Tuesday, March 20, 2012

20,000 views and Counting!

The success of the Korean Cinema Blogathon cannot be understated! It has been the driving force over the last 2 years that saw the KOFFIA Blog, also known as Hungry for Drama, achieve the 20,000 views mark. A great initiative from the likes of Martin Cleary and Rufus de Rham, that we hope goes on for years! 

The Blogathon Effect!
More than 190 articles were written during the 2012 Korean Cinema Blogathon, as people from all around the world developed the discussion about Korean cinema. The more content that is written on or about Korean film can only help develop the industry, and its place in respected world cinema. 

We thank all of those bloggers that took part, and also all of you out there that consumed all the content! We specifically want to give a shout-out to the 13 KOFFIA contributers, who seemed to really raise the bar this year with their pieces which ended up totalling 30 individual posts! (quite possibly the most in the entire world from 1 source!) 

In case you missed any, we are going to list them all below, and we hope you all return again for the 2013 Korean Cinema Blogathon. Thanks again to CineAwesome! who did indeed do an awesome job with coordinating the week, and to the support sites such as New Korean Cinema, Modern Korean Cinema, Hangul Celluloid, V Cinema and Far East Films

It was great fun, and as always, LONG LIVE THE BLOGATHON!

Want to join the KOFFIA Blogging team? Have a favourite piece from the blogathon? Shoot us an email

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Kim Ji-woon: International or Korean?...Take Your Pick

If anybody asks me who my favourite director is working in cinema today, I’m always able to answer without hesitation that it’s Kim Ji-woon. I first experienced his work with 2003s ‘A Tale of Two Sisters / 장화, 홍련’, and have been a fan ever since.  He’s the rare director that seems to be able to turn his hand to whichever genre he chooses, and create an excellent piece of cinema.

Kim Ji-woon...contemplating what to
put in each version of his next movie.
However despite my admiration, there is one frustrating element to Ji-woon’s work that started with 2005’s ‘A Bittersweet Life / 달콤한 인생’, and has been a recurring event with both of his movies released since then. It’s what I’ve come to call the curse of the International version & the Korean version. That is to say, all three of his most recent movies have come released in two versions, and each one has enough differences to warrant a separate viewing of each.  While seeing a different version of the same movie might hold novelty value for some, I for one personally wish that he would simply create his definitive vision of the movie, and release that for the world to see, not just a certain version for his local audience and a different one for the rest of the world. For me the most frustrating factor is when I try to switch my friends onto his work by showing them one of his movies, I often find myself scratching my head for far longer than any reasonable person should contemplating which version I should show.

To get mathematical for a second, let me provide the exact breakdown. For ‘A Bittersweet Life’, which to be fair had the two versions entitled the Theatrical cut & the Director’s cut, comparing them against each other the Director’s cut has 16 scenes removed, and 2 scenes rearranged & slightly lengthened which results in the Director's cut being 30 seconds longer. For ‘The Good The Bad The Weird / 좋은 , 나쁜 , 이상한 ’, comparing the International version to the Korean version there are 30 alterations, including 7 scenes of alternative footage, 13 scenes in which the International version runs longer, & 1 recut. The difference in running time has the Korean version running 5:24 minutes longer.  Finally for I Saw the Devil / 악마를 보았다’, comparing again there are 14 extended scenes in the International version totaling 3:20 minutes, 15 extended scenes in the Korean version totaling 5:37 minutes, and 3 alternative sequences.

Confused? It’s understandable. To give people some idea of what you’re in for and the reasons behind such decisions, not to mention the fact that unless you buy the Korean DVD release you might not even be aware of the different versions, I’ll take a look at each movie individually.

Busan Film Festival 2011: The Reviews

In October 2011, just upon the completion of running a festival in 2 states and working for 75 days in a row for about 15 hours a day, I decided to take a rest. By watching endless films in Busan!!! So no, it wasn't really a rest but it was a great experience and was the first time I have attended the Busan International Film Festival, so I thought I would recap my experience here on the blog.

I am going to be doing 2 entries to cover my experience, 1 in terms of reviewing the films I saw, and 1 of the experience of the festival and country itself. (The 2nd entry will likely be posted post-blogathon). If you are involved with Asian cinema or festivals it is highly recommended to attend, what has become the biggest film festival in Asia, sometime in your lifetime. Read on to see my thoughts on the films, guests and festival happenings! (apologies for my piss poor blackberry photos!)

The BIFF history lines the beach front

Discovering Korean Cinema: J.S.A. Joint Security Area

To continue on from my entry on how I discovered Korean cinema, I've decided to talk about another film that really changed the way I looked at Korean film and the different ideas in cinema. My previous entry highlighted my first Kim Ki-duk experience, and it was the beginning of what I am today.

I raved about 3-Iron (2004) and how much I loved it to Kieran not long after that. I had already, by then, heard about a few big names in the Korean film world. Bong Joon-ho, Kim something or rather, another Kim this and that, and then - Park Chan-wook. I heard much about Old Boy (2003) throughout film school, here and there in pockets throughout the interwebs and still did not rush to see it. It was kind of like the hype around Kill Bill (2003). It's awesome, It's epic, It's amazing. Or so I had heard. Kieran had a couple of Park's films in his gargantuam of a DVD collection, one of which was J.S.A.: Joing Security Area (2000), a film I had not heard about and had little interest to see at the time. The title alone was uninteresting - that and I had little concrete knowledge of the DMZ and the current situation between the North and South. I looked past all of this and decided to give it a go.

I'll be absolutely honest with you: I could not and did not get through the first 20 minutes of the film in my first viewing. It was all talk, no substance to me. I wasn't paying attention to the lengthy discussions between Lee Young-ae's character and Mr Tall Swiss man, who to me seemed like an excuse of a 'white' man in an Asian film. I fell asleep, and looked no further past the beginning. Kieran had told me what a great film it was, and I simply could not see it. And that was that.

The WON and only

To say that Won Bin is a popular actor in Korea would be an understatement; he is simply one of Korea’s hottest stars. Having acted in just a handful of films, he has already established himself as a professional and profitable actor, with two of his movies becoming the highest grossing films in Korea during the years they were released. 

Won Bin acted in a number of television series before he made the transition to the big screen. His most famous television drama was AUTUMN FAIRY TALE (aka AUTUMN IN MY HEART and ENDLESS LOVE), which was extremely popular across Asia. In 2001, he made the transition to the big screen with GUNS & TALKS, which topped the local box office charts for 3 consecutive weeks. 

In 2004, he appeared in Kang Je-gyu’s massive blockbuster TAEGUKGI (BROTHERHOOD OF WAR) in a role that earned him critical acclaim both locally and internationally. The film completed its theatrical run with 11.75 million admissions and became the top grossing film of all time in South Korea (a title it held until 2006 when THE HOST topped 13 million admissions and set a new record). 

Poetry: Discover how film can truly be a beautiful creature

The film that opened Season 2 of Cinema on the Park in Sydney last February, Christopher Wheeler looks at the latest award winning film from Lee Chand-dong, Poetry

Humanising, touching and beautiful, Poetry (2010), directed by Lee Chang-dong, is a deeply real film that engages the heart on many levels. This artfully-constructed film lures you in with its sense of realism that just isn't showcased enough in film.

Meet Yang Mi-ja (Yoon Jung-hee), a lost and lonely elder in search of meaning and truth in her life. Her situation is not a desirable one; she takes care of her distance daughter's deviant son, Jong Wook (Lee David), while she works part-time caring for a stroke victim named Elder Kang (Kim Hee-ra). Having discovered that she has early signs of Alzheimer's disease, Yang seeks out the medium of poetry in the hope that she will find meaning and truth in her life.

The tragic nature of Yang's existence really dawns when we begin to understand her home life. She lives with her irresponsible grandson, from whom she has no authority over, respect or love. His aloof presence causes her distress and when she discovers that he was involved in the gang rape of one of his female classmates, resulting in the young girl taking her own life, she is unable to come to terms with his inexcusable act.

The other parents of the boys involved in the rape begin to work to put together a settlement payment to the victim's mother in order to spare the boys' futures. Their attitudes toward the crime and the steps they feel they must take to mend the situation differs greatly from Yang. A large majority of the film involves her interactions with the fathers as they make plans to put the money together to avoid any unwanted publicity. During which Yang continues to piece together her thoughts on the meanings of the things around her.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

In the Footsteps of the Stars: My Trip to the KOFIC Namyangju Studios

It was a bitterly cold Thursday morning some time in November 2010 when my friend & I decided to brave the icy conditions to make the 2 hour pilgrimage to the KOFIC Namyangju Studios. It was my fourth visit to Korea, and somehow despite of always being on my list of places that I had to see, such things as soju, karaoke, and a general lack of sleep that seemed to follow me whenever I visit the Korean peninsula always got in the way of me making the journey. Of course, this time was not a whole lot different, but somehow the shame of failing to make it despite visiting Seoul several times before, combined with a frosty determination, drove me to make sure I set foot in what was quickly becoming an almost mythical destination even if it was the last thing I’d do.

Of course, much like the Seoul Action School, there is no nice and easy way to get to the actual studios. Instead it involves getting on a bus for almost 2 hours to Gyeonggi, and when all of the small towns and signs of civilization fade away and you are confronted with the rugged landscape that is the Korean countryside, you ring the bell to get off at the next stop. The next stop was on the corner of a non-descript road, alongside a murky lake almost disguised by the volume of reeds cropping out of the water, by which stands an old battered wooden hut, long out of use with cut off electrical wires strewn on the floor of it’s dusty interior, which we glanced at from behind it’s locked down windows.

However my Korean friend looked pleased enough, “This is exactly how it’s described on the internet to explain where we get off!” he chirpily announced. So far so good, the next stage is to call a taxi, whose number has been conveniently nailed against one side of the hut, and the rest of the journey has to be completed by car, or a lengthy hike, whichever you prefer.

Once there though, the studios are indeed worth the journey. Not in the kind of super glitzy overbearingly tourist trap way Universal Studios are, the Namyangju Studios are fully operational and in use on a daily basis. Whereas Universal Studios gives the illusion of magic being made, here magic really is being made, and the figures you see behind the windows of the various buildings on the stroll up into the main grounds of the site are hard at work making it happen.

Complex and Compelling: The Yellow Sea

Sarah Ward takes a look at Na Hong-jins latest feature The Yellow Sea. If you live in Sydney you can catch both of his films, The Chaser (March 15th) and The Yellow Sea (March 22nd) for FREE at Cinema on the Park over the next 2 weeks. More details here.

Over the last two decades, South Korea has emerged as an unexpected filmmaking powerhouse. Courtesy of the efforts of Bong Joon-ho (Mother, The Host), Park Chan-wook (Thirst, Old Boy) and Kim Ji-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life) among others, the nation’s industry announced its arrival on the international stage, demonstrating a penchant for the darker side of the spectrum. Now, a spate of new talent is following in their footsteps, with the crime drama genre particularly common. With The Chaser already on his resume, Na Hong-jin adds another entry to the oeuvre with The Yellow Sea (Hwanghae). 

Living a piecemeal existence in Yanji City, Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo, Take Off) struggles to survive under the weight of grief for his absent wife and crippling gambling debts. With few other options, he accepts an offer of help from shady businessman Myun-ga (Kim Yun-seok, Running Turtle) – his willingness to travel to Seoul to murder a stranger for his new friend being the only catch. Whilst the act appears easily achieved, Gu-nam soon learns of others after the same target. As his path collides with Korean gangsters, his predicament worsens, all as a result of crossing the titular body of water. 

3 Korean Movies For All Seasons

The thing about 'film' or 'cinema' is that many people find the whole thing a damn sight to heavy a concept to easily digest. Add subtitles to the mix and it might seem a bit to much for a lazy Sunday afternoon or a working weeknight. You know how it is, you can't find your beret, your girlfriend lost her pipe tobacco, etc. 

But the reality is that, subtitles notwithstanding, Korean cinema is a broad church. It's not all cutting-your-tongue-out-with-scissors (Oldboy) or hungry-formaldehyde-fish-monsters (The Host). You can save those for when the mood hits you. And it will. Trust me. But the fact is, there is a lot more to enjoy when you crack open this particular geode. Here are some Korean movies for all seasons. 

The Classic 

Sometimes, you just need a good tearjerker to clear out your excess emotional baggage. The Classic is exactly what it says on the tin, the embodiment of a timeless, nostalgic romance tale and it is astonishingly well done. Written and directed by Kwak Jae-young of My Sassy Girl fame (you didn't notice Pachelbel's 'Canon in C' playing there?) and starring the lovely Son Ye-jin in a dual role, The Classic is a movie to take at face value and cling tightly to until the credits stop rolling.

Korean film down under: accessibility for Australian audiences

This article was originally published in Edition 12 of Peril Magazine: 'Asian-Australian Film Forum and Network Special Issue’. You can find the original version here. Thanks to Lian Low, Tseen Khoo, Owen Leong, Hoa Pham and the PERIL Team and everyone from the AAFFN

'On The Screen Scene – Getting AA Stories Seen’ at AAFFN (L-R Amadeo Marquez-Perez, Kieran Tully, Jiao Chen, Maria Tran and Heng Tang). 
Photo by Mayu Kanamori

"Kieran Tully set out about 2 years ago to establish his own Korean film festival as an idea for a screen culture project that he had. At the time he had been working at around 15 different film festivals in Sydney gradually learning all there is to know about festival management. It was during his work as Assistant Coordinator that he realised how big and popular the Japanese Film Festival was having been around for 13 years; and he started to question the absence of a Korean film festival. From his observations, Korean cinema on the world stage is arguably bigger than Japanese cinema, and this was an impetus for him in starting a Korean film festival.

A collaboration with the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea resulted in KOFFIA, the first Korean Film Festival in Australia, which debut in October 2010. Kieran worked with 2 other main staff members for over a year; one a former Korean Film Industry professional and the other was a staff member of the Korean Film Council on study leave in Australia. All staff gave their work voluntarily without pay; they often found themselves working from early morning till late at night, but all were driven by a passion for Korean film and they all wanted to get the festival off the ground. During this time, Kieran was Marketing Director, currently he holds the position of Artistic Director of KOFFIA. KOFFIA runs as an event from the Korean Cultural Office in Sydney, which opened in April 2011. With its construction it has given KOFFIA a solid support base to expand the festival even further, and widening its national reach as well. KOFFIA takes place annually in August / September."

Following on from my participation in a cinema forum of the 1st Asian Australian Film Forum (AAFF), which looked at how Australian audiences related to films with Asian diasporas, I thought it would be interesting to look further at how Australians have embraced or not embraced Korean film. Since the level of exposure of Korean stories is rather minimal down-under – even at the AAFF they were quite under-represented – I thought I would try to get to the heart of this. Based from the OFLC (Office of Film and Literature Classification) reports, I believe “Lies” was the first ever Korean film released by Madman Entertainment in July 2003, just 9 years ago.

By the end of 2011 there would have been around 55 Korean films released on DVD down-under (here are some examples). Not too shabby. But when you look at the fact that hundreds of Japanese and Chinese films have been released in the same time frame (not necessarily all on DVD but in some form of distribution or exhibition), there seems to be a large discrepancy. Yes, Japanese culture is more widely embraced than that of Korean culture, but given the Korean industry is arguably larger and more influential worldwide, then the discrepancy should not just be accepted without further analysis. 

From the late 90′s we have seen the spread of Korean popular culture throughout South-East Asia, often referred to as the ‘Korean Wave’. The propelling force of this was Korean dramas (episodic tv shows, think Neighbours). Korean content became enormously popular throughout China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other territories. But this melodrama and comedy craze, which the dramas almost solely focus on, has not been reflected through the film content available in Australia. If we take Lies for example, a film that centres on a S&M relationship between a 38 year old sculptor and an 18 year old high school girl, a film that would fit into your general Asia Extreme [1] range, this is where the connection between genre and distribution comes into play.

The theme of Xtreme Korea at Cinema on the Park represents this genre cinema 
that has become so popular around the world. 

By my records 81% of Korean dvds in Australia fit into genres of action, thriller, crime and other genre-specific (horror, war, sci-fi, martial arts) movies. This is rather common across all Asian release patterns, such as Thai films being purely horror or martial arts based. Looking at this and the few screenings on TV or pay-per-view, and rare events such as the Art Gallery of NSW ‘Seoul Searching’ and films at festivals (for eg Sydney Film Festivals ‘Freak Me Out’ section), around 95% of the films shown on those various platforms would have an OFLC classification that would not allow the average drama or K-pop fan to even watch them. I am not claiming the only people to watch dramas are teenagers, definitely not, but it is an age where people develop an interest in the medium. So this drama audience is not being developed, because they are not being acknowledged. (There are differences between the states, for instance MIFF have a Accent on Asia section, thus showcasing a much wider variety of Asian cinema).

Now forgetting about the quality of the shows or the appeal of their gorgeous casts, there is one simple fact that made them popular and successful: they were readily available and accessible to watch. Originally exported through the likes of NHK in Japan and Saigon BTN in Vietnam, the content is now easily available through satellite television, English-friendly DVDs or more recently as legal downloads. For content that generally appeals to young teens who may not be tech savvy but are extremely passionate about watching new content as soon as its available, these sites have been a fantastic distribution (or exhibition in terms of streaming services) for Korean dramas. 

The content of them also features accessible ratings, by featuring limited or soft nudity, violence and coarse language. The intriguing part of this is that the most popular films at KOFFIA 2010 (1st: 200 Pounds Beauty, 2nd: Like A Virgin) and KOFFIA 2011 (1st overall: A Barefoot Dream) were in fact comedies. Asian comedies do have the limitation of often being around 2 hours in length, but there is a clear interest in this genre that has been ignored and could be capitalised on.

What draws people to KOFFIA? And who has been attending?

Steps that are hopefully going to improve both availability and interest are projects such as the school specific session at KOFFIA, and Im Soon-rye’s terrific Fly Penguin being added to the resources of NSW School syllabus for Korean studies. Japan has had similar success with this educational approach, with The Japan Foundation’s language resource DVD Happy Family Plan, a film that would fit into the melodrama title. It is a project that has been successful enough in Australia, it now has plans to be released worldwide.

Interestingly Fly Penguin is very similar to Happy Family Plan, in terms of it being more a film about culture, society and family, than any specific genre. 

What I have discovered through the course of my research is that there are four distinct audiences in Australia with respect to Korean content. All of which is linked back to genre and distribution. The four main groups of viewers seem to be attracted to different types of film. 
  • The avid DVD collecting crowd attracted to hard-core crime, action and horror genres 
  • The drama obsessed Asian-Australian community which also embraces comedies and romantic tales 
  • The film festival going audience accustomed to indie and art-house cinema 
  • The Australian-based community of a particular nationality (ie: Korean-Australian community, international students from Korea and Korean working holiday travellers) 
At KOFFIA we have tried to satisfy all of these groups, for example The Unjust and Bedevilled for the hard-core DVD crowd, 200 Pounds Beauty and Shim's Family for the drama fans, The Journals of Musan and Old Partner for the art crowd and finally The Housemaid and The Man From Nowhere for those searching for latest hits. From my involvement with other Asian related events, this general breakdown is quite common. Australian audiences are embracing Asian content but have been directed into experiencing only one type of film through their favourite medium.

Read Joseph Sampson's great piece on Korean melodramas
and how they are films for all seasons

Now the content for a significant portion of Korean movies is the basic formula that K-dramas follow, and would fit the same market, yet they simply don’t get exposed to as wide an audience. The success and popularity of My Sassy Girl is a perfect example, a film that is so popular around Asia that its director Kwak Jae-yong has made his recent films in Japan and China, rather than Korea itself. The film was remade as a drama series, in Hollywood and even Bollywood. The reason I bring that example in is that it is the basic melodramatic content that is the appeal, whether it is Korean or not. (Just this week Kwak Jae-yong walked off the set of his latest film!)

The films Kwak Jae-yong is making in China and Japan, are in Chinese and Japanese with Chinese and Japanese cast. It is not necessarily Korean language, cast or locations that are the appeal, it is the drama itself. The stories, romance, characters and emotion are what draw in their audiences. My Sassy Girl, My Girl and I and many other terrific Korean films are essentially Korean dramas in short form. Thus I feel if Korean movies could only have a greater accessibility or availability, then the audience would be just as passionate about them as dramas. This is just an example through films that meet the drama formula, but I think it could eventually expand to other genres and cinematic styles and address all four groups of viewers that embrace Korean film in Australia

Kieran Tully

[1] Asia Extreme essentially encompasses South East Asian hardcore genre cinema, with themes of violence, crime, revenge or horror. Nearly all Korean films released in the Western World, be it Australia, UK or USA, fall under this category. The term “Asia Extreme” stems from UK-based Tartan Films creating a label called “Asia Extreme” under which films from Asia were distributed. Now as films were specifically categorised under this label it meant that they were the only types of films picked up, which we have also seen with Sydney Film Festival’s “Freak Me Out” section. Madman’s “Eastern Eye” is fairly similar, though does differ slightly. 

By aligning Asian and more specifically Korean cinema to these genre titles, audiences in the West now have specific ideas in their head of what Korean cinema is, which is not entirely accurate. Viewers’ opinions on Korean cinema has been directed primarily at only a certain type of Korean cinema, for eg http://www.eatmybrains.com/showtopten.php?id=10

Friday, March 9, 2012

Hwang Jang-lee: King of the Leg Fighters

It’s fair to say that while actors like Song Kang-ho and Lee Byung-hun have become household names amongst fans of Korean cinema, the name of Hwang Jang-lee might not be so familiar. Of course, it’s perfectly normal to have not heard of him, but hopefully by the end of this blog a few more people can be familiar with the actor who many people refer to as the ‘King of the Leg Fighters’.

The famous Hwang Jang-lee glare...
Over a span of twenty years ranging from the mid 70’s to the mid 90’s, Jang-lee starred in over 70 martial arts movies, primarily in Hong Kong but also in Korea. Generally regarded as the greatest kicker to ever grace the jade screen, he was the go-to bad guy for, with the exception of a handful, every movie he was in.

Born in Aomori, Japan in 1944 to Korean parents, he and his family moved back to Korea while he was still a baby. While there, he took up taekwondo lessons at the age of 14, which set him on the path to creating his memorable career. By 1965 he’d become a 7th dan black belt, and was drafted into the Korean army as a martial arts instructor both for the Korean and South Vietnamese armies. It was here that one of the most famous stories about Jang-lee occurred, an American soldier stationed in the Vietnamese army insisted that his style of knife fighting could easily defeat Jang-lee’s taekwondo skills, and after taking a swipe at him with his knife to prove the point, Jang-lee instinctively delivered a swift kick to his attackers temple, killing him instantly.

The Silver Fox
A little over 10 years later and after starring in some low budget Korean movies, he got a call from the famous Hong Kong movie producer Ng See Yuen, who was looking for new blood to revitalize the flagging kung-fu movie genre in the wake of Bruce Lee’s death. Jang-lee answered the call, and was immediately cast as the white haired villain, Silver Fox, in ‘The Secret Rivals 1 & 2’, ‘Invincible Armour’, and ‘Snuff Bottle Connection’, all made during 1976 – 77.  Many of his fans still affectionately refer to him as the Silver Fox, based on his white wig wearing performances in these movies, however it was the next year that cemented his reputation as the fiercest kicker around.

Original and Incredibly Fun: Discovering Korean Cinema

Our 20th blog of the 2012 blogathon, see how Samson Kwok discovered Korean cinema below! Tell us your story by email cinema@koreanculture.org.au

“What was the film that made you want to 
continue exploring Korean cinema?" 

Back in 1999, I was visiting an old friend in Hong Kong when he suggested going to the cinema. When I asked him what film we were going to be watching, his reply was ‘a good one’. It actually turned out to be a really good film about Korean spies, which had some intriguing plot twists and really well made action scenes, and was very different from the action films I was used to watching. That film was of course Shiri, which in retrospect was responsible for kick-starting the Korean film industry into its new renaissance. 

Delving into the darkness: Park Chan Wook

With him being such a big inspiration and influential figure to so many of the blogathon team, we just had to take a look at the man, the one, the only, Park Chan-wook. Read Sarah Wards piece below!

From humble beginnings to worldwide recognition, the career of enigmatic Seoul born and raised auteur Park Chan-wook has mimicked the journey of his national industry over the past two decades. Indeed, the award-winning writer, director and producer has been instrumental in charting a course for his cinematically-minded compatriots even whilst dallying with the darker side of the medium, evolving from acting as an assistant to fellow helmers that would become his professional colleagues (Yu Yeong-jin and Kwak Jae-yong), to paving the way for a Korean assault on America on the eve of his first Hollywood effort. 

Inspired to change his focus from art criticism to filmmaking upon seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo as a philosophy student, Chan-wook has blossomed from a fledgling practitioner to one of his nation’s strongest cinematic voices. From the simplicity of his initial film foray The Moon Is... The Sun's Dream to the scale of upcoming U.S. offering Stoker (reportedly starring Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode), and the genre-bending of his first popular hit JSA: Joint Security Area as well as the technical innovation of his forthcoming short Night Fishing, he has proven one of the driving forces of Korean films during his twenty years behind the lens.

Revenge: Korean Style!

With so many topics this week being about Korean films and in particular films about revenge, we thought this post would be a great piece to help us look deeper into what its all about. Christopher Wheeler studies Revenge, Korean Style, which a special focus on the 2 films we are screening this week and next at Cinema on the Park, I Saw the Devil and The Chaser!

Alfred Hitchcock once said "Revenge is sweet and not fattening", a stance shared in Korea as the suspense thriller genre has become synonymous with their film industry.

Along with the melodrama, revenge films and themes have become all too easy to identify in some of the most famous films to come out of Korea in the last ten years. This apparent sweet tooth has indeed been affected by Korea's turbulent socio-political history and perhaps a social consciousness persists that past injustices have not been adequately addressed both globally and locally.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Art--in this case, cinema--has the ability to purge, expose and depict past wrongs through spectacles that simulate and enact the painful residue of trauma. The notion of a "Revenge" film is a sadomasochistic affair in which the spectator is forced to oscillate between identifying with protagonists' painful circumstances and over-identifying with their vengeful actions. The degree to which one identifies with the hero's (or anti-hero's) trauma sets the parameters for how far we are willing to accept the resultant acts of revenge. Once that limit has been breached, an over-identification occurs and the more sadistic pleasures emerge.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

So you want to run a Korean Film Festival: The KOFFIA Story

KOFFIA Artistic Director Kieran Tully gives an updated version of his Film Festival Tips Guide for this years blogathon, and talks about how the project has developed with KOFFIA 2011. 

I've decided that at a time when hundreds of Korean film buffs all around the world are writing about Korean cinema, and possibly getting crazy ideas and thoughts in their heads about bringing Korean cinema to their neck of the woods while blogging, that maybe this piece might be of interest. So I've decided to give a updated version of a previous Tully's Tips guide I produced as part of my Screen Culture course at AFTRS. This new version has more tips and more refined details given KOFFIA 2011 has come and gone and the festival has developed greatly. 

In 2010 I was required to conduct a creative project that in some way commented on an issue or contributed to a sector of the film and television industry. For this I chose to set out on a mission to establish a Korean Film Festival, partly due to my passion and knowledge of cinema from the Peninsula, but also because I couldn't believe a Korean Film Festival didn't currently exist. While the Japanese Film Festival had just completed its 13th Year (and now 15th), Korea was null and void and so I set out to change this fact.

After merging with a project team at the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea, which consisted of Kim Young-gu (a staff member of KOFIC, the Korean Film Council) and Ji Jungyeob (an experienced assistant director and crew member of the Korean Film Industry), what resulted was the 1st KOFFIA Korean Film Festival in Australia. The event had its ups and downs, successes and failures, but most important of all, it returned in 2011. Other forms of Korean Film Festivals had occurred in Australia before, but none returned for successive years. A primary difference for KOFFIA was that this festival was not just for the Korean community in Australia, but for everybody, and this was at the heart of its success.

Jung-yeob, Kieran and Young-gu at KOFFIA

Lee Young-Ae: The Oxygen Woman

Framed in angelic halos, the visage of Lee Young-Ae from Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance has become an iconic image of modern Korean cinema. Already a popular and award-winning television actress in the long-running drama Dae Jang Geum by the time she first appeared on the big screen, and with a string of modelling and commercial work already under her belt, Lee’s first major role came in another Park Chan-wook film, JSA: Joint Area Security. Appearing alongside Lee Byung-Hun (I Saw the Devil) and Song Kang-Ho (Thirst), Lee distinguished herself in a performance that would set her on the path to international recognition.

Lee’s breakthrough performance would come with Heo Jin-ho’s One Fine Spring Day, a film that would earn her Best Actress at the Pusan Film Critics Awards. Despite being in one of the mot popular series of all time, when the final episode of Dae Jang Geum aired to half the population of Hong Kong and hundreds of millions in China, Lee was not content to rest on her laurels. In 2005, she appeared in one of her most challenging roles to date, the aforementioned Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. The final part of Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy”, following Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, the internationally acclaimed film earned Lee ‘Best Actress’ awards at 8th Cinemanila Film Festival, The Motterle Awards and South Korea’s own prestigious Blue Dragon Awards, where the picture also won Best Film.

Lights, Camera, ACTION! – My visit to the Seoul Action School

In November 2008 I was set to make my first visit to Korea, and while most people have a certain list of must-see places to visit in the capital, Seoul, such as the 24 hour Dongdaemun market complex, the nightlife of Hongdae, or the arts & crafts lined street of Insadong, my list contained a slightly different place than the guide books usually mention – the SAS, more commonly known as the Seoul Action School.

Action Boys....in action!
2008 had saw the release of the excellent documentary ‘Action Boys / 우린 액션배우다’, which followed the trials and tribulations of a group of fresh faced stuntmen who where looking to make it in the Korean movie industry. The documentary deserves to be ranked as one of the best of its kind, as it follows both the emotional and physical roller-coaster the guys go through as their journey goes from students to fully fledged stuntmen, and most of their training takes place in none other than the Seoul Action School.

The City of Violence
A large portion of the documentary is dedicated to a movie that, in a rare chance, the whole school got to participate in, and that movie was the 2006 Ryoo Seung-wan helmed ‘City of Violence / 짝패’. I had watched ‘City of Violence’ upon its release a couple of years earlier, and been impressed by what was, for the first time in many years, Korea’s attempt at a fight-based action movie. The fact that the Seoul Action School tied both of these productions together made it a natural place to want to visit for me.

I breached the subject with my Korean friend that I was staying with at the time in Hyehwa, who responded with something not too far off from, “Why on earth would you want to go there!?” It wasn’t exactly a promising start to achieving my visit, nor was it promising when upon further research we discovered the exact location of the school is not exactly in Seoul, but a 2 hour plus bus journey away in a place called Ilsan.

How Oldboy Changed the Way I view Asian Cinema

I worried a little about admitting that the most influential Korean film I ever encountered is Chan-wook Park’s 2003 film, Oldboy. This isn’t to suggest that I didn’t like the film - I was alternately thrilled and appalled at the lengths the director took to manipulate his audience through so many levels of visceral discomfort - more that this unbearably cruel film about vengeance is a point of introduction for Korean cinema for many Western audience members. 

Shouldn’t I be able to cite a more culturally worthy film like Sopyonje (1993) from Kwon-Taek Im, which subtly charted the dreadful mid-twentieth century angst of the entire Korean peninsula? Or perhaps I could be trendy and say that a blockbuster such as Je-Kyu Kang’s 1999 spy thriller, Shiri or Joon-Ho Bong’s 2006 genre-bending monster flick, Gwoemul. Even Chan-wook Park’s Joint Security Area (2000) - a gripping film about tensions along the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea (and a blockbuster in its own right) - might set me apart from the average punter bragging about their first exposure to Korean cinema. 

All 4 of The Host, Sopyonje, Shiri and JSA will screen
 in this year's Cinema on the Park program. 

And Oldboy wasn’t even my first Korean film - I have fond memories of seeing the beautiful Chang-dong Lee film, Oasis at the Brisbane Film Festival in 2003, and as a volunteer at the festival, being handed a boxed set of his films by his producer, Gye-nam Myeong. But I won’t shy away from the fact that as a committed cinephile, Oldboy changed my life and solidified a passion for Korean cinema that encouraged me to seek out the work of all of the directors I mentioned above, and more.

Time Out: An appreciative stroll through Promenade

Some films you like because of what they’re not as much as for what they are. Promenade is a gentle, low-key, even old-fashioned film about warm-hearted people reacting in a mature and believable way to the softly dramatic circumstances around them. It’s the antithesis of a flashy genre film about an anti-social homemade-weapon-wielding maniac getting his revenge. I mean this in the best possible way! 

The film is about four male friends in their 30s who’ve known each other since school. They have a band and put on a performance each year. The main guy we’re with the most, Young-hoon (Kim Sang-joong, The Day He Arrives), owns a small independent music store that isn’t doing very well. He’s quiet, reserved and single, but confident and handsome enough to be considered a good catch. His first love has a long overdue catch-up coffee with him only to tell him about her new husband and children. His father has experienced a breakdown after the death of Young-hoon’s mother and walks the streets all day in search of meaning. 

The concert hall he books each year for the band’s annual gig becomes unavailable due to renovation. Amid all this, a new woman walks into his life. Yeon-hwa (Park Jin-hee, Shadows in the Palace) is a nightclub girl who wants to turn over a new leaf. She has escaped from her boss and his goons and easily wins over the pushover Young-hoon to become his shop assistant. Young-hoon’s friends also have various problems to overcome: one is a single dad, one is desperately single, another struggles to avoid complicity with bureaucratic corruption. How the personal lives of the men resolve comprises the rest of the film, and I won’t give too much away because it’s the simple storytelling and assured progression of the plot that sustains the film’s charm, poise and interest. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Hollywood Bound: Korea’s Trio of Talent Head West

Out of all the many talented directors who are working in Korea today, perhaps none get mentioned more, and for many people rightfully so, than the trio of Kim Ji-woon, Park Chan-wook, & Bong Joon-ho. Together these three film-makers have crafted some of the finest moments in Korean cinema, and the world, with just a quick look at some of their output confirming as much - ‘The Quiet Family / 조용한 가족’, ‘JSA / 공동경비구역’, ‘The Foul King / 반칙왕’, ‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance / 복수는 나의 것’, ‘A Tale of Two Sisters / 장화, 홍련’, ‘Memories of Murder / 살인의 추억’, ‘OldBoy / 올드보이’, ‘A Bittersweet Life / 달콤한 인생’, ‘Sympathy for Lady Vengeance / 친절한 금자씨’, ‘The Host / 괴물’, ‘I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK / 싸이보그지만 괜찮아’, ‘The Good The Bad The Weird / 좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈’, ‘Thirst / 박쥐’, ‘Mother / 마더’, and ‘I Saw the Devil / 악마를 보았다’.

No doubt there are some people out there for whom I’ve just replicated their top 15 favourite Korean movies, but in fact every one of the films listed can each be accredited to one of the trio. With such an outstanding catalog of classics already to their name, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling. Interestingly though, there was one Korean film-maker (& for many that term could be used very loosely) who managed to beat them to the punch.

Back in 2007 comedian and occasional criminal Shim Hyung-rae unleashed the atrocity that was ‘D-War /  ’ onto an unsuspecting western audience, as the B-movie elite of Jason Behr, Amanda Brooks, & Robert Forster ran around LA doing their best not to get killed off by rocket launcher wielding dragons (yes you read that right) and alike. 

....called Dawdlers?  Sure!
Where do I sign?"
"Is that my agent?  You want me to
star in a Korean movie about dragons...
It’s a film that sits comfortably in most DVD rental stores along side the likes of movies pitting giant anacondas vs mega giant sharks and other far flung combinations, but in fact first and foremost it’s a Korean product, for better or worse. Thankfully it looks like there will be no repeat of CGI dragons in the projects Ji-woon, Chan-wook, and Joon-ho are working on. Although at the time of writing details are still not particularly forthcoming, plot & casts have been confirmed, and now all we can do is speculate as to what the finished movies will turn out like.

Discovering Korean Cinema: Redefining Storytelling and Kim Ki-duk's 3-Iron

'What is the film that made you want to 
continue exploring Korean cinema?'

I was asked to write an entry for this year's Korean Film Blogathon and this question was posed to me. Truth be told, I had a tough time looking for a solid answer. I won't lie, the first Korean film I remember seeing is 200 Pounds Beauty (2006) which was during my first year in Australia in an all girl's boarding school. I thought about all the other Korean films I have seen since then, and I'm embarrassed that it was my first!

I won't lie, I enjoyed it then and still enjoyed it at KOFFIA 2010

To answer this question, I had to look at more than one film. Each have their own little back story, and are in their own selves very different films. It was simply too difficult to answer a question like this without discussing more than one film, with a bit of my life in-between.

Violence Meets Violence: I Saw The Devil

Get a sneak peek at Richard Gray's thoughts on the film he will present this Thursday at Cinema on the Park, the X-treme Korea hit I Saw the Devil. Come along for a free film at the Korean Cultural Office in Sydney!

Korean cinema isn’t suffering for a lack of revenge films, so the prospect of another one in  I Saw The Devil was hardly the most thrilling of premises to start a legitimate phenomenon. Yet it is hard to imagine a Korean film that has sparked more discussion in the past few years than Kim Ji-woon’s  I Saw The Devil, a beautiful, brutal and morally confronting thriller.

Joo-yun (Oh San-ha) gets a flat tire on a dark and lonely night, and Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) offers to help her out with a lift. She declines, but Kyung-chul’s true nature as a remorseless serial killer is soon revealed, and she is murdered and dismembered. However, Joo-yun was the daughter of police Chief Jang (Jeon Kuk-hwan) and the wife of secret agent Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), who is determined to exact his revenge on Kyung-chul non matter what kind of monster he becomes.

In reference to his 2005 mega-breakthrough A Bittersweet Life, his follow up to the original and twisty if somewhat ponderous A Tale of Two Sisters, Kim Ji-woon cited Jean-Pierre Melville as a massive influence. Looking at the Korean cinema on the landscape at the time, he commented in a 2006 interview with the BFI that “In Korea most films about violence focus either on becoming box-office hits or on communicating to critics.

A Special Film: Bong Joon-ho's Mother

A special film to all of us here at KOFFIA, Mother is the 1st ever film we screened at our film festival. Samson Kwok takes a look back at this masterpiece for us as part of the Korean Blogathon. Stay up to date with all the content via our website

Bong Joon-Ho is one of my favourite directors, and in my opinion, one of the world’s best directors working today. His works so far have covered a wide variety of different genres, ranging from the quirky social satire Barking Dogs Never Bite, to the memorable murder mystery Memories of Murder, to the monster masterpiece The Host

What impresses me the most about this director is his ability to tell stories, regardless of their genres, so incredibly well. After directing just a handful of films, he has proven himself as a director with the rare gift of being able to move from one genre to another with remarkable ease. His latest film, Mother, once again demonstrates what an intelligent and masterful filmmaker he is.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Going International: A Look at ‘Ninja Assassin’ & ‘The Warrior’s Way’

The idea of any Asian actor or actress wanting to break into the international English language market has always been a tough one, perhaps best illustrated by the influx of Hong Kong talent to Hollywood in the lead up to 1997’s handover of the island back to China, when all movies would be subject to the governments board of censors, and suddenly the bad guys could no longer be “those dirty mainlanders”.

Which era is the coolest? 1986....
Although at first it seemed that Hollywood greeted them with open arms, for many who made the move those same arms quickly became a bear hug. Jet Li could do kung-fu, therefore in every movie he will play an Asian cop, Tsui Hark made some memorable action movies, therefore he will only direct moves starring Jean Claude Van Damme, Ringo Lam also made some good action movies, so he was destined to the same fate of directing movies starring Jean Claude Van Damme.  In fact the only director who escaped the curse of directing Jean Claude Van Damme was John Woo, who directed him just once in 1993’s ‘Hard Target’

....or 2010,  you decide!
Even an excellent actor like Chow Yun Fat got roped into essentially playing the same character he was known for in his most famous action movies like ‘A Better Tomorrow’ (recently re-made in Korea) and ‘Hard Boiled’, and soon enough everyone grew weary and headed back home. The only person who stuck it out was Jackie Chan, who after breaking almost every bone in his body during his Hong Kong movies, was probably happy to enjoy the safety of Hollywood in his later years and cash the cheques.

Hollywood got to shape its new Hong Kong talent pool not so much on their acting or directing skills, so much as on whatever roles they had played before which would have the most appeal to what they perceived an English speaking audience would want to see.

Cinema with a Vengeance


In my first year at university, I remember borrowing a book from the library called Korean Cinema: The New Hong Kong by Anthony Leong. It was a great crash course on Korean cinema and offered a great amount of information about the recent boom in Korean filmmaking that is spearheaded by directors such as Park Chan-wook, Kim Ji-woon and Bong Joon-ho (these three names just so happen to be my personal favourite directors working in South Korea at the moment). 

It was an interesting read and I would definitely recommend anyone with any interest in Korean cinema or contemporary cinema in general but it wasn’t the information that sold me on Korean cinema – it was the fact that South Korea’s film industry was being compared to that of Hong Kong’s which was seemed like a very fair comparison to make given just how popular most of Korea’s films are nowadays and how much they feel similar to Hong Kong’s approach to filmmaking and distribution.