Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Blogathon is Over! Long live the Blogathon!

From March 7 through 14, the first official KOFFIA Blog was excited to be a part of the Korean Blogathon 2011. It was a terrific way to kick off our blog, and highlight the best of Korean cinema. Proving that there are fans all over the world for the emerging wonders of South Korean film, our articles aimed to highlight not only our favourite films, but the filmmakers behind those movies as well.

In case you missed it, here's a look back at what we did:
  • Join KOFFIA for the Korean Blogathon 2011 and win! - Our original call to arms by KOFFIA Blog Editor Richard Gray!
  • A Secret Ray of Sunshine - Sarah Ward took a look at actress Jeon Do-Youn, star of such films as Untold Scandal, Secret Sunshine and the remake of The Housemaid 
  • Motherly Love - Sarah continued her examination of the role of women in Korean cinema for International Women's Day with this look at Bong Joon-ho's Mother.
  • Castaway in Hollywood: Remakes of Korean Films - Not only is Hollywood finding out about Korean films, they are remaking them - but Korean is starting to play them at their own game, as KOFFIA Blog Editor Richard Gray found out in this article.
  • Lee Hae-jun: Master of Quirk - With his KOFFIA 2010 Closing Night hit Castaway on the Moon soon to be remade by John Waters, Richard Gray took a look at this writer/director's career to date.
  • A Million: the hypocrisy of "reality" - Richard Gray helps Korea and Australia celebrate the 2011 year of friendship by examining this Korean film shot in the Australian outback.

  • Korean Film Downunder Volume 1 - KOFFIA Marketing Director Kieran Tully examines the recent history of Korean film in Australia, and ponders the future of Korean releases down under.
  • A Movie is a Movie - Kwenton Bellette follows up his KOFFIA 2010 piece on Kim Ki-duk by examining his hard-hitting Rough Cut.
  • Korean Cinema: Crossing Borders, Crossing Genres - KOFFIA Marketing Assistant Raelene Loong tells everything there is love about Korean cinema's amazing ability to cross genres.
  • Lee Chang-dong find an Oasis - Gaurav Bhalla dissects this touching portrayal of true love, social repression, and the unspoken yearnings which are expressions of our human nature
  • An A to Z Guide to Korean Cinema: Part 1 - Samson Kwok takes a novel approach to listing the best of the best of Korean film, from Attack the Gas Station through to King and the Clown.
  • Bong Joon-ho: Master of menace - Sarah Ward takes a further look at one of the true leading lights in the Korean film industry, and the director of Mother, The Host and Memories of Murder.
  • Im Sang-soo wipes the house clean - Christopher J. Wheeler weighs up the merits of the remake to the 1960s Korean classic The Housemaid, and is surprised to find just how much they differ.
  • An A to Z guide to Korean Cinema: Part 2 - Samson Kwok continues his guide to Korean cinema, taking us from Lover's Concerto all the way up to Art Museum by the Zoo. Hey, that's cheating!
  • The Chaser - Sarah Ward closed off the blogathon with a look at Na Hong-jin's The Chaser, part of a new breed of shock-thrillers within a culturally specific frame.

That's a whopping 15 posts in a week! Excuse us while we pat ourselves on the back and take a deep breath for a moment. We'd like to thank all of the contributors listed below (in no particular order) for giving up their time and energy to make this blogathon a success for KOFFIA. They are:

It doesn't stop here of course! KOFFIA 2011 is still coming to Sydney and Melbourne this year, and we are warming up a terrific program for you. Stay tuned right here - along with Twitter, Facebook and the KOFFIA website - for all the latest and greatest news.

We will keep blogging throughout the year, so don't you go changing!

Richard is a Marketing Assistant for KOFFIA and the KOFFIA Blog Editor. He can be contacted via email on richard.gray@koffia.com.au

He is also the Editor-in-chief of DVD Bits and The Reel Bits. He can be found on Twitter @DVDBits and @The_ReelBits. In this guise, you can also reach him at richard@thereelbits.com

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Chaser

Korean filmmaking has come of age in the past decade, with directors such as Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Ji-woon revitalising their national film industry. With features such as Old Boy, Thirst, The Host, Mother, A Tale Of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life receiving much-deserved critical acclaim, international exposure and box office success, modern Korean cinema is evolving into a must-watch genre all of its own.

The Chaser typifies this new breed of Korean film, in essence a traditional shock and splatter serial killer thriller akin to Zodiac, Seven and The Silence Of The Lambs, but within a culturally specific and suitably post-modern frame. Directed and co-written by first-timer Na Hong-jin loosely based on the real-life Korean case of Yoo Young-cheol (responsible for the murders of 21 prostitutes and wealthy elders during 2003 and 2004), The Chaser is an unpredictable and suspenseful feature that lives up to the promise of its compatriots, and well worth watching before the upcoming US remake (by The Departed scribe William Monahan, with Leonardo DiCaprio rumoured for the lead).

In the early hours of the evening, on a poorly-lit back street in Seoul's Mangwon district, an attractive young woman parks her car and enters an adjoining house, joking to a friend on the phone that she won't be there long. Days later, patrolling police find the vehicle in the same spot by the side of the road convinced it has been abandoned; former detective turned pimp Joong-ho (Kim Yoon-suk), in search of one of his increasing number of absent staff, assumes the same.

Business is struggling for Joong-ho - with mounting debts, decreasing customers, and disappearing workers - so when young mother Mi-jin (Seo Young-hee) calls in sick the next evening, he is afraid that she too is planning to walk out on the world's oldest profession, and orders her to attend the premises of Young-min (Ha Jung-woo), a lucrative and particular customer. Too late, Joong-ho realises that his other missing girls each visited the same fussy client before disappearing, and when he is unable to reach Mi-jin by phone, he sets out after her, embarking on a race against time and a fight against police bureaucracy to get to the truth.

Certain to please fans of the crime genre and of the recent renaissance of Korean film, The Chaser bursts with dark emotion, surprising twists and thrilling suspense, much like its predecessors. More than just another slick killer flick (despite frantic chases, energetic fist fights, and the mandatory quota of blood and gore) the film is infused with poignant depth and slow-burning character development, complete with unlikeable and morally questionable yet human protagonists fleshed out by their sins but not defined solely by their deeds.

Though the action is largely condensed into a single twelve-hour period, director Na Hong-jin and fellow scribes Hong Won-chan and Lee Shinho ensure that the feature remains unhurried and focused on character motivation, helped largely by seamless direction and adept casting. The three leads - Kim Yoon-suk, Ha Jung-woo and Seo Young-hee - play their roles with skill, ensuring that the fallen cop, chilling killer and tortured prostitute are more than just cinematic cliches. Kim Yoon-suk, in particular, provides a standout performance, allowing the measured growth of his unexpectedly complex character to bloom in a completely believable and authentic fashion, firmly grounded in the narrative. An interesting, dramatic and gloomy anti-hero police procedural, this latest Korean masterpiece is a strong and satisfying film that exposes the underbelly of crime, its victims and its consequences, with style and skill.

Capturing the complexity of urban crime and the darkness of the serial killer genre, The Chaser is a multi-layered and expertly crafted film experience. Worthy of the acclaim showered upon it, and of a place in Korean cinema history beside the work of master directors Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Ji-woon, it is essential viewing for astute film fans.

NB: Portions of this review originally appeared on DVD Bits.

Sarah is the Editor of DVD Bits and The Reel Bits. She can be found on Twitter at @swardplay, and contacted via email at sarah@thereelbits.com.

An A to Z Guide to Korean Cinema – Part 2

Today, I am going to continue with part 2 of my article, picking up where we left off yesterday:

Lover’s Concerto (2002): This romantic melodrama is a tearjerker. Its main cast, including Cha Tae-hyun, Son Ye-jin and the late Lee Eun-ju (Taegukgi), all gave likeable performances. While the story is not particularly original, the film is an example of an ordinary story told well. Viewers who like crying should have some tissues ready.

Memories of Murder (2003): Many great Korean films have English titles that start with the letter ‘m’. Examples include My Sassy Girl, Marathon and director Bong Joon-ho’s other film Mother. Of these, my favourite is Memories of Murder, a police procedural that is suspenseful and chilling. The strong cast shines brilliantly. It is one of the best Korean films ever made.

Joon Ho-bong's Memories of a Murder (2003)
Nowhere to Hide (1999): This is the ultimate demonstration of style over substance in cinema. What makes this cop thriller work is that there is so much style that a relative lack of substance becomes insignificant. This movie has some of the best action scenes ever captured on film, and the final fight scene in heavy rain has no doubt provided inspirations to many filmmakers.

Oasis (2002): This one comes from another one of Korea’s great directors- Lee Chang-Dong (Poetry, Peppermint Candy). It tells a love story, but if it is something sweet or touching you‘re after, Oasis may not be for you. It is actually a rather challenging film to sit through, but patient viewers should find this film very rewarding.

Public Enemy (2002): Featuring a hard-boiled cop out to catch some criminals, this film is both violent and funny. Actor Sol Kyung-gu (Oasis) gives another great performance as the main character who happens to be a corrupt cop. You may not like this character but the fact that he is so bad is what makes this film so much fun to watch.

Quiet Family, The (1998): This film was the directorial debut of Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters), and it shows that right from the beginning, this now famous director was already showing a great deal of talent. Boasting a strong ensemble cast, including Choi Min-shik (Failan, Old Boy) and Song Gang-ho, this dark comedy is both clever and brilliant.

"Something special": Kim Ki-duk's Rough Cut (2008)

Rough Cut (2008): When I saw this at the Korean Film Festival in Australia (KOFFIA) last year, I realised that I was watching something special. First time director Jang Hoon, protégé of Kim Ki-duk (who helped in writing the screenplay for this film) effectively mixes comedy, romance and action to deliver a truly original gangster movie.

Shiri (1999): This was the first Korean film that I ever saw. Not knowing much about the film, except for the information that it smashed box office records and literally sank Titanic in Korea, I was impressed by this spy thriller tremendously. The success of this film marked the beginning of the renaissance of the Korean film industry, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Take Care of My Cat (2001): This gentle film tells a touching and memorable coming-of-age story of five young women living in Korea. A few of the performances stand out, including that by the lovely Bae Doo-na (Barking Dogs Never Bite, Linda Linda Linda), one of my favourite Korean actresses. I still find this special film refreshing whenever I watch it.

Untold Scandal (2003): In this film, the filmmakers have cleverly adapted the French novel ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ and changed the story’s setting to Korea’s Chosun Dynasty with interesting effects. Skillful storytelling and high production values make this elegant period drama filled with lustful deceptions a really entertaining film.

"Elegant period drama": Untold Scandal (2003)
Volcano High (2001): This comic book-like film contains some of the most spectacular visual effects in a Korean film. The violence is cartoonish and the action is wild. While it certainly has some flaws, Volcano High is nevertheless a lot of fun to watch. I am disappointed and surprised there have not been many other similar films coming out of Korea.

Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005): This film did great business when it was released in 2005, and remains one of the biggest blockbusters in the history of Korean cinema. There is really a lot to like about this feel-good movie about war. Jeong Jae-yeong (Castaway on the Moon) and the rest of the cast all give strong performances. Also the story is very good.

(‘Xmas’) Christmas in August (1998): It stars Han Suk-kyu and another of the most popular actors at the beginning of the Korean New Wave, Shim Eun-ha. This beautiful actress turns in an award-winning performance in this love story, which is told in the most subtle manner. The result is a truly unforgettable film.

Jeon Do-yeon in You Are My Sunshine (2005)
You Are My Sunshine (2005): Yes, this is yet another Korean melodrama, but it’s a good one. Multi-award winning actress Jeon Do-yeon (Secret Sunshine, The Housemaid) stars in it, which pretty much automatically makes this film worth watching. With a sad story that pulls hard on those heart strings, this intimate little film may just make you drop a tear (or two).

Z - Art Museum by the Zoo (1998): Wait a minute, this film starts with ‘a’, I hear you say. I apologise as I haven’t seen any Korean film with an English title that starts with ‘z’. So this lovely film will have to do. Despite having a very simple story, this film is easy to fall in love with because of the wonderful chemistry between its two leads, Shim Eun-ha and Lee Sung-jae.

So there, you have it: my A to Z guide to Korean cinema. I hope you have found it interesting, and wish that the rest of the year will bring us many more great Korean films.

Samson Kwok writes for Heroic Cinema, the guide to Asian movies in Australia.

Im Sang-soo wipes the house clean

As soon as I had finished watching "The Housemaid - 2010" (2010, Im Sang-soo), I became eager to watch the 1960s original. I was surprised to find that it differs rather drastically from its modern remake. In fact, one can barely call the 2010 version a remake at all. Despite the dramatic differences, both films are worthy of praise and warrant examination as products of their respective eras.

The opening scene in The Housemaid (which screened at KOFFIA 2010) is gritty; a busy Korean street is shown unpolished and raw. Steam engulfs the screen as a street vendor prepares her food, fires are poked ready for restaurant tables, large crabs are pulled from their street side holdings, all the while a young girl stands above the bustling streets and jumps to her death. Eun-I (Jeon Do-yeon) and her friend then pull up on a scooter and gaze upon the haunting chalk outline.

Eun-I is our housemaid. After a thorough screening process she is offered a job at an extremely wealthy household. Her employers are an upper-class couple with a young daughter and twins on the way. The lady of the house (Hae-ra played by Seo Woo) lives a luxurious life free from work. She spends her time reading, enjoying relaxing baths, and pampering herself with the assistance of the helpers.

The senior maid (Yoon Yeo-jeong as Byeong-sik) has worked for the household for a number of years. She is well informed of all the mansion's happenings and it is she who assists Eun-I in adjusting to the couple's lavish lifestyle. Yoon Yeo-jeong's character was not in the original, but her presence is justified in this contemporary version. As both rat and mentor, Yoon Yeo-jeong's character undergoes the largest change from beginning to end. The new maid is also introduced to Hae-ra (Ahn Seo-hyeon, who also pops up in the blockbuster "The Yellow Sea"), the couple's adorable daughter. She is the embodiment of innocence and naivety in the film. She develops a close and personal relationship with Eun-I, and throughout the film, their relationship almost exists outside the tragic consequential eventuality of the story.

The Terrific International Trailer for The Housemaid

Hoon (Lee Jeong-jae from Il Mare fame) is the master of this house. His stern demeanour is paired with his dominance over the household. As his wife's mother (Park Ji-yeong) describes, this is a man who has had everything he has ever desired from birth, a silver-spoon baby whose social standing makes him an unapproachable and commanding figure. One night, his wife fails to fully satisfy him, being very pregnant with twins, and his gaze soon turns to Eun-I.

Late in the night he strolls down to her quarters, wine in hand, and boldly makes his advances. This is one of the biggest differences between the classic and the modern version. While in the original the viewers’ sympathies lie with the couple, sinisterly manipulated by the maid, here we are behind the naïve and likable Eun-I. Although she more than meets Hoon halfway in this scandalous affair, her credulous characterisation and misplaced sensibility discourages viewers from distancing themselves from her.

The affair results in Eun-I becoming pregnant and, through the lips of the senior housemaid, the madams of the house become aware and take action to minimise the scandal’s impact on their cushy lives. Eun-I is bribed and assaulted, but she ultimately decides to keep the unborn child. This is unacceptable to the wife and her scheming mother and together they heartlessly deal with them both. Devastated by their scheme, Eun-I decides to take matters into her own hands and does the unthinkable.

Its bizarre final scene initially seemed at odds with the rest of the film, but ultimately provides a meaningful message on the future of the household. Life at the Hoon manor will continue, with Eun-I’s final act only really affecting the young girl with whom she shared so much. It is with Hae-ra that Eun-I’s message lingers, her naivety shattered, as she stands present in, yet emotionally detached from the spectacle that is her life.

The Housemaid contains some intriguing nuances that heighten the dramatic intent of this modern film. It’s a fascinating contemporary examination of social roles and class, albeit in a fairly narrow context. I enjoyed what The Housemaid had to offer and its melodramatic instances were generally effective and complementary to its themes. It’s an excellent film that’s definitely worth a watch.

-Christopher J. Wheeler
Christopher writes for HanCinema and can be found on Twitter @chriscjw85

Bong Joon-Ho: Master of menace

From creature features to pet pilfering, meddling mothers to scary psychos, renowned filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho has built a brief but accomplished career out of mastering the menacing side of society. With just four features - and box office records, international awards, and a plethora of critical acclaim - to his name in a film career spanning a mere decade, he has become established as Korea’s star auteur thanks to his unique combination of quirky humour and resounding humanity whilst traversing the darker side of human (and animal, and monster) life.

Making his debut with the black social satire Barking Dogs Never Bite, Joon-Ho delved into Asian folklore and animal cruelty in an unlikely on-screen adaption of the traditional tale "A Dog Of Flanders". Earning the FIPRESCI prize at the 2001 Hong Kong International Film Festival (for combining a popular approach with a biting yet humorous observation of middle class life), it announced his status as one to watch - a status confirmed by 2003’s Grand Bell, San Sebastián and Tokyo International Film Festival award winning thriller Memories Of Murder, based on the true story of the country’s first known serial killings.

Yet despite achieving undoubted worldwide success on the strength of his first two features, it was 2006’s record-breaking big budget monster movie The Host that truly put Joon-Ho on the filmmaking map. Instantly claimed as the best genre offering ever made and one of the greatest pieces of world cinema to grace the big screen, it smashed box office takings in its native Korea (seen thirteen million times and ranking as the highest grossing South Korean film of all time) whilst making the top ten lists of critics everywhere (and receiving ample silverware) in an effort both fun, frightening and downright fantastic.

"Tokyo" directors Bong, Carax and Gondry

Joon-Ho’s most recent effort, the 2009 release Mother, marks yet another change of topic but remains true to his spirit of slightly off-centre experimentation. A psychological murder mystery grounded within a family dynamic of Hitchcockian proportions, it is an intelligent, intricate, and unconventional addition to the crime genre in the finest film in his current repertoire.

Thankfully, with a rumoured American effort produced by Lost creator J.J. Abrams on the cards, a 3-D sequel to The Host the subject of speculation, and an adaptation of French graphic novel "Le Transperceneige" as Snow Piercer in the works, we have not seen the last of the director’s trademark exploration of the impending and unexpected. Indeed, as he moves towards the realms of mainstream cinema, one can only look forward to more menacing from the undisputed master.

Sarah is the Editor of DVD Bits and The Reel Bits. She can be found on Twitter at @swardplay, and contacted via email at sarah@thereelbits.com.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

An A to Z Guide to Korean Cinema – Part 1

Since I first discovered the wonderful world of Korean cinema in 1999, I have seen an impressive number of great Korean films. So as I started working on a top 10 list to contribute to this year’s Korean Blogathon, I actually found it incredibly difficult to narrow the number down to ten. Because of this, I have decided to do something a bit different instead – a list of my favourite Korean movies from A to Z.

I hope you will enjoy reading this article, share fond memories of the Korean films that you have seen, and possibly discover something that you may want to check out in the future. This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are some of the best:

Kim San-jin's Attack the Gas Station (1999)

Attack the Gas Station (1999): Filled with youthful energy, unexpected twists and funny situations, this enjoyable comedy was a big hit in Korea, scoring the second highest number of admissions for a local film in the year it was released. Outside of Korea, it has (sadly) not received a lot of attention, but its DVD shouldn’t be too hard to track down.

Bittersweet Life, A (2005): Directed by Kim Jee-woon, a filmmaker with that special gift of being able to master different genres with ease, this gorgeous-looking ultra-cool gangster film is one of the best examples of the genre to come out of Asia. It stars Lee Byung-heon (GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra), one of Korea’s coolest actors, as the male lead.

Kim Jee-woon's A Bittersweet Life (2005)
Chaser (2008): This gritty serial-killer film builds up suspense to an almost unbearable level and maintains the intensity till the final frame. Anyone after edge-of-the-seat entertainment should really enjoy this movie. The fact that it is the work of first-time director Na Hong-jin makes him someone worth looking out for in the coming years.

Dirty Carnival, A (2006): This is another fine gangster film to come out of Korea in recent years. The script is tightly written, the performances are superb, and the fight scenes are incredibly realistic. All these factors combine to make this one immensely exciting film. There are also a lot of dramatic elements that help set this film apart from other gangster flicks.

Eye for an Eye (2008): This is a more recent film that stars Han Suk-kyu, one of Korea’s great actors who played key roles in many of the films from the ‘Korea’s New Wave’ (Shiri, Tell Me Something). While it may not qualify as a great film, it is nevertheless a solid and satisfying thriller. Still, this is not director Kwak Kyung-taek’s best work. The next film is.

Friend (2001): Based on Kwak Kyung-taek’s true story of himself and his childhood friends, this is clearly a personal film for the director. It is a tale about friendship, loyalty and growing up. All of the 4 lead actors give wonderful performances. Also deserving a special mention is the cinematography that beautifully captures the city on screen.

Kim Jee-woon's The Good, the Bad and the Weird (2008)
Good, the Bad and the Weird, The (2008): Coming from director Kim Jee-woon, this Western offers one huge dose of exhilarating fun. There are plenty of heart-pumping chases and frantic action scenes to be enjoyed. The cast is full of big name actors, including Song Kang-ho (The Foul King, Secret Sunshine), Lee Byung-heon and Jung Woo-sung (Musa).

Host, The (2006): From my favourite Korean director Bong Joon-ho comes this amazing creature feature. The well-designed creature and great performances from the cast make this film totally believable. The Host is multilayered and goes well beyond the basic premise of humans vs creature. In short, it is a monster masterpiece!

Bong Joon-ho's The Host (2006)
Isle, The (2000): One cannot write a best-of-Korean-films list without mentioning any work by director Kim Ki-duk. This strangely mesmerising film may make some people nauseated, but for those who can appreciate its beauty, it is a little gem. Certainly not as accessible as many of Kim’s later films, but this one has left an impression on me for its uniqueness.

Joint Security Area (2000): While director Park Chan-wook may be best known for his revenge trilogy (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Old Boy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), his older film Joint Security Area is equally as worthy of film lovers’ attention for its assured direction, skillful story-telling and excellent performances.

King and the Clown (2005): This was the surprise Korean hit of 2005. This period drama without star casting became a phenomenon in Korea upon its release. In retrospect, it is not hard to see why it was so popular. It is touching, it is charming and above all, it is entertaining. After all, entertainment is what we are after when we watch movies, isn’t it?

Next time… the rest of the list from L to Z!

Samson Kwok writes for Heroic Cinema, the guide to Asian movies in Australia.

Lee Chang-dong finds an Oasis

In a touching portrayal of true love, social repression, and the unspoken yearnings which are expressions of our human nature, Oasis is a film which intends to highlight the inner plight of those amongst us who so often remain silent, misunderstood, and unseen.

The protagonist Jong-Du (Kyung-gu Sol) is a recently released prisoner on the road to reinstating himself into society. We quickly learn however, how difficult it is for Jong-Du to be accepted by a world that only wishes to see him as having fallen; rejecting whatever good may exist in his heart. Jong-Du however is admirable for his dedication to remaining true to himself despite his simplistic nature, or his inability to grasp the difference between right and wrong.

We are soon introduced to the one who, despite suffering terribly from cerebral palsy, is able to accept Jong-Du as her own, as he does for her. Here we witness the incredible and unspoken suffering of those who are voiceless and devoid of freedom and love, in a way that the inability of Gong-Ju (Moon So-ri) to walk can only begin to portray. How, or why, is it that something so pure and powerful as love is granted only to a select few? Why must the oasis for some, be unreachable, shrouded in shadow?

While Jong-Du is no stranger to prison, Gong-Ju is no stranger to the bars of her own body and mind which keep her incarcerated. But in one another, they each find the redemption and acceptance that the other needs as the fuel for life. The prison walls no longer matter; the oasis is no longer so distant.

Gong-Ju must crawl, from floor to bed, bed to kitchen. She relies upon her neighbour for provision of food and general checkups in exchange for payment. While Gong-Ju’s brother is able to provide for her fundamental daily provisions, nobody in capable of giving her a life. Life for Gong-Ju exists in dreams, imaginations and in yearnings. Despite her condition, the audience must shamefully admit that she is just another woman inside. The direction (by Lee Chang-dong) of the movie portrays this wonderfully with Gong-Ju’s intermittent escapades into romantic normality.

We find that, while Gong-Ju’s physical appearance is something of a detraction for the common people or even Jong-Du’s family, Jong-Du embraces her warmly. In a scene where Gong-Ju is forced to witness a lewd and unapologetic sex-act, the viewer is made to understand that the love the two share, at its core, is more everlasting than the lack of emotion and contemporary displays of false love that common people can mostly experience. Who then in society should be the judge of these two individuals if society itself is impure, immature, and unclean?

In addition to the themes of love, Oasis does not shy away from exposing how the established framework of society, its rules, policies and expectations, causes segregation amongst men. How little attention do we pay to those for whom redemption and solace can only lie in an empty prayer or expression of guilt? We can admire Jong-Du, for whom redemption means no desire for self-defence, no denial of his wrongs. Redemption for Jong-Du means dedicating himself to helping another who is unable to help herself, perhaps from even purer motives than a first glance may convey. It is his actions, in practice, that makes Jong-Du worthy of humanity, whereas the religion of society openly condemns him. And in contradiction, it is the same society that forces his mindset to degrade, causing him to revert back to the convict that society wishes to see him as.

Oasis teaches us that while society may lay claim to one’s redemption or status in the world, our soul’s pure intent of purpose; its visceral and genuine nature defining our humanity can never be raped, or incarcerated. Oasis can claim to highlight the purity in love, temporary or permanent, the reasons why we laugh with our mothers, embrace a stranger, or to fall asleep with another in ones thoughts. It challenges those self-serving, established modes of thought, the religious ideals, family expectations and lack of spirit within individuals, and asks that we remember what we are capable of. Oasis is simply a beautiful movie about two beautiful human beings, and deserves to be seen for both its story, and its message.

By Gaurav Bhalla

Friday, March 11, 2011

Korean Cinema: Crossing Borders, Crossing Genres

It’s late on a Friday night, and I’m feeling up for a movie. I visit my try-hard of a DVD collection for something to keep me company. A couple of giggles to start the weekend? How about a fast-paced action flick to keep me on my toes? Perhaps a deep drama for me to sink my head in for days to come?

It's late on a Friday night, and I can't decide. There are so many feelings I want to fulfill in the next two hours that I begin analysing my emotive preferences. I finally fall on something borrowed - Park Chan-wook's Joint Security Area. Admittedly, the last time I sat down to watch this, I couldn't get past the first 15 minutes of what I felt was a tense, political drama. This time, I manage to get through to the flashbacks present in the film, and I decide within 30 minutes that I love this film.

After searching hard for something to entertain me, I had finally found my answer. What seemed like a dense, political drama eventually turned out to be a heart-warming story of an unlikely friendship between the border guards of the Northern and Southern halves of Korea. The film begins in the present where neutral government officials have come together to investigate a murder that occurred in the demilitarised zone. We soon join Sergeant Lee in a flashback of where it all began - a secret and playful friendship between him and a soldier from the North Korean border guard force, through letters, which later turns into fun, friendly meetings in the North Korean guard post. While the majority of the film feels like a drama especially as it covers the themes of war, political tension and the human condition, the film eventually crosses into the genre of comedy through sarcasm, and playful action as presented through the scenes where the guards are together in harmony.

Here is what is interesting about this. At one end of the spectrum where the 'darker' genres of action, thriller, drama and even horror are present, one would expect little to no presence of the 'lighter' genres such as comedy, which stays on the opposite end of this line.

When you look at Hollywood films, conventionally speaking, a film of the horror genre will stick as closely to the word 'horror' as to not confuse your judgment of the film's genre. While there might be a character in this horror film that makes an ironic statement to reassure us that he will die within the next second (and so it happens), the film remains a horror film and will not cross over to the 'lighter' side. It is the same with anything that is primarily of a genre from the 'lighter' side - a comedy about a group of friends who go to Las Vegas on a 'bachelor's party' cum 'the last night out' never shows any signs of an attempt at crossing the deeper genres of drama, for example. If there were an attempt, it would be the most clichéd and shortest dramatic arc simply to give the film 'an edge'.

Korean Cinema on the other hand, crosses these genres freely and almost excessively. I find this an interesting observation - by crossing genres, a viewer can leave a film feeling confused as to what they have just seen. Upon viewing Kim Yong-hwa's 200 Pound Beauty for the first time, I didn't quite know how to feel about what I had seen. While I had laughed throughout most of the film, I would often stop and wonder, what am I laughing at?

The story is about an unattractively large girl who undergoes intensive plastic surgery so that she can confidently be who she is, and to achieve her dreams of being a pop-singer. The notion of using plastic surgery in order to change one's complete image is often looked down on, and is never encouraged, yet 200 Pound Beauty seems to support this idea to some extent. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film's comedy and hilarious, colourful characters so much that I had forgotten about the slight encouragement of plastic surgery.

Crossing genres can make a film 200x more engaging and entertaining than a single genre film. A cross-genre film opens up to a much wider audience too - for example, Bong Joon-ho's The Host is clearly a monster film with the thriller and action elements it carries, yet the story centralises on the charming, comedic brilliance of Song Kang-ho's character and his slightly kooky, alternative family who must save their youngest sister from the slimy, slithery clutches of the sewer monster.

While some might not like monster films (let's use Cloverfield as an English title) for example due to the content of how a monster is portrayed (or in other words, those who can't stomach the above), centralising the story around a viewer-friendly, weird family makes it easier for some to sit through such horror... Such 'horror'.

At last year's Korean Film Festival in Australia, I got a chance to see Rough Cut, an action film about a gangster who wants to be an actor, and an actor with the ideals of a gangster. Written by Kim Ki-duk and directed by Hun Jang, this is primarily a film of the action genre, with many fast-paced action scenes during a film shoot within the film, and otherwise. The film predominantly covers the themes of gang culture, ultra-violence and corruption in Korean society, which I find quite common in contemporary Korean cinema. However, although the film focuses on these serious themes, to the average viewer there is a surprising amount of comedy present all throughout. The best thing about the use of comedy throughout the film is that it does not distract you from the essence of the story, and that the film really is a violent, action film with a 15 minute bloody, fist battle in mud to an extreme, suggestive rape scene.

I never liked the excessive crossing of genres when I was first introduced to Korean films, but I feel that it has finally grown on me. No longer do I have to worry over two vastly different films in genre. No longer will I have to waste (close to) hours on deciding on whether I feel like a depressing, art-house drama film or a romantic, black comedy - or whether I feel like a laugh or a cry over a movie. Contemporary Korean cinema has proven to us that the crossing of genres is possible, and plausible. And that including comedy in a violent, gangster film is not a clichéd or a lame attempt at 'great entertainment'. It is an experience worthwhile, and although it may seem strange with such an oppositional mixture of genres at times, it ultimately fulfills the requirements of an entertaining film.

Raelene Loong is a Marketing Assistant for KOFFIA, as well as a Video-On-Demand scheduler and independent filmmaker. Her personal film blog is Cutting Squares. Follow her on Twitter @suupatrout.

A Movie is A Movie

The lives of two very intense men intertwine and blur when they begin to switch personas and identities. One is an established, handsome and famous actor, the other a vicious gangster.

The director of Rough Cut Hun Jang is a pupil of Ki-Duk Kim (who in fact penned this) and his masterful influence can be felt throughout the film. A lot of the plot and tone carries with it commercial trappings such as the elements of romance and the tragedy that inevitably follows, but with the talent involved Rough Cut comes into its own and ultimately engages on multiple levels.

The frantic stories of two men cross back and forth; the actor Jang Soo-ta (Ji-Hwan Kang) hides his feelings and meets with his lover in a dodgy van; he admits vainly that the public could never know he was dating ‘her’. Meanwhile the gangster Lee Kang-Pae (a play on the Korean word for gangster and played by Ji-Seob So) has problems with his own gangster life. One fateful evening brings them both face to face, in an immediate conflict of interest. The ego of both men is on display and it is a complicated mix of testosterone, vanity and self-defense. 

Their body language and sharp witted snap-talking reflect this. “You get comfortable and imitate people all your life” he spits to Soo-ta, but behind his venomous words is a sort of jealousy and even a twisted sense of respect. As they stand facing one another even their appearance denotes conflict. Soo-ta is in white while Kang-Pae is adorned in black. From this point Soo-ta’s director Bong (Chang-Seok Ko) is in awe and suggests him to be in the film based on the raw intensity he felt. The stipulation is that the fight scenes in the movie become as real as possible.

When both men perform together neither seems to hold back. Initially Soo-ta retains his sensibility but it is not long before Kang-Pae draws the worst from him and they are both beating each other to a bloody pulp on set as the cameras roll. They both recite off each other as Kang-Pae develops a better sense of the craft and Soo-ta begins to spiral out of control, regardless both men continue to negatively influence the other. They both take method acting to a new level and compete constantly, on the set to determine who the better fighter is and even off set, pursuing a relationship with the female lead. Both men face a complex identity crisis that even leads to a bromance between them. They are rivals in every sense as both have an almost equal level of respect and hatred for each other. Rough Cut also takes a few shots at the Korean film industry and it is this level of cynicism that is injected in the film that makes it stand out over other more commercial shallow productions.

There are some painful truths about acting that Kang-Pae learns such as how he is perceived and the repercussions of his actions are incredibly scrutinized, likewise with the superstar Soo-ta (a play on the Korean word for star!) who constantly fights scandal and public opinion and tries hard to keep his relationships under wraps. There is a clever analogy as visual cues help to explain the similarities between both the acting and the gangster life and by simply comparing the two it is clear a negative light is shone on the profession. Corruption in the movie industry is also touched upon. Director Bong (potentially a play on the real-life director Joon-ho Bong’s name) is very unscrupulous, a coward but will do anything to get his way and breaks the law.

Perhaps the entire production of the faux film in question is given a very adverse look. The gangster element Kang-Pae brings of course spills into the movie production and only adds to the downfall. Art imitates life and the elements of what is bad and good separate as additional plot points are introduced to the film that water down the original intention of Rough Cut, and forces focus away from the character studies. Kang-Pae transitions to a good guy way too fast than what has been suggested (although his performance has been one of conflict and remorse) and the style of the film changes drastically which a shame is considering the investment of both characters and their gradual changes up to this point.

The film concludes with a compelling fight sequence that utilizes all the frustration and stubbornness both men exude as every punch is delivered there is a deep convoluted sense that is fascinating to witness, but by this stage what has come before this pivotal moment has distracted enough to almost let this scene down. The end of the film really ups the ante however, and you can almost feel Ki-Duk winking as everything comes to a head and even the third wall is broken as the credits begin to roll. Ki-Duk Kim was a pivotal element in Rough Cut, like his previous films you can really feel the beauty in the violence and deeply damaged characters, but this does not transition all the way through and as such Rough Cut demotes itself to a great film, rather than a masterpiece it could have been, if not for some grating distracting elements and popcorn plot.

Kwenton Bellette
Kwenton writes for TwitchFilm and NewKoreanCinema. This is a follow up piece to his earlier article on Kim Ki-duk, which you can read here.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Korean Film Downunder Volume 1

As the Korean Blogathon continues, today we thought we would take a look at the Korean cinema landscape in Australia. In our first edition of this analysis, we take a look at DVDs, Genre and Co-productions. Korean cinema's presence in Australia has not always been as good as it looks today, but the passion from the fans that have searched out the cinematic works from the Korean Peninsula has been. At this point in time almost 50 Korean films have been released on DVD, which may not be anywhere near the amount of Japanese films, but is gradually improving. 

According to all the information I can find, (based off of reports from the OFLC, Distributor databases and my general knowledge), it appears that the 1st Korean film ever released on DVD in Australia was the sexual thriller "Lies", which was released by Madman Entertainment in July 2003. A film that centres around an S&M relationship between a 38 year old sculptor and an 18 year old high school girl, it would fit right in to the Asian Extreme range released by Tartan Video. This is in fact the likely reason as to how it came on the radar of Australian distributors, and eventuated in its release. The DVD appears to be OOP at this point in time, but remains an important point in the history of the Korean film in Australia. Below is a breakdown of Korean film releases in Australia on DVD:

DVD Releases

The pattern of release almost matches that of Korean cinema worldwide and the Korean Wave phenomenon.  The overseas revenue of Korean films jumped from $31 million in 2004 to $75 million in 2005 as Hallyu spread throughout Asia. The international success of Korean films in the late 1990's and exposure of Korean dramas throughout South-east Asia continued this widespread craze, that eventuated in Korea being dubbed the Hollywood of the East. 

This great jump in the worldwide success and popularity of Korean cinema was not just by luck though, as the Korean Film and Television industry embraced interest from Foreign lands. Soap operas and K-Pop groups were subsidized by the Korean Government to Asian territories for consumption, and they were lapped up. The just passed Super K-Pop concert in Sydney showed that this fever is still going strong. It is not uncommon to see a Korean drama or film take place in another country, "I'm Sorry, I Love You" begins in Australia for example. Every opportunity to expose the industry is undertaken by those that market it.

Today the trend from the Korean media industry is for partnerships with Thailand, which has produced Banjong Pisanthanakun's "Sorry Sarangheyo", Wisit Sasanatieng's "Pussy: A Kimchi Affair", Aditya Assarat's "Phuket" and the forthcoming Pracha Pinkaew vehicle "The Kick". The K-Pop band 2PM even has a Thai member amongst its ranks, Nickhun. Not to mention the 1st Thai film ever released in theatres in Australia, Banjong's "Hello Stranger", distributed by a friend of mine, is about two Thai teens who travel to Korea and embrace all things Hallyu. In fact I would say that GTH itself operates in much the same fashion as the likes of JYP, and probably even took its name for similar structure. Anyone for a Korea-Australia KoProduction??

KOFFIA Marketing Director Kieran Tully with P'Ter and P'Tong

By my records there are now a total of 49 Korean films released on DVD in Australia, with the latest release being that of the Period Action Comedy "Woochi: Goblin Island" by Reel DVD. 9 Different distributors have ventured into Korean film distribution in the land downunder, ranging from large conglomerates (Sony, Warner, Universal) to Educational Institutions (AFTRS) and Independents (Reel DVD, Shock). The breakdown is listed below.

DVD Releases
Beyond Home
Sony Pictures
Warner Bros
Reel DVD

As evident by the numbers, the vast majority come from Madman Entertainment, which was precisely the reason why we made sure to bring them on as a Major Sponsor for KOFFIA 2010. The cinematic landscape of Korean film in this country would be completely different without them, and their support for Korean film should be commended. The melodrama and comedy craze has not quite been reflected in the film release landscape though. The most popular films at KOFFIA 2010 were in fact comedies, and people were craving for more.

Asian comedies do have the limitation of often being as long as Western action films, nearing 2 hours of more. This is in contrast to the regular comedy run time or 80-90 minutes, and has seen even the works of master Stephen Chow edited down. Often their length is due to a merging of multiple genres, and thus needing more time to develop story and character. Hopefully the results of more studies like our report from last years festival will convince local distributors to release Korean romance and comedy feature films in the near future. The most popular film of the festival was 200 Pounds Beauty, which was released in Korea in 2006 but still has no DVD release in Australia. See below the breakdown in genre of those films released on DVD in Australia. Drama here refers to the western definition of drama, not the Asian Soap-opera romance view.

DVD Releases
Drama (Western def)

Now classifying a Korean film into 1 strict Genre is a task in itself, but that is the general breakdown. For reference at KOFFIA 2010 we had 3 comedies, 2 dramas and 1 each from crime, art house and documentary. These statistics do not distinguish Korea from other Asian countries in terms of having their films released internationally. Thai films generally only succeed in having Horror and Action films distributed, and the vast majority of comedies out of China and HK (Stephen Chows collection included) are not released unless they have a notable sell factor (Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer). 

Japan has been the most successful in this area, possibly aided by having a Film Festival in Australia that is now nearing its 15th edition. But even Japanese cinema has had a difficult time selling films in Drama and Comedy genres, with the likes of Kurosawa and Ozu classics selling only moderately well. The most successful drama release has been The Japan Foundation Sydney's educational resource DVD "Happy Family Plan", again distributed by Madman and pushed mainly to schools and language programs. This project has been so successful in Australia it now has plans to be released worldwide, a project I myself have been involved with. The interesting thing here is that Shochiku initially left Tsutomu Abe's "Happy Family Plan" in the collection vault and it did not secure a release even in Japan. Thanks to the J Cinema Project, it not only secured a release, but a large following.

Whatever the 50th Korean film released on DVD in Australia is, be it yet another crime thriller or a fresh comedic masterpiece, it will be a landmark release that will complete a significant 9 years for cinema from that region. Today figures revealed by Darcy Paquet, the primary source of information about Korean film in English language, indicate that Korean films hold a 61.5% market share at the 2011 boxoffice in Korea. This is a stunning statistic, that should not doubt be analysed by the Australian film industry, if they aim to generate our own "Aussiewood".

Stay tuned for Vol 2 of Korean Film Downunder which covers film festivals, theatrical releases and more!

Kieran Tully, 
Marketing Director, KOFFIA.