With a disarming mix of treacle and bloodshed,
the fourth annual New York Korean Film Festival more than lives
up to this year’s titular catchphrase "Inner Turbulence."
In the seven features and six shorts - screened at BAMcinematek
from Friday Aug. 20 to Sunday Aug. 22 - characters, movies and
even the industry itself appear at war with themselves. But victors
Although South Korean films have yet to assume the stature of those from nearby China and neighboring Japan, the national cinema has recently garnered substantial attention from the international film community. This year, director Park Chan-wook’s revenge thriller "Old Boy" won the Grand Prix at Cannes; two years ago, Moon So-ri won a Venice Film Festival prize for her portrayal of a woman with cerebral palsy in "Oasis."
These accolades duly noted, this year’s lineup suggests the quickest way to sizable American audiences may be through midnight screenings at the Cineplex instead of repertory programming at the art house: "Save the Green Planet," the punchiest entry in the field, could easily translate into a late night knockout if circumstances allow.
Director Jang Jun-hwan’s feature debut certainly has all the prerequisites for a cult hit: a bizarrely intricate, conspiracy-driven plot, mentally deranged characters with diehard loyalties, scrappy, do-it-yourself sci-fi costumes, and plenty of astonishing, over-the-top performances shot in a kinetic, colorful style.
By weaving homeland obsessions (serial killers, foreign occupation, institutionalized conformity) with global preoccupations (systematized brutality, ethnic cleansing, threatened ecosystems), Jang ensures his serio-camp science fiction relates a distinctly Korean flavor while resonating across cultural borders. The nail-biting tension sustained between his two central characters - a paranoid beekeeper and his kidnapped nemesis, a CEO who may or may not be a warmongering alien from Andromeda - plays like a loopy "Manchurian Candidate" (2004) made all the more artful by slyly built-in homages to cinematic masterworks like "La Strada" (1954) and "The Wizard of Oz" (1939).
Tellingly, "Save the Green Planet" is one of three festival films to focus on mass murderers. Another, "Memories of Murder," is based on the true story of Korea’s first serial killer who raped and killed 10 women in the Kyonggi province in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. (This film is one of seven shown solely at the The ImaginAsian Theater at 239 East 59th St. in Manhattan during the earlier part of the festival which, began on Aug. 13.)
The third, simply titled "H," is a richly atmospheric, awkwardly plotted whodunit along the lines of latter-day B-movies like "Identity" (2003) and "Never Talk to Strangers" (1995). Pitch-perfect in terms of tone, Lee Jong-hyuk’s modern-day noir doesn’t skimp on graphic depictions of violence. Ears are lopped off. Throats are slit. An unborn baby’s arm reaches out from its dead mother’s side.
The body count mounts. The generic anime "Sky Blue" climaxes with blood spiraling upward from gunshot, star-crossed lovers to an operatic score; the 12-minute parable "Face Value" (part of the shorts compilation "If You Were Me") culminates in a car crash; the police drama "Wild Card" punctuates its good-cop bad-cop narrative with head-bashing liquor bottles and a repeatedly well-aimed mace ball (familiar to "Kill Bill" fans as the grisly weapon of choice for GoGo Yubari).
Even Im Sang-soo’s family drama "A Good Lawyer’s Wife" ends up at the local morgue. This sophisticated critique of contemporary morals starts off as a series of serio-comic episodes about cheating spouses. But before long, the lightweight, soft-porn reality is layered with weighty social commentary as one character’s constant carnal craving sets off a disastrous domino effect. By the time Moon (the aforementioned award-winning actress from "Oasis") has straddled her next-door neighbor’s emotionally stunted son, the eroticism has left the theater. As was made clear in 2001’s "Monster’s Ball," nothing is sadder than sex fueled by grief.
The festival’s two cheerier entries, "The Classic" and "Singles," relate a cock-eyed optimism that supersedes Hollywood’s happy endings. The former, Kwak Jae-yong’s Asian blockbuster, leavens two tearjerking epistolary narratives with improbable coincidences and fireflies which never die; as to "Singles," Kwon Chil-in’s twenty-something four-hander is a true oddity - a potty-mouthed comedy of manners that evolves into neutered lesbian dramedy.
For moviegoers bent on using the program of shorts, "If You Were Me," as a way to see the full breadth of styles within a single sitting, one warning: This series, funded by the Human Rights Commission of Korea, is tinged with didacticism. So while the surgical procedure forced on children to improve English pronunciation in Park Jin-pyo’s "Tongue Tie" is harrowing, it still registers as purposeful fiction.
The one exception is the 28-minute documentary from Cannes’ current prize-winner Park Chan-wook. A seamless blend of staged reenactments and talking heads, "N.E.P.A.L. Never Ending Peace and Love" recounts the tale of a Nepalese woman who was misdiagnosed as mentally ill for over six years because no one on the hospital staff spoke her language.
Thank God for subtitles.
BAMcinematek hosts The New York Korean Film Festival 2004 from Aug. 20-22. Tickets are $10. The theater is located at 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene. For the schedule of film dates and times visit the Web site at www.bam.org or call (718) 636-4100.