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Beyond division
South Korean film at the Harvard Film Archive
Related Links

Harvard Film Archive's official Web site

Sopyonje's official Web site

Chunhyang's official Web site

Ch’ihwaseon's official Web site

The Untold Scandal's official Web site

Over the past 12 years, South Korea has developed one of the world’s most vigorous national cinemas. It’s one of the few countries in the world where domestic films take a bigger share of the market than Hollywood films — a success due in part to a quota system that requires theaters to devote 40 percent of their screen time to Korean films. The country’s big-budget action films and its staple melodramas and comedies export well across East Asia. Every year, Korean directors are well represented at international festivals — though US distribution remains elusive. (The latest Korean movie to break through the unofficial quota system that governs US distribution of foreign-language films is A Tale of Two Sisters, which played last week at the Kendall Square.)

Curated by filmmaker Gina Kim and presented with the Film and Video Center at the University of California–Irvine, the Harvard Film Archive’s retrospective "Visions from the South" offers Boston viewers a long-overdue survey of the range of recent South Korean cinema. (Last month, the retrospective presented three classics from the golden age of the early 1960s; the offerings still to come all date from the past two decades.) The series’s biggest coup is a visit by Im Kwon-taek, one of Korea’s most admired and prolific directors. (He’s made more than 100 films since 1962.) Im’s reputation in the West is based largely on the three closely linked recent works that Harvard will show: Sopyonje (1993; March 7 at 7 p.m.), Chunhyang (2000; March 4 at 7 p.m., with the filmmaker present), and Ch’ihwaseon (2002; March 5 at 7 p.m., with the filmmaker present).

The greatest of the three films, Sopyonje concerns an impoverished itinerant singer of p’ansori (Korea’s narrative operatic art form) and his brutal efforts to transmit the tradition to his adopted daughter. The confidence and the sweep of Im’s storytelling match the emotional power of p’ansori (whose similarities to blues, soul, and rap styles strike many listeners). Western critics have compared Im’s visual style and his epic examinations of family and history to John Ford and Kenji Mizoguchi, and though these comparisons are plausible, they go only so far in capturing the arresting grandeur of Im’s vision. Responding to this vision, Korean audiences made Sopyonje the most commercially successful Korean film to its date — perhaps finding in the narrative an analogy to their post–World War II experience of division and modernization.

In Sopyonje, the heroine’s brother, after a self-imposed separation to protest their foster-father’s cruelty, travels around the country searching for his sister. Chunhyang, which is based on a famous Korean legend often retold in literature and film (the hero of Sopyonje teaches it to his daughter), is another narrative of separation and the quest for unity. The title heroine, a courtesan’s daughter, secretly marries the son of the provincial governor. After he leaves her to complete his studies, Chunhyang finds herself the object of unwelcome interest from the new governor. Im’s boldest stroke in recounting this story is to frame it with scenes of a p’ansori singer narrating it before a modern middle-class audience. Extending the film’s æstheticization of the heroine’s pain, this device also points toward a critique of this æstheticization.

Both films are about the transcendence of suffering. In Sopyonje, grief is turned into art; the narrative insists on the correlation between suffering and artistic excellence while also criticizing the perverse destructiveness of the father. In Chunhyang, pain becomes the vehicle for an assertion of social values — above all, Chunhyang’s insistence on a basic human right to freedom of sexual choice.

The nexus of suffering, politics, and national identity implied by Chunhyang is further explored in Kim Dong-won’s Repatriation (2003; March 21 at 6:30 p.m., with the filmmaker present), a documentary study of the lives of several men after their release from South Korean prisons, where, charged with spying for the North, they had spent terms lasting in some cases more than 30 years. The former prisoners disclose that as "converts-to-be" (the official, ideological term for unregenerated Communists under the authoritarian Park Chung Hee regime that ruled South Korea from 1961 to 1979), they were subjected to physical torture by their captors in an effort to get them to recant their ideology. One of the most memorable scenes of the film shows a gathering of former prisoners at a restaurant. One of them, a man who surrendered under this torture and became a "convert," breaks down in tears, in deep shame over having given in to his tormentors. The filmmaker asks the man’s colleagues: why did the holdouts hold out? The answer one of them gives is, to assert their dignity in the face of injustice. The released prisoners inspire South Korean pro-reunification activists of the 1990s — less by their ideology than by their existence, says the filmmaker, whose attitude throughout the film is mainly one of devotion to his subjects.

The division between the two Koreas and the hope for unification become thriller material in Joint Security Area (2000; May 9 at 7 p.m.), which is directed by Park Chan-wook, whose violent hit Old Boy won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004. In Joint Security Area, the investigation of killings in the title zone, which is patrolled by forces of both the North and the South, uncovers a history of illicit fraternization among soldiers from the opposed sides. Park relates this parable in a slick manner characterized by insistent gliding pans among faces.

From the doomed male bonding of Joint Security Area to the star-crossed heterosexual romance of Oasis (2002; April 11 at 7 p.m.) is a short leap. In Oasis, a mentally disturbed ex-convict and complete screw-up becomes fixated on a woman suffering from cerebral palsy, and after they get past an initial awkward phase (he breaks into her apartment and tries to rape her), she reciprocates his affection. Not the least audacious strokes of this unsettling film are the fantasy scenes in which the heroine (a tour de force performance by normally abled actress Moon So-ri) imagines herself free of her disability and sharing the utopian film frame with her boyfriend. The excellent director, Lee Chang-dong, is now South Korea’s minister of Culture and Tourism.

Korean cinema has a not entirely unfounded reputation (maybe more widespread in Korea than anywhere else) for being sex-crazy. Among the films in the retrospective, none goes as far as Im’s Ch’ihwaseon (which boasts a shot of semen spilling on the floor when two persons in coitus are abruptly separated by force), but two others stand out for their extended preoccupation with Subject A. E J-Yong’s The Untold Scandal (2003; April 18 at 6:30 p.m., with the filmmaker in attendance) transposes Choderlos de Laclos’s classic novel of seduction, Les liaisons dangereuses, to 18th-century Korea. The film is an example of the level the contemporary Korean cinema is well equipped to achieve: it’s a visually ravishing movie, with gorgeous sets and costumes, lush cinematography, superb actors, and an excellent script based on a literary classic. Yet it gives little evidence of being a personal film.

Hong Sang-soo, on the other hand, is the most recognizable and consistent auteur to come out of the ’90s renaissance of Korean cinema. Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000; April 4 at 7 p.m.) is the third of the five fresh, witty, intricate films — each filled with humor and structural invention — Hong has made to date. The virgin is Soo-jung (played by popular star Lee Eun-ju, whose suicide last month stunned many), the assistant of a painter who is working on a film in Seoul. Three men vie to be the first to strip Soo-jung bare, and the film follows their frustrated courtships through a cycle of repeated situations. The film is, among other things, a brilliant attack on sentimentality about love. Its point of view is complicated and deepened by the filmmaker’s ironic, amused tolerance of the male characters’ failings.

The most radical filmmaker represented in the series is Park Ki-yong, whose Camel(s) (2002; April 25 at 7 p.m.) follows two strangers — a man and a woman — who have arranged to meet for the first time. They drive to a seaside resort and go to a restaurant, then to a love hotel, the camera following them all the while with low-affect digital-video persistence. Their conversation is so sparse and strained that it becomes a big question in the viewer’s mind, after they have sex, whether they’ll even manage to talk about whether to see each other again. Both disquieting and comforting in its serene remoteness, Park’s film will, I think, be highly enjoyable for anyone who can bear it.

Issue Date: March 4 - 10, 2005
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