Discovering Korean Cinema: Drama

Drama is often used as a catchall term for films that do not easily fit into any more specific category, encompassing an arguably more wide-ranging variety of films than any other genre, often including the most innovative and interesting films purely because they are otherwise difficult to pigeonhole. Unable to rely on action sequences, special effects or other genre trappings, dramas instead require quality direction, performances and plotting in order to succeed as films.

Given the fact that the South Korean film industry only recently produced a successful blockbuster in the form of Shiri, and budgets there tend to be relatively limited, it is perhaps unsurprising that the local film industry has instead mainly focused on producing quality dramas, from which here are a few selections.

Chihwaseon (2002)

Directed by Im Kwon-taek (Chunhyang, The Surrogate Womb). Starring Choi Min-sik (Failan, Happy End, Shiri) and Ahn Sung-ki (Musa: The Warrior, Nowhere To Hide, Art Museum By The Zoo).

Veteran director Im Kwon-taek has a career extending back for some forty years. After beginning his career helming films with purely commercial aspirations, Im Kwon-taek later developed loftier intentions and began to specialise in films intended to promote and preserve Korean culture against the threats of continuing political tumult and imported popular culture.

His 97th film Chihwaseon tells the life story of the 19th century Korean artist Jang Seung-eop. Little is known about Jang Seung-eop, apart from his fondness for wine and women and his discomfort in the world of the Korean nobles who admired and commissioned his work.

The lead role is filled by Choi Min-sik, who, despite alleged disagreements with Im Kwon-taek over exactly how Jang Seung-eop should be portrayed, turns in an assured performance that further adds to his reputation as one of South Korea's finest actors. Able support comes from Ahn Sung-ki as Jang Seung-eop's mentor and Kim Yeo-jin, Yoo Ho-jung and Son Yeh-jin as some of the artist's lovers.

Along with Choi Min-sik's performance, the other highlight of Chihwaseon is the strong visual imagery. As the film moves from one beautifully composed scene to another, it is not difficult to see why Im Kwon-taek was awarded the Best Director prize at Cannes in 2002, though perhaps the award was a reflection of the esteem he has generated over many years of filmmaking rather than the qualtiy of Chihwaseon in particular.

The film's biggest weakness is its lack of a satisfying narrative; Im Kwon-taek seems content to simply explore the nature of artists and the artistic process rather than also attempting to provide a compelling storyline, resulting in a film that is beautiful to look at and of unquestionable quality, but that ultimately falls short of the benchmark set by the best films exploring similar themes.

Cinema Service Korean R3 (Ltd. wooden box, 2 discs, anamorphic NTSC, Korean DTS, DD5.1) approx. £20
Cinema Service Korean R3 (2 discs, anamorphic NTSC, Korean DTS, DD5.1) approx. £16

The Korean release of Chihwaseon is an excellent presentation of the film and is available as a both a standard release and a limited edition housed in a wooden box. The Korean releases are the only versions currently available, but a Region 2 release is a future possibility as the film received both UK and French theatrical releases.

Happy End (1999)

Directed by Jung Ji-woo. Starring Choi Min-sik (Chihwaseon, Failan, Old Boy), Jeon Do-yeon (Harmonium In My Memory, No Blood No Tears, Untold Scandal) and Joo Jin-mo (Dance Dance, Musa: The Warrior, Wanee and Junah).

Choi Min-sik also appears in a more understated role as a cuckolded husband in the slow-burning adultery drama Happy End. In fact, much of the film's emotional impact comes from his haunted, sympathetic performance. Jeon Do-yeon also turns in a commendable performance in the explicit and potentially controversial role of his unfaithful wife.

The film aims for a sense of reality by devoting screen-time to the mundane minutiae of the character's lives along with liberal use of single-shot hand-held camera to produce an as-it-happens feel. However, when Choi Min-sik's character discovers his wife's infidelity, events turn from the ordinary to the extraordinary in a manner that may stretch some viewer's credulity. Despite this, events similar to those portrayed do undeniably occur in reality, and they serve to prevent the film from being just another adultery drama and instead lead it to develop into something different and more interesting, with an unresolved conclusion that brings into question the film's title.

Hong Kong R3 (Non-anamorphic NTSC, Korean DD5.0) approx. £5

My Heart a.k.a. Affection (2000)

Directed by Chang Ho-bae (Last Witness) and starring Kim Yoo-mi.

The Korean-language title of Chang Ho-bae's My Heart is Jeong, a word for which there is no literal English translation, but that refers to an emotion encompassing affection, empathy, compassion, love and a sense of bonding. The single word is as good as any could be to summarise the life of Sun-yi (Kim Yoo-mi), a fictional Korean woman born in the early twentieth century whose life the film depicts.

Rather than a single cohesive story, the film is divided into five narrative sections set at different points in Sun-yi's life. In all but the first of these segments, set in Sun-yi's childhood, the director's wife Kim Yoo-mi gives a suitably understated, yet warm and compassionate performance in the lead role.

The real star of the film, however, is the gorgeous cinematography of Song Haeng-ki, which is filled with wonderfully rich tones and vibrant colours, providing a gorgeous evocation of a rural Korean environment. Song Haeng-ki later contributed his considerable talents to Lee Myung-se's Nowhere To Hide.

Although the film brings to mind the work of Im Kwon-taek, as it clearly intends to serve as a reminder of traditional Korean culture, there are also a number of similarities with the pre-martial arts work of Chinese director Zhang Yimou, particularly his To Live and The Road Home.

Spectrum Korean R0 (Anamorphic NTSC, Korean DD5.1) approx. £12

Take Care Of My Cat (2002)

Directed by Jeong Jae-eun. Starring Bae Doo-na (Barking Dogs Never Bite, Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, Tube) and Lee Yo-won (Attack The Gas Station, A.F.R.I.K.A.).

The South Korean cinema audience is generally apathetic towards female-driven films, which may be way Jeong Jae-eun's coming-of-age drama Take Care Of My Cat was largely ignored when it was released there. Ironically, it is one of few South Korean films to receive international distribution, with theatrical showings in the UK, Sweden, Hong Kong and the USA amongst others.

The film follows the fortunes of a group of five twenty-year old girls as they struggle to achieve independence and make their way in the world after leaving high school. Despite their shared scholastic background, their circumstances vary wildly, and each member of the group faces different obstacles on their path to adulthood.

Given the subject matter, the film's success or failure depends in large part on the ability of the characters to engage the audience's sympathy. Thankfully, the film is assisted on this front by impressive and eminently believable performances from all of the young cast, with special mentions going to Lee Yo-won and the always-dependable Bae Doo-na, a young actress who has developed a significant following amongst Western fans of Korean film.

Aside from the actresses, the other star of the film is Titi the cat, who, like the young women, is an independent spirit held in semi-captivity. The care of Titi is passed symbolically from one member of the group to another during the course of the film, before he finally ends his travels with those perhaps best suited to care for him. The end of the film may settle Titi's situation, but the stories of the women remain, quite rightly, not entirely resolved as they continue their journey into adulthood.

Take Care of My Cat is a film very much grounded in reality, with believable characters facing real-life difficulties. As such, it will only appeal to a minority, but those who do appreciate the film usually rate it highly.

Panorama HK R3 (Full-screen NTSC, Korean DD5.1) approx. £6
Enter One Korean R0 (2 discs, anamorphic NTSC, Korean DD5.1) approx. £10

The Korean DVD release, currently available at a reduced price, is clearly the version to go for, as not only does it maintain the original aspect ratio, it also includes two subtitled short films from the same director.

The Way Home (2002)

Directed by Lee Jeong-hyang (Art Museum By The Zoo). Starring Kim Ul-boon and Yoo Seung-ho.

According to stereotype, those in the Far East have more respect for their elders than us irreverent Westerners. Clearly nobody told Sang-woo, the 7 year-old protagonist of Lee Jeong-hyang's charming rural drama The Way Home.

Having money troubles to deal with, Sang-woo's single-parent mother leaves him in the care of his grandmother, a 77 year-old country-dwelling mute whom Sang-woo has never met before. Sang-woo's anger at having his life disrupted in this way, coupled with his frustration at being trapped in a poverty-stricken rural environment, leads to tantrums, sulks and various acts of mischief that his grandmother tolerates with the patience of a saint. Eventually, however, Sang-woo is forced to come to terms with his new surroundings and slowly, reluctantly learns to appreciate his grandmother and her way of life.

Yoo Seung-ho, who plays Sang-woo, is the only professional actor in The Way Home. All of the other cast members were recruited from amongst the locals in and around the small rural village where the film was made. Kim Ul-boon, who plays the grandmother, had in fact never even seen a movie when she agreed to take on the role. None of the cast betray their amateur status, and in fact give performances more natural than any trained actor could hope to achieve.

Although Lee Jeong-hyang's previous film Art Museum By The Zoo was moderately successful, few could have predicted that her follow-up film, a low-key drama featuring no established stars, would become a huge box-office hit. In fact, The Way Home charmed its way to the top of the South Korean box-office chart and went on to become the fourth biggest film in South Korea of 2002, beaten only by Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers and the home-grown gangster-comedy Marrying The Mafia.

A simple story well told, The Way Home combines charm, gentle humour and the feel-good factor to great effect. As Hollywood consistently churns out vacuous showcases for high production values, Lee Jeong-hyang's film reminds us that no amount of money or purely technical skill can substitute for some good old-fashioned heart and soul.

Edko HK R3 (Anamorphic NTSC, Korean DTS, DD5.1) approx. £11
CJ Entertainment Korean R3 (2 discs, anamorphic NTSC, Korean DTS, DD5.1) approx. £15
Paramount US R1 (Anamorphic NTSC, Korean DD5.1) approx. £15

The Hong Kong release is the cheapest, but it should be noted that some problems have been reported playing the disc on Sony DVD players. The initial Korean release was a limited edition that also included a set of colouring pencils, but this has now sold out.

The small selection of films above hopefully gives some indication of the range and quality of South Korean drama, without even mentioning any of the work of such notable directors as Lee Chang-dong, Park Chan-wook, Hong Sang-soo or Kim Ki-duk - an indication that the current buzz around South Korean filmmaking is not just due to the efforts of a handful of filmmakers, but an entire industry. It can only be a matter of time before South Korean dramas are recognised as being able to compete with films from any other part of the world.

Last updated: 15/07/2018 05:21:42

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