South Korean Directorial Immigration
Not because I particularly care to see Arnold Schwarzenegger back on the big screen. Not because I have any real interest in the supporting cast, although Forest Whitaker, Peter Stormare, Jamie Alexander and Luis Guzman are all excellent casting decisions. I don't even want to see it because it looks like loud, stupid, violent fun, which is one of my favorite film genres.
Nope, I want to see it very badly for one reason and one reason only:
Kim Jee-woon is a favorite. This is his American film debut, and, if this past week's box office numbers are anything to gauge it by, this film needs all the help it can get.
If someone were to say to me that Kim Jee-woon was the best director in Korea right now, I would have a very hard time arguing the point. I've seen every single feature length film he's produced up to this point and I would describe every single one of them with a synonym for good. His last few, I would upgrade to synonyms for great and there are a couple that I would almost even be willing to look up words to give the impression I thought the film was perfect or amazing.
Kim, like many excellent foreign film directors, is criminally under-known in the US, even amongst foreign film fans and even despite those fans being familiar with some of his films.
Any of these look familiar? Three of them have actually gotten limited theatrical release in the U.S. and by all accounts did fairly well. Those three, I Saw The Devil, A Tale Of Two Sisters and The Good, The Bad, The Weird are also great fucking movies. Two of them, The Quiet Family and The Foul King have been released on DVD out here. The last one, A Bittersweet Life, though, has not seen any time in this country beyond festival screenings. Which is a damn shame because it's my favorite of his films. Thankfully, I have an all-region DVD player.
Amazon - Netflix
Kim's first full length film was The Quiet Family, a black comedy about a family that owns an inn out in the countryside. The inn doesn't get many customers and the ones that do shop up have a terrible habit of passing away, being murdered or killing themselves, which the family does it's best to keep quiet.
It stars Choi Min-sik, who you might recognize from Oldboy and Kang Ho-Song, who you might recognize from Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance or a few of the other movies I'm about to mention. It was also remade shortly after it's release by Japanese director Takashi Miike as Happiness of The Katakuris, which is less a black comedy and more an insane, fucked up musical. It's a solid film, and it's got some good laughs, but I'm not sure I'd label it great. Worth a watch, though, for sure. I have no intention of letting my copy go, at any rate.
Amazon - Netflix
Kim's second film is about the same, quality-wise as his first one. The Foul King stars Kang-ho Song as an unhappy salaryman looking to do something else with his life. So he decides to try wrestling. Once he gets in the ring, he stops being a lackluster nobody and starts enjoying life, winning match after match by cheating. It's pretty funny. Unfortunately, the US release of this DVD is only available with the Cantonese dubbing. So, yeah, it's a Korean film dubbed into Cantonese with english subtitles. If it helps at all, Stephen Chow does the dubbing, but if you're really eager to watch this, and you have an all-region dvd player, you have other options. If not... you don't. Sorry.
Like I said about The Quiet Family, it's a good, solid comedy and one worth watching. If you happen to be in the neighborhood, you can come over and watch it at my place anytime.
Amazon - Netflix
Three years later, in 2003, Kim's next full length feature came out. A Tale Of Two Sisters is, in my opinion, not only a great movie, but it's nearly perfect. Two young girls come home after being hospitalized to live with their oblivious father and evil step-mother, but as is the case with all good psychological horror flicks, all is not what it seems. There are a number of twists and turns in this one, and it does require your full attention, and it's usually one of the first films I mention when someone asks me to recommend them some Asian horror.
A whole lot of things came together for Kim on this one. The cinematography is insanely gorgeous (which is impressive, considering it was cinematographer Mo-gae Lee's feature debut), the music is beautiful, the acting is top notch and it did gangbusters at the box office in South Korea. It was given a limited theatrical release in the US in late 2004. I remember this well because I saw the movie at the Nuart Theater in LA 4 times over the two weeks it played there. It was remade in the U.S. as The Uninvited which, apparently was not a very good movie at all. Shocking.
After successfully conquering the horror genre, Kim moved on to the gangster genre and beat the snot out of that, too. As previously mentioned, A Bittersweet Life is my favorite of his films. It stars Lee Byung-Hun, who you might have seen playing Storm Shadow in the G.I. Joe movie, if you bothered to watch it and will also be appearing in the sequel as well as the upcoming Red 2 with Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren. If you'd prefer I mention the good movies he's been in, where you can actually appreciate his performance, then I'd like to direct your attention toward Joint Security Area, as well as a couple other films later on this list. he's a pretty fantastic actor.
Anyway, in A Bittersweet Life, Lee plays a hitman who does something his boss doesn't like that then forces him to go up against the gang he once worked with/for. Not an uncommon story in the genre, but what stands out about this particular film is everything else. The fight scenes are awesome and expertly choreographed, the cinematography, the score, the sets... everything is done well here. EVERYTHING. It's got a very noir-ish style to it that elevates the film even further, making it even cooler. Sadly, mind-bogglingly, this is still only available in the U.S. via bootleg or import. I do hope that the impending remake (possibly starring Denzel Washington)helps alleviate that, but we'll see. I won't hold my breath.
Amazon - Netflix
Another successful genre mastered, Kim's next film would sort of be a sideways go at Westerns. A very successful go, as The Good, The Bad, The Weird is as much fun as just about any movie I've seen anywhere. The story centers around a treasure map, acquired during a train robbery and the 3 men going after it. It's got some really impressive set pieces, a really evil bad guy (Hi, Lee Byung-hun!), a really good good guy and Kang Ho-song, the train-robber, somewhere in between the two. It's got multiple big chases, multiple big shootouts, comedy, the three-way stand-off...
Honestly, I can't recommend this movie highly enough. The friends I've managed to get to see it both during its short theatrical run and subsequent blu-ray release (hey, it's only $10 on Amazon right now) have pretty much all loved it across the board. If you want a real, good look at the reason why I expect The Last Stand to be worth my time and money, then look no further.
Amazon - Netflix
For his most recent South Korean film, Kim went back to the horror genre, but a different branch of it. Instead of the psychological horror of A Tale Of Two Sisters, he opted for the visceral horror seen in I Saw The Devil. This one sees Lee Byung-hun play a secret agent whose fiancee is brutally murdered by Min-sik Choi's character. Rather than just, you know, catch the guy and put him away, Lee's character opts to catch the guy, beat the shit out of him, let him go, catch him again, beat the shit out of him again and so on. At least, until the tables are turned.
I Saw The Devil is a seriously violent, disturbing film and is not for the weak of stomach or constitution. Every place on a human being you don't want to see sharp objects slicing gets sliced. If you can handle it, though, it's a great goddamn movie. I doubt I've ever seen a "Those who fight monsters should take care that they never become one" type of movie at quite this level before. So so so good.
Beyond that, Kim's done some short films, including an excellent piece for the omnibus flick Three, which was released in the U.S. as Three Extremes II (also Netflix-able), despite not being a sequel to Three Extremes. If anything, it's the other way around. He also has a short film in the new sci-fi omnibus Doomsday Book (also on Netflix). I haven't seen it yet so I can't comment on it's quality, but I see no reason not to expect it to be good at this point.
Kim Jee-woon isn't the only extremely talented South Korean director making his Hollywood debut this year, though, as two other directors who would likely come up in any argument about the greatest director in South Korea are doing the same. Strangely, Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho are both crossing over this year, as well. As far as I know, this is not a planned incursion by the cream of the South Korean crop into the U.S. film market, but hopefully it'll be a successful one.
In March, Park Chan-wook's Stoker comes out.
I briefly mentioned being excited for this before, but I'm not sure I was able to properly convey my level of anticipation for this at the time. Park Chan-wook is my favorite director. His Vengeance trilogy of Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance stand as some of my favorites of all time. I would, in fact, place Lady Vengeance in the #2 slot on that list. Of all movies, of all time. And Oldboy would not be far behind.
I was pretty obsessed with Lady Vengeance when it came out. If you were around LJ at the time, you may recall my incessant rambling about it and how much I loved it, even before I'd seen it. I collected all the pictures I could find on the internet, I named the soundtrack my favorite album of whichever year I got it (also before I'd seen the movie) and during it's two week run in LA and Irvine, I saw the movie 12 times. Yep, 12. I feel pretty strongly about it.
The full length films Park has made since the trilogy, I'm A Cyborg, But That's OK and Thirst have also been very enjoyable for me, but still have not quite reached the same level. At this point, I'm not sure where my expectations for Stoker should be. It just made it's debut at Sundance and reviews I've come across were somewhat mixed, despite it's 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I do expect to love it, I'm just not sure how much. Doesn't hurt that it has a score by Clint Mansell and stars Mia Wasikowska who I've been a fan of for a while now.
And later on in 2013, we should be seeing Bong Joon-ho's debut, Snowpiercer.
Look at that cast! As far as I know, there isn't a set release date yet, the film is in post-production now, and the first images of production are just starting to come out, so it might be a little while before it hits. Considering Bong's resume, though, of Memories Of Murder, The Host, Mother and Barking Dogs Never Bite this is yet another one that I can see no reason not to expect great things from.
It's based on a French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, which has not been translated into English to the best of my knowledge.
So... it's a good time to be a fan of Korean cinema in the United States. I don't expect any of these films will start a trend of Asian, or even foreign, directors coming over here to make movies any more than they already do, but I sincerely hope that they might at least buck the trend of those directors coming over and making below average films. I guess we'll see.
In the meantime, I am ready to judge for myself when I get a chance to see The Last Stand. It's not a project I would have chosen for Kim Jee-woon myself, but being familiar with his work to date, I trust him to make it worth my while.