So exciting is the contemporary South Korean film scene that a new book calls it “The New Hong Kong.” With visionaries like Chan-wook Park and Je-gyu Kang leading the pack in recent years, this label seems warranted. A half-dozen new South Korean films are screening at this year’s festival, and the two most anticipated titles have already played.
So recent is South Korea’s film boom that the nation’s box office records are broken at regular intervals. Until recently, the box office champion was the brilliant Korean War film Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War. It’s since been supplanted by King and the Clown, playing in this year’s Contemporary World Cinema program. The film’s plot is simple enough: in 16th Century Korea, two bawdy clowns are arrested for lampooning the king. They face execution unless they give the king (wait for it) the gift of laughter. I realize it sounds mighty precious, but it’s actually a fairly serious examination of the oedipal mania motivating the country’s most brutal rular. King and the Clown is far from perfect, too often relying on excessive melodrama, but it’s a testament to the quality of Korea’s current filmmaking that even my least favourite movie amongst the country’s recent output is this good.
The one thing the new Korean cinema was missing was a great monster movie. Joon-ho Bong has filled the void with his thoroughly entertaining The Host. Formaldehyde dumped into the Han river leads to the mutation of a giant, hideous beast designed by Peter Jackson’s WETA Workshop. You can probably guess what happens next. My one complaint is that The Host would have packed a harder punch had it been trimmed by 20 minutes. As it stands, the monster remains off-screen far too long. I know it worked for Jaws, but this monster’s missing from the middle, after having already been fully revealed (and what a glorious reveal!) rampaging through the streets in the first fifteen minutes. Admittedly this is a fairly minor concern, because though you might have to wait just a bit longer, you ultimately get exactly the payoff you’re looking for. Anyone going to see The Host wants to see two things: a giant crazy-ass monster killing people, and those people fighting back. No, it’s not Floating Weeds, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. And besides, it’s not as though The Host is devoid of any other qualities. There’s some classic Asian slapstick, well-executed family drama, and even a little environmental advocacy and political satire. Seriously. And guess what: it’s well on its way to grossing more won than King and the Clown. Word is that a Hollywood remake is already being negotiated. I don’t really have a problem with that, though I tend to be suspicious of these things when they aren’t directed by Martin Scorsese.
None of this is meant to imply that South Korea holds a monopoly on exciting new Asian cinema. Case in point: Xiaogang Feng’s The Banquet, a wuxia Hamlet featuring some of Yeun Wo-Ping’s finest choreography. It’s during these thrilling fight scenes that The Banquet soars highest, but finer points of the film’s adherence to Shakespeare’s play are also successful. Then there’s Ziyi Zhang, whose performance reminds me that she’s capable of very good work when not foolishly cast in an English-speaking role. The Banquet’s premise invites comparisons to Kurosawa’s Ran and Throne of Blood, and that it doesn’t always match their greatness can’t seriously be held against it. If it was as good as Ran, it would be the best film at the festival. As it stands, The Banquet is a blast.