Min Byung Hoon Collection Review

While there is evidently a great deal of diversity in the national cinema of South Korea, there are common themes, subjects and a certain stylistic aesthetic that can be identified as uniquely Korean, those themes often dealing with relationships and melodrama, looking back on a troubled historical past and contemplating the modern day social impact on individuals and families. With a background that includes studies in Cinematography from Russian State Institute of Cinema, and his first two films made respectively in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, I think it’s fairly safe to say that Min Byung Hoon doesn’t make films like any other Korean movie director.

It’s not only the locations and language that make the director’s films distinct from those of his fellow Korean filmmakers. Although Flight of the Bee (1998) and Let’s Not Cry! (2002) are set in small villages, in remote regions at the southern frontiers of Russia, they are never regarded from the viewpoint of an outsider, much less from the perspective of a Korean filmmaker. Rather, Min Byung Hoon, using non-professional actors native to the region, manages to slip into the rhythm of life in these communities, with an understanding of their traditions, their hopes, their desires and their failings, which unsurprisingly tend to be fundamentally universally recognisable human qualities. Even when filming in Korea with his third feature film Pruning The Grapevine (2006), there is little sign of the director having any relationship with the familiar trends of the national cinema, focussing instead again on a very small community isolated from the world around them – the priests and novitiates of a Catholic seminary in Korea – using the situation to examine deeper emotional and behavioural themes.

Looking at lives from a small community perspective and seeing in them human qualities on a grander universal scale, it’s a style of filmmaking that brings the Min Byung Hoon’s films closer to those of Iranian and African filmmakers like Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami and Abderrahmane Sissako. The fact that in his earliest films, the director is not even a native of the countries and people whose lives he is depicting so intricately, only makes his achievement even more remarkable, showing that Min is able to look at his subjects, demonstrating a deep understanding of people, traditions and ways of thinking, and is capable of finding a personal and unique means of expressing that perspective in a universal manner.

The Flight Of The Bee (1998)
Min Byung Hoon’s debut feature, made in collaboration with Tajikistan born director Djamshed Usmonov (Angel on the Right), is a perfect example of the director’s ability to use a simple everyday incident, and through the characteristics it brings out in the people involved, use it to make a wider statement about society and human behaviour.

It all starts when the local headmaster of a school in a little village in Tajikistan makes a complaint about his neighbour who has built an outside latrine right next to the wall that separates their properties. Not only does it cause an awful stench, but the neighbour looks over into the wall and watches the headmaster’s wife while he is standing there. As his neighbour is a rich man with influential friends in Moscow, the mayor is reluctant to do anything about the problem, saying that it’s his own private property and he is entitled to use it whatever way he chooses. The headmaster therefore decides to take matters into his own hands and tries to force the issue by purchasing a property next door to the mayor. Events soon escalate out of control.

The film takes its title from a story told by the headmaster to his pupils from the time of Alexander the Great, when it was the tradition for old men to be thrown into a pit when they passed a useful age. Alexander’s vizier however hid his father in a wooden chest and carried him around with them. One day when the army were dying of thirst, the old man advised his son to leave a bowl of honey for a bee that would drink it until it became thirsty and then lead them to a source of water. The flight of the bee teaches the men respect for the wisdom of their elders, for the past and for traditions. In the modern world however, it is not wisdom and learning that are respected, but money and influence.

Beautifully filmed in tinted black-and white, using non-professional actors, and seeped in the traditions of the nation and the ordinary people of the countryside, The Flight of the Bee achieves a simplicity and yet a richness comparable with Daruish Mehrjuti's 1969 Iranian film The Cow - fully associated with Tajikistan, yet universal in its meaning and brought to the screen with a uniqueness of expression by its Korean director.

Let’s Not Cry! (2002)
The problems of small town community life are handled in an equally perceptive way in Min Byung Hoon’s second feature Let’s Not Cry! - the director exploring the theme further by showing it in the context of the wider world, almost without leaving a small village in rural Uzbekistan.

It’s to this remote little village that Muhammad returns from Moscow, where he had moved to pursue a career as a concert violinist. He says he is back for a short holiday, and his friends and family are happy to see him, proud that someone from their village has done so well and become a renowned international orchestra musician. Muhammad’s stories of his fame and success are somewhat exaggerated however, and the truth is that he has lost all the money he possessed through gambling – some, or perhaps all of it, having been borrowed from friends, and they’re looking for their money back.

Min Byung Hoon manages to capture the same sense of a remote community isolated from the rest of the world as Abderrahmane Sissako’s Waiting For Happiness - a world with its own pace and rhythm, but one that is nonetheless aware of the world outside and affected by its influence. In many of the characters there is a sense of longing for something more, for a sense of importance and influence, and that can only be acquired through money. Muhammad’s neighbour is a rich man, bullying his workers to finish the elaborate preparations he is making for his son’s wedding, and getting special planning permission through bribes to the local authorities. There’s also a sense of wanting more for the family in Muhammad’s grandfather’s search for gold in the mountains, a search that has led to the death of his father. Most evidently it’s there in Muhammad’s desire to escape. Having to live with his other and younger brother again after having had a taste of a bigger world outside is unbearable to Muhammad, but clearly that world is beyond the reach of a smalltown with bigger ambitions than he can handle.

Like Sissako’s film, Let’s Not Cry! manages to capture the sense of frustration and the impossible position this engenders in Muhammad, his family, his friends and his neighbours, doing it almost entirely through the pace, rhythm and tradition of the Uzbekistan village, as well as through a means of expression that is not immediately or easily readable or symbolic. From the grandfather, living far outside the village on his own in his daily unending task of breaking rocks, to the young girl who leaves an egg every morning on the window sill of Muhammad’s bedroom, it all adds up to an indefinable sense of human living, hopes, frustrations and failings.

Pruning The Grapevine (2006)
In the light of his previous two films with their influences and themes that run in complete contrast to those of more typical examples of Korean cinema, it was always going to be interesting to see how Min Byung-hoon operated on his home turf. And indeed, even though it is set in South Korea, Pruning The Grapevine manages to find a small community isolated and remote from the encroaching world around them, a world that offers temptations, but also threatens their traditional, purer way of existence.

The small community is that of a Catholic seminary, where Seo-hyeon (Seo Jang-won) is studying to become a priest. The young man has been there for three years and has proven himself to be a top student, but while theory is all very well, he is finding it much harder to deal with the practical necessity of leaving his old life behind him. He has walked away from a girlfriend, Yoon-sua (Lee Min-jeong), and still has feelings of guilt about his actions, and has left his mother alone, despite being very close to her. He watches very carefully another young novice, Kang-woo, who is rumoured to have a girlfriend and be on the point of leaving the seminary, trying to find out how he should handle the confusion that is raging within him. It surely shouldn’t be so difficult to identify the correct way to behave in such situations, but Seo-hyeon only sees the actions he believes to be right causing pain in those around him.

Filming in Korea, Min Byung-hoon’s third feature confirms that he is not so much interested in making a socio-political commentary on the places he films, as much as using their situations to delve into basic human nature. Seo-hyeon’s situation in the seminary and monastery locations of Pruning The Grapevine are no different from the use of remote locations of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan dealing with the encroachment of the modern world in The Flight of the Bee and Let’s Not Cry!. What the “purity” of their locations allows is a means to examine how personal ideals and traditional community values can be maintained when confronted with real-world pressures. The fact that Seo-hyeon’s actions are often misjudged and the consequences can be very serious indeed, might seem like the director is challenging whether such idealism, particularly in religious belief, is practical. The enigmatic ending of Pruning The Grapevine however seems to propose that an accommodation can be found. As the title of the film suggests, the necessity is in dedicating oneself to a purpose, whatever that purpose might be, eliminating distractions and superfluous elements that will prevent one’s actions from bearing real fruit.

It would seem though that the film could have done with a little bit of pruning itself. The confusion about one’s purpose and true self isn’t just restricted to Seo-hyeon, but to Kang-woo at the seminary, to the priest at the monastery, to other novitiates, and even to a young altar boy. Their circumstances may all certainly adhere strongly to the central theme and principle of the film, but the resolution to many of them – or the suggestion that a resolution can be found – does make the film slightly too neat and schematic.

The Min Byung Hoon Collection is released in Korea by Taewon Entertainment in conjunction with the Korean Film Council as a 3-disc set. Each of the films is on a dual-layer disc and held in an individual amaray case, packaged within a cardboard slipcase. The set is in NTSC format, and is not region coded.

Each of the films in the set have excellent transfers that do full justice to the beautiful cinematography and local scenery in each of them. Any faults are relatively minor.

The Flight of the Bee is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and is in black-and-white with a slight sepia tone. The tones are just about perfect, the blacks deeply saturated but allowing sufficient detail and texture to be seen. The digital transfer is excellent, the image progressively encoded, remaining stable and free from flicker. There are one or two minor marks on the print itself, but these would seem to be down to the undoubtedly low-budget nature of the film and be inherent in the original negative.

The terrific cinematography, the landscapes and the colours of Let’s Not Cry! benefit from a gorgeous print that is sharp, detailed and accurately toned. Unfortunately, the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer (not 1.85:1 as indicated on the cover) is interlaced which may cause some shimmer and aliasing on a CRT display and movement blur on progressive display devices. There is scarcely a mark on the print however and it generally looks very fine indeed, but for the minor encoding issues.

The colouration on Pruning the Grapevine is superb, catching the beautiful diffused lighting of the seminary and monastery interiors , but also showing strong tones in daytime and nighttime settings. The image is encoded progressively, again at an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1, and is almost entirely free from any marks or print damage, showing clarity, detail and texture, with good blacks. There are some encoding issues however – some compression handling causes macro-blocking or dot-crawl, and there is some edge enhancement haloing – but these issues are relatively minor and on the whole the image is strong, stable and often quite impressive looking.

The audio track on the two earlier films is Dolby Digital 2.0. It’s clear and more than adequate on The Flight of the Bee and better on Let’s Not Cry!, which has a better tone and makes greater use of ambient sounds, mixing them well into the stereo track, with a little bit of reverb. The soundtrack to Pruning the Grapevine is Dolby Digital 5.1 and makes good use of the wider surround mix for subtle ambience and reverb. The sound is clear and strong with no evident issues.

Optional English subtitles are included for each of the films. On The Flight of the Bee they aren’t so good, with frequent spelling and grammatical issues, but the sense of the film and the dialogue is always perfectly clear. The subtitles on Let’s Not Cry! are perfect and have no problems at all. Pruning the Grapevine is also well translated for the most part, although there are some minor problems in phrasing at the start and towards the end of the film.

Each of the films comes with some substantial extra features, but none of them have English subtitles, so I can’t really evaluate them. They are listed below with comments on what I can gather their content to be.

The Flight of the Bee has a long Critic Interview (51:07) with director Min Byung Hoon which, since it contains many illustrative clips, clearly focuses on the film itself. There is also home-video footage of Min Byung Hoon and Djamshed Usmonov receiving a Film Festival Award (2:41).

Let’s Not Cry!contains a Making Of (34:09) build again around an interview with the director, showing some behind-the-scenes filming and apparently covering areas such as casting, characters and crew. There is a Korean Audience Conversation (39:48) with the director at what looks like an invited press screening. Preview again sees the director saying a few words to the audience at the film’s premiere in August 2007. Finally, there is a Trailer (1:46).

Pruning The Grapevine contains a full-length director’s Commentary, in Korean with no English subtitles. There is a Making Of (39:08) covering a read-through of the script, costumes, locations, rehearsals, preparing the sets and filming scenes with brief comments from the cast and crew. There are no subtitles, with or without subs, this is hardly essential information. Another lengthy Critic Interview (37:46) with the director might be more revealing, but there are no subtitles. The Entertainer Interview (5:59) seems to be a feature from a TV program on the film’s release. A Trailer (2:38) is also included.

The films of Min Byung Hoon are certainly unlike those of any other modern Korean filmmaker. Often involving the actions of people in small isolated communities, the object of those films is to identify human characteristics, behaviour and interaction on a small scale, and examine how those values which seem decent and just can conflict with the wider world outside. The director finds a unique way to present these questions in each of the three films included in this Korean Min Byung Hoon Collection. Each of the films is well presented, with fine transfers and English subtitles, and although the in-depth extra features are accessible only for Korean audiences, the films themselves have universal qualities and a unique perspective that make Min Byung Hoon a director certainly worth investigating.

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