Bright Lights Film Journal

Success Breeds Confidence: Korean Movies at the NYAFF

A quartet of recent Korean films shows a reassuringly robust national cinema

Over the last six years, the New York Asian Film Festival has done a great service to Asian cinema, introducing many of its finest works to New Yorkers and beyond. This year’s lineup consisted of 26 award-winning movies from six different countries, and did not disappoint a viewing public that has come to expect a lot from the festival. This was certainly true of its Korean movie lineup.

NYAFF seems to have intentionally chosen movies that generated debates and even controversies in Korea. Notably, the festival included movies that provoked serious discussions about the nature of cinema. Among the seven Korean films shown, two such movies were Duelist (2005) and The Magicians (2005). The other movies that adequately represent the diversity and strength of cinema in South Korea are Blood Rain (2005) and Welcome to Dongmakgol(2005).

Duelist and The Magicians

These two movies could not be more different. Duelist is a big-budget spectacle, directed by Lee Myung-Se, one of Korea’s best-known filmmakers. The Magicians, conversely, is a low-budget production, directed by the relative unknown Song Il-Gon. But what really sets them apart is the kind of experimentations they are engaged in, pursuing the question of cinema’s meaning. Given the economics of moviemaking, such experimentations are possible either because the filmmaker has a strong name recognition or because the cost of production is insignificant. Duelist and The Magicians, respectively, are cases in point.

In his first movie in six years (and his seventh film to date), Lee Myung-Se disavows dramatic narrative and launches into a cinema of pure movement, a spectacle of choreographed action. A worthy experiment, to be sure, but it leaves the viewer puzzled until it becomes clear that the film is making some strong statements about the nature of cinema. The relative merits of those statements have been much debated in Korea, but the movie received wide critical praise for its visual power.

Duelist recalls those detective dramas in which two oddly matched investigators are pursuing a criminal, who then becomes fatefully connected to one of them. Here the female cop falls in love with the villain, who works for a corrupt government minister. On the way to justice they fight with each other, except that these scenes are so stylized they evoke gestures of love. There is a conventional, even mundane plot, but the movie is not driven by the progression of story. Dialogue is sparse and awkward, perhaps enough to imply that Duelist was not well thought-out. The film is set in the Joseon Dynasty period, but it is not clear why such a historical background was necessary, except that it allowed the director to exploit certain color schemes.

Indeed, Lee Myung-Se has been pursuing cinematic aesthetics since the beginning of his career. One of his earliest movies, My Love, My Bride (1990), for example, was the first that made me realize there was a future for Korean cinema. His films have always stressed form over content, or perhaps presented form as content, but Duelist represents an extreme version of this tendency. He is still the stylist in Korean cinema. His films say loudly and clearly that the aesthetics of cinema are a function of motion, achieved through the manipulation of light and dark and stylized action, whether we agree with this or not.

The Magicians stands in opposition to Duelist in major ways. Song Il-Gon’s methods are minimalist in their call for simplicity and spontaneity, and almost anti-cinematic in employing virtually no editing. The movie seems to have begun as a simple experiment of filming an entire movie in a single take. But the only thing simple about this undertaking is the idea, given the enormous amount of preparation required. The result is a lesson in imperfect cinema, poking fun at the drive for perfection reigning in cinema, compromised by its inevitable errors and shortcomings.

Members of a rock band, The Magicians, have reunited in a mountain area cafe to commemorate the third anniversary of the death of one of its members, Ja-Eun. They have all given up music since her suicide. They confront death, guilt, and fear. Searching for a love that is unattainable, all escape or think about escaping to another reality, whether Argentina, a mountain forest, a bottle of Guinness, or suicide. It is a self-portrait of conflicted youth, but it can be more specifically read as a statement of contemporary Korea: parental objection to children taking up popular music, a painful self-consciousness at not having gone to college, feeling trapped in a small country with rigid social mores.

The screenplay seems to have originated as a play-script. Perhaps there is an intention beyond making it possible to film a movie without a cut: for example, to revisit the old question of the relationship between cinema and theater, and to ask what the magic of cinema really is. The film demonstrates that the magic is in what the camera enables us to see. In the opening scene, the ghost of Ja-Eun beckons the camera to follow her. Throughout we see Ja-Eun, who seems to have found in death what she did not have in life — a peace of mind, acting playfully in the midst of her friends who are still in pain. The eye of the camera is a magic eye that lets the viewer see life and death together; a reminder of the nearness of death. But it is also an imperfect eye that at times loses its focus and has a hard time tracking the characters. In this sense, the camera acts as a problematic guide for the viewer. In The Magicians, a drama of life and death, we see flaws made into virtues — virtues that perhaps remind us of the humanness of cinema or at least warn us against the ideals of perfect cinema, where the eye of the camera is always exacting and omniscient.

Blood Rain

Blood Rain, directed by Kim Dae-Sung, is most successful in terms of the depth of narrative and visual storytelling. Set in early 19th century Korea, a period of nascent reform movements in the rigid Confucian kingdom, the movie tells the story of an island paper mill whose owner and his family were executed after he was wrongfully convicted of being a Catholic. As soon as I heard the word “Catholicism,” I was interested in how the film would address this period, in addition to, of course, the more prosaic task of finding the killer. Kyu, who comes to the island as a crime investigator to solve the mystery, is the bearer of a modernizing spirit, distrusting the shamanistic and ritualistic world-view still dominating the village people’s lives. As he tries to relieve the villagers of their irrational fear of the past, he discovers that the government official who ordered the cruel executions, probably knowing that they were falsely charged, was none other than his deceased father, whom he revered. When he finally solves the murder and rescues the last victim, he watches helplessly as the rescued man is killed by the angry mob of villagers who wanted to pacify the ghost of the mill owner and atone for their sins. As the movie unfolds, the viewer becomes a witness to a clash of world-views, the persistence of old values, and inescapable karma.

While the story of the movie is a fiction, its historical background with regard to Catholicism is quite real. Being a Catholic meant that you were seen as neglecting ancestral rituals and were disloyal to the king. In the period described, thousands of Catholics were killed. Of course, as is the case with the mill owner, some were falsely accused. His real crime was not Catholicism but the egalitarian spirit with which he treated his workers, regardless of their class status. The local aristocrats saw this as a great threat to the dominant social order of Confucianism and decided to eliminate him under the cover of the government persecution of the Catholics. By the movie’s end, all the mysteries are solved, yet nothing is resolved. Kyu’s confidence in rationality is crushed; the villagers get to confirm the validity of their belief in karma and ritual violence, as they evade their own complicity in mill owner’s death. And although we know the murderer’s identity, it turns out that everybody is a participant in the cycle of killings. At the end of the movie, Kyu is on a ship headed to the mainland, defeated and unsure of his future, signaling a personal as well as national predicament.

Blood Rain is a fast-paced thriller, unusual for period films in Korea, which in part explains its modest success at the box office and positive reception by the critics. However, its virtue is also a drawback. The story is a bit too complicated to be neatly unpacked in a two-hour movie, as there are many subtle elements competing for the viewer’s attention. Even some of the clues leading to the killer, a matter of major significance in a murder mystery, are merely glossed over. This leads to the suspicion that the director himself may not have been entirely clear on what the movie is about.

Welcome to Dongmakgol

Park Kwang-Hyun’s Welcome to Dongmakgol was a surprise hit in 2005, seen by more than 8 million people. But Korean critics have mostly rejected this mixture of fantasy and war as naïve and nostalgic. A light-hearted attempt to get at the irrationalities of war, it adds to the growing body of movies that try to rethink the Korean War and North Korea. From its understandings of war and peace and human behavior, simplicity is the guiding principle here.

Dongmakgol is a village in a remote mountain, isolated from the rest of the world and untouched by the ravages of the ongoing war in Korea. Fate brings the three fighting forces together: a U.S. fighter pilot whose plane crash-landed in the mountain, three retreating North Korean soldiers, and two South Korean soldiers who are lost. After a grenade destroys the food storage, they decide to stay and help the local farmers. In the process they slowly let go of their hatred for one another and build a sense of friendship. Meanwhile, the U.S. commanders believe there is a major North Korean military presence in the area where the plane went missing and plan a major air strike. In order to spare the village from complete destruction, the soldiers decide to work together to divert the attack, possibly sacrificing themselves in the process.

Despite its violence, an element of light fantasy drives the movie from the beginning. The story is absurd and its optimism unrealistic and nostalgic. But that is precisely the point, opposing the absurdity of war with an equally absurd setting of a village untouched by the war. The ideological hatred each military party brings to Dongmakgol is no less absurd than the simplistic vision for peace. Of course, the idea that humanism cures all or that simpletons are the bearers of truth is a hackneyed notion both in cinema and literature. The reason why the movie was so successful is because fanciful questions are often worth asking, especially when the reality is less than acceptable.

The four movies discussed here say much about the state of cinema in Korea. The key word is confidence. Experimental films such as Duelist and The Magicians embody the confidence that comes from Korea’s many years of success as a national cinema, a cinema that has created the space for the luxury of important ideas expressed imaginatively. Confidence breeds innovative thinking in Blood Rain, as it has changed the rules of making a period film. Perhaps it is Welcome to Dongmakgol(right) that exhibits the ultimate confidence a movie can show — to welcome us to a land of fantasy in the midst of human tragedy. We’re grateful to the New York Asian Film Festival for this survey of Korean cinema and applaud its contributions to the world of cinema.