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Reaping the harvest of Korea's homegrown cinema hothouse
Contemporary films Camel(s), Turning Gate and Oasis are the spirited standouts in this year's spotlight

By MARK PERANSON, Special to The Globe and Mail
September 10, 2002

One of the more successful examples of an indigenous industry that stands its own alongside Hollywood blockbusters, Korean cinema is a multiheaded beast. Thanks in part to domestic quotas -- the Canadian government would love to be this radical -- more than half of the 2001 Korean box office was devoted to homegrown product. Korean films that often make it to festivals sometimes fail to curry favour at home, so it's intriguing to view the cross-section of popular and art-house films offered up by the Toronto International Film Festival's 10-film country spotlight, Harvest: South Korean Renaissance.

The Spotlight places pleasant surprises like the breezy Take Care of My Cat and popular dramas like Champion alongside such grating fare as the massive popular hit The Way Home, but these films are exceptions to the rule of Korean cinema, most of which share tendencies of other popular Asian films: sex, violence or period spectacles. Korean filmmakers, however, enjoy taking three of these tendencies to their breaking points.

The 1980s found the emergence of a Korean New Wave led by world-class directors like Jang Sun-woo and Park Kwang-su, who, along with others, created a political cinema that went against the mainstream. Still, Korean cinema never reached higher international prominence than this May, when old master Im Kwon-taek shared best-director honours at Cannes (with Paul Thomas Anderson!) for Chiwaeseon.

And it sure took him long enough: Im's new film is his 98th, believe it or not. A step above his last film, Chunhyang, it's audience-friendly enough to have earned a TIFF Gala slot. Im's story about illiterate 19th-century painter Jang Seung-up, whose work improves while intoxicated (catchy Korean title: Drunken Painting Master) is eminently watchable because of Im's eye, and the film's brisk pace; the scenes in this historical epic fly by like paint strewn onto a canvas.

The bulk of the films in the Spotlight eschew history, preferring to examine contemporary relationships. But those Koreans sure have a strange way of showing their love for each other. The suffering woman has always been a leitmotif in Korean cinema, and brutality hits epic proportions in the films of Kim Kiduk. His newest, the appropriately titled Bad Guy, rubs the viewer's nose in misogynistic spectacle, expecting us to follow the story of a woman forced into prostitution who falls in love with her taciturn pimp. Exquisitely made, Bad Guy is no doubt a statement against the cinema of rape that proceeds it, but the film's relentless degradation makes it a hate-filled experience.

In his controversial debut Too Young to Die, sure to be a hot ticket, Park Jin-pyo cast an elderly couple as themselves, and films the intimate relationship -- every single part of it, if you get my drift -- with an exquisite tenderness. Yet the film is far from pornographic. Indeed, so touching is the film that it was banned in South Korea: Old people having sex seems to be less acceptable than prostitutes being beaten up.

The new masters-in-training of Korean cinema -- Hong Sang-soo, Park Ki-yong and Lee Chang-dong -- are also bending back the boundaries of love. The three standout films in the Korean spotlight, Camel(s), Turning Gate and Oasis, are each told in a recognizable style, and focus on different kinds of alienated amour.

Ask any film expert: the slow, Asian film is a legitimate subgenre of its own. Park Kiyong's second film, Camel(s) -- the title refers to a poignant poem about exhaustion and survival -- is this year's slow Asian standout. A mini-minimalist masterpiece shot in 12 days on black-and-white digital video, Camel(s) is that rarest of films: a film of the present.

Two characters who have no real past nor a real future together, meet, have dinner, go to a hotel, hump, order some noodles and do a lot of silent driving.

Park makes up for the lack of dialogue with precise, Bressonian sound: The monotoned Dolby Digital flickering of a car's turn signal bores a hole into one's soul. Camel(s) also is one of the best looking DV works to date, as the marvelous blowup yields an hypnotic, almost existential grain that is perfectly suited for this slow ride.

Hong Sang-soo's modernist comedies about miscast lovers making the wrong decisions are as wry as a three-day old loaf of bread, and his latest, Turning Gate,is an excellent primer to his subtle, highly structured work.

Where his earlier film The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, examined a love affair from multiple perspectives, Turning Gate follows a failing actor through consecutive failed love affairs on consecutive days while on vacation; the second is a mirror image of the first. Loosely based on a Chinese legend about a man obsessed with a ruler's daughter who is turned into a snake, Turning Gate's minor pleasures are revealed over time, as the film turns back on itself: the film, like all of Hong's, is a self-contained world under glass.

Going out on a limb and taking down the whole tree, Lee Chang-dong's Oasis is infused with the spirit and the anger of Fassbinder. The Spotlight's standout, and recent winner of Best Director at Venice, Oasis is a heartbreaking film about a kind of love that society cannot recognize. Less explicitly political than Lee's Green Fish or Peppermint Candy, Oasis'sunlikely love is between Jong-du, a mildly retarded ex-con thrice over (a brilliant Sol Kyung-gu), and Gong-ju, the daughter of the man he killed in a car accident, who has cerebral palsy (Moon So-ri).

Even though Lee makes damned well sure Gong-ju is framed tightly so she's right in the viewers' faces -- and, yes, when they first meet, he tries to rape her -- writer/director Lee couldn't be further from Todd Solondz in the way he depicts his two leads; Jong-du really only wants to do good and Gong-ju only wants what any regular person would, even if she has difficulty expressing it.

All the other characters in the film, though they seem "normal" enough, are despicable examples of a sick, corrupt society: Gong-ju's relatives abandon her in a dump while they take up residence in a spanking new building allocated for disabled people; Jong-du's family is determined to use him as the locus for their collective anger and guilt. Even worse, they are prepared to sit by and say nothing when all that's needed to save him is the truth.

Early on in Oasis,Jong-du's elder brother tells him he must learn to fit into society, and be aware of how others see him. In this magical film where the boundary between dream and reality is sometimes severed -- the latest and best example of the Korean tendency to shake a finger at the tendency of a strictly politicized society to shun its "rejects" -- Lee makes us painfully aware of how we see others, and how others sometimes see ourselves, and that is a tremendous accomplishment.

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