Korean film week – I’ve been taking it easy, relatively speaking, since my last entry. With more time these days, my wife and I have been hitting the cinemas—so far we’ve seen three films in a one-week period. One of them was King Kong, which I enjoyed quite a bit, but for today’s entry I’m going to skip that one and focus on the two other films we saw: Typhoon (site in Korean) and The King’s Man (site in Korean), both Korean films. The following discussions may contain spoilers, but I won’t be revealing anything that is not revealed in the PR materials (those glossy, full-color sheets they give out at the cinemas... I’m sure there’s a name for them, I just don’t know what it is).
Last Monday evening we went to see King Kong, but the film was sold out. My wife had wanted to see the Korean film Typhoon, so we saw that instead. I hadn’t been particularly interested in seeing the film, but it had been hyped quite a bit so I decided to give it a chance.
The basic storyline is as follows. “Ssin” is a North Korean who traveled to the South with his family as a young child, seeking asylum. The South Korean government was concerned about their relationship with China, though, and turned the refugees away. When they realized that they were being returned to North Korea, they assaulted their Chinese guards and were massacred, except for Ssin (whose original name is Choe Myeongsin) and his older sister, Myeongju. Myeonsin vows to get his revenge on South Korea, and he grows up to become a pirate captain operating out of Thailand. Myeongju ends up as a prostitute and drug addict in Russia. Myeongsin finally puts his plan into motion and vows to wipe the Korean peninsula off the face of the earth. Gang Sejong, a lieutenant in the Korean navy, is called upon by his government to hunt down Myeongsin and foil his plan. This hunt takes him around East Asia, from Thailand to Russia, and finally into the eponymous typhoon.
My verdict first: I was disappointed, which is kind of surprising, since I had no idea what the film was about and wasn’t really expecting anything. Yet it still managed to disappoint me. It was like being presented with a mouth-watering chocolate cake only to find that it’s just a hollow shell of icing. Sure, the icing was great, but where did the cake go? We left the cinema feeling dissatisfied and vaguely annoyed (or at least I did), and we spent the following week trying to figure out what went wrong with the film. So, rather than go into too much detail, I’ll speak more in generalities concerning what I think went wrong with the film.
I’ve got the PR flyer (hmm... is that the word I was looking for?) here in front of me, which I’m using for reference, and I think some of the hype is rather telling. The flyer itself, in fact, is rather telling. These flyers are usually one page, with a poster-type image on the front and information about the film on the back. The flyer for Typhoon, though, has twice the real estate—it is in booklet form and opens up to a few screen shots, photos of the main characters, a brief synopsis, and a whole lot of hype (which continues on the back page)
The two English language section titles—HIGH TECHNOLOGY PROJECT and WORLD WIDE PROJECT TYPHOON—say a lot about what is being emphasized. The “High technology project” box talks about the “technological leaps” of the film, such as the use of a gimbal that “bears comparison with the technological power of Hollywood” to create a realistic ship-at-sea set. These technological leaps “upgraded the technology of Korean film to the next level.” The back page of the flyer boasts, “Yet another leap forward in Korean film,” and the bottom half is devoted to the “World Wide Project Typhoon” section, which provides some information about on-location shooting in Bangkok and Krabi, Thailand, and in Vladivostok, Russia.
Not that there isn’t a good amount of space devoted to the characters and the story, but you get the idea that the advertisers really wanted you to know just how much the filmmakers invested in this film in terms of technology and location budgets. Not surprisingly, this was how I felt about the film itself. You could tell that they spent a lot of money on the film, but the film lacked so much in other areas that the technology and locations were perhaps highlighted more than they should have been. There is sufficient proof that throwing money at a project does not necessarily produce a good film. Kevin Costner’s Waterworld comes to mind (though at least that film sucked so badly that you couldn’t spare even a moment thinking about how much money was spent on it). Typhoon is Korea’s example, and hopefully filmmakers will learn from it.
I said that the film lacked in other areas, but it actually took me a few days to figure out where it was lacking. All I knew as I sat in my cushiony seat was that I was just not connecting with the characters on the screen. The fourth wall was very real and very solid, and I was disconnected from the experience emotionally. You would think that Myeongsin’s reunion with his sister, after having been separated for over a decade, would elicit some emotion from the audience. Jang Donggeon did a great job acting the scene, and he cried like one would expect someone to cry in that situation. But as I watched him I felt nothing. If I’m thinking, “Hey, he’s doing a good job acting this,” then something has gone wrong. I should be feeling it, not observing it.
The whole film was like that for me, and my wife and I have spent the past week trying to figure out where it went wrong. I knew how I felt about the film—that it didn’t affect me emotionally, that it failed to convince me—I just didn’t know why. The central theme in the film is the relationship between Lieutenant Gang and Ssin. Technically they are enemies, but they are bound together by the fact that they are both Korean. When Lieutenant Gang finds Myeongju and hears their story, he feels a sense of guilt, knowing that his country’s government turned them away and created the hate-crazed man that is now trying to destroy them. It is a compelling story, and it should have touched me somehow, but it didn’t.
At first I thought that maybe I couldn’t understand it because I wasn’t Korean. I understood the concept on an intellectual level, of course, but maybe I needed to be Korean to really feel it. But then my wife confessed that she felt little emotionally as well, so maybe that wasn’t it. In my opinion, the emotional connection shouldn’t have anything to do with being Korean. Proper storytelling should have made that connection, and in the end that is what the film really lacked. The special effects were great, the locations were great (well, expect for Vladivostok, which was pretty boring, to be honest), but the storytelling fell flat. The political machinations were complex, and my wife leaned over to me a number of times during the film to ask me what was going on. Transitions were awkward, as if the director didn’t even understand the concept of transitions.
But we know the director is a talented artist. Gwak Gyeongtaek directed the very popular Friend (which I’m afraid to say I haven’t seen yet, but it is now on my list), so we know he can direct a successful film. But Friend was a much smaller scale film than Typhoon. In the final analysis, I think Gwak bit off more than he could chew. Kudos for the special effects and location shots, but balancing these with the story was apparently beyond his ability. My wife noted that he seems to be good at making “guy films,” and she pointed out that Typhoon lacked a romantic subplot. That’s not such a big deal for me, but romantic subplots are one way to win points with female viewers, and I have a feeling my wife might have been more forgiving if there had been some romance.
One final note: DreamWorks will be releasing Typhoon in the States this year. After seeing the film myself, I think DreamWorks is in for a rather unpleasant surprise. I know I said it above, but it bears repeating: simply throwing money at a project does not guarantee a good film. The telling quote from the above article is this: “’Typhoon’ has earned a record 1.8 million admissions, totaling $11.1 million, in Korea over its first five days of release, despite a cool reception from local critics.” Given the hype and it star, Jang Donggeon (Jang Dong-Gun), the record admissions are no surprise. The “cool reception from local critics” should ring some warning bells, though. I suppose only time will tell, but I will predict right now that Typhoon will be a major flop in the States.
On the other hand, I have heard of no plans to release The King’s Man in the States, even though it is, in my opinion, an infinitely better film. My wife and I had been trying to see the film since last Thursday morning. We arrived at the local cinema a half hour early to find the matinees all sold out. The next day we were in downtown Seoul and stopped by six different cinemas—all sold out. So after seeing King Kong (again, excellent film, but I’m sure English commentary abounds elsewhere) on Saturday, we bought tickets for the matinee this morning. I was a little worried that the wait and my high expectations would lead to disappointment, but my fears proved unfounded. It was excellent—so good, in fact, that I’m thinking of going to see it again after the crowds die down.
The King’s Man could not be any more different from Typhoon. It is set in Korea during the time of the tyrant Yeonsangun (r. 1494-1506). Yeonsangun was a bloody ruler who ordered two “purges” (that is, massacres) of literati officials during his reign. He was also known for emptying the nations coffers to fuel his hedonistic pursuits. The second literati purge, in 1504, led to a two-year reign of terror and bloodshed, at the end of which Yeonsangun was deposed and replaced by his half-brother, Jungjong.
The film, though, only deals with a brief period of time during Yeonsangun’s reign, and is a mixture of history and imagination. The flyer quotes the following line from Yeonsangun’s diary: “An entertainer named Gong Gil said to the king, ‘The king is not like a king, so this rice is not like rice’ and was beheaded.” As the flyer goes on to say, the idea that a lowly entertainer could criticize the king, let alone even meet the king, is almost unfathomable. The film takes this piece of history and weaves a story to go along with it.
I should point out right away that the film is based on the award-winning Korean play, You. When it was first performed in 2000, this play won a number of awards, including those for best play, best script, and best acting, from the Korean Theatre Association. I was not able to see the play (something I regret), so I can’t compare the two versions, but I think having an award-winning play to work from really helped in terms of the story. That story opens with two entertainers, Jang Saeng and Gong Gil. They are both men, but Gong Gil is feminine in appearance and is thus dressed as a woman and given female roles. Their manager prostitutes Gong Gil to wealthy customers, and after Jang Saeng confronts the manager about this, a fight erupts and the manager is killed. Jang Saeng and Gong Gil flee to Hanyang (Seoul), where they seek out the big performances.
They meet three entertainers there who tell them that there aren’t any more big performances, thanks to the king’s policies. They recognize the superior talents of Jang Saeng and Gong Gil and decide to perform with them. Jang Saeng writes a skit that mocks the king, and a passing official sees them performing it and arrests them. As they are being beaten, Jang Saeng appeals to Caesar: if they can make the king laugh, this would prove that they did nothing wrong. The official agrees to bring them into the palace, but promises that they will lose their heads if they fail to make the king laugh. The rest of the film deals with this life and death struggle, the jealousy of the king’s consort when she sees him falling for Gong Gil, and the upheaval in the palace that is caused by the entertainers and their social satires.
As I mentioned above, the story has a very solid grounding. If you are familiar with Korean historical television dramas, then you will be familiar with the element of palace intrigue that makes up part of the story. That does not mean that the story is trite or clichéd, though. You know you’ve got a good story on your hands when it still manages to keep you involved even when you already know how it’s going to end. The story is essentially a tragedy, and it is flavored with the bittersweet taste of tragedy, but it also has a good amount of comic relief to balance the tragic overtones. True to the spirit of Korean folk drama in the Joseon period, most of the humor is sexual in nature or related to bodily functions—something to which anyone in any culture can relate.
The story forms a solid backbone, but it is not the only thing that The King’s Man has going for it. Like the palace intrigue, the costumes and set decorations won’t come as too much of a surprise to those familiar with Korean historical television dramas, but that shouldn’t take anything away from the excellent job that was done. What was new, though, was the glimpse the audience got into the folk performances. I must admit that this was a major reason why I was looking forward to this film, and I was not disappointed. The acrobatics were entertaining, but I really enjoyed the skits and witticisms (“jedam” in Korean). When Jang Saeng and Gong Gil were “auditioning” entertainers to take with them into the palace, there was a montage piece that showed a wide variety of folk performances, from the lion mask dance to the foot puppets that I have heard and read about but never actually seen. I kind of wish that montage had been a bit longer, but I think it was the right length for the film. The flyer calls the film “a visual feast,” and I cannot argue with that. It was really a pleasure to watch, and all the visual elements helped to steep the audience in the story.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably mention that I am studying for my doctorate in classical Korean literature, specifically oral literature, so this film appeals to me especially. Considering this, I may be a bit biased in my appraisal. Still, if I had felt the film was lacking in any way, I would have said so. Just as throwing money at a project doesn’t guarantee a good film, neither does including all the elements of a traditional Korean spectacle. I saw the musical “The Last Empress” (which has played worldwide) some time ago and was not too impressed. It was hailed abroad for its beautiful costumes and set design, but I found the musical numbers (which are pretty important, considering the fact it’s a musical) somewhat uninspiring. The King’s Man, on the other hand, is the real deal. It combines the traditional spectacle with a good story, good acting, and good directing.
Again, I may be biased, but I think The King’s Man would be a far better choice to show in the States than Typhoon. It would not be a mainstream success, but I think it would be very well received as an art film. Much of its success, of course, would hinge on the translation. You could probably get away with a half-baked translation for Typhoon, but translating The King’s Man would be a lot trickier. It would have to be done by a native English speaker, of course, but one very familiar with this area of Korean culture. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind consulting on a project like that. I wouldn’t have time to translate the whole film, but I’d be willing to take a look at the translation. Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?
Anyway, there you have it: one film I liked very much, and one film that I didn’t like very much at all. Your mileage may vary, of course, since there is no accounting for taste. Hopefully these reviews have been objective enough to be of use to anyone thinking about seeing either of these films. Although this is probably obvious, my final recommendations would be: wishy-washy on Typhoon—see it if you’re a diehard fan of Korean cinema (I’m not, by the way) or if you’re interested in seeing what new directions the field is taking, but don’t expect too much in terms of story and emotional connection (that is, the cake as opposed to the icing)—and two huge thumbs up for The King’s Man—if you’re into traditional Korean culture, this is a must see, but even if you’re not, it’s a very well-made film with solid performances and plenty to enjoy.
That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed the reviews, even if you’re not a fan of Korean cinema, and I wish you all a Happy New Year (although I’m not really sure why everyone celebrates it here, since it means you get another year older, but there you have it). Oh, and I just noticed that this is my one hundredth entry so, um, congratulations to me. And here I had always thought that I would do some moving retrospective for my one hundredth entry. Oh well. It probably worked out better this way.