January 15, 2013
For the past decade Korea has produced the most innovative genre films in the world, with directors Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Jee-woon reinvigorating revenge thrillers, police procedurals and westerns. This year Hollywood is playing catch-up, commissioning remakes of recent Korean hits and importing that influential trio to make their English language debuts. Spike Lee is shooting his version of Park’s seminal Oldboy, and Allen Hughes has signed on to redo Kim’s A Bittersweet Life (2005, and whose Tale of Two Sisters was Americanized in 2009 as The Uninvited). Bong is finishing up production on his dystopic sci-fi film Snowpiercer, starring Chris Evans, while Park’s psychological horror film Stoker, featuring Nicole Kidman, will be released on March 1st. The first out of the gate will be Kim’s action movie The Last Stand, opening this Friday, which marks the post-gubernatorial screen return of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Kim is a restless genre tweaker, using traditional templates and then pushing them to extremes. His style varies from the antic energy of his “kimchi Western” The Good, The Bad, The Weird to the elegant control of his criminal revenge saga A Bittersweet Life, but his films insistently return to the theme of self-destructive violence that pulses just below the surface of the human psyche.
Kim Jee-woon was born in Seoul in 1964. He studied at the Seoul Institute Of the Arts, but dropped out to pursue a career in the theater. He worked as an actor before moving into directing, credited with helming the productions of Hot Sea (1994) and Movie Movie (1995). Details are slim about this period of his career, but eventually he began submitting screenplays to local competitions. His first script, Wonderful Seasons, won the best screenplay award at the Premiere Scenario contest in 1997, while later that year The Quiet Familywon the 1st Cine21 Scenario Public Subscription Contest. The Quiet Family would be Kim’s first film, and he would write all of his scripts up until I Saw the Devil (2010). As Jinhee Choi writes in The South Korean Film Renaissance, he benefited from a shift in the industry. The Asian economic crisis of 1997-1998 made large corporations like Samsung skittish about investing in film production, while Daewoo sold off its theatre chains. Venture capitalists filled the void, with Ilshin Investment Co. funding 5-6 productions a year. Simply needing to fill their slate, untested directors like Kim got their shot.
The Quiet Family (1998) is a black farce about an isolated lodge and the loosely knit family who operates it. When their first customer commits suicide, they decide to hide it for fear of bad publicity. The cover up is worse than the crime, as bodies pile up with no end in sight (it was loosely re-made by Takashi Miike in his musical The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)). Kim trawls through the halls in steadicam shots, providing blueprints of the lodge’s geography, orienting shots of normality soon to be spattered with blood. The film glides by on the charm of Song Kang-ho and Choi Min-sik, two icons early in their careers. Song was trained in improvisation for the theater, and he is already a magnetic, unpredictable presence, a menacing doofus who can whip his gangly appendages into a fighting stance at the slightest insult. Choi plays Song’s schlubby uncle, softening his bulldog face into one of resigned pliability. The whole family finds easy rationalizations for murder, and with each death they come easier and easier. Played for laughs, this quick and destructive slide into violence will pop up in the rest of his features, modulated according to his chosen genre’s mood.
He plays it for pathos in his follow-up, The Foul King (2000), in which sad sack bank employee Dae-Ho (Song Kang-ho) turns to pro wrestling to restore his dignity. An enormous hit in Korea with over 2 million ticket sales, it tapped into the angst of white collar salary slaves, where even karaoke becomes a matter of routine business. Song Kang-ho again plays a deadbeat energized by violence, although this time the blows are choreographed, and he is a rumpled white collar rather than a live wire blue. While The Quiet Family is cartoonishly decimated by their violent actions, The Foul King is awakened by his pro wrestling performance, as if it were a male ritual needed to survive office life. Kim takes the inspirational sports movie and pushes it into Fight Club territory, with Dae-Ho feeling most alive only when going off script and bludgeoning his opponent. The cure, as in The Quiet Family, seems worse than the disease.
Kim took three years before making his next feature, workshopping his approach to the horror genre in short films. His entry in Three Extremes 2 (2002), “Memories”, is his attempt to imitate the Japanese ghost stories that were still raking in money around the world thanks to Ringu (1998). A simple story of a husband haunted by his dead wife, Kim used it to experiment with POV, using jump cuts and flash backs to represent his main character’s troubled mind. He used these lessons in A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), melding the creepy Japanese ghost girl cliche and incorporating it into a classical Korean fairy tale, Janghwa Hongryeon. Two girls return to their country home after being discharged from a mental hospital, and are tormented by their stepmother and an unseen presence. Kim uses a gliding steadicam again to outline the geography of the house, and uses bird’s eye views to pin the girls to the ground as their self-deluding secrets come to light. Set design becomes more important – this house is far more detailed and alive than the one in The Quiet Family, with its blooming wallpaper and blood-red rugs, the house itself seems to be veined with blood.
Kim returns to a hyper-masculine world in A Bittersweet Life (2005), his first with high cheek-boned heartthrob Lee Byung-hun. Still interested in a kind of genre purity, this crime thriller, like A Tale of Two Sisters, is a classic genre narrative told without filigree. Lee plays Sun-woo, an enforcer at a luxury hotel for a local gang boss. Like the Quiet Family or Dae-ho, he has an unfulfilling job. An ascetic physical specimen who should be a Le Samourai style hitman, instead he’s tasked with rousting rival gang members from the bar and tailing his boss’ mistress. He is instructed to kill her if she is caught sleeping around, and his refusal sets in motion a series of bloody reprisals. Kim’s langorously tracking camera follows Sun-woo through his glimmering glass and steel universe, one exhausted of possibility, revealing only reflections. Lee is as drained of selfhood as the institutionalized Sisters, his motivation for revenge one of inertia. Neither Sun-woo or his boss can articulate why they are killing each other or why they can’t stop, only that it has started so it must end.
Later in 2005 Kim was a resident in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, marking a tonal shift in his work, his films regainng the self-reflexivity and jokiness of his first two features. The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) is a cartoonish spaghetti western spectacle that would make a good double feature with Django Unchained. Song Kang-ho returns to the fold as “The Weird”, a thief who steals a treasure map also valued by the Japanese army, a bounty hunter (Jung Woo-sung) and an outlaw (Lee Byung-hun). The film opens with a fist pounding on a map of Manchuria, and the film is a bloody satire on the absurd lengths men will go to defend and seek words on those maps. In the bravura opening train robbery sequence, Kim’s camera follows behind Song walks in a merchant’s disguise towards the safe car, passengers and guards ignoring him along the way. But when a man yells out, “Indpendence for Korea!” he is immediately flogged and tossed off. As the bounty hunter says, “if you have no country, you still gotta have money”, so the cynical trio circle each other, fighting over a map that leads to an unknown treasure. Any time one of the three places trust in another, there are double and triple crosses, each man out for himself and his own plot of land. Kim amps up the pacing and his cutting rate – it moves much faster than his previous films, and is filled with slashing diagonals of the three competitors crashing into the frame.
Kim’s first Hollywood deal was delayed by a year, and in the interim Choi Min-sik brought him a script by Park Hoon-jung: I Saw the Devil. It is the first film that Kim directed but did not write, although it fits snugly into his preoccupations. It takes the usual serial killer movie cliche, that the detective has to think like him in order to find him, to its logical endpoint. That is, the law in this film becomes just as sadistically violent as the serial killer, and the two engage in a grand guignol game of brinksmanship in which both try to inflict as much pain on the other without inducing death. Because dying would end their fun. Tying together various strands of his work, with its deluded protagonists, fairy tale haunted house (of cannibals) and self-destructive violence, it stands as a mid-career summing up, a transition to whatever this post-Hollywood phase brings.
The Last Stand, which I have not yet seen, is about a gang speeding on an escape route to Mexico. The only people capable to stop them are a small border-town sheriff and his deputies. It sounds like a natural extension of The Good, The Bad, The Weird, with its proto-Western scenario and focus on permeable borders. I’ve heard mixed reactions, to the film so far, but it doesn’t sound like Kim will ever be eager to return to the states. He told Korea JoongAng Daily that:
I found I was just another foreign worker here. [Laughs] I don’t have a lot of friends here and all I did was work, so in a way, I felt empathy toward foreign workers. I felt myself getting stronger when I set the goal for myself not to give up and to endure this loneliness.
He has already started development on his next Korean project, a live-action remake of Oshii Mamoru’s anime, Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade. A version of the red riding hood tale set in an alternate history in which the Nazis won World War II and Japan is a totalitarian state, it would appear Kim is returning to his comfort zone, pushing folk tales and traditional genres to the brink of self-annihilation.