Spotlight on Contemporary Korean Cinema

By Rowena Santos Aquino


Spotlight on Contemporary Korean Cinema, Los Angeles, CA, 3-5 November 2011

Strategically coinciding with the American Film Market and AFI Fest this year, the Korean Cultural Center of Los Angeles (KOFFLA) organized a three-day spotlight on contemporary Korean cinema, sponsored by the Korean Film Council (KOFIC). The spotlight consisted of a retrospective of young filmmaker-on-the-rise Jang Hun, who now has three feature films under his belt; two debut feature films, Ordinary Days (2010, Inan) and Re-encounter (2010, Min Yong-geun); and one of Lee Chang-dong’s more recent films, the award-winning Secret Sunshine (2007). In a sense, KOFFLA’s Korean cinema spotlight is a much welcome continuation of AFI Fest’s spotlight on Korean cinema last year and a much-needed Asian cinema sidebar missing in this year’s AFI Fest.

On the one hand, short film and music video director Inan’s debut Ordinary Days is at most an uneven film of misplaced drama, composed of three segments following three different characters. These segments are loosely united by themes of loss and memory, and the everyday lives of the individuals who have incurred the loss of a family member and live with their memories of the past. But the direction is uninspired, and the film reads like a series of short films whose emotional cores are missing. After the first segment, the strongest one of the bunch, one is hard-pressed to feel anything but indifference towards the characters and situations.

On the other hand, Re-encounter presents a meditative and thoughtful look at the inner life of the independently spirited Hye-hwa (Yoo Da-in), who is nevertheless reticent when she is confronted with her past through her ex-boyfriend and the hope of finding their daughter — who is either dead or was put up for adoption by their parents when Hye-hwa and her boyfriend were teenagers. With minimal dialogue, newcomer Yoo wonderfully conveys how Hye-hwa’s life of taking care of dogs at a pet store/clinic slowly transforms into confronting her past, what could have been, and what she is now. Director Min’s choice of tight framing to interact with Yoo’s subtle expressivity is exquisite, meriting the slew of awards and nominations it has received in South Korea (Best Director in the Korean Cinema Today: Vision section at the 2010 Pusan International Film Festival; Best Picture, the Independent Star Award for Yoo, and the Kodak Award at the 2010 Independent Film Festival).

But Jang Hun’s three feature films: Rough Cut (2008), Secret Reunion (2010), and his latest, The Front Line (2011) constituted the core of this mini-film festival. This retrospective of Jang’s films comes at the cusp of Jang becoming a more internationally known filmmaker, especially since none of his films have officially screened theatrically in the U.S. In addition, The Front Line is South Korea’s submission for the Oscar category of Best Foreign Language Film.

The Brotherhood of Men: The Films of Jang Hun

Whether or not one cares for the work of (ill-)famed Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk, one thing is clear: he has been mentoring a number of young filmmakers who are now constituting a part of a new period of contemporary Korean cinema. The distinction is perhaps crucial: the likes of Park Chan-wook, Kim Ji-woon, Im Sang-soo, Hong Sang-soo, and Kim himself are the dubbed “386 generation” filmmakers, a term coined in the 1990s that refers in general to Koreans who were in their thirties in the nineties; attended university in the eighties, a tumultuous and violent period under military dictatorship; and born in the sixties. For filmmakers in particular, this generation came from film schools and academies, is very literate in film criticism, and began filmmaking in the 1990s.

Following in the footsteps of the 386 generation are, among others, Kim’s protégés, who began to make their debut films in the latter half of the 2000s with critical acclaim: Juhn Jai-hong with Beautiful (2007), Yang Chul-soo with Bedevilled (2010), and Roh Hong-jin with Boy (2011). Jang Hun was also one of Kim’s protégés, having worked on four of Kim’s productions as a member of the production crew and then as assistant director (3-Iron [2004], Love So Divine [2004], The Bow [2005], and Time [2006]). He debuted in 2008 with Rough Cut, co-produced by Kim. Rough Cut received critical accolades, strong box office, and a series of domestic awards for Jang and his two male lead actors.

“Two male lead actors” may be a banal statement. But in the case of Jang, it is representative of the kind of narrative worlds that he explores. In each of his three films, he addresses a range of issues through the lens of the unlikely, love-hate friendship between two men, usually from opposing sociopolitical circles: filmmaking, the media industry, and gangsters in Rough Cut; the North-South Korea divide and espionage in Secret Reunion; and the Korean War itself in The Front Line. As a result of his focus on homosocial ties, women are hardly, if ever, present in his films. If they are present, they serve as nothing more than parts of the décor, or a minor plot point that only brings the two male protagonists more in cahoots or against each other. However, as Jang himself has pointed out, the world of men is what he knows best and therefore what he examines in his work; in the future, perhaps, he will tackle women characters and women’s issues. But for now, Jang’s films contribute to the “remasculinization of Korean cinema,” following the title of Kyung Hyun Kim’s 2004 book.

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Film lecturer at CSULB. Transnational, multilingual, migratory cinephilia.