Saturday, March 10, 2012

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.

The story looks at the parallels in the love lives of a mother and her adult daughter as the latter finds a trove of decades-old love letters hidden away amongst her mother's belongings. Interestingly, the names on the envelopes and the names in the letters do not match... Cue the flashback to the mother's youth during the 1960s and the affections, traumas and times of social upheaval that make up her story. Back in the present, curious events mirroring those of decades past begin to happen to the daughter... 

I first saw this movie in 2004. It was the third Korean movie I had watched up to that time. The emotional sincerity of the movie, combined as it is with charming moments of cinematic playfulness from the director, really struck me (read: I bawled my eyes out. Hey, I'm a big boy - it's OK to cry, dammit!).

The Classic is a very strong film with solid storytelling and convincing acting. There are some plot contrivances that might seem a bit convenient in hindsight, but leave your cynicism at the door, because that is sort of the point: this movie is a conscious tribute, an homage, to bittersweet romantic melodrama, so it is meant to push all of those buttons. Men, what I say to you I say to all: bring tissues. Girlfriend not included, but highly recommended. 

Castaway on the Moon 

OK, so you've had a nice sob and you're wondering: where to next? What you need, sirrah, is a good, absurdest movie with a meaningful soul. You're in luck. Castaway on the Moon was in the Korean Film Festival in Australia in 2010. It was the closing film and was packed out and let me tell you, they could not have ended the Festival on a better note. This movie is the cure for what ails you. 

Imagine: it's been a hell of a day at the office. You're in debt over your head and the mob is after you to make good. You've broken up with your partner. On top of that, you've had a rough life from day one.

You find a bridge over a river that bisects the city and dive off it, yearning for peace. What you find instead is that the tide has carried you to an abandoned island in the middle of the river, within swimming distance of the city - but you can't swim. You try to phone for help, but your waterlogged mobile phone battery dies after you pick up a call from a persistent telemarketer. 

Yeah, really not your day - again.

That is just the start of this film, which sees its protagonist, Kim Seung Keun (played by Jung Jae-young) become a modern-day Crusoe on his little polluted scrap of dirt in the middle of the Han River in Seoul - with occasional help from an eccentric, shut-in Girl Friday (played by Korean-Australian actress Jung Ryu-won) who peers at his strange daily life through a telescope from her room. 

Castaway on the Moon is like a breath of fresh air. Apart from being told with a wry, and at times wicked, sense of humour, the story pares down the character and the audience to bare necessities, as, for example, he (and we) become jubilant at the germination of a single seedling in Seung Keun's makeshift farm. I cannot emphasise enough how genuinely entertaining and renewing I found this movie. 

Speedy Scandal 

The lead actor in this movie, Cha Tae-hyun has had a charmed career. His big break came in the awesome 2001 movie My Sassy Girl. (As you may have guessed, I heart this movie A LOT. When I am a decrepit grandpa, I will still love My Sassy Girl. I could go on, but you just need to watch it.) Cha has also starred alongside the divinely gorgeous Song Hye-kyo in My Girl and I, a Korean remake of the moving Japanese film Crying Out Love at the Centre of the World. 

In 2008, Cha enjoyed another massive success with Speedy Scandal, playing Nam Hyun So, a self-centered radio host with a white-bread reputation who suddenly faces ruin when his love-child from a teen dalliance, herself a teenage mother, tracks him down and camps out at his home with her young son.

The movie has a lot of fun with its premise but still packs an emotional punch as the experience gradually humanises Cha's character, who has otherwise been a closet-bastard, and who vacillates between his free-and-easy ways and embracing the responsibility that has been suddenly thrust upon him. Speed Scandal also features very strong performances from Park Bo-young, who plays Hyun So's daughter and a very talented Wang Suk-hyun who plays his young grandson.

So there you go. Three accessible, enjoyable and meaningful Korean movies to get stuck into. You will be entertained.

Joseph Sampson
@Joseph Sampson

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