When considering the cinematic landscape of our tiny blue planet, or the international movie food court if you prefer that metaphor, Korea has proven itself time and time again to be a stellar standout. This week, Magnet released I Saw the Devil on Blu-ray. As I Saw the Devil was one of my favorite films both of last year’s Fantastic Fest and of last year in general and whereas Magnet seems satisfied combing through Fantastic Fest and making available superb releases of some of its most memorable features, this event has elevated my joy quotient in no meager fashion. I Saw the Devil is a twisted, beautiful, bitterly honest nightmare and watching it again sent me spiraling down memory lane and reflecting on my favorite Korean films of the last few years.
The Good, The Bad, The Weird
Few things have surprised and delighted me more than witnessing a decidedly eastern seasoning lavished upon a classic western. I Saw the Devil director Kim Jee-woon first entered my radar screen with this incredibly ambitious remake of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly set in Manchuria in the 1940’s. Boasting phenomenal performances from its titular trio and cinematography that redefines gorgeous, the film is simply a delight for the senses. But what really allows The Good The Bad The Weird to blaze a trail all its own is its absolutely insane action sequences. The chase wherein one of our heroes looks up suddenly and realizes the entire Japanese army is on his tail defies written summation and demands to be viewed. The infusion of flawless comedic timing tenders a unique new spin while the Morricone-inspired score feels comfortably familiar.
From a film by the same director as I Saw the Devil to a film with very similar themes, the finale of Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy is quite possibly my favorite. Far be it from me to knock Oldboy, a film that deserves every bit of praise it has garnered from critics far smarter than I, but something about the especially cold, calculating plot of Lady Vengeance makes me cringe just reminiscing about it. The film’s climactic sequence, from whence its similarity to I Saw the Devil is chiefly derived, is among the most gut-wrenching, heart-breaking scenes in all of modern cinema. The exploration of the capacity for upstanding, decent people to corrupt their sense of right and wrong in the name of revenge is a theme elegantly delved into in both this film and I Saw the Devil.
I promise I don’t just watch movies about folks offing one another, but Korea’s demonstrated adeptness at handling the subject is hard to ignore. The Chaser is the story of a detective who, while in a financial bind, investigates the lucrative opportunities offered by moonlighting as a pimp. But when his girls develop the nasty habit of disappearing without a trace, his police instincts, slanted toward dirty cop as they may be, take over and find him tirelessly tracking down a ruthless killer. The violence in The Chaser may be extreme, but in a feat of filmmaking genius, it gets almost entirely subverted by captivating performances and pulse-raising suspense. The narrowing of good and evil to the two leads of The Chaser echoes the intimate, brutal conflict between the agent and the killer in I Saw the Devil. True to its name, the film also has an amazing foot chase that is impressive in its sheer simplicity.
Oh that’s right, there are Asian monster movies that don’t feature Godzilla. Bong Joon-ho weaves this cautionary tale that should forever curb your desire to pour copious amounts of expired formaldehyde into the water supply. The design of the creature and the intricacies of its movement are breath taking. The Host has terrifying elements that more than qualify it as a horror film, but its deeply moving familial character relationships engender the film with so much heart and make for a bittersweet creature feature. If you enjoy The Host, I would also highly recommend Bong Joon-ho’s likewise spell-binding, if noticeably smaller-scale, Memories of Murder.
The movie, which chronicles a mother's struggle to prove her mentally-challenged son's innocence against allegations of murder, won veteran star Kim Hye-ja the Best Actress accolade, while director Bong Joon-ho and co-writer Park Eun-kyo landed Best Screenplay.
Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan was named Best Director for City of Life and Death, while Wang Xueqi took home the Best Actor award for his role in Bodyguards and Assassins.
Director Zhang Yimou was hailed for his outstanding contribution to Asian Cinema, while action man John Woo was handed the prize for top-grossing film director of 2009 for Red Cliff, and Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan was presented with a lifetime achievement honour.
Irrepressible 10-year-old Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung) comes home furious at her rather irresponsible father Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) for missing another parent-teacher conference. Yelling at him at his food stand by the Han River the two are oblivious to the fact a crowd of people have gathered to stare at a monstrous bat-like creature that has perched upside down underneath the bridge who then dives into the water and disappears into a sea of bubbles. Suddenly it bursts out of the water and begins eating and crushing people. Gang-du does his share to save people but he loses track of his daughter and watches as the creature grips her in its tail and dives under the river. With his remaining family around him and the media clicking pictures the grieving father gets a phone call interrupting the funeral for his daughter. It's Hyun-seo saying she is alive but she fears that she won't be for long. Song Kang-ho as the hapless father is both a comedian and a tragic figure and he balances both of those identities well. In the frenzy to save his daughter the pudgy irresponsible dad becomes a hero who defies the government mobs of people his family and the creature itself. He does it far better than Tom Cruise did in War of the Worlds. Ko A-sung does a nice job using all her bravery against a giant monster. She shows her own maturity and tenderness when she has to help a young boy who is also captured by the creature and stuffed in a pit with torn-up bodies. Director Bong Joon-ho not only comments on the environment in this monster movie but he pokes fun at the media frenzy of a big story as well as government bungling. The creature is a host to a virus that was caused when a scientist spills chemicals into the river. The creature isn't a typical Godzilla-like reptile but a unique dinosaur hybrid that walks and moves realistically through the city. The director keeps the story surprising shocking and doesn't take the expected route American audiences usually see. For that reason The Host is not for the faint-of-heart--or the people who always expect happy endings.
"The Host" becomes highest-grossing South Korean film of all time.
Makes English-language debut with "Snowpiercer."
Joon-ho has served as the head of the jury for the Caméra d'Or section of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and as a jury member for the 27th Sundance Film Festival and the 2013 Edinburgh International Film Festival.