Discovering Korean Cinema: Comedy
In 1999, South Korea produced the film My Sassy Girl, a romantic comedy that became a popular hit all across Asia. Despite sense of humour being shaped in part by society and culture, the humour in My Sassy Girl transcended national boundaries and the film found an appreciative audience here in the West as well.
Below I take a look at a selection of other South Korean comedies and see if they too are entertaining and accessible to a Western audience.
Attack The Gas Station (1999)
Directed by Kim Sang-jin (Attack The Gas Station, Jailbreakers). Starring Lee Sung-jae (Art Museum By The Zoo, Kick The Moon), Yoo Oh-sung (Friend, Champion), Kang Sung-jin (Hi Dharma, The Humanist) and Yoo Ji-tae (Ditto, One Fine Spring Day).
After having successfully robbed their local gas station on a previous evening (I'm using the American term to maintain consistency with the film's title), four bored youths decide to return to the same gas station and rob it again. This time, however, the gas station owner claims that the earnings have already been sent home to his wife. The gang then decide to hold the owner and his employees hostage until the wife can be contacted to bring them the money. While waiting, they realise that if they run the gas station themselves they can keep the money from the customers. As events unfold, the gang end up taking more and more hostages and a series of power struggles commence between the members of the gang, their hostages, and various outside forces.
The bullying and continual power struggles depicted in Attack The Gas Station struck a chord with the South Korean youth and due largely to positive word-of-mouth the film ended up being the third best-selling film in 1999 in South Korea.
The social and political satire inherent in the shifts of power in the film can probably only be fully appreciated by South Koreans, but the constant power struggles are still humorous even without an understanding of this satirical edge. The only scene where the humour is completely lost is when two of the characters play a word game that is rendered meaningless by the translation into English.
Although Attack The Gas Station is more dependent on humour than some other South Korean comedies, thanks to the kinetic style adopted by the director most viewers will find themselves carried along by the film's energy and momentum.
Spectrum Korean R0 (Non-anamorphic letterbox NTSC, Korean DD5.1) approx. £12
Mei Ah HK R0 (Full-screen NTSC, Korean DD2.0) approx. £6
The Hong Kong version is a full-screen pan-and-scan edition and should be avoided. Like a few of the early Spectrum releases, the Korean disc is erroneously flagged as anamorphic, so you may need to adjust your TV/DVD to get it to display correctly.
Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
Directed by Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder). Starring Lee Sung-jae (Attack The Gas Station, Kick the Moon) and Bae Doo-na (Saving My Hubby, Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, Take Care Of My Cat).
Yoon-ju (Lee Sung-jae), an unemployed lecturer, already stressed by financial pressures and the demands of his pregnant wife, is finally pushed over the edge by the constant barking of a neighbour's dog. He decides his only option is to dispose of the dog, but unfortunately for him, he discovers that dog slaughter is not as easy as he expected, especially when his efforts are witnessed by Hyun-nam (Bae Doo-na), a bored office worker. Hyun-nam, inspired by a news story featuring a woman who tackled a would-be bank robber, resolves to stop Yoon-ju and protect the local dogs.
Whereas most South Korean comedies have a light-hearted tone, even when laced with biting social satire, Barking Dogs Never Bite has a darker mood and blacker humour. The characters are all flawed, with even the superficially altruistic actions of Hyun-nam motivated by boredom and a desire for television fame. Some may find the characters unsympathetic, but this is really missing the point, as the film is a darkly comic look at the depths that human beings can sink to when under enough pressure.
Universe Laser HK R3 (Anamorphic NTSC, Cantonese DD5.1, Korean DD2.0) approx. £6
Spectrum Korean R3 (Anamorphic NTSC, Korean DD5.1) approx. £12
The Korean release may be superior, but the Hong Kong release is a bargain with its reasonably good anamorphic transfer.
The Foul King (2000)
Directed by Kim Jee-woon (Three, The Quiet Family). Starring Chang Jin-young (Sorum, Over The Rainbow), Park Sang-myun (My Wife Is A Gangster, Hi Dharma) and Song Kang-ho (Shiri, Sympathy For Mr Vengeance).
Whereas a lesser film would have contented itself with merely being a parody of pro-wrestling, The Foul King instead uses pro-wrestling both as an excuse for some physical comedy and as a satirical metaphor, also throwing in some strong characterisation along the way for good measure.
A pro-wrestling fan and downtrodden have-not, Dae-Ho consistently remains at the bottom of his office's performance charts. When he finds himself gripped in a headlock by his boss - both literally and metaphorically - it encourages him to learn pro-wrestling techniques. Dae-ho is clearly attempting to compensate for his feelings of helplessness and powerlessness by seeking success in the wrestling ring. The metaphor is clear - Dae-Ho wants to break the headlock in which he is trapped, again both literally and metaphorically.
Fortunately for Dae-Ho, a local pro-wrestling trainer is looking for someone to provide an entertaining opponent for famed pro-wrestler Yuhibo and so Dae-Ho is trained to become The Foul King, a wrestler who specialises in crowd-pleasing cheating techniques.
The underdog struggling to achieve some kind of success has long been a staple of British comedy, from the films of Norman Wisdom to more recent productions such as The Full Monty. The Foul King shares this popular theme in a manner that a British audience is bound to recognise and respond to.
EDKO HK R3 (Non-anamorphic letterbox NTSC, Korean DTS) approx. £6
Spectrum Korean R0 (Anamorphic NTSC, Korean DD5.1) approx. £13
Don't be tempted by the HK DTS track, it's little improvement over the Korean edition's DD5.1 and it lacks the latter's good anamorphic transfer.
Kick The Moon (2001)
Directed by Kim Sang-jin (Attack The Gas Station, Jailbreakers). Starring Lee Sung-jae (Attack The Gas Station, Barking Dogs Never Bite), Cha Seung-won (If The Sun Rose In The West, Jail Breakers) and Kim Hye-soo (Three, YMCA Baseball team).
The first gangster comedy to make an impact at the South Korean box-office was No.3 in 1997 and since then they have become a staple product of the local film industry, with a series of successes culminating in last year's Marrying The Mafia, the second best-selling film in South Korea of 2002 (the first being the second instalment in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy). Thanks to this popularity, the local film industry had produced a glut of films of varying quality within the sub-genre. Kick The Moon, the follow-up film from the writing and directing talent behind Attack The Gas Station, is one of the better efforts.
When Choi Ki-dong (Cha Seung-won) was in high school, he was the school's number one hard-man and bully, eventually entering into high school legend by leading an epic battle with a rival school. His classmate Park Young-jun, in contrast, was the school nerd who refused to take part in the big fight.
Fast-forward to the present day and the pair have taken up unexpected careers. Choi Ki-dong the former rebel is attempting to be an upstanding member of the community as a P.E. teacher, while bookworm Park Young-jun has grown up to become a successful gangster. When they encounter each other again for the first time since high school, they are initially friendly towards each other. However, when they meet Min Ju-ran (Kim Hye-soo), the proprietor of a local restaurant, and both become attracted to her, they begin to compete for her affections. In a similar fashion to the earlier Attack The Gas Station, the competition between the pair expands and escalates into eventual all-out street war.
The humour in Kick The Moon is mostly situational, so there's little need to wonder if jokes are being lost in the translation. Cultural references are only significant in one scene where one of the characters performs a series of bad impressions of characters presumably familiar to a South Korean audience but obscure to a Western one.
One of the advantages of gangster comedy is that there is usually as much opportunity for action as comedy and Kick The Moon is no exception. In fact, even if the humour passes you by the film can still be enjoyed as a light-hearted action drama.
Personally, I prefer Kick The Moon to its predecessor Attack The Gas Station. Not only is it a more polished film, it is also less reliant on humour. I'm probably alone in this though, as most other reviewers seem to prefer the earlier film.
20th Century Fox Korean R0 (Anamoprhic NTSC, Korean DD5.1) approx. £12
It should be noted that although this release feature an anamorphic transfer, it appears as though the film has been cropped from 2:35.1 to 1:76.1.
Sex Is Zero (2002)
Directed by Yoon Je-gyun (My Boss, My Hero). Starring Lim Chang-jung (Jakarta, Beat) and Ha Ji-won (Phone, Ditto).
American Pie was a box-office flop in South Korea, so it's surprising that a homegrown teen sex-comedy called Wet Dreams became a big hit when it was released there towards the tail end of 2002. Wet Dreams was quickly followed by yet more raunchy antics in the form of Sex Is Zero, which went on to achieve even greater box-office success than its predecessor.
The plot of Sex Is Zero, or what there is of it, revolves around Eun-shik (Lim Chang-jung), a hapless university student, and his ineffectual attempts to win the heart of Eun-hyo (Ha Ji-won), a girl in the university aerobics team. Eun-shik's efforts are not helped by the fact that he finds himself in a series of outrageous and embarrassing situations that Eun-hyo usually manages to witness. However, the focus of the film often shifts away from Eun-shik and Eun-hyo in favour of the various sexual misadventures of their group of friends.
For the majority of its run-time, the film aims squarely for the lowest common denominator and is bang on target. A Korean film wouldn't be a Korean film without a bit of melodrama, however, and the film takes a more serious turn in the last half-hour. Although the switch may seem out of place to those not familiar with the abrupt changes in mood that sometimes occur in Asian cinema, it's refreshing to see a sex comedy that is willing to make some attempt to deal with the potential consequences of sex. The element of harsh reality that intrudes goes a little way towards redeeming the film and preventing it from being completely vacuous fare.
As filled with as much gross-out humour and bodily fluids as any of its American counterparts, Sex Is Zero manages to be, if anything, even raunchier. If a teen comedy in America contained similar scenes to those included here, teenagers wouldn't be allowed in to see it.
Having been heavily influenced by the likes of American Pie and Road Trip, anybody who enjoyed those should also enjoy Sex Is Zero.
AO Media Korean R0 (2 discs, anamorphic NTSC, Korean DD5.1) approx. £17
Although the social satire that is present in many South Korean comedies may be lost on a non-Korean audience, for the most part the Korean sense of humour travels well and can be enjoyed by the majority of Western viewers. Hollywood certainly seems to agree, as they are already planning remakes of such South Korean comedy hits as My Sassy Girl, Jail Breakers, and My Wife Is A Gangster.
As well as attracting US interest, South Korean comedies are immensely popular in their home country. Three of the top ten films at the South Korean box-office in 2002 were comedies and that success is continuing in 2003 with the romantic comedy My Tutor Friend providing the second biggest hit of the year so far.
In the next instalment in this series, I'll be taking a look at a few films from the diverse world of South Korean drama.