Kaiju Shakedown: Kim Jee-Woon
The Quiet Family
This week heralds the Blu-ray release of Arrow Video’s fully loaded edition of Takashi Miike’s murderous musical from 2002, Happiness of the Katakuris (full disclosure: I wrote an essay that’s included in the package). Happiness of the Katakuris is a remake of Korea’s The Quiet Family (98), the first film from director Kim Jee-woon, which Miike originally saw on a defective VHS tape. What’s surprising is that while Miike’s Happiness is getting the big-time Blu-ray release, Kim’s Quiet Family is nowhere to be found.* It’s a strange fate for a groundbreaking debut feature from an internationally acclaimed director. Then again, maybe that’s exactly why it’s MIA.
Known today as a cooler-than-thou auteur with an exquisite sense of style, Kim Jee-Woon is most famous for his chilly horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters (03), his stoic gangster epic, A Bittersweet Life (05), his postmodern spaghetti western The Good, The Bad, The Weird (08), and his cold-blooded serial killer movie, I Saw the Devil (10). One thing these movies have in common is a feeling that they’re taking place in carefully labeled petri dishes and their director is standing over them in a white coat, peering down at his experiments from a distance.
Kim’s first two movies, The Quiet Family and The Foul King (00), are radically different in tone. Messy, exuberant, deeply local in scope, they call into question his image as a passionless perfectionist. Park Chan-wook’s career followed a similar arc: his JSA (00) wore its heart on its sleeve and was an enormous blockbuster in Korea, but has since been overshadowed by more controlled films like his revenge trio (2001’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 2003’s Oldboy, and 2005’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), the lushly romantic I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (06), and his antiseptic vampire movie, Thirst (09), that took the jury prize at Cannes.
The Foul King
Park and Kim made their first movies before they learned to tuck in their shirts, attend the right parties, and navigate the international film festival scene. Their first movies are less controlled, less disciplined, less international, and, in a way, more alive. But both directors seem like they’d be happy to forget about them. Surely it can’t be a total coincidence that out of the three, only The Foul King is available in Korea on Blu-ray?
Kim spent his life screwing around and watching movies until he wrecked his car at age 34. He entered two screenplay contests for the cash and won both. The first was Good Times, written for a competition run by Premiere magazine, that took Korea’s 1979 Military Coup and restaged it in a high school with students filling in the roles of Korea’s great military dictator, President Park, and his assassin, Kim Jae-kyu, the head of the Korean CIA, as they battled for leadership of the various high school cliques. Written and submitted almost simultaneously was The Quiet Family for a contest run by Cine21, Korea’s premier film magazine, which was then picked up by Myung Films, one of Korea’s most forward-thinking production houses. When Kim told his mother he’d won the contest, she cried, thinking he was lying in order to impress her. She was still paging him to ask if he’d found a job while he was on the set of The Quiet Family.
When 1998 began, Korean cinema was on the cusp of a renaissance. After being censored into near-oblivion in the Seventies, Korean audiences learned to stay away from cinemas if they wanted to see anything besides anti-communist propaganda. Some new and interesting filmmakers appeared in the Eighties, and were given more freedom when censorship was officially eliminated in 1988, but audiences had learned their lesson and stayed home. By 1993, Korean movies accounted for a pathetic 16 percent of the market. Embarrassed, the Korean government passed a series of laws in 1995 with the aim of fixing their film industry, and in 1998, a crop of bold new films appeared.
The Quiet Family
The two biggest Korean movies of the year were the schoolgirl horror flick Whispering Corridors and a romantic melodrama about a gang leader and a doctor who fall in love, A Promise. Myung Films capitalized on the renewed audience interest with their January release, Christmas in August, a romance that was a commercial and critical hit, paving the way for their April release of The Quiet Family. Although Christmas and The Quiet Family are now seen as the two pivotal Korean films of 1998, neither was in the box office top ten. The Quiet Family sold a respectable 343,946 tickets, but even Alien: Resurrection beat it at the box office.
Still, both movies broke new ground for Korean film. Melodrama has always been Korea’s national genre, the same way the Western is America’s, but Christmas in August made melodrama tasteful, understated, and middle-class. The Quiet Family was a horror comedy, something that had simply never existed before in Korea. It was a huge risk for Myung Films to employ a director who’d never set foot on a film set and blow most of the budget on an enormous set of the family’s mountain lodge (most Korean movies at the time were shot on location). It was also explicitly political.
The Quiet Family follows the sad sack Kang family as Mr. Kang loses his job and relocates to the countryside to take over a failed mountain inn. His family, whose ranks include a juvenile delinquent son (Song Kang-Ho) and an uncle (Choi Min-shik, who like Song would go on to become one of Korea’s biggest actors), while away their days waiting for guests to appear. When some lodgers finally show up, it turns out they’re just looking for a quiet place to commit suicide. Stuck with a literal death trap, the Kang family desperately hides the corpses so they won’t drive away new business.
The Quiet Family
The shadow of the IMF crisis hangs heavily over the movie. In late 1997, Korean banks held about $52 billion in bad debt. In short order, 11 of Korea’s chaebols went bankrupt, wiping out $100 billion of the economy. Massive unemployment ensued. The laughter dies on your lips when you realize that the people coming to the Kang’s mountain lodge to commit suicide were no joke: in 1998 the Korean suicide rate jumped up 45 percent from the previous year.
It was also a serious critique of President Park. Mr. Kang’s decision to buy the mountain lodge wasn’t an accident—the village headman, Mr. Park, sold it to him for a song. Mr. Park knows a road is coming, and in order to get access to the development rights for the entire mountain, he needs to murder his sister who stands in his way, but needs a safe place to do it. Once the family owes him their livelihood, they have no choice to be complicit in her murder or lose everything.
Kim is open about his loathing for President Park’s “developmental dictatorship” which saw Korea industrialize rapidly at a huge cost. Park’s government ravaged the environment and relocated thousands of families for new roads like the Gyeongbu Expressway while hundreds of his enemies were rounded up and tortured in KCIA safe houses. (President Park was later assassinated in one of these very same safe houses.) It’s no mistake that the sign for the inn, named “Misty Villa,” is misspelled “Safe House” at the beginning of the movie. As Kim said in an interview: “The state makes corpses, the family makes corpses.”
The Foul King
Kim left the confines of studio sets for The Foul King, a film about a meek bank clerk who becomes a masked wrestler by night. Kim loves the Seventies, saying, “I think the Seventies were the renaissance of American film and the high-water mark of Korean popular culture.” And in Korea, in the Seventies, wrestling was king. Less political than The Quiet Family, this time Kim’s working out his feelings about Korea through one man. Trapped by his job and by society, the middle-class bank clerk (Song Kang-ho, in his first starring role) is only free to be himself, to cheat, to fight, and to woo the woman he loves when he puts on a mask and enters the low-class space of the wrestling ring.
The Foul King became a huge hit and made Song one of Korea’s most bankable stars. A February release, it was number four at the box office that year, and was the top-grossing Korean film until September, when Myung Films released JSA, which went on to become the biggest Korean movie of all time. But Kim wasn’t happy. He was only getting scripts for comedy projects and didn’t want to be type-cast, so his next project was a bleak, high-art horror short Memories, released as part of the international anthology film, Three (02).
Memories defined the rest of Kim’s career. It was oblique, beautiful, carefully composed, lit within an inch of its life, and designed for the international market. It was a blueprint for his next big hit, the ghost story A Tale of Two Sisters, which is basically an extended essay on wallpaper. It also marked a moment when his work with actors changed. “While The Quiet Family and The Foul King forced me to request that the actors give performances that were expressionistic within a genre pattern or excessive,” Kim said in an interview. “With Memories and A Tale of Two Sisters I asked for performances that were restrained.”
Park Chan-wook also aimed for excess with JSA, a downright gothic mystery set in the DMZ between North and South Korea. A murder sparks an investigation that reveals soldiers from both armies have been sneaking over the border at night to hang out with each other and bond. When their harmless fun is revealed, it has international political consequences that result in a series of murders and suicides. It’s a melodramatic film whose emotions are turned up to 11, but it’s also uncomfortably passionate, something that almost none of Park’s subsequent movies could be accused of.
Excess isn’t cool. Enthusiasm is embarrassing. Passion is uncivilized. These aren’t the traits that are taken seriously by places like the Venice Film Festival, Cannes, Berlin, and Sundance, which have made stars of some of the most reserved directors on the planet: Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jia Zhang-ke, Hong Sang-soo, and Hirokazu Kore-eda. Can you even imagine any of those four directors sneezing? And yet, that international circuit is the one that made Kim and Park stars, whose awards gave them the clout to stand up to demanding investors, and allowed them to go to Hollywood where the bigger budgets are. But when they started back in the Nineties, it’s important to remember that neither Kim nor Park were cool, and neither was Korean cinema. As the years progressed, however, excess was traded for restraint. Passion for intellectualism. And what was once hot, was allowed to mellow into cool.
Know what else is cool? A corpse.
* Arrow Video tried to license The Quiet Family to include as a special feature on this set, but they were not able to make it happen for reasons that are unclear, though not for lack of trying.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
Cemetery of Splendour
…Speaking of international art film superstars, one of the less reported stories from Cannes is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest movie, Cemetery of Splendour, which played Un Certain Regard, much to the dismay of critics who thought it deserved to be in the main competition. Wisekwai’s got a round-up of reactions and reviews for the movie that some folks are calling “cooling forest poetry.” There's also a set visit from the March/April issue of FILM COMMENT and an interview with Apichatpong at Cannes by Nicolas Rapold.
…There was a time in the late Nineties when Sammo Hung was the next big thing in America. It’s easy to forget that for about two years he was in TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, and on network TV, starring in Martial Law, his CBS cop show that sported Arsenio Hall and surprisingly sophisticated action choreography. Sammo kept his dignity on this show, far more than Jackie Chan would have, but it’s never been out on DVD before. Finally, the complete Martial Law is hitting DVD in the third and fourth quarters of 2015.
…What's wrong with Zhao Wei? China’s TV drama diva, who became a big-time movie star in movies like John Woo’s Red Cliff (08), is staring at people too hard. A man in Shanghai has recently filed a lawsuit against the actress for causing him “spiritual damage” by staring at him too intensely from his TV screen, where she’s currently appearing in the show Tiger Mom. She and Mary Hart should team up and use their television-enhanced superpowers to fight crime.
…You know who else could join their crime-fighting team? Godzilla! He’s now an official resident of Japan, which is bound to drive other immigrants crazy. How come this giant lizard with atomic breath gets to jump to the front of the line?
…As Godzilla could tell you: it’s hard to be an actor. These amateur Chinese actors in Shanxi's Wuxiang County dress up as Japanese “devils” and reenact scenes from the Second Sino-Japanese War, or, as you and I would call it, World War II. People love their live shows, and weep openly while watching. Then they throw garbage and shoes at the actors portraying Japanese soldiers and occasionally surround and beat them.
…Soon to be surrounded and beaten (with love) is Bruce Willis, who has watched his star power wane in the West and decided it’s time to make it rise in the East. Like Donald Sutherland, Christian Bale, and Kevin Spacey before him, Willis is appearing in a mainland Chinese production. Called The Bombing (they might want to rethink that title), Willis recently signed up to shoot for eight days on the WWII period piece about the Japanese bombing of Chongqing.
…Why do people hate the Japanese? Maybe it’s because they’ve all decided to start putting cardboard boxes over their heads when they watch movies on their iPhones?
…China’s financial comeuppance may be at hand. Chinese media companies are wildly overvalued on the stock market right now, with Alibaba Pictures valued at $10 billion without ever having produced a single movie (although they have distributed one, and may distribute one more before the end of the year), China Television Media trading at 297 times its earnings, and most film and TV companies running a 138:1 ratio in terms of value versus earnings. That means for every $1 they earn, they’re valued at $138. Along with being totally insane, that's the definition of an economic bubble. With the Shenzhen and Shanghai stock exchanges recently allowing investors to short stocks, they could be heading for a big fall. Shades of Korea in 1998 all over again.