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Kim Jee Woon - Irony with Style

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

The continuing popularity of Korean Cinema around the world has seen a number of directors thrust into the international limelight, notably the likes of Park Chan Wook and Bong Joon Ho. However, perhaps the most successful of these newly crowned industry leaders has been their countryman Kim Jee Woon, one of the few Korean, or indeed Asian filmmakers to have consistently seen his work enjoy box office success not only at home but also abroad with his on target blend of eccentric originality and commercial acumen. A writer-director who has rapidly become known for his visual craftsmanship and storytelling skills, Kim has won over the critics as well as audiences, having become a regular at international film festivals and having claimed a number of prestigious awards. Even more impressively, he has done this by switching between a wide variety of genres, never being afraid to try his hand at something new and proving himself equally comfortable with comedy, horror, or action. His chameleon-like ability to innovate and breathe fresh life into tired forms was exemplified by his latest work, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, the first ever "kimchi western".

Although Kim has found success with different types of films, the director himself prefers to think that he works with themes rather than rigid genre conventions and definitions. As such, despite their disparate premises, his works can all be tied together, chiefly by the helmer's fondness for finding a certain sense of irony in any given situation or character, whether it be comic, tragic, or deeply humanistic. A lack of communication between people is a subject which often drives his films, at times between different groups or generations, and at times with his protagonists simply being unable to know or understand themselves. Another key characteristic of Kim's films is his keen eye for detail and immaculate sense of presentation. In addition to writing and directing, Kim has also been involved in the set design and production of his films, as well as the choice of music. This level of control and perfectionism, coupled with his obvious knowledge of and love for the rich history of the medium and its many masters, has resulted in a wonderfully cinematic style.

From the Stage to the Screen

Born May 27, 1964 in Seoul, Kim Jee Woon actually started his career on the stage. Although he entered Seoul Institute of the Arts, he soon left to begin work in the theatre, initially as an actor and then as a stage director. These beginnings clearly had an influence on his later film work, as he retained a meticulous approach to all aspects of his productions, apparently still using storyboards to plan shooting schedules.

Kim made the leap to the silver screen with his 1998 debut feature The Quiet Family. The film was actually based upon his second ever script, which had won him top prize in a local screenwriting competition. The film was a dark farce which follows the odd fortunes of the Kang family, who attempt to escape from the pressures of modern urban living by buying an isolated rural inn. After a long period without any guests, a mysterious stranger turns up and takes room for the night, then promptly commits suicide. Terrified of attracting bad publicity, the older members of the family decide to bury the corpse in the woods rather than report it. Unfortunately this sets in motion a chain of events and a rapidly increasing number of cadavers for them to deal with as they desperately try to keep their hotel running.

Kim brought a charming innocence to the morbid subject matter that recalls Capra's classic Arsenic and Old Lace. His script was slyly amusing and avoided the kind of gruesome slapstick that might have been expected, taking a cynical delight in the ironic manner in which pretty much everything imaginable goes wrong despite the family's best efforts - a theme which he would return to in his later works. Kim took a controlled approach to his direction, working in plenty of skillful camera work, including some wonderful long shots and complex crane work. The film received a boost from his imaginative choice of music, which included songs from a number of American bands, including The Stray Cats, Love and Rockets and even The Partridge Family, whose "I Think I Love You" plays during a suitably inappropriate moment.

The film proved successful, in part thanks to its amazing cast, which included Song Kang Ho (who went on to become one of Korea's most popular actors, starring in The Host, and Kim's The Foul King and The Good, the Bad, the Weird), Choi Min Sik (who played the title role in Park Chan Wook's Old Boy and starred in a number of other Korean blockbusters such as Shiri) and Jung Jae Young. Its popularity saw it enjoy a fruitful run at international festivals, with Kim winning awards and nominations at Stiges and Fantasporto. The appeal of the film was underlined a few years later in 2001, when Japanese auteur Takashi Miike remade it as The Happiness of the Katakuris, though arguably to lesser effect.

Wrestling with Comedy

With The Foul King in 2001, Kim stuck with comedy, though of a very different kind. Again with Song Kang Ho in the lead, the film revolves around a meek bank clerk called Dae Ho who decides to train as a wrestler to escape from the pressures of his work and to find a way of overcoming his bullying boss. He takes on the mantle and mask of a legendary wrestler famed for his cheating ways, and as his skills slowly improve, he gradually reclaims his life, becoming a public sensation in the process.

Despite its premise, The Foul King is not a spoof, and contains surprisingly little in the way of slapstick. Whilst certainly a comedy, and a funny one at that, the film has many layers of depth, with Dae Ho's journey providing an exploration of the intensely competitive and aggressive modern Korea, where "only the strong survive" is an oft-repeated mantra. As such, the film is part underdog character drama and part superhero tale, as his wrestling career develops into a second life and he tries to keep his identity hidden. The irony of a shy, bumbling bank teller hiding behind the mask of a ferocious brawler drives the film, and Kim plays upon this for maximum effect, never taking the easy route, and ensuring that Dae Ho remains a believable and intensely sympathetic figure.

His exploits certainly struck a chord with local audiences, as the film was a massive box office hit, racking up more than two million ticket sales and giving Kim his first real blockbuster. The film also enjoyed a successful tour of festivals around the world, winning Kim Best Director at Milan and the Audience Award at Udine, underlining the universal appeal of its message.

In 2001 Kim took another shot at comedy with the short film Coming Out, returning to the horror-tinged laughs of The Quiet Family with the tale of a man whose sister asks him to videotape her confession, only to find out that she is in fact a vampire. This unexpected "coming out" makes for amusing viewing, anchored by effective character development and the obvious fun Kim has playing with the conventions of the form.

Tragic Ghosts

This can be seen as a precursor to Kim's first proper foray into the horror genre, which came in 2002 with Memories, his contribution to the anthology piece Three, an ambitious pan-Asian omnibus that also featured the work of directors Nimibutr Nonzee and Peter Chan. For the first time Kim eschewed humor, with a minimalist piece that begins with a husband (played by Jung Bo Suk) being tortured by disturbing visions of his missing wife (Kim Hye Su). The focus shifts to the wife as she wakes up in the middle of a deserted road with no memory of how she got there. Picking herself up she heads home, using clues in her belongings and hazy memories to guide her. The closer she gets to the apartment, the worse her husband's nightmares become.

Memories is easily the most effective segment of Three, with Kim stripping the horror experience down to its bare essentials for a genuinely creepy experience. With an eerie atmosphere that recalls the classic Carnival of Souls, and a number of well-judged scares peppered throughout its short running time, it keeps the viewer gripped through to its predictable, though nicely handled twist ending. Kim makes the short a highly visual affair, with almost no dialogue, shifting between different shooting styles and mediums to maintain an air of unease.

Kim made his horror feature debut the following year with A Tale of Two Sisters, an adaptation of a Joseon-era folk tale called Janghwa Hongryeon. The plot is updated to a contemporary setting, as two young sisters called Su Mi (Lim Soo Jung, who won the Best New Actress prize at the Blue Dragon Awards for her amazing performance) and Su Yeon (Moon Geun Young) return to their rural home after spending time in a psychiatric hospital. Their odd stepmother is clearly uncomfortable with their presence, switching between forced kindness and acts of cruelty. With their father seemingly unwilling to do anything, things gradually deteriorate, not least due to the fact that the house seems to be haunted by a ghost.

Although released during the height of the modern Asian ghost boom inspired by the likes of Ringu and The Eye, the film takes a different, far more psychologically grounded and ambiguous approach. Indeed, its horrors are far more complex than in the vast majority of its peers, with Kim keeping the viewer guessing as to whether or not the supernatural events are real, or merely hallucinations, and if so, from which character's perspective they are being seen. With a melancholy mood throughout, the film is in essence a tragedy, made clear by the devastating ironic twist ending, exploring themes of self-delusion and guilt. At the same time, Kim wisely never ignores the basic need for a horror film to be frightening, and he keeps the scares coming thick and fast, with some memorable scenes involving a bedroom ghost and a mysterious bloody sack. However, it is the film's visual design and sets that perhaps stick in the memory the most, with the house being a stunning creation, meticulously brought to creepy life through its creaking wooden floors, off-color wallpaper, and endless number of shadowy nooks and crannies.

A Tale of Two Sisters was a huge hit at the Korean box office, pulling in more than three million viewers. After a wave of critical approval and success at international festivals, winning Kim yet more prizes at the likes of Fant-Asia, Stiges and Fantasporto, the film received a big screen release in most international markets - a rare achievement for a Korean production. Being hailed by many as the very best of the modern Asian ghost films, it was unsurprisingly picked up for a Hollywood remake by Dreamworks, which recently opened in cinemas as The Uninvited a rather confusing choice, sharing its title with another Korean horror starring popular actress Jeon Ji Hyun, which has itself been chosen for a Western remake.

La Dolce Vita

2005 saw another apparent change of pace for Kim with his neo-noir thriller A Bittersweet Life, which followed a gangster who runs into trouble with his boss after falling for his woman. Again, this simplistic sounding premise sets the scene for drama which, though admirably streamlined and free from needless subplots, runs deep with heartfelt feeling. Taking its title and cue from La Dolce Vita, Fellini's 1960 classic, the film was influenced by the works of French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville, with Kim drawing upon his use of cynical, detached protagonists and minimalist narratives. Indeed, as with his previous works, the film features many long, silent stretches, with meaning and motive being imparted visually or through the body language of the cast. For the lead, Kim chose acclaimed actor Lee Byung Hun, who turned in an excellent performance, managing to convey complex emotions and inner turmoil through glances and subtle movements. As a result, the film is a moving affair, catching viewers off-guard with its sadness and sense of loss.

Thematically, although many lazy critics were quick to compare it with Park Chan Wook's Old Boy, mainly due to its scenes of stylized bloody violence, the film actually has much in common with A Tale of Two Sisters, again featuring a confused protagonist who suffers as a result of a lack of self-knowledge and acceptance. This ironic conflict drives the film, and gives it a unique feel, with Kim refusing to throw viewers the kind of easy answers and neat character developments that they may be more used to in commercial cinema. Indeed, Lee Byung Hun's sentimental thug is something of a mythic figure, cutting through the ranks of his enemies in a manner not unlike that of Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone western - interestingly foreshadowing Kim's next outing. Visually, the film is gorgeous, with superb use of low-key colors and light that give it a classical feel. Unlike so many of his peers, Kim's direction is restrained and free from flashy techniques, though at the same time supremely accomplished.

The film was another critical and commercial hit for Kim, further cementing his status as one of the best and indeed most bankable directors in modern Korean Cinema. Winning well-deserved awards for its acting, the film saw a worldwide release and was invited to the Cannes Film Festival, where it screened out of competition to great praise.

Kimchi Western

Unsurprisingly, Kim's latest film saw him delving into yet another genre with the 2008 release The Good, the Bad, the Weird. As can be gleamed from the title, the film pays tribute to the iconic western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by Sergio Leone, a director he had long admired and whose works he had frequently referenced. Of course, with this being a Korean production, the film was labeled a "kimchi western" rather than a "spaghetti western" - underlining not only its nationality but also the sense of dynamism and spice that Kim injected into the proceedings. With a cast that boasted three of the industry's biggest names, the film represented somewhat of a change of pace for the director, being far more upbeat and action packed than his last few rather melancholic outings.

Shifting the action to the badlands of Manchuria in the 1930s, where many Koreans fled to escape the cruel Japanese occupation of their homeland, the film opens as eccentric bandit Dae Goo (Song Kang Ho) robs a train, snatching a treasure map from under the nose of rival outlaw Chang Yi (Lee Byung Hun). Dae Goo falls foul of bounty hunter Do Won (Jung Woo Sung), though the two decide to head off to find the treasure together, pursued not only by the psychotic Chang Yi but also by the Japanese army and hordes of other rival bandits.

Although it is fairly obvious which of the three main characters are the titular good, bad, and weird, all three are fascinating figures with their own backstory and motivations. As such, the plot is gripping, with Kim adding a surprising amount of emotional depth and ironic character reversals that give more meaning to the spectacle and violence. The film is certainly exciting, being filled with shootouts and thrilling chase scenes, and Kim keeps things moving along at a fast pace. His stylish direction makes the most of the epic desert vistas, as well as giving the action an exhilarating sense of danger, and the film makes for supremely entertaining viewing, marking perhaps his most commercially accessible outing to date. It certainly proved popular with domestic audiences, emerging as the biggest box office hit of the year, and again enjoyed similar success overseas, premiering at Cannes and being released on big screens around the world.

Few directors from anywhere in the world can boast such consistency, and having proved himself equally capable in every genre, Kim now stands at the very top of his profession, loved by audiences and critics alike. It is uncertain what form his next project will take, though whether it be comedy, drama, action, horror, or indeed anything else, viewers can be assured of being entertained by his trademark meticulous visual style and slyly ironic take on humanity.

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Published March 13, 2009

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