Kaiju Shakedown: Korea Edition
Everything in Korea came to a screeching halt on April 16 when a ferry carrying 476 passengers, mostly high-school students on a field trip, sank on its way to Jeju. Two hundred and sixty bodies have been recovered so far, with more than 40 people still missing. It’s an appalling disaster and one that makes movie news seem kind of irrelevant.
And yet, the film industry goes on. Despite opening the day after the MV Sewol ferry disaster, independent movie Han Gong-Ju became the biggest indie hit of all time in Korea, selling 100,000 tickets in nine days, breaking the records previously held by Breathless and Bedevilled. This drama about a bullied teenaged girl has been praised at festivals around the world, and it’s become a popular favorite in Korea, hanging on in the box office top ten.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s dear leader, has a band! Or, at least, he’s listening to the music of the all-girl Moranbong Band and not having them torn apart by wild dogs. “The supreme commander spared time to watch the performance!” a Moranbong Band promoter enthused. “Though he was very busy with the work to protect the destiny of the country and its people from the arrogant and reckless moves of the U.S. imperialists and other hostile forces to stifle the DPRK!” Kim Jong-Un is a real fan!
And from the Department of Things That Can’t Possibly Go Wrong, Zhang Yimou recently visited South Korea and is supposedly talking with some Korean companies (maybe?) about shooting a China-Korean co-production about the man who assassinated the first Japanese prime minister. So China, which is having a string of disputes with Japan over pretty much everything from how to teach history to island-ownership, and Korea, which was brutally colonized by the Japanese and banned Japanese films for years, are teaming up to make a movie about someone killing a famous Japanese guy? What could possibly go wrong?
So while Zhang Yimou is having absolutely terrible ideas, what are actual Korean directors up to? In the late Nineties, a whole crop of new Korean moviemakers hit the international film festival circuit and put Korea firmly in the center of the map of Asian cinema. New names have come and gone, but what are the big dogs, the OGs of Korean filmmaking, up to these days?
At this point Bong can lay claim to being Korea’s most consistently interesting and internationally important director, but he is also delightfully weird, doing things like taking all the color out of his movie Mother just because he can and writing up a top 10 list for Criterion in which he says things like, “I’m keen to find out who the designer of the box set was.” Recently, he did battle with Satan/Harvey Weinstein and forced him into submission so that Weinstein is now releasing Bong’s cut of Snowpiercer in the U.S. (on June 27). It will probably be in four theaters for two minutes, so try to see it while you can. Bong’s latest film is one he’s produced, not directed: Sea Fog, the directorial debut of his co-writer from Memories of Murder (03). Based on a play, it’s about the Taechangho incident in which a Korean fishing vessel forced 60 illegal Chinese immigrants into its net storage locker; 25 suffocated and were dumped overboard. Bong calls it “more of a romance.” Unfortunately, the MV Sewol disaster has put the scheduled August release on hold while producers try to figure out if a movie about people being lost at sea can really play cinemas after so many real people were actually lost at sea.
Rocketing to fame with his small 1998 movie The Quiet Family, remade by Takashi Miike as Happiness of the Katakuris, Kim has long been the only contender for the crown of Korea’s Coolest Director. From his wrestling comedy The Foul King (00) to his slick 2005 gangster film A Bittersweet Life (which will never get a U.S. release because its rights are still tied up with a remake deal that seems to be in eternal limbo), Kim makes stylish, smart genre movies. Or he did until he made the style-less The Last Stand starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Johnny Knoxville, a DOA dud that made a pathetic $12 million last year on close to 3000 screens. Worse than that, it was boring. Nevertheless, he’s back up on the horse that threw him, attached to direct another American film. This time, it’s an adaptation by Captain America comics writer Ed Brubaker, based on book one of his noir series Criminal, and titled Coward. Kim also recently made a 30-minute thriller called The X for CJ Entertainment’s new 270-degree, three-screen exhibition system called ScreenX. The wraparound system can only be used for 60 seconds at a time before the human eyeball explodes, but the short film gets a great review.
Korea’s great action director, Ryoo started out making grubby, self-financed indie films before moving up to the big leagues and directing epic corruption dramas like The Unjust (10) and slick international thrillers like The Berlin File (13). His latest endeavor is directing one part of the three-part omnibus film Mad, Sad, Bad, which is receiving a lot of attention for using 3-D to depict dramatic scenes rather than action. In Ryoo’s section, “Ghost,” two boys meet a girl online who seems to be in trouble, and then they try to help her. I’m guessing things either get really spooky or really violent. The other two segments are directed by Han Ji-Seung (Papa) and television director Kim Tae-yong (watch the trailer). Ryoo’s next movie looks to be Veteran starring Hwang Jung-Min (the lead actor in The Unjust) and Yoo Ah-In, about a disgraced former detective taking on a fabulously wealthy young man who flees responsibility for his crimes by hiding behind his family’s money. Filming began in March.
The director of Oldboy (03), which has overshadowed his earlier blockbuster from 2000, JSA: Joint Security Area—a movie in which actual human beings have actual feelings and no one beats anyone to death with a hammer like a comic-book character—Park Chan-wook is currently busting out all of his old movies and releasing them on screens to wash away the taste of Spike Lee’s remake. For starters, on the 10th anniversary of Oldboy, a newly remastered version of the film was released on screens throughout Korea. Now, Park’s very first film from 1992, The Moon Is… the Sun’s Dream, made when he was 29 years old, is getting a special re-release. The story of a gangster who has an affair with his boss’s mistress and then goes on the run with her, TMI… TSD was originally released on one screen, but is now getting restored and released digitally on many more (watch the first minute). He’s also teamed up with his brother, and all of Korea, to make a crowd-sourced movie about Seoul called Seoul.
Okay, okay, he hasn’t made a worthwhile movie since 2001, and no one actually enjoyed The Classic (03) or Cyborg She (08) and his My Mighty Princess (08) sat on the shelf for two years before being released, but Kwak is the man behind the inimitable My Sassy Girl (01), the movie that established the formula for Korea’s modern romantic comedy genre and launched a thousand films about tough girls smacking their wimpy boyfriends in the back of the head. What’s he up to now? He’s combining science fiction and romance in Time Renegade about a man in the past and a woman in the present trying to save someone’s life. It stars Korea’s hot young thing Jo Jung-suk, who got his debut in Architecture 101 and went on to star in movies like The Face Reader. Here’s hoping it saves Kwak’s career. He can’t keep coasting on My Sassy Girl forever.
What ever happened to Chang Yoon-hyun? The man who made The Contact (97), often considered the first movie in the Korean New Wave, Chang went on to make the pitch-black serial-killer movie Tell Me Something (99) that was one of the first Korean movies to get a major marketing push. It was released with great fanfare by Kino in the U.S. two days after the 9/11 attacks with a poster showing a decapitated head. Needless to say, audiences could not stay away fast enough. His new movie is a weird one. Called The Peaceful Island it looks to be a pretty standard Lost knockoff about ocean surveyors stuck on a freaky desert island. What makes it interesting is that it’s the second co-production between the mighty Korean studio CJ Entertainment, China’s Tianjin Century, and Hong Kong’s Media Asia, and features an all-Chinese cast. Their previous collaboration, The Wedding Invitation, was successful and it looks like it’s opened the floodgates to a slew of Korean-Chinese co-productions of which The Peaceful Island is only the first in a three-film slate.
There was a moment when Hur Jin-ho seemed like the greatest romantic melodrama director in the world. From his still-classic Christmas in August (98) to April Snow (05) and Happiness (07) he seemed to be smarter than the average bear, working on an unbeatable string of very smart, very good movies that had more going on beneath the surface than it seemed. But then came A Good Rain Knows (09), a beautiful movie populated with actors speaking languages they didn’t understand, which made them look like little wooden puppets. Hur followed it up with Dangerous Liaisons (12) a Chinese remake of the famous French novel set in 1930s Shanghai and starring Zhang Ziyi and Hong Kong’s Cecilia Cheung. The movie barely made it into the top five of the box office during Golden Week, the October holiday period when many big Chinese films are released. Even worse, the reviews found it empty and vapid, with The New York Times saying “Mr. Hur seems content simply to polish his film’s luxurious facade, particularly with close-ups that loom like billboards for powdered cheeks and glossy hair.” His next movie is rumored to be Princess Deok Hye, the true tale of the tragic Joseon Dynasty princess, with Moon Geun-Young (A Tale of Two Sisters) rumored to be the lead. She’s a terrific actor, but Hur seems to be doing a great job recently of getting synthetic performances out of even the best thespians, so this is firmly in the “wait and see” category.
Speaking of Zhang Ziyi, Cannes favorite Lee Chang-dong, has announced that his next movie, which is as yet untitled, will star Won Bin (The Man from Nowhere) and Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi. The film is about a serial killer on the run, a cop tracking him down, and a Chinese prostitute living in Korea. It’s a far cry from Secret Sunshine (07) and Poetry (10), which won “Best Actress” and “Best Screenplay” respectively at Cannes. The project was recently announced as canceled by the director, but given his publicly proclaimed interest in working with Zhang and her claim that she wouldn’t be satisfied with life until she worked with Lee, and also the commitment of the notoriously reluctant-to-commit Won Bin, they may be coming up with something new.
Korea’s political provocateur, whose stellar The President’s Last Bang (05) wound up at the center of a political scandal for recounting the 1979 assassination of Korea’s President Park in glowing terms, just can’t seem to catch a break. Im recently announced that he was starting production on For Us There Is No Today, starring Kim Hyo-jin about a destitute and socially disenfranchised couple looking to take revenge on society, and produced in association with Fox. Unfortunately, the movie ground to a halt when Kim withdrew at the last minute due to her pregnancy. Currently Im is looking to recast and trying to keep the project moving forward.
It just took two movies for Na to rocket into the front ranks of Korean directors. His low-budget The Chaser was supposed to be a bit of B-list filler, but wound up becoming the word-of-mouth hit of 2008, coming in number three at the box office for the year and beating out bigger-budget fare like Kung Fu Panda, Mamma Mia!, and Iron Man at the box office. He followed it up with the less successful but still intense The Yellow Sea (10). Now he’s uniting with Hwang Jung-Min (star of The Unjust) and Kwak Do-Won (The Berlin File) and, supposedly, Takeshi Kitano to make The Wailing. Hwang and Kwak star as a cop and his “assistant” who are looking into a series of dark crimes that take place in a tiny village, sparked by the arrival of a Japanese tourist (most likely played by Kitano).
Korea’s master of movies that make people squirm has been fighting to get his dialogue-free castration movie, Moebius, approved for release in Korea. The film played international film festivals to acclaim in some quarters and is even getting a release from Film Movement in the U.S., but the Korea Media Ratings Board slapped a Restricted rating on it, which means it can only be screened in “special venue theaters.” None of which currently exist. Kim wound up cutting two-and-a-half minutes from the film to secure a release with the more accessible (as in “at all accessible”) 18-and-older rating.
And finally, super-cutie Hyun Bin, having finished his mandatory military service, has just starred in his first historical drama, The Fatal Encounter. Wouldn’t you know it? Pent-up demand for his floppy bangs and sexy smile has resulted in the film having the biggest opening day of any Korean movie in 2014, and it’s a runaway hit at the box office.
But just you wait. If they can avoid getting publicly executed, when the Moranbong Band finally defect to the South and release their first film, box office for The Fatal Encounter will look like chump change.