L.A. Korean IFF

This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Los Angeles Korean International Film Festival at the American Cinematheque. (Why the word “international” was included, since it only featured Korean films, is beyond me.) LAKIFF screened recent films by two of Korea’s most acclaimed filmmakers, Hong Sang-soo’s Woman is the Future of Man (part of the upcoming NYFF line-up in October) and Kim Ki-duk’s Samaritan Girl–both films are already available as Korean region 3 DVDs. Hong was actually supposed to attend his screening and offer a Q&A that I was very much looking forward to, but he was held up by the Vancouver International Film Festival and unfortunately had to cancel his appearance.

Both films are cleverly made, with substantial thematic ambition, but I’m not sure that either one qualifies as an unequivocal success. They do, however, signal genuine talents who remain filmmakers to keep an eye on within Korea’s vibrant New Wave.

Woman is the Future of Man, like Hong’s previous works, deals with young adults in contemporary Korea and focuses on their awkward romantic relationships, their histories and present conundrums, and difficulties in aligning their short-term behaviors with their long-term desires. In many of Hong’s films, characters indulge in a variety of spontaneous and seemingly unfulfilled adventures–often sexual in nature–while overarching meaning remains elusive. In some ways, his films resemble a Korean riff on the work of Eric Rohmer, a filmmaker he has praised, in their use of urban settings and long conversations captured by an unobtrusive, quasi-documentary camera. But unlike Rohmer, whose films often seem illustrative of a larger philosophical worldview beyond the details of his narrative, Hong’s films seem more focused on the details, an expression in and of itself of the difficulty of forming and maintaining identity and relationships in the modern world. (“For me,” Hong told koreanfilm.org‘s Darcy Paquet at Cannes, “filmmaking is an expression of my being at the moment of making a film. . . . I try to view things or people or situations without any doctrine or ideology to interpret them.”) Hong’s films are filled with wonderful observations of contradictory human behaviors, subtle tensions and social mores, and humorous or ironic parallels, but he largely leaves ideological summary to the viewer. Woman is the Future of Man ends en medias res.

The minimalist narrative of the film involves two reunited college friends, filmmaker Hyeon-gon (Kim Tae-woo) and art professor Mun-ho (Yu Ji-tae), who decide to track down Seon-hwa (Seong Hyeon-a), Hyeon-gon’s former lover whom he had abandoned in order to study in the US; unbeknownst to him, Mun-ho also had an affair with the young woman during Hyeon-gon’s absence. Their threeway reunion is therefore fraught with indecision and tension despite the fact that Mun-ho is currently married to a different woman (who is briefly heard, but never seen in the film). Their interactions–eating, drinking, making love, visiting parks, walking in the city–are a combination of romantic fancy and perpetual indifference, attempts to engage in relationship and remain narcissistically aloof.

I enjoyed the film from scene to scene, Hong’s witty dialogue and juxtapositions provide a source of continual amusement: when Mun-ho offers the new-fallen snow in his yard to Hyeon-gon as a welcoming gift, Hyeon-gon takes a few steps into it and then retraces his foot positions, as if he had “only gone in one direction,” when in reality he had “gone back and forth”–a playful metaphor for Hyeon-gon’s trip to the US, where has was assumed to have stayed, as well as possibly the film’s narrative arc (if it can be said to have one), in which Hyeon-gon’s search for Seon-hwa merely becomes a return to solitude. But Woman is the Future of Man ultimately seems more episodic and less thematically expansive than Hong’s previous film, Turning Gate, in which a Chinese myth provides a fascinating parallel to the unfolding drama on screen, and its few flashback scenes lack the structural complexity of Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors. The film held my attention, but its single-minded focus on momentary behaviors and feelings seems less compelling than his previous work. On the other hand, Hong’s understated tone is the sort of approach that can hide unexpected profundities that might yet emerge upon extended reflection.

By way of contrast, Kim Ki-duk’s cinema is renowned for its vivid imagery and raw emotional content. I confess that it’s not a style I’m generally attracted to (I tend to fall in the Bazinian “less is more” tradition), so reviews have steered me away from his notoriously violent works–his US crossover release, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, was apparently a comparatively benign work and is the only one of his films I’ve seen. But even then its mixture of Buddhist reflection and human brutality and suffering never quite solidified for me.

The Samaritan Girl seems to be a fusion of the devices of his earlier work with his more transcendental concerns of late. It focuses on the relationship between two teenagers, Jae-young (Seo Min-jeong) and Yeo-jin (Kwak Ji-min), who are prostituting themselves in order to raise enough money to travel to Europe. Or more specifically, Jae-young is prostituting herself and Yeo-jin is organizing her trysts; paradoxically Jae-young (who compares herself to a Buddhist saint) is the happiest of the two, whereas Yeo-jin feels increasing pangs of guilt and despises their clients. When Jae-young meets a tragic fate, Yeo-jin decides to recontact all of their clients and sacrifice her own chastity as penance–an act that threatens to destroy her Christian father’s sanity and ignite his quest for revenge.

Given the intensity of the plot, which could be said to share some affinities with Bergman’s The Virgin Spring or Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, the film is undeniably difficult to watch and Kim pulls no punches where hopes are unattained or violence ensues–one fistfight to the death inside a public bathroom is particularly horrifying. But Kim also laces his film with moments of unexpected tenderness: Jae-young’s naive idealism, Yeo-jin’s warm relationship with her father, and the attempts by the characters to redeem themselves or the world around them are touching. And the film begins to draw considerable tension between its dual concerns of suffering and redemption, and the convoluted philosophical mire between them.

As I left the theatre, the best way I could make sense of the film was to see it as a Buddhist account of the necessity of non-attachment, that attachments (to oneself, to others) bring suffering and that salvation lies in letting go; certainly this idea rings true for several characters in the film, and as such, suggests that feeling responsible for others or attempting to redeem them can be a misdirected philosophy. So much of the pain in the film is transferred from person to person as each one suffers through his or her attachment to someone else. But in reading several interviews with Kim today, I’ve discovered that he often refers to himself as a Christian, which suggests that his film may be some kind of autocritique, or that I have entirely misjudged its connotations, or that Kim has inadvertently presented a film which doesn’t immediately reflect his stated philosophical inclinations–each option or all of which, I suppose, lie within the realm of possibility.

But as convoluted as the film’s philosophy of spiritual healing may be, Kim is a strong visual stylist and several scenes in the film provide moving images of suffering, perseverance, and rebirth. Each character has a breaking point and the film becomes quieter and more reflective afterward and its final images are vivid and memorable. Whether or not they provide closure for the narrative’s thematic concerns will likely depend on the viewer’s own understanding of the pain that precedes them.