A grab bag of (mostly) recent South Korean cinema comprising mainly innocuous box-office toppers and general-audience charmers, the New York Korean Film Festival enters its third season beneath the thematic rubric “Secret Wonderland”—a somewhat off-the-mark sobriquet. Long since celebrated on the international fest circuit, South Korea’s now slowing cinematic renaissance is surely yesterday’s news. Still, any fest that boasts Lee Chang-Dong’s riveting Oasis—an off-kilter romance as formally out of control as the lives of its super-challenged sweethearts (she a severely physically handicapped shut-in, he a cement-headed sociopath)—still has reason to sing a passionate wake-up song.
A dramatic change of pace for Lee, the novelist-turned-director who was recently appointed South Korea’s minister of culture and tourism, Oasis is as visually grubby and narratively unhinged as his debut, Green Fish—a study of suburban sprawl and social liminality told with a variety of genre-flick gut-punches (also screening)—was mannered and precise. Filled with chaotic compositions and careening emotions, Oasis fearlessly celebrates the lives of those with nothing left to lose, even if, on occasion, it all too fearlessly veers into a mood-freezing moment of dopey magic realism. What keeps the whole thing together is the lead performances by Moon Sori, who brings to her role as a pretzeled-up cerebral palsy patient such spasmodic physical zeal one might be tempted to retitle the film Her Left Foot (in His Right Ear), and Sol Kyung-Goo, an actor oft plumped at home as the Seoul De Niro. As a criminal miscreant who happens upon his streak of inner goodness while raping the disabled heroine (some long-standing traditions in Korean cinema simply refuse to fall), Sol pulls on a mask of befuddled tragedy that perfectly complements the rubber mug of comedy he sports in the high-grossing buddy comedy Jail Breakers, screening elsewhere in the fest.
At the other end of the cine-spectrum lurks Kim Ki-Duk, who may not be the most offensive filmmaker working steadily in Korea these days, apply himself though he might. A gifted misogynist and effortless reductionist, the director best known abroad for his fishhook-fetishizing The Isle never misses an opportunity to mistake thugs for heroes and women for punching bags. In Bad Guy—which, for worse or worser, just may be his magnum opus—Kim pulls out all the stops. Spurned by the woman of his dreams—actually, a student he spots one day in the park and spontaneously decides to sexually assault—the titular antihero, a pimp with a heart of coal, determines to kidnap the bitch and put her to work in his low-rent trick parlor. Much of the rest of the movie is spent behind a one-way mirror that looks onto the newly professionalized woman’s work surface, with the camera pantingly placed next to our bad buddy’s ringside seat. Yet in Kim’s circle-jerk of self-deceit, this is definitely a meet-cute with a future, and amid various auxiliary bloodlettings and ample opportunities for bruise-swollen brooding to cross actor Cho Jae-Hyun’s permanent snarl, the rose of romance finally begins to bloom. Some of Korea’s cinematic wonderlands are filled with secrets best left kept.