'Turborator' meets 'Love'Quantity is more important than quality in the world of adult videos. But that does not mean quality cannot be found among the mountains of pornographic productions.
Kang Yong-gyu, a director of mainstream films, says there is one gold standard for picking a quality adult video -- whether it has been directed by Bong Man-dae. Mr. Kang refers to Mr. Bong, 32, as the "stylist of the adult video scene."
The "stylist," however, is trying to expand his audience. Last Tuesday, Mr. Bong started shooting his first feature film for theatrical release. It is tentatively titled "Sarang" (Love).
"Love" is being financed by Keyweck Seedae, a major production company in Chungmuro, Korea's Hollywood. The company put up 1 billion won ($850,000) for Mr. Bong's ambitious debut, a small budget for a feature film in the local movie industry, but compared with the average budget for an adult video, which is 10 million won, it is quite a jump for Mr. Bong. Oh Sook-hyun, a member of Keyweck's marketing staff, says, "We thought highly of Mr. Bong's visionary and nouveau approach."
The adult video section at a video rental shop is the last place on earth most women, including me, would want to be found. Browsing the innumerable X-rated titles, I calmed my nerves, repeating that you must review what the source has produced.
Cassettes screaming "Tomb Rapers" and "Turborator," also known as "The Penetrator," lined the shelves. Splashed across the vinyl cases were pretty much the same nearly naked women in every pose imaginable. Judging from this slime, a novice like me would condemn Mr. Bong along with all the other purveyors of mindless, commercialized sex. Lost, I asked a man standing next to me to point out a Bong film, which he did with amazing speed. His choice was "Icheonnyeon" (Year 2000), the film Mr. Bong had recommended to understand his style.
The movie, which I watched at the home of a friend, is a very sophisticated production. I had lumped all pornographic films together －－ no plot, hurry up and get to the chase －－ but "Year 2000" is clearly different. Filmed with a digital camera, the movie tells a story of wandering youth. Opening with a scene of a young man in prison, the camera takes you on a journey back to the events that put him in jail. Bedroom scenes take up only about 30 percent of the movie. Mr. Bong wanted to leave an impression of thoughtful direction that encourages the active search for meaning, not just the enjoyment of a passive voyeuristic experience.
Mr. Bong has made 15 adult videos, and all are commercially popular and stylistically distinct. He defies adult movie conventions, shunning gratuitous nudity and sex, experimenting with production technique. For a sex scene in one movie, he explained during an interview, he divided the screen into four parts, each with different angles. "Showing only one edited angle is abusing the right as the director," he says. "Viewers have a right to enjoy various angles."
Mr. Bong is also known for his emphasis on story-telling, which for most directors of pornographic films is a secondary goal －－ if a consideration at all. "There should be dramatic elements in a quality film, no matter what the genre is," he says. A video he released last year, "Momo," opens with a sex scene that lasts 10 minutes. But the camera suddenly switches to a man -- fully dressed -- running away in a great hurry. Some viewers might complain, but Mr. Bong says such cinematic maneuvers an essential part of storytelling.
"Year 2000" has a mixture of drama, mystery and romance. In fact, it was made for general release, but when Mr. Bong could not find a producer to promote it, he decided to add more bedroom scenes and re-edit it to fit into the erotica category.
A typical director of adult movies cranks out two films a month, costing 10 million won each, but Mr. Bong does things his own way. He spends 2 months and at least 25 million won on his films -- big budget figures for Korea.
Mr. Bong's style has placed him at the forefront of adult videos. But being known as the king of pornography was not much help when he tried to segue into the film industry's mainstream -- it was more of a burden. But Mr. Bong does not see the path he chose as a disadvantage. In fact, he says his latest endeavor is not a detour. "I'd like to call 'Love' my 16th film rather than my first mainstream film," he says, seated in his office in Nonhyeon-dong, in Seoul. "The only difference is that I'm using a conventional camera -- nothing else."
With his new movie, Mr. Bong says, he's trying to be Korea's Zalman King, the American who directed "Red Shoe Diaries." Mr. Bong says King is one of the few filmmakers he looks up to.
With the plot outlined and locations set, Bong says his new project is challenging. "It's always harder to pursue something standard," he says.
"Love," which Mr. Bong calls his first "standard" film, is scheduled to open early next year, and his office is bustling with crew members. Tacked on the walls are black-and-white photos of nude women, which he says give him inspiration. "Though life can get dirty sometimes, the human body always remains beautiful," he says.
He says "Love" is a typical romance, a love affair from beginning to end dealing with joy, anger, sorrow and happiness. The story starts with man-meets-woman at a shabby Chinese restaurant. Love ensues. And then boredom －－ the man wants distance, and the woman becomes more attached. "Love can be cruel but it is also the most fundamental thing for our happiness," Mr. Bong says, lighting a cigarette. "I want to find what makes love unkind and tell the audience, 'let's do our best to be happy' through this film."
Another difficult part of making the new movie was casting the lead roles. He wanted new faces. He tested a group of hopefuls through a process that he calls "character research" -- he is reluctant to use the word "audition." Mr. Bong likes to talk to his applicants, perhaps inquiring about their first sexual experiences. "Testing actors through auditions is to me very harsh," he says. Mr. Bong has a reason to dislike auditions -- as a teenager he dreamed of being a star actor, but he botched too many auditions.
A native of Gwangju, South Jeolla province, which he described as rather culturally undeveloped, Mr. Bong arrived in Seoul at age 20 with ambitions of being an actor. Fate had other ideas, he found. After a series of rejections at cattle calls for small parts in stage plays and films, he went into the army to get his mandatory service out of the way.
At his base in Jeonju he marched to the command of the drill instructors while staying attuned to the tempo of his dream. After his discharge in 1993, he returned to Seoul to plunge into the film world. "I had a cousin working for a movie agency who offered to get me work as an assistant director," Mr. Bong says. He spent several years assisting a group of directors, including Kang Yong-gyu, whom Mr. Bong calls his mentor and big brother. "Mr. Bong had the nerve to start from the rock bottom and end up making it as a quality movie director," Mr. Kang says.
But starting from scratch is never easy. Mr. Bong wanted to make it as a mainstream director at first, but failed. So he decided to take a turn at adult videos, reckoning that he had acquired a fair knowledge of them by watching provocative films like "9 1/2 Weeks."
He says the time spent on the movie industry fringes has paid off: "I have grown solid from being on the periphery and am now strong enough to go mainstream." He wants to dissolve the boundaries between fringe and the mainstream. "After all, they are all movies," he says.
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