Discovering Korean Cinema: Everbody's Talking About It

As mentioned in my previous article, Korean cinema is currently the subject of a lot of positive word-of-mouth publicity on the Internet. As it always makes sense to listen to advice from advance scouts when venturing into new territory, I've decided to take a look at some of the most talked-about Korean films and offer you my thoughts on them.

I've linked to the full DVD Times review where applicable, and listed the different DVD versions, with approximate pricing, for each feature.

Shiri (1999)

Directed by Kang Je-gyu (The Ginko Bed). Starring Han Suk-gyu (Christmas in August, Tell Me Something, Double Agent), Choi Min-shik (The Quiet Family, Failan, Chihwaseon) and Kim Yoon-jin (Yesterday, Ardor).

The first Korean blockbuster, Shiri, heralded the start of the boom in the South Korean film industry, breaking all records for a domestic film at that time and even managing to outperform Titanic at the Korean box office.

In Shiri, a group of South Korean intelligence agents struggle to prevent a group of renegade North Korean militants from using a stolen experimental explosive, CTX, in a misguided attempt to force reunification of North and South Korea. Being both an action movie with western appeal and a big commercial success in its native country, it's perhaps unsurprising that Shiri was the first Korean film to attract serious interest from the West. It even received a limited theatrical release in the USA in early 2002.

However, Shiri isn't really representative of Korean cinema, either in style or quality. It's only elevated above run-of-the-mill Asian action movie status by an integral romantic sub-plot, which gives the film much-needed emotional depth. This romantic element within Shiri also provides a small taste of what you can more typically expect from Korean cinema.

If you're a fan of present-day Hong Kong action, Shiri should appeal to you, though you should be warned that there are no martial arts on display here.

Columbia-Tristar US R1 (anamorphic NTSC, Korean DD5.1, English dub)approx. £15
Bitwin Korean R0 (2 discs, anamorphic NTSC, DTS, DD5.1) approx. £16
Edko HK R3 (non-anamorphic NTSC, DTS, DD5.1) approx. £12

The US release has the best transfer and the distinct advantage of subtitled extras. The region-free Korean edition features DTS sound but the transfer is quite grainy. If you can play Region 1, get the US release. Metro-Tartan have the UK rights, so a future UK DVD release is very likely.

My Sassy Girl (2001)

Directed by Kwak Jae-yong (The Classic). Starring Jeon Ji-hyun (Il Mare, The Univited) and Cha Tae-hyun (Lover's Concerto).

Romantic comedy is probably the most despised movie genre - the cinematic equivalent of Country and Western music, if you like. This poor reputation is largely due to the American attempts at the genre, which, Woody Allen excluded, are rarely either romantic or funny. Thankfully, the South Koreans are here to save us from such mediocre fare with the breath of fresh air that is My Sassy Girl.

The sassy girl of the title is portrayed by Jeon Ji-hyun, a former model who achieved iconic status with the youth of South Korea after appearing in a series of adverts for a music system. Thankfully, Jeon Ji-Hyun proves herself to be more than just a pretty face by turning in a capable performance as the girlfriend from heaven who's also the girlfriend from hell. Her boyfriend/ victim is portrayed equally capably by Cha Tae-hyun, who turns in a balanced performance as the kind-hearted boy who has been brought up as a girl. After a chance meeting at the start of the film, we follow the pair as their unusual relationship develops in hilarious fashion.

Almost universally liked, My Sassy Girl would be a fairly safe first purchase if you're new to South Korean movies. It's not the greatest film ever made, but it is highly entertaining and refreshingly original.

Dreamworks have bought the US remake rights to My Sassy Girl. They'll probably cast Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze Jr. I don't even want to think about it. See the original now before Hollywood spoils it for everyone.

Ltd Starmax Korean R3 (Ltd 'Jolla Yubgi' edition, 2 discs + OST CD, anamorphic NTSC, DTS, DD2.0) OOP
Starmax Korean R3 (137 min director's cut, 2 discs, anamorphic NTSC, DD5.1) approx. £17
Edko HK R3 (123 min theatrical cut, 2 discs, anamorphic NTSC, DTS, DD5.1) approx. £15
Taiwan R0 (Time Egg edition, full-screen NTSC) OOP

The Korean editions feature the longer director's cut, but the English subtitles are of the hard-of-hearing variety (i.e. including descriptions of actions and tone of voice). The Hong Kong edition is a shorter cut, but features conventional subtitles. Toss a coin.

Failan (2001)

Directed by Song Hae-sung (Calla). Starring Choi Min-shik (The Quiet Family, Shiri, Chihwaseon) and Cecilia Cheung (Fly Me To Polaris, Tokyo Raiders, The Legend Of Zu).

A film that makes grown men cry, Failan is a genre-defying mixture of gangster drama, social commentary and deeply unconventional romance.

At the core of the film is Choi Min-shik's entirely convincing and sympathetic portrayal of third-rate gangster Kang-je. Nobody could accuse the film of glamorising the gangster lifestyle as Kang-je is shown as a failure whose ineffectual attempts to gain success and respect only lead to him being treated with contempt and exploited by all around him.

Kang-je's situation is paralleled by that of Failan, a Chinese immigrant whose desperation leads to her being similarly exploited by those around her. Failan is portrayed by Hong Kong star Cecilia Cheung. Her presence here is testament to the popularity and high regard that South Korean films are currently enjoying in other Asian countries, which has also lead to appearances from other non-Korean stars such as Zhang Ziyi in Musa. Cecilia bravely plays the role without makeup, which enhances the qualities of child-like trust and sweetness that Failan embodies.

The connection between the two characters is made when, for the sake of money, Kang-je agrees to marry Failan so she can stay in South Korea. This act, regarded by Kang-je at the time as nothing but a business transaction, ultimately proves to have deep emotional consequences for both of them.

Takeshi Kitano is renowned for producing gangster movies with deep emotional content. Failan director Song Hye-Sung takes this ethos and combines it with the compassionate political sensibilities of Ken Loach to produce something entirely new and original.

Premier Korean R0 (2 discs, anamorphic NTSC, DTS, DD5.1) approx. £15
China Star HK R0 (anamorphic NTSC, DD2.0) approx. £7

The Hong Kong version features a slightly better transfer but no DTS soundtrack. Availabilty of the HK edition seems to fluctuate, but don't worry if you can't track it down as the Korean transfer is pretty good anyway.

Friend (2001)

Directed by Kwak Kyng-taek (Champion, Doctor K). Starring Yoo Oh-sung (Attack The Gas Station, Champion), Jang Dong-gun (2009 Lost Memories, Nowhere To Hide), Seo Tae-hwa (Funny Movie, I Wish I Had A Wife) and Jung Woon-taek (My Boss My Hero, Dig Or Die).

Director Kwak Kyung-taek's semi-autobiographical Friend broke all box office records when it was released in South Korea in 2001. The film follows the lives of four childhood friends on their journey to adulthood. Fate and circumstance intervene to send the friends along very different paths. With tragic inevitability, two of the friends are drawn into the world of organised crime and become members of rival gangs, putting old friendships to the ultimate test.

As you would expect from a director working on such personal material, Kwak Kyung-taek has done his best to ensure that Friend is a quality production on every level. Special mentions have to be given to the fine ensemble performance from the cast and Hwang Ki-seok's gorgeous cinematography.

Emotive without being sentimental, Kwak Kyung-taek's tribute to his friends is proof that Coppola and Scorsese don't have a monopoly on quality gangster movies, and deserves a wider audience in the West than it has received.

EnterOne Korean R0 (Ltd. Ed. Tin, 2 discs, anamorphic NTSC, DTS, DD5.1) approx. £18
Megastar HK R0 (anamorphic NTSC, DD5.1) approx. £9

The Hong Kong edition suffers from prominent edge-enhancement and a poor surround mix. If money's no object, buy the gorgeously packaged Korean edition.

Il Mare (2000)

Directed by Lee Hyun-seung. Starring Jeon Ji-hyun (My Sassy Girl, White Valentine) and Lee Jung-jae (Over The Rainbow, Last Present).

Sometimes there's something magic about a film and you can't quite explain why. A simple story, fine performances, competent direction and beautiful cinematography all contribute, but somehow Il Mare manages to equal more than the sum of its parts.

Although not a success in South Korea when it was released, Il Mare has since found an audience on DVD. This is due at least in part to the presence of Jeon Ji-hyun who won many male admirers after her appearance in My Sassy Girl. Here she plays opposite Lee Jung-jae, and both turn in convincing, sympathetic performances.

The premise of the film is that a mailbox magically transfers letters through time and enables the former and current occupants of the house, Il Mare, to communicate with each other. We watch the relationship between the pair develop as they explore the humorous and tragic possibilities the phenomenon allows.

An original, unorthodox romance and an effortless watch, Il Mare would surely charm all but the most hard-hearted and cynical of viewers.

Spectrum Korean R3 (non-anamorphic NTSC, DD5.1) approx. £15
Edko HK R3 (non-anamorphic NTSC, DTS, DD5.1) approx. £13

The picture quality of both versions isn't particularly good. In addition, the Hong Kong edition suffers from subtitles being cut off before the end of the sentence. There is a Japanese release that has a superior transfer, but unfortunately has no English subs. This film has yet to receive the DVD release it so richly deserves. Premier Asia, if you're reading this, please buy the license now!

Hopefully one of the above titles will interest you enough to give Korean cinema a try, if you haven't already. If not, I won't give up just yet as this really is the tip of the iceberg!

If you are thinking about taking your first brave steps into the world of South Korean film, you may be wondering, as I did, about the quality of the presentation and packaging of Korean DVDs. As such, I thought I'd reassure you.

Korean DVDs usually come in a standard amaray case, often supplemented with an outer cardboard slipcase. Korean sleeve designs tend to show a taste and sophistication that you rarely get with Western releases (much like the films themselves, in fact).

The discs usually feature average to excellent anamorphic NTSC transfers and DD5.1 or DTS sound. The standard of the English subtitles is pretty good - there are occasional grammatical errors, but you don't get the comical distortions of the English language that sometimes crop up on Hong Kong DVD releases. Also, for some reason the DVD menus on almost every Korean release I've seen so far are in English. Why this should be I don't know, but who's complaining?

Extras abound, though unfortunately these aren't usually subtitled. Subtitles aren't an issue, though, with some of the common extra features such as music videos and audio selections from the original soundtrack.

If you're wondering where you can buy Korean DVDs from, you need to read my previous article.

Hopefully by now I've tempted you into having your first taste of South Korean cinema. As you'll inevitably be left wanting more, in the next instalment I'll be taking a look at South Korean romance, a regional speciality.

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