This year’s New York Korean Film Festival gleefully runs the gamut from thick schmaltz to brain-scrambling sci-fi. Recurring motifs: girls with pigtails and transgenerational betrothals, routine corporal punishment and serial killing, radio-show dedications and rain, rain, rain.
On the lighter end, My Little Bride is a dippy and quite insane comedy about a ladies’ man who has to marry a 15-year-old due to an ailing grandfather’s decree. Their union is chaste, at times chummy, but three mean girls threaten to expose the sub-rosa marriage. Mild innuendo is the name of the game; is it good or bad that no one seems to have read Lolita?
Starring two of Im Kwon-taek’s fresh-faced discoveries (Chunhyang‘s Cho Seung-woo, Chihwaseon‘s Son Ye-jin), The Classic is a breezily self-conscious love story packed with every heartstring-plucking strategy known to man: letter writing à la Cyrano, significant jewelry, war interlude (Vietnam in under 10 minutes), Pachelbel’s Canon ad infinitum. A timid girl, attracted to a friend’s boyfriend, reads through her mom’s old letters—and discovers they’re from a true love who’s not her late father. Kwak Jae-yong’s direction is manipulative and refreshing, as when a scene of high melodrama turns out to have been a scene in a play.
If The Classic has its sweet rice cake and eats it too, the gloriously named Once Upon a Time in High School: The Spirit of Jeet Kune Do has the kimchi-bitter aftertaste of unrequited first love. The jaw-dropping rounds of schoolroom brutality seem less aberrant than inexorable, given the militaristic national culture, with beatings regularly administered from above. (Don’t confuse this with Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield, a satire of Korea in the Three Kingdoms period that needs a hit of Shaolin Drunkard-era Yuen brothers to make it fly.) A Good Lawyer’s Wife is a merciless take on a couple’s separate infidelities, with a perhaps too obvious child sacrifice. Moon So-ri (Oasis) is enormously sympathetic in the Kim Basinger role, initiating a no-illusions affair with a 17-year-old.
In the psychotronic ragshop Save the Green Planet! a conspiracy addict kidnaps and tortures a CEO, whom he believes to be a malign E.T. Inventive and tense, Save slightly overstays its welcome, but its what-the-fuck? resolution is a giddy kick in the pants. The must-see is Bong Joon-ho’s grim, labyrinthine Memories of Murder, derived from a string of rural-town murders that began in 1986 and remain unsolved today. Bong’s an ace hand at the genre requirements—increasingly brutal deaths, flashlights cutting through the rain—but as in his wonderful debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite, he seems to play by the rules only long enough to escape them. Here crime and punishment lose their definition as the body count mounts and the inept investigators (sample inquiry, asked of a retarded man: “So you didn’t not kill only Hyung-sook, correct?”) grow more brutal in their desperation.
South Korea becomes a land of the mute, and of the foreign, in If You Were Me, a collection of terrific palm-of-the-hand stories by various top-shelf directors. A Nepali factory worker loses her bearings and, with her halting Korean, gets diagnosed as mentally retarded and institutionalized for six years; a severely handicapped man, lonely and frustrated and slurred of speech, mounts his crutches and charges into streams of traffic; a girls’ school is institutionally obsessed with body image, which leads to a student’s botched eyelid surgery. In all of these shorts, the body becomes political, but perhaps never so excruciatingly as when doting parents subject their adorable son to frenulum-slicing in a mistaken bid to improve his English pronunciation. “Tongue Tie” closes with a grade-schooler’s testament: “I wish the world were mine so I wouldn’t have to speak English.” Nothing is lost in translation.