Two years into the country’s export thaw, we’re seeing more releases out of South Korea than even Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the proliferation makes it virtually impossible to peg the cultural character. Boiling-oil hyperbole and recycled-plastic popness is unapologetically pervasive, but routinely offset by faux-American noir mimeographs, neo-art film minimalism, abattoir farce, punk fashion, and an overall penchant—even in the cheesiest movies—for Hou-like distance. (There is also much more drinking, smoking, and near-raping going on than seems healthy for a national cinema.) A Korean film’s emotional peaks aren’t paced or grounded in a way we’re used to; as in John Woo’s HK classics, romantic agony and mad loyalty can arise abruptly, like magma spurts.
Take, for example, Kim Dae-Seung’s Bungee Jumping of Their Own, a satiny melodrama of cosmic ardor in which two hilariously beautiful college students fall in never-leave-you love and mean it. She vanishes on the eve of his being shipped out to military duty; hopscotching 17 years ahead, he’s a married high school teacher suddenly drawn to a young male student who may be be the lost girlfriend’s reincarnation. Surely the scenario sets a new ceiling on preposterous love stories, but Kim never lets an ironic smile slip in—the teacher’s life is devastated by gay-obsession rumors, and the climax is a Buddhist leap of bliss.
Lim Soon-rye’s Waikiki Brothers, like Bungee Jumping and many other native narratives, is fraught with the intimate trauma of Korean public schools and the melancholy of outgrowing them. The film patiently observes the dissolution of a dancehall/wedding band as the various members face middle age poor, alone, and unsuccessful; by turns mature and pulpy, Lim’s movie possesses a consistent rigor. The troupe’s various debacles often take place a room away from where we see them, and always in uninterrupted takes; the start-it-up garage-band myth has never had such a witty and despairing redress.
In fact, the rueful passage of time and the corruption of youth may be the series’ predominant theme, as in Moon Seung-Wook’s The Butterfly, a heady sci-fi riff in which people flock to a rainy, poisoned metropolis in hopes of catching a virus that will erase their memories. Yoon Jong-Chan’s Sorum (literally, “goosebumps”) also explores the costs of the past by way of a haunted apartment building inhabited only by a cabbie, a waifish 7-Eleven clerk, and a shut-in novelist. The decaying edifice itself has a distinct personality, but Sorum is only nominally a ghost story—with all of its uncommunicative brooding, muddled backstory, and excess of nihilistic posing, it’s tough to say what Yoon’s movie is. Oddly, it’s the one film in the series slated for stateside release.
The temporal squishiness of cinema itself is taken on in the rather robustly titled Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors. In shadowy black-and-white, Hong Sang-Soo ruminates about a quietly unhappy trio of would-be lovers—two local-TV schmucks and a decidedly charmless young scriptwriter—in a multi-chaptered weft of conflicting recollections, contradicting points-of-view, and revealed betrayals. Undramatic, dour, and photographed wholly in long medium shots, Hong’s structuralist dissection also reveals a Hou influence, but the effect is sometimes Jarmusch-like without the vaudeville.
Like the recent to-dos Nowhere to Hide, Tell Me Something, and Shiri, the crime thrillers are de rigueur: Ryu Seung-Wan’s No Blood, No Tears has two underworld molls heist a dogfighting ring’s loot, and Kwak Kyung-Taek’s Friend tracks four buddies over 20 years of vice and misfortune. Kang Woo-Suk’s Public Enemy is prototypical but distinguished by a nasty forensic realism, a smug American Psycho-ish culprit, and a slovenly, sociopathic cop who’s refreshingly lousy at his job. Questionable motivations proliferate, and dialogue often idles on the level of “I kill you with my mouth!” but Kang’s as adept as a Scott brother at producing mood for mood’s sake.
The fest’s loveliest and most affecting film, Lee Seong-Gang’s My Beautiful Girl, Mari, is a 100 percent animated fairy tale about a lonely, fatherless boy living in a seaside village who gains access to a parallel paradise (and its attendant sprite-goddess) through an abandoned lighthouse. Owing a good deal to the best Japanime, Lee’s dreamy ode to ocean sounds, cumulus clouds, blooming jungles, late-afternoon light, and (again) fading memories hums with an observant poetry that should make most American animators red with shame.