Spinning straight out of last week’s Richard’s Five to Watch, South Korean Cinema; we delve into the world of South Korean super-director Kim Jee-woon. A leading light for the future of filmmaking, Kim is not only one of the greatest auteurs in Korea, but to this writer’s mind, the entire world. If Kim Jee-woon’s work would’ve been included in last week’s article they would’ve taken up at least four of the five spots, so it’s probably best that he gets his own space.
The word auteur is banded around a lot in film journalism, and for the most part misused. Many claim masters of the art form such as Hitchcock, Spielberg and Scorsese to be auteurs, but in truth an auteur is one who moulds his work from conception through to its very end. Here Kim has one up on all the above names, a storyteller in its purest form, he has written all six of his directorial outings.
And it is here where his genius lies. Not content working within any one genre, each one of Kim’s films has studied a different genre, while twisting it to his own whims, taking what is expected then shaking it up and letting it resettle, presenting something truly original yet somehow familiar and comfortable.
But just as masterful as the writing is the directing. His films always look slick on the surface, but besides this they entirely support his intension. Where he wants tension you’ll find yourself gripping the arm of your seat, where he wants action you’ll find yourself leant forward in disbelief, and where he wants scares you’ll find yourself hiding behind your hand or jumping out of your skin.
In short, he makes some of the best versions of whatever genre he takes a stab at. So lets look at some of them in more detail.
The Quiet Family: Buying a guesthouse in the countryside, a family are horrified to find that their very first visitor has committed suicide. Fearing for their new business, a cover-up is attempted, but their bumbling efforts are only met with more accidental deaths.
As Kim Jee-woon’s debut feature The Quiet Family proved his deftness in handling touchy subject matters that could easily ride out of control. A black comedy of the truest kind, the film always handles its macabre story with a light touch that keeps it one step away from being morbid. If the story seems familiar it’s because mental Japanese director, Takashi Miike, remade it as the bat-shit musical The Happiness of the Katakuris.
A Tale of two Sisters: After a brief stay at a mental care institute, due to trauma suffered at the death of their mother, two sisters are released into the care of their recently remarried father. But with the parent figures acting ever more cold and erratically, and happily ignoring the strange happenings within the house, what are the sisters to do?
Kim’s foray into horror is a pitch perfect addition to the genre. Capitalising on the popularity of the j-horror movement of the time, A Tale of Two Sisters is a classier affair that boils incredibly slowly and atmospherically, up to its four or so major scares, which are some of the most effecting in recent times.
A Bittersweet Life: A calm minded gang enforcer is charged with looking after his boss’ latest mistress, but when it becomes clear that he has feelings for her, the entire gang turns against him.
Kim’s gangster movie differs from most by its adherence to including instances of adrenalin pumping action, yet somehow it remains gritty. What’ll really get you though is the ridiculously cool lead, the story directions that you never see coming and an escape from certain death that remains one of my all time favourite scenes in all cinemadom.
The Good, the Bad, the Weird: Following a chance meeting during a train heist, three rogues double deal and outplay each other for possession a map that could lead to untold riches, unfortunately, 1930’s Manchuria being as it is, a horde of bandits and the Japanese army also seek the map.
As the title would suggest, The Good, the Bad, the Weird owes more than a little to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but it doesn’t stick too closely to the set formula and therefore remains as unpredictable as his previous works. Flexing his directorial muscles a tad more than usual, the movie is an all out, period based action adventure whose climactic chase scene is genuinely breathtaking.
I Saw the Devil: A woman is brutally hammer-murdered by an opportunistic serial killer while she is on the phone to her fiancé, unfortunately for the killer her fiancé is a hard as nails security specialist who’ll stop at nothing to get his revenge.
Kim’s cat and mouse serial killer film ends its first act in a way that you’d expect to be the end of the film, and in a western take on this subject it would have been; but here Kim is only just starting, and what follows is a story of such intrigue and brutality that it really does have to be seen to be believed.
As stated above Kim Jee-woon has made six features in total, and while the one not listed (The Foul King, an underdog story about a downtrodden guy who decides to become a wrestling ‘baddy’ by night) is by no means an inferior film, it’s just not quite as outstanding as the rest of his phenomenal work.
Well that’s about as much gushing as I’m capable of, but don’t think I’m overdoing it, check the films out for yourself and see what I’m talking about. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.