New York Korean Film Festival 2007

October 7, 2007 at 8:36 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

It’s time once again to discover new and re-released films from a country with a growing artistic and financial presence in the Asian film industry. The 2007 New York Korean Film Festival is presented by Helio and organized by The Korea Society. Over the past decade Korean cinema has garnered more acclaim in the states with the emergence of auteurs Kim Ki-duk, Park Chan-wook and the popular Im Kwon-taek, whose rarer works are the subject of a retrospective in the festival.

This year’s films not only exemplify what seems to be a uniquely Korean talent for seamless genre blending and mixing, they also examine the important societal issues of familial relations, lingering political tensions and the increasing shallowness of national popular culture.

Family Ties
Kim Tae-young/South Korea 2006

Unfortunately, Kim Tae-young’s Family Ties could use with a little tightening of its own narrative threads. Family Ties is an omnibus film with three different stories, which are actually related in a way revealed in the last segment. The opening story involves small restaurant owner, Mi-ra (Moon So-ri), whose unstable brother Hyung-chul (Eom Tae-woong) returns after a mysterious five-year absence. Although Hyung-chul has caused the family distress in the past by lying and various stints in jail, Mi-ra is ecstatic at his return. That is, until he shows up with a new wife, Mu-shin (Ko Du-shim). The vivacious Mu-shin means well but is a bit uncouth for Mi-ra’s taste, not to mention several years older than her brother. The three are just getting used to each other when Hyung-chul invites the daughter of Mu-shin’s ex-husband’s ex-wife (follow that?) to live with them. The new addition stirs up buried tensions and resentments between him and Mi-ra.

The film abruptly moves on to the next story of a young tour-guide, Seon-gyeong (Gong Hyo-jin), trying desperately to join a touring company in Japan to get away from her family. In a bad relationship, and furious with her mother for having an affair with a married man and then having his child, Seon-gyeong lashes out at everyone around her. When she finds out that her mother is terminally ill, she must decide how much family means to her, if anything. Finally, there is the tale of a young couple dealing with fairly banal issues of jealousy and clinginess.

With each transition the story feels more disjointed and the characters get more unpleasant and unsympathetic. The viewer is thrown into each narrative in media res and is left to reconstruct the unfolding events from precious little backstory or information. By the time the mildly surprising connection between the different tales is revealed, I barely cared.

Although the performances are uniformly outstanding, the first story is by far the most affecting. When we are reunited with those characters at the end of the film I found myself wishing that the director had fleshed that segment out into a full-length piece. Family Ties has enough standout scenes to make it worthwhile but ultimately not enough focus or characterization to create a genuine emotional investment.

200-Pound Beauty
Kim Yong-hwa/South Korea 2006

This fun little gem is already a critical and commercial smash hit in South Korea and tackles the nationwide epidemic of plastic surgery. Depending on the source, the percentage of people going under the knife in South Korea is several times the rate of other industrialized nations, even the United States (you’d think the state of California would put us ahead). Perhaps most interesting or maybe troubling is that the most popular procedures – the double-eyelid surgery (to create a fold) and a procedure to raise the bridge of the nose – change the face to assimilate to a more Western aesthetic.

In 200-Pound Beauty, overweight Hanna Kang (the lovely Kim Ah-jung in a fat suit) is a part-time phone sex operator and provides the voice for lip-synching pop star Ammy (Seo Yun). She is in love with Ammy’s producer Sang-jun (Ju Jin-mo), one of the few people that treats her well and recognizes her talent. One night, after Ammy humiliates her at Sung-jun’s birthday party, Hanna hides out in the bathroom. She overhears Sung-jun telling Ammy that Hanna is repulsive but they must be nice to her or they won’t be able to release another album. Heartbroken, Hanna disappears for a year and undergoes a dramatic head-to-toe plastic surgery makeover.

The now slim and gorgeous Hanna becomes Jenny, a Korean-American from California who (re-)auditions to be Ammy’s secret singer. As a curious side note, I wondered why all the Korean singers in the film almost exclusively covered old and translated American pop songs – when else was the last time you heard Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” or Deborah Harry’s “Maria”? Apparently, they’re still huge hits across the ocean. With one look and listen Sung-jun realizes that Jenny is actually the better investment. In a hilarious follow up scene his smarmy co-producer comments that Jenny is too natural and asks her to “fix” her eyes and nose, to which she feigns being appalled. Things seem to be falling into place for the new Hanna but as she becomes forced to lie and compromise her values, she soon realizes that – wait for it – beauty can’t buy happiness!

Predictably, the thin premise of 200-Pound Beauty starts to unravel halfway through with the characters getting involved in increasingly ludicrous situations. However, the ending takes a surprisingly measured and realistic approach to the complex issues around plastic surgery. While the fact is that the world is a kinder place for the beautiful, what does one lose by conforming instead of resisting? Kim Ah-jung is delightful as both Hanna and Jenny and she is credited as doing her own singing for the soundtrack, which is very impressive. The rest of the cast is also strong and provides an equal number of the film’s laughs. Overall, 200-Pound Beauty is a simple Cinderella story that is a lot of fun and addresses a concern that everyone in today’s society can relate to.

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