Seoul Celluloid: Korean Flicks at Fantasia

Fantasia Korean header

The only thing more astonishing than the sheer number of South Korean films on display at this year’s Fantasia Fest is how many (at least of the ones I’ve seen) have been — and I want to be nice about this — about as “middle of the road” as a yellow line of paint. I thought a long time about why this may be. At what point does a national cinema cease to be bold, innovative, and possessing of an interesting new perspective and start to become bland, derivative and dull?

After some time, I realized exactly what’s happened: Korean cinema has grown up. It’s cast off the leather jackets and provocative hairdos of rebellious youth and gotten fitted for a two-piece suit and a corner office. It’s become just another film industry churning out profits by repeating previously successful formulas. At least in the mainstream. But I think that’s the point. Korean Cinema has a mainstream now, just as boring and repetitive as Hollywood or Hong Kong is such a depressingly large amount of the time.

And you know what, who says that has to be a bad thing? When a person becomes an adult, their last vestiges of youth and vigour stripped away, people throw them a party. Korean cinema has, judging by what I’ve seen at Fantasia this year, grown up as well. Break out the cake and the novelty ties, and let’s have a look at the proof.

No Tears posterNo Tears for the Dead

Tell me if this sounds familiar. A skilled HITMAN, a trained KILLER, is given his final assignment. But when confronted with their target (or the collateral damage from a job), this PROFESSIONAL grows a heart and rebels against their handlers and becomes the target himself. GHOST DOG. BOURNE IDENTITY. Is the joke getting across that this movie has been made a dozen or more times before?

To its credit, No Tears for the Dead probably isn’t the blandest example of the “hitman grows a heart” trope, but by golly it seems to be trying. I mean, it hits every checkbox. Adorable kid caught in the crossfire? Check. The guy sent to kill the rogue assassin is his old buddy? Check. Gets cold feet when he sees his target is a beautiful woman? Check. Double bonus points for it being the mom of the adorable kid he accidentally killed, thereby allowing the movie to fulfill both the “I can’t kill a LADY!” and “Oh God, GUILT!” options for why he goes rogue.

At the least, No Tears for the Dead has a few decent and hard-hitting action scenes, and probably some of the best gun sound effects I’ve heard in a while. And yeah, the fact that I’m citing the gun sound effects as a plus is an indicator that I’m struggling to find something nice to say, thank you for pointing that out.

The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow

Moving on from a film with a premise more worn out than my old socks, here’s one with a premise you could probably only come up with after a night or two on severe hallucinogens. A satellite array, long outdated and slowly breaking, falls to Earth and takes the form of a young girl. There she meets a man transformed into a milk cow by having his heart broken and on the run from a giant demonic incinerator and from a man who makes his living selling the livers of people-turned-animals. With the help of the wizard Merlin, now trapped in the form of a toilet paper roll, the two must overcome their differences and find happiness.

And I’ll do you one better. That isn’t even the weirdest thing about this one. The weirdest thing is that all that gets played with more straight-faced, earnest sincerity than I think I’ve seen in any movie at Fantasia this year. This movie takes itself completely and utterly seriously, despite a defiant lack of much internal logic, or logic of any kind. And I don’t even mean because it’s a kid’s film…because really, I don’t think it is. A lot of kids would find this boring. It’s really more of a young adult romance or even drama. There’s not a lot of action, not even that many jokes, beyond the humour found in the premise itself.

And you know what? That makes it interesting. Not great, but absolutely interesting. And I’ll take interesting over bland and forgettable any day of the week. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie so blatantly ridiculous and yet totally unaware of its own ridiculousness. Hell, even Takashi Miike is self-aware nine times out of ten. And none of his movies have had talking toilet paper…yet.

Fatal Encounter posterThe Fatal Encounter

When one generally thinks of period Asian movies, they usually think of films involving sword fights and archery. While The Fatal Encounter does have at least a few of them, it’s better off being labeled a period drama so that people expecting heroic bloodshed and duels to the death don’t get bored after the first hour of dramatic flashbacks and court politics.

Our hero is the saintly King Jeonjo, the impossibly kind and progressive ruler of Korea in the 1700s, set upon on all sides by assassins and traitors. The majority of the film isn’t so much him fighting them off as reacting when they’re revealed. Or having flashbacks to his youth. Or the assassins having flashbacks to their youths. Or the assassin’s cat having flashbacks to its youth. All of them bittersweet and stained with noble tears, of course.

When the third act rolls around and the assassins finally take more direct action, things get a tad bloodier, and I’d even say exciting, with archery battles and fights galore. And yet, much like No Tears for the Dead, I don’t see anything in The Fatal Encounter that I haven’t seen in other period court intrigue flicks. At least Curse of the Golden Flower had zip-line ninjas and Chow Yun-Fat.

The 2014 edition of Fantasia International Film Festival runs until August 6. 

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