The Flu/Gamgi (KIM Sung-Su: 2013)

The Flu that threatens South Korea with disaster is transported into the country by a shipping container from Hong Kong in which a group of illegal immigrants are hiding, hoping for a better life. Instead locked inside the hot and suffocating container, they all succumb to a deadly virus, with the exception of one male survivor. Within hours, a deadly virus is sweeping over Korea and people are dying by the hundreds. Can the beautiful Dr. Kim In-Hae (Soo-ae), whose young daughter becomes infected, discover the cause of the virus and find a cure before it is too late for her daughter and everyone else?

First up, I was one of the few who enjoyed Deranged (PARK Jung-woo: 2012) at last year’s London Korean Film Festival, and secondly, I prefer zombies, and lots of them, or else suitably decaying and abject bodies in a contagion film (yes, I know that I mixing genres to please myself). The emphasis in The Flu was not so much on individual stories of infected families – as is usually the case – but rather the political battle between the president and prime minster and and the US military over the ‘final solution’ to the problem. And indeed, the most effective scenes were the large scale action scenes, rather than the human interactions between Kang Ji-koo (Jang Hyuk) – a rescue worker – and In-hae and  Mi-reu (Park Min-ha). which provides the core of the human interest drama and the main focus of audience identification and empathy.

In opposition to the small-scale human drama, the large scale action scenes were gripping and showed Director KIM as having a real deft touch and skill when it comes to action. The scene in which infected people were cold-bloodily shot down and their bodies dumped in a large pit was particularly effective and resonated at a number of levels in relation to real-life acts of genocide including the death pits of Auschwitz. In a subsequent scene, the non-infected but quarantined people, attempt to cross over the line between the excluded zone and the city, as the South Korean military take aim to fire upon them, a visual allusion to the Gwangju massacre in 1980. Neither politicians nor the US military come over particularly well, and indeed it is the US military that insist on the ‘final solution’ – again it is easy to see a correspondence between the fictional here and the factual situation in South Korea where the US military remains in order to police the border between North and South Korea (the so-called DMZ).

While I know this sounds bleak, there are enough crowd pleasing moment in the film that  make it an overall enjoyable experience. As I have said, I found the human element of the film not convincing, but the action sequences on their own were executed exceptionally well.

The Q&A

After the screening, most audience members stayed for the Q&A which demonstrates how much they enjoyed the film – as usually the beginning of a Q&A is marked by the mass exodus by the majority of the audience.

Tony Rayns began by discussing the outbreak of SARS in Hong Kong in 2003 and why South Korea had no cases (in fact he relayed an anecdote about a study that seemed to prove that Kimchi [picked cabbage, a staple of the South Korea diet, and very delicious) killed the SARS virus). He also asked about the political implications of the film, some of which I note above in my review. Director KIM was reluctant to admit to an explicit political critique, although he admitted that growing up in South Korea at a time of political repression very likely had an unconscious impact on the narrative and spectacle of the film.

In relation to the mass burials (which for me, as above, resonated in terms of the Holocaust  - as it is always about our own cultural frames of references in how we interpret a film), Director KIM talked about the foot and mouth outbreak between 2010-2011 which lead to the mass culling of thousands of pigs as being his point of reference. He talked about the necessity of mass burials happening out of sight so there are no witness (again I cannot help but think about the Holocaust), and said that was his reason for setting the mass murder in a football stadium, which is a space isolated from ordinary life and vision. He went on to say that he used a football stadium to increase the impact of this scene, as a stadium is usually associated with festival and happiness and not despair and death.

There were a number of other questions asked about the use of face masks and dialogue (voices were dubbed in postproduction), the casting of the daughter and an interesting sidebar about there being no regulations to protect child actors in South Korea at the moment. The director admitted that he tried to do his utmost to protect her during the shooting, although at one stage he got her mother to say something to her so that she would cry for real rather than just act sad.

Director KIM finished by saying that he realized that he wasn’t very good at disaster films in line with the typical refreshing honesty of Korean directors to actually admit if they are not altogether happy with their films and wouldn’t be making another one. His next project he said would be an action film. On the basis of this, I shall look forward to it.


Coming Out (KIM Jee-woon: 2000)

At 45 minutes, Coming Out is longer than your average short film and clearly signals the aesthetic and visual vocabulary which will come to define Director Kim’s oeuvre. Hyun-yoo, an attractive young woman, tells her brother, Jae-min, and his girlfriend Ji-eun  that she has a secret that she wants to reveal, but will only do it through the mediation of the camera lens. The secret, that she is a vampire, is one that is initially met with disbelief, and she is forced to demonstrate her vampiric nature to Jae-min and Ji-eun, in order to get them to ‘accept’ her difference.

The title of the film makes it clear that the film is not really about vampirism at all (although that could be argued about all vampire texts) , but rather about ‘coming out’ in relation to sexuality. Indeed the figure of the vampire has been used for centuries to articulate desire outside of the heterosexual matrix. Arguably in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Count’s object of desire is not Mina but rather the rather feeble and feminine Jonathon. Mina is merely the object of exchange between men which effectively allows a disavowal of homosexuality and the implication that same-sex desire has a society built upon compulsory heterosexuality.

Theoretically vampiric desires are often interpreted as examples of pre-oedipal oral desires within a Freudian pop perspective, or perhaps more problematically as articulating the subject’s refusal to leave the imaginary and enter into the symbolic and all that entails (the Lacanian perspective). I say problematically because of the association of the imaginary with narcissism which seems to me to deny homosexual desire a symbolic identity (I am thinking here of Judith Butler’s discussion of unintelligibility) and such refusal thereby continues to prop up the patriarchal order. Theory aside, vampires penetrate rather than are penetrated, orally rather than genitally (a good old displacement), which allows the figuration of other desire in a metaphorical form, even though as often the case with female vampires, it merely provides a mise-en-scene of ‘aberrant’ sexuality for the desirous gaze of the male spectator.

Coming Out is aware of the history of the vampire, including the postmodern reinvention of the vampire as a figure no longer doomed to darkness, or threatened by the mere ‘empty’ presence of religious relics. Instead Kim Jee-woon’s vampire walks in daylight, eats solids rather than merely ingests liquids, and certainly does not sleep in a coffin at night. Indeed, the beginning of Coming Out with the brother reporting the tale of his sister’s revelation of her true identity to a reporter, is reminiscent of the opening to Interview with a Vampire (Neil Jordan).  At the same time, the fact that Hyun-yoo insists on revealing her identity to the camera means that Coming Out is also a meta-narrative on the very nature of cinema and its relation to reality. This is signalled within the re-enactments of events that took have ‘past’ within the ‘present’ with the actors receiving an onscreen credit when they first appear on screen. In a postmodern celebrity obsessed society, ‘reality is television and television is more than reality’ (and yes, I love quoting from Videodrome [Cronenberg: 1983]). However Jae-min and Ji-eun don’t trust the image and insist that Hyun-yoo demonstrate her vampirism, because seeing is believing after all (a contradictory act which reinforces the primacy of the image as spectacle). Again, this is shown to us through a re-enactment, as with a comic touch Hyun-woo deflowers a young Korean schoolgirl in a ‘red’ phonebox, after which they share a cigarette. There is nothing subtle about Coming Out, but then it is not meant to be subtle, Director Kim is not asking the audience to interpret the image but rather to recognise the image for what it is. This is apparent when Ji-eun’s curiosity gets the better of her, and she desires to be bitten and experience the ecstasy that such an act promises. Hyun-yoo concedes to Ji-eun’s desire, and bites Ji-eun on the inner thigh, making the implicit sexual penetration of the vampiric act an explicit depiction of lesbian desire.

Even within the low-budget format of Coming Out, Director Kim’s sense of aesthetic beauty which finds its fulfilment in abject horror is apparent as demonstrated by the painterly canvas with its broad brush strokes of red splattered against a white background which constitutes the cinematic mise-en-scene. The fact that Hyun-yoo having ‘come out’ on camera, then flees to Europe and more specifically to England is a telling fact on the repression of sexual difference in South Korea at the time and indeed where sexual diversity is still not celebrated or fully accepted these days. Coming Out is an important film, both in terms of Kim Jee-woon’s development as a director but also in terms of LGBT cinema in South Korea.

It was a shame that I wasn’t aware of this short when writing about queer cinema in the forthcoming ‘Directory of World Cinema: South Korea’ (Intellect, September 2013), but it will certainly find its way into the next one. [Sorry about the plug folks]


Hide and Seek/Soombakkokjil (Huh Jung: 2013).

The opening film of this year’s London Korean Film Festival, Hide and Seek is a fairly effective variation on the home invasion film. Director Huh’s debut, Hide and Seek was a surprise box-office smash at the South Korean box-office, keeping the big-budget blockbuster, The Flu (Kim Sung-su) from the top.

In Hide and Seek, a bourgeois family, Sung-soo (Son Hyun-joo), his wife (Jeon Mi-sun) and two children, Soo-A (Kim Soo-ahn) and Ho-Se (Jung Joon-won) find their palatial home in an exclusive apartment complex under threat when Sung-soo attempts to find his estranged brother, who he thinks has been spying on him and his family. Sung-soo runs into a middle-aged mother Joo-hee (Moon Jung-hee) and her strange daughter, Pyeong-hwa (Kim Ji-young), who appear at first to be helpful when visiting the run-down and condemned apartment complex where his brother lives. Appearances, however, are deceptive in Hide and Seek, and is it really the estranged brother who is the threat to Sung-soo’s domestic harmony?

The film is nicely shot, and the contrast between the poor and the rich is expressed in visual terms, as a question of space and place, of those that have and those that have not reminding us of the fact that South Korea’s economic miracle was built on the back of workers who were asked to sacrifice their present for the bourgeois future, in which they had no place. The unsympathetic bourgeois family is a convention of the home invasion film, which in South Korea, finds its finest expression in Kim Ki-young’s 1960 masterpiece The Housemaid/Hanyeo. However, because we do not know who the threat to the family is, our sympathies are not split in the way in which they are in The Housemaid, and we do not long for the family’s destruction in quite the same way.

With a number of effective jumps, and twists and turns, Hide and Seek is well worth seeing, especially on the big screen. My only issue was that there was a rather large plothole that was never explained which has to do with Sung-soo’s brother, and it left me with unresolved questions. I believe that this particular narrative thread had been excised due to the running-time, but I would have liked to see it having been left in. I am hopeful for a director’s cut which will include the deleted scenes when the film, as it surely should, makes its way onto DVD. And I look forward with great anticipation to Director Huh’s next film.


Interview with Director Kim Jee-Woon

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Yesterday I was lucky enough to interview one of my favourite South Korean directors, Kim Jee-woon for the second time. If I remember correctly, Director Kim was the first director that I ever interviewed. At least this time, I was less terrified and overwhelmed by the experience. As before, Director Kim was charming and his responses thoughtful.  There was some confusion about whether the interview was a group or individual, and I had prepared for a group interview, so my questions would have been different if I had realised that I was going to be given the opportunity to interview him one-to-one. I only had fifteen minutes, so managed to ask just three questions.

CB: One of the issues in the news at the moment is about cuts to Korean films for international release, e.g. Snowpiercer. In opposition, the international DVD release of I Saw the Devil is different to the Korean DVD release (which we got in the UK). Such changes, as in the case of I Saw the Devil, and The Good, The Bad and The Weird, alter the meaning of the film. How do you feel about having to make changes to your own films for different markets?

KJW: Director Kim explained that the reasons for the differences in the international and Korean cuts of I Saw the Devil and The Good, The Bad and The Weird were different. In relation to I Saw the Devil, cuts were made because the Korean system does not have a restrictive (R or 18) rating, therefore if he had not made cuts in terms of the graphic violence then I Saw the Devil would not have received a theatrical release in Korea (which is a shame because the cannibalism scenes were the most interesting for me).  With The Good, The Bad and The Weird, it was necessary to get the film edited quickly in order for it to be entered into competition at Cannes. In this case, it was the Korean version that was the Director’s cut, as he had longer to actually edit together and produce his directorial version.  Normally therefore it is the Korean versions that should be taken as the director’s cut.

Commentary: I asked this question in light of the ongoing debate about whether Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer will be cut for the international release and also in light of the fact that last year when writing a book chapter about Director Kim’s I Saw The Devil, I mistakenly ended up with the Korean DVD cut of the film and not the international cut. While the Korean cut of I Saw the Devil is longer by 2 minutes I think, most of the references and scenes to do with cannibalism had been cut and replaced with either exposition or in one case an extended sex scene. As I was writing about cannibalism, this then proved to be slightly difficult for me. I was also aware that the international version of The Good, The Bad and the Weird was different to the Korean cut. While such strategies may well be seen as necessary in terms of localization, the end result is that a film’s meaning is altered by such changes.  Of course, the worst example of this is Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985), which when released as Creepers with half an hour missing which rendered the film unintelligible.

In relation to Director Kim’s response, it is interesting to know that in most cases (with the exception of I Saw the Devil and Director Park’s Thirst) the Korean version should be taken as the director’s cut.

CB: You lived in France for a while. How important was this in terms of your subsequent career? (it seems to me that France always made less distinction between art and genre cinema – which is what defines your films.

KJW: I spent 5 months travelling around Europe and 3 months in Paris, during which time I watched over 100 films which gave me a wealth of cinematic knowledge and understanding.

Commentary: There was a bit of mistranslation going on here, and I don’t think Director Kim knew what I was asking (or it might be that I was being a bit unclear with my phrasing of the question). For me the striking feature of Korean cinema is its affinity with French cinema, and my point here was that the type of distinctions between art and genre cinema in French cinematic thought and practice are not mutually exclusive as they tend to be elsewhere. You only have to look at the fact that films by Mario Bava and Dario Argento, both Italian horror film directors, were premiered in France at art-house cinemas, whereas in the US they were much more likely to have appeared on double bills of exploitation cinema for the drive-in crowds.

CB: Despite the fact that The Last Stand opened to mixed reviews, I have read that you are attached to another English language feature Coward. What lessons have you learnt from The Last Stand that you will be able to put to use with Coward? (based upon graphic novels).

KJW: The Last Stand was difficult as the studio system in the US is very different to the system in South Korea. The shorting days were shorter, as was the shoot itself. In the US, you are answerable to producers, the studio, actors, assistant directors and thus has less say over the final product. Having experienced this, I believe that it will be easier making Coward as I now understand how the system operates. I also feel as it is a noir film that it will fit in with my style better.

Commentary: I was particularly interested to read that he had signed on for another English-language production despite the fact that The Last Stand had not done particularly well either critically or commercially, unlike Park Chan-wook’s Stoker which did very well critically although not commercially. Very few foreign directors had managed the transition, especially those who have a very strong directorial signature. The horror stories about experiences with studios that foreign directors have had are well-known.  At the same time, I fully understand a director’s desire to take on additional challenges and be able to address the widest audience possible, and have no problems with the fact that foreign directors attempt to make this transition. Success stories though are few, John Woo mainly managed it, Hideo Nakata flunked badly and Dario Argento said that after the experience of Trauma he would never again make a film in the US again (one can only wish that he had kept to this promise).

Do I think that Director Kim will have a better experience this time? I am not sure, I hope he does, but at the same time fear that his strong aesthetic sensibility and imagistic vocabulary will be contained. I live in hope and wish Director Kim the best of luck.

Thanks to the Korean Cultural Centre UK for arranging the interview, and of course to Director Kim for being so generous with his time. Apologies for any mistakes in transcribing his responses. 

The reviews of Director Kim’s shorts and the Q&A session that followed will be posted shortly.


London Korean Film Festival 2013: My Picks

This year sees the 8th London Korean Film Festival with premieres, retrospectives and a variety of film-related events. The Festival takes place between 7th and 16th in November, with additional screenings in Bradford and Oxford between 16th and 22nd November. Year on Year, the LKFF continues to grow and offers audiences a diverse range of Korean films from children’s films, animation, romantic comedies to art house independent cinema.

MY TOP PICKS

Thursday, 7th November 2013 – Opening Gala: Hide and Seek 

Hide and Seek/Soombakkokjil (dir. HUH Jung: 2013). This low-budget thriller topped the Korean Box-Office on its release in August, and looks intriguing and hopefully suitably creepy. After the film will be a Q&A with actor SON Hyun-joo and Korean film expert Tony Rayns.

Venue: Odeon West End. Time: 7:00 pm.

Saturday 9th November 2013 – Rough Play & Kim Jee-Woon Shorts

Rough Play/Baewooneun (dir. SHIN Yeon-shick, 2013). This drama stars Lee Joon of the K-Pop group, MBLAQ, and I am anticipating hoards of screaming girls judging by the posts under the trailer on the Asian Wiki page. And the screenplay was written by KIM Ki-Duk, enough said then.

Venue: Odeon Panton Street. Time: 1:45pm.

KIM Jee-woon shorts: One Perfect Day/Sarangui Gawibawibo (Romance, 34 mins, 2013);  Heavenly Creature (Sci-fi drama, 34 mins, 2012); Present (Thriller 30 mins, 2009) and Coming Out (Horror, 45 mins, 2000). Following the screening is a Q&A with KIM Jee-woon.

One of my favourite directors, this is a no-brainer for me.

Venue: Odeon Covent Garden. Time:  7:00 pm.

Sunday 10th November 2013 – Pluto

Pluto/Myungwangsung (dir.  SHIN Su-won, 2012).  This critique of the highly competitive Korean education system has been garnering rave reviews, especially in terms of the uniqueness of the cinematic style. One not to be missed and SHIN Su-won seems to be a force to be reckoned with on the basis of the success of his directorial debut.

Venue: Odeon Covent Garden. Time: 8.45 pm.

Monday 11th November 2013 – Flu

The Flu/Gamgi (dir. KIM Sung-woo, 2013). Very timely given the time of year, this is one film where the addition of sniffs and sneezes from the audience will function to add to the atmosphere rather than the irritation. This is followed by a Q&A with director KIM Sung-woo.

Venue: Odeon Covent Garden. Time: 7:00 pm.

Tuesday 12th November 2013 – Korean Cinema Forum & Hope

Korean Cinema Forum. Directors KANG Woo-suk and KIM Sung-soo and film critics Tony Rayns and OH Dong-jim will be on hand to answer questions and give insights into the Korean Film Industry. Always a good choice.

Venue: KCCUK. Time: 4:00 pm.

Wednesday 13th November 2013 – Behind the Camera & Hope

Behind the Camera/ Dwitdamhwa: Gamdokyi Micheotseoyo (dir. E  J-yong, 2013). This mockumentary is by one of Korea’s most interesting contemporary directors and is followed by a Q&A with the director and actress YOUN Yuh-jung.

Hope (Wish)/ Sowon (dir. LEE Joon-ik, 2013 ). Followed by a Q&A with actor SOL  Kyung-gu. .

I was lucky enough to chat with the director LEE Joon-ik last year, and he was a really lovely man whose films never fail to please. I am so pleased that threats of abandoning the film industry have not come true, LEE Joon-ik would be a real loss if he stopped making such engaging films – although this one seems to be darker than usual. I am really looking forward to this one. [This is also showing on Thursday at the Kingston Odeon]

Venue: Odeon Covent Garden . Time: 6:00 pm.

Thursday  14th November 2013 – Fatal

Fatal/Gashi Ggot (LEE Don-ku: 2013), Odeon Panton Street, 6:30 pm. Can you ever be forgiven or indeed forgive yourself for complicity in an act of sexual violence? Director LEE Don-ku’s film grapples with an emotive topic with sensitivity and nuance.

Venue: Odeon Panton Street. Time: 6:30 pm.

Friday 15th November 2013 – Closing Gala –  Boomerang Family

Boomerang Family (dir. SONG Hae-sung), Seeing my picks have all been a bit gloomy as I veer towards the dark side in my cinematic choices, it seems apt that the box-topping comedy, Boomerang Family closes the London strand of the Festival and should cheer me up. The film  is followed by a Q&A with director SONG Hae-sung, actors YOON Je-moon and YOUN Yuh-jung, and critic Tony Rayns.

Credit goes to Philip Gowman of London Korean Links for putting together the schedule from which I have used rather liberally here.  His painstaking work can be found here  Full Schedule London Korean Film Festival.

Here is the Official Page: London Korean Film Festival 2013 which gives more details about the films to be screened and how to book tickets.


Choi Min-sik: The Interview

Attending the group interview of Choi Min-sik at BAFTA was without doubt the highlight of my year. Charming, modest and humorous, Choi was a delight to interview and opened up about his career to date to the assembled Asian film bloggers and writers.

While Choi Min-sik has become inseparable from the iconic vengeful victim Oh Dae-su in OldBoy, he is one of South Korea’s most respected actors with a long career dating back to 1989 when he appeared in Kuro Arirang directed by Park Chong-won. Since, he appeared in some of the most successful South Korean films of all time including Shiri /Swiri (Kang Je-Gyu: 1999) and The Brotherhood of War/Taegukgi (Kang Je-Gyu: 2004) – playing a North Korean ‘anti-hero’ in both. In between these two block-busters, Choi Min-sik took on the role of the legendry nineteenth century painter, Jang Seung-Up, in Im Kwon-taek’s Chihwaseon (2002). Although Choi Min-sik has played some meditative characters, including  Kang-jae, a washed up gangster who enters into a marriage of convenience with the beautiful Failan (Cecilia Cheung) in Song Hae-Sung’s 2001 film of the same name, and Choi in Himalaya, Where the Wind Dwells, a white collar executive who finds spiritual enlightenment when delivering the remains of a Nepalese migrant to his family, Choi Min-sik is better known – particularly in the West where he will forever be associated with Oh Dae-su – for his action roles, particularly those that explore the brutal side of human nature.

The Interview (please note that the questions and answers are from the transcribed interview by Paul Quinn of Hangul Celluloid). 

I was interested to discover when researching for the group interview that Choi Min-sik had actually taken the script of I Saw the Devil to Kim Jee-woon, which formed the basis of my first question.

Dr. Colette Balmain: I would like to ask a question about I Saw the Devil: I read that you were the one who took the script to director Kim Jee-woon and I wondered what attracted you to it since the character you play has really no redeeming qualities or characteristics at all; it’s a very evil character?

Choi Min-sik: When I first saw the script what I felt was this person could only have been born this way with evil genes. He looks like everyone else but the way he was born and who he became felt incredibly sad to me. However, the victim who had been sacrificed by this utter psychopath and having been embroiled in a huge amount of sadness and anger transformed into a devil that’s even worse than the psychopath; I found that idea and process very interesting – almost a reversal of the origins of violence. I felt that the two characters being gridlocked in these extreme acts as the audience watches the process would also be of interest to those viewers and would in some way contaminate them, in the process, and what lay beyond the acts of violence of the two men played by Lee Byung-hun and myself was what I really found interesting. The violence in I Saw the Devil grows to such an extreme that it almost becomes comedic, in a sense, and objectively watching it you can see members of the audience laughing because they realise it’s so outrageous and I wanted to look at that contamination of violence and violation that takes place. I also wanted to share society being rather overwhelmed with act of violence in the world we live in now, and share the terror and feelings of fear that come with that.

My comments: I found Choi Min-sik’s philosophical response about violence as a form of contamination particularly instructive especially as someone who writes about and teaches extreme cinema. Media panic around violent cinema (and of course video games) for me functions merely as a mechanism through which to divert societal/governmental responsibility from socio-economic issues that impact on the prevalence (and I am not saying that deprivation is the only reason for violence, but that it is a formative one in many cases) of real-life violence. Moral outrage over violent cinema also does not take into account the viewer’s relationship to the screen, or indeed the manner in which violent films such as I Saw The Devil engage the viewer into an act of complicity with that violence by making us aware of the cinematic frame. By doing this, it is our desire to see violence and enjoy that violence that is being foregrounded – in these terms, I Saw The Devil provides a critical commentary on violence rather than a how to do it guide as the press and politicians would have us believe.

(Interestingly enough although we were all trying not to ask Choi Min-sik about Spike Lee’s recently release remake of OldBoy, or indeed specific questions about the original, when I did eventually come around to the topic, Choi Min-sik response was both enthusiastic and illuminating (making me wish that perhaps I had asked the question sooner).

Dr. Colette Balmain: I wanted to ask about Oldboy: When I showed Oldboy to my students, I think it resonated with them more than any other film I’ve ever taught. There’s something in Oldboy that is very Korean but it’s also universal as well – there is something that speaks outside of Korea in a very direct way. Given that and given the remake that’s about to come out, how do you feel about remakes of Korean films? And I know many of my students are horrified that Oldboy is being remade, even by Spike Lee.

Choi Min-sik: Today at lunch, I was at the headquarters of Universal which shot the remake of Oldboy and they had a very “sorry” attitude towards me [Choi Min-sik laughs]. I had huge expectations for the film and to have Josh Brolin, who I consider to be an excellent actor, play my role I felt was extremely positive but when I told them I was full of expectations they replied that I really shouldn’t have high expectations for the film at all. However, I think they were being very modest and I think they were just treating me with according respect as the actor who was in the original film. I am very expectant of how the remake will be, I’m greatly anticipating it and I think it will be very interesting to see how a different culture interprets the story.

My commentary: I really liked this response as I feel exactly the same way about remakes. Yes, they might not work some, or indeed most, of the time but that it can be interesting to see how another culture interprets the same story. And I often argue that a remake can lead a viewer to the original, which for me has to be a win-win solution for everyone involved – even if it is just too say how much better the original is.

My concluding thoughts: Choi Min-sik is one of his generation’s truly great actors – and as Mark Morris pointed out in the Q&A after the screening of Nameless Gangster (my review will follow shortly) – not just of South Korean cinema but of cinema. In person, he is charming and irrepressible and extremely modest for an actor with such an outstanding body of work.  It is not often you get to meet a cinematic hero, but thanks to the Korean Cultural Centre UK and BAFTA I did just that. I am still slightly overwhelmed by the experience. Despite masquerading as an academic, I am at heart a fan who cannot believe her luck at what she gets to do for a living.

Thanks to Paul Quinn of Hangul Celluloid for transcribing the interview, which you can find in full  here: Choi Min-sik Group Interview

Again thanks to the KCCUK for making this possible.


Citizen Jia Li (Sky Crompton, Australia: 2011)

Citizen Jia Li is the feature film debut by Sky Compton, and portrays three days in the life of Jia Li. Jia Li (Claudia Teh) is a Chinese Immigrant living in Melbourne, where she works off the books as a hairdresser and lives in a run-down apartment block, preparing for her twin brother and parents to join her for a new life in Australia. It is ironic therefore that on the day that she receives official notification of her citizenship, she loses not just her job but her home. With nowhere to go, Jia Li moves in with Daisy (Susanna Qian), a would-be rock goddess who struggles with her Chinese/Japanese mixed heritage, who she worked with at the hairdressers before being sacked for refusing to continue to work cash in hand. Complicating this slice-of-life is the tangential narrative of Kong (Chris Pang), gangster who works for some nameless triad collecting protection money who is in love with Jia Li and cannot come to terms with the fact that she has rejected him. The two narratives interweave – Jia Li’s as she tries to find somewhere to live and Kong’s as he desperately searches for her. Will the two lovers be reunited or will Jia Li strike out for herself as an independent woman?

The premise for Citizen Jia Li is an interesting one, and the acting performances good, but an over-complicated narrative structure and some plot inconsistencies prevent it from realising its potential. While the contrast between Kong’s and Jia Li’s lives as Chinese immigrants is interesting in narrative terms, it comes across as contrived and there is no real substance to their relationship. In addition, I was sidetracked wondering how Jia Li could possibly have enough money to purchase the equipment for the salon that offers her the life that she wants for herself and her family, after all she had not only just lost her job, but she had not been paid for her last week’s work. Yes, this could have been her life savings, but why then can she not find anywhere to live and therefore ends up living with Daisy. In addition, if we are to have sympathy for Daisy’s predicament, then the character would need to be multi-dimensional rather than a perpetually happy and optimistic young woman as she is portrayed. In opposition, Jia Li is permanently pessimistic and passive and while there is a degree of authenticity in Claudia Teh’s performance, she is a particularly irritating protagonist who waits for opportunities to come along rather than taking her destiny into her own hands. Having said this, the friendship between the two young women and their interactions is where the film succeeds the most. It seemed to me that there was a lost opportunity here, as a coming-out story the film would have been much more interesting and provocative, especially when the strength of the film lies in the two women’s relationship.

The problem with Citizen Jia Li is that it is overly ambitious for a low-budget feature; Kong’s narrative weakens the film rather than strengthening it. Trying to deal with the complexity of diasporic Asian-Australian communities – and the different lives of those within the communities – Citizen Jia Li tries to cover too much ground and too many experiences. The concept was a good one, but the execution flawed. If it had concentrated on giving the viewer a snapshot of immigrant life by focalizing the narrative through Jia Li – rather than getting distracted by gangster life – then it would have given the viewer a more convincing portrait of immigrant life in Melbourne. Having said this, Citizen Jia Li is well-worth watching, the cinematography is good for a low-budget film, and the performances sound. It will be interesting to see how the director chooses to follow up his debut, which has had a great deal of success on the film-festival circuit, and demonstrates a degree of proficiency that hint at good things to come.


Survey on Korean Popular Culture in the UK

I am writing a chapter on Korean Popular Culture in the UK for a publication about the popularity of Korean Popular Culture in Europe and wanted to include an audience study as part of the chapter.  If you live in the UK and are interested in Korean Popular Culture in any form, I would be grateful if you could spend 10 minutes filling in the form.  All participants will remain anonymous.

Thanks

Colette

Clicking on the link below will download a copy of the form, which you can save, and complete.

SurveyonKoreanCultureintheUKonlineupdate


Curse, Death and Spirit (NAKATA Hideo, 1992).

Curse, Death and Spirit is a compilation of 3 episodes of the popular Honto ni Atta Kowai Hanashi/Scary stories that really happenedNorowareta Ningyō/The Cursed Doll; Shiryō no Taki/The Spirit of the Dead and Yūrei no Sumu Ryokan/The Haunted Inn. Although Nakata had previously directed a short thirty minute film, Natsugetsu Monogatari/Summer moon story, Curse, Death and Spirit  arguably are what brought Nakata to the attention of Hiroshi Takehashi who co-wrote the script for Ghost Actress, Nakata’s directorial debut and with whom Nakata worked with on both of the Japanese Ring films.

The episodes are pretty bog standard Japanese ‘scary tales’, but the brevity of the narratives are well suited to Nakata’s minimalist directing style – which has not changed much over the years – and the focus on horror as emanating from within the family, in particular the relationship between the mother and child, a solid foundation for both Ring and Dark Water. The now over- familiar figure of the vengeful female ghost or yurei, functioning as the return of the repressed, adds a consistency of theme as well as vision which unites the three episodes.

THE CURSED DOLL

The Cursed Doll has a doll possessed by the spirit of a young girl who returns to haunt her sister, who has no memory of her. While the theme of dolls coming to life is sufficiently creepy, the doll never appears life-like and is obviously being positioned, pulled and pushed in scenes affecting the believability of this so-called scary true-life story.

THE SPIRIT OF THE DEAD

In The Spirit of The Dead, the ghost of the past who threatens the present is a mother who lost her young son while camping in the woods, whose unquiet spirit haunts the woods attempting to be reunited with her lost son. However, unable to differentiate between her son and those of other women, she takes their lives in an attempt to have her son with her in the afterlife. While the performances are nicely realized, and the appearances of the ghost eerie, the end is a tad predictable.

THE HAUNTED INN

The best episode, or the one I like the most, is The Haunted Inn, which to me seems to have a great deal of potential as a feature length film. Here, three young school girls visit an old inn and come face to face with the unhappy ghost of the family of the previous occupants of the inn. The use of a video-camera by the girls to capture their break, and the appearance of the ghost with her long black hair obscuring her face, broken body and white costume are precognitions of the future which become fully visualized in RIng.

The three episodes are available as an extra on the Tartan release of Nakata’s  Kaosu/Chaos (1999).

Or they are available on DVD, via Amazon –  Curse, Death and Spirit


HENGE (Hajime Ohata: 2011)

When her husband, Yoshiaki Kadota (Kazunari Aizawa) starts suffering from strange fits and hallucinating that he is being taken over by giant bugs, Keiko (Aki Morita) tries to help him by calling in an old friend, Minoru Sakashita (Teruhiko Nobukuni) that Yoshiaki was at medical school with. At a loss of what to do, Yoshiaki allows Sakashita to take Yoshiaki away in order to try and discover what is causing his fits. However Sakashita is more interested in Keiko than curing Yoshiaki and coveting his friend’s wife will turn out to be a deadly affair when Yoshiaki discovers Sakashita trying to convince Keiko to run away with him. The bonds between husband and wife however are threatened when Keiko discovers that not only does her husband transform into a giant monster but that he is behind a series of brutal murders that have left the police baffled. Will Keiko stand by her man/monster?

With shades of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915) as reconfigured in Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), Henge manages to combine almost seamlessly a powerful love story and the daikajiu genre. This is due both to the skilful direction of Ohata and the nuanced performances of the leads, which means by the time that Henge becomes an out-and-out monster film; we are already invested in the characters and care more about Yoshiaki and Keiko than the monster being defeated. Henge is a must see for anyone who is a fan of the daikajiu genre and/or monster films more generally as well as fans of Japanese horror cinema. This is a film that transcends genre restrictions, and I would highly recommend seeing it on the big screen.

Henge is playing as part of the Terror Cotta Horror Night, in association with Fright Fest that is taking place Friday, 7th June 2013. You can book tickets directly from Prince Charles Cinema


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