Tag Archives: Korean film

Han Gong-ju

Han Gong ju
Han Gong-ju

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 13 April 2015

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Lee Su-jin

Writer: Lee Su-jin

Cast: Chun Woo-hee, Jeong In-seon, Kim So-young, Lee Yeong-ran, Kim Choeyonjun

South Korea 2013

112 mins

Loosely based upon a shocking real-life case that took place back in 2004, indie drama Han Gong-ju became one of the most talked about Korean films of 2014, screening at around a dozen international film festivals as well as enjoying an unprecedented domestic release on over 200 screens, with admissions in excess of 220,000, making it one of the most widely seen and successful Korean independent productions of all time. Ironically though, this is a film that perhaps works more the less you know about it. So, for those looking for a short, spoiler-free verdict: Han Gong-ju is an absorbing, character-driven film that handles its thorny subject matter with sensitivity and fragmented grace. And although its execution is slow-burning and limited in certain respects, it is definitely worth checking out. Here’s the longer version…

Han Gong-ju follows the titular heroine, Gong-ju (a breakout performance by Chun Woo-hee), a victim of a sexually violent incident on which the film is heavily built upon, and which I shan’t go into in any further detail. She is transferred to a new school and is put up in the home of her former teacher’s mother (Lee Yeong-ran), and even does some shifts at her reluctant host’s convenience store. At school, however, Gong-ju keeps herself as isolated as possible. But after a fellow student, Eun-hee (Jeong In-seon), overhears Gong-ju singing while showering in the swimming pool changing area, she tries to coax the withdrawn girl into joining her a cappella group. But as Gong-ju lowers her defences, her traumatic past begins to catch up with her.

Not only does the past catch up with Gong-ju, it also catches up with the viewer. Writer-director Lee Su-jin chooses not to reveal the specifics of the incident right off the bat, opting to drip-feed information by shrewdly shuffling scenes from the past with scenes from the present. It is only in the film’s final scenes that we get to fully comprehend what has happened to her. It’s an interesting approach that has the potential to be either highly rewarding or highly frustrating for the viewer. On balance it’s the former that triumphs. However, there is a regrettable dash of the latter: although the film’s structure is fascinating to see unfold, with its intertwining timelines and subtle incidences of boundary-blurring hallucinations as the presence of another victim (Kim So-young) impresses herself on Gong-ju’s psyche, it does present certain limitations. For instance, a scene where the parents of some of those who were also involved with the incident start to hound Gong-ju with legal documents raises some interesting questions about the culture of victim shaming (something which sadly seems to be becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s media landscape), and also hints at just how complex the still ongoing case actually is. However, the film’s time shuffling means that these wider elements are left relatively unexplored.

Last seen on Korean television screens in the daft comedy series Vampire Idol (2011-2012), Chun Woo-hee performs admirably in a role that requires her to be almost constantly estranged from those around her. Again, Lee’s choice in story structure means we rarely see more than varying shades of glum, save for one rather radiant moment when Gong-ju picks up an acoustic guitar and loses herself in song. It’s the other performances, particularly those by Lee Yeong-ran and Jeong In-seon as surrogate mother figure and self-appointed best friend respectively, that create an environment within which Chun can excel with such an introverted character. They are supporting actors in every sense.

In a way, Han Gong-ju functions as a quietly sensitive inversion of Kim Ki-duk’s more scandalous Moebius (2013) – another recent Korean film that focuses on the aftermath of a sexual incident. Lee Su-jin’s work is certainly the more palatable and nuanced of the two, carefully underplaying the lurking nastiness of Gong-ju’s ordeal without trivialising it – a scene where the sound from an online video that captured part of the incident can be heard (but not seen) on a laptop is one of the film’s most devastating moments. Making his feature debut (his previous short film, Enemy’s Apple (2007), is available as a special feature on the Third Window Films DVD and Blu-ray release), Lee demonstrates an astonishing sense of craft, complemented by unobtrusive but sensuous camerawork. The film’s style comes across as methodical, yet somehow casual, and exerts a commendable level of authorial control that, while perhaps not fully mastered in this instance, shows a great deal of potential. Han Gong-ju is a welcome reminder of the power of suggestion.

Mark Player

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Format: Cinema

Release date: 8 August 2014

Distributor: Terracotta Distribution

Director: Kim Ki-duk

Writer: Kim Ki-duk

Cast: Jo Jae-hyeon, Seo Young-ju, Lee Eun-woo

South Korea 2013

88 mins

Kim Ki-duk’s disquieting and hyperbolic castration/incest melodrama Moebius caused a stir in the Korean media last summer after it was issued the rare ‘Restricted’ rating by the Korean Media Rating Board, the highest certification they bestow. Although this episode with the censors demonstrated that the controversial Korean auteur still refuses to soften his approach even as he continues to trudge into middle age, it also led to an uncharacteristic instance of compromise. Films with a Restricted rating can only be screened in specially licensed theatres (much like the BBFC’s R18 certificate), but since no such theatres operate in South Korea, Moebius was effectively banned from domestic release. After numerous failed re-submissions, two and a half minutes of problem footage featuring incest had to be removed to meet the KMRB’s requirements for the slightly less harsh ‘Teenager Restricted’ (i.e. 18 or over) to guarantee wide release. This prompted angry calls of censorship and artistic suppression from fellow directors and the Korean film industry elite.

Moebius is released in the UK on DVD and VOD on 13 October 2014.

But even in its cut version, Moebius remains a dark and thoroughly depraved odyssey of sexual desire that strongly plays to Kim’s preoccupation towards unusual, psychosexually informed chamber pieces. This loosely Oedipal tale focuses on a dysfunctional family: Mother (Lee Eun-woo) has turned to drink as Father (Jo Jae-hyeon) regularly fraternises with a woman who runs a local convenience shop (intriguingly, also played by Lee). Caught in the middle is their teenage Son (Seo Young-ju). Seeing Father and Mistress dining together in a romantic restaurant, Mother is sent over the edge of sanity. Later that evening, she enters the bedroom brandishing a knife; her intention is to emasculate her husband by severing his penis. He wakes up and manages to stop her. Still angry, Mother takes out her male hatred on the Son, using the same strategy (successfully this time) before disappearing off into the night.

Following the incident, the Son tries to carry on as normal, but a group of kids from his school get wind of his embarrassing disability and start bullying him. Guilt-ridden, the Father takes to the internet and conducts research on penis transplant surgeries. Desperate for his Son to have a normal sex life, his search also unearths a bizarre alternative method of sexual stimulation that doesn’t require a phallus. Meanwhile, the Son develops a fraught relationship with the store owner, unaware that she is partly the reason for his mutilation and, after an unusual turn of events, he also begins having strange, sexual feelings towards his own estranged Mother.

When films deal with themes of castration, the act typically functions as a shocking end point to an intensely emotional, impassioned or horrifying episode – Nagisa Ôshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) or, more recently, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) for instance. What’s interesting about Moebius is that the film deals primarily with the aftermath, where the surviving victim has to come to terms with the literal loss of his manhood in a society where men still choose to define masculinity by penile prowess. Kim’s work has featured genital mutilation before (The Isle (2000) made use of fishing hooks to wince-inducing effect) but here it is presented as part of a grander thesis, with the film wanting to offer something more than merely showing gross things for our bemusement. The casting of Lee as both wife and mistress, mother and lover, strongly alludes to Kim’s ambitions in this regard, blurring the boundaries of the Son’s and Father’s desires.

Like Kim’s earlier work 3-Iron (2004), Moebius contains no spoken dialogue between its characters. It’s a narrative device that works well for the subject matter, sparing the actors from potentially undermining the story with unnecessary conversation, which could very well have sent the proceedings past the point of acceptable ludicrousness. The film already walks a very fine line between the horrific and hilarious, and there are moments where you may find yourself laughing for reasons Kim had not intended. Like with other Kim films, basic character logic is often thrown to the wind for the sake of artistic statement. A group of horny young men coerce the Son into raping the store owner, which, of course, he can’t do but instead pretends in order to save face. Apprehended by the police, the Son is unnecessarily embarrassed by his Father in the communal holding cell when the latter yanks the Son’s trousers down to show that he doesn’t have the physical capacity for rape, much to the amusement of the other rapists, when a more discrete approach could have easily been arranged. Incidentally, the mutilation never seems to be reported to the authorities, and when the deranged mother returns to the homestead after what must have been weeks of idly roaming the streets, she’s allowed back in without any resistance from the Father or Son.

Another aspect that threatens to derail the film is the sex substitute discovered by the Father involving the vigorous rubbing of the skin with a stone (and, later on, the rhythmic jostling of a knife in a wound), where pain macabrely functions as pleasure. The idea of a new copulation paradigm beyond standard coitus methods is evocative of David Cronenberg’s equally controversial Crash (1996), which features an audacious moment where James Spader’s budding car-crash fetishist treats the yonic wound on the thigh of Rosanna Arquette’s character as a new sexual orifice. Like Crash, Moebius could easily (and unfairly) be dismissed as vulgar, morally bankrupt pseudo-porn, designed to titillate and scandalise. Instead, the film is a startling, Freudian nightmare that, despite its faults, somehow manages to be funny, repulsive and strangely compelling all at the same time. Whether or not you’re able to buy into its bizarre gender politics or dubious plotting, Moebius is still potent filmmaking from a still potent filmmaker.

Mark Player

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Format: Cinema

Release date: 1 March 2013

Venue: Key cities

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Director: Park Chan-wook

Writers: Wentworth Miller, Erin Cressida Wilson

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode

USA/UK 2013

98 mins

Stoker marks Korean director Park Chan-wook’s first foray into making a Hollywood feature in English, but he has not strayed too far from his roots. Following on from the themes he explored in his previous movies, Stoker is a sexually deviant tale of lust, jealousy and the very unenviable task of coming of age, explored with much of Park’s customary visual style. Closer to last year’s Korean hit The Taste of Money or even its prequel, The Housemaid (2010), than anything released in the mainstream, Stoker is a gorgeous marriage of style and substance.

The story revolves around 18-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), whose life is turned upside down following the death of her father in a tragic car accident. Left with her emotionally unstable mother (Nichole Kidman), India is further thrown into disarray with the arrival of her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode): a man hitherto unknown to her and who might have ulterior motives.

The performances from the trio of leads is impressive: the dance between Charlie and India is set to a vicious and sexual beat – Wasikowska and Goode are more than adept at capturing it – while Kidman brings a sense of disdain and jealousy to her character that Bette Davis would’ve been proud of. Wentworth Miller’s script is an unfolding joy: taking its cue from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), it explores the story with a sense of sexual deviancy that Hitchcock would surely have approved of, while Park’s use of visual motifs within the film recalls the more abstract images in Vertigo (1958). However, the film’s real coup is the use of physical space. It is deliberate in its attempt to disorient the viewer: impossible exits and entrances, sudden shifts within rooms and a lot more bring to mind the architectural deliberations of Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves.

Something must also be said for the incredible supercharged soundtrack by Clint Mansell, to which is added a Philip Glass piece that captures the emotional glass heart of the film perfectly. Emily Wells is the icing on the cake of what might indeed be the best soundtrack of the year, alongside Maniac.

Although the film will have its detractors, it’s hard not to be impressed with what Park has achieved here: a Korean movie in Hollywood clothing, Stoker is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

Evrim Ersoy

The King of Pigs

The King of Pigs

Format: Cinema

Release date: 25 January 2013

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Terracotta Distribution

Director: Yeon Sang-ho

Writer: Yeon Sang-ho

Original title: Dwae-ji-ui wang

South Korea 2011

97 mins

South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho’s The King of Pigs is a harsh, bleak animated feature that looks at the terrible fate of three childhood friends who were bullied at school. The pervasive violence of the highly hierarchical South Korean society has been tackled in a number of films, one of the most notable being Yang Ik-joon’s gut-wrenching Breathless (2008), which The King of Pigs recalls to a certain extent in its unrelenting darkness and its atmosphere of absolute despair (interesting to note that director-actor Yang Ik-joon voices the character of Jong-suk in the film).

The King of Pigs opens as the bespectacled failed businessman Kyung-min, having apparently just strangled his wife in their high-rise city apartment, gets a phone call from a detective who has tracked down his childhood friend Jong-suk. A wife-beating failed writer, Jong-suk agrees to meet Kyung-min after 15 years in which they have had no contact. Their conversation in a restaurant leads to a number of flashbacks to their school years and the bullying they endured at the hands of older, richer boys. The animal metaphor of the title is used to describe the vicious hierarchical organisation of the school, and by extension, of Korean society: the ‘dogs’ are the boys from well-off families who rule the school and persecute the ‘pigs’, who come from poorer or less respectable backgrounds.

But this seemingly unchangeable brutal order is challenged when a boy called Chul comes to the defence of Kyung-min. Chul is a true outsider and refuses to be bullied into submission. In one chilling scene, he tells the boys, ‘you need to be a monster if you don’t want to keep living like a loser’. When he beats up an older boy, he becomes ‘the king of pigs’. Soon, he has a plan to make sure the ‘dogs’ can never have happy memories of their school days. But as Chul realises the complexities of the adult world he does some growing up, even though Kyung-min and Jong-suk still desperately need him to remain a ‘monster’ and recklessly stand up to the bullies.

The animal metaphor is somewhat laboured and heavy-handed in places and this is not helped by the terrible quality of the subtitles. The low budget is apparent in the lack of sophistication of the animation, which is quite stilted and not very detailed. But this is compensated for by a very expressive colour scheme, from the oppressive dark blues and muted tones that dominate the film to the rare luminous pink skies that punctuate the gloom. Also notable are a number of hallucinatory sequences: boys with dogs’ heads, a murdered ghost cat spitting out sardonic comments, a glue-induced nightmarish vision.

The King of Pigs is an uncompromising, hopeless depiction of a society corrupted by the idea of success as money and the brutal upholding of the hierarchical order it creates. Despite its flaws, it is an intense, riveting, affecting drama that delivers a truly shocking conclusion.

Virginie Sélavy

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