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Korean Futures
by Lucius Shepard
December 9, 2004

Sixteen years ago, Diehard marked the advent of a new breed of action picture, one marked by a formulaic mixture of overstated violence, large explosions, and a wisecracking hero whose post-modern self-commentary soon became a cliché of such movies. We tend to remember of these movies not their overall narrative, but quotable moments. For example, I recall almost nothing about the plot of The Last Boy Scout, yet I remember quite clearly the Eurotrash villain telling Bruce Willis that he wanted to make him scream, whereupon Bruce, cigarette in hand, thoroughly disengaged, said, "Play some rap music." Such noirish haikus lend the picture a continuity it otherwise lacks—they are like pins holding a celluloid tapestry of fireballs and gunshots in place.

Films of this sort have come to dominate the American landscape and are judged, for the most part, by relaxed critical standards; they are thought of as "thrill rides," entertainments for the groundlings of the era. When it was first released, Diehard was reviled by critics for its shallow portrayal of character and its substitution of body count for plot; yet when viewed in context of its innumerable imitators, the Lethal Weapon series, the innumerable alpha-male posturings of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the like, it looms as a paragon of plotting and characterization, a veritable Citizen Kane among Hollywood action pictures, and seems the product of a relative Golden Age rather than, as is actually the case, marking a sharp downturn in the heat-death gradient of American culture.

Diehard and its children were influenced in style and, to a lesser degree, in their tone by the Hong Kong policiers of the 1980s. Directors such as John Woo, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, and Johnny To stretched the borders of the genre, creating action sequences that were unsurpassed in their kinetic invention; however, these films delved more deeply than did Diehard into the characters of their protagonists, mainly angst-ridden policemen, tormented hitmen, guilt-tripped smalltime criminals, and despotic ganglords, effecting a kind of melodramatic, ultraviolent noir that was itself formulaic, albeit a formula that allowed for considerably more variation. Hollywood attempted to co-opt these directors, bringing several of them into its fold, but the "creative" process of the studio film winnowed out the distinctive elements of their work, and they all returned to Hong Kong . . . with the exception of John Woo, who has devolved into a generic hack and is currently directing the Rock’s latest movie, Spy Hunter.

During the mid-eighties, in South Korea, yet another tradition developed. Building on the Hong Kong model, the Koreans began turning out action pictures marked by intensely individual directing styles and substantial character development (more substantial than Woo, Lam, etc.), as well as by heightened elements of sexuality and the surreal. Like the Hong Kong films, they verged on melodrama, though of a more complex variety, but some eschewed melodrama completely and proved to be uniquely unsettling, transcending the genre and demanding to be taken seriously. Notable among these latter are the obsessional films of Ki Duk Kim (Bad Guy, Address Unknown, The Isle), which often explore perverse sexual themes in a dark, violent setting, and Joon-ho Bong’s exquisitely observed Memories of Murder, a thoughtful examination of the psyches of police officers involved in the unsuccessful investigation of a serial killer operating in and around a rural village. But many of South Korea’s less ambitious films offer high production values (this despite the fact that the largest budget for any Korean film thus far, the war epic Taegukgi, was a piddling 15 million), intelligent scripts, brilliant cinematography, and action choreography that outstrip the product currently put forward by the Hong Kong film industries. Films like the romantic spy picture Shiri; the relentlessly grim Old Boy; the atmospheric Public Enemy, which manages to be both brutal and comedic; the Sergio Leone-ish Friend, which charts the twenty-year-long course of four small time gangsters; Nowhere to Run, a deconstructionist take on film noir, manga, and the entire Hong Kong action catalogue, starring Joon-hoon Park, who greatly resembles a Korean John Belushi . . . these and others make clear that the capital of the action picture has relocated to Seoul, and that the Koreans are doing it better than anyone else before them.

South Korea’s ventures into the science fiction and fantasy genre have been chiefly limited to horror films, some quite derivative, but others aimed at a higher mark. Jong-Chan Yung’s Sorum, for instance, is nominally a ghost story, treating of a haunted apartment building occupied by a novelist, a convenience store clerk, and a cabbie; however, the supernatural element serves mostly to amplify the movie’s theme—the costs of the past. Until recently, I had seen just one Korean science fiction film, Moon Seung-Wook’s superb Nabi (The Butterfly). Nabi is reminiscent less of Korean cinema than of European arthouse films and exhibits a distinct Krzysztof Kieslowski (the Three Colors trilogy) influence—this is hardly surprising, since the director was a student of Kieslowski at the National Film Academy of Lodz. Set in a near-future dystopia (cities awash in acid rain, epidemics of lead poisoning), Nabi is essentially the story of Anna, a Korean woman tormented by an episode in her past, who has spent most of her adult life in Germany and returns to Korea to avail herself of the Oblivion Plague, an affliction that erases the memory of all those exposed to it. Since it’s difficult to tell where the plague will strike next, plague "tourists" must hire guides to convey them to the site of the latest outbreak (they are always attended by the appearance of white butterflies; thus the film’s name). Anna’s guide is a young woman, seven months pregnant, named Yuki. Yuki’s driver is a sullen, enigmatic man named K—K was raised in an orphanage and drives around all day with his baby picture taped to the dash of his cab, hoping one of his fares will recognize it and tell him about his family. Each time the three draw near an outbreak, something goes wrong, forcing Anna to spend an inordinate period of time in the company of this pair. Gradually she is drawn out of herself and becomes conflicted about her desire to experience oblivion.

As in all good science fiction, Nabi contains scenes—for instance, a group of tourists forced to give each other showers, washing off the acid rain—that persuade us by their mundanity, their intimate specifics, that we are looking into the actual future and not some comic-book fantasyland. Shot in digital video, rife with haunting imagery of polluted landscapes, caves filled with butterflies, and sights more surreal, Nabi has quite a different look from the sleek visuals of most Korean films, and, as mentioned, a different sensibility; but the recent 2009: Lost Memories provides us a chance to examine science fiction in a more typical Korean filmic setting.

Memories is first and foremost an action picture, secondarily an alternate history. In 1909, An Chung-Gun assassinated Japanese politician Ito Hirobuni, setting in motion the Korean Nationalist movement; in the timeline of Memories, the assassination was thwarted and, consequently, Japan went on to win WWII with the assistance of the USA. Korea suffered a fate similar to that visited upon Tibet by the Chinese and, in the year 2009, is populated almost entirely by Japanese. Seoul has become the third largest city in the Japanese empire, and Korean people and culture have been segregated in tightly controlled "Koreatowns"; but there is a newly vigorous nationalist movement known as the Hureisenjin who violently oppose the Japanese regime. As the film opens, the Hureisenjin stage a suicidal assault at the National Museum in order to steal an ancient Korean artifact known as the Lunar Soul, an action met with bloody resistance by a force of the JBI (Japan Bureau of Investigation) led by agents Mayasuki Sakamoto (Jang Dong-Gun) and Sojuro Saigo (Toru Nakamura). The loathing of the Koreans for the Japanese, and vice versa, is well documented, and Memories plays upon this loathing so as to appeal to a wide Korean audience. Saigo is Japanese and although he is Sakamoto’s best friend, there is more than a hint of condescension about the relationship. At one point he tells Sakamoto, a Korean, "I don’t think of you as Korean," intending this as a backhanded compliment. Sakamoto’s father—also a cop—was shot by fellow officers for betraying them to the Hureisenjin, and, initially loyal to Japan, Sakamoto begins to experience doubts, partly due to visions he has of a woman wearing a pendant which is, coincidentally, shaped like the Lunar Soul. He discovers that the Lunar Soul and another artifact coveted by the Hureisenjin belong to the Inoue Corporation, founded by the Japanese man who thwarted the 1909 assassination attempt. The second artifact is a massive temple rock, which the corporation has excavated and is preparing to move to Japan. When Sakamoto persists in investigating the corporation, he is accused of harboring Hureisenjin sympathies, just like his father, and becomes a fugitive, pursued by his friend, Saigo. Hiding out in a Hureisenjin safe house, he learns that he is living in a false timeline. Long ago, the Inoue family discovered that the artifacts effected a means of time travel, and, living in Post-WW II Japan, the family sent one of their sons back in time to change history. As a result, the atomic bomb was dropped on Berlin, not Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan is a great world power. It soon falls to Sakamoto to reroute history and free Korea from Japanese rule, and it falls to Saigo to follow him back to 1909 and stop him.

From this point on, about the three-quarter mark, the picture loses momentum; the ending becomes obvious and things resolve in a series of gun battles (upwards of 20,000 rounds of ammunition were expended during filming), bombast, and melodramatic confrontations redolent of Hong Kong movies. Still and all, Memories has its moments, especially when it details the subtle shifts in the relationship between Sakamoto and Saigo, back and forth, back and forth, illuminating delicate shades of racism, nationalism, and friendship. As an action picture in the Korean tradition, a blockbuster, it more than fills the bill, delivering artfully choreographed shoot-outs in tunnels, in warehouses, in woods, but action crowds out extrapolation and the elaborate conceit of time travel is not as fully developed as it might have been. By comparison to the typical American blockbuster, to a film like National Treasure, a dumbed-down version of The Amazing Race that would likely seem great fun to a mentally challenged six-year-old if it were the first movie he had ever seen . . . Well, there is no comparison. Not in terms of acting, directing, cinematography, and, probably, commissary cuisine. Why the United States can’t compete with the Koreans or, for that matter, with the Khazakistanis while spending, on average, ten times the money is something to ponder. Memories is not going to end up on anybody’s Top Ten list, but it’s a serviceable science fiction thriller, an interesting take on alternate history, one with a different cultural viewpoint from those we are accustomed to seeing. By overplaying its melodramatic elements, it fails as an artful entertainment because of its desire to please a mass audience, albeit an audience that appears to demand better of their action fare than do we. You can be certain of one thing: the Koreans will eventually get it right. Sooner or later they will make the science fiction/action sub-genre uniquely their own, they will imbue it with style, depth, and excitement. And then there will be even more good films for Hollywood to remake, upon which it can work its cruddy magic and transform them variously into Great-Grandson of Diehard, because we as an audience have given them no reason to do otherwise.