Soggy but undaunted, the festival went on. And unsurprisingly so, since, for all the dire talk of Asian film piracy, Koreans still love going to the cinema, and to enter some of this festival's venues -- the multiplexes atop the Sinsenae and Lotte department stores, for example -- is to revisit a vanished age of moviegoing: huge halls, massive screens, luxurious seats, state-of-the-art projection and sound.
Part of this, I suspect, has to do with social factors. Korean young people, who typically live with their parents until marriage (and occasionally after, as well), typically lack for public spaces in which to be alone together. Thus the cinema, like other communal sites -- the bathhouse, the café, the norebang -- offers a rare opportunity to spend time as a couple. (One might, in fact, argue that the quest for intimacy amidst proximity is the defining quality of life in the modern Asian metropolis.)
But to fill these large, well-appointed spaces also demands a certain kind of cinema. And it's here that the link between the US and the ROK is all but inescapable, since "drama" today seems to be as dirty a word here as in the halls of any Hollywood studio.
Early last decade, while everyone was eagerly hailing the arrival of the New Korean Cinema, there was a small but impressive cadre of grown-up dramas made on the peninsula: Im Sang-soo's "A Good Lawyer’s Wife" (2003), Park Chan-ok's "Jealousy Is my Middle Name" (2002), Jeong Jae-eun's "Take Care of My Cat" (2001). Alas, this strand of filmmaking seems almost entirely extinct today. Instead, you find endless variations on the same handful of genres: spy thrillers (understandable, when you consider what lies across their own northern border), teen romances, broad comedies, lavishly-mounted historical pageants, melodramas. But sober, character-driven illustrations of what it means to live in one of the richest nations in the developed world, a country not only poised between modernity and tradition, but actually divided against itself? These are rare indeed.
And those filmmakers have felt the crunch. With only one subsequent feature to her name, 2005's so-so skate-punk drama "The Aggressives," Jeong Jae-eun has moved into short-form documentary filmmaking, while Park Chan-ok has only completed two films in a decade. Im Sang-soo, once one of the country's most versatile talents, has veered into mass-market "event" movies, with glossy, empty trash like "The Housemaid" and "The Smell of Money." His near-namesake Hong Sang-soo, meanwhile, seems content to churn out the same movie every few months, to ever-more-diminishing effect.
Elsewhere, the news is no better. Never exactly the deepest thinker, Kim Ki-duk is these days more a public provocateur -- a kind of taboo-busting, soju-quaffing thrill-ride -- than any kind of serious artist. Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho are busily -- and deservedly -- becoming international filmmakers. Only Lee Chang-dong has kept the faith, with films like "Secret Sunshine" and "Poetry" evincing the refined intelligence, the acute social observation of that brief early-00s heyday. And even his output was interrupted -- in this case voluntarily, by a two-year stint as Minister of Culture and Tourism under President Roh Moo-hyun.
In the absence of better options, I caught a couple of local duds. Choi Jin-seong's "Steel Cold Winter" was a teen romance-mystery that suffered not only from a way-too-cute boy protagonist -- with his bee-stung lips and gamine 'do, Kim Shi-doo looked like he'd just wandered across from an Epik High shoot -- but also from a rather over-zealous make-up artist; watching, I was continually distracted by the boy's kabuki-like pancake, which frequently threatened to turn him invisible against the snow. For all its pretensions to social commentary (Hey! Outcasts are people too!), the story never rose much about Edward-and-Bella-style fanfic, all long, yearning stares and awkward silences. And snow. Lots of snow.
No more encouraging was "Intruders," from writer-director Noh Young-seok, whose 2008 debut, "Daytime Drinking," announced a talent as resourceful as it was singular. (The film was made independently, on a micro-budget, and Noh also served as cinematographer, editor and composer.) This one, his sophomore effort, opens extremely well, with a set-up a little like the darker flipside to one of those aforementioned Hong San-soo movies (a blocked screenwriter travels to the country, calls up old flame to join him). It proceeds through a nifty series of encounters between the protagonist and some locals -- each comical, yet imbued with the sense of incipient violence which seems, somehow, to characterize most social interactions in South Korea.
But then, disastrously, it begins to take itself seriously: suddenly there are North Korean agents running around, and reversal piles upon reversal, and what was entertaining becomes first ludicrous and then tiresome. In the process, Noh abandons all of the sharp character work, the keen satirical edge, that made his debut so memorable.
Another world premiere, "Nagima," from Kazakh writer-director Zhanna Issabayeva, was a disappointment, a badly outdated flowering of Bressonian impassivity (by way of Omirbayev) from a director who never seemed to know quite where to put her camera. And in its cast of dead-eyed non-pros -- all drawn, reportedly, from local orphanages -- we soon ran up against the limits of technique; unlike the master she was imitating, Isaabayeva could not manage to wring emotion from the rigidly expressionless figures she put onscreen.
Pawel Pawlikowski's "Ida," though, was a triumph: immaculately crafted, quietly shattering, its high-contrast B&W cinematography looking, at times, more like charcoal etchings than photographic images. But though set in the early 1960s, in the darkest days of Polish communism, it was in the simplicity of its storytelling that it most recalled the work of forebears like Wajda and Munk, and the native tradition to which Pawlikowski, a Pole long resident in Britain, has returned.
A young nun (the luminous Agata Trzebuchowska), an orphan, discovers she was in fact born Jewish, and accompanies her aunt -- a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, cynical judge known as "Red Wanda" for her zealous persecution of enemies of the State -- to recover the bodies of her parents, murdered by anti-Semites shortly after the end of WWII. Their quest becomes a kind of road movie, as well as a dialogue between faith and reason, and the spiritual and secular worlds between which Anna/Ida, on the verge of taking her vows, is suspended. Effortlessly integrating deeper themes with its surface pleasures (the production design, by Katarzyna Sobanska and Marcel Slawinski, is especially strong), yet remaining as austere and reticent as its young protagonist, it's a tough film to love. But then, as Ida would be the first to admit, it's a pretty tough world, too.