Korean Cinema: 'Poetry' and 'The Housemaid'

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(pic: The Housemaid. Sang-soo Im, 2010)

Chang-dong Lee and Sang-soo Im are part of the new wave of South Korean directors who emerged during the latter half of the 1990s. Both men have used film to reflect on Korean society, but their approach and appeal marks them as two very different film-makers.
Im is regarded as provocative and irreverent. His broadly rendered, black-comic take on the assassination of president Chung-hee Park in The Presidents Last Bang is a fair representation of this director’s controversial bent. The film inevitably caused a stir and documentary footage (available on DVD) of the state funeral was cut from the theatrical release.

The Housemaid, which was nominated for the Palme D’Or, is a remake of Ki-young Kim’s landmark 1960 classic. One cannot help but compare the new and old and sadly the 2010 edition comes up short. Im endeavours to bring something fresh to the timeworn story of a wealthy family unsuccessfully coping with the side effects of infidelity. Speaking about his sixth film, the director stated that he wished to illustrate a widening gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ of modern society.

In this he is partially successful. In the original it was the well-off family who were threatened by the outsider. This time round it is the servant who is taken in, seduced and spat out by the opulence of her new surroundings. For a while, the viewer will be similarly wooed by gorgeous cinematography and a lavishly expensive purpose built mansion setting. The film looks great, but is ultimately superficial.

Widely respected screenwriter Soo-hyun Kim walked after disagreements about the script’s final draft and maybe she had a point. The film suffers from frustratingly lazy characterisation and feels stilted in both its pacing and overall execution. There are some nice moments between Do-yeon Jeon as the maid and former Ki-young Kim regular Yeo-jeong Yoon as her embittered senior colleague, but a lack of spine and believability reveals Im’s desire to shock as gratuitous and self-indulgent.

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(pic: Poetry. Chang-dong Lee, 2010)

Four years ago, Jeon won the best actress prize at Cannes for her role in Chang-dong Lee’s Secret Sunshine. This official nod helps to confirm Lee as an actor’s director. The former minister for culture and tourism, Lee worked as a teacher and novelist before finding his way to the directing chair in his 40s. Films like Oasis and Peppermint Candy have dealt unflinchingly with the harsh realties of modern Korean society.

The former charts the relationship of a couple afflicted by mental and physical disabilities. Cast aside, they live on the margins. Peppermint Candy,  is an unflinching examination of the damaging effects of 20 years history that takes in the late 90s financial crash, and the political corruption and violence of the 1980s.

While comparatively more sedate, Poetry, is a companion piece to Peppermint Candy. Although not explicitly stated, we realise that as a 66 year old, Mija has lived through civil war and a succession of military dictatorships. As a mother, a care assistant and woman, she has been relegated to edges of society. Even today she is subjected to the whims of her grandson, Wook, of whom she has sole custody. Even though the onset of Alzheimer’s threatens to take her vocabulary away, she is nonetheless inspired to enrol in a poetry writing class.

The film opens with the discovery of a school-girl’s corpse. Her diary reveals that Wook is one of a gang of rapists who drove her to suicide. Mija is contacted by the fathers of the other boys. In order to avert a police investigation, they plan to offer a compensation payment to the dead girl’s mother. The pursuit of justice is deemed less important than the boys’ future. Even the school’s headmaster agrees. Despite progress, democracy and the passage of time, women still suffer institutionalised chauvinism. Racked by guilt and a sense of her own helplessness, Mija looks to find peace and comfort in the pursuit of her poetic muse.

As usual, Lee’s direction is unobtrusive and affords his work an understated elegance. His award winning screenplay is by turns subtle and devastating, but always lucid. Perhaps most memorable however, is the performance of actress Jeong-hee Yoon. It has been over 15 years since the golden girl of 60s/70s Korea appeared on screen. Like the natural world portrayed in this film, she is a quiet and stunning revelation.

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If either of the films discussed here inspire you to investigate further, here is a list of five great places to start. The directors feature here, like Im and Lee, made turn of the millennium films, that kick started what is now regarded as a new golden age for South Korean cinema.

1) Joint Security Area. Chan-wook Park, 2000

Oldboy director Park came to our attention with a trio of films built around the theme of revenge. He has insisted that the idea for a ‘trilogy’ was founded in accident rather than design but the ‘T’ word has done his exposure no harm at all. This film is set at the borderline between North and South Korea and explores the fragile relations of enemy soldiers stationed there. This film was a huge domestic success and has some early glimpses of the director’s visual flair. JSA, featuring the reliably impressive Kang-ho Song, has a resonant storyline and is possibly Park’s best effort to date.

2) Memories of Murder. Joon-ho Bong, 2003

Bong Joon Ho, director of last years critically acclaimed ‘Mother’ has made a habit of melding genre specifics to ideas that reflect on the society he grew up in. This film, based on fact, concerns the search for a murderer that lasted six years. The killer claimed 10 victims, yet still managed to elude police. The 1980s military rule is recalled in a blunt and brutal police investigation that yields little success. With a measured grasp of police thriller/horror dynamics, the killer is revealed as a spectre that taints rural rice fields and railway lines as well as recent memory.

3) Tale of Cinema. Sang-soo Hong, 2005

Various traces of influence can be detected in this director’s oeuvre but his films defy easy categorisation. His detached style and recurring earthy themes arguably make his work an acquired taste. Fans of the art house will, however, find much to enjoy. Tale of Cinema is a great introduction to his work. Here, Hong takes a withering look at art imitating life and vice versa. His hollow and desperate cast are rendered with an acerbic wit that makes us unsure whether to laugh or cringe. However, his honed craftsmanship means you will keep watching.

4) Christmas in August. Jin-ho Hur, 1998

Jin-ho Hur’s debut is a minor cultural touchstone in Korea, having been referenced in no less than five films since its release. A man who runs a photography business is diagnosed with a terminal illness. This news comes just as he begins to fall for a woman who frequents his shop. Coming to terms with his illness he gets drunk and tries to prepare his family. The impression given is that life thus far has been pretty uneventful. His romance with Darim, played by Eun-ha Shim represents his last chance to find something deeper in his last months. Dignified in tone, Christmas in August is a remarkable film that at best recalls the understated sentiment of Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu.

5) The Harmonium in my Memory. Young-jae Lee, 1999

‘Harmonium’ is a similarly bittersweet, though ultimately sunnier take on the theme of love. A breezy and agreeable slice of life, it features an early leading man role for Byung-hun Lee, more recently seen in GI Joe. He plays an enthusiastic young teacher whose infectious manner fuels the youthful crush of one of his students. Do-yeon Jeon, playing a character almost ten years her junior, excels. The shy and awkward teenager experiencing the highs and lows of infatuation is perfectly realised by Jeon. Her talent has since been internationally recognised, but this film remains an early career highlight for both leads.

Tracking down these films shouldn’t prove difficult; between them Laser, The IFI, Tower and HMV carry a good selection of titles and the usual online haunts are always worth a look. While logged on you can find the Korean Film Archive’s official website at www.koreafilm.org, not to be confused with www.koreanfilm.org which contains a wealth of reviews and information. Happy hunting!

Anthony McGee

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