Managing to collect a slew of vital Korean films that have not already been aired in local festivals, the Walter Reade series steers clear, for the most part, of the industry’s rampaging genre addictions, finding work that depends more on dramatic frisson and historical heartbreak. Of the recent generation (the pre-1980 films will be covered next issue), Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy (2000) is a masterful example: After a disoriented man commits suicide in front of his old schoolmates, the movie leapfrogs backward through time, tracing the dark-hearted hero’s life from the wasteland of the present to his days as a neglectful husband and brutal cop to post-schoolboy innocence. (So many Korean films open with a mysterious detonation and then search the past for clues.) Fueled by remarkable performances by Sol Kyung-gu and Moon So-ri (the stars of Lee’s Oasis, this year’s import miracle) and a long-take visual savvy, Candy bruisingly intersects with 20 years of social upheaval, including the military crackdown responsible for 1980’s Kwangju massacre of protesters.
The incident serves as the killing ground of Jang Sun-woo’s A Petal (1996), which unblinkingly documents the rape-blasted homeless misery of a woman, years after her family vanishes into the Kwangju mass grave, as she wanders through Seoul and relatives simultaneously hunt her down. However strident and unforgiving, Jang’s movie is difficult to argue with—something you can’t say about his obvious and obnoxious adultery melodrama The Lovers of Woomuk-Baemi (1989), stultified by the baby-face posturing of star Park Joong-hoon.
Park Kwang-su’s To the Starry Island (1993) is a startling exhumation of post-war memories, beginning with a funeral boat turned away from a secluded island, and then flashing back to the villagers’ isolated lives as they are gradually destroyed by the encroaching civil war. Invaluable as well, Hong Sang-soo’s The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) is so sneaky about its narrative and its delivery of emotional haymakers that you might not realize it’s all about the residue of a failed romance between a college student and a married teacher until the movie’s two-thirds through. Structured like a hall of one-way mirrors, exhibiting some connections while obscuring others, Hong’s first great film demands dedicated attention, like sympathy for the forlorn.