This weekend, after what seems like roughly a decade of delays, rumors, teases, announcements, retractions and general bloviating, Bong Joon-ho’s anxiously awaited “Snowpiercer” hits screens. Of course it seems like years, but it was in fact “only” last October, after its South Korean August bow, that the film snuck out in France (from where we reviewed it), after which it rolled out in Asia, Western and Eastern Europe, and you know, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Pakistan before finally coming to the U.S., marking one of the stranger international release strategies for a genre picture starring a recognizable American action star in recent memory. Might it be the only Chris Evans film ever to open in Mongolia three months before the U.S.?
Of course, we’re being a little facetious: “Snowpiercer” may indeed feature Captain America (along with Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer and John Hurt among the more familiar faces), but it’s hardly a Chris Evans vehicle. In fact, it’s probable that its surface similarity to an easy-to-market popcorn flick (Hollywood star, comic book provenance, high-concept sci-fi) proved one of the contributing factors to the confusion and prevarication around its release: as any of us who’ve seen it can attest, it is definitively not a straight-up popcorn flick, and it’s possible that the Weinsteins envisaged flaming torches and pitchforks from irate moviegoers raging that they’d been sold an arthouse experiment under the guise of a sci-fi blockbuster. Because it really is very weird — in a way that will delight cinephiles, but that may well leave more mainstream audiences scratching their heads. So it is probably about right that it’s opening limited (and thankfully — or perhaps not — uncut), that “Transformers: Bombastic Subtitle” will siphon off the majority of of the “WTF dude?” brigade and that the name above the marquee is most definitely that of its Korean director, Bong Joon-ho.
Bong already has an international profile, mainly based on the breakout arthouse success of the equally odd, genre-fusing mindfuck that was “The Host” (not to be confused with last year’s terrible Saoirse Ronan YA adaptation unless joyless timesucks are your thing). But he is also part of a generation of Korean directors (at this point almost exclusively male, at least those who have found a measure of international distribution, though 2013's Busan Film Festival did spotlight several first-time female directors so hopefully some green shoots there) who came of age just as newly democratic South Korea started to blossom culturally and artistically. Bringing both a broad appreciation of genre cinema and a uniquely Korean perspective, along with poster child Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”), Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo, Kim Ki-duk and Kim Ji-woon, Bong is at the forefront of the so-called Korean New Wave (which also spawned adorable neologism “Hallyuwood” with “Hallyu” roughly translating as “flow from Korea”), which was seeded in the mid-90s but really started to thrive, and to gain international recognition in the 00s. More recently, as “Snowpiercer,” Park Chan-wook’s “Stoker” Kim Ji-woon's English-language debut "The Last Stand" and last year’s “Oldboy” remake prove, Hollywood has caught the K-wave bug, so for those of you who are wondering where to begin, here’s a handy starter pack of 10 films, featuring all the aforementioned directors, and those titles of theirs we feel can give the best overview of the thriving and ever-expanding Korean New Wave.
“A Tale Of Two Sisters” (2003)
With a more immediately commercial sensibility than some of his contemporaries, it made sense that Kim Ji-Woon would be the first of the Korean New Wave filmmakers to head to Hollywood, with last year’s underrated Arnie-starring actioner “The Last Stand.” As fun as that film was, it wasn’t unfiltered Kim, and while some would have picked out “A Bittersweet Life” or “The Good, The Bad & The Weird,” we’d favor “A Tale Of Two Sisters,” probably the definitive contemporary Korean horror movie, as one of his most complete and satisfying works to date. Riffing on a famous, much-filmed folk story called “Rose Flower and Red Lotus,” and initially seeming to be taking some visual cues from the run of J-horror like “The Ring” and “The Grudge” that had been so popular a few years before, Kim’s film seemingly centers on a pair of sisters, Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) and Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young) who find reason to be suspicious of their new stepmother (Yeom Jeong-ah), their late mother’s former nurse after Su-mi begins suffering from terrifying visions. But as ever, things are more complicated: this isn’t a simple murder mystery or ghost tale (though it’s effective as both), but a first-rate Kubrick-remakes-”Haesu” mindfuck that lingers not so much over what you can see (though there are some horrifying sights there), but on what’s happening just on the other side of frame. The film isn’t well suited for the more ADD horror-fan: it’s slowly and deliberately paced (running close to two hours), and admittedly can be tough to follow first time around during its time-jumping third act as it explains what’s going on. But it’s otherwise an artful, rich and legitimately unnerving picture, especially when held up against the tepid 2009 U.S. remake “The Uninvited,” which features Elizabeth Banks and David Strathairn, and dumbs down to the point that the whole thing feels entirely generic.
“Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...And Spring” (2003)
The cuckoo in the nest of director Kim Ki-duk’s otherwise often extremely violent, disturbing and/or sexist catalogue, ‘Spring’ is also by far our favorite of his contributions to the New Wave, being a slow, achingly beautifully shot, contemplative parable inspired by Buddhist teachings. Look a little closer, though (and it’s almost impossible not to with photography this immersive and evocative) and you’ll see some of the enfant terrible’s trademarks come through. There are scenes of animal cruelty (specifically toward fish, snakes and frogs, and, depending on how you feel about using a live cat’s tail as a paintbrush, possibly cats), which have hampered his films’ U.S. distribution on occasion, and while there’s certainly less evidence here of the misogyny he’s frequently accused of, we could wish the quickly-sketched-in women in the film weren’t quite so peripheral and slight.
But it’s simply not his focus here: his concern is with the loss of innocence, and eventual gaining of wisdom of a young apprentice monk (Kim Young-Min, and then Kim Ki-Duk himself in later years) who lives with his teacher and “master” (Oh Young-su) in a tiny one-room temple that floats on a raft in the middle of a tranquil lake surrounded by the sights and sounds of harmonious nature. A young woman (Ha Yeo-jin) comes to the temple to heal from an unspecified illness, and the apprentice ends up running away with her, only to return many years later having, as his impossibly wise teacher foresaw, had his love turn to possessiveness, and his possessiveness to murder. Later again, following the death of the master and his release from prison, he returns to take up the mantle in the temple himself, even gaining his own apprentice as the cycle of pain, cruelty, grace and acceptance begins over again. Considering its pessimism (we are doomed to repeat our mistakes) and the tragic bent of the storytelling, the film's tone of utterly absorbing, and oddly inspirational serenity is quite remarkable, and if nothing else shows that Kim has talent to burn in other registers than the "watch-it-if-you-dare" violence and perversity of his Venice-winning “Pieta” or 2013's "Moebius." Or, by the sounds of its rape-and-murder storyline, his newest, "One by One" which is due to open the Venice Days sidebar at this year's Venice Film Festival.
Park Chan-Wook's "Vengeance Trilogy" (2002, 2003 & 2005)
It would be pretty sacrilegious to compile a list of Korean New Wave cinema and not include its most iconic and influential film to date "Oldboy," and yet last year's ill-conceived remake, plus the fact it's a frequent touchpoint for revenge movies in general, and contains one of our favorite extended take sequences ever, has seen us writing about it a great deal lately. And so we're cheating with this spot and giving it to three films, Park Chan-wook's so-called "Vengeance Trilogy" of which "Oldboy" is the middle entry. The definition of a thematic trilogy, (characters and setting all change, but the stories share ideas, motifs and arcs) it starts off with 2002's "Sympathy for Mister Vengeance" which stars Song Kang-ho as the rich father of a girl who drowns during a botched kidnapping. Already here the stylish violence and inventively twisty morals are in evidence as your sympathy, appropriately enough, teeters between the grieving father and the kidnappers who had their own moral justifications for their crime. It's maybe the more complete film but it has been largely eclipsed by its slicker, blacker, more keep'em guessing follow-up ('Sympathy' only got a small retrospective international release after the success of "Oldboy"). And then, two years after "Oldboy" (these were consecutive features from Park) came "Lady Vengeance" which did get an international theatrical release, and while it never got quite the same kudos as its predecessor, arguably holds up just as well (if not better) to repeat viewings. It's also refreshing, if maybe not hugely progressive, to have the protagonist be a woman, especially as women are so often, rather worrisomely, the victims of violent crime in New Wave Korean genre filmmaking. And with its deliberate pacing, set pieces that are perhaps less graphic than the previous entries, but often more psychologically vicious, surprising dark humor and constant switchbacks that build to a trademark twist climax, it may be the most muted of the trilogy, but it is also arguably the most complex and layered.
“Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” (2013)
Once you’ve seen one of Hong Sang-soo’s films, you’ve seen them all. That would be a very glib and inaccurate way of talking about the director, but it’s easy to take a certain amount of sympathy with that viewpoint: his films (which aren’t widely distributed in the U.S., but are favorites of the festival crowd), often feel like variations on a theme, often tackling similar issues of disconnection, self-absorption and alienation, with a structural playfulness that belies their surface wispiness, and certain recurring elements in each, like a character who is a film director. But it adds up to an increasingly remarkable and beguiling body of work, and last year’s “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” is as good an entry point to his filmmaking as any other, at once accessible and a little off-putting. The titular Haewon (Jung Eun-chae) is being left alone in Seoul: her father (who appears to not be Korean) is never seen, and her mother moves to Canada at the opening of the film after one final dinner together. She recently broke up with her film studies professor (Lee Sun-kyun), who’s also a movie director, and the ripples of that break-up continue to play out as the film unspools. Those who demand a certain emphasis on plot are never going to adore Hong (despite his narrative playfulness), but there simply isn’t anyone else, in Korea, or in the rest of world cinema, quite like him, this film, like so many of his others, attaining a unique rhythm -- in particular, “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” ends up feeling like that state between dreaming and waking, the state in which Haewon spends much of the film. And it also rewards multiple viewings, initially seeming slight but unpacking itself into a rich and complex take on mortality, history repeating itself and the nature of home. It’s another entry in what’s becoming one of the most beguiling filmographies in contemporary cinema.
what are your favorite Korean (or asian) movies?