When I think back on my favorite directors from what I consider the golden age of movies, roughly the end of WWII to early 60s, there are a few things that they seem to have in common. Firstly and most importantly, they are humanists. Although only some share my leftist sympathies (Kurosawa, Ray, De Sica), they all sought to give meaning to the lives of ordinary human beings through their work. Additionally, they were very much engaged with their national culture even though none could be described as nationalistic. Their films were very much concerned with traditions that united their countrymen culturally. This frequently meant using dialog that was drawn from the vernacular. Finally, they navigated easily between high and low culture. They sought the widest audience without watering down their art form. In a very real sense, they were following a path that Shakespeare had pioneered in Elizabethan England.
Alas, the golden age is no more. These great directors are all dead now and Hollywood’s heavy commercial hand has been felt across the planet, especially in the age of globalization. There is at least one happy exception to this sorry trend, however. For people who have been reading my film reviews over the past few years, you will know that I regard Korean films among the best in the world today. Not only that, they are a welcome throwback to the Golden Age with their humanism, their engagement with indigenous traditions and culture, and their ability to entertain while reaching the greatest heights of artistic achievement.
I urge my fellow New Yorkers to see for themselves how great Korean cinema is today by attending the Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today series at the Museum of Modern Art that begins tomorrow and extends through October 2nd. Yeonghwa is the Korean word for film, “a good word for cinéastes to know, given the Korean film industry’s success at festivals and among critics and audiences worldwide” as the Korea Society’s website describes it. The Korea Society has curated the festival, as well as a number of others I have attended in the past few years.
I had a chance to preview three of the films that are part of the MOMA program and my high expectations were met in spades.
The first was “Rolling Home with a Bull (Sowa Hamkke Yeohaenghaneun Beop)”, a picaresque tale about the thirtyish son of small farmers who decides to sell his father’s ox, an animal that the old man clings to despite the mechanization sweeping the Korean countryside. Two years ago I reviewed “Old Partner“, a documentary that featured an old couple just like the parents of the young lead character in Rolling Home that I likened to Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, written in 1750 as a kind of resigned protest against industrialization.
(The trailer below and for “Hanji” later on lack subtitles but are included to give a feel for the cinematography.)
Sun-ho (Gan Young-Pil) absconds with the family ox one morning and departs for the auction yards where he hopes to make good money. He is sick of farming and aspires to the literary life (he competes in a local poetry contest). His parents tell him that he is wasting his time and urge him to get rid of his books. Furthermore, like the worrying parents of all single men and women everywhere in the world, they keep trying to fix him up with the nearest available women—in this case blind dates with local Vietnamese and Laotian women.
Sun-ho is not interested in women, still carrying a torch for the one who dumped him for his best friend seven years earlier. While he is on the road trying to find a customer for his father’s ox, he gets a call from her. Her husband has just died and she wants him to take part in the mourning. This leads to major emotional complications for Sun-Ho who still resents her, especially when she makes overtures to him on the very day of her dead husband’s cremation.
Somewhere toward the middle of the movie, it takes a magical realist turn with the bull becoming a vehicle for Buddhist meditations and imagery. Although this ordinarily just the sort of thing that would make me squirm in my seat, I loved every minute.
“Rolling Home with the Bull” is funny, smart, and dramatically compelling. The acting and writing are first-rate. Put that one on your list for sure.
“Hanji (Dalbit Gileoolligi)” was directed by Kwon-taek Im who was born in 1936, has over 100 films to his credit, and is considered Korea’s leading director. The IMDB biography on him states:
He grew up in the southern city Kwangju, where he completed senior high school. His family suffered considerable hardships and losses in the Korean War, so he had to move to Pusan in search of work: he was a labourer before trying to start a business recycling US Army boots into shoes.
Considering the life he has led, no wonder Kwon-taek Im has much more to say as a film-maker than the young UCLA and NYU film school graduates that are dominant in Hollywood today.
Hanji is artisanal paper of the kind that feudal records were maintained on. It is a dying art in Korea that is subject to the same kinds of globalization pressures as the ox-dominated agriculture in the countryside. The Korea Society website notes:
A bunch of lunatics try to make paper that supposedly lasts a thousand years in the middle of the night,” says Im. “It’s madness. We Koreans export electronic goods and cars, but we are losing some important assets, which are cultural treasures like hanji.
Im’s film is both a mind-expanding introduction to the art of making such paper of the kind that you might see on a Korean version of PBS as well as a compelling drama about the lives of the people who are part of this cultural tradition.
The main character is a low-level civil servant named Pil Yong (Park Joong Hoon) who is charged with heading up a project to make the hanji business profitable by drawing in local experts to work on restoration of court records from a medieval dynasty. As he gets deeper into the project, the commercial aspects become less important to him. In a nutshell, he is on the cusp of the same “modernization” dilemma facing Sun-Ho and his bull. Both movies are terrific introductions to Korean art and culture and cannot be recommended highly enough.
Finally, I refer you to “Dance Town”, the third in a “town trilogy” directed by Jeon Kyu-hwan, a master of urban anomie and displacement. (The entire trilogy is being shown at MOMA.)
Like “Journals of Musan”, another South Korean film that showed at the MOMA a few months ago (one that I regrettably missed), this is a bold departure from the narrative that when North Koreans defect to the South they will find paradise.
Jung-nim Rhee (Mi-ran Rha) is married to a North Korean man who appears to have no complaints about the system other than it declares imports illegal that he deems a necessity for his lifestyle and that he can afford. This includes skin cream for his wife and pornographic videos for the two of them.
When word gets out that he is buying banned goods, he decides to defect to the South. Jung-nim goes first on a Chinese ship while her husband makes plans to join her.
Rhee is a quiet, reserved person who accepts the apparent generosity of her new hosts even when they are as boorish as the security official who debriefs her, calling her at one point “my little commie”.
A solicitous female whose job it is to welcome new arrivals into their state-funded apartments shows her about the new digs, eager to make Rhee comfortable. But as soon as she gets down to her car in the parking lot, she snoops on Rhee through a hidden camera that transmits to her laptop.
Rhee soon becomes part of a labor force in the South that treats its “liberated” brethren from the North not much differently than Mexicans are treated in the U.S. She begins working in a steam laundry, a decidedly downward position from her life in the North. And even more disastrously, she becomes something like prey for the degraded sexual appetites of the men she meets.
“Dance Town” is relentlessly downbeat but dramatically compelling. In many ways, it struck me as inspired by Theodore Dreiser even though I doubt that the director had the novelist in mind. When an artist decides to take on the underside of his or her society without mercy, you are likely to end up with something like “Jennie Gerhardt” or “Dance Town”. Long live naturalism!