Ask any Korean producer to name the two scariest words they might hear during any summer, and the large majority would tell you it's all about balls. And... bows. No, not the ones you do out of respect, but those Koreans use to slaughter competition at any archery event of the Summer Olympic games, or the balls prancing around whenever twenty two people get together and play the football, World Cup style. Think of May 31 to June 30 2002, for instance. A total of seven Korean films were released during that month, one of which - Kang Hyeon-Il's delirious 마고 (Mago) -- was about everything but balls, since it had a few hundred dames prancing around buck naked to bestow the merits of existentialist environmentalism upon us. The only real winner of the rather insipid bunch, Kim Dong-Won's dorky and nostalgic 해적, 디스코왕 되다 (Bet on My Disco), was one of those cases where you have very little else to see if you can't stand sports, so might as well watch a decent comedy while you're there. Outside Athens, August 2004 was a bit stronger, if anything because of Gong Su-Chan's 알포인트 (R-Point) and quirky genre-bending escapades like 시실리 2km (To Catch a Virgin Ghost), not to mention 쓰리, 몬스터 (Three... Extremes)'s interesting clash of styles. June 2006 without football? The real cream of the crop was Yoo Ha's 비열한 거리 (A Dirty Carnival), with only the childish delirium of 아치와 씨팍 (Aachi & Ssipak) doing something interesting a bit left of mainstream. So, how about August 2008?
You never realize how completely batty Korea is about sports until you actually get to this kind of event. No, it's not just the enthusiasm on the streets during the 2002 World Cup, or the tremendous performance Korea showed in Beijing, landing 7th with 31 medals (both with the golds-first system and the US-ain't-losing-to-them-Chinamen-dammit one). It's... good gracious, TV. You get three channels showing the same exact thing at the same time and raking in a good 60% of the viewership, with the distinctiveness of each station's commentary team highlighted by the amount of decibels they can shove down those poor LCD Tvs while screaming how closer the athletes are getting to the gold. It's like the reaction a caveman would have if their new best friend showed him what kind of fauna you can find on the Internet when you type "beaver." With all this craze going on, you'd be surprised there'd be people who, golly, even desire going to theaters. And the film companies certainly know that. A lot of films, like 강철중: 공공의 적 1-1 (Public Enemy Returns), 놈놈놈 (The Good, The Bad, The Weird), 님은 먼 곳에 (Sunny) and 눈에는눈 이에는이 (Eye for an Eye) anticipated the Beijing syndrome, releasing between mid-June and late July. Perhaps the boldest move was that of the sole horror of the summer, the horrendous (and that's not a genre-related adjective, alas) 고死 (Death Bell), which debuted on August 6 and went on to sell a very healthy 1.6 million tickets despite the Olympics. The only real flop was Ryu Seung-Wan's 다찌마와 리 (Dachimawa Lee), which didn't quite break even and got only mixed reviews (although it wasn't the most accessible of films, certainly), a real shame for one of Korea's most talented directors.
But, overall, most of the "risky" films made back their initial investment - Lee Joon-Ik's Sunny didn't quite get there, but was at least close - some made good money, like in Kang Woo-Suk's case, and the satisfying if not earth-shattering result of Kim Jee-woon's kimchi western brought some much needed air to breathe. Yes, the industry is still enduring a funding crisis and yes, the psychological effects of the screen quota cut are still being felt. But things this summer seemed to hint that the tide is slowly turning, that a lot of producers and directors are quickly burying their chimeras of 10 million ticket sellers, and are investing in much more "down to earth" productions instead. Usually this would mean that, along with quantity, the possibility of finding quality might also fly out of the window. When you get quite a few opportunities to risk there's a very good chance you'll end up with cow manure, as a lot of the early 2000s Chungmuro boom or Hong Kong in the early 90s showed. But you usually need to endure 10 flops to find a diamond in the rough, and if all you're getting is tame star vehicles spending a little less money, then that possibility becomes just a faint ray of light trying to find its way amidst the fog. Yet, a look at the list of the films set to release in the next three months and, surprisingly enough, it seems we're actually going in a slightly different direction. They're generally low-cost but many of them feature renowned stars in front and behind the camera; they are mostly commercial in nature, but retain a certain (or, well, potential) inventiveness, and they're even quite diverse. Could this be the first spark of a resurgence, not just in box office revenues but also quality? For that we can only wait. But, in the meantime, here's a few quick words about three big films debuting in the next two weeks.
고고70s (Go Go 70s)
WHO's DIRECTING: 최호 (Choi Ho)
This guy just has tremendous potential, and needs the right project to cross over into the top tier of new A-list star directors a la Choi Dong-Hoon, although he might not have the artistic panache of a Bong Joon-Ho or Park Chan-Wook. The reason it's still hard to pinpoint whether he might become a big name or not is because he always changes the page with every project. I used music to connect his previous films before, but that's where it stops. Take his wildly uneven debut 바이준 (Bye June) -- liked the theme, a little less the visual sensibility of it all - and the follow up (after four years, mind you) 후아유 (Who R.U?), and you might find some visual similarities. Also, despite becoming a tad more mature and polished, the youth angst is still there, although it moves to the characters' twenties. They're both fine little flicks, especially the second, which has sparks of excellence. But you really can't find that trait d'union telling you "this guy is that."
Why that feeling is important, you can smell it all over 사생결단 (Bloody Tie). Not a masterpiece by any means, but a tour de force with great raw power, some scary performances (Ryu Seung-Beom, Hwang Jung-Min, the returning legend Kim Hee-Ra. Hell, even Chu Ja-Hyeon), and the kind of panache of someone who has a lot more to show than his first two films prepared us for. So, in that sense, this Go Go 70s is quite an interesting challenge. If it's just an "event" film, that is a few sketches enveloping the performances as salad dressing, then Choi might end up becoming a talented journeyman with the possibility of a few sparks of excellence (veteran Kim Yoo-Jin or Yang Yoon-Hyun might be good comparisons). But, if we're also getting some meat which doesn't just deal with what's below miniskirts along the way, then we might have a future big shot in the Chungmuro galaxy on our hands. Can only hope it's the latter.
WHAT IT's ABOUT
You see a country is getting mature about its recent past when history colors the story, not the other way around. A lot of films dealing with Park Jung-Hee's regime in the past were either stoic social critiques, slightly apologetic nostalgia trips -- some of the early 90s "Republic" series on MBC notwithstanding - or, well, brown-nosing propaganda (particularly in the dark ages of the 70s). But now we get brilliant social and/or political satire in the form of things like 효자동 이발사 (The President's Barber) and 그때 그사람들 (The President's Last Bang), so whenever you see a film set in the 70s, you always hope for some biting, pungent commentary without things getting too obvious. When the Go Go syndrome was the rage starting with the first ever club in 1971 (called, go figure, "Nirvana"), we were dealing with an era which prohibited miniskirts, bobbed hair, and when curfew closed the lights of those wild nights, one of the major vehicles post-war Korea used to resurrect its culture, with the cigarette smoke-drenched Myeongdong of the 50s being the perfect example -- 명동백작 (The Count of Myeongdong) docet.
Despite sharing a similar sound with their Japanese counterpart, the Go Go craze was a little different than the GS phenomenon in Japan during the mid 60s, which mostly began as a reaction to the Beatles, thanks to bands like The Blue Comets. This was full-fledged anti-establishment counter-culture, simply because having fun was against the rules. And this is what the film is likely to "play" with. First reviews called this a "The Doors meets Shine a Light" affair, a comedy with music and a sort of music noir all combined into one, with the fury and fire of youth displayed previously in Bloody Tie returning once again. At the end of the day, it will be a rather simple formula: we want to have fun and they don't let us. The secret, then, is how Choi mixes the ingredients. I could certainly take 90 minutes of energetic performances on the stage. But, as Lee Joon-Ik's lovely 즐거운 인생 (The Happy Life) showed, you need some more spice to make it work.
THE KEY: 조승우 (Jo Seung-Woo)
Nobody in today's Chungmuro can guarantee asses in the seats, as they say, but Jo Seung-Woo gets quite close to the idea. 도마뱀 (Love Phobia) was the exception, but both 말아톤 (Marathon) and 타짜 (Tazza: The High Rollers) were huge successes, and Jo is playing on his hometurf here. The man has shown his vocal prowess and stage theatrics on a few musicals already, which actually paved the way for stardom, and he should make a very strong impression here. He's got the "70s 꽃미남 (pretty boy)" aura down to a T, complete with old school charisma without the machismo-drenched flavors added by Choi Min-Soo and Co. in the 90s, so that manages to please the ladies and not move men to ask for nails on chalkboards instead. Career making performance? Not likely, but sounds like a surefire stellar job.
THE X-FACTOR: 신민아 (Shin Min-Ah)
I still remember the first time I saw her, on that mastodonic pile of smoking ox feculence known as 아름다운 날들 (Beautiful Days), and despite the seven years difference, she's still cute little Shin Min-Ah. See, that was the problem. Of course talking about typecasting for someone who barely scratched her mid twenties would be silly, but you can see with actresses her age that one or two meaty diversions always help, think of Im Soo-Jung, Bae Doo-Na, Gong Hyo-Jin or getting into the unknown but deadly talented sphere Jeon Ye-Seo, Yang Eun-Yong and Kim Min-Joo. Of course she did have her brief encounter with quality, in the form of Kim Jee-woon's brilliant 달콤한 인생 (A Bittersweet Life), but it was more a case of the film using her look perfectly, rather than Shin making a name for herself. Last year's 마왕 (The Devil) was another good decision, but we're never really swaying off the course: it's always cute characters with metric tons of innocence, and that's where we stop.
This is why Shin might be the "dark horse" of this film. Her role here is much sexier and mature than anything she's done before, and it seems to work based on trailers alone. What we don't know yet is if she can handle maturity past the 2 minutes barrier, and that could decide whether she crosses the barrier and begins looking like a great actress, not just a good one.
Not likely to be a masterpiece, but this looks a lot more fun than what the trailers suggest. Performances are all done live with people who can move on stage and know what music really is (we talked of Jo Seung-Woo already, but Cha Seung-Woo making his debut here was a member of punk rock band No Brain and a sort of "Hongdae sound" icon). The key is how much the pillars in between the performances hold up, but otherwise should be a blast.
모던보이 (Modern Boy)
WHO's DIRECTING: 정지우 (Jung Ji-Woo)
If anything, Jung Ji-Woo's career is the very essence of "surprise." After a few interesting shorts, he debuts with the "부부클리닉-사랑과 전쟁 (Couple's Clinic-Love & War) meets Hitchcock"-flavored masterpiece 해피엔드 (Happy End), then he completely turns the page with the almost grotesquely sweet 사랑니 (Blossom Again), with a story about a 탈북자 (North Korean refugee) in between, as part of the omnibus 다섯개의 시선 (If You Were Me 2). We have a thriller, a fantasy melo and a social critique drama, three completely different genres and narrative structures. Yet, what you always seem to find is his methodical attention to details, sometimes using silence (or nearly silent scenes) to highlight the characters' mood. And, again, one of his major traits as a director is finding the fire in actors who hadn't shown it before. She proved she was a good actress in countless dramas and things like 접속 (The Contact) before, but it was with Happy End that people started noticing how great a talent Jeon Do-Yeon is, and you still won't find a better performance by Joo Jin-Mo than what he showed there. Also, Blossom Again showed comedy queen and TV drama mainstay Kim Jung-Eun could also act, while at the same time discovering the immense talents of Jung Yoo-Mi.
What to expect from this, then? Park Hae-Il, Kim Hye-Soo, even Kim Nam-Gil - now using his birth name, he was previously known as Lee Han, of 굿바이 솔로 (Goodbye Solo) fame - have proven their talent elsewhere, so I doubt it will be a revelation in the acting department. What might emerge, then, is that Jung can also handle flair and spectacle on a much bigger scale. This is likely to be the most commercial and accessible of his films (from a mainstream POV), so we'll see how he adapts to the new canvas. The trailers truly look like a lot of fun, with some decent historical details and impressive CG work.
WHAT IT's ABOUT
Similar issues that color Go Go 70s. That is, can history become an integral part of the story, without influencing it enough to drive the entire film? The longer the trip of our time machine is, the worse a film might be affected. People might easily take youngsters having fun in a "culturally subversive" way during the 70s, since it's still part of many moviegoers' lives. But can they do the same if the clock moves another 40 years back? When history starts becoming part of a textbook, then you quickly forget it was written by people, and only look at the issues, which is why something like 청연 (Blue Swallow) and the despicable "boycott" syndrome that followed on its trail didn't fly with a lot of the mainstream. The colonial period can only be filtered through angst and sacrifice as a social group for way too many people, which is why anything deviating from the "traitors vs independence fighter" mantra has a hard time cracking the glass ceiling. 라듸오 데이즈 (Radio Dayz) tried it and did pretty okay, but the big numbers are always done by melodramatic potboilers a la 태극기 휘날리며 (Taegukgi) or 화려한 휴가 (May 18), prostituting real events to develop fake symbols of the period, like the worst tearjerkers from the 30s and 40s.
It will be quite interesting, then, how people react to this double-header of historically-tinted big projects, both debuting on the same day. At the core, we're essentially dealing with the same thing: people who want to "have fun" (albeit in different ways) in a period which rarely allowed them to do so. Modern Boy will be much meatier, with anti-establishment characters showing a little more than just rock and roll, as the bombastic trailer shows. But they're both "period" pieces trying to deal with history in a new way. If we're lucky, we could get the mature version of 경성 스캔들 (Scandal in Old Seoul), a TV drama from last year with a tremendous premise which ended up vanishing in clouds of bad writing, rushed production and below par panache. If we're not, it will be another tentative to use history as an article of clothing, without respecting what it could bring to filmmaking. And, possibly, Jung Ji-Woo's first misfire.
THE KEY: 김혜수 (Kim Hye-Soo)
I bet it would be pretty easy to accept Kim Hye-Soo as a bomb of sex appeal, if all you've seen her in are a few comedies from the early 2000s. But not if you've witnessed her play girl-next-door types or melodrama leads for an eternity. Kim debuted at the tender age of 16 on 1986's 깜보 (Kambo), which also happens to be Park Joong-Hoon's debut. She's been in countless dramas and lightweight films, with some exceptions (a few surprising sageuk roles both on the small and big screen), but something in 2004 clicked and told her she needed to bank on something else now. She needed to show she wasn't just a "TV actress" (a rather disparaging moniker only people who don't watch TV dramas enough to realize how silly it sounds use). Enter the sex appeal.
I confess I don't find Kim's sexy at all, perhaps because 10 years of the same roles are too strong an image to break, but then again Jeon Do-Yeon did it with Happy End. The problem I have with her version of sexy is that it lacks finesse, it's too in your face to make any real impact. She certainly did a good job in 타짜 (Tazza) -- a lot more than the incredibly more revealing (and a little on the crazy side) 얼굴없는 미녀 (Hypnotized) -- but take just a quick look at Kim Hye-Ri in 신돈 (Shin Don) or Lee Mi-Sook in 정사 (An Affair) and you'll see what being sexy is all about. It doesn't need to be vulgar, just elegance mixed with a little decadence and you're there. A look at the trailer, and Kim's sexiness here feels more of the same, the ostentatious type, but it's just a trailer. Problem is, if there isn't "meat" complementing that aspect (and I'm not talking about superficial "I'm a sexy madam working for independence fighters" vibes), then the film is going to fail pretty badly. Acting? It will be good, she's a very good actress when she doesn't try to look what she certainly isn't. And Park Hae-Il can make just about anybody look good next to him, since he has that chameleon quality to his acting. But sexiness is like spice. You add the right amount and it makes a great dish. You exaggerate, and then it's like spraying pepper in your eyes.
THE X-FACTOR: 일제시대 (The Colonial Period)
No, I'm not repeating myself. This time I'm not thinking of the colonial period in social or historical terms, but simply in terms of visuals. Even things like 서울 1945 (Seoul 1945), Scandal in Old Seoul or, hell, The Count of Myeongdong looked good, but the CG and sets here look fantastic, much better than other colonial-era films like Radio Dayz or even the wonderful YMCA 야구단 (YMCA Baseball Team). This might actually be the issue which helps the film more than anything else, as just seeing Kyeongseong recreated this way will make people salivate. Now, we had comedies, melodramas, even horror films - the stunning 기담 (Epitaph) -- using this era to their advantage. Isn't it time we do a colonial noir? Kim Jee-woon anyone?
Sounds quite good and I can't wait to see it, but it does have a few potential problems, which eventually might hurt it considerably. Still, it should be quite an accomplished work, and looks like good fun.
WHO's DIRECTING: 김기덕 (Kim Ki-Duk)
Ha. What to say I haven't said twenty times already, without using "orientalism" and "hypocrisy" even once? Won't be easy, but we can try. If anything, Kim Ki-Duk is certainly a prolific filmmaker, with fifteen films in a mere dozen years, and it's also interesting the way certain segments of the audience tend to prefer certain films of his over others, showing it's not always a matter of auteur theory aficionados treating a man's entire career as a big blotch of film stock all tied together. Just to make a quick comparison, I find his early days a bit puzzling but quite interesting, the period between 파란대문 (Birdcage Inn) and 나쁜 남자 (Bad Guy) as his true prime, and anything after 봄 여름 가을 겨울... 그리고 봄 (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring) to be best categorized by the copious amounts of ungulate ordure it emanates. But Dream... hmmm, it not only sounds good, it feels as if Kim turned a new page. The man even goes ahead and, golly, has interviews with Korean reporters, saying he wants to reconcile, communicate with the viewers. I like his work as a producer, and can only expect a lot from that future, if 아름답다 (Beautiful) and 영화는 영화다 (Rough Cut) are of any indication. Don't really know what to expect, but this time it looks like superficial existentialism will only be one of the ingredients, and some decent drama might actually come to the surface. One can always dream...
WHAT IT's ABOUT
Seems like Freud wasn't the only one interested in dreams. Odagiri Jo plays Jin, who discovers that when the line between dream (or nightmare) and reality starts to get blurry he can meet Ran (Lee Na-Young), who spends her free time sleepwalking. The idea at the core of the film is rather simple, the way it's told probably not so much: Ran actually acts exactly as Jin dreams, which can be both beautiful and a little grotesque at the same time. You can't control dreams, which is probably where the film's Korean title (sad dream) makes the biggest impact. Dreams are driven by your instincts, and that is not always something you'd like to show other people, or to involve other people in. There you find the darkest shadows and the most shining lights, which could embrace people like Ran but also hurt her. And the fact you can't really do a thing about it is what makes it sad. There's enough in that little premise to write an existentialist tome, but if Kim sticks to basic issues, then the drama could work marvelously. In some ways, if the atmosphere was something similar to that gem from 2001 known as 나비 (Nabi: The Butterfly), this could turn into a pretty engaging flick. That is, existentialism is fine, but only when it's about real people moving inside real drama, regardless of genre.
THE KEY: 이나영 (Lee Na-Young)
Another "confession" time. I see Lee Na-Young as a sort of female Yoo Ji-Tae, or maybe it's the other way around. That is, actors who generally choose quite smartly, and only things that truly can show what they have to offer. But, otherwise, limited range and I'd even dare to say limited talent. Sure, it's easy to say "Lee Na-Young was wonderful in 네 멋대로 해라 (Ruler of Your Own World)," just like it would be easy to say Yoo was quite good in 올드보이 (Oldboy). But we're dealing with what's arguably the best Korean trendy drama of all time, and writing that's way past memorable (I'd call it "legendary," but then I'd start fearing In Jung-Ok will continue this way too long hiatus). Yang Dong-Geun, I can understand, but even Gong Hyo-Jin completely devours Lee every time they act together in there, and it's the same for Kim Min-Jung in 아일랜드 (Ireland).
Remove her from the In Jung-Ok, Noh Hee-Kyung, Choi Ho and Jang Jin of the world, and Lee is generally a rather mixed bag of very awkward comic acting -- 영어완전정복 (Please Teach Me English)-- almost ridiculous "I'm so cool with that Matrix costume" action heroines -- 천사몽 (Dream of a Warrior)-- and not too impressive supporting work on many of her early works on TV. It's never really "bad" acting, it just never seems to go beyond the material and leave a mark. But this role, sure enough, fits her perfectly. It feels distant enough not to require the kind of meaty dramatic acting she doesn't really do that well - I find 우리들의 행복한 시간 (Maundy Thursday) a tad smelly and it's not because of the preachy nature of it all alone - but allowing the kind of introspection she can certainly convey. There's many better actresses her same age, but when it comes to this role she's probably the perfect choice, and perhaps the key to this film's success or failure.
THE X-FACTOR: Anata Wa Hangukmal Speak Desu ka?
But this is the really interesting point: Odagiri is speaking Japanese, while everyone else speaks Korean. That might just be another wicked way for Kim to blend the world of dream and reality, as the language barrier really never exists. You've seen Jarmusch and even people like Christopher Doyle (!) deal with multiple languages all filtered through the frames, in a sort of proto-Star Trekian universal language, but whether it will work or not here is a big question mark. Odagiri is a capable - if slightly overrated - thespian, so we'll see.
Can't always let expectations run wild with Kim because, well, it's Kim Ki-Duk. But this looks like the closest thing to a return to form, and that trailer is just... ahh. Must. Not. Build. Expectations.Too.Much.