ND/NF 2000: Korean Cinema Boom or Bust? Lee Myung-Se's "Nowhere to Hide" Breaks Out
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE/3.27.2000) -- South Korea's cinema boom has petered out, writes Tony Rayns in the February issue of Sight and Sound. The causes? 1977's economic crash plus "the arrival of an anti-reform backlash from right-wing conservatives in film circles." So there's an uptight Korean Film Commission (KOIFC) in power that has the last word on what is shown and not shown in the country. However, reporting from Seoul in the March 14th New York Times, Howard W. French contends the opposite.
In fact, his Arts Abroad column is titled "A Film Boom Rattles South Korea's View of Itself." According to the article, when the "government announced the easing of quotas limiting the screening of foreign films here," there was a surprise occurrence: "a boom in popular and groundbreaking Korean films."
To boom or not to boom? This might have a lot to do with your "boom" definition, but it must be said, Sight and Sound appears to boast the more authoritative piece.
To get a better fix on the state of affairs in Seoul, it might do well to scrutinize Korea's 1999 box office. Of the top ten features, only three were homegrown: "Shiri" (an espionage thriller with reportedly superior special effects that has bested "Titanic" in ticket sales), "Attack on Gas Station" (a comedy), and "Tell Me Something" ("a hard-gore thriller"). But whether or not Korea is having a celluloid Renaissance on a grand scale may be answered by a couple of other films.
Jang Sun-Woo's "Lies," for example, is the film that some of us will get to see at international film festivals over the next year. Mr. Jang used two non-actors to impart the story of an S&M relationship between 38-year-old married sculptor J and 18-year-old student Y. For documentary fans, the whippings that the two give each other are apparently not faked. Rayns's critique: "'Lies' is almost certainly the first above-ground film to include dialogue in its sex scenes about, for instance, the smells and taste of anal sex. Whether or not it titillates the viewer, it will certainly expand many people's sense of just how 'dirty' sex can be." Not surprisingly, "Lies" was first banned in Korea, and has only been released in an altered state. For more on the censorship, there's Darcy's Korean Film Page (http://myhome.shinbiro.com/~darcypaq/kfilm00.html), one of the best online sites on this subject.
But the Korean film that really might have a lasting affect on world cinema, especially on young directors who've milked "Pulp Fiction" for as much inspiration as it can supply is Lee Myung-Se's "Nowhere to Hide." This tale of two cops and their 70-day search for a drug lord is one of the most visually creative movies you'll see in years. A bombastic palette of colors, innovative compositions, jump shots, superb editing and offbeat humor will have you literally gasping. . . at least for the first hour or so. Early on "Nowhere to Hide" certainly gives "Run Lola Run" a race for the money. Now if only it had a script and characters of equal power, it could have been a masterpiece.
To find out first hand about the making of "Nowhere to Hide" and Korean "boom or bust" cinema, I chatted with Mr. Lee a day had after his film was screened at the Miami Film Festival. Lee is now in New York, presenting his film at the New Directors/New Films series, which screens "Nowhere to Hide" tonight and tomorrow.
indieWIRE: It's said you're part of the new Korean cinema. Do you believe Korean cinema has had any impact on world cinema?
Lee Myung-Se: There are a lot of really good young directors nowadays that have come out in addition to myself. I can't guarantee anything, but of course that's the way it should turn out.
iW: There are a lot of Hong Kong directors who are now being embraced by Hollywood. Do you see yourself going to the West Coast? Has Hollywood been knocking at your door at all?
Lee: There's a gradual stream of people calling, interested in working with me.
iW: So someday you might be working with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep?
Lee: I really, really like Meryl Streep a lot personally. I don't know about Clint Eastwood though. [Laughs]
iW: For the style of this film you have a special expression, 'chong chung dong'. Can you explain what that is?
Lee: For example, sculptors. . . what sculptors do is they grab a moment in action, and that's what 'chong chung dong' is. Translated, it literally means "stillness within movement." So it's the moment that which we catch in movement. It's like a nanosecond within movement.
iW: Are you motivated by any religious beliefs? Does any religion help you shape your films?
Lee: If there were any religious philosophy that was closest to me, it would be a kind of Christianity where, for example, Christ was reaching for love. I am looking for love. And then the way that I think about love or the way that I try to reach love is Buddhist. When I talk about love, it's not just a love in, you know, the personal love between a man and a woman, for example. It's a straight on truth or awakening. The love that I refer to is closer to what Confucius called truth or sincerity. Through filmmaking, I ask myself these questions one by one. And then the answers to these questions emerge when I move into my inner self. And film is the medium by which I want to convey that to people.
iW: Is there any censorship in Korea or do you have total freedom?
Lee: There are things that are restricted by society. I feel that my work or the work of any artist is to bore through those areas. But in Korea, many of the censorship that used to be part of Korean cinema and culture, a lot of that has been relaxed. In the past, it was very severe. Even just a few years ago, it would have been impossible for me to depict policemen being violent in a film, because that would have been making policemen look bad. In the past, you always had to depict policemen in a very positive light. One of the reasons why a lot of policeman movies or detective stories came out toothless was because there were restrictions on how a policeman could be depicted. So when I made this film, the police placed a lot of attention upon it. They were looking at the project because they were considering what they should restrict or not. The reaction from the police was that they didn't necessarily like the fact that some of the scenes had the police being depicted as violent. But for the most part, your average policeman, he liked the movie and was supportive.
iW: Is making films in Korea as much a business as it is in America? Is it very hard to raise money?
Lee: I think it is the same case all over the world. It's very difficult because the way the investors think is always different from the way that the filmmakers think.
iW: Do you come to America often?
Lee: This is my third time here.
iW: So you've mostly seen Americans through American films or on television. Now that you're here, do you think we're crazier than you thought? What's your opinion of us?
Lee. In the United States, I haven't had the opportunity to meet a lot of people. But the people in terms of the filmmaking world, I've enjoyed all that I've met. And, of course, I haven't really met any producers, but I think producers are the same anywhere in the world. I think that people anywhere in the world are all pretty much the same. What they study and their cultures are different of course. But in terms of the people that you love and the people that you hate, that's all the same pretty much throughout the world.
iW: Here in the States we tend to bow down to directors. And for example we know whom Martin Scorsese dates. We know when Steven Spielberg goes to the hospital. In Korea, does everyone want to know whom you date?
Lee: In Korea, directors haven't yet reached that status where they're of interest to all the public. A part of the reason for that could be that the magazine culture is not in great proliferation in Korea. As far as directors go, rather than being interested in a director's personal life, the public is more interested just in the films.
iW: So like in France, the Korean audiences are more sophisticated?
Lee: [Laughs] No, they're not sophisticated. They're becoming more sophisticated.
iW: Are there any directors you'd like to model yourself on? Do you read about other directors? Like Werner Fassbinder, would you want to dress all in black? Or would you like a long career like John Ford's?
Lee: I'm always changing my ideas on what I'd like to do. There's a moment some time back when I wanted to be like a foreign star, like a shooting star, to be able to just fall from the sky. And other times, I just wanted to be the kind of star that maybe not everybody thinks of as a star, but at some point, they will all look at me. I think now that since life is so short, I again would like to live like a shooting star.
[Brandon Judell is a contributing editor to Detour magazine and also writes regularly for The Bay Area Reporter, Flair, plus is an on-air film critic for MetroGuide.]