Once in a Summer

I seriously don’t understand how they come up with English translations for Corean movie titles, but I think they’re horrible. The title “Geu Hae Yeo Reum” doesn’t quite translate to “Once in a Summer” but I suppose it suffices (much like Bong Joon Ho’s “The Host” which really should be called “Monster”). I digress. Let me get back to talking about this movie.

So, this is definitely one of those attempts at a sappy love story where the gentle rainfalls in the Corean countryside conjur images of awkward adolescent love in the watermelon patch. The movie takes place in the summer of 69 (*snicker snicker*) where our protagonist Suk Young (played by Lee Byung Hun) goes to the countryside for some strange volunteer program to help the villagers. There he finds himself falling in love with the village’s librarian Jung In who’s family history has made her an outcast. You could probably figure that running consistent in vein with other Corean films and melodramas, it’s a love that seems perfect yet doesn’t work out and so forth and so on.

That being said, the fact that I start this review by nitpicking about the title should tell you that I really didn’t care too much for the film. The pacing of the story was slow at times and the cinematography was nothing too noteworthy. There were few moments of intensity in the film but I felt that there was too much build up towards it.

However, if you’re looking for 1) good looking actors and 2) a primer to Corean melodrama, this film is the way to go.

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Call for posts!

Well, it’s been awhile and I definitely apologize for the hiatus but stay tuned for some more posts! Still to come are postings on:

  • Save the Green Planet
  • Untold Scandal
  • Welcome to Dongmakgol

That being said, we need your contributions as well! Please feel free to send your review to cinemacoreana AT gmail DOT com.

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Koryo Saram – The Unreliable People

Well, the 2007 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (whew, that’s a long title) has come and gone and I was only able to attend one screening (I know, it’s sad). However, at the behest of my fiance, we watched a great documentary called “Koryo Saram” (which is technically an anachronistic word for a “Korean Person”). While this film is not necessarily in the genre of Corean films, it at least pertains to a segment of Corean history.

The basic synopsis of the documentary is this: there are Coreans in Central Asia (mainly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) and they have had a long and tumultuous struggle to survive and adapt. While this really simplifies the story, this documentary provides the viewer with a fascinating look at the Corean diaspora and insight into a history that many people and Coreans in particular (both in Corea and abroad) are largely unaware of themselves.

Now for some historical background, in the 1860′s, Coreans began migrating to the Vladivostok area in Russia (bordering near China) due to famine and other harsh conditions. With the onset of World War II and the Japanese occupation of Corea, many more Coreans came to the area and became well established, even climbing to some high political posts. However, during Stalin’s Great Terror campaign, Stalin shipped nearly all the Coreans to the steppes of Central Asia as he considered them potential colluders of Japan. Many died along the journey (which they were forced to travel by cattle train) and many more died upon their arrival. Despite this, the Corean population survived and thrived in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

That being said, the film was absolutely fantastic. David Chung carefully constructed a moving narrative by interspersing interviews with the Corean-Kazakhs and archival footage of propaganda films from the Stalin era about the Coreans success with rice farming. While no documentary can truly be objective, I felt that this film did the job of telling a story that won’t simply be lost with the passage of time.

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Hanbando

“Hanbando” = the Corean peninsula (kind of akin to the Spaniards and Portuguese calling their section of the world “Iberia”).

Now, while I’m all for the Japanese government to officially apologize and atone for their war time aggressions of Asia, I don’t know if this film will necessarily add anything to actually bridging the gap between Japan and Corea per se.

The movie starts out with a fictional event where both North and South Corean officials meet for a launching event of a new railway that would connect the two sides together. Instead, the two Coreas are left without any foreign diplomats in attendance at the request of the Japanese who claim that the railway really belongs to them per an official document that was signed by the king in the Chosun era. The story develops into the search for an official seal called the “guk-sweh” that was used to sign and seal agreements. You then basically have your side of pro and anti Japanese sympathizers within the South Corean government trying to set the record straight about who the Corean peninsula really belongs to.

I really thought this film had potential when I saw that Ahn Sung Ki was starring in it as the president of South Corea. Instead, I was thoroughly disappointed by the mediocre acting and rather robotic mimicry of Ahn’s portrayal of a government official. In addition, the overall plot, pacing, and cinematography left nothing to be desired and at times bored me. I can’t see this film having mass appeal internationally and if you’re going to use Corean actors to play the role of the Japanese, at least have them speak in Japanese instead of leaving them to act as nefarious long lost cousins of Corea.

So, in a nutshell: don’t watch this film and read the Rape of Nanking instead.

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Memories of Murder

Memories of Murder is a great film based on true events that took place in the late 1980′s in the Corean countryside. During that time, several women were brutally raped and murdered and to this day, the killer is still at large. While most murder mysteries are enshrouded in a fast paced hunt, Memories of Murder goes at a much different tune. Instead, the film focuses on the development of the characters. Song Kang Ho does a great job at portraying a crass countrybumpkin cop who eventually matures as the crimes worsen.

Aside from the characters, the cinematography is quite impressive. You can tell the director worked hard at recreating the “shigol” (aka countryside in Corean) feel in addition to placing it in context to the atmosphere of military dictatorship. If anything, the constant images of fields evokes the subtle idea of attempting to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.

However (at the cost of giving away some of the ending), the last shot of Song’s character where he looks straight into the camera leaves you with the impression that he just might be looking back at the killer, perhaps in a theatre somewhere watching the film.

Overall: great film and a good intro to Corean cinema if you haven’t been following it.

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YMCA Baseball Team (“YMCA 야구단”)

This film characterizes the kind of “little train that could” idea and the universality of sports. The basic premise of the story is about the first baseball team that forms in Corea under the period of Japanese colonization. Song Kang Ho (from such films as Shiri, The Foul King, Memories of Murder, JSA, etc etc) stars in this film bringing levity and his true comedic talent to the screen.

The story starts out with Ho Chang (Song Kang Ho) discovering baseball from some American missionaries and a well-educated Jung Rim (played by Kim Hye Soo). Ho Chang, along with a slew of other oddball characters that represent the stratum of Corean society, all come together in the spirit of sports to eventually square off with the Japanese (again, think David vs Goliath).

It’s an interesting story of the whole “east meets west” idea where we see how the director envisioned baseball being introduced and adopted to a somewhat cautious yet curious crowd. While the coverage of this adaptation of baseball to Corean culture is short in the film, it’s funny to watch the characters come up with makeshift gloves with straws and reeds, bats, and masks.

One thing to focus in on this film is the underlying theme of where Corea is coming to a crossroads of culture and time with competing traditional values and of course setting the stage for further turmoil and annexation. Those viewers who are unfamiliar with East Asian history might lose some of the subtle historical references that caused the Corean peninsula go through periods of hardship and struggle. I would highly suggest doing some reading beforehand about the Ulsa Treaty that turned Corea into a protectorate of Japan.

Despite the gravity of the historical context that surrounds this period, the film definitely does a great job of blending comedy with reality. While I wasn’t thrilled about director Park Hyun Chul’s previous film (2009 Lost Memories), I thought he redeemed himself in this one. The scenes are shot nicely in that kind of big budgety film way and without a doubt, the characters in the movie are ones that really bring everything to life.

My recommendation: watch it, laugh, and pay attention!

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Taegukgi

What do you get when you combine the talents of Corea’s top actors/models, Corea’s version of Steven Spielberg, and a bigger budget than most other Corean domestic films? Not fat royalty checks like “Saving Private Ryan” or “Band of Brothers” but rather a stab at building up mainstream Corean cinema worthy enough for most unassuming filmgoers.

The basic premise of this movie: think Saving Private Ryan set in the Corean War with two brothers instead of one. Two brothers are drafted to fight in the Corean War, one trying to win a medal of honor to save his younger brother, the other trying to keep his older brother sane. While the North Coreans in the film were portrayed on the crazy side, I think the director attempts to make a balance in depicting cruelty that was inflicted on both sides. Of course, don’t expect this film to get deep on revealing the complexities of the whole North-South relationship. If anything, Kang Jae Kyu finally brings a modern version of the Corean War for audiences.

I would be shortchanging this film by stating that it’s simply a Corean remake of a Hollywood film. As such, like any good Corean cinematic production, there is the element of the “melo-young-hwa” (a.k.a. “melodramatic cinema”). Director Kang Jae Kyu does a good job of incorporating good melodramatic performances amidst the war scenes and CGI that would usually never see the light of day in films outside the US.

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