This weekend, American audiences will be introduced to a filmmaker they most likely have never heard of – South Korean director Kim Jee-woon. A talented, genre-bending filmmaker whose artistic depth is matched only by his technical proficiency, he's making his western debut with "The Last Stand," an old-school action thriller starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (read our review here). But for fans of Asian cinema, he's been a director many have been keeping an eye on for a long time now.
If anything has distinguished Kim Jee-Woon's career, it has been his ability to shift gears. Just take a look at his last three films: the gonzo western "The Good, The Bad, The Weird"; the thrilling serial killer flick "I Saw The Devil" and a sci-fi short in "Doomsday Book." But, for many it was likely "A Bittersweet Life" that brought the helmer to their attention, with the twisty crime flick putting him on the international map. Indeed, it's even getting an American remake with Allen Hughes signing on to direct last fall. And it's not exactly a surprise that Hollywood also came calling for Kim Jee-woon himself, so in honor of his first American outing debut, we thought we'd run down the director's filmography and give you an idea of where to start if you're not familiar with his work. While not as well known as his South Korean contemporaries Park Chan-wook or Bong Joon-ho, in our estimation he's just as important and entertaining. Read on below….
"The Quiet Family" (1998)
Kim made his debut with "The Quiet Family," an assured, tonally light-footed tale of a family that runs a failing bed-and-breakfast in the country and whose sporadic visitors have a tendency to wind up dead (or murdered… or poisoned…). "The Quiet Family" is very much a product of its time, with brilliantly anachronistic music selections reminiscent of Tarantino-era American crime cinema (there are two Stray Cats songs and a tense body-removal sequence is scored to '80s cheese-ball hit "So Alive" by Love & Rockets), but all the foundations of Kim's lengthy, brilliant career are already in place, including his comic-book-panel compositions, roving Steadicam shots and, of course, the casting of star Song Kang-ho in a prominent role. It's a testament to the film's power that it was quickly (and, it should be noted, loosely) remade by Kim's Japanese contemporary Takashi Miike as "The Happiness of the Katakuris," which reframed the story from whacked-out sitcom to something more kaleidoscopically bizarre and amoral. "The Quiet Family" was a taste of things to come from the director, and remains one of his most purely enjoyable movies, a brisk, often hilarious film that incorporates and synthesizes elements from "Psycho," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," Blake Edwards comedies and a host of '60s sitcoms, into something altogether unique and unforgettable. [B+]
"Memories" from "Three" (2002)
"Three" was a horror/thriller anthology from Asia whose initial directorial line-up was trumped by the talent assembled for its sequel, the more vicious "Three… Extremes." But since "Three… Extremes" came out in America first (also featuring a segment by "Oldboy" director Park Chan-wook), the original "Three" was finally released here as "Three Extremes II." But no matter how you catch up with it, it's hard not to be dazzled by Kim Jee-woon's segment, "Memories." The short charts the parallel stories of a man (Jeong Bo-seok) whose wife (Kim Hye-soo) has recently disappeared (he's starting to lose it), and the wife herself, who awakens on a strange, eerily deserted road. As the two characters slowly regain their memories of what happened, it leads to a genuinely shocking, deeply emotional climax that feels like the saddest ever ending of a "Twilight Zone" episode. Even more impressive is seeing the director thread a compelling, relatable portrait of how memory works (especially after the end of a relationship) amidst all the shock-show horror stuff. A minor triumph, for sure. [B+]
"A Tale of Two Sisters" (2003)
One of the all-time biggest South Korean box office heavyweights, "A Tale of Two Sisters" is a horror film inspired by a fourteenth-century Korean folktale ("Rose Flower and Red Lotus"), which, since it's a piece of Korean cinema, is really violent and twisty and weird. Two young girls go to live with their father and his new wife at a house in the country (which looks, from certain angles, like the whacked-out abode from Japanese cult classic "House") and, almost immediately after, are visited by a ghostly woman. Their father, of course, is resistant to any talk about his new wife or the otherworldly visitor that seems to be harming the girls (and scaring the hell out of their dinner guests). While as stylish as anything Kim has ever done (editorially, he had gained even more bravado), the film doesn't quite work, mostly because the third act, which blends past, present, and future, as well as fantasy and reality, becomes incredibly difficult to untangle. This wouldn't have been such an issue – it is based on a fairy tale and a certain amount of dream logic shouldn't just be accepted but openly embraced – if it wasn't for the emotional undercurrents that also run through that incredibly busy third act (up until this point the movie's pacing could be conservatively be described as "glacial"). "A Tale of Two Sisters" could arguably be described as Kim's first crossover hit, which included a brief but well-regarded run in the United States, complete with an unnecessary and totally watered down western remake by DreamWorks, unimaginatively retitled "The Uninvited." [C+]
"A Bittersweet Life" (2005)
After the astronomical hometown success of "A Tale of Two Sisters," it probably would have been pretty easy for Kim to make a string of horror movies, but instead, he turned his ambitions towards crime cinema, and came up with the astounding, ass-kicking "A Bittersweet Life." The first of a string of collaborations with outrageously handsome Lee Byung-hun, who here plays a mob enforcer tasked with trailing (and possibly killing) the young girlfriend of his ruthless boss. When he refuses the task, he is hunted by not only his former boss but also a rival gang. Unrelentingly stylish (almost hypnotically so) and tense (epitomized by the scene where he squares off with a gunrunner to see who can assemble a gun the quickest), "A Bittersweet Life" is Jee-Woon's magnum crime opus, full of blood and bullets and broken hearts. What's so surprising about "A Bittersweet Life," too, is how it shifts – it goes from being the John Travolta/Uma Thurman section of "Pulp Fiction" to the last act of "The Departed" at lightning speed, and doesn't slow down to catch its breath (speaking of which, a sequence where they bury our "hero" alive will have you gasping for air). A nearly miraculous triumph that, for pure entertainment value and pop art sizzle, is almost incomparable. And after witnessing that command of the craft, it makes watching the new Kim Jee-woon action movie "The Last Stand" perplexing by how comparably anonymous it is. Meanwhile, the good name of "A Bittersweet Life" will be tainted in fresh ways soon enough – "Broken City" director Allen Hughes has his sights set on a remake. Somebody should whack that idea before it gets much further. [A]
"The Good, The Bad, The Weird" (2008)
Sure, Mr. Tarantino is getting all sorts of credit for his lively reinvention of the western with "Django Unchained," but a few years ago Kim made a western just as explosively experimental. "The Good, The Bad, The Weird," as the title suggests, is heavily indebted to the films of Sergio Leone, pitting three cowboys – The Good (Jung Woo-sung), The Bad (Lee Byung-hun with the most anachronistic haircut in any western ever) and The Weird (Song Kang-ho) in a race to locate and unearth hidden treasure in the deserts of Manchuria. (This loot also attracts the attention of Japanese and Russian governments, adding to the levels of danger and intrigue.) From a fairly straightforward premise (it's literally a mad dash for a treasure map), Jee-Woon piles on the embellishments and embroidery, staging action sequences that are relentlessly and utterly real, beginning with the opening train heist sequence and including a number of jaw-dropping gunfights that feature more swinging than the last three "Spider-Man" movies combined. The movie climaxes with the ultimate reveal of what the treasure is (which makes perfect sense, if you only stop to think about it), one of the best twists in recent memory. "The Good, The Bad, The Weird" is a movie that is so wildly over-the-top, so crazily Kim Jee-woon-ian that a remake would be almost impossible. [B+]
"I Saw the Devil" (2010)
Comparable to "A Bittersweet Life," in tone and artistic execution (though it's a spin on the serial killer movie rather than the gangster genre), "I Saw the Devil," in scope and scale and sheer beauty, is an absolute, balls-to-the-walls, blood-drenched masterpiece. The tale of Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), a school bus driver who likes to hack up women in his spare time, and the secret agent (Lee Byung-hun) who he crosses when he murders the agent's pregnant wife, it plays out as a relentless cat-and-mouse game, with the agent picking up the killer, fucking with him, and then letting him go free. Of course, every time the bad guy gets let loose again, he kills a bunch of people (and one of the movie's best jokes is that one out of every three characters seems to be an active serial killer), which doesn't exactly make the agent a completely "good" character either. When we got the screening invite to "I Saw the Devil" a couple of years ago, there was a warning about the movie's explicit violence, which we had never seen before (or since). And yes, "I Saw the Devil" is drenched in the sticky red stuff, but it never takes away from the emotional journey you go on with the conflicted agent and the set pieces, including one where our bad guy shacks up with a cannibal, are truly virtuoso. This is Kim unleashed – definitely not for the faint of heart, but utterly rewarding for those who are willing to go on the soot-black journey. [A-]
"Heavenly Creature" from "Doomsday Book" (2012)
For some reason, "Doomsday Book," an uncanny South Korean science fiction anthology that made the domestic film festival rounds over the last year (it last screened, to an appropriately uproarious audience response at Austin's Fantastic Fest), never gained much attention outside the circuit despite being pretty awesome. Two of the segments were helmed by Yim Pil-sung, who previously directly the agreeably oddball fable "Hansel & Gretel," and while Yim's sections ("Brave New World" and "Happy Birthday") are pretty fun and handsomely shot, the section that really leaves an impression is Kim Jee-woon's "Heavenly Creature." The tale of a service robot, stationed at a monastery for Buddhist monks, who believes that it has reached spiritual transcendence much to the chagrin of the robot company (and a very confused repairman), it is witty and hilarious, thought-provoking and totally engaging. What makes this even more impressive is that, aside from the robot (which looks uncomfortably similar to the already derivative droids from "I, Robot"), it's beautifully rendered but mostly free of science fiction-y zip, with a climax that consists of a lengthy, laser gun-free spiritual debate about the nature of humanity and soulfulness; this was maybe our thirty favorite minutes in all of cinema last year. [A]
"The Last Stand" (2013)
Kim Jee-woon, along with Chan Wook-park (whose "Stoker" opens this spring), makes his English language debut in 2013 with "The Last Stand," a kind of arch splatter-western that pits a gruff small town sheriff (played, winningly, by Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first lead role since 2003's "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines") against a ruthless drug kingpin (Eduardo Noreiga). Simplistic and hugely entertaining, it's sometimes hard to pick out the Kim flourishes amongst the typical action movie clangor (Johnny Knoxville is essentially playing The Weird and there are flashes of explosive violence), although there are moments that feel like the director is making a pointed critique of American gun culture (something we're all keenly sensitive to, especially now). There's also a climactic car chase that takes place through cornfields that borders on the hallucinogenic, that feels totally in line with his previous movies. What really bums us out is that Kim Jee-woon felt like a filmmaker whose aesthetic and thematic concerns were so firmly rooted that it would have been nearly impossible to upend, even in a flashy American production. Apparently we were wrong. While there's nothing "bad" about "The Last Stand," we just wish it had been a whole lot more Kim Jee-woon-y. (There's a reason he's headed back to Korea for his next movie.) [C+]
What We Didn't Include: Kim Jee-woon made a pair of movies in 2000. The first was "The Foul King," a comedy that starred Kim regular Song Kang-ho as an out-of-work bank clerk who takes up professional wrestling, donning a Mexican wrestling mask and calling himself "The Foul King." The other was a 45-minute short film called "Coming Out," a sort of experimental, found-footage movie that professes to be the confession of a young girl who is also a vampire. Unfortunately, we couldn't get our hands on them for deadline. However, those with region-free DVD players can watch "Coming Out" on the British special edition of "The Quiet Family."