One of the more exciting and interesting trends of early 2013 is the migration of South Korean directors to the world of English-language cinema.
Park Chan-wook, Joon-ho Bong and Kim Ji-woon are all established directors in their home country and have amassed some terrific credits between them. Now they all have major projects under their belts: The Last Stand (Ji-woon), Snowpiercer (Bong) and Stoker (Chan-wook).
And yet, while it’s terrific to see such brilliant filmmakers announcing themselves on the commercial stage, part of me worries about this new merger of east and west. South Korean cinema is among the most distinctive in the world, often possessed by an outrageously satirical, strange and violent view of the world. But what makes the films so good is this view is often welded to material of substance.
Let’s be honest -Hollywood likes to play it somewhat safer. I can’t imagine the tongue-cutting scene from Chan-wook’s Oldboy making it into Spike Lee’s upcoming remake -or more specifically, I can’t imagine the tone of that particular scene making its way into the remake, so gut-wrenching and astonishing is it. I might be wrong; perhaps Lee will have been allowed to take some risks. But I will very surprised if that does turn out to be the case.
In the meantime, here’s a brief rundown per director, outlining a previous significant work and their new offering.
A man named Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is placed in prison for 15 years for no fathomable reason. On his release, he emerges a changed man -one determined to find those who destroyed his life. Out of this simple premise arises a shocking, kinetic and eccentric hybrid of revenge thriller and twisted family drama, the latter coming increasingly into play as we move towards the shocking end-game. Yet the great thing about Oldboy is it never wallows in excess for the sake of it -the outlook is always bolted to a sense of character and thing, bizarre or repulsive they may be. Extreme in the way that makes South Korean cinema really exciting, the film has a texture that is quite astonishing, freewheeling from violent, jet-black satire to tormented, anguished tragedy. This sense of tragedy in fact connects Oh Dae-su with those tormenting him. Oh, and it has live octopus eating.
Boasting what might be the classiest poster and trailer campaign of the year, Stoker is a seductively disturbing and operatic piece of work. Park Chan-wook has retained his regular cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung for this baroque tale of twisted family ties based on a script by actor Wentworth Miller. Mercifully, he’s also been able to successfully introduce his off-kilter visual style and sense of satirical absurdity to a western audience. Mia Wasikowska is outstanding as Evelyn Stoker, a sullen girl who becomes infatuated with her mysterious, possibly murderous uncle Charlie (an eerily demonic Matthew Goode). A superbly brittle Nicole Kidman rounds out the cast as India’s unstable mother Evelyn. Reviews have been mixed -but it’s a relief that Chan-wook’s managed to retain that signature divisive edge.
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
A puzzling and unsettling treat, Jee-woon’s off-kilter horror cum family drama is ripe with a sense of Gothic intrigue. At the heart of the story is a play on storytelling conventions: two apparently innocent sisters find themselves at odds with their father’s new wife -essentially a stand-in for the wicked stepmother seen in classic fairy tales. In-keeping with many Asian horror films, an emphasis on feminine identity lies at the heart of the story as disturbing repressed secrets begin to manifest themselves in increasingly horrifying ways. Jee-woon expertly uses visual storytelling and colours within the production design to suggest an overwrought psychological state â€“and even if you do see the twist coming, it’s the emotional impact that matters most.
The Last Stand (2013)
Trumpeted more for the fact that the Governator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, finally returned to the spotlight, The Last Stand was also significant for bringing Jee-woon to mainstream American cinema. Or rather it would have been significant had the film received any kind of positive notice. The Last Stand unfortunately slipped on by, a victim of conforming to mainstream action convention -a shame given that the trailer promised a witty, off-the-wall spin on the Western. Even the marketing seemed confused -was Arnie really sharing a poster with Johnny Knoxville from Jackass? In the end, many critics claimed it was less The Good, the Bad and the Weird and more The Good, the Bad and the Banal.
A brilliantly eccentric mixture of Oedipal drama, small-town observation and murder mystery, Mother is the kind of wonderfully oddball movie that makes most tired Hollywood product pale in comparison. Hye-ja Kim is outstanding as the overprotective mother of the title – one convinced that her handicapped son is innocent of a crime when everyone else thinks he’s guilty. Beginning with a David Lynchian scene of Kim dancing in a cornfield and proceeding to meld genres with satirical panache, it’s genuinely unclassifiable. As is often the case with South Korean cinema, the revelation of the mystery is but one part of the drama, the emotional repercussions of said revelation leaving a much greater impact.
Presently, not much is known about Snowpiercer, aside from the general premise, the fact it’s based on a graphic novel and the cast. But it’s more than enough to whet the appetite. According to IMDB, the film is set in AD 2031 on board the eponymous train that houses the last surviving human beings on Earth. This juicy set-up is made more-so when one sees the cast-list. Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and Jamie Bell are joined by Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer and John Hurt for what must surely be one of the most eagerly anticipated movies of 2013. Even if it sounds like a bigger-budget take on the 1999 TV series The Last Train (remember that?), it’s still a tremendously exciting prospect and will hopefully announce Joon-ho Bong’s talents to a wider audience.