Tag Archives: Kim Ji-woon

East Asian Films at the 56th London Film Festival

Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time

56th BFI London Film Festival

10-21 October 2012, London

LFF website

Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin and Virginie Sélavy review the most notable Japanese and Korean films that screened at this year’s London Film Festival.

Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time

Opening in Busan in 1982, Yoon Jong-bin’s Nameless Gangster is a vastly enjoyable sprawling mob saga that clearly references Coppola and Scorsese in its story of the rise and fall of a would-be godfather, but adds a caustic sense of humour and ironic distance. Introducing the story with the definition of ‘daebu’, it plays on the various meanings of the term, including ‘elder relative’ and ‘crime boss’. Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) gives another fantastic performance as corrupt customs official Choi Ik-hyun, who comes into contact with local gangster Choi Hyung-bae when he is sacked from his job. Hyung-bae turns out to be related to him and Ik-hyun takes advantage of his status as his elder relative to get involved at the top of his gang.

Ik-hyun is a fascinating multi-faceted character: a comical figure who is often ridiculed, a ‘half-gangster’ – as he is called by the brilliantly ruthless prosecutor Jo – who can never really cut it as a crime boss, he is also impressively cunning and resourceful, and despite his shameless lack of scruples and despicable conduct, he has a sympathetic and very human side in his love for his family. One of the big joys of the film is his relationship to the younger, more attractive, scarier, real gangster Hyung-bae (played by rising star Ha Jung-woo), who exudes the sort of power and authority that will always elude Ik-hyun. And yet, despite his menacing aura, Hyung-bae is a man of principle who, unlike Ik-hyun, abides by gangster codes and even traditional social rules (in his respect for Ik-hyun as his elder relative for instance), which puts him at a disadvantage when dealing with his less honourable enemies. This reversal of the usual dynamic between young and old is another of the pleasures of this exhilarating, humorous, smart gangster saga. VS


The second outstanding Korean offering of this year’s festival was adapted from a novel by Miyabe Miyuki and directed by female filmmaker Byun Young-joo. Helpless is a captivating, intelligent thriller on the nature of love and identity that takes a hard look at what happens when a victimised character is forced to devise extreme strategies to survive. It starts like The Vanishing: young veterinarian Mun-ho is taking his bride-to-be Seon-yeong to meet his parents when she disappears at a service station. When he finds her apartment has been emptied in a hurry and the police are useless, he asks a relative who is a disgraced former cop to help him find her. As they investigate, her identity becomes more and more mysterious, and they must make sense of her possible connections to large debts, loan sharks and even suspected murder. The many revelations thrown up by their investigation repeatedly throw into question our assumptions about Seon-yeong and build a finely nuanced and affecting portrait of a complex woman. A convincing, tense, insightful thriller in which there is more than one victim, with a deep sympathy and understanding for the kind of dynamic that leads seemingly helpless characters to commit terrible acts in order to defend themselves when no one else will. VS

Doomsday Book

An apocalyptic triptych from Korea, written and directed by Kim Jee-woon and Yim Pil-Sung, the creators of The Good, the Bad and the Weird, and Hansel and Gretel. Part one is an eco-horror of waste and consumption where dodgy food production causes a kind of zombie outbreak. Part three is the tale of a family attempting to survive an impending meteor strike. Both share a wild, freewheeling sense of humour and are dizzy, bizarre satirical fun, especially the pot shots aimed at idiotic TV news coverage.

The side is let down a little by the middle section, where problems arise for a corporation when one of their robots assigned to a Buddhist temple achieves enlightenment. The tale is over-familiar from decades of SF, the robot is a poor cousin to Chris Cunningham’s Björk-bot in the ‘All Is Full Of Love’ promo and a ponderous tone takes over. It’s not bad, just a bit dull, and overall, considering the talents involved, Doomsday Book comes as a bit of a disappointment. Definitely has its moments though. MS

For Love's Sake

For Love’s Sake

Takashi Miike returns with the adaptation of a manga by Ikki Kajiwara and Takumi Nagayasu – filmed many times before – about a rich young girl’s impossible love for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. The original title Ai to makoto means ‘Love and Sincerity’, which is also the name of the two main characters. Ai is a sweet young girl from a well-to-do family, who was rescued by Makoto while skiing as a child. When Makoto returns to Tokyo for revenge and immediately gets into a fight, Ai does all she can to save him from his delinquent life. An insanely colourful, at times kitsch teen melodrama, it mixes the badass attitude and energy of Crows Zero with the demented chirpiness of The Happiness of the Katakuris. It may not be Miike at his most ground-breaking or daring, but it is wildly entertaining. The director once more demonstrates his boundless inventiveness and impressive visual sense with a variety of animated sequences and (cheesy) musical numbers, as well as great decors, gorgeous colours and brilliantly choreographed fights, all pulsating with his customary high-voltage energy. VS

Helter Skelter

I was a big fan of Mika Ninagawa’s 2008 Sakuran, a fun, gorgeous-looking film with a fantastic female lead. Unfortunately, her second film, Helter Skelter, is a major disappointment. Ninigawa began her career as a fashion photographer, and returns to that world with a story, based on Kyoko Okazaki’s manga, about the unravelling of a top model’s career. While there are some likeable elements in this satire of the fashion industry, the film is let down by its total lack of narrative structure and an irritating subplot, while the riot of colour that made Sakuran so refreshing seems like nothing more than eye candy in Helter Skelter, helping to gloss over the film’s weaknesses.

Erika Sawajiri stars as Lilico, Japan’s hottest model and teen idol. She’s bitchy, tyrannical and stunning – but also a fake. Her looks have been created at an expensive clinic, paid for by her agent, who is still extracting a heavy price for turning her into a commodity. When Lilico is pushed aside by a younger model, her anger and frustrations are taken out on her unfortunate assistant, who’s forced to endure endless humiliations. In the meantime, a team of police, led by an obnoxious, irritating character who spouts trite philosophical soundbites, is investigating the clinic for illegally using human tissue in its patients (a sorely underdeveloped idea – although strange bruises do begin to appear underneath Lilico’s skin.) But rather than use this investigation to add an element of noir to the film, the scenes with the police are mostly shot in a very bland office, with them doing very little. They add nothing to the already fractured narrative, while the dialogue is simply excruciating.

Despite some good moments – Ninigawa does an excellent job capturing the absurdity of the industry, and the public’s obsession with beauty at all costs – the director’s inimitable style can’t make up for the unlikeable characters, needlessly frenetic pacing, and worst of all, the weak script. SC

The Samurai That Night

Adapted by Masaaki Akahori from his own play, The Samurai That Night is the story of a meek factory owner, Nakamura, who is still grieving after the death of his wife and is looking for revenge against the thug who killed her in a road accident five years earlier. The title ironically refers to Nakamura’s vengeance fantasy, which is comically and pitifully deflated in the realistically depicted modern world of the film. The film is indeed anything but an action film: it takes the classical opposition between the wronged good man looking for payback and the unredeemable evil brute but films it as a slow-paced, introspective character study. When – in another nod to the samurai film – the final big showdown in the rain comes, there is no resolution, or even progression, and both characters remain the same.

This could have been interesting, were it not for the excessively simplistic characterisation, the unbearably ponderous tone and the affected, sometimes sentimental quirkiness (the main character obsessively eats custard desserts; while on a date he takes his late wife’s bra out of the pocket of his trousers; when he plays ball with his overly sweet date, just as he used to with his wife, she delivers an exasperating ode to simple things – I could go on). This is a film that is not as deep as it thinks it is and its self-important slowness just makes it tiresomely dull. VS

I Saw the Devil: Interview with Kim Jee-woon

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

Kim Jee-woon’s follow-up to The Good, the Bad and the Weird is a vicious, diabolically twisted tale of murder and revenge that pushes the serial killer thriller to compelling new levels of extreme pain and philosophical depth. Staring Oldboy‘s Choi Min-sik in the role of a dangerous psychopath killing for pleasure, the film starts when, one night, he hatchets the pretty fiancée of National Intelligence Service agent Soo-hyun (The Good, the Bad and the Weird‘s Lee Byung-hung). Instead of letting the police deal with the crime, Soo-hyun goes after the murderer himself in order to put him through the same pain his deceased lover has suffered and, ultimately, much more than that. Displaying every detail of the gruesome horrors perpetrated by both lead characters during their fast-paced, exhausting cat-and-mouse chase, I Saw the Devil is a disturbing yet witty and enjoyable take on the genre. Featuring stunning visuals, it builds up to an utterly unexpected ending.

Pamela Jahn caught up with director Kim Jee-woon after the premiere of the film at the London Korean Film Festival in October 2010 to talk about lucky coincidences, Nietzsche and the dilemma of ultimate revenge.

Pamela Jahn: You mentioned last night at the Q&A that you never watch your own films once they are finished. Why is that?

Kim Jee-woon: First of all, I get a bit bored after the whole editing process, so the technical screening is usually the last time that I see the film. But mainly it’s because otherwise you see all the little mistakes coming up on the big screen and it sort of hurts to sit all the way through them. The films I make without pressure and without grief, like short films, are not a problem, but my feature films I do find very difficult to watch again.

This is the first time you are adapting a script from someone else rather than writing your own. How did the collaboration with Choi Min-sik come about?

When Choi first approached me with this project I was working on a different film, but it got delayed for a year and I thought I couldn’t just rest and do nothing. I needed a script because it would have taken too long to develop something new from scratch. So I was in a bit of a dilemma when exactly at this moment Choi, who plays the serial killer in the film, came to me with this script, and suddenly everything fell into place.

When I first read the script it felt very new and powerful but at the same time it had a brutal and tough side to it, which got me interested. I thought one of the most important things to make it work was to find the right antagonist for Choi Min-sik’s character. Luckily, at the same time I met Lee Byung-hung, who I thought had gone to the US to shoot G.I. Joe 2. When we sat next to each other at a premiere he told me that his project had got delayed for a year too, just like mine, so I adjusted the script and he instantly liked it. It was all very fortunate for us, especially because the film is Choi’s comeback after three years off screen, and it is a very strong comeback, I think.

Despite being a gory revenge thriller, I Saw the Devil sometimes seems like a twisted examination of human emotions and their ties to antiquated moral notions of sin and justice.

Revenge films normally follow the same dramatic structure: you torture the criminal and, in the end, the protagonist gets his or her revenge, and the audience finds some sort of justice in that. But I thought that sort of ending is a lie because the question I kept asking myself was whether it was actually possible to carry out ultimate revenge without destroying yourself. This is what I tried to portray here.

Nietzsche said anything done out of love is beyond good and evil. Do you see this as the moral behind the film?

Nietzsche is giving a warning that in order to kill the devil you have to become the devil yourself, and it is exactly this dilemma that I have tried to express in my film. In other words, the film is not about the sadness about the person who dies but it’s about the torture for the ones who live and are left behind. Soo-hyun realises that physical pain is no longer significant and he carries out revenge through psychological violence. And although he knows that what he’s doing is morally wrong, it is an inevitable decision on his part. But his choice in revenge methods shows the relationship between revenge and success in that, in order to succeed, you have to become the devil. It is a reflection of the endless suffering within the character. The audience experiences the different methods and levels of revenge through the violence but actually, at its heart, the film deals more with the emotions behind the revenge.

Lee Byung-hung’s character not only feels the pain about having lost his fiancée but, working as a NIS agent, he also suffers from the guilt and inner turmoil that he wasn’t there for her when she needed him. It almost seems that the latter becomes the stronger motif for his revenge.

Because he works for a national security team and because his job is obviously to protect others, the fact that he wasn’t able to protect the one he loves brings a false irony into play. Of course, he wants the killer to feel the pain he feels, but he actually dreams of ultimate revenge. So in that sense it is a very narcissistic kind of revenge. But at one point in this process he becomes dangerously obsessive and soon he starts making mistakes and he also abuses others along the way. This is shown at its most extreme in the last act of revenge and the way he inflicts pain on others.

You don’t provide much back story about Choi’s character or clues as to why he becomes a serial killer in the first place. What is it that motivates him to murder women?

His family is seen in one scene when Soo-hyun goes to their house and you realise through their dialogue that Kyung-chul left his son and that the relationship between his parents and him was not harmonious either. So there are a few hints about his personal history. But for me the question was more, ‘how is he going to kill next?’ and not why. The focus was primarily how, and not why, he becomes a serial killer.

What struck me is the use of classical music, especially the opening sequence as the wife’s head is found in the river. Is there a special link for you between classical music and killing?

I wanted the film to start with a very sentimental feel and to make a huge impact through the thriller action opening because this is the moment Soo-hyun feels the most emotional pain and rage, and I tried to intensify these emotions through the use of very passionate operatic music, which becomes like the surface of his inner turmoil. But having said that, when we first started to discuss the possible background music for the film we were actually tending towards more minimalistic music. It was only after having seen the energy of the actors and the strength of the visuals and the performances that we realised we needed something more powerful to go with it. The minimal music simply didn’t work.

You also employ a very morbid sense of humour. How much of this was in the original script? Or did it come naturally while you were shooting?

There was only one funny scene in the original script, which is the scene when the car full of soldiers drives up to Choi. The rest of the humour that is used in the film simply came through the production. Some of these moments came to me like sparks and I used them to develop a pattern of tension and relief within the film in order to create some sort of rhythm and a unique style.

Despite its level of violence, the film received a 14+ rating when it screened at the Toronto Film Festival, whereas the Korea Media Rating Board initially gave it an R rating, which effectively banned the film from theatres in South Korea. What was your feeling about the audience in Toronto?

Screening the film at the Toronto Film Festival gave us the opportunity to have a more liberal forum and I felt that the audience were looking at the film within its genre rather then focusing simply on the violence. I think they understood that the violence was just one characteristic of the genre, which helped to contextualise it. I hope that people here will watch it in this way too.

How much of a relationship is there between you and other Korean directors like Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho?

Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and I are friends and we sometimes see films together and we look at each other’s scripts and give feedback to each other. But the most important thing for me is that we have a similar taste in films. As for I Saw the Devil, Park recently expressed his desire to work together with us on the commentary for the DVD release of the film, which is great. So watch out for that.

Read the review of I Saw the Devil.

Interview by Pamela Jahn