Korean Cinema – 버닝 (Burning)

Burning is a taut and thrilling adaptation of one of Murakami’s most intriguing short stories, Barn Burning.

Of course Burning is not a literal retelling of Murakami’s story, it has been tweaked and reworked seeing as it is only a 20 page story and the film is over 2 hours long. These tweaks work so well and contribute to a study of Korean society that feels raw and rather brutal. It’s a classic example of class division, of the psychological harm that jealousy incurs and perhaps obsession.

Burning follows a young man called Jong-su, he works several part time jobs in a struggle to survive in Seoul, one day he meets Hae-mi, an old acquaintance from his hometown and they start seeing each other. Hae-mi goes travelling to Africa and asks Jong-su to look after her cat even though he has just moved back to his family farm in Paju. Jong-su performs his task diligently without ever encountering the cat. When Hae-mi returns from Africa she is accompanied by Ben a young successful man. And thus the tension begins between the two males.

Having Jong-su and Hae-mi come from simple means the sudden appearance of Ben a metropolitan man who drives a Porsche and lives in Gangnam is rather jarring and as an audience we never warm to his character. And he only gets more and more suspicious in his smugness and rather disturbing collection in his bathroom and the revelation that he likes to burn greenhouses. Abandoned greenhouses that take less than 10 minutes to completely disappear. At this point you start to think that he is just a rich boy on a power trip, later however when Hae-mi goes missing it becomes apparent that burning greenhouses is just a metaphor for something far more nefarious…or is it?

That’s the best thing about Lee’s direction, we are never really told anything concrete. Can we completely trust Jong-su, is he not just completely overcome with jealousy, Ben seems to have everything, success, fast cars, a beautiful apartment and a loving family. Is Jong-su imagining the scenario or is Ben really a psychopathic murderer of Women?

It’s a shame that Burning didn’t make it into the nominations for best foreign film for the Academy Awards this year as this is a masterfully conducted thriller. The acting especially by Yoo Ah-in and Steven Yeun is electrifying, they fit so well into their respective roles. The soundtrack heightens tension terrifically and the cinematography feels at moments whimsical and then all of a sudden concise and rigid.

Let me know in the comments section what you thought of the film.

Korean Cinema – 누구의 딸도 아닌 해원 (Nobody’s Daughter Haewon)

Poignant, thought provoking and subtly charming. Hong Sang-soo blends reality and whimsy in this snapshot of life.

Haewon is a young woman still trying to find her place in the world when she finds herself abandoned by her mother who has suddenly decided to emigrate to Canada. And to make matters worse soon after her affair with a melancholy married professor comes to light, she is thus ostracised by her classmates and feels utterly alone. 

I loved the simple direction in this film which made it feel really real, like I was simply observing a moment in someone else’s life. This effect was also helped by the natural and conversational dialogue and the lack of a soundtrack (except for a key recurring song). This style of filmmaking is to me simply wonderful, it’s perhaps the closest you can get to reading a book which makes it an utterly charming experience to watch.

Another key factor that makes Nobody’s daughter Haewon such an interesting watch is the abundance of recurring motives throughout the film. And for the sake of not spoiling what that alludes to I’m just going to leave it there. So if you haven’t watched the film yet keep your eyes peeled for them and if you have seen this indie gem then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

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You can catch this film and 5 more of Hong Sang-soo’s films as part of the Mubi “selectrospective” of the prolific directors filmography titled Solving Puzzles: The Cinema of Hong Sang-soo. If you don’t want to miss this movie Mubi works is a little different to Netflix or other online streaming platforms so you do have to watch the films within 30 days before they disappear from the library making way for new content!

P.S. I have started a little film club over on Instagram on my Film Account so if you fancy joining head over there and get involved!!! This film was my first pick as I was super excited to find out about Mubi showcasing Hong Sang-soo’s work as most of his films have never been released here in the UK!!

Korean Cinema – 올드보이 (Oldboy)

Park Chan Wook’s most famous film Oldboy is an epic tale of revenge, it was adapted from the Japanese manga of the same name. The film follows a man imprisoned for 15 years until he is released seemingly unexpectedly one day and his path to vengeance.

Park Chan Wook is a very visual director, his films are so immersive and beautifully shot. In Oldboy, the juxtaposition of ultra-violence with smaller more tender moments makes the film a rather emotional affair. It’s a movie not for the faint-hearted as the violence is rather graphic and the shock Oedipal twist is rather demented.

Park himself hinted that he was very much inspired by Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex. He gave his protagonist the name Oh Dae-su to be evocative of the incestuous King and elevated antagonist Woo-jin through a rather striking and preternatural yoga pose which was designed to represent Apollo, the god that gave Oedipus the prophecy. Moreover, the fact that Woo-jin guided most of the events in the film and lived in a swanky high tech penthouse (a metaphor for Olympus) only furthered that image of Godlike power over Dae-su the lowly mortal man unable to fight against the guiding hand of fate. It’s rather intriguing to view the film as a modern take on the Greek Tragedy as it adds a whole layer of meaning to the already complex and intriguing storyline.

Park Chan Wook is undeniably one of the greatest filmmakers in modern cinema whose work only goes from strength to strength. I am currently working my way through his filmography, so far I have seen (in order) Stoker, I’m a Cyborg but that’s OK, The Handmaiden, Thirst and now Oldboy. Chan Wook’s trademark violence, lush cinematography and wit really is an intriguing combination that’s hard to find elsewhere in Cinema.

Korean Cinema - 부산행 (Train to Busan)

Setting a Zombie film on a train (from Seoul to Busan) is a genius move, it’s a new spin on a genre which is swiftly becoming unoriginal. With such a setting the whole feeling of the film becomes claustrophobic and hectic seeing as there’s not much space to run and hide in a moving vehicle. Also considering the fact that the film is set on public transport most of the characters are unfamiliar with each other outside of the people they are travelling with, this then separates the good from the bad and we quickly warm to the strangers who band together and help each other out and we grow to hate the selfish characters (namely Kim Eui-sung‘s villain Yon-suk) that compromise everyone else’s safety for their own.

Having seen Gong Yoo in the fantastic drama Goblin I was very much aware of his proficiency as an actor but from watching Train to Busan I was yet again impressed as I didn’t expect the film to become so emotional. Gong Yoo’s Seok-Woo started the film off as a relatively unlikable guy, a divorced workaholic with very little time for his young child but through the trials of trying to survive a mass zombie apocalypse, he slowly becomes the hero that you root for. In a way his character development reminds me of Alan Grant’s in Jurassic Park (disliked the kids to begin with but became a hero and saved them and became a father figure to them in the end), he is a man who absolutely has no time for others and is put out by his own child in the beginning but by the end of it he has become somewhat of a model father to his daughter. It’s in creating this character juxtaposition that makes the journey you take with Seok-Woo all that more investing especially at the conclusion of the film.

However, I do have one criticism of the film and that is the particular sequence involving the tunnels and the darkness it creates as this was something that was used in Snowpeircer another Korean film. It was still a cool sequence but having seen it used before it didn’t make as much of an impact as it would have if it were an entirely new idea.

Overall I really enjoyed the film and I was pleasantly surprised that the film had such an emotional depth to it to the point that I actually cried at the end which is something I have never done when watching a Zombie film.

Korean Cinema - 싸이보그지만 괜찮아 (I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK)

I’m a Cyborg, but that’s OK released in 2006 is Park Chan-Wook‘s 7th film as director and is a romantic comedy set in a mental institution.

The film follows Cha Young-Goon (Im Soo-Jung) a young woman who believes she is a Cyborg, she wanders around talking to machines and licking batteries to charge and Park Il Soon (Rain) a young man who to his belief can steal people’s skills and traits, he himself wanders around often wearing homemade cardboard rabbit masks spying on people to find possessions he wants to steal from them.

I’m a Cyborg is a fundamentally a love story at it’s heart, a totally oddball, disturbing yet endearing one and the nearest comparisons I can make in western cinema would be Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie and possibly Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Michel Gondry but even these films aren’t a great comparison when you take a look at the film a little deeper. And I must say I fell in love with the tone of the film almost immediately due to its curious mix of cuteness and darkness, at one point Cha goes homicidal and shoots all the doctors at the institution, while this is, of course, a delusion it’s still quite a bloody and jarring moment in the film and the way she transforms into this cyborg killing machine with fingers as guns is quite disturbing yet amusing at the same time. Then in contrast  in another scene Park Il-Soon pretends to fit a device into Cha’s back to help her digest food (as she has been starving herself due to her belief that she is a cyborg) it’s perhaps the cutest moment of the film as us viewers get to see a kind and empathetic side to Park who delicately draws a door on her back with a pencil while pretending that he is actually using a knife to cut her open so he can fit the device , It’s just such a beautiful and sweet moment that melted my heart.

Another great thing about I’m a Cyborg is the cinematography and how lovely the colour palette is, in a way the film feels like an enchanting fairy tale (albeit with a dark undertone) due to the sweeping camera movements, high-key lighting  and the airy colours of the sets make the film seem a lot more light-hearted than it actually is. This contrast in theme – an antisocial kleptomaniac & a delusional woman who is trying to find a way to kill orderlies to find her purpose in life find love and codependency in a mental institution – and presentation – pastel colours, bright lighting, quirky humour and cuteness abound – forms something of an oxymoron which in itself is representative of the film which is actually really clever.

Basically, Park Chan Wook is a genius and you’re doing yourself an injustice if you don’t watch this film.

ps. let me know your thoughts on the film in the comment section below I would love to know what you thought of this little gem.