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100 Times Im Kwon Taek, Part I

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Oscar Wilde once said life imitates art far more than art imitates life, an expression which in many ways fits Im Kwon Taek's career perfectly. He didn't have the benefit of attending a prestigious film school, didn't have connections which eased his way to the top, and it took him a good fifteen years to find his real talent. Im's road to become a legendary director respected all over the world is his greatest story, and many of his films took pages from his remarkable life. Im recently released his 100th film, Beyond the Years, a feat which will be hard to repeat in today's Chungmuro, where most directors can be considered lucky if they can shoot a film per year. Hopefully, this represents just an important chapter of his career and not the last.

Im Kwon Taek was born in a little town in southern Jeolla Province in 1936, but coming from a leftist family made it hard for him, especially during the war. In his youth, he moved to the other side of the country (Busan in Gyungsang Province) looking for work, and was able to start a little business turning used U.S. Army boots into shoes. When that didn't work out, the young man moved to Seoul in 1956. With the capital trying to rise to the occasion after the tragedy of the war, and the film industry starting a renaissance which would lead it to the 60s Golden Age, Im found himself instantly attracted to this new world. Entering the film industry would mean a good source of income and decent working conditions, so when a friend introduced him to the Godfather of Korean Action Cinema, Jung Chang Hwa, he instantly started his career in Chungmuro as a production assistant, along with Jung Jin Woo who would later become an acclaimed director as well.

Im's beginning was quite humble, starting out as not much more than an errand boy for the director, but it eventually paid off. In 1962 he finally made his debut, Farewell to the Duman River. Back then Im was still learning the tricks of the trade and trying to put to use the teachings of his mentor, which resulted in a lot of cheaply made quick entertainment that took advantage of current trends. One thing Im instantly understood was the popularity of sageuk (historical dramas), and many of his hits between the 60s and 70s dealt with the Joseon Dynasty. Perhaps his most important work during the 60s was a trilogy of historical dramas dealing with one of the most turbulent periods in history. With A Wife Turned To Stone in 1963, one of Im's first big successes, he told the tragic story of Prince Sado's death. A year later he made a virtual follow-up with The Prince's Revolt, dealing with the Crown Prince's righthand man Hong Guk Young, and also The Ten Year Rule, again dealing with the Hong's family influence in Joseon politics and King Yeongjo's policies. In 1968, as a way to pay back all the faith show in him by his mentor, Im remade Jung Chang Hwa's 1961 historical drama Jang Heebin, with superstar Shin Sung Il playing King Sook Jong and impressive production values for the period.

Critics tend to say Im's early career was far from impressive, a mixture of convenient compromise and journeyman's craftsmanship. But Im clearly knew the limits of the kind of filmmaking he was virtually trapped into. Producers wanted more and more films to fill import quotas, and they needed prolific directors to deliver. Im was just one of them. But something started to change in the early 70s. With The Testimony in 1973, young Im Kwon Taek started tasting international acclaim, seeing his film crowned at the 20th Asian Film Festival, which awarded Best Actress to lead Kim Chang Sook, along with the prizes they already won at home. When Im remade Shin Bong Seung's super TV hit The Hidden Princess a year later, and experienced its quick death at the box office (a mere 9,000 tickets in Seoul), his sensibilities started to walk towards quality, rather than quantity.

Im's first classic was arguably 1976's Commando on the Nakdong River, a war film which won him his first Best Director prize at the Baeksang Awards, starting Im's impressive winning streak at all the three major award ceremonies in Korea. He wasn't as prolific as he used to be, his films weren't as successful at the box office, but the late 70s saw a breakthrough for Im. His 1978 film The Genealogy, focusing on the controversial colonial ruling which forced Koreans to cancel their heritage by adopting Japanese names, failed miserably at the box office but found acclaim at Nantes and Munchen, and brought Im another Best Director Award at the Daejong Film Awards. Im's time to shine came with 1981's Mandala, still considered by many to be his best film. Starring Ahn Sung Ki and adapted from a novel by Kim Sung Dong, Mandala was Im's first serious attempt to tackle Buddhist themes, which would both bring him fame later with films like Come, Come, Come Upwards and even trouble, as 1984's Biguni was halted midway when a Buddhist protest group blocked production. Mandala won enormous acclaim, with seven major prizes at the Daejong Awards, including Best Director, Screenplay, and Actor.

The 80s were an incredible decade for Im, who produced great films one after another. With 1982's Village in the Mist, he showed Jung Yoon Hee wasn't just a pretty face, but also a great actress, and again over a half dozen awards fell in the film's hands. The great Daughter of the Flames the same year dealt with one of Im's favorite themes, shamanism, and was invited to Cannes. While Chungmuro's commercial output dealt much too often with erotic period dramas, Im focused on touchy themes like prostitution (Ticket), the Korean divide (his masterpiece Gilsotteum), the role of women in the Joseon Dynasty and how it still resonated decades later (The Surrogate Woman), and even Yeonsan's rule (Diary of King Yeonsan), with an unforgettable performance by Yoo In Chon as the king of the title, recently reprised by Jung Jin Young in the superhit King and the Clown.

Up until 1989, Im Kwon Taek was nearly an unknown entity overseas, if we exclude his few festival appearances, like Kang Su Yeon's Venice Film Festival Best Actress Award for The Surrogate Woman. Sadly despite the improvement in the availability of Im's films, every single one of his films before 1989 - except The Surrogate Woman - is still without a DVD release. Even though we can only enjoy no more than 10% of his impressive output, there's still plenty of great little gems from one of Korea's greatest directors to be enjoyed out there. Let's take a look:

Come, Come, Come Upwards (1989)

After classics like Kim Ki Young's 1974 film Pagye and Im's own Mandala, here's the female answer to his 1981 film. Starring Kang Su Yeon and Han Ji Il, Come, Come, Come Upwards revolves around a young woman discovering the essence of Buddhism through a personal journey full of difficulties and illuminating moments. Kang won the Best Actress Award at the 16th Moscow Film Festival, along with the usual array of domestic awards.

The General's Son (1990)

In the 70s, Im made an agreement with his producers that he would make a few popular hits every now and then to allow him the space (and financial clout) to create his own art. But after a decade of successes and acclaim overseas, Im deserved a little breather, which came in the form of The General's Son trilogy. Telling the story of legendary folk hero Kim Doo Han, Im mixed old anti-colonialist sensibilities with and smartly choreographed fights and a great recreation of Jong-Ro during the colonial period. Starring Park Sang Min, Shin Hyun Jun, and Kim Seung Woo, the film was a rousing success, paving the way for two sequels, and putting Chungmuro's commercial cinema back on the map after over a decade of disappointments.

The General's Son 2 (1991)

After the underrated Fly High Run Far about the Donghak Movement at the end of the Joseon Dynasty, Im went back for a follow-up of his smash success from 1990, bringing back the same cast (including a new and promising actor making his first ever cameo appearance as a driver: none other than Im Kwon Taek!), and continuing Kim Doo Han's struggle against Japanese aggression on his own turf. The film once again was a success at the box office, winning Shin Hyun Jun a Best New Actor award at the 30th Daejong Film Awards.

The General's Son 3 (1992)

Some say the final chapter of Im's Kim Doo Han trilogy was a sort of Korean answer to The Godfather, Part 3, as it wasn't exactly well received by the audience. But it was a good conclusion to a very entertaining trilogy, and other than being worth mentioning for Oh Yeon Soo's impressive debut, it was also the quiet before the storm. With The General's Son trilogy, Im took a few years off from the kind of filmmaking which made him famous, but it was time well spent, considering what his next film would be.

Sopyonje (1993)

A legend in many ways. Adapted from Lee Cheong Joon's masterpiece about a family of soriggun (pansori performers), Sopyonje recorded an impressively long theater run, becoming the first ever Korean film to pass the million tickets sold milestone in Seoul. But numbers weren't the only impressive thing about the film. Like 2005's The King and The Clown, Sopyonje was able to make new viewers relate to old themes, go back to the roots they were losing sight of for years, and through the power of great storytelling, immerse everyone in one of the best stories Chungmuro told in the 90s. With an incredible performance from Oh Jung Hae, who would later become a regular of Im's film, Sopyonje killed the competition at the theater during its 196 days of theater run, and won acclaim all over the world, introducing many people not only to Im's work, but to Korean Cinema period. One of the best Korean films of all time.

In Part II, we'll follow Im Kwon Taek's post-Sopyonje work in detail, including his great letter of sorrow for the Korean divide with The Taebaek Mountains, a look at one of Korea's long standing traditions in Festival, and all the films leading to his monumental 100th title, Beyond the Years.

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Published August 6, 2007

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