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Love Triangles, Talking Severed Heads, Blood-Sucking Babies, and Rat Poison Galore — Korea’s Forgot

Love Triangles, Talking Severed Heads, Blood-Sucking Babies, and Rat Poison Galore -- Korea's Forgot

and Rat Poison Galore — Korea’s Forgotten “New Wave”

by Stephen Garrett

This summer, lucky cineastes on the West Coast and in Illinois have been
treated to a rare batch of Korean movies by stylish cult filmmaker Kim
Ki-young: a celluloid six-pack of domestic hysteria that rivals the
works of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray in its melodramatic depiction of
a society on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In May, the Film Center
at the School for the Arts Institute of Chicago presented the package,
which then traveled in June to San Francisco’s Castro Theater courtesy
of the San Francisco Film Society, before ending this month at the
Pacific Film Archive. Programmers at all three venues helped, with the
Korean Film Archive, to organize the event.

Some of the films’ titles — “Promise of the Flesh,” “Insect Woman,”
Killer Butterfly” — only hint at the madness they depict. With their
wildly suicidal protagonists; love triangles between possessive women
and weak, spineless men; and nutty, bloody scenarios like body parts
thrown in meat grinders, talking severed heads, blood-sucking babies and
rat poison galore, the six films picked to represent Kim are brilliant
bursts of expressionistic dementia, with story structures that sometimes
beguile as their own internal logic takes over. “Confusion necessarily
arises as fiction and reality are intermingled,” said Kim in an
interview last year, explaining the head-scratching narratives of his
occasionally fact-based screenplays.

But the biggest shock is that these films, mostly released during the
1960s and ’70s, have been virtually unheard of outside of Korea and that
Kim (who died at the age of 78 last February) hadn’t made a movie since
1984. Resurgence of interest began last year at the 2nd Pusan
International Film Festival, which hosted a more complete retrospective
that included the first English-language book on the filmmaker.

In fact, Korea itself is lately becoming more renowned for its cinema,
as events like Pusan’s three-year-old film festival and the Puchon
International Film Festival bring greater international attention to
past masters and emerging auteurs. Here in the States, film programmers
are tub-thumping for the cause, not only with the Kim retrospective and
the SFFS tribute to Korean director Im Kwon-taek at the 1998 San
Francisco International Film Festival, but also last year’s Im
retrospective in Los Angeles, which the University of Southern
California’s School of Cinema presented with the Korean Studies Institute,
further educating the masses about Korean cinema.

Much education still needs to be done. Film historian Tony Rayns (whose
book “Seoul Stirrings” is one of the few English-language texts on
Korean cinema) took the occasion of Im’s being given the Akira Kurosawa
Award at this year’s SFIFF to address this international neglect. “Some
of their achievements have been so remarkable,” he said about Korean
filmmakers in the ’90s, “that it’s hard to explain why more of the world
hasn’t noticed and cheered.”

1993’s “Sopyonje,” for example, is considered one of the best films Im
has ever made, in a career that spans four decades and includes over 100
movies — and finally, just this summer, was picked up for U.S
distribution by the L.A.-based company Film Library. A story about
pansori, a dying form of Korean folk music, “Sopyonje” is also
paradigmatic of Im’s body of work, which tends to focus on specifically
Korean issues and culture. Truly a national artist, Im is also admired
for telling these stories on a very human and universally accessible
level, making them popular abroad as well as at home.

It was only in the past decade that Korean cinema found a fresh voice,
since the government had kept the film industry highly regulated and
heavily censored for almost half a century. Quality eroded even more
quickly under quota policies like those of totalitarian president Park
Chung-hee who, in the late ’70s, stipulated that for every foreign film
a Korean movie company wanted to import, it had to produce and release
four Korean films. (Thankfully Kim Ki-young was bankrolled by his
supporting wife, Kim Yu-Bong, who financed many of his movies while
supporting them both with her dental practice, and allowed him a
relative freedom from quota-quickie restraints).

With the change to a more democratic government in the 1990’s, a new
generation of Korean directors is emerging, especially now that eased
import controls are making more movies available theatrically and on
video; more film schools are also being established and more filmmakers
are getting an educated exposure to the history of world cinema. Park
Ki-yong, whose first film, 1997’s “Motel Cactus” made its U.S. debut at
the 1998 SFIFF, even counts Bergman, Antonioni and Kieslowski among his
influences. No surprise, then, that his cinematographer is Australian
Christopher Doyle — a seasoned vet who has worked with Asian auteurs
Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Chen Kaige, and Wong Kar-Wai.

Along with Jang Sun-Woo (whose “Timeless, Bottomless, Bad Movie” was
called “The most provocative film ever made in Korea” in a recent Sight
and Sound article), Hong Sang-Soo (“The Day a Pig Fell Down a Well” and
the upcoming “The Power of Kangwon Province“), Park Kwang-Su (“A Single
“), Kim Ki-Duk (“Wild Animals,” filmed entirely in Paris), and Song
Neung-Han (“Number 3“), these filmmakers are creating a late-’90s Korean
New Wave which some feel is already starting to rival the
already-celebrated cinema of Pacific Rim neighbors like Taiwan, Hong
Kong, and China. Hopefully, American distribution outside of festivals
won’t be too far in the future; but until then, scan through those film
society listings and festival programs to ferret out some of the most
exciting world cinema being made today.

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