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The Other Side of the Filmmaking Fence

May 31st, 2009 (10:35 pm)

© 2009
D. Gordon

If you've been reading this blog at all, you've noticed that Korean film comes up fairly frequently. And for good reason: a lot has been going on in Korea (both North and South), especially in the past ten years. It's not just me who's noticed: increased overseas openings – and awards, including most recently a shared Jury prize at Cannes for Park Chan-wook's Thirst – indicate that I'm far from the only one keying in to Korean cinema.

But one thing that many outside of the direct line of fire may not realize is that much of the cinematic quality on the international circuit is coming from the commercial South Korean industry. For every Kim Ki-duk, there's a Park Chan-wook, Lee Chang-dong, Bong Joon-ho, and Kim Ji-woon. What looks like "arthouse" back at the ranch is really coming from Chungmuro, much like most "independent" film in the US comes through wholly-owned subsidiaries of the major Hollywood studios.

But there is an independent film industry in South Korea, in the truest sense of the word. Like everywhere else, it's small and doesn't get much notice overall - but it does produce.

One very notable Korean independent film to come along in recent years is No Regret, a love story which has everything going against it. Lee Su-min (Lee Young-hoon), fresh from the orphanage he's aged out of, comes to Seoul – where, on a point of honor, he leaves the factory job he can ill afford to lose; cycles through several menial positions he's ill-suited for; then bottoms out in a "host" position at a bar - where "host" translates to prostitute. Tracking his progression both figuratively and literally is Song Jae-min (Lee Han, aka Kim Nam-gil), the privileged son of a corporate family, who after a chance meeting crosses paths with Su-min again and again, until the other man can't ignore his obsession.


The film breaks through a number of firsts. South Korea is a relatively fairly conservative country where homosexuality was removed from the govvernment's list of "socially undesirable acts" only in 2003; and where A-list actor Hong Suk-chon was blacklisted for several years after coming out of the closet in 2000. It's not just homosexuality; it's also only in recent years that public displays of affection between heterosexual couples (as in kissing and hand-holding) have become acceptable. So a 2006 movie featuring frequent kissing between men, nudity just short of full frontal, and rather explicit sex scenes – all directed by an openly gay filmmaker – is a major step for such a society. To have that film do well – while it opened on a limited number of screens, its low budget plus the business it did on those screens gave it one of the highest profit margins of the year – makes the whole thing something of a seismic shift.

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Beyond the social significance, there's the film itself – which does have some rough spots. Director Leesong's plot apparently pays homage to the "hostess bar" movies of the 1970s and 1980s, in which a poor woman is forced to support her family as a hostess, shamed enough that she can't tell them where the money she sends comes from. She meets and falls in love with a rich man – maybe through the bar, maybe outside of it – with all the angst that that situation brings.1 I won't divulge whether the ending here is as tragic as the genre's usual resolutions; but it does have that seemingly Korean sense of melodrama, which causes the last third or so to bounce from disaster to disaster. For viewers not used to that, it can feel like a tennis match; at the very least it requires a fair amount of attention to follow what's going on.

There are also a few technical issues, especially with some of the lighting: a few too-dark interiors towards the beginning and an odd shadow framing Su-min's face in one critical scene. This is a little jarring given the beauty of other scenes, such as one in which Su-min sits at the side of the road, under a streetlight, angry and confused after the first time he and Jae-min meet under the sheets because it's hard for him to understand what the other man wants, and to avoid treating him as just another john. But these are issues that are easily overcome as the story progresses and draws the viewer in.

And then there's the acting. Both leads - Lee Young-hoon as Lee Su-min and Lee Han as Song Jae-min – and their supporting cast do quite well in roles that frankly were very risky for nascent careers. The two leads in particular adeptly steer their characters through a minefield of family obligations, social expectations, economic pressures, and just plain pain as they follow an attraction that neither can ignore. Lee Han shows just the right mix of sometimes pitiful, sometimes creepy as a man obsessed to the point of stalking, often dancing on the edges of sanity as he attempts to both reach out to the object of his obsession and live up to family expectations. Lee Young-hoon has a different task – projecting a genuinely nice person forced by circumstances into becoming hard and distrusting, and continually looking out for number one. Interestingly, the character tries to maintain some self-respect despite where life has led him, which is a main part of the reason he repels Jae-min's advances: he wants to keep himself, his inner self, separate from "work"; unlike the other hosts, he's not interested in a sugar daddy and he truly doesn't believe he can offer Jae-min what the other man clearly wants. The role is arguably the most prominent in the film, especially since most of the action is seen through Su-min's eyes; Lee Young-hoon has the maturity and acting chops to carry it off well.

No Regret is now available on DVD as part of a box set of Korean independent film. Both actors seem to have gotten more prominent work since the film's success, and Leesong Hee-il has received international notice, although there isn't much sign of more recent work from him. Let's hope that this step forward in South Korean film of cutting-edge, independent cinema doesn't mean isolating it to one-offs.

(Note: there will be more to come on independent South Korean films.)




1 See the Filmmaker Magazine blog, especially the comments.