My first exposure to Korean cinema came long before the inception of MKC and it's kind of a funny story (at least I think it is)! When I was in boarding school in Dublin (high school) we were studying Macbeth and as a nascent cinephile I wanted to seek classic filmed versions of Shakespeare's work, first came Polanski's, then Orson Welles' version but soon I came across Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood" (1957) and fell in love with it. Thus began my discovery of Japanese cinema and one day I was in my local media retail store in Switzerland when I came across a striking DVD in the Asian section. I thought it might have been something like a Takashi Miike film but it turned out to be none other than "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" (2002) and... I hated it, it made me furious. But I couldn't stop thinking about it and a week later I forced my self to watch it again and my whole world changed. My next film was Lee Chang-dong's "Peppermint Candy" (2000) and it's safe to say that the quality and social engagement of those works resulted in my becoming deeply attached to Korean cinema.
In the introduction on your site, you said that you believe Korean cinema is "one of the most vital national film industries in the world". What is it about Korean cinema that makes it unique from other world cinemas
Korean cinema does a lot of things right but if I were to choose two elements that set it apart from the rest, they would be:
Production values: More than any other industry in the world, Korean filmmakers take great pains with the aesthetic of their films and the result is what I consider to be the higher consistent level of production values of any industry. By all rights this title should belong to America, which can produce some dazzling films, but the problem there is that, despite inflated budgets, there is a tendency to cut down on costs by taking cameras off the tripod and confusing the film language of a feature through busy editing. While sometimes effective, I generally don't like this, primarily because I feel the craft of filmmaking is steadily being eroded. Not so in Korea, where hoards of brilliant technicians are pushed up through a network of fantastic film schools and age-old apprenticeship traditions, something which, much to my surprise, is a dying tradition in many of the world's most important industries.
Social commentary: Following on from the first question, South Korean cinema, in my opinion, rose to international prominence about a decade ago on the back of a series of highly socially conscious films. I knew nothing about Korea or its history prior to "Peppermint Candy" but after it was as though I had read through a history book but even more than that it was like I felt it. This is true of a number of Korean films, "Memories of Murder" (2003) being one but strangely also "Save the Green Planet" (2003), which was the first Korean film I ever saw in a theater. What also makes these films so effective is the combination of this phenomenon with the aforementioned elevated technical level of the productions. It's a winning combination and though this can happen in other films from around the world, no other industry comes even close to doing it so consistently.
Your twitter feed is buzzing with news of the films you are always watching. What are some of the genres or themes you personally enjoy within Korean cinema and what films specifically stand out within them?
Genre films appeal to me enormously as I do love their (mostly) carefully constructed visuals and the best examples make for sublime escapist entertainment, which I am always in dire need of. Ironic really that I seek out my escapism through the films whose reviews constitute most of my work, not a bad situation to be in I suppose!
Beyond the reasons stated above I think I'm attracted to the energy of Korean cinema and the more I've become immersed in it I find myself liking new things, such as actors and morsels of dialogue I begin to recognize. I definitely prefer films that attempt to say something and those that can do so in a commercial format are real winners.
Many cinephiles around the world are familiar with Korea's more internationally recognised pieces. Films like "Old Boy", and more recently, "Poetry" come to mind as well as genres such as Korean romantic comedies and their revenge thrillers. What films would you suggest to anyone looking to expand his or her knowledge on Korean cinema and why?
There is a dangerous perception of Korean cinema as a purveyor of violent entertainment. Labels (mostly originating from foreign distribution companies) such as 'Extreme' and 'K-Horror' strip down the essence of Korean films and do a disservice to the industry in general. My advice for someone looking to go beyond that first wall of Korean cinema is to try out as many different genres as you can as well as some of the stronger arthouse offerings, though this can get confusing as in Korean cinema they're always mashed together!
Specifically: there are some great period films ("Untold Scandal", 2003; "The Servant"); arthouse features ("Paju", 2009; "Cafe Noir", 2009); romance flicks ("Christmas in August", 1998; "Sad Movie", 2005, "Late Blossom", 2011)) and much, much more but if I were to recommend only one film it would "Castaway on the Moon" (2009). I think it's the most extraordinary Korean film since "Memories of Murder" and is evidence of the vast talents of the industry beyond revenge thrillers and their ilk.
What do you hope to personally achieve by coming to Korea and immersing yourself in the culture? Do you have a long-term plan or goals you are aiming for while you are hear?
Essentially I would like to continue and expand on what I'm already doing, which is writing about Korean film. Being here also affords me the opportunity of learning more about Korea and its cinema and I look forward to new opportunities that may arise. I also want to become a fluent Korean speaker though given my hectic schedule I fear this will take quite some time.
On a more personal note I hope that I can make Seoul my home. Over the years I've jumped around a lot, living in Switzerland, Ireland, New York and Los Angeles. I've met wonderful people, have had incredible experiences and on the whole I've been very lucky but as summers ended, visas expired and studies were completed, I perpetually found myself on the road again and I'm a little tired of it. I'd like to stick in the same place for a little while and for me at this time Korea is the perfect place to do so.
It is my understanding that you have only just recently come to Korea. How has your experience in Korea been thus far and how has it corresponding to your previous knowledge of the country and its culture?
I think I came quite prepared but having seen a few hundred films I suppose I did know a thing or two before getting off the plane. Thankfully I love Korean food as I know many have trouble adapting to it. While I am able to read Hangul it is true that it was a little disorienting navigate around town for the first few days but even without knowing the local calligraphy I daresay it only takes a few days to get over this.
Though I knew it beforehand I must say that it is a little frustrating that I can't buy clothes (6'4") or shoes (European size 51/US 15) here but I'm stocked well enough for the moment.
Your first couple weeks in Korea have, according to you blog post, been very busy indeed. What have you flagged in your mind to see and do during you time here?
I love hiking so I will make sure to climb every single peak in the vicinity and when I've exhausted those I will likely venture further out of town. More than anything I'm excited about the food here and while I've had many wonderful (and a few bizarre) dishes to date I know that there is much more to discover￼. I look forward to taking it all in over the years!
Has your brief time in Korea prompted you to re-evaluate your perception on Korea and its culture? And has their been any areas of the culture that you haven't been able to gain knowledge about through film, or that has surprised you from a cultural standpoint?
Not change so much as lightly accentuate, seeing things on the screen and seeing them in person is obviously not the same. There are certainly a few things I didn't know, for example: I was grading papers the other day and it was remarked that a tick is actually a negative sign here. The labyrinthine underground shopping/subway complexes are another element I was a little surprised about but on the whole I'd say I haven't encountered too many surprises, but its early days yet!
How much research, if any outside your film viewings, did you do on life in Korea before you headed out here? What did you find and were any areas that prompted you to reconsider or prepare for?
I've been learning Korean for a few months and I was careful to read up on the finer points of etiquette and rituals. I also made sure to know exactly what was available in the country as far as food and amenities were concerned, for instance I packed my own bath towel as they are quite hard to come by here, at least in my neck of the woods.
I hope you thoroughly enjoy your time in Korea and that you achieve all that you came here for. Do you have any advice or information for those individuals who are back in their home countries and are either just getting into Korean cinema or who are looking to travel in Korea?
Thank you and for both I would just say: do it! Korea is an amazing country and has been so welcoming. There is so much to discover in Seoul that it is nearly overwhelming and I'm sure the same could be said of Busan and the country's other provinces, all of which I look forward to visiting! For me it's the start of a beautiful adventure and I know it could be the same for many others out there!
Name: Pierce Conran
Occupation in Korea: English Teacher/Film Journalist
Home Town: Childhood split between Dublin, Ireland and Fribourg, Switzerland
City in Korea: Seoul
Time spent in Korea: 1 month
Best thing about Korea: Cinema!
Least favorite thing about Korea: Outdated sewage systems
- C.J Wheeler (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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