Parasite (Gisaengchung, South Korea, 2019)

Happy families

While I’m delighted Bong Yong Ho’s film has won a handful of Oscars I can’t claim, with the exception of Memories of Murder, that I ‘get’ his films. Snowpiercer (South Korea-Czech Republic, 2003), for example, shared a ‘battle through a train’ narrative with Train to Busan, but was nowhere near as good. To be fair Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ Weinstein may have ruined Bong’s film, though I read somewhere that a TV spin-off is going to emphasise the class warfare more; maybe this is what the ogre cut out. Similarly, Okja (South Korea-US, 2013), on Netflix, left me cold.

Class warfare, however, is at the heart of Parasite which I thoroughly enjoyed. The brilliant Song Kang-ho plays the dad of a down and out family living in a half-basement apartment and eking out a living where they can, such as folding pizza boxes as pictured above. Although very different in tone, this set up is similar to Kore-eda Hirokazu’s brilliant Shoplifters (which, like Parasite, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes). The family manage to inveigle themselves as servants to an extremely wealthy family and then… Bong asked for no spoilers so I won’t. It’s enough to say the film is brilliantly conceived, executed with superb performances.

At the lunchtime screening I attended at a multiplex there was a decent audience, no doubt some were motivated by the Oscar win announced the day before. Two people left about 30 minutes before the end and probably felt they’d been misled; Oscar winners are often middle-brow bland affairs. The last time a foreign language films crossed over into the mainstream in the UK (and Parasite reportedly took £1m in its first two days before the Oscar wins) was early in the century with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long, Taiwan-Hong Kong-US-China, 2000) Amélie (Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, France-Germany, 2001) and Hero (Ying xiong, China-Hong Kong, 2002). Apparently, for one of these films at least, ushers were ensuring people knew that the films were subtitled before they entered the screening such is the antipathy some people have for reading. It’s great that non English-language films get celebrated and the fact that this is the first time one has one Best Picture shows how ridiculous the Oscars are; as if only Americans (and occasionally British) make great movies! I doubt that it will lead to renaissance in film culture in the UK and America; Parasite will simply be a ‘must-see’ for the bourgeoisie. The fact that multiplexes are running the film also means independent cinemas (my local doesn’t get it for a couple of weeks) are missing out; I will go and see it again. On a more optimistic note, Scott Roxborough reckons that people are ready for subtitles now because of Netflix.

Back to the film: there are some stunning ‘set pieces’ and it is very funny in places. I was bowled over by the journey home the family make during a rain storm. Bong films their descent (literally) from the luxury home to their hovel. The humour is often throwaway: the poor mum (Lee Jeong-eun) is an ex-hammer thrower and in one scene, in the garden of the rich, she flings one into the distance; far on the right of the soundscape we can just hear a tinkle of glass and an alarm.

No doubt Bong will be able to finance his next film with relatively little difficulty. And maybe one or two of the audience who enjoy Parasite will be motivated to look at more South Korean cinema and go beyond Hollywood’s hegemony. I’ll need to return to Bong’s early works because now I might ‘get’ them. If you’re interested the Korean Film Council have planted a ton of classic films here.

Train to Busan (Busanhaeng, South Korea, 2016)

They are going to get you

It’s 50 years since George A. Romero revitalised the zombie movie with Night of the Living Dead and Yeon Sang-ho show’s there’s satirical life in it still with this entertaining bloodfest. The spin is ‘zombies on a train’ and the social satire is at the expense of corporate Korea, though I guess hedge fund executives are the same everywhere.

Horror, particularly of the gory kind, tends to become less appealing as you age not because you become squeamish but you’ve been taken out of your visceral comfort zone often enough thank you. Yeon’s direction, though, as is often the case in Korean cinema, is kinetic enough to grab the attention and the characters are well-drawn enough to be both sympathetic and hated. It’s difficult to hate zombies as they know not what they do so a good human villain is necessary.

The protagonist is taking his neglected daughter to Busan when the shit hits the train and he convincingly regains his humanity whilst battering back the undead hordes. Ma Dong-seok’s working class hero is a great character channeling the humour of The Good, the Bad and the Weird into the pathos of a man trying to do the right thing.

Train to Busan was Yeon Sang-ho’s first live action feature; it followed Seoul Station which is described as a sequel in places but its links to the later film is simply ‘zombies in Korea’. A genuine sequel is following.

Breathless (Ddongpari, South Korea, 2008)

How to like the despicable

How to like the despicable

Whilst most of the Korean films I watch are beautifully framed, Jang Ik-joon’s debut features the long-lens, hand held close up that gives an edgy, uncomfortable look to proceedings. It’s entirely appropriate as the film’s protagonist is Sang-Hoon (played by Jang who also wrote the script), an unhinged debt collector who is as likely to beat up his associates as their victims. He meets school girl Yeon-Hue (Kim Kot-bi) when he spits on her… you get the picture.

However, the more we learn about Sang-Hoon’s upbringing the more we understand his behaviour. It would be stretching a point that the film gets us to actually like the thug, but we do come to understand why he is the way he is. Yeon-Hue, too, is a product of a dysfunctional family though she responds with feistiness rather than violence. Presumably that’s to do with gender, how females and males are socially constructed; South Korea is portrayed as an extremely patriarchal society.

Jang has yet to direct another film but has acted in many others; I’m looking forward to seeing more of his work.

Bedevilled (Kim Bok-nam salinsageonui jeonmal, S.Korea, 2010)

The reaper is grimeth

The reaper is grimeth

This film reminded me of The Naked Island as it’s set on an isolated ‘backwater’ in East Asia. Whilst the Japanese film focuses on the battles against the inhospitable environment, Bedevilled (a pretty rubbish title – anyone know what the original title is in English?) focuses on the misogyny of the ‘throwback’ inhabitants. Hae-won (Seong-won Ji) returns to her birthplace having spent 15 years in Seoul; it’s evidently not made her a nice person as she abuses a co-worker and refuses a ‘nice old lady’ a loan. In addition, she refuses to testify against three violent men who she’d witnessed beating up a woman. Hoping the escape from her present in her past, with her girlhood friend Bok-nam, Hae-won finds…

I won’t spoil but as the image above attests we find ourself increasingly inhabiting a horror film. I find it’s often the case, in East Asian cinema (sorry wild generalisation ahead), that when the tone of a film changes it’s done ‘full throttle’. There’s no sense at all that ‘good taste’ has anything to do with the use of genre and that’s how it should be.  As usual, the direction is immaculate with beautiful compositions the norm, rather than the exception, which is usually the case in Hollywood.

As the film gets, literally, more hysterical, as the abused woman unleashes her fury, the film offers a devastating critique of patriarchy; the older women on the island are all complicit. In one scene, a knife is fellated – see below.

Off-putting

Off-putting

If Tartan Video’s Asia Extreme label was still in operation, it would be marketed under the moniker. As one reviewer stated, the film is ‘Able to make a statement while providing plenty of sex and gore.‘ In other words, ‘titillation and visceral shock included’. It’s an inherently male way of categorising films, I think; the focus on transgressive, and exploitative, images. However, it is quite clear that the reviewer entirely appreciated the film’s condemnation of patriarchy: a case of having and eating cake?

 

Swiri (South Korea, 1999)

More heroic bloodshed

More heroic bloodshed

Directed, like Brotherhood, by Kang Je-kye, Swiri was the first South Korean blockbuster and, as such, a statement of confidence in an industry that was emerging from being a political football for the whole of its history. The plot concerns an attempt by North Korean agents to blow up the Presidents of both North and South in order to force reunification; I’m not sure of the details but the main heavy is played Choi Min-sik so whatever he says is good for me. Choi is probably best known in the west for his role as the titular Oldboy (Oldeuboi, 2003); he also appeared in Brotherhood. The ‘undercover’ spy narrative may be more intense in a divided country like Korea as the different are, essentially, the same. And this is well used in Swiri as the protagonist, convincingly played by Han Suk-kyu, finds his loyalty divided.

Less convincing for me were the action sequences which often lacked credibility. For example, the bad guy’s trapped in a theatre, starts shooting; cut: he’s being chased outside. Hollywood action cinema does the same but maybe not usually quite so blatantly. I was tiring of hearing the rattle of empty bullet cases so I was watching the wrong movie.

Brotherhood (Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo, South Korea, 2004)

Brothers at war

Brothers at war

Although this was the most expensive film ever made by the South Korean film industry at the time, it was only budgeted at $13m. It looks a considerable amount more with numerous impressive set pieces both in Seoul and Pyongyang and on the battlefield. Its release just after the 50th anniversary of the Korean war’s end no doubt contributed to its box office success. It’s clearly influenced by Saving Private Ryan (US 1998) with a framing device set in the present and visceral battle sequences that have an immersive quality. Dramatically the film works well by focusing on two brothers who, unsurprisingly, end up on opposing sides. It’s a powerful metaphor for the particular circumstance of a country at war with itself. The leads Jang Dong-gun and Won Bin are excellent and, despite the on-going hostility within the partitioned peninsula, the film doesn’t whitewash South Korean atrocities. Indeed, the most chilling scene in the film is when so-called Communist collaborators in Seoul are being rounded up and executed on the flimsiest of evidence. The influence of Hong Kong’s ‘heroic bloodshed’ is apparent in a number of the superhuman battles that the older brother engages in. Clearly we are not in realist territory here and it is interesting the degree to which it seems necessary that the male body be bloodied in the action genre. This is certainly not limited to the East; Paul Willeman argued that such violence on the male body, in the westerns of Anthony Mann, was a way of repressing the erotic component of the male look on the male body. Ultimately I found the sentimentality of the film slightly off-putting. However, as a film about a war that is under-represented, in the west at least, it is certainly worth watching. Whilst the brilliant American sitcom M.A.S.H. (1972-83) was set in Korea, it wasn’t about that particular war.

Samaritan Girl, (Samaria, S.Korea, 2004)

Growing up too quickly

Growing up too quickly

The DVD cover of this film features a nun and behind her is a woman who appears to be in the process of having her clothes taken off. The marketing for the film is a ‘come on’ suggesting something kinky: nuns and sex. Unless I missed something, the nun doesn’t feature in this Kim Ki-duk film but it does deal with teenage prostitution; which some may find kinky. It’s easy to see why feminists woman the barricades against Kim’s films, his female characters are regularly prostitutes, however Chang  Hye-seung, in her The Films of Kim Ki-du, is a convincing advocate who argues against Kim’s misogyny.

In keeping with Kim’s ‘extreme’ reputation, the ‘samaritan girl’ is a teenage prostitute; her age isn’t given but she looks around 14 or 15. Jae-yeong is raising money for a trip to Europe, with her friend Yeo-jin, who is reluctantly Jae-yeong’s pimp. A typically disturbing set up then but, despite the subject matter, Kim eschews exploitative imagery and uses the narrative to investigate ‘coming of age’. True, it’s a ‘coming of age’ unlikely to be experienced by many but Kim is more interested in the psychodrama than realism.

Spoilers ahead. Jae-yeong dies, after jumping from a motel window to avoid the police; disturbingly she seems to be smiling when she does this. In memory of her friend Yeo-jin then has sex with her friend’s clients, returning the money they paid. The film’s in three parts: (1) ‘Vasumitra’, named after a prostitute in ancient times whose clients were converted to Buddhism, something Jae-yeong is trying to emulate; (2) ‘Samaria’, when Yeo-jin pays the money back and succeeds, at least in part, in getting the men to think about their actions in having sex with a minor; (3) ‘Sonata’ where Yeo-jin’s dad, a policeman who discovers what’s she’s doing, takes her on a journey into the countryside (and the past) – the ‘Sonata’ refers to the car. 

The journey into the countryside, where her dad’s motivations are uncertain, is one into tradition. They stay one night in basic accommodation as the guest of a stranger, clearly setting up this space as positive against Seoul’s city life which, presumably, inspired Jae-yeong’s behaviour. Her dad spent the second part of the film trying to prevent Yeo-jin’s clients getting to her; despite his obvious affection for his daughter (his wife is dead) he clearly cannot bring himself to discuss what she is doing. In a brilliant scene, he confronts one of his daughter’s clients whilst he is having a family meal. When confronted, in such a context, with the fact he had sex with a minor he does, what some might consider, the honourable  thing from several floors up. This is superbly staged with the violence happening just offscreen; so as not Asia extreme.

Chang discusses the final section as dramatising female rebirth, as her father sets her free of patriarchy, outside the ‘phallocentric’ symbolic order’. I must confess this is not how I understood it when watching the film, however the reading is convincing and demonstrates that Kim’s feminist detractors are misreading his films. However, I think they can be forgiven for doing so as Samaritan Girl is obscure.

Kim isn’t the only filmmaker to be criticised for his use of prostitutes in his film. Godard’s work often did the same and it is difficult to argue against the idea that the character is often used in a misogynist fashion: it defines women through sex and offers dramatically motivated opportunities for female nudity. This obsession, by both men and women (see here), of defining females by their bodies is central to western civilisation and is debilitating, in terms of our social relations, for both sexes. Recently, in the UK, there was a Facebook trend of friends daring one another to post a picture of themselves without make-up. It was striking how great the women looked without it.

Address Unknown (Suchwiin bulmyeong, S Korea, 2001)

The subaltern scream

The subaltern scream

I seem to have embarked on a season of Kim Ki-duk films (see Bad Guy), whose ‘extreme cinema’ raises hackles as well as bile. Audiences are probably expecting the worst when the film opens with the message that no animals were harmed in the making this film and a short introductory shot shows a young girl being shot in the eye. However, although physical violence, as in Bad Guy, is a manifestation of the psychological pain inflicted upon the (subaltern) underclass, much of the violence in Address Unknown, mercifully, happens offscreen.

Set in 1971 in a US army base camp town, the narrative offers fairly loosely connected ‘slices of life’ from three main characters: a schoolgirl who, after being raped, is thrown out of the school and two young men, one with mixed raced (African-Amercan/Korean) parentage and the other the butt of bullying who fancies the girl. The ‘letter’ of the title is sent by the mother to the father, now returned to America, of Chang-guk; however, they are returned with the titular message. Unsurprisingly, given the setting, the focus is on the colonial nature of the American encampment, the girl – Eunok – walks to school beside the base’s fence. She is befriended by an American soldier and Kim is sympathetic to the psychological effect of the American’s displacement, but his presence is ultimately destructive.

There is humour, too, in the mire of the characters’ existence: all three are framed, in one scene, with injured eyes. Hardly funny in itself but it’s part of Kim’s project to unsettle the audience and this he does. Kim has directed 20 features in 18 years, a remarkable tally given his lack of box office success. Despite the speed at which he works he produces work of quality, both in terms of direction and script, that demands to be seen. He is also one of the few who give a voice to the underclass which makes him one of the most important political filmmakers of our time.

Bad Guy (Nabbeun namja, S.Korea, 2001)

Good bad guy

Good bad guy

Distributor Tartan marketed some East Asian films under it’s ‘Asian extreme’ imprint, an obvious marketing device that nevertheless failed when ithe company went bankrupt in 2008. Probably amongst the most ‘extreme’ of these offerings were the films of Ki-duk Kim, who attacks the sensibilities of those who wish to experience the ‘extreme’; hence, they are quintessentially extreme.

How do you deal with the films of Kim Ki-duk? Take Bad Guy, the ‘guy’ is undoubtedly – he forces a young woman into prostitution – bad, but we (well ‘I’) found myself eventually becoming sympathetic toward him. I doubt I am the only one who experiences this counter-intuitive engagement with the film though many don’t; his films are routinely dismissed as misogynist. Not only is she forced into prostitution but Kim shows us her first experience of sex when she is raped. The charge of misogyny is not hard to suggest and yet… Kim certainly doesn’t shoot the rape as anything other than a violation and the camera’s position minimises the possibilities of titillation. So what’s his point?

Hye Seung Chung’s excellent The Films of Kim Ki-duk make it clear that the director’s films are an attack on the class structure of South Korean society. The extreme nature of the imagery is a manifestation of the extreme humiliation that is inflicted upon the underclass. The subaltern (the underclass) is often absent in a nation’s cinema, Ill Manors is one recent example in Britain which worked in a similar way to Bad Guy in enabling the audience to sympathise with ‘badly’ behaved people.

One thing that is easy to like in Kim’s films is his mise en scene. His ‘painterly’ eye offers many beautiful compositions, such as when the bad guy and his victim are shown to be mirror images of each other. Is that enough to put oneself through the gruelling torture of some of the violence represented in his films? I think it is, unless you have a visceral dislike of representations of pain; Bad Guy is, at least, not as graphic as The Isle (2004). Kim’s cinema, with the notable exception of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring (2003) is extreme but his purpose is not simply to shock but to also to communicate. In this his films are autobiographical, he’s from the underclass, and usually box office failures in South Korea. Who wants to see what we don’t want to see? As for Kim’s success in the west, it may be their ‘orientalist’ appeal to jaded audiences. Dig a bit deeper, though, and his films are striking for what they tell us about ourselves as much as the east.

I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boatda, South Korea, 2010)

Into the abyss

Into the abyss

Kim Jee-woon, director of A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) A Bittersweet Life (2005) and The Good, the Bad and the Weird (2008), has produced another stunning film. Stunning in both its direction, the acting and its content. It’s a revenge movie, a common trope it seems in Korean cinema (well Park Chan-wook excels in this), that mingles extreme imagery (females stripped, tortured and murdered) with beautiful composition and mise en scene. If that makes it seem that misogynist violence is aestheticised then that is accurate however, ultimately, the film uses the conventions of gorenography, or torture porn, to a morally devastating effect.

SPOILER ALERT: Lee Byung-hun plays a secret service agent whose fiancee is a victim of a serial killer, played by the brilliant Choi Min-sik (of Oldboy, 2003, fame) and seeks extra-judicial revenge. Despite the film’s 140 minute running length the killer is caught quickly and there’s one of those wonderful moments in a genre film where you have no idea where the film is going to go next. The killer is released only to be tracked and caught again, then released and so on… The dehumanising effect of revenge has been dealt with before but I doubt so successfully. Lee’s agent does save a number of potential victims as he chases down the killer but not before they’ve been put in peril and, no doubt, severely traumatised by the experience. The spectator’s complicity is highlighted in a Hitchockian manner: we wish to watch the film but that necessitates ‘people’ being placed in danger but, here, we cannot but wish the killer had been dealt with the moment he was caught. In other words, we are positioned not to want to watch the rest of the film.

I won’t give anything more away but the ending is truly devastating. For some reason (South) Korean cinema has slipped off my radar for a while but it’s definitely back on now. I can’t say I enjoyed watching this film, the brutality is visceral, and the violence-against-women trope disturbing, but the cumulative effect is extremely powerful in a positive sense. Apart from Kim’s dynamic direction, much is down to the performance of the protagonists: Choi’s charisma is cannily used as the killer who’s demented determination becomes almost admirable. In contrast Lee’s agent bottles up his emotions through most of the film making him appear to be the psychopath; but, then again, maybe he does become one.