Read our exclusive interview with the director and star of Oldboy
Tom Charity on the rise and rise of South Korean Filmmaking.
The best genre movies in the world are coming out of South Korea these days. Especially when it comes to thrillers and horror films, the Koreans are consistently coming up with startlingly original, audacious and stylish work.
The reasons for this are almost certainly related to the country's political history. In 1993, South Korea had its first non-military president in decades, and the society has been totally transformed culturally. As East Asian Cinema expert Tony Rayns told me, 'It's like the last 30 years of British evolution compressed into less than ten years. Suddenly you have a feminist movement, a gay lib movement... all these things which were unthinkable, coming on top of each other in fast motion. And the filmmakers have all this to talk about.'
He went on: 'In Britain or North America, what are the issues? What needs to be reflected in our culture? There's nothing out there that fires you. In Korea there's too much. It's hitting you in the face every minute.'
On top of that, Rayns notes, the country's viewing habits were transformed almost overnight. What had been a very insular, heavily censored country was suddenly flooded with movies and images from all over the world.
This accelerated development might certainly help to account for the extraordinary ferocity of Korean cinema, which is often extremely graphic when it comes to violence and depravity. It's as if generations of repressed nightmares have been unleashed. It doesn't make for comfortable viewing, but, is often, electrifying cinema.
The New Korean Cinema is very much a work in progress, but it's beginning to make its impact felt. Already on , you can see the spectacular epic Bichunmoo, the action thriller Shiri, horror A Tale of Two Sisters, various wallows from new art-house favourite Kim Ke-duk (Public Enemy, Bad Guy, and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring), the hyper stylised cop drama Nowhere to Run, and the extraordinary, wild fantasy thriller Save the Green Planet, a film that really has to seen to be believed.
But the best of the bunch is director Park Chan-Wook. His first film, Joint Security Area was a Titanic size hit on home turf. He followed it with the harrowingly intense kidnap drama Sympathy for Mr Vengeance - a box office flop, but for my money the best thriller of recent years. Then, last year, he came away from Cannes with the Grand Prix from Quentin Tarantino's jury for Old Boy.
Local star Choe Min-sik stars as a man who is held captive in a sealed apartment for 15 years. He never sees his captor, and never learns the reason for his imprisonment - nor why he's kept alive, for that matter. Then, just as inexplicably, he's free. Choe sets about tracking down his tormentor - keenly aware that he's still being toyed with.
For its first hour, Old Boy is as original and exciting a slice of pure cinema as any thriller fan could dream of. No wonder it got Tarantino so enthused. Inevitably, perhaps, the denouement doesn't live up to the build up, but there are images here which will boggle your mind. Not least, a notorious scene when Choe gobbles down a recalcitrant live octopus. This is the sort of scene you just don't find in Tom Cruise extravaganzas.
Park Chan-Wook and Choe Min-sik interview
LF: There is a long, long fight scene here where Choe battles with 20 goons down a narrow corridor, using a hammer or whatever else comes to hand. And it's shot in a single take. How did that come about?
Park: I showed the storyboard to the martial arts director and suggested an appropriate angle to the cameraman. All the burden fell on the actor.
Choe: Shooting that scene took 17 takes over the course of two days. Originally we were going to use over 100 cuts, computer graphics, very elaborate. At the last minute we decided this is a scene where a human being is fighting his way past 20 thugs, so to show it in a long take would show the state of the character much better.
Park: When we shot this master shot, it worked so well we decided not to film the inserts. Film is obviously full of manipulation, but sometimes if you feel the pain of the actor, it can be perfect for the scene. The acting in this sequence, when Choe gets more and more exhausted, that wasn't acting at all, that was reality. Holding the shot makes it all the more intense.
LF: Whas that the same thinking for the scene where you eat a live octopus?
Choe: Yes, it was real. Not CG. And of course I didn't eat one, I ate four because there were four takes. In the script it said he eats the octopus, and then he faints. But Park and I talked, and we decided we wanted to convey the monstrous rage of this man who has just been released from his prison. So what if the squid wriggles and wraps itself around his head? But the first three were weak, and as soon as I took a bite, they died. The fourth one was much stronger, and fought for its life. I still feel bad for them. They didn't get paid, and you know they died.
LF: Do you think Asian stomachs are stonger than ours in the West? Not for live seafood, but for violence?
Park: I think the perception is influenced by race. If whites see Asian violence, they're more sensitive to it than if it were white violence, and by the same token Asians are more sensitive to violence in films from the West. Watching Irreversible, or the films by Dario Argento, for example, we are quite shocked.
LF (to Choe): How did you prepare for this role?
Choe: Outward appearance was very important. We thought a lot about how his hair should look after all that time. He had to look malnourished - the guy only ate fried wonton for 15 years. So he would be emaciated, but at the same time, if you looked into his eyes you would be scared, because there would be so much anger in him. And he's been training himself for his chance to get revenge. I did five months with one of Korea's best boxing trainers.
LF: What are your feelings about the morality of revenge?
Choe: Who can say what is right or wrong? There was a true incident in Korea where a guy flicked off the toupé of his friend, because it was a hot day, and he was just fooling around. But for embarrassing him in front of other people, he killed him. To us that might seem a small thing, but for that man to lose face like that, it was big deal. I think if there is a lesson to be learned from this film, it's that you really have to be careful what you say.
LF: Your previous film was Chiwaeseon with veteran director Im Kwon-taek. Do they work in very different ways?
Choe: Chiwaeseon was Im's 99th film. He is a legend in Korea. Cinema has dominated his life, and it was a chance for me to see how he worked. To compare them, if both of them were painting a still life of this Evian bottle on the table, Im would draw it in a way that would make you want to reach in and pour yourself a drink, as realistic as that. Park, he has a much more free way of working. He would probably break the bottle over your head.
LF (to Park): When did you decide you wanted to make films and why?
Park: At high school I dreamed of being a film director, but I thought the film business was full of tough guys and it would be really hard work. When I was 22 I saw Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, and before it was even halfway over I thought, if I don't even try, I'll regret it for the rest of my life. Why do I make film? For the same reason I choose to watch some films: to learn about human problems and concerns, to feel those problems and sympathise with them. That's why I make them. I want to share my feelings about the world.
LF: What's next?
Park: I just finished my episode in Three Extreme, and I'm working on Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Then, maybe, a vampire flick called Live Evil.
LF: Are there any Hollywood remakes of your films in the pipeline?
Park: They have bought a lot of remake rights from Korea recently but so far they haven't made one. I just want to watch my remade film before I die!