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New wave

2004/10/21 Source

From The Economist print edition

Young, accomplished and original

EVERY ten or so years, a new country seems to take the lead in ground-breaking cinema. After the second world war, Italian neo-realists had the field; in the 1960s it was the French new wave. More recently, in the 1990s, China dominated before being edged out by Iran. And now South Korea has the baton, an idea reinforced at the Pusan International Film Festival this month.

South Korean films look different from others in Asia. They shun Hong Kong's demented editing, and they seldom have the self-conscious and arty camerawork that can plague films from mainland China. Almost all have the polished cinematography and the production qualities that once were the mark of Hollywood.

It is a youthful cinema. With the exception of one veteran, Im Kwon-taek, whose recent "Low Life" was his 99th picture, the country's top filmmakers are relative newcomers. Though young, their work shows impressive range.

"R-Point" is set in Vietnam and focuses on a Korean unit drafted into the jungle to locate the survivors of a missing platoon sending back walkie-talkie messages from the dead. Part war film, part horror movie, it is quite unlike any conventional Vietnam picture.

"R-Point" is mainstream movie-making with a difference. Kim Ki-duk, who directed two films this year, is an art-house filmmaker also with a difference. Until last year, he was known for violent, sordid work. Then he made the elegiac "Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...and Spring", with Buddhist themes. Now he has attempted a similarly idiosyncratic perspective on Christianity.

In "Samaritan Girl", two schoolgirls take up prostitution for material ends. One dies and her friend embarks on a soul-redeeming mission to pay back the money she took from clients. Muddled thinking or an unconventional take on the good Samaritan? Either way, it is wholly original.

Mr Kim's second film, "3-Iron", is equally unclassifiable. A squatter moves into a deserted flat and befriends a woman fleeing her abusive, golf-fanatical husband, who uses a three-iron as a weapon. Almost free of dialogue, the relationship between the characters grows increasingly bizarre, as it settles into a threesome in which the husband is simply unaware of the presence of the intruder. Though more of a jeu d'esprit than "Samaritan Girl", it confirms the director as a polished stylist.

Hong Sang-soo has a gift for titles. In 2000 he coined "Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors". This year comes "Woman Is the Future of Man". The film appears at first to be about very little, as two friends meet and reminisce about the girl they both once dated. Gradually male machismo is undermined by feminine wiles, and it is the no-nonsense woman who makes fools of them both. Sophisticated and witty, it is only a matter of time before Hollywood acquires the remake rights.

Just as engaging is "This Charming Girl", a first feature by Lee Yoon-ki shot entirely with a hand-held camera. The heroine is a post-office worker processing registered mail. She says little, masking emotional crises buried deep in her past. Then, one day, she summons the courage to invite a regular customer to dinner. When he stands her up and offers a lame excuse, she has to decide whether to believe him. The film ends with this, for her, momentous decision left unresolved. The long final shot, in which the audience is invited to write its own ending, is hypnotic.

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