Thursday, March 03, 2005

Three from Korea: Jungle Story, Ma Vie en Rose, Memories of Murder

I don't particularly like football; during the Patriots' recent run, I've been mostly indifferent and didn't become a hypocrite on the day of the actual big game. I believe the first year, I hit the Brattle for the Raiders of the Lost Ark/Superman double feature; the year after that it was Irreversible at the Harvard Film Archive - I found myself admiring the people who had the strength of character to walk out, quite honestly. I didn't go out last year, but this year I opted for a double feature at the HFA: Two from Kim Hong-jun, a figure who evidently looms large in contemporary Korean cinema despite having only directed two films in the mid-nineties.

Mr. Kim was also present, and proved to be an amiable speaker. He had about a 50% success rate at making jokes in a foreign language, which is about 49% better than I would be. He mentioned with some pride that Korea was one of about five countries in the world where more than half the movies in theaters were local productions (if I had to guess, I'd say the U.S., India, China, and maybe Japan were the others).

I imagine that it was but a coincidence that the next week brought us a recent Korean hit at the Brattle's Eye-Opener. It was a nice bit of syncronicity, though, with Memories of Murder sharing the same period and outlook as La Vie en Rose.

Anyway... the reviews:

Jungle Story

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2005 at the Harvard Film Archive (Global Visions: Korean Cinema)

When someone says "Korea" and "rock and roll" in the same sentence, one thing immediately leaps to mind - bootlegs. That may not be fair, but the picture painted of the local music industry in Jungle Story suggests that the bootlegs don't have much competition. The story of would-be rock star Yun Do-hyun is familiar no matter what country you're from, though.

After all, what's not to understand? Do-hyun has just finished his compulsory military service, but doesn't really know what he wants to do next. College doesn't really interest him, and his parents are losing patience. It's not that he's really passionate about music, but it interests him more than most anything else. Soon, he's moved to Seoul, gotten a job in a guitar store (a tiny space in a sprawling market), and become part of a band. They play a club, he gets spotted. An album is recorded, but not released because it's not what the focus groups say they want. He goes back to his home village, but soon is drawn back to Seoul, even if all he and the rest of the band can afford is a place in a slum known as "the jungle"...

Read the rest at HBS.

La Vie en Rose (Jangmibit Insaeng)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2005 at the Harvard Film Archive (Global Visions: Korean Cinema)

The Cold War created a lot of perceptions that, even if they weren't strictly inaccurate, were woefully incomplete. Ask the average American about South Korea as a nation, and he'll probably think of M*A*S*H, and say that it is a Western-allied democracy as opposed to Communist North Korea. True as far as it goes, but for a good chunk of its history, the Republic of Korea could be considered a free democracy mainly in relation to its northern neighbor - if you want to look thin, stand near fat people; if you want to look democratic, stand near Kim Il-Sung.

The description of the movie didn't really hint at any politics, making it looks like nothing more than a story about a petty thug hiding out in a comic book shop. On its face, this 1994 film sounds similar to the pop-culture-soaked gangster movies that Pulp Fiction brought into vogue on this side of the Pacific, but during the time when this movie was set, political dissidents often hid out in these all-night comic rental shops, paying a "midnight charge" (hotels were required to check IDs and alert the police). Native Koreans would know this; being a not-particularly-well-informed American, I needed some catching up. I didn't even suspect that the place wasn't even primarily a comic store until the owner (Choi Myung-kil) purchased comics from a supplier who mentioned not having seen her often.

Read the rest at HBS.

Memories of Murder (Salinui Chueok)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener) (projected video)

In 1986, the Republic of Korea was confronted with its first known serial killer. We find out during the opening narration of Memories of Murder that South Korea was at the time a military dictatorship, and for the next two hours we are given an object lesson in how a strong, authoritarian government cannot always stop a single, determined criminal.

The nature of the ROK's government at the time is an odd choice as the first piece of information the audience is given, as I imagine most Koreans wouldn't need to be told. I suppose that the younger generation who didn't remember it first hand could use the reminder, but it also serves to focus the viewer's attention on how that impacts the procedural elements of this movie. The principle weapon of law-enforcement in an authoritarian nation is intimidation, and while a climate of fear can deter potential criminals, one who has already gotten away with something is not so easily cowed. And then the cops are left with real police work, which they may not be used to.

Read the rest at HBS.

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