MOVIES | “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” and the wonderful world of South Korean cinema

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During a recent argument I had with my brother (brought on by a trailer we caught for Sex and the City 2, better known as The Movie That Seems Hell-Bent On Destroying Everything That Made the Once-Pretty-Damn-Good Television Series So Fresh and Empowering), in which I ranted furiously about the state of modern mainstream cinema and audiences’ lemming-like willingness to fork over their hard-earned money for the latest soulless hackneyed Hollywood product, he responded that if he were to watch the films I like, and which I desperately encourage others to check out, he would be bored out of his mind.

Now, I love my brother dearly, and I especially find endearing his attitude towards movies: “All I want is to be entertained,” he always says. Fair enough. He’s a man who knows what he likes, and that’s enough for him. I can respect that, even if our cinematic tastes and attitudes are a microcosmic embodiment of the divide between cinephiles and casual moviegoers. But my brother is making an oft-articulated, misguided, and flat-out erroneous assumption with his reductive description of the films I tend to like—which are typically foreign-made art house fare. We all know what happens when you assume things. Not all foreign or low-budget films with artistic aspirations are boring.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird

I present to the court my first piece of evidence: The Good, the Bad, the Weird. This wonderful film from South Korea, opening this Friday exclusively at the Lagoon Theatre, is a perfect antidote to the now-upon-us summer of mindless blockbusters churned out by the Hollywood assembly line. Iron Man 2 has nothing on this.

Containing some of the best balls-to-the-wall fun action I’ve seen in years, and a frenetic pace that quells the (perhaps) bloated run time of almost 140 minutes—though this thing could’ve gone on for 4 hours and you wouldn’t hear me complain—GBW is pure movie magic, with so many impeccably staged and epic action sequences it’ll leave you dizzy with glee. It’s a great time at the movies, and one of my favorites of the year thus far. (Another film currently playing at the Lagoon, the fantastic Banksy-directed documentary Exit to the Gift Shop, is right up there as well.) My friend and colleague Peter Schilling (along with Jim Brunzell, we co-host Movie Talk on KFAI) and I have been going back and forth on the awesomeness of this film for the past week now, and the conversation, I suspect, will continue. We can’t get enough of it; it’s that great.

The title of GBW is of course a play on Sergio Leone’s classic 1966 spaghetti western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The story is also similar, except in place of the Wild West backdrop, GBW sets its story in 1940s Manchuria as three outlaws—Lee Byung-hun (bad), Jung Woo-sung (good), and Song Kang-ho (weird)—are after a map they suspect leads to treasure. What they find in the end is the icing on an already overly satisfying cake.

Leone’s film, so iconic and now considered by many to be the crowning achievement of its particular niche in the genre, has been imitated countless times over the years. How funny and coincidental, then, that notorious Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike (Audition) tried his hand at a similar kind of film with his 2007 Sukiyaki Western Django, featuring a (shocker!) terrible acting performance from Quentin Tarantino. The effort was less than successful, to say the least. Tarantino himself has been paying loving homage to Leone’s work from Reservoir Dogs to Kill Bill (especially Vol. 2) to last year’s Inglourious Basterds. GBW director Kim Ji-Woon, whose style I’d admiringly compare to Tarantino’s, worked on the same franchise as Miike, both contributing a short film to the omnibus series 3 Extremes. So it all comes full circle—but whereas Miike had the better short in the first 3 Extremes, with GBW Ji-Woon (who provided a segment in 3 Extremes II) has outdone Miike in showing Leone love.

There’s the amazing opening set piece: a train heist that skillfully introduces the three main characters and sets the plot in motion while also setting the film’s tone. There’s the ridiculously elongated climactic car chase, pitting horses against motorcycles and cars and tanks with tons of explosions (it gives The Road Warrior a run for its money), accompanied by Santa Esmeralda’s amped-up take on “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” (Tarantino used this same track for the climactic snow-covered sword fight in Kill Bill Vol. 1). In between these bookends is the complex, violent, and stylish gunfight in the middle of a bustling market. The list of memorable moments is almost endless in GBW. Ji-woon effortlessly balances genres; you may laugh hysterically at some slapstick one minute, then be shocked and horrified by gruesome violence the next. You could argue the film is overly indulgent and derivative, but you’d be missing the point. Ji-woon is seeing how far he can possibly take his admiration of this kind of cinema without alienating the audience, and I say he succeeds. Yeah, he may be throwing a lot at you in this film, but none of it is wasted.

Ending this review only leads us back to the opening paragraphs, and to a more focused discussion of a particularly exciting area of modern world cinema. If you think all foreign films are boring or maybe you’re interested in expanding your cinematic vocabulary, but a little intimidated as where to start, then look no further than GBW’s country of origin: South Korea.

The wonderful world of South Korean cinema

Over the past eight months, the Uptown and Lagoon theaters have played the latest films from three of the most talented and prominent directors working in the country. The films have received critical acclaim along with festival prizes, and even done relatively solid box office internationally. The odd and excellent take on the vampire mythos, Thirst, from South Korea’s ne plus ultra filmmaker Park Chan-wook, screened the first weekend of November as part of the Uptown’s midnight movie series. It was one of my favorite five films of last year. Director Bong Joon-ho’s first-rate twist on the detective thriller, Mother, only recently ended its run at the Lagoon where it played for several weeks. It, along with The Good, the Bad, the Weird (the third film in this list), is among my favorite films of this year so far.

So it’s safe to say without much more desperately persuasive hyperbole that if people across the globe in Minnesota are getting ample opportunities to see films from this small part of the world, it’s evidence that South Korea currently has one of the most vibrant and successful film industries around. France, Italy, Spain, Japan, China, (sometimes) Sweden and Russia; these countries have long and illustrious identities as producers of high-quality cinema, and continue to excite those of us who love film. But it’s South Korea, along with Romania and Mexico, where a lot of the most exciting, genre-bending, and fascinating films are being made right now.

Minneapolis film blogger Kathie Smith is a fan of South Korean film as well. In 2001, she saw three South Korean films in close succession, leading her to “clear my agenda and start watching South Korean films.” The films were: Die Bad, The Isle, and JSA. “The excitement I felt for those three very disparate films is what I, as a film fan, live for.” Smith is my go-to friend and colleague for all things regarding Asian cinema, as I’ve yet to meet another film fan in the area who knows more about these films and filmmakers.

“I think one of the factors that lead to such a prolific boom of cinema in the late 90s, early 2000s,” said Smith, “was the quota system for South Korean films. Introduced in 1966, the quota system required that theaters screen domestic product 40% of the time, or 146 days a year. This system, along with general economic and social demographics, created sort of a perfect storm of market enhanced creativity. Far be it from me to speculate, but I think when South Koreans saw that domestic films were as good or better than Hollywood films it sets up a sort of national pride creating an even larger market for those films.

“The action film Shiri [in 1999] was a huge breakthrough,” she continued. “It’s an okay movie, but it took Hollywood to task as far as production values and it was obviously more relevant, even if it was entertainment, to domestic audiences. On any given year for the past 15 years, South Korean films make up almost half of the top ten grossing films domestically [in South Korea], and most in the top slots. I don’t think there is any other country like that. Almost all countries are dominated by US films. This scenario has allowed the industry to flourish, and allowed filmmakers, both big and small, to have the kind of freedom to make the films that they have. To me, this is the big component to the incredible South Korean films that have come out over the last 15 years.”

Uptown Theatre manager Joseph Larsen, who also blogs at Switchblade Comb, is another dependable local resource for information regarding South Korean cinema. His gateway into it was the 2002 film Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which he bought as a bootleg DVD before it was made available here after Harry Knowles (creator of Ain’t it Cool News) declared it his favorite film of that year. “Soon after was when early word of Oldboy got out,” Larsen said, “which in turn led to Korean films popping up quite a bit more in America.

“I think their popularity in the States was helped by Audition,” continued Larsen, “which I hold responsible for the whole ‘Asian Shock’ boom that led to a large number of Asian films gaining distribution and attention over the last decade. However, I feel that was all a double-edged sword, as there’s now little interest in any other genre such as comedy or drama. Because of that, the films of Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo, and even the newer, simple dramas of Kim Ki-Duk have a hard time finding an audience or even nabbing a release.”

I agree with what Larsen says regarding South Korean films and the filmmakers’ “seamless ability to not only blend comedy with shocking brutality, but to do so from one moment to the next without missing a beat. I don’t see any other country being so bold,” said Larsen, “with switching genres on a whim—Oldboy and Save the Green Planet! being the best examples.”

“[It’s] what I love about Korean cinema, and why I think it garners attention,” Larsen said.

A strong example of this trend is evident in this scene from Park Chan-wook’s masterpiece, the revenge film Oldboy. Notice the mix of brutal violence and comedy, and also take note of the technical mastery Chan-wook employs to create easily one of the best fight scenes ever filmed, almost entirely in one extended take:

Then there’s Kim Ji-Woon’s best film, A Bittersweet Life, a noir tale that morphs into a revenge film midway through. This scene also illustrates that common balance of comedy and ultra-violence, but also shows how schooled these filmmakers are in classic suspense filmmaking a la Hitchcock. The set-up: Our hero (played by GBW‘s Lee Byung-hun, who’s fantastic) is trying to buy some guns from the other guy at the desk. The gun dealer calls an associate to check if Lee is legit. While they wait for the callback (which we already know will end with the dealer being told to kill Lee) they decide to play around and practice dismantling and reassembling guns to kill some time. Lee’s a novice, but is forced to learn fast if he wants to survive. What follows is as tense a nail-biter sequence as any in recent memory:

It’s hard to deny the technical brilliance and stylistic flourishes of the best South Korean films, but there’s so much more to admire. I find particularly fascinating the way many South Korean filmmakers manipulate and tweak genre conventions, but I also respond to their intriguing cultural and political views, their fascination with revenge as a means to explore morality and identity. These films deliver the goods, without being empty genre exercises. They often reach that movie zenith: a harmonious marriage of art and entertainment that fuels the most rewarding and electrifying films, films you will remember and care about.

Director Bong Joon-ho is probably the master of suspense in South Korea right now. I love his trust and respect for the audience, another quality common to most of these filmmakers. Take the opening of Mother, which shows the title character (played delightfully by Kim Hye-ja) walking up in the middle of a field and…dancing. We have no idea why this is happening, but it’s both funny and beguiling. Why is this happening? You don’t discover its significance until the closing shot of the film; that’s proof of Bong’s respect for his audience, and it creates a reciprocal relationship in which the audience trusts the filmmaker as much as he trusts the audience.

A lot of my friends and readers ask me how they can see the films I write about, and whether or not it’s worth their time to check them out. This article is a big response to that, and a suggestion for people looking to expand their filmic knowledge or simply wanting more from movies than the typical Hollywood experience. I’m certainly late to the game in my praise and enthusiasm for South Korean cinema, but it’s worth examining further some of the better filmmakers and their work, most of which now you can find quite easily on DVD and Netflix Watch Instant.

Provided with each name in the list below is a link to their Netflix page, where you can see the availability of their films on DVD or Watch Instant (the blue “play” button indicates this). Also look for the highly recommended titles from each of them; all well worth your time (marked by an asterisk after the title if it was mentioned specifically by either Smith or Larsen as a favorite as well). If you’re looking for something fresh, innovative, and sometimes even mind-blowing, look no further than South Korea.

Top South Korean filmmakers

Park Chan-wook
Check out this lengthy video interview with Park from Dave Poland’s DP/30 series here.
Highly recommended: Oldboy*; Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance*; Lady Vengeance*; Thirst

Bong Joon-ho
Check out this video interview with Bong from David Chen over at /Film here.
Highly recommended: Memories of Murder*; Mother*; The Host

Kim Ji-woon
Highly recommended: The Good, the Bad, the Weird; A Bittersweet Life*; A Tale of Two Sisters

Hong Sang-soo
Highly recommended: Woman is the Future of Man; Woman on the Beach; The Power of Kangwon Province*

Kim Ki-duk
Highly recommended: The Isle*; Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring*; 3-Iron*; Bad Guy*; Time

Lee Chang-dong
Highly recommended: Secret Sunshine*; Oasis*; Peppermint Candy*

Honorable mentions

Kim So Yong (Treeless Mountain)
Ryoo Seung-wan (Die Bad*; No Blood, No Tears*; City of Violence)
Na Hong-jin (The Chaser)
Jang Joon-Hwan (Save the Green Planet!)

Web sites of interest

Recommended if you want more information on the filmmakers, their films and availability (i.e. how to find them), and news on South Korean cinema.

koreanfilm.org
koreanfilm.or.kr
yesasia.com/us/en/home.html
filmsmash.com
wildgrounds.com