By Jonathan Marlow
Besides the general buzz in the air, there are a few more concrete ways you can tell when a certain genre or national cinema has become, to put it curtly, hot. For one, the press begins to say so, but more formally, respected magazines and journals start devoting special issues or sections to a particular wave, none perhaps more decisively than Film Comment. Throughout the magazine's history, editors have canonized certain moments in film history with issues such as the one in the 70s examining the sudden surge of sexually explicit imagery on the screen, or more recently, issues devoted to Hong Kong (1998) and Bollywood (2002; and both of those projects were overseen by David Chute, by the way) and, most recently, Korean cinema (November / December 2004).
Which brings us to the second sign: Controversy. It can range from arguments over which films and which directors really represent the cream of the new crop all the way to outright backlash. Yes, Hong Kong action flicks are exciting and colorful, the naysayers argued a few years ago, but ultimately, they're all the same. Bollywood? Exciting and colorful, but... all the same. With Korean cinema, the naysaying is more scattered and varied because no one could argue that, say, Park Chan-wook and Lee Chang-dong or Bong Jun-ho and Hong Sang-soo are making the same sort of films.
Rather than a full-fledged backlash, an across-the-board sorting is going on: Which filmmakers truly represent the best of current Korean cinema? When Park won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last year for Oldboy, many cheered; some did not. Most prominently, Manohla Dargis, who's raved enthusiastically about Hong's Power of the Kangwon Province, for example, aimed in the pages of the New York Times to pull Park down a few notches. But at least Dargis was civil and serious about her argument; Rex Reed, writing in the New York Observer, was not. His borderline racist remarks about Koreans' taste in films and food stirred a flurry of protest in blogs, online forums and the Village Voice and, just last week, offered a backhanded apology.
But that swirl of controversy was kicked up by a single film. The case of Kim Ki-duk is far more serious thanks to the widely regarded British critic and programmer Tony Rayns, who attacked Kim's entire oeuvre in the very issue of Film Comment that would cement reputations of various Korean filmmakers in the west for possibly years to come. Those who admire Kim's work reacted immediately and furiously, beginning with Singapore-based writer and artist Ben Slater and spilling over into one of the most lively debates to hits the boards at Koreanfilm.org in quite a while.
The debate didn't end there, though. Chuck Stephens, who edited that special section in Film Comment, rallied to Rayns's defense - and hence, to the offense against Kim as well - in Cinema Scope earlier this year, intensifying the clash between those who, like the programmers of the major festivals in Berlin, Venice, and this year, Cannes, find a fresh, vigorous and vital creativity in Kim's films and those who, well, don't.
Ultimately, of course, it's audiences, not critics, who forge canons and pecking orders. But in Kim's case, audiences haven't had much of a chance to decide, with only two very different films - The Isle and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring - immediately available to go by. That's about to change. Samaritan Girl is arriving on DVD on May 10, Bad Guy in late June, while 3-Iron is currently in limited release in theaters here and there across the country.
3-Iron has also just screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and it was there, with the help of translator Ju Hui Judy Jan, that Jonathan Marlow spoke with the director about, among other things, how the "Kim Ki-duk style" plays in the US. - David Hudson
Unlike many filmmakers on this continent, you opted against attending film school. With no formal education in film, how has this helped your work?
It's been helpful because instead of learning how to make films, I've learned to live life [in addition to his extensive work as a painter, Kim spent five years in the Korean military and many years working in various factories, which, as he has noted elsewhere, caused him "no shame, because I thought factory jobs were my future. As I reflect on this past, I realize that if one accepts a hard life as the only way to live then this reality becomes that life..."].
How did you come to direct your first feature, Crocodile?
It was mostly by coincidence. I wrote the scenario and it ended up being really liked by someone. He picked it up and soon after it was funded. It was my first film and it was very difficult to shoot, I'll have to admit. There were a lot of difficult underwater scenes that I struggled with [the film concerns a collector of waterlogged bodies, all suicides, pulled from a river in Seoul]. All in all, it was a pretty difficult film to make.
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