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“Korean Film Festival DC”

At the AFI National Film Theater, the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, the Avalon Theatre, the Freer Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts to Oct. 31

From Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wong Kar-wai to Hirokazu Kore-eda and Jia Zhange-ke, the stars of the international film-fest circuit are predominantly Asian. There are no Korean names on that honor roll yet, but there surely will be. After all, Korea didn’t start making movies yesterday: The nation’s first production was in 1919.

But the Korean War destroyed all traces of the country’s earliest films, and government censors smothered cinematic expression for decades. The current renaissance dates to 1988, when censorship was relaxed and restrictions on foreign movies eliminated. Initially pummeled by Hollywood, the Korean film industry has recently re-established itself and become commercially competitive. While many of the most acclaimed directors from other Asian countries rely on the global art-house circuit, most Korean filmmakers still work foremost for a local audience.

For American cinephiles, that means Korean film is still largely uncharted territory. But they can get at least a sampling in this year’s Korean Film Festival DC, the largest such selection ever presented in the United States. Only 14 of the fest’s 32 films were offered for preview, and I have seen perhaps a dozen other Korean movies elsewhere. (I recall just seven that have played commercially in D.C. over the past two decades.) Most of the older pictures were not made available, and the fest’s overall selection may not be comprehensive. For example, several of the spooky Japanese flicks that Hollywood has recently undertaken to remake actually began as Korean movies, yet this lineup includes only one film billed as horror, Sorum—and it really isn’t.

There are strong parallels among the previewable selections. Whether their resolutions are happy or sad, many of these films turn on profound misunderstandings between men and women. Male chauvinism and casual violence, if not extolled, are widely accepted. The movies are generally stylish, but not as stylized (or austere) as the work of such auteurs as Wong, Hou, and Kore-eda. And some cultural details will be familiar to viewers of Japanese cinema: the elaborate social hierarchy, the powerful sense of duty, and the drinking binges, often effectively decreed by elders or superiors. In spirit, however, these films more often tend toward the boisterousness and sentimentality of mainstream Hong Kong fare.

Of the 27 directors included in the fest, three made films that have been shown in Washington recently. The most venerable is Im Kwon-taek, the director of Chungyang and Chihwaseon, both costume dramas. The same description almost applies to his 1996 Festival (Oct. 29 at the Freer Gallery of Art), but this time the costumes drape modern frames: When the senile mother of a successful novelist dies, he returns to his rural hometown for a series of elaborate Buddhist ceremonies. Family resentments simmer and flare, a reporter dogs the participants, dutiful grown children struggle to properly fulfill ritual requirements that now seem strange, and dignity strains against the traditional use of funerals as occasions for drinking and gambling. This is a complex, moving film that shifts frequently between solemn and satirical: Painted backdrops evoke the past as a literary construct, and the intermittent commentary of the dead woman’s young granddaughter conveys a sense of humor the self-serving elders definitely lack. If Festival isn’t a complete view of modern Korea and its contradictions, it certainly covers a impressive amount of dramatic and sociological territory.

Hong Sang-soo, whose Turning Gate was shown at the Freer last year, has two films in this lineup, but only 2004’s Woman Is the Future of Man (Sept. 17 at the Freer) was available for preview. Hong is the master of the Korean existential make-out film, in which men wander and prey, women beguile and withdraw, and no one seems to be having an especially good time. In this chapter of an ongoing chronicle, an aspiring filmmaker and his old friend, now a college professor, make a spontaneous—that is, drunken—foray to see a woman they both dated in the past. The conversation is halting, the mood often disconsolate, and the sex mostly joyless. “All men are animals,” says one character, and Hong doesn’t seem to disagree. He just can’t decide whether this trait is comic or tragic.

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Before he made the mostly serene Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, writer-director Kim Ki-duk was known for his savage, arguably misogynistic films. His 2002 The Coast Guard (Oct. 25 at the Avalon Theatre), an allegory about conflict between the two Koreas and its cost to society, is not as brutal as The Isle, seen in D.C. in Visions Bar Noir’s “Truly Shocking” series, although it does include one scene that combines fish, water, and uterine blood in a way that recalls that movie. When overzealous Coast Guard spy-hunter Kang opens fire on a young couple making love on a restricted stretch of beach, he kills the man and leaves the woman, Mee-Yung, shell-shocked. After he’s discharged, Kang also begins to lose his grip. The film is suitably ominous, but a little repetitive: Kang and Mee-Yung endure repeated variations on their psychic meltdowns until the effect is less alarming than numbing.

Although Im Sang-soo’s A Good Lawyer’s Wife (Oct. 4 at the Avalon) is mostly about sex and marriage, it opens with intimations of violence, which should be considered fair warning: This 2003 film is not going to be a safe trip for all the characters. The wife is Hojung, a dance teacher who adores her adopted son but misses her husband—and especially misses sex with him. He’s busy not only with work, as lawyers often are, but also with a mistress. So Hojung begins a potentially scandalous friendship with the boy next door, a teenager who’s been known to peep at her nude prancing. (One of the odd couple’s excursions is to see another festival selection, Park Chan-ok’s Jealousy Is My Middle Name.) Shot with off-kilter handheld camera, the film is replete with quick cuts and sharp turns—emotional as well as stylistic. Powerfully unsettling, it’s one of the fest’s most original entries.

Although Jealousy (Sept. 21 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts) isn’t as dark as Im’s movie, they would make a compatible double bill. In this 2003 film, quiet lit student Wonsang takes a job at a magazine to be close to the married man who’s claimed his girlfriend’s affections. Despite their eventual rivalries over not one but two women, the men become friendly. Psychologically astute and narratively open-ended, Park’s French-style film gradually reveals character, in the process divulging that Wonsang is rather less a victim than his manner suggests.

The only previewable pre-1990 movie is Yoo Hyun-mok’s 1961 Aimless Bullet (Oct. 8 at the Freer), which depicts the anguished aftermath of the Korean War. The black-and-white images of a battle-ravaged Seoul suggest ’50s Japanese cinema, but Yoo is not a singular phenomenon like Kurosawa or Imamura. The film—whose surviving print is itself somewhat ravaged—follows three siblings: an obedient family-man accountant, a woman who’s devastated that her lover will no longer see her because he was disabled in the war, and a bitter veteran who finds and loses love before deciding to knock over a bank. The story is a routine hard-times melodrama, but its harsh view of ’60s Korea is noteworthy—as the authorities conceded by banning it for years.

The theme of the alienated ex-soldier didn’t end with growing postwar affluence: A recently discharged army man is also the protagonist of Lee Chang-dong’s 1997 Green Fish (Oct. 31 at the Freer), whose bleak worldview rivals Aimless Bullet’s. Unable to find a job, Makdong falls in with gangsters and flirts with his new boss’s mistress; a series of bloody incidents leads to calamity, then to a coda that indulges the romantic fatalism common in Asian mob pictures. Just as gory but less sentimental, Sorum (Oct. 11 at the Avalon) comes on like a ghost story, but it’s the living creatures who provide the menace. Yun Jong-chan’s 2001 noir introduces several residents of a reputedly haunted Seoul slum building, notably a melancholy taxi driver and a 7-Eleven clerk who’s regularly beaten by her husband. The facts of the characters’ harsh lives are chilling—no supernatural forces are necessary when the humans are this twisted—but the way they all fit together is almost comic.

Released in 1990, Lee Myung-se’s My Love, My Bride (Oct. 6 and 7, at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center) inaugurated the popular Korean “sex-war” romantic dramedy. In a series of chapters that are little more than skits, Young-min proposes to, marries, and then generally oppresses Mi-young. A writer who introduces himself as the “new Dostoevski,” Young-min isn’t a bad sort. He’s just selfish and immature, Mi-young, the more likable of the two, is imprisoned by convention. With its playful asides and animated sequences, the movie is reasonably engaging, but its commonplace critique and string of facile resolutions offer no improvement on the Western equivalent of the Korean sex-war flick.

The fest offers numerous other examples of this popular genre, the most frenetic of which is Kim Sung-su’s 2003 Please Teach Me English (Sept. 20 and Oct. 6 at the AFI National Film Theater). When young government clerk Young-ju is assigned to take English lessons, she hates the class—and the fact that the fellow student she most likes, Moon-su, is smitten with the blond, Australian teacher. Animation, video-game parodies, cascading onscreen text, and a mother-and-child-reunion subplot distract pleasantly from the inevitable glib ending.

The other previewable romances likewise have their gimmicks: In Lee Jung-Hyang’s clever, if sappy, The Art Museum by the Zoo (Sept. 29 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts), heartbroken soldier Chul-soo and lovelorn wedding videographer Choon-hee are thrown together by a not-so-cruel fate and begin working on a screenplay together. In gold-tinted dramatizations of scenes from that script, the fictional lovers are played by, respectively, the woman Chul-soo lost and the man Choon-hee can’t have; as the invented characters fall for each other, it’s a safe bet that their creators will, too.

In Kwak Jae-young’s 2001 My Sassy Girl (Oct. 9 and 10 at the AFI National Film Theater), an easygoing guy and the title character meet cute. Actually, it’s not that cute—he takes her to a motel to clean her up after she barfs copiously in a subway car—and she’s more grating than sassy. But she’s also beautiful and touched by mortality, so true love is inevitable—it’s just that its course is wearyingly protracted and ultimately maudlin. Somebody also dies in Kim Dae-seung’s Bungee Jumping of Their Own (Oct. 5 and 9 at the AFI National Film Theater), a 2001 movie that cautiously sidles up to the subject of same-sex attraction. A teacher recognizes the reincarnated spirit of his dead girlfriend in a male student, and what ensues is an engaging melodrama with a smidgen of gay-rights politics.

Kim Ji-woon’s 2000 The Foul King (Oct. 20 and 21 at the AFI National Film Theater) has romance and social commentary as well, but it features slapstick violence more than either. An ineffectual clerk at a corrupt bank remakes himself as a pro wrestler whose schtick is that he cheats—the sort of broad, mainstream flick that might seem redundant to non-Korean audiences. Indeed, there’s enough Rocky here that the film could support a Hollywood remake far more easily than the festival’s more distinctive films. Though homemade movies like this one may outgross American ones in Korea, Im Kwon-taek and Kim Ki-duk travel better than sassy girls and foul kings.CP