Reunification may be the major political buzzword on the Korean peninsula this fall, but down in the port city of Pusan—the second largest metropolis in Korea, and home to the nation’s most prestigious international film festival—the bringing together of former oppositional forces, for better or worse, has been in effect for half a decade now. By the time this year’s fifth edition of PIFF concluded, with Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, the sold-out-in-eight-minutes closing-night attraction, local audiences had been treated to everything from a retrospective of Iran’s first family of filmmakers, the Makhmalbafs, to an overview of films from the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Pundits used to snort that you knew you were watching a Korean film if the heroine was raped by the third reel; these days, the grappling (and eventual hearty clasping) of men’s hands across the demilitarized zone that for now continues to separate North from South seems the major tip-off, as last year’s Titanic-swamping actioner Shiri and this year’s nearly as profitable military mystery Joint Security Area (not officially shown in the fest, but seemingly screening in every other theater in Pusan) bruisingly attested. But while Pusan’s audiences, not to mention its tireless staff of some 400-plus volunteers, are not only very young but also largely female, the fact remains that all of the festival’s programmers are male, and that (outside of the documentary ghetto) not one of the 20 or more Korean features in this year’s fest was directed by a woman. What are male Korean filmmakers, generally, serving up for their female viewers? Endless remakes of Japanese girl-kitsch auteur (and Korean box-office sensation) Shunji Iwai’s Love Letter, as gunk like Il Mare and (the appropriately titled) Ditto all-too-flaccidly demonstrated.
None of which is to say that serious Korean filmmaking doesn’t continue to hold a prominent position in this, the much vaunted year of Asian filmmaking: Old-school cine-master Im Kwon-Taek’s latest, Chunhyang, is even set for a U.S. theatrical run. But it’s Hong Sang-Soo (Power of Kangwon Province) who continues to prove himself the most thoughtful and formally daring of younger Korean filmmakers, even if his latest, the black-and-white Oh! Soo-Jung (the English-language title is the crypto-Duchampian Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors) may be yet another visit to the rapidly drying well of multiple-perspective narratives that has become his signature flourish. Whatever its downsides, Hong’s is perhaps the only Korean film of the year to fruitfully rethink the old rape paradigm in terms of the newly marketable, if imminently archaic, DMZ: It’s a story about a young female writer (Soo-Jung herself) trapped between the advances of a foppish and successful art gallery owner and a foolish and failed would-be “independent filmmaker.” Is it a progressive Korean film? You bet. Soo-Jung doesn’t even get fully violated until the very last reel.