By LEE Sang-yong (Programmer, PIFF)
One of main features identifying Korean films in 2010 would be the change in ways to deal with the issue of “violence” in movies. It is nothing new that Korean movies have conventionalized and generalized ‘violence’ as a subject matter in movies. The movie series of My Wife Is a Gangster , which was released first in 2001, is the relevant example that violence in movies became popular through comic action genres. The so-called ‘Jo-Pok ’ movies – ‘Jo-Pok’ meaning Korean gangster- were devoted to developing new standards in Korean gangster genres; ‘Jo-Pok’ movies have been Violence, Reality and… developed in different genre forms from Hollywood gangster movies in terms of that violence in the movie has smoothened by comical elements and everyday characters that viewers can identify with.
<I Saw the Devil>
‘Jo-Pok’ movies obviously have led the trend of Korean movies in the 2000s. With diverse variation of narratives and story settings; Jo-Pok goes to school in My Boss, My Hero , Jo-Pok stays in the temple in Hi, Dharma , and Jo-Pok struggles in the family in Marrying the Mafia . Jo-Pok (Korean gangsters) characters have been accepted as outrageous but comical and friendly characters seen in our neighborhoods unlike gangsters in Hollywood movies. To understand how Jo-pok movies became closer to audiences without resistance, and the subject matter of violence becoming institutionalized in movies, we have to take a look at the social context of Korea in history.
As for this matter, Low Life by IM Kwon-taek should be a good reference among others. The movie Low Life seeks for an identity of ourselves in the 1980s through the main character CHOI Tae-woong who is a Jo-pok. In the movie, his wife says Jo-poks are spawned from “Korean society which has been dominated by government oppression. And government oppression is not that much different from Jo-poks because they share the nature of cruelty of violence. If there is a difference between them, it would be that government oppressive power disguises its nature under the guise of ‘justice’ on the surface, while Jo-poks are represented by violence itself.”
Out of her dialogues in the movie, we easily guess that Jo-pok, which was another name of violent power both in real life and in the movie, provided audience with a kind of catharsis. The life of Jo-pok in movies did indeed involve sarcasm on Korean political power, and audiences understood Jo-pok in movies as an even justice group against oppressive political power at that time. Of course, not all characters in Jo-pok movies were received by audiences in the same context. Public Enemy by director KANG Woo-suk, which is another main series movies in 2000s, is a story about the rival tension between good and evil; Violence of governmental power from a prosecutor was justified to control violence of the evil side. But now, in 2010, violence is dealt in various spectrums of more than just being simply good and bad, in diverse conventional genre of movies. This is one of the main features identifying Korean movies in 2010.
<The Man from Nowhere>
KANG Woo-suk, who made Public Enemy in 2002 and 2005, directed Moss in 2010. The movie Moss is the story of a mystery surrounding a small village in country side led by the character RYOO Hye-gook, who visits for the funeral of his father. He suspects something shady in this town and fights back the whole community to find the reason of his father’s death. Contrary to Public Enemy , which simplified good and evil in dualistic arrangements, Moss seeks the origin of violence in the community in complicating context; the dualistic logic on good and evil is not working to understand real good and evil in the movie Moss . The movie shows that village people have reason to kill RYOO Duk-hyung for the public interest of the community. In other word, violence is not simply put in a bad light anymore. It would be rather “over determined” by complicating interest layered under the social mechanism.
The story of the movie Secret Reunion by JANG Hoon deals with the reality of the divided South and North Koreas. The main character Han-kyu, the ex agent of the National Intelligence Service, and Ji-won, a spy from North Korea, have been aware of each other’s identity for six years. However, they have to cooperate with each other to survive, and they both pretend they never knew of each other. Six years of life surviving in South Korea would create the reality that ideology does not matter. Compared to previous movies about the divided Korea, the movie Secret Reunion chooses to show the changed reality which is not ruled by physical violence and political ideology.
The movie Poetry by director LEE Chang-dong is one of the best movies which reflects upon today’s violence within us. Poetry , which won the Screenplay Award at the Cannes Film Festival this year, begins with a girls’ suicide over being raped, and with Mi-ja’s newly learning poetry. Mi-ja, an old lady who is the protagonist in the movie, soon finds that her grand son gets involved in the rape case, and experiences the moral conflict between the virtue of purity in poetry and violence existing in reality. Violence does not intrude Mi-ja’s life because she is just a vulnerable old lady. It would rather become the biggest trouble to Mi-ja ever, and even asks her a big deal of responsibility over the girl’s suicide as a guardian of the grandson.
<Father is a Dog>
As like Poetry , the movie Ordinary Days by director Inan shows how common people in everyday life are easily exposed to violence. Through characters of age of 10s, 20s, and 30s, the movie shows sharply that violence happens always in very common environments surrounding us; violence is the matter of awful reality we have to face in everyday life.
While the subject matter of violence in Korean movies in the past closely related to political issues in conventional genres, violence in 2010 is summoned and is related to diverse experiences in everyday life. And sometimes it is also related to selfishness of community. The movie No Doubt by PARK Soo-young uses the form of conventional genre of thriller, but it describes violence differently by internalization of violence in a community. As a little girl is missing in a small town on the outskirts of Gyeong-gi do, all town resident become to suspect a new settler in town, whose oldest son has a history of conviction of rape in the movie. Director PARK shows that labeling of ex-con today by community may be more violent than what an ex-con committed in the past. The movie shows that evil could be identified by what it really is but what community mutually consent based on community interest.
<Rolling Home with a Bull>
Genre is still an important matter to discuss about violence in movies. The movie The Man from Nowhere by director LEE Jeong-beom, which led the box office in the second half of this year, and the movie I Saw the Devil by director KIM Jee-woon, which was the middle of a cinematic sensation in 2010, are the movies which strengthen the genre format in dealing with violence in the movie. But they do not just follow the conventional genre, but reflect the violence in the movie by twisting with a different point of view. That main characters from two movies brandish knives to fight against evil in the name of justice is the same as the conventional genre, but that main characters turn into evil monsters themselves while they fight against evil.
Main character Soo-hyun in I Saw the Devil becomes devilish while punishing a serial killer. The cinematic text, which good and evil are intertwined and violence which is overturned in characters, is located beyond the typical genre convention. While previous Jo-pok movies still stayed in the boundary of conventional genre, movies in 2010 did not embrace the genre for their variation to portray violence.
<The Journals oh Musan>
Beside these movies, Boy by ROH Hong-jin is also worthy of paying attention to among films in PIFF. Boy is a coming-of-age movie which is set in military regime in 1960s. Dealing with violence in the 1980s dictatorship has been one of the attractive subjects in movies made in the 2000s. But Boy suggests meaningful reflections on how 80s violence would remain controlling today in 2010, and how it has built a group unconsciousness about father figure. Fathers, who are far from authority figures in family, yell at family members all the time and derive all families to the dangerous struggle. Audience faces today’s unpleasant irony that we have to call them father who are not like father in the movie, and realizes the fact that violence today might come from the father’s generation. Another movie Father Is a Dog by director LEE Sang-woo also shows the allegory of the father figure. A family in Father Is a Dog is consisting of only male members, but they are not related with blood. A father in the movie is a symbol of tyranny, violence, and brutal power in a family. Interestingly enough, both directors of movies Boy and Dance Town Father Is a Dog were assistant directors of director KIM Ki-duk, and both dealt with the subject matter of father figures in families with an inner approach, and deliver very powerful messages of a sort of “iconoclasm.” In conclusion, violence is depicted in the movies in very diverse spectrums from fathers to grandmothers. And we see plenty of movies in 2010 which even portray violence in titles such as movies released in 2010 or screened in PIFF; The Man from Nowhere , I Saw the Devil , No Doubt , Boy , Man of Vendetta , Good Night Sleep for The Bad contain a sense of violence.
Screening movies with characters of North Korean defectors at PIFF will be another interesting trend of this year. Korean society has faced the problem of North Korean defectors more than ever, but they have not appeared in movies except the film, Hello, Stranger by director KIM Dong-hyun.
At New Currents section, The Journals of Musan , a film about North Korean defectors who struggle to fit into South Korea, by director PARK Jeong-bum is one of the outstanding film among movies about North Korean defectors. The main character, JEON Seung-chul in The Journals of Musan has a social security number begin with 125, which identifies him as a North Korean defector, and he has to go through uncomfortable surveillance gazes every corner he meets the police. JEON is treated as an outsider although he is not a criminal or an illegal immigrant. The first half of the movie shows the isolated reality of his life. But the movie does not just stay in portraying it, and looks over deep inside the North Korean defector’s life beyond what we see on the surface. In the movie, they thoroughly taste the power of money and capitalism, and experience betrayal of friendship over money. “Double isolation” comes from the society context of capitalism and personal identity of North Korean defectors, and it drives North Korean defectors into a downfall. Neither church communities nor social public services can save them from this brutal reality.
The movie Dance Town by director JEON Kyu-hwan is another movie to portray North Korean defectors. The female character in the movie, who has to leave a husband in North Korea for survival, faces the macho violence in South Korea. While The Journals of Musan is a story of from a male point of view, Dance Town follows the story from a female point of view. It is a tragedy that she in Dance Town positioned in “double isolation” in terms of the fact that she is a North Korean defector, and “double violence” in terms of the face that she is a female. These ordeals for social minority are not only happening in South Korea. The movie Dooman River by director ZHANG Lu shows a friendship between North Korea boys and Joseon-jok (Korean who stay in mostly Yanbian area in China). Their friendship in the movie is based on tragic strives from famine and loneliness.
Late Autumn by director KIM Tae-yong, a remake of director LEE Man-hee’s original movie, is another noteworthy piece in the way that the movie is about the encounter of two lonely people in a strange place. While the movie has raised a sensational interest for its huge cast; Wei TANG from Lust, Caution and HYUN Bin from popular Korean TV dramas cased in the main role, the story is a sad love story of poor people who meet on the bus to Seattle. They are nothing but lonely, and there is no redemption for them in America. Their love is so short and futile since it is based on the crucial realization of the desperate reality in front of them. All movies mentioned above are taking credit of Auteur pieces since their way to deal with violence in the movie is different from previous movies in terms of combining external conditions causing violence and inner reflection of characters.
<Anti Gas Skin>
There is another movie that I was personally very interested in: Rolling Home with a Bull directed by YIM Soon-rye. Director YIM has focused on marginalized characters since her first debut film Three Friends , and Fly Penguin . In the movie Rolling Home with a Bull , she puts a camera chasing a lonely and isolate life of poet who raises a bull in the countryside, and adopts Buddhist contexts and a fantasy format in the movie to make an affluent cinematic text. YIM does not limit the theme of isolation into one person’s observation, but looks for it as a desire beyond the surface of isolation. Rolling Home with a Bull should be the masterpiece among her works and one of the best movies this year.
Korean movies embrace not only issues in contemporary society, but also experiments in the next generation. The movie Anti Gas Skin by KIM Gok, KIM Sun, which was invited to the Venice International Film Festival, interprets Freud’s ‘Wolf Man’ in a new point of view in delivering an apocalyptic message. The movie could be understood as a satire of Korean society, and cinematic compromise of Marxism and Freud theory. Another experiment in the next generation can be seen in the movie Read My Lips . Read My Lips by Director YOON Seong-ho – its Korean title Halsu-it-neun-ja-ga Goo-hae-ra comes from Jean-Luc Godard’s Sauve qui peut(la vie) is a typical movie of showing his own style to pursuit of new movies. Like as the movie Read My Lips , which takes a parody form of situational comedy, has been released over the Internet before theaters, and young directors of new generation explore the internet such as Youtube in order to express their cinematic world in recess of Korean film industry. This is a new trend of the year that young directors aggressively use the technology environment in order to express their world. KIM Gok , KIM Sun, and YOON Seong-ho are outstanding independent directors who started with short films in 2000s along with KIM Jong-kwan who has built reputation through tons of short films.
<Read My Lips>
The movie Come. Closer by director KIM Jong-kwan is his first long feature which portrays well diverse spectrums of love. The movie is a bit like collective works of short films because it consists of several episodes, but KIM shows his true color of his works clearly. Come. Closer makes KIM to remain a director who is talented at describing a delicate sensibility of love, music, and wounded lovers.
Korean films in 2010 have produced diverse movies with talented directors from different generations and with new cinematic languages. Although the Korean film industry has been going through a recession in the last few years, it strives to get its own answer to break through obstacles in a way of “Sauve qui peut”. Two animations, Green Days and The House , which are scheduled to be screened at PIFF, are extraordinary movies produced by new attempt of “Sauve qui peut”. With that trend, the year of 2010 will be recorded as a year of the most animation movies released ever in the history of Korean movies. Hopefully, diverse changes and attempts like this will be a good sign for the prolific Korean film industry.