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To watch Korean movies is to watch a national culture bar-brawl with itself, and fight dirty every step of the way. There may not be a more intensely conflicted nation making significant movies now; Iran’s scrimmages are lucid by comparison. The hostile North/South division—red vs. running dog—persists, long after China has let loose the hounds of commerce. The vestiges of the civil war remain in palpable form, while the twin nations gear up for a reunion neither seems altogether prepared for. State censorship is gone, but trace elements linger. The movies—from South Korea (the North’s still lost in the fairy-tale forest of socialist propaganda)—naturally demonstrate both an eager-to-please Americanism and a distinctly Korean taste for jugular wine.
Until last year, no Korean films were allowed for export; in 2002, the loosely enforced quota policy (demanding that Korean theaters book 40 percent of their calendar with homegrown product) may give way to international trade pressure, a prospect that compelled 100 protesters—including director Kang Che Kyu—to publicly shave their heads in protest. Such a gnarly scene, fraught with tortured self-regard and struggling with the very idea of global intercourse, begets many odd beastlings, as the 2000 compare/contrast free-for-all between Lies, Nowhere to Hide, and Chunhyang demonstrated.
Hollywood’s footprint is indelible in the new retro, particularly on Chang Yoon Hyun’s Tell Me Something, released for real in two weeks. A Seven-inflected serial-killer procedural, Chang’s elaborate post-noir has brooding star power—Han Suk Kyu as the down-and-out detective and Shim Eun Ha as the mysterious maiden all the victims knew—and a discomfiting, beyond-Hitchcock way with garbage bags packed with limbs and plasma. (A trapped-in-a-slow-elevator shrieker is topped only by a dark highway pile-up precipitated by an exploding sack of grue.) Stylish, sullen, and a little predictable, Tell Me Something is the match of any American film in its quasi-genre, though you suspect that without a world market to target, it might’ve been even more anxious and intrepid.
Park Chan Wook’s Joint Security Area is more particular, a harrowing political thriller that focuses on a military murder at the bifurcated nation’s no-man’s-land border. The movie of the moment in east Asia, JSA uses melodramatic Hollywood tropes to plumb the costs and absurdity of civil division. Men die, but so does the dream of Hawksian brotherhood. Song Kang Ho, who has a field day as a brawny North Korean officer, also goes great guns as the put-upon hero of The Foul King, an outlandish pro-wrestling farce in which Song’s schleppy bank clerk, traumatized by his head-locking boss, trains to be a masked mat warrior. Delighted with the sound of cracking bones, The Foul King seems to have an Adam Sandler remake in its future, but don’t expect the American cast to do their own stunts.
As familiar as a Freddie Prinze Jr. toss-off, Lee Jeong Hyang’s The Art Museum by the Zoo is sweet but forgettable. Bong Jun Ho’s Barking Dogs Never Bite redoes the romantic comedy as a droll, dog-eat-dog fever dream in which canines are tossed from rooftops and butchered for stew. Better are Kim Sang Jin’s ridiculous Attack the Gas Station—four anarchic punks take over a huge gaseteria, and end up playing out a parable of imperialism—and Kim Tae-Yong and Min Kyu Dong’s fractured, sapphic ghost story Memento Mori, set mostly in a single classroom and eventually building to a lovelorn metaphysical freakout.
The newsmaker might be Kim Ki Duk’s indie The Isle, a gorgeously restrained, apocalyptically horrifying pas de deux that’s notorious for precipitating fainting spells and vomit seizures at press screenings, both here and in Venice. Set on a fishing lake and predicated on the self-abusive and redemptive powers of fish hooks, The Isle is a bewitching atrocity that demands stateside distribution. Still, the series’ best film by far is Hur Jin Ho’s Christmas in August, a heartbreaking and rigorous anti-romance that in many ways one-ups Wong’s In the Mood for Love. Tell Me Something‘s Han and Shim play convincing humans this time, small-town nobodies helpless before the inconvenient press of time. Superbly acted, unforgivingly lyrical (the doomed hero’s silent response to being awoken by a thunderstorm is a breath-catcher), and blessed with a Davies-like patience for changing light and everyday duties, Hur’s pensive little movie is one of the most mature and gracious tearjerkers ever made.