Friday, March 2, 2012

In the Thick of It: Korean Films past, future, and right now plus the arrival of Love Will Tear Us Apart!

It’s been a sudden burst of activity here in New York on the Korean Film front, with movies I’ve been able to experience within the past week and much to look forward to in the very near future.

The New York Korean Film Festival is an event that seems to occur semi-annually, often so quickly that if you blink it will pass you by.  This year’s affair was no exception, with 6 films crammed into one weekend at BAM.  I was able to catch 2 action films, HINDSIGHT and QUICK, which I hope to put together some coherent thoughts on in the days to come.  Another film shown at the festival was the murderous suspense tale MOSS, which I wrote about here a few months ago.

The Korean Cultural Service continues its fantastic biweekly series of films, all screened for free, at Tribeca Cinemas.  They have been reeling in particularly large crowds in recent weeks, with this week’s screening of WHITE NIGHT leaving no seat unoccupied and some film fans having to wait for an opportunity to enter mid-movie.  It is an excellent thought provoking murder mystery (of sorts) with an amazing back story rooted in Japanese literature.  DBBORROUGHS has written about here and I also hope to present my take on.  The next series of films to come are of a much lighter variety: romantic comedies CYRANO AGENCY, MY GIRLFRIEND IS A SECRET AGENT, and PETTY ROMANCE.

The big guns are about to come out as Friday, March 2nd marks the beginning of the Love Will Tear Us Apart series at Japan Society.  It is an extremely ambitious assemblage of films from Japan, as well as Korea, perhaps a sign of some strong ties between the two nations’ film scene (as with the aforementioned White Night).  It is a welcome barrage after a relatively low key year of Asian cinema.  I say that with last year in mind, which was extraordinarily jam packed with Asian movie opportunities.  By this time in 2011, there had been retrospectives for Sabu, Miike, and Kim Ji-woon in different New York City venues.

Besides the pleasant mix of films from Japan and Korea, this fest also stands out for sticking consistently to a theme: as its title suggest, twisted love.  Be it failed, abnormal, or self-annihilating.  It’s also pretty cool how some great master directors (Shinya Tsukamoto, Kim Ki-Duk) have been tapped for a few different films, so within this one festival you have the opportunity to experience a few short retrospectives.

This is definitely an event to read up on and carefully because there are interesting happenings all over it.  For instance, several of the films will be introduced by a someone from a Chinese university film studies  department (so be sure to swap out the contacts for some scholarly spectacles on those days).  Opening night film KOTOKO (3/2) will be preceded by a short film ROMANCE (whose school girl gone deadly femme fatale graces the program’s website).  SNAKES AND EARRINGS (3/16) will follow a Korean short film, HAIR (from the director of SAVE THE GREEN PLANET) so if you already saw Snakes and Earrings at the New York Asian Film Festival a few years ago, you still have something potentially new to look forward to there.  

Here are a few picks among the films that I’ve seen and admired (in some cases ‘enjoyed’ would not be quite appropriate).

A SNAKE OF JUNE (3/3)  More than a small dose of eroticism here.  This was a return to form for Shinya Tsukamoto, harkening back to the sheer mesmerizing design and cinematography of TETSUO: IRON MAN.  Like that film, it was shot in black and white, but with a haunting wash of blue.  It looks at a stagnating relationship and what happens when a third volatile element (played by Tsukamoto himself) is thrown into the mix.  What results is sexual fetishism centered around power and control in the form of remote control vibrator play, a voyeuristic cult whose members wear oddly shaped metal helmets, and a LOT of rain.

BAD GUY (3/10)  Kim Ki-duk’s bittersweet film about a Korean enforcer, used to getting his way, who can’t accept rejection from a girl from sheltered higher society.  He arranges to have her forced into prostitution in the red light district he and a his gang call home.  The captor’s revenge turns into desire.  The captive’s hatred turns to love.  There is more to the titular intimidator than meets the eye.  The setting takes place largely in a picturesque town of brightly colored transparent shades, behind which girls pose for attention.  It is  sullied by exploitation yet strangely dream like, and to this day I wonder if or how much it is based on an actual location.  There is also a beautiful soundtrack, the highlight of which is a slow burning  Italian song that reminds me of early Portishead.  

DREAM (3/10) PossiblyKim Ki-Duk’s most surreal film, and one that emphasizes the Japanese-Korean connection.  The male lead is played by Odagiri Jo who, without any rationale, speaks Japanese to female counterpart Lee Na-Young’s Korean throughout.  It is a subtly imaginative what if scenario that finds one character’s dreams being acted out by the other in an unconsciously active state.  The two act out a relationship created but also doomed by this strange circumstance.  Jo portrays a sculpture and his tools take on the same level of symbolism you might find in a David Cronenberg film, with equally lethal potential.

OASIS (3/18) Misery, despair, pain, frustration.  This movie by Lee Chang-dong, the director who went on to make widely the revered SECRET SUNSHINE and POETRY, made me want to hide under a blanket and remain there for a week.  It is my go to when people ask me about the most depressing movie I’ve ever seen.  Yes I have watched films about more tragic occurrences, many of them straight out of real life.  But nothing can quite crush my soul like a story about two outcasts from society, born into a world adversity due to mental and physical disabilities, whose one simple desire to appreciate the happiness they find with each other is squashed by a stifling society.  An innocent man whose limited mental capacity leads him to often end up a misfit comes across a woman with cerebral palsy and commits what can best be described as rape.  This is at least some form of attention.  The neglect her family subjects her to is just a part of this scathing depiction of Korean society.  A relationship blossoms during which you need to grasp onto any strands of joy you can find before they slip away because as you can imagine, it will end in tears.

The Love Will Tear Us Apart trailer

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