One learns, I think, a fair amount about a national culture through its cinema, particularly if the culture is as homogenous as is Korea’s, with its rituals, social practices, communal aspirations, tortured history, and earthy cuisine. What is quite special to me is, unlike many other cinemas, that Korean films are made first and foremost for Koreans, because, after all, it is they and not anybody else who speak the language in which the films are made, and, unlike films manufactured by and for the Hollywood studios, they are not made with the export market foremost in mind. Korean films assume the viewer knows something about the matrices of everyday life in Korea, or at least cares enough to learn. Yes, of course, it is true that people are people the world over, and react with sorrow, anger or happiness to various universal triggers, but how these basic emotions are expressed differs from culture to culture.
So, what may be gleaned from seeing the diverse and diverting selection of films in the exhibition Yeonghwa (meaning “film” in Korean) that opens today. Well, one can learn about “hanji,” a traditional art in which paper is handmade by a riverbank in the middle of the night. Hanji, the film, is the 101st (!) feature film by veteran Im Kwon-taek (celebrated for many films, including Sopyonje, about “pansori”—another traditional art, a performing one) who affectionately describes the diminshing number of “hanji” artists as a “bunch of lunatics” who believe moonlight essential in the making of indestructible paper. One can also hear Korea’s favorite folk song and its unofficial anthem, Arirang, sung many times a capella by maverick filmmaker Kim Ki-duk (whose MoMA retrospective was organized in 2008) who returns to our theater with a fiery documentary about himself and his self-imposed isolation. Arirang is a plaintive song about loss, and loss seems to be a frequent theme in Korean cinema, not surprising in a nation whose families remain divided by two opposing political systems.
Fate works against virtually every protagonist in Korean cinema from the Sam Fuller-esque melodramas of Lee Man-hee who died young from alcholism in 1975, and two of whose fifty-one films, Black Hair and Holiday (Day Off), are part of the rediscovery section of Yeonghwa, to the three films in Jeon Kyu-hwan’s extraordinary trilogy—Mozart Town, Animal Town, and Dance Town. In Midnight FM, a female disc jockey, about to leave with her daughter for the U.S., is unexpectedly detained by a deranged stranger, who holds her child hostage, while he insists she broadcast his playlist. That film is a neat thriller but even the broad comedy, Hello Ghost, has a dark side. It begins with a suicide.
Lest I make these films sound a bit heavy, I do want to write they are all distinguished by a high degree of professionalism, and are, in spite or because of their vinegared and unsentimental view of life, quite entertaining.
We do begin on a more optimistic note with two films by women, somewhat rueful comedies about domestic life. The exquisitely titled, Rolling Home with a Bull, tells of a hapless filmmaker Yim Soon-rye, first introduced to MoMA with her New Directors/New Films debut, Three Friends, tells of a hapless bachelor trying, over his father’s objections, to sell the family bull and traveling all over the peninsula in trying to get a good price. His journey is interrupted when he receives a phone call from an ex- but significant girlfriend who asks him (and his bovine companion) to her husband’s funeral—death again. However, in Shin Su-won’s female Woody Allen-esque comedy, Passerby #3 (Rainbow), there is no sadness except, perhaps, a wife and mother’s realization, after she quits her job to write a screenplay, that her teenage son may have more talent than she.