• Flandersui gae (Barking Dogs Never Bite)
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
• Old Boy
Directed by Park Chan-wook
• Cheonnyeonhak (Beyond the Years)
Directed by Im Kwon Taek
AMONG THE FILMS being screened at the ongoing Korean Film Festival at the Shangri-La Plaza Mall is Bong Joon-ho’s rarely seen first feature, Flandersui gae (Barking Dogs Never Bite, a.k.a. A Higher Animal, a.k.a. Dog of Flanders, 2000). Bong would go on to greater fame and fortune as the director of Gwoemul (The Host, 2006), but you can see his fondness for dark comedy this early in the game, in his take on the realities of contemporary Korea--the huge apartment complexes, the pressure to succeed in academia, the henpecked husbands and listless office girls, the Korean fondness for dog meat (comparable to our own appetite for the same [for the record it’s better stewed than barbecued, the better to hide the gaminess], especially in the northern provinces).
Bong gives the story a slow pace for a comedy, but the deadpan demeanor only adds a rather unique, oddball feel (think Jim Jarmusch, only with a more gruesome touch). He has a gift for depicting claustrophobic spaces (the apartment basement, for example, where pets stew in little pots), when ironically the city is surrounded by some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world, if anyone would bother to look up and around.
Bong will acquire a more popular touch in Gwoemul, an anything-for-a-buck sensibility that mixes high family melodrama with low slapstick with social commentary with political satire with straightforward kill-the-monster action, plus a dollop of rather startling digitally composed imagery (a monster stretching gradually down from underneath a bridge like a humongous blob of quicksilver; the same monster some minutes later, galloping alongside panicked human crowds with the loping, looping gait of a mountain lion crossed with a sea serpent). In the meantime we have this, his poignantly awkward first significant step.
Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy (2003) is a radically different, altogether fiercer creature, a revenge flick to make Quentin Tarantino’s pair of Kill Bill movies look like a Girl Scout campfire meet complete with mint cookies. Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is kidnapped, confined to an apartment with only cable TV for company, and fed nothing but fried dumplings for 15 years; when he’s released, he’s left with little more than questions--who did this to him? And more to the point, why?
Park is hailed as a major new figure in world cinema, a provocateur in what one might call the 'Cinema of the Overdose'--one of Oh’s first gestures coming out of imprisonment is to demand "something alive," whereupon he’s served live octopus, whole and wriggling on a plate, which he picks up and stuffs, still wriggling, in his mouth.
It’s the kind of Grand Guignol hi-jinks that made Park a figure of international notoriety, though personally I found the moment rather crude--Koreans traditionally slice the octopod up for easier handling and better appreciation of the sweet flesh, something I’d do myself, if I had the money to actually splurge on live seafood (I suppose the crudity was Park’s point--the man’s appetites, given his situation, is understandably inhuman).
Not a big fan of the film. Thought the plot more gimmicky than surprising, thought the storytelling a little shoddy (would someone who took the trouble of imprisoning a man for years take the risk of keeping him in such an unsafe apartment--one where he can cut or bludgeon himself to death in any number of ways?), thought the "shocking" twist and conclusion more pretentious than profound.
Much prefer Park’s comic timing, the wit of his deadpan visual style. The much-celebrated claw-hammer scene, where Oh fights his way through a crowd of armed thugs with only a hammer in one hand, is a breathtaking bravura sequence, simple in concept and fiendishly difficult in execution (Park took three days to shoot it, and even then he had to digitally correct some punches and stabbings). Think of a diorama sequence brought to ferocious life, or the idea of widescreen action taken to its logical and ultimately absurd (yet somehow thrilling) conclusion.
I’ve finally warmed to Park’s darkly romantic brand of comedy (sort of like Bong’s, only on gamma-irradiated steroids) with his latest film Bakjwi (Thirst, 2009)--here the conventions of the vampire film give vitality to the conventions of the erotic thriller, the perils of vampirism have become a more evocative metaphor for the perils of romantic relationships, and the exhaustion felt near film’s end recalls the exhaustion of a life lived in despair for far too long. Old Boy works fine as low comedy delivered with an interesting aesthetic, but I didn’t feel it fully earned the poignancy it strove for; with Bakjwi Park finally scores--beside his work, movies like Catherine Hardwicke’s Mormonic vampire flick Twlight (2008) is revealed as anemic pap.
Then we are come to the grandmaster of Korean cinema, Im Kwon Taek, who has over the course of 50 years directed over a hundred films--I’d first seen his Chunhyang (2000) in Cinemanila, an epic retelling of a classic love story, done old-school style in the manner of Akira Kurosawa or David Lean. His latest, Cheonnyeonhak (Beyond the Years, 2007), an informal sequel to his 1993 hit Sopyonje, did not make money, but is nevertheless memorable.
The film tells the story of a father, son, daughter troupe that travels bars and inns, singing for their living. The son (a pansori drummer) falls in love with his beautiful singing sister (adopted, or so they say); the father plots to keep his daughter with him always. By turns moving, compelling, immeasurably sad, it meditates on the price an artist pays for the purity of her art, and where love and family and everyday happiness fits in (unspoken answer: trailing several steps behind the artist as he or she wanders about in nomadic rootlessness, seeking work).
Im may be an old-fashioned filmmaker with strong interests in traditional Korean culture but he does experiment with structure (we see the brother, a middle aged man, talking to an old acquaintance, the brother’s story fitting slowly into the present narrative piece by intriguing piece). It’s a measured experimentation--we trust Im to not go wildly experimental on us, nor lose himself or his story in the possibilities of a shot. One image (arguably my favorite) is particularly expressive--brother and sister sitting in grass, the sister singing; the camera gliding around them with the couple constantly kept on the lower right corner of the screen. It’s as if they were on some giant diorama, the landscape turning, while the couple acts as pivot to the great wheel--as if the world may change and move around them, but their love for each other is a fixed constant.
First published in Businessworld, 9.25.09