South Korean movies pre-1990s were the red-headed stepchild of East Asian cinema. Never heralded by the international arthouse community like the Japanese or Mainland Chinese,nor was their popular cinema ever as wildly influential as Hong Kong's and for the most part they've avoided "cult-film" discovery by adventurous movie fans such as we've seem with Indonesia and the Philippines. But I think the time is ripe for a closer look at the weird and wild fantasy and exploitation cinema of South Korea, and though much of it remains unavailable for viewing even in Korea itself -making such rediscovery difficult- a few things are trickling through. There have been Korean DVDs of such odd horror titles as PUBLIC CEMETERY OF WOL-HA and the amazing A DEVILISH HOMICIDE, but the most interesting and important DVD revivals are the incredible films of auteur/oddball Kim Ki-young. In particular we will here take a look at a box set released last year in S.K. which collects four of his previously very hard to see films, and thanks the gods it does as these are some of the wildest "art/exploitation" films available on the world market.
Kim Ki-young began his career in the mid 1950s making anti-communist propaganda, weepy melodramas and neo-realist films for the then burgeoning post-war Korean market. These films were met with both critical acclaim and terrific box office receipts but a few like YANGSAN PROVINCE and A TOUCH-ME-NOT were as well criticized for breaking with the tenets of the faddish "realism" which gripped the South Korean industry entire. It was in 1960 however that Kim broke though those barriers completely with his expressionist masterpiece, the pyschosexual thriller THE HOUSEMAID, a big hit with the public it also proved influential in opening up the industry to the possibilities afforded by cinema fantastique (horror films proper start the next year with Lee Yong-min's THE BAD FLOWER). But in the eyes of conservative critics of the day, a pact had been broken. As Kim continued to go down his own very personal cinematic path these critics were quicker and quicker to dismiss his films as "grotesque" "obscene" "sadistic" and the like and while the movies continued to be popular they were further and further marginalized until he became better known as a maker of weird "quota" filling z-grade pictures than as the popular artist which indeed he was. His films of the 70s and 80s are as weird and personal as cinema gets, he often re-made his films over and over (THE HOUSEMAID gets the treatment twice with WOMAN OF FIRE and WOMAN OF FIRE '82) and generally began caring less and less if his films made any sense at all. Soon, his work was forgotten, and if remembered at all then dismissed as pure trash, until the video age of the late 1980s saw the rise of his cult within adventurous cineaste circles, many of whom later became great film-makers in their own right such as Park Chan-wook (OLDBOY) and Bong Joon-ho (THE HOST). A retrospective of his films in 1997 at the Pusan International Film Festival heralded his return to auteur status, only to be followed by his death some months later in a house fire. Some guys can never win.
Original Korean poster for THE HOUSEMAID
A decade and some further festival retrospectives later the cult is building again, this time among those in the west as well as in his country of origin. THE HOUSEMAID has been restored and has a DVD release from South Korea in the works with rumors as well (possibly purely speculative) of an upcoming R1 release from Criterion. But last year four of his very best films were released in an opulent, if highly imperfect, box set. Featuring the movies GORYEOJANG, THE INSECT WOMAN, PROMISE OF THE FLESH and I-EO ISLAND it is easily the most exciting DVD release of the last few years shedding light on this most obscure but important of "Asian Cult Cinema" autuers. Let's take a look at the movies and the presentations and I'll try to convince you that you need this in your collection.
The oldest film in the set and most "well-made" of the quartet, this film nonetheless bears all the wayward expressionist elements that define his most interesting work. A drama set in medieval Korea during a time of famine it examines the practice of Goryeojang, a ritual in which people over the age of 70 are taken to a mountain peak and left to die of exposure. This practice should be familiar to anyone who has seen Shoei Imamura's 1983 film BALLAD OF NARYAMA. But this movie is much weirder and more violent. There are several bloody deaths and even the unforgettable image of a live vulture pecking away at an old woman till she is nothing but rags and bones. There are many fantastical aspects as well with a Shaman-woman speaking with the dead and summoning rain storms. It's a really extraordinary picture, both moving as a drama and deeply compelling as a weird metaphysically-minded, violent cult film. The picture image is the best among the set and it sports by far the best subtitles, sadly however the movie is incomplete, like many of Kim's pre-1970s films (most of which are actually completely lost). Twice during the film, the screen goes black as two reels comprising about 20 minute of the movie are now lost to the ravages of time. The soundtrack remains, but this only helps to know what's going on somewhat and it's easy to get lost for much of the film's plot. Luckily the extraordinary conclusion remains (unlike the said-to-be-extraordinary conclusion of YANGSAN PROVINCE), with all its vultures, blood, murder and magick intact. Believe me, it's worth slogging though the incomplete parts to get to this overwhelming finale.
THE INSECT WOMAN (1972)
Another variation on THE HOUSEMAID, INSECT WOMAN deals directly with the theme which most occupied Kim's films - the battle of the sexes. A young daughter of a concubine whose father has died must fend for herself, her mother and her ne'er-do-well brother by becoming a concubine herself, having an affair with a lazy industrialist who suffers under the thumb of his overbearing wife, who is actually the brains behind the family fortune. His wife agrees to this situation in the hopes that it will cure him of his impotency (it does, but only with his mistress), and as these things are wont to go, tragedy eventually subsumes them all. Sound boring? Trust me, it isn't. The films burns with an almost hallucinogenic fervor, with bursting colors, odd camera angles, weird sex and bloodsucking babies. INSECT WOMAN veers into wild fantasy territory in it's third act, almost irresponsibly, without any care for plot consistency or realism and for that I'm very grateful. It never becomes certain whether the fantatical elements are indeed supernatural, or are a malevolent ruse or are simply fragments of the young concubines deranged mind. This ambivalence will surely turn some people off, but for me it strikes just the right key for the depiction of such oddness. Kim's talent for the weird comes to the fore in this masterpiece, probably my favorite film in the set, bringing to mind the intensity of Yasuzo Masumura's melodramas shot through with a wayward talent for weirdness that recalls none other than the great Jess Franco. Unfortunately the print of this film suffers the most of any in the set, being faded and speckled with dirt and debris throughout. Troublesome as well are the burned in Spanish subtitles, I'm guessing the print used for this DVD was the one provided to the Stiges Film Festival in the 70s. The English subtitles are OK, there are some grammatically awkward moments but things never get too confusing due to this. Despite these problems, THE INSECT WOMAN is one of the most interesting movies to premier on DVD in the last decade.
PROMISE OF THE FLESH (1975)
One of the many movies Kim made on the cheap for companies who, in order to import foreign (namely US) films, were forced by law to make a certain number of original Korean titles. These films tended to be extremely low-budget and filmed in 2-3 weeks tops with little time and care in creating something made to have lasting impact. Having trouble financing projects by this point despite as spate of recent hits including the aforementioned INSECT WOMAN, Kim found the freedom to follow his own perverse muse in this murky and oft-ignored realm. PROMISE is one such film, a remake of a much-loved Korean tearjerker called LATE AUTUMN that Kim turns on its head, making a sexually ravenous and deeply strange melodrama spilling over with bursts of color, slow-motion rape scenes, ridiculous character development and a wild giallo-esque score. Like most of Kim's films a synopsis does no good in revealing how the film actually plays. A beautiful but oft abused woman is paroled from prison for the day to visit the grave of her mother by train, where she meets the first nice and friendly man she seemingly has ever come across. Her accompanying parole officer encourages a relationship between the two to give the sad woman something to live for. They fall in love, sort of, but must part when she returns to prison to serve the remaining two years of her sentence. They make a pact to meet again at a park bench where their affair first took flight. From that simple synopsis you'd never guess that this film is as wild and unpredictable as almost any horror or exploitation film made at that time. Murder, rape, betrayal, suicide, robbery, and a healthy amount of nudity pepper this drama as well as Kim's trademark bizarre camera angles, color schemes and mise-en-scene making for one hell of a weird and interesting movie, easily the most surprising of the set. Print and subtitle quality on this one balance out. It's neither great nor awful but pleasantly serviceable. You could do much worse (and do on this very set).
I-EO ISLAND (1977)
The set's most enigmatic and impenetrable film. Again, synopsis is really not very helpful. But in this case it's also rather impossible. So I'm not even really going to try. But roughly the story deals with: A resort being built on an island populated almost entirely of woman, an imaginary (or is it?) island where local legend has it that the male fisherman population has been carried off to by water demons, a shaman-woman's attempt to draw back the corpse of the island's last victim, an investigation by a man who wants to clear his name after being accused of murdering the island's last victim, various love-starved woman who will do anything to bear children and magickal necrophilliac rituals. Although a break from his usual method of delineating his "battle of the sexes" themes (i.e. THE HOUSEMAID-INSECT WOMAN variants) I-EO nonetheless is highly concerned with with these elements but interlocks them so perversely, so randomly and so densely as to be almost incoherent. But above this tangled fray the film' s oblique charms hang ethereally, involving you wholly even if many points of the plot are obscure (I didn't even touch on half of the storylines crowding this movie). A sorcerous, mythic dimension pervades the film- undermining rational analysis and yet weaving the disparate themes and plots into a very satisfactory whole. This is a remarkable film, one that surely will benefit from multiple viewings, and along with INSECT WOMAN is the very best reason to get this set. Fans of weird and mystical fantasy and genre films simply need to check this one out. The print quality is quite nice, although a touch soft, but it fares the best out of the three color films in the set. However, the subtitles are not very good. Although basically followable most of the time, the complexities of the story are often too much for whoever translated it and much seems to be lost. This aspect alone makes I-EO the prime candidate from this box for the straight up Special Edition DVD upgrade treatment. Well, in my dreams anyway.
Director Kim Ki-young not long before his death
Plentiful extras on all the discs further send this box into orbit. Feature length commentaries with critics, historians and some of Korea's finest filmmakers chiming in to help place these amazing movies in their proper context are all certainly worth checking out. You also get three documentaries - A biographical entry, one featuring the cream of Korea's directorial crop discussing Kim's influence and most importantly one 45 or so minute long interview with the master himself. The set itself is lovingly designed and comes with a great 90 page booklet - half in Korean, half in English - that further attempts to explain Kim's place in Korean and world film.
While the presentations of the films are far from perfect, the previous obscurity of the films and the high probability that likely no one will be lavishing any further (and more expensive) T.L.C. on these titles is enough to justify the flaws inherent in this set. You can't see these anywhere else and trust me, you need to seem them.
I can't stress enough how exciting these films are to discover. Often, one gets the sense that every major film auteur or interesting national cinema has long since been "discovered" and covered by books and DVDs and that there are no new and odd movies to uncover and get all worked up about. Kim Ki-young's films and the other South Korean films from his era that I've seen make malarkey out of such sentiments. These films are as weird and interesting as anything else being hashed and rehashed in books, repertory theaters, message boards or blogs like this one. It gives me hope and the encouragement to keep looking for great films.
This set is available to purchase online here, here, here, and here.
It's well worth every penny. Trust me.
The classic film THE HOUSEMAID can be viewed online for free here.