Monday, April 18, 2005

2 Korean Films

So are Korean films going to be the next big thing? They have, I think, been the next big thing in some circles for the last few years - and recently, seem to be making inroads in American commercial theaters. Chunhyang and Chihwaseon have been released; so have Untold Scandal and The Tale of Two Sisters - and Kim Ki-duk's films are becoming regular features in the states: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring was released; 3 Iron is going to be released; Bad Guy and The Isle are shown various places.... And so, this weekend, two Korean films turned up, and I saw them both....

OLDBOY took second place at Cannes last year, the Quentin Tarantino jury, and it’s easy to see why. It’s got all the Tarantino factors - ultraviolence, metaphysics, tricks with time and sequence (though not excessive), dark humor played close to tragedy (and tragedy played as comedy) - it does it all very well. The other obvious influence is Takashi Miike - ultraviolence, comedy, taboo shattering - and it lifts a couple scenes directly from Miike. It is, however, a luded up Miike - it is telling that the moment most obviously swiped from Miike comes at the climax of Oldboy - Miike put his version about a third of the way into his film, played it a lot more graphically (and funnily), and, well, topped it a couple times before he was done. Miike consistently starts where other people end up... In any case, Oldboy is slower and more ponderous than Miike - and a bit less clear than the best Tarantino. Still, it’s quite good, if not quite great.

MEMORIES OF MURDER, meanwhile, was a huge popular and critical hit in Korea, and is now being shown in the states. It is a serial killer policier set in 1986, and apparently based on real events. Two women are found raped and murdered - the local cops start investigating, but they are hacks - a cop from Seoul shows up and tries to investigate for real. Not surprisingly, they clash: the locals manufacture evidence and kick confessions out of suspects - the big city cop preaches science and real police work and makes some progess, enough to save the poor saps the locals try to pin the crimes on, anyway. But the plot is not quite the point - they find clues, they close in on the killer, but can't quite find him - and they can't stop people from getting killed. There is a political subtext to all this - the story takes place about the time of the collapse of the military regime in South Korea, and the protests and political unrest, as well as the government's continued oppression, keep interfering with the police investigations. The political tensions build (never quite at the center of the film, but always there), and end in a brawl, where the cops' sins finally come home to roost - the fact that, by that time in the film, most of the cops have become noticeably less brutal is just an added irony... And it's that - the development of the characters of the policemen, and the depiction of their interaction - that makes the film remarkable. The cast is superb - the cops are absurd, affecting and sometimes very nastyl all at once; the filmmaking emphasizes their performances and relationships. And throughout, the film maintains a funny, off-kilter style. The opening sequence sets the tone - one of the cops turns up at the first murder scene, where a bunch of kids are playing. One of them crouches on the drain where the body is, imitating the policeman, while the rest of the kids find the murdered woman's clothes in a nearby field and start playing with them. The film maintains this tone throughout, even as events become more and more appalling, and the police grow increasingly desperate - while creating an undercurrent of tragedy, particularly through subtle use of repeated imagery objects and situations.

Of these two - Oldboy has the hype - it has the international honors, it has Tarantino, it has a better distribution deal - but Memories of Murder is one of the best films of the decade.

(Update: Some editing for wording, and a couple more links added.)

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