October 12, 2005

Busan Dispatch. 3.

Koreanfilm.org contributor Adam Hartzell sends in another dispatch from the Pusan International Film Festival.

Pusan International Film Festival Although one big reason I'm here is to see films that I will otherwise not get a chance to see even in San Francisco, such as the larger Lee Man-hee retrospective and the tinier RD Pestonji series, there was one film that will likely get a limited US release but I very much wanted the experience of seeing it here in South Korea - the Japanese film Linda, Linda, Linda by director Nobuhiro Yamashita. I was curious how the local audience would react to Bae Doo-na being featured in a Japanese film. Bae plays a South Korean exchange student who becomes the lead singer in a girl band at her Japanese high school as they prepare for the school's rock festival. The film's title borrows from a popular song from the Japanese punk band The Blue Hearts, of whom I can claim to have had a tape back in college so I'm not jumping on this band's wagon when I say they rock.

Linda Linda Linda Bae's star credentials in South Korea are complicated. She is well-known but her films have, for the most part, performed disappointingly at the South Korean box office. Similarly, when I talk to South Koreans about her, they speak of her with indifference, as if she's not all that. But she is all that, and a bag of squid chips. She's an immensely talented actress, as is demonstrated in her performance here. And I am not alone in feeling that way about Bae. She is quite popular with overseas enthusiasts of South Korean cinema. So her lack of positive reception by her home fans is perplexing. I won't call her the David Hasselhoff of South Korea since she's got mad skills and mass range. In fact, she's the opposite of Hasselhoff since she deserves acclaim from audiences in her home country but only gets it from fans from other lands. (Thankfully, the people in power in the South Korean industry recognize her talent and continue to provide her with projects she deserves.) Thus, Bae is the anti-Hasselhoff. But would appearing in this popular Japanese film bring Bae recognition at home such as she has from those who follow South Korean cinema outside of the peninsula?

Linda Linda Linda When So (Bae's character) enters the narrative, she didn't receive any response from the crowd. Bae's acting did cause several fits of appropriate laughter from the crowd, most prominently when she's responding with confusion and discomfort to her Japanese mystery suitor who went out and bothered to learn Korean in hopes of impressing her. When he stutters out "Sa-rang-hae" (Korean for "I love you"), the crowd let loose its loudest laughter of the screening. There was a dead silence, however, when one of So's Japanese friends responds to So's reflexive Korean commentary during one scene by calling it "gibberish." Also, for all the talk of a "Korean Wave" that's sweeping Asia, particularly Japan, nobody seems to want to be part of the Korean/Japan cultural exchange club and take part in So's "Beef Darts" game. (Believe me, the humor will be there when you see it.) But the most interesting moment came during the final frames that are a staple of these uplifting musical group genre films, wherein each member of the band is given an isolated moment of images to close out the film. Bae goes last, and it was obvious the film was ending, so I thought she might get an applause for representin' for the Chosun people. But, nope, just silence. Perhaps this is a cultural thing, expecting what I would hear in the US when audience members attending a screening of Grace Lee's The Grace Lee Project (screening at PIFF) can't resist shout-outs when their personal Grace Lee appears on the screen. Loud clapping did erupt as soon as the credits rolled. And from what I've heard around me here, South Koreans will applaud during certain scenes and performances they greatly appreciate. So without the opportunity to interview the audience members, and without attending the screening where Bae was present, (and my screening didn't have English translation of the Q&A with the director after), Linda, Linda, Linda appears to underscore the peculiar faint South Korean starlight that doesn't shine as bright for Bae. If I had the funds, I'd commission Richard Dyer to focus his next star study on Bae.

Crying Fist Bae isn't the only South Korean star to occasionally lack luster; the old boy himself, Choi Min-shik, couldn't carry Crying Fist. This fourth feature by Ryoo Seung-wan began 2005's string of poorer than expected performers in South Korea. So poorly did it perform that Ryoo felt a need to cut out roughly 15 minutes from the print he screened here at PIFF.

The film follows two boxers at opposite corners of ring life, one young and just beginning his flight (played by director Ryoo's younger brother, Seung-bum) and the other George Foreman-old and on his last wobbly legs (played by Choi). Even with the cuts, I found the film drags at points, but this could partly have to do with my difficulty identifying with violent forms of masculinity. Still, Ryoo and all involved brought me to tears at the end, and I appreciated how Ryoo refused to million dollar this baby and allowed us to feel sympathy for both fighters, keeping us guessing who would win and keeping us debating who we wanted to win. Both Choi and Ryoo and the veteran actors and actresses in the film turn in excellent performances.

Do You Cry 4 Me Argentina? The same can't be said for the Argentinean feature Do You Cry 4 Me Argentina?. But I shouldn't have expected stellar performances when, as Bae Youn-suk, the Korean-Argentinean director of this play on Evita's Broadway request, informed the large crowd in attendance that most everyone involved in this film was a neophyte. This Bae is breaking ground here by representing, as he described it, the insular Korean-Argentinean community. Yet this ground has been broken elsewhere in the genre of immigrant stories in general. What is unique about Bae and his fellow 1.5 generation-ers is exactly that, the particulars of that descriptor. The "1.5 generation" refers to Koreans who emigrated throughout the world from the late 80s to the mid-90s. A significant number of these families had children in junior high and high school which placed these kids in a position of being pretty solidly acculturated in their home culture and language, making acculturation in their new home culture and language more difficult, particularly when the community they cling to is as tightly closed off as Bae claims Korean-Argentineans are. Bae sees the plight of the 1.5 generation as primarily a tragic one, although one of the four stories, explaining the Prince-like "4" in the title, is portrayed as hopeful, an example of what he sees as a woman who claims 2nd-generation status. And this hopeful story is the most original of Bae's portrayals in that she is a violinist who is not clichéd as a prodigy, but is shown having trouble simply completing a single piece of music; plus, she's not placed in an orchestra but instead in a local rock band.

This was not the best film for me to watch during a late showing because Bae's inexperience shows in a number of scenes that drag. He also relies on music video aesthetics to push the story along which becomes repetitive in feel and tone if not style. But this is a film that was an itch that needed to be scratched, and I learned as much from the discussion around the film as from the film itself. (Apparently, due to the double IMF-ing experienced by Korean-Argentineans, many have had enough and the population has dwindled down to half its previous size as families have either moved back to South Korea or moved on to other countries such as Canada and the US.) So, again, I didn't expect a masterpiece.

If You Were Me 2 I did expect to be impressed with If You Were Me 2, the second omnibus film commissioned by the National Human Rights Commission of South Korea. This time only five directors were asked to produce a short around a human rights issue of their choosing. The five directors who took part were A Smile director Park Kyung-hee, Repatriation documentarian Kim Dong-won, Happy End director Jung Ji-woo, Someone Special (and more films to be mentioned later) director Jang Jin, and the aforementioned Ryoo Seung-wan. With such a collection of accomplished directors, I anticipated some powerful shorts. And for the most part, that's indeed what I got.

Jung Ji-woo's installment, about the plight of North Korean refugees, is exquisitely beautiful and painful at the same time. Shot in black and white, Jung manages to drop in some subversive product placement of the brand most commonly associated with globalization in general beyond just its specific product. The brand even extends its influence to stand in for actual cash in the film. Ryoo tackles his own masculine demons in almost one entire take in a tale about a drunken lout who hates everyone around him in a late night drinking and eating establishment. And Jang Jin continues to amaze me with his impressive prolific gift for bizarre, yet accessible, direction and expertly calculated and complex dialogue. Jang recently helped revive the South Korean box office with his screenplay for Welcome To Dongmakgol (screened at PIFF) and even managed to compete with himself on opening weekend with a film he directed as well as wrote, The Big Scene (not screened at PIFF but screened by the airline on my plane flight over and which apparently now has the alternative title, Murder, Take One). Even though I appreciated his short on discrimination towards contract workers, from the uproar of laughter from the crowd, I still feel as if I missed greater nuances that translation just couldn't provide.

The Peter Pan Formula But even if a psychoanalyst could provide a proper translation of Cho Chang-ho's debut Korean feature The Peter Pan Formula, I doubt it would add that much to this overly-Freudian-ed work. I can quote Freud to back me up on this one - "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." And sometimes one wants to have sex with an attractive, older woman, not out of a desire to return to the womb, but out of a desire to have sex with an attractive, older woman. And such a desire is perhaps not a sign of pathology but a means of addressing pathology in a culture that de-legitimizes attractions for anyone not within a severely limited range of youthful years. Something South Korea shares with my home country and pretty much the rest of the entire world.

The story follows our Peter Pan named Han-soo (On Ju-wan) who must deal with being alone, and how he extends that alone-ness into loneliness after his mother's failed suicide attempt, one that leaves her in a coma. At the hospital, he meets a similar girl (Ok Ji-young) in similarly orphaned limbo who will later share in his secret as he shares in hers. There are wonderful moments in this film, such as when his secret is revealed to the girl and the interesting take on the South Korean film trope of capital punishment from teachers and peer groups, but the film loses me in its symbolism from psychoanalytic theories I've always questioned. But it's getting a lot of buzz from people who saw it and it is part of the New Currents section here. I will agree that Cho shows promise, but the film is not a complete success for me; but then I was more Rogerian and Narrative back when I was a therapist in my past life anyway.

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Posted by dwhudson at October 12, 2005 5:14 AM


You're probably right about the Pestonji films' liklihood of screening in San Francisco, Adam. But I'm still going to try to hold out hope that the PFA or YBCA might decide to bring them in one of these years.

Posted by: Brian at October 12, 2005 12:06 PM