mystery as well. Insurance agent Yeong discovers that a settlement was paid on her sister–something she had never heard about. Had her debt-ridden mother simply taken the money and agreed to keep quiet, or did someone else file a claim on her sister and take the money?

In the present, Kang views the re-opened room in horror. We can also see that the protective shields written on paper are not only on the bed as we saw in the first movie, but are on all the walls and the remaining equipment as well. Kang backs out of the room as the papers flutter from the walls and she knows that she is not alone. Although we cannot know for certain yet, it seems possible that on one of her trips to the afterlife, ‘So-hee’ brought something back with her.

Although scared of what is now lurking the hospital, Kang knows exactly where she is going to place the blame–on So-hee. For being one of the hospital’s darkest secrets, for driving a wedge between the nurse and her lover, and for being responsible for whatever is now haunting her, Nurse Kang decides to end it. Filling syringe after syringe with various drugs, she pumps the comatose patient–but if you think that is the end of So-hee, keep watching. Apparently, she has been dead before–why should an overdose stop her now?

Unlike Chapter I, the Birthday Party, Chapter 2 cannot be watched on its own. Nor is it as atmospheric as the first. Nevertheless, it does a good job in answering some questions left dangling in Chapter 1 but with solutions that leave even bigger questions. I am now looking forward to Chapter 3: The Necklace

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Coma 3: The Necklace (2005)

10th January 2010

coma 3Im Won-hee, star of The Cut and Dajjimawa Lee, leads the cast in The Necklace, the third chapter of the Coma omnibus.  He is the police detective assigned many years ago to the case of the missing Hye-yeong. During that time he has been carrying  the girl’s necklace around calling it his cash card.  Clearly he has been blackmailing the hospital’s director.

At the start of this chapter, he gets a call from the director but when he arrives at the hospital, he discovers that the man is dead. Sensibly he calls the police and locks up the hospital so no one can get in or out. He did this because he met a crazy woman in the hall who warns him to leave the hospital before it is too late. Now he wants to find her. Not so-sensibly he ties up the receptionist, the only other person who knows the director’s dead.

Searching the hospital, he finds a bloody scalpal, probaby used to kill the director alongside the bed of the coma patient. The scalpals belong to Dr. Jang and the detective’s mind puts together a plausible scenario where Jang could have killed the director after an argument they had earlier in the day (as we see in the Birthday Party).  However, now he finds himself in a bit of a dilemna. If he arrests the doctor, he will reveal the coverup from long ago. Instead he decides that Jang will be his new ‘client’ and cut him a deal. However, upon closer investigation of the fingerprints, he notices a cut on the tip that he also noticed on the comatose patient…

A flashback now takes us to ten years earlier. We learn that what happened to Hye-sook between being lost by her sister and found by the nurse.  We also learn that the detective had no clear evidence of a crime. He was just blackimailing on a hunch.  He is awakened from his memories by his daughter calling him.  With his daughter threatened, he is movied to action.  He sees the girls struck by a car as she flees the hospital grounds. Trying to get his daughter to safety, he finds that they cannot escape the first floor–their elevator goes up–but comes right back down. About to give up, the dark elevator opens behind him .

 Of course, his daughter is not really there and all his actions have succeeded in doing is bringing one of the characters back into the hospital.

Overall, this is the most disappointing of the chapters so far. The first two did a good job setting things up and building a sense of mystery. Here, while we solve one small mystery, there is nothing new added.  No new sense of menace–in fact, the menace and supernatural atmosphere built in the first two installments are actually decreased in this chapter as we get the feeling there is a more human element involved. Perhaps this is because the main character is a very practical man, not given to flights of fantasy about ghosts and spirits nor even considering for a minute that the unmoving patient upstairs could be responible for what is happening.

I’m hoping that this was just a fluke and the atmosphere of the first two chapters can be recaptured in chapter 4: Crimson Red

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Coma 4: Crimson Red (2005)

10th January 2010

coma 4Ha! Remember how I complained about how the pragmatic view of the policeman seemed to drag the story away from the supernatural. Well, this chapter brings the story back into the realm of ghosts with a vengeance. We are introduced to Hong-ah, an artist who sees visions of ghosts as part of her daily life. She wear headphones to avoid hearing them. She wears sunglasses and keeps her head down to avoid seeing them. But it is not enough. One particular ghost has been reaching out… her with the plea of “Kill me.”

Perhaps I should rephrase what I said earlier. We are not introduced to Hong-ah here. She was the crazy woman who warned the detective out of the hospital…a warning he ignored. She arrives at the hospital and begins wandering around the building allowing her sensitive nature to guide her. Spooky music follows her every move, but nothing reaches out to harm her..perhaps because she is the first one to come with good intentions towards So-hee.  Or perhaps it is because she was smart enough to come in the middle of the day…

To my absolute surprise, I learned that my theory about So-hee being Hye-yeong seems to be wrong. Hong-ah new her when she was younger. The accident that sent So-hee into a coma came when she was trying to cross the street to visit Hong-ah–who witnessed it out the windown and did nothing to help her this young woman who wanted to be friends…

She now realizes that So-hee wants to be disconnected from the life support and her please are becoming more desperate. Added to the mix now are the ghosts of the hospital director who just tells Hong-ah to go and the little girl Hye-yeong who proves that she really doesn’t care who she takes her wrath out on–although in her haunting of Hong-ah, it seems not to be motivated by malice.

Hong-ah makes her way back to So-hee’s room to see the mess left behind by Nurse Kang’s attack. She starts to trail the bloody footprints hoping to discover her friend. Unfortunately, what she finds is quite terrifying–I swear I’m going to have nightmares after watching this bizarre scene. I’m not really sure what is happening–or why it’s happening, but I am sure it will be explained.  But first we get another flashback…

Dr Jang is forcing the weakened So-hee to tell him about her near-death experience and what she saw on the other side. She tells him about what might have been Heaven but she is too feeble to speak for long. The doctor takes her to the basement operating room to perform an experiment to end her life and then pull her back one again so he can learn more about what happens after death. He does this not through an injection but by draining all the blood from her body. He leaves her like that for a full minute before reintroducing the blood to her system. Something goes wrong–she does not wake up.

Well, so much for my theory that So-hee brought something back from the afterlife. Before going under for the final time, So-hee sees a ghost in the operating room but the ending of this film makes it clear.  Whoever is inhabiting So-hee’s body after Nurse Kang poisoned it is clearly NOT So-hee. Hong-ah gives us the evidence we need to make that deduction.

Chapter 5: Doctor Jang Seo-Won will conclude the series.

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Coma 5: Doctor Jang Seo-won (2005)

10th January 2010

coma 5Originally posted May 17, 2009–This is the final chapter of a five part series. If you are reading this after all the reviews have been posted, you might want to go down and start with episode one.  There are some spoilers in these but I am trying to avoid ruining the film for anyone who decides they want to track down the DVDs.

We learn more about what Doctor Jang was up to in this episode. He seems less like a lunatic now than an obsessed researcher…what we might have called a ‘mad scientist’ if this was a B-movie. He doesn’t believe that So-hee saw heaven when she had her near-death experience. He believes it was a chemical reaction in her brain to take away pain and erase her fear of dying. If he can find which chemicals are responsible then he can administer it to terminal patients. His plan would “allow one to see heaven without having to die.”  Well…it’s good to have a goal in life…

Jang experiences a mnor haunting in his car that somehow makes him wind up back at the hospital again and sends him back into several flashbacks of how various patients started seeing an angry ghost in his operating room and how the hospital staff held a failed exorcism to drive the spirit away. As a last recourse, they seal the operating theater.

Jang walks through the hospital and discovers the unconscious Yeong, from the first chapter.  The man we saw in his own memories with noble causes disappears and the Dr. Jang we see in Chapter 4 returns in full lunatic mode.  Yeong, who has finally discovered in full detail what has happened to her sister, must avoid both the doctor and the thing haunting the hospital if she is to survive.

Conclusions to horror films are often disappointing, especially ones that succeed in building up a good story with so much potential. However, in the final chapter, all the potential is lost. It falls into pretty much a standard horror/serial killer format. Even worse, chunks of film involving the ghost of Hye-yeong could have been swiped frame for frame from either Ring or Juon–for about fifteen minutes I could have sworn that I was watching one or the other of those films. Sorry Director Kong, I saw those films already. They were scary once–but not rehashed.

What a shame–The first two episodes are quite good. The third took a different tone, but in its own way was not bad. Episode four gave us a ghost back but somehow, with the revelations about Dr Jang in that film, limited the outcome of the final. I personally think that my earlier idea that he was experimenting with the afterlife ala Jacob’s Ladder, might have been more interesting.   A disappointing, predictable end what could have been a good story..

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Director Hwang Hye-mi

9th January 2010

hwang hye-miOriginally posted August 15, 2007–Hwang Hye-mi was not the first woman to direct Korean films. That distiction belongs to Park Nam-ok who debuted in 1954. Nor was she the second. That position is taken by Hong Eun-won who began making films in 1962. The third female director of Korean films would be the famous actress Choi Eun-hee who was also married to director Shin Sang-ok.  No, Hwang Hye-mi was the fourth woman to debut as a director in Korea with her film First Experience in 1970.

Hwang Hye-mi was born on August 6, 1932 in Seoul. She majored in French Literature at Seoul National University and after graduating went to Paris to study at the University of Sorbonne.  Upon returning to Korea, she and her husband Kim Dong-soo established to Bohan Corporation for Film Production which produced many great films such as Kim Soo-yong’s Mist (1967) and Kim Seung-ok’s Potato (1968).  Later, she also worked as a screenwriter on Im Kwon-taek’s Don’t Torture Me Anymore! (1971).

However, before that she made her directorial debut with the melodrama First Experience (1970).  It was the story of a young college dropout who meets a middle-aged man on a plane.  The two of them hit it off and the young woman finds herself falling in love only to learn that the man has a wife.  The heroine in this film is strong enough to break off their relationship and chalk it up to experience rather than wallow in self pity. Director Hwang not only directed this film but also wrote the screenplay and produced it.

Following this movie, she directed When Flowers Sadly Fade Away in 1971 and Relationships in 1972.  Both of these films are melodramas. When Flowers Sadly Fade Away was an overwrought melodrama fairly typical of the times in which a poor orphan, working in the home of a wealthy widower, transforms his selfish family into caring, happy people and falls in love with her employer even while she is slowly dying of some debilitating disease.  Relationships has her main character being raped by her employer. Afterwards, she meets a young man whom she trusts enough to fall in love with only to discover that he is the son of her rapist.

Although she was praised for her efforts on First Experience, winning an award for Best New Director, she stopped taking part in filmmaking. This was because of the times she was living in. Government control of the film industry was at its strongest and making movies was like pouring money into a hole.  Hwang Hye-mi made no other movies after 1972.

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