KOFFIA 2012 Review: METAMORPHESES and the Influence of Korean Film Schools

Contributor; Seoul, South Korea (@pierceconran)
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KOFFIA 2012 Review: METAMORPHESES and the Influence of Korean Film Schools
One of the films playing at the 3rd Korean Film Festival in Australia.

One of the aspects of Korean cinema which strikes people the most once they become acquainted with it, is the highly sophisticated level of the production values. From a technical standpoint, Korean films are often on par or even above their Hollywood counterparts: cinematography, sound, production design, editing, and even special effects are deftly handled with skill and care. Wondering how this is the case for a national industry that had been until relatively recently a marginal one is a worthwhile question. The answer therein lies in examining how a cultural and economic climate fostered this type of change.
During the intense state-driven globalization of a newly democratized Korea in the 1990s, which was known as 'seghewha', the cultural sector was heavily promoted. With the creation of a few different motion picture laws that, among other things, provided tax breaks for investment in the film industry, the chaebol, which were large corporations such as Daewoo and Samsung, got involved in film production. Just as you would modernize any other industry, the film industry's production standards had to be quickly brought up to speed due in large part to the chaebol's injection of significant amounts of capital. However, it wasn't just money that led to today's technical proficiency. I would argue that perhaps more than anything, it was the education of a skilled below-the-line workforce that contributed to the phenomenon.
I myself am an amateur cinematographer and my keen interest in film language, aesthetics, and mise-en-scene are certainly among the reasons that I took such a shine to the Korean film industry or other groupings of cinema such as Hollywood Film Noir and classic Japanese cinema of the 1950s and 60s. So fascinated was I by the irreproachable and consistent quality of Korean film technique that I briefly considered enrolling in the Korea National University of the Arts to purse an MFA in cinematography. Even compared with the venerated film schools of America like UCLA, USC, and NYU's Tisch, the alumni of Korea's film programs are illustrious. There are many universities which offer reputable filmmaking curriculums such as the Dongguk, Chung-Ang, and Hanyang universities, and the Seoul Institute of the Arts, but two tower over the rest: The Korea National University of Arts (K'Arts) and the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA).
Between them, these institutions can lay claim to a significant chunk of Korea cinema's output over the last decade. Notable directors include Na Hong-jin (The Chaser, 2008; The Yellow Sea, 2010) and Jeong Jae-eun (Take Care of My Cat, 2001) from K'Arts and Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, 2003; The Host, 2006; Mother, 2009), Kim Tae-gyun (A Millionaire's First Love, 2006; Crossing, 2008; A Barefoot Dream, 2010) and Im Sang-soo (A Good Lawyer's Wife, 2003; The Housemaid, 2010; Taste of Money, 2012) from KAFA. Cinematographers include Lee Mo-gae (The Good, the Bad and the Weird, 2008; Secret Reunion, 2010; I Saw the Devil, 2010) and Lee Sung-jae (The Chaser, 2008; Secret, 2009; The Yellow Sea, 2010) from K'Arts and Kim Hyung-gu (One Fine Spring Day, 2001; Memories of Murder, 2003; The Host, 2006) from KAFA.
The curriculums at these universities feature some great faculty like the revered Korean New Wave director Park Kwang-su (Chilsu and Mansu, 1988; Black Republic, 1990). The primary emphasis, and this is critical, is on practical work. They make a lot of short and feature films and many of them hold up well to the professional work happening on the outside. Most of the Korean shorts I see seem to be from K'Arts and each year KAFA makes some very significant debut features, in the last year alone there was End of Animal, Bleak Night, and The House.
Metamorpheses comes from Oh In-chun, a K'Arts graduate who is quickly making a name for himself. As much as I have just played up the role of Korean film schools, I must say from the outset that Oh stands out as a particularly talented young genre filmmaker whose ample skills are readily evident. Having recently seen Ryoo Seung-wan's debut omnibus Die Bad (2000), I can't help but draw a parellel. Ryoo's work has much more thematic and character-based elements but both of these films showcase the pure filmmaking vitality from these late 20s directors that is screaming to be seen by a larger audience.
Ryoo started out as a genre filmmaker who tackled anything that involved fisticuffs, be it gangsters, boxers, martial artists, or spies, it was pretty clear what interested him. The same can be said of Oh, I have now seen three of his films, including Luck Day and Cure, and it is easy to see his penchant for horror and action genres, which is pretty much the raison d'ĂȘtre for the young cadra of filmmakers behind My Neighbor Zombie (2010), Invasion of Alien Bikini (2011) and this year's Young Gun in the Time. Like them, Oh demonstrates a keen appreciation of film technique. 
The short film begins with a young man in a car trying to find inspiration for a comic book. He steps out and grabs some bottles of black garlic juice from his trunk then surveys the scenery of a park. He then practices what he will say to an attractive female jogger who soon appears. She drops her mp3 and runs off and then the young man chases after her. To give away anymore of the film would spoil the surprise but safe to say that what follows is unexpected, a little gruesome, and very entertaining.
The visual techniques and other tricks in the film are extremely impressive and I would be very excited to see how Oh would handle a feature length with a bigger budget. While the film could easily be written of as a stylistic exercise, it is not without its ideas. It may not be as deep as Kafka's extraordinary story which it shares its name with, also conceived in short form, but it mines some of its ideas relating to personal transformation. Perhaps more than anything, Metamorpheses could be seen as take on 'Alice in Wonderland', as the young protagonist goes deeper and deeper down a macabre and darkly humoristic rabbit hole of Oh's creation. A very strong effort from a bright light in the future of Korean film, I'm looking forward to whatever comes next.
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Dustin ChangAugust 23, 2012 7:34 AM

This is an invaluable information. Leaving Korea in the early 90s, I missed out on the rise of Korean cinema and always wondered about how it all happened. Thank you for this. I loved the raw energy of Die Bad. I'm looking forward to seeing Metamorphosis and see more from Oh in the near future.

Jon PaisAugust 25, 2012 12:47 AM

I believe it was in the 1990s when the chaebol began investing in the film industry in Korea, but if you look at the films produced in the 1960s and 70s ( when Korea was still among the poorest on earth) by directors like Lee Man-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok, you will see that Korean cinema is already at its peak, both technically and artistically. And at the time, the movie industry was regulated by severe censorship. Nowadays, I too can't help but marvel at the technique, while deploring the shallowness of much that comes out of Korea these days. Which makes me marvel all the more at genuinely creative stuff, such as Bleak Night, which you reviewed in these pages, or the astounding Cafe Noir - films that appear like a clear blue lake in the middle of the vast desert that is Korean cinema these days.