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It’s too bad Korean cinema doesn’t get the attention it deserves, because every other cultural product coming out of South Korea gets way more attention than it deserves. Having already conquered the Asian market, K-pop has been making inroads in the U.S., winning over American audiences with its slickly produced, inanely catchy, and sexy-but-pre-teen-safe videos. So Nyeo Si Dae, or Girls Generation, last seen causing the entire South Korean military to go apeshit, recently became the first K-pop group to appear on both a U.S. network late-night and morning show, scoring back-to-back appearances on Letterman and Live! with Kelly Ripa. Korean dramas, or soap operas, have become must-see-TV everywhere from Russia to Peru. Despite their cliché story lines (amnesia is a frequent plot device), their focus on the extended family—-parents and grandparents meddling in their kids’ love lives—-earns more nods of recognition in the rest of the world than Desperate Housewives.
Korean director Na Hong-Jin probably won’t get invited on Letterman anytime soon, despite winning accolades for his 2008 film debut, The Chaser. Like Bong Joon-Ho, Kim Ki-Duk, and Park Chan-Wook, Na is more likely to get recognized on the streets of Cannes or Venice than New York or D.C., even Annandale. The increasing sophistication of Korean film has outpaced its global reach. Not long ago, it was stuck in the doldrums of gangpae (gangster) flicks, bad romantic comedies, or some combination of the two. Then, breakout success at festivals in the early 2000s led to an explosion in creative experimentation. Since then, Korean directors have scored critical acclaim as well as box office hits (at least at home) in a variety of genres: from coming-of-age (Punch) to police procedurals (Memories of Murder) to horror (the excellent The Host). Their films have taken on more adult subjects, including 2011’s The Crucible, Gong Ji-Young’s story of sexual abuse at a school for the deaf. Yet for whatever reasons, whether marketing, distribution, or limited appeal, few new Korean films make it stateside.
So you probably won’t recognize most of the titles at the Freer Gallery’s Korean Film Festival, beginning Sunday and continuing through June 13. But that’s not to say they’re not worth your time. Director Na will make an appearance the weekend of April 20-22 to introduce The Chaser, a serial-killer mystery, and his follow up, The Yellow Sea, a thriller set in China’s North Korean refugee autonomous region. There’s enough family fare, including the hugely popular Sunny (Freer, April 24-26), and My Dear Desperado, a throwback to Korea’s old gangpae rom-coms (Freer, March 25). But most films in the festival highlight a more grown-up direction in filmmaking, taking on government corruption (The Unjust, AFI May 22-23, and Moby Dick, AFI June 12-13) and frank expressions of eroticism (Red Vacance, Black Wedding, Freer April 1, and the opener Foxy Festival, Freer March 11). “Bring the boys out,” sings Girls Generation, but their come-ons aren’t nearly as explicit as anything you’ll see here.
Films screen at the Freer Gallery of Art’s Meyer Auditorium, Independence Ave. and 12th St. NW (free, first-come, first-serve, doors open 30 minutes before each show) and at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, 8633 Colesville Rd. (tickets available for purchase in advance). See the festival site for schedule and film descriptions.