Some 15 years ago Korean cinema lodged itself into a special place in my heart, kicking and screaming all the way. Not a source of tranquility or soothing balm, I came to look to the nation’s exploding film scene for a reliable dose of cathartic turmoil. While its output has been diverse, certain cultural qualities have often found their way into the fast growing canon of work, not the least of which is a tendency for biting rounds of verbal sparring. That and a tendency for unleashing cutting societal criticisms have led to my rabid consumption of South Korean film whenever the chance should arise.
For a while Korean cinema and I have experienced a bit of an estrangement. General busyness has led to seeing less films, and those I have seen felt as though they were laden with an uncharacteristic populist flavor. Even when detailing great struggle, the mood was more celebratory than caustic.
So, it pleases me to report that this year’s rendition of the New York Korean Film Festival, which runs from November 6 - 11 at the Museum of the Moving Image, is bringing the nation’s collective angst back to this metropolis in full force.
Perhaps the venue change to MOMI, situated in the internationally flavored borough of Queens has made the difference; Its vast Sumner Redstone theater is surely an ideal venue for absorbing films’ more bombastic qualities. It may also owe a lot to this year being officially cosigned by Subway Cinema, presenters of the New York Asian Film Festival, who have an eye always out for Asia’s more electrifying works and a penchant for wrangling an impressive array of guests.
The result is a lean selection of films that is crammed tight with social issues, verbal exchanges both lively and thorny, and plenty of blood spilled, with top notch guests a-plenty on hand to guide you through it all.
The event is bookended by two films that could not be more different tonally, yet manage to share a discontented point of view on institutional injustice: Opening night film OFFICE is a creepy foray into terror between the cubicles of a small and struggling company. Setting out to immediately disturb, we watch as an office worker returns home and calmly murders the members of his family with a chilling hammer attack. The moments of terror that follow shift between otherworldly apparition, stealthy movements, and paranoid perceptions. It is a confusing mix that intentionally keeps the viewer off balance, but what remains clear throughout is that the office politics are vicious, especially to its youngest and most powerless member, and the affairs of the police who come to save the day are no less bound by red tape.
Meanwhile festival closer WONDERFUL NIGHTMARE is a mostly lighthearted comedy that presents the folly of a one way role reversal. An intensely independent, male bashing, executive lawyer Yeon-woo, whose life is abruptly cut short by a celestial error, is transplanted into the body of a housewife in the final weeks of her life. Her struggles to cope with sudden domesticated complacence make for riotous mirth, while highlighting the difference between traditional and more modern gender roles. Her sudden transplant gives her a new perspective on the effects of corporate interests forcing the hand of civic politics. Things get a bit soapy when serious societal ills befall the members of Yeon-woo’s new clan, yet the story’s heart is always in the right place in this mass appeal audience charmer.
Another grandiose production taking aim at corporate greed unchecked is accomplished action director Ryoo Seung-wan’s ( THE CITY OF VIOLENCE, THE UNJUST, THE BERLIN FILE) VETERAN, by way of an over the top cop drama. After a largely unnecessary half hour of cartoonish action, the story settles into a more tightly wound buildup to a showdown between a privileged enfant terrible son of a corporate tycoon and the reckless top cop on the previously introduced squad, who cannot stomach seeing the antagonist’s transgressions go unchecked. Along with the numerous hotheaded wars of words, the film also contains another familiar feature of many touchstone Korean films: a grudge match between two directly opposed, usually male, individuals bent on tearing each other apart. The film walks an interesting line between serious and silly. It’s a moving depiction of growing class inequity, but never achieves the emotional charge found in the strained loyalties of THE CITY OF VIOLENCE. The numerous familiar faces of the Korean film landscape working together here is impressive in and of itself.
The festival’s main thoroughfare can perhaps best be characterized by a trio of dark dramas from outside of Korean cinema’s most widely known pantheon. TRAP sends a modish screenwriter stuck in a quagmire of writer’s block to a remote makeshift inn where he is immediately taken with the property owner’s barely legal daughter. The source of his fascination is far from innocent as she carries out accomplished acts of seduction. The fetishistic camera work not only captures the writer’s enraptured perspective, but cheekily dares viewers to not be taken in by it themselves. There may not be too much below the surface of this assured exercise in eroticism and suspense, beyond the notion that infatuation is just a slight step away from delirium. There is a definite gleam of mischief about the film, a curious kindred spirit to OFFICE and WONDERFUL NIGHTMARE for putting female characters in provocative, confrontational roles.
CONFESSION is an impressive feature debut that presents a clash between ambition and loyalty amid relative poverty in elegant fashion. A backdrop of dingy locales is a steady but not overbearing reminder of how economics and the dangling carrot of financial gain affect the actions and fates of its humble characters. The three individuals whose longstanding friendship is tested are all well-developed and portrayed sympathetically. A work of steadily paced, stirring drama that can truly carry its head held high.
Festival highpoint THE SHAMELESS is a fascinating presentation of the tightrope walk of navigating hierarchical relationships in South Korean society. There is a constant vying for the upper hand of status amongst cops and crooks alike via words and tones, ever threatening to escalate into physical violence. One would be hard pressed to find a cooler customer than detective Jung Jae-gon (Kim Nam-gil) who makes his way through the extremely corrupt landscape as an emotional grifter. He plays on women’s attraction to find suspects on the run from the law. His encounter with bar mistress Kim Hye-Kyung (Jeon Do-yeon, who delivers a perfect balancing act of ferocity and frailty) leads to a crack in his resolve. While he wrestles internally with what it means to lead an honorable path, his steely demeanor remains mostly intact. With nary a crack in its vision of heartbreak and weariness in a dilapidated urban sprawl, this is one not to miss.
MADONNA is less artful than the rest of its cohort but still compelling, as it weaves the tale of a hospital’s determined caregiver to uncover the past of a comatose, pregnant patient. Meanwhile, strings are being pulled by the son of an elderly wealthy patient on life support, who would resort to immoral means to keep his father’s body alive another day. It’s a chilling microcosm of the disparity of power amongst a nation’s citizens.
For those comfortable with the confrontational nature of many Korean films, the biggest endurance test of the fest may in fact be THEBEAUTY INSIDE, which stands out as a tranquil romantic tale, albeit with a fantastical twist. Its male lead suffers a curious affliction of waking up every morning with a completely different body. A designer of fashionable customized wooden furniture, he falls instantly in love with a woman who works in a shop that sells said furniture. Despite circumstances, they give a relationship a try and for a while, it's all ultra hip wooden chairs and equally hip music choices during a meet that seems interminably cute. When the unique and trying nature of his condition puts a strain on their relationship, things do become sufficiently dramatic. The lack of effort to do anything to understand or curtail the condition lends a fairy tale element. And really, the inclusion of this unreal element allows the director to abstract the problems faced by any typical relationship with adverse elements that has gone past the honeymoon stage, and present them in an entertaining way. Though cloying at times, its second half is heartfelt as is the film’s ambitions to say something about diversity in these modern times.
For a full run down of the New York Korean Film Festival’s selections and schedule, as well as guests due to appear, visit the Museum ofMoving Image’s website.