Tag Archives: South Korean cinema

The Taste of Money

The Taste of Money
The Taste of Money

Format: Cinema

Release date: 25 October 2013

Distributor: Arrow Films

Director: Im Sang-soo

Writer: Im Sang-soo

Cast: Baek Yun-shik, Kim Hyo-jin, Kim Kang-woo

Original Title: Do-nui mat

South Korea 2012

115 mins

Im Sang-soo’s follow up to The Housemaid (2010) details the decadent, bitter and corrupt lives of an exceedingly wealthy modern-day South Korean family and their desperate attempts to control the insular world around them as it slowly falls apart. Cruel, deluded, manipulative, selfish and calculated, Sang-soo’s cast of scheming millionaires is an unsympathetic gallery of caricatures that are as vacuous and cold as the vast interiors they constantly inhabit.

There’s the callous and slightly insane grandfather, who’s well aware that everyone is waiting for him to die, so holds on to life out of spite. The controlling mother who even stoops to secret surveillance in order to keep her family in place and shift the balance of power. Her philandering husband who married her for money and spends most of his time seducing the female staff. Their sensitive daughter who pines for a more fulfilling existence that hopefully doesn’t involve being poor, and their emotionally inept son who has become the public face of their dubious business transactions.

Into this fold comes a relatively naïve and subservient, newly appointed personal secretary, who becomes conflicted over what he feels is morally correct, and his dutiful service to the family and his eagerness to be accepted. Can he resist the lure of money and power? Or will he become instrumental in bringing one of South Korea’s most powerful families to their knees?

After an interesting and inventive use of time lapse during the impressive opening scenes, director Sang-soo certainly establishes how adept he is at expertly filling a frame. But his brilliance at filming shiny floors and fancy furniture wasn’t enough to hold my attention with a narrative that is less than gripping, and left me feeling somewhat drained and indifferent after the film’s 115-minute running time. One aspect that I found particularly distracting was the sudden use of stilted English dialogue that randomly pops up throughout the film, creating seriously odd moments of wince-inducing unintentional humour. There’s a bit of Shakespearean plotting from time to time, a bit of Greek tragedy here and there, elements of a corporate thriller thrown in for good measure, unconvincing melodrama and a vague murder mystery towards the end of the film that’s never fully fleshed out and only seems to serve an over-the top-climax.

The Taste of Money seems to be trying very hard to be a shocking, subversive, controversial and unrelenting expose of Korea’s ruling class, but the result feels more like a glossy, heavy-handed soap opera with all the complexity of a four-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Robert Makin

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Format: Cinema

Release date: 6 September 2013

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Kim Ki-duk

Writer: Kim Ki-duk

Cast: Lee Jeong-jin, Jo Min-soo

South Korea 2012

104 mins

Representing a true return to form for the Korean maverick filmmaker Kim Ki-duk, Pieta is a relentless, brutal and brilliant exploration of the human psyche set within the cramped industrial grounds of Cheonggyecheon, a regeneration project in downtown Seoul.

Gang-do works as a collector for a loan shark in the aforementioned industrial area, which is slowly turning into a slum. In the opening hour of the film he visits the various borrowers in their machine shops. If they can pay the instalments, there are no problems; but if someone can’t afford to pay, then Gang-do disables them in order to collect on the insurance policy that they were made to sign at the start of the loan. It’s a cruel method and Gang-do blankly goes about his business: crushing hands, chopping off limbs and even throwing people off buildings.

However, one day a woman turns up on Gang-Do’s doorstep, claiming to be the mother who abandoned him. At first he’s unmoved – he treats the woman as obscenely as possible in an ever-elevating number of tests – but she never waivers. Slowly but surely the two start some sort of kinship. However, this happiness is not to last long.

Out of this bleak ugliness, Kim Ki-duk fashions a tale that more than justifies the use of the title (translating as ‘piety’ or ‘pity’). His story is dotted with characters who come to terms with abandonment, not only through each other, but also through the ever-changing society they exist in.

Pieta is released on DVD in the UK by Studiocanal on 14 October 2013.

Cheonggyecheon is an industrial nightmare: a once thriving hub of small metalworks and other industrial shops now slowly being swallowed whole by urban renewal. Its inhabitants are equally lost: most have given up on their dreams simply to survive while others have never even had the chance to dream. Within this landscape Kang-do is at first the very exaggeration of evil: an unstoppable force who acts as some sort of angel of deliverance, whether he is collecting money or gutting fish for his dinner. However, it is with the appearance of his mother that the very first touches of humanity infiltrate him and his world. And it is this humanity which will create the tragedy that Kim Ki-duk so brilliantly brings about.

In the role of Gang-do, Lee Jeong-jin is a marvel to watch, his slow transformation almost impossible to tear away from. He is well matched in the intensity of his role by the actress Jo Min-soo, who brings a sense of disturbing mystery to the role of the mother who simply will not leave her son. It’s the very forceful nature of the relationship which makes Pieta one of the most astounding films of the year, ending with a final image that will stay with viewers for a long time to come.

A haunting, bleak but poetic tale told using stark cinematography and harsh lighting,the film may turn off some viewers with its violent and relentless nature. However, anyone who can get past its surface aggression will discover one of the more delicately crafted character studies of modern cinema, and a testament to the talent of director Kim Ki-duk, who continues to shock and astound in equal measure.

Evrim Ersoy

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I Saw the Devil

I Saw the Devil

Format: Cinema

Release date: 29 April 2011

Venues: tbc

DVD, Bluray + EST release: 9 May 2011

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Kim Jee-woon

Writer: Park Hoon-jung

Original title: Akmareul boatda

Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Choi Min-sik, Jeon Gook-hwan

South Korea 2010

141 mins

When it comes to revenge, the punishment should not only fit the crime but it should re-enact it. William Wallace’s execution in Braveheart (1995) is a re-enactment of the crimes of which he has been found guilty. He inspires internal rebellion, so his own intestines are ripped out; he wishes to separate the kingdom, then his limbs are racked; he disobeys the head of state, his own head must come off. This is a principle of the law as vengeance, on which public executions used to be based, and which in turn inspired a whole spate of Jacobean revenge dramas, most famously Hamlet. In Kim Jee-Woon‘s new film, I Saw the Devil, vengeance is all, in a full-throated, blood-soaked revenge opera.

The initial murder and the subsequent investigation occupy a slim part of the film and are slickly despatched. The pregnant fiancée of National Security agent Soo-hyun is captured, tortured and murdered by Kyung-chul (played by the Oldboy himself, Choi Min-sik). Soo-hyun tracks him down with relative ease and, unhampered by the niceties of due process, sets about his revenge. It is here the film takes a genuinely perverse turn. Reckoning killing’s too good for this psycho, Soo-hyun sets about a game not so much of cat and mouse as rabid cat and rabid cat, torturing Kyung-chul only to release him so he can be hunted again. Soo-hyun goes about his task with a steely-eyed determination and grimly funny verve, which wins reluctant admiration from the serial killers he comes across even as it risks losing audience sympathy. But who cares about sympathy? This is a world of banal and ubiquitous evil, populated by school children, defenceless women (with one exception), ineptly woeful cops and predatory sadists of whom Kyung-chul seems like a charismatic leader. An old pal speaks of him as if he were a guru from the 60s: ‘We were going to turn the world upside down.’ The ordinariness of Kyung-chul is disconcerting. As in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), this is a banal evil. Kyung-chul has a disapproving father, an abandoned son and a day job (school bus driver, I know, I know). His victims are despatched with whatever comes to hand, a piece of pipe, a screwdriver, and souvenirs are kept in filing cabinets, rather than a Seven-like shrine.

Soo-hyun’s revenge is grimly witty, but the film, despite the extremity of the violence, never gets bogged down in torture porn. Soo-hyun’s main dilemma is not so much concerned with the morality of vengeance, but rather a technical question: how can the revenger truly replicate the crime to be avenged? How can the pain and fear of the innocent victim be inflicted on the guilty? Surely, if you care enough to want it, you’ve already lost. Soo-hyun’s solution is both blackly hilarious and tragically absurd.

John Bleasdale

The Good, The Bad, The Weird

The Good the Bad the Weird
The Good, The Bad, The Weird

Format: Cinema

Release date: 6 February 2009

Distributor: Icon

Director: Kim Jee-woon

Writers: Kim Jee-woon, Kim Min-suk

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun, Jung Woo-sung

Original title: Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom

South Korea 2008

120 minutes

There is a little ominous talk of a map, cutting to a bird of prey hovering, then swooping down to snatch carrion from the tracks of an oncoming train, which the camera flies through in a dazzling tracking shot as the Spanish guitars kick in on the soundtrack, following a bustling figure closely through the busy carriages until he suddenly pulls out a gun and you realise you haven’t breathed for two minutes. Welcome to Kim Jee-woon‘s insanely enjoyable ‘oriental Western’ The Good, The Bad, The Weird, in which three great Korean actors (Lee Byung-hun, Jung Woo-sung and the godlike Song Kang-ho) chase each other, fight each other, then chase and fight some more as they scramble after some kind of treasure map in 1930s Manchuria.

I suspect that if you know your oriental history there will be a little more going on; Korea is referred to throughout as a stolen country, the Japanese are clearly the bastards du jour, and there is a running theme that if you don’t have a country any more then money will have to do. But this is first and foremost a film about sound and vision, of body language and colour. It’s just about puddle deep, has no female characters worth a damn, and is blatantly cobbled together from other sources, but who cares? It grabs the audience from the start with the dizzying train robbery/ bandit attack / bounty hunter shootout sequence and then doesn’t really let go for another couple of hours, culminating in a jaw-dropping motorbike vs cavalry vs entire Japanese army at 80 miles an hour sequence that had my inner 12-year-old grinning like a crazy bastard. It’s got a wonderful percussive score, it looks fantastic, the three leads are great and it keeps the CGI to a minimum. I have a problem with the ending, but you don’t need to know that.

‘Life is about chasing and being chased’, Song Kang-ho states in one of the few placid moments, well… no, but this film is. It’s a blast. Go see.

Mark Stafford