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From the breakout success of 2003’s Oldboy to the more recent acclaim of Lee Chang-dong’s Burning and especially Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, South Korea has laid claim to one of the most vibrant national cinemas in the world. As with all “national cinema” anointments, however, the prominence comes at a price: “Korean Cinema” often refers primarily or exclusively to the Tarantino-approved Park Chan-wook and the “Spielbergian” Bong, obscuring a diverse industry in favor of elevating a small number of auteurs to the pantheon, as if their work sprang wholly from the imaginations of isolated (male) geniuses.
It doesn’t, of course, and Film at Lincoln Center’s Relentless Invention: New Korean Cinema 1996-2003 is a 21-film corrective illuminating the wide range of contemporaneous production. Among the standouts is Kang Je-gyu’s time-traveling romance The Gingko Bed (1996), whose epic sweep and affecting score today plays as a sort of prototype for the Korean blockbuster that Bong would refine into a more directly allegorical and “respectable” shape a decade later. Unlike Bong, who always begins his films affirming the class status of his characters, Kang situates his characters cosmically, as reincarnations of centuries-old princesses and generals. He also performs the difficult balancing act so characteristic of many better-known Korean directors, using a colorful mise-en-scene and amateurish CGI to provide a camp sensibility without undermining the poignant climax or the romance.
More vulgar — but no less worthwhile — forerunners of established templates recur throughout the series. Lee Myung-se’s Nowhere to Hide (1999) is one of numerous crime films that accompany a trio of Park Chan-wook’s early films in the series, and although it lacks the philosophical undercurrent of Park’s work, Lee laps Park and the rest of the field in terms of pure style. Precise cuts, slow-motion, motion blurring, and passages both of total silence and scored to instrumental hard rock are present in a bravura prologue that only occasionally turns down the dial thereafter. Those looking for a morally complex fable or incisive politics should look elsewhere, but those content with a stylist as extravagant as Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, F.J. Ossang, or Seijun Suzuki will be in heaven.
While such films deepen our understanding and appreciation of more visible luminaries, the elevation of a handful of auteurs constitutes another problem: the reification of the masculine. The series privileges not only male auteurs, but also crime dramas, thrillers, and male-centered blockbusters over comedies and romances, and festival and cult hits over commercial ones. Among the counterexamples included in the program is My Sassy Girl (2001, dir. Kwak Jae-yong), a rom-com about a hapless college student and the unnamed woman who stumbles into his life that generated remakes and televised adaptations throughout South and East Asia, as well as in Lithuania and the US. Although directed, written, edited and shot by men, the film overcomes its cloyingness thanks to Jun Ji-hyun’s eponymous performance. She finds humor even the third and fourth time a gag repeats and sells the character’s most outlandish antics. It’s the cinematic equivalent of K-Pop: an elaborately scripted and manicured production that shouldn’t work, but is earnest enough to disarm even the most practiced highbrow cynic.
For films directed by women, the series offers just Lee Jeong-Hyang’s Art Museum at the Zoo (1998) and Jeong Jae-sun’s Take Care of My Cat (2001). While very few women were able to break into the film industry in the program’s timeframe, Jealousy is My Middle Name (2003) (directed by Hong Sang-soo protégé Park Chan-ok) and Waikiki Brothers (2001, dir. Yim Soon-rye) are notable absences. As a consolation, both selected films are winners.
Lee’s marvelous direction and control of tone (achieved through color filters and immaculate use of both original score and licensed music), as well as Lee Sung-jae’s and Shim Eun-ha’s performances as an impulsive lovelorn cynic and a naïve scriptwriter make Art Museum one of the best films of its kind. Few films could execute a scene in which a woman rejects a ride to work only for the man who offered it to park his car in front of the next bus to ensure she can catch it, but this is one of them. If that sounds saccharine, Take Care of My Cat offers sordid realism, chronicling the friendship of five women who, after graduating, drift apart amid economic anxieties. The strain that proper work-life balance requires under 21st century capitalism, the film reveals, is such that the details — where should we meet? When? Who will take care of the cat? — or an ill-timed joke are often enough to make one snap or prematurely end a night out. Class themes are omnipresent in contemporary Korean Cinema, but Jeong has already said most of what there is to say.
Relentless Invention: New Korean Cinema 1996-2003 screens at Film at Lincoln Center (165 W. 65th Street) from November 22 through December 4. The series was organized by Goran Topalovic, Dennis Lim, and Tyler Wilson, and is co-presented by Subway Cinema in collaboration with the Korean Cultural Center New York.