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100 Times Im Kwon Taek, Part II

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With today's ten-million ticket sellers like Lee Joon Ik's King and The Clown and Bong Joon Ho's The Host, it may be hard to grasp the significance of Sopyonje's one million tickets, but in 1993, it was like a tsunami hitting Korean movie theaters. Back then, the situation was different. The domestic share was at an embarrassing, all-time low of 15% and prospects for the future were grim at best, as chaebol filled their VHS blanks with cheap entertainment and auteurs struggled to find their voices in an increasingly cynical film world. What director Im Kwon Taek and Sopyonje achieved in 1993 was simply amazing. It wasn't just the 196-day theater run, the wild praise, and the distinction of being the first Korean film ever to sell a million tickets in Seoul; it was the fact that it all happened during a time of deep crisis for Korean cinema. Sopyonje literally changed the industry. Just like King and The Clown, it brought people from all ages and backgrounds to theaters, some for the first time in many years.

But where does one go after such overwhelming success? At this point, Im had already scored multiple hits in a row, and returning to the commercial action cinema of the General's Son trilogy didn't seem the best of ideas. With just about every option available on the table, Im took his closest friends and allies of many battles, DP Jung Il Sung and producer Lee Tae Won, and embarked on one of his most ambitious projects to date, The Taebaek Mountains.

It's virtually unknown overseas, but Jo Jong Rae's masterpiece The Taebaek Mountains enjoyed the kind of popularity only a few novels can ever dream of reaching. It sold over five million copies in six years and was voted best Korean novel by a selection of 50 famous critics and writers. The adaptation was deemed a nearly impossible task by most film people, especially within the limitations of a film's running time. Not only was it too much of a risk, it was also a gigantic task, considering the novel spanned ten volumes. The experience was comparable to what Peter Jackson had to go through to make The Lord of the Rings, although we're clearly dealing with polar opposites in terms of genre.

One of the best films of the 90s, Im's The Taebaek Mountains shone for the same reasons that made the book legendary: it didn't take sides in an issue that divided the country, the ideological divide which eventually led to the Korean War. With Im regular Ahn Sung Ki starring as the nationalist Kim Beom Woo, the film follows the struggles of both partisans and anti-communist forces during the first battles around Jeolla Province, firmly pointing the blame on the relationship between landlords and tenants and focusing on how land became the major force influencing power shifts. The film didn't do too well, selling only a tad over 200,000 tickets, but Kim Gab Su and Ahn Sung Ki's acting paired with the usual masterful work by Jung Il Sung makes The Taebaek Mountains one of the 90s' most memorable films.

With Chungmuro starting to show legs at the box office in 1996 with Gang Je Gyu's The Gingko Bed, director Im went in the opposite direction and focused on the formula which made Sopyonje a masterpiece, mixing modern sentiments with traditional elements. Festival, just like Park Chul Soo's Farewell, My Darling (curiously released the same year), dealt with the tradition of Korean funerals, which is closer to a festival atmosphere than the bleakness associated with it in the West. Bringing back Ahn Sung Ki once again, the film was successful in showing the various cultural aspects of the tradition (always one of Im's strongest points), but also lacked the down-to-earth feeling and wild chaos of Park Chul Soo's film, which in many ways was superior. The film was a major failure, bringing a mere 50,000 people to theaters despite being adapted from a Lee Cheong Joon novel just like Sopyonje. Back to the drawing board for Im.

1997 was one of Chungmuro's most interesting years. Although the biggest success came with the saccharine tearjerking histrionics of The Letter, there were plenty of excellent, original works like Jang Yoon Hyun's superior urban romance The Contact, Song Neung Han's crazy gangster black comedy No. 3, Lee Chang Dong's fantastic Green Fish, and Im's Downfall. Despite doing relatively well at the box office and being Im's first film as screenwriter, Downfall has been remembered more for Shin Eun Kyung's extremely revealing performance than for anything dealing with the film itself. Cast right after a drunk driving scandal which put her career in jeopardy, Shin gave it her all in Downfall, which uses prostitution to reflect the changes Korean society went through between the 70s and 90s. Shin, Im, and crew spent more than two months in the red light district to better understand the psychology of the business. Despite Im's usual fragmented storytelling, the film had good performances and managed to say something intelligent, but it was not well received by critics and is still unfairly remembered as one of the darkest moments in Im's career.

The amazing growth of the Korean industry between the mid-90s and 2000 was something even the most optimistic of film people couldn't have possibly predicted. But between all the commercial success and overseas acclaim, something was lost in the frenzy: Chungmuro had changed so much that the old traditions were nearly gone. The market adopted a distribution system similar to that of Hollywood, foreign sales became just as important as the domestic market, and Korean films started to make an impact abroad beyond the occasional festival appearances. The old masters, Bae Chang Ho being the easiest example, had a hard time adapting to the new rhythm and dynamics of the industry, and Im was under the same risk. When he released Chunhyang in 2000, all those fears vanished in a moment.

The story is perhaps the most popular of them all in Korean cinema history. The love story between Chunhyang and Mongryong has been used in Korean films ever since the beginning, and between TV and the big screen, there were already over a dozen adaptations when Im decided to give it a go. With a budget of three billion won to recreate the culture and traditions of the Joseon era, Im's Chunhyang, starring newcomers Cho Seung Woo and Lee Hyo Jung, was a strange combination of experimental techniques with traditional themes. For the first time ever (or at least since kino dramas went out of fashion in the 30s), Im used pansori to tell the famous story, with the help of master Jo Sang Hyun's gigantic on-stage presence. The film did relatively well at home, and even better overseas, with an invitation to Cannes and theater releases all over the West. In some ways it's one of Im's most overrated works, as under the novelty value of Jo Sang Hyun's pansori lies the same old folk tale, even embellished by a touch of unnecessary orientalism. Yet Im managed successfully to reconnect the young generation with their roots, in the same way Sopyonje did seven years earlier, and deliver a quality film.

On the other hand, Im's 98th film, Chihwaseon, is perhaps one of his most underrated. At first sight it looks like the usual solid work by Im, a little too fragmented in its storytelling to make an impact. But seen repeatedly over the years, it gains considerably, like whiskey leaving an aftertaste. Be it Choi Min Sik's monstrous charisma, the romanticism and thinly veiled connections to the Donghak Revolution (which was at the center of his 1991 film Fly High, Run Far), or the jaw-droppingly beautiful cinematography, Chihwaseon draws a picture of famous late Joseon painter Jang Seung Eop that smells, looks, and feels just like his painting - "strokes of fire", as the Korean title suggests. With Chihwaseon, Im won his most important international award to date, the Best Director award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.

2004's Low Life wasn't received too well either. Some even compared it to Downfall, as Im trying to go back to the commercialism of the General's Son trilogy but failing to understand how cinematic sensibilities had changed in the last decade. In many ways it was deserved criticism, but Low Life will likely be reconsidered in a different light years from now. It does feel like a reworking of the Kim Doo Han trilogy, but in it one can find a slightly autobiographical slant, with Chungmuro of the 60s and 70s almost perfectly rendered, along with impeccable sets and props. It also showed how much actors like Cho Seung Woo and particularly Kim Min Sun had matured in the last few years, closing in great fashion with a song by the godfather of Korean folk rock, master Shin Joong Hyun.

100. One hundred films is something only a handful of directors can reach in mature film industries, and doing so with films of the caliber Im Kwon Taek has directed over the last 40 plus years is an even more impressive feat. In 2007, he finally reaches that mark with Beyond the Years, a follow-up to Sopyonje. Based on the same Lee Cheong Joon novella as that of Sopyonje, the film sees Oh Jung Hae reprising her role as a blind, wandering pansori singer and Cho Jae Hyun portraying her brother, who spends a lifetime chasing after her. Though Beyond the Years did not make any impact on the box office, it matches Sopyonje in terms of artistic achievement.

Im Kwon Taek is undoubtedly one of the most influential directors in the history of Korean cinema. He has made films of all kind, from the cheap historical dramas of his early days to the ode to humanism that was Mandala, from entertaining action films like The General's Son trilogy to ambitious adaptations like The Taebaek Mountains and Sopyonje. Im will always feature in Chungmuro's virtual Hall of Fame, as his films and legacy are walking examples of how the Korean film industry has changed, shaped by society, history, and, of course, people like Im Kwon Taek.

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Published August 20, 2007

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