Loved abroad, tolerated at homeUntil his film “The Isle” (“Seom”) was invited to the Venice Film Festival in 2000, Kim Ki-duk was probably the most notorious underground filmmaker in Korea.
Critics had generally dismissed Kim’s films as macho fantasies with a naive sense of morality. They almost always seemed to involve prostitutes, which earned him the scorn of feminist scholars as well as mainstream film critics.
Being invited to one of Europe’s most prestigious film events somewhat lessened the scorn aimed Kim’s way in Korea, but not by very much. He was invited to Venice again the following year, for “Address Unknown,” but in Korea, that film drew only 10,000 viewers nationwide and was pulled from theaters after a week. His next films, “Bad Guy” (2001) and “Coast Guard” (2002), were attacked so brutally that the director stopped talking to journalists and critics for a while.
Yet the juries of major European film festivals seem to view Kim very differently. At the Berlin Film Festival in February, he won the best director award for “Samaria,” a story about two high school girls who sell their bodies so they can afford to take a trip to Europe.
And last Saturday, the jury at the Venice Film Festival gave him the Silver Lion award for his latest film, “3-Iron,” calling him “one of the new protagonists of world cinema.”
The commercial success of Kim’s films abroad has also risen dramatically. Cineclick Asia, which is in charge of Mr. Kim’s foreign distribution, says “3-Iron” has made about $1 million overseas. Foreign distributors that have purchased rights to the film include Sony Pictures and Hopscotch. In Korea, however, the film’s opening date has not even been set yet.
Among Korean critics, there is still a great divide about Mr. Kim’s work: One side questions whether the director really deserves the attention he’s getting now; the rest seem to reserve judgment, saying that he is an evolving filmmaker.
Kim is not the only Korean director in a situation like this. Many of Korea’s so-called “arthouse directors,” such as Jang Sun-woo (“Lies”) and Min Gyu-dong (“Memento Mori”), have also gotten more approval abroad than at home.
In contrast, there are films like Bong Jun-ho’s “Memories of Murder,” which last year received unreserved praise from Korean critics as well as becoming a box office hit, but got little international attention. Hong Sang-soo (“Woman is the Future of Man”), who critics generally consider the most important filmmaker in contemporary Korean cinema, is less known among European and North American audiences than Kim Ki-duk is.
Lee Seung-jae of LJ Films, who has produced several of Kim’s films, including “Samaria” and “The Isle,” thinks the director’s strength is his films’ “primitive energy,” which appeals to foreign audiences.
“Many of the European critics and juries I’ve talked to admit that Hong Sang-soo is a talented director, and has ideas that are far more sophisticated in cinematic vision than Kim’s,” he says.
“But frankly, when it comes to choosing Asian films, they prefer Kim’s works, because Hong’s style has just been done before in Europe,” Hong said. “They call him an ‘Asian deja vu’ of modernism, because they’ve seen those films before. The critics know he is great, but they are fed up with the style.”
He adds, “Kim’s films have a rough edge to them, but they are new and powerful.”
The disparity between the local and foreign reactions to certain Korean films raises a question about the selection process at major European and North American film festivals: Are the standards those festivals apply to Asian films different from those applied to Western ones?
Tony Rayns, a British film critic and a programmer of the Asian section for the Vancouver International Film Festival, says there’s no rule governing what aspects of Korean cinema speak to audiences overseas. But some programmers in major festivals, he says, don’t always make the quality of a film the top priority.
“When Alberto Barbera invited Kim Ki-duk’s ‘The Isle’ to Venice, for example, I don’t believe that he did so from a position of broad knowledge of Korean cinema or with the interests of Korean cinema at heart,” Rayns said. “I think he cynically selected the film specifically to engender controversy, to draw attention to himself and the festival.
“The long-term result is that Kim Ki-Duk is better known to European audiences, at least, than such directors as Hong Sang-soo, Lee Chang-dong, Jang Sun-woo and Im Kwon-taek,” Rayns said. “That doesn’t seem to me a very healthy situation.”
Some are more pointed about what they call an “imperialistic” vision that European festival programmers apply to Korean films.
Jae Soh, a programmer for Resfest, an international digital film festival, says Korean films that do well in Europe are the ones that feel least “commercial.”
“For example, directors like Kang Je-gyu (“Taeguki”) will never be invited to film festivals in Europe,” Soh said. “Because his film is a blockbuster, and it may look like the festival is inviting an Asian director who’s imitating Steven Spielberg.”
“Old Boy” by Park Chan-wook, which won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes festival, is one of the rare films to do well both in Korea and abroad (though Cannes might be said to have had an unusual year this year, with Quentin Tarantino heading the jury).
If Asian mainstream hits are indeed unwelcome at European and North American festivals, there would seem to be a different standard for Western films. “Cold Mountain,” “Kill Bill,” “Love Actually” and Spielberg’s “The Terminal” are just a few of the mainstream hits that have been screened at major festivals in recent years (in Berlin, Cannes, Toronto and Venice, respectively).
Soh said “Memories of Murder” didn’t become a festival favorite overseas because it’s “commercial; it doesn’t carry the ‘innocence’ of Kim Ki-duk’s films. ‘Memories of Murder’ also deals with a specific moment in modern Korean history, which foreign audiences don’t have much insight into.”
Kim So-young, a professor of film studies at the Korean National University of Arts, believes there is a longing for what she calls “poor cinema” among European juries when they give awards to Asian films.
“There seems to be much interest among foreign audiences, when they see films from Asia or Latin America, in settings and characters that are highly marginalized from the society in which the films were produced,” Ms. Kim said.
“Kim’s characters provide that, putting the audience in a state of sympathy and moral superiority about the primitive ‘other,’” she continued. “Films by Hong Sang-soo, for example, are too intellectual to fit into that category.”
Some say that Korean critics err in the other direction ― looking for Korean films that are what might be called “cinematically correct,” hewing to accepted, traditional standards of quality.
“Local critics only pay attention to the film’s refinement,” said Lee of LJ Films. “They have a standard way of looking at films, whereas many foreign juries at major film festivals tend to look at the overall context in which the films were made.”
Soh, the Resfest programmer, says there is also competition among festivals to “discover” new directors, with an eye toward attracting attention or starting a cinematic trend. The quality of the film itself, he says, is a lesser concern.
“The mechanism of festivals sometimes forces the programmers to be market trendsetters,” Soh said.
Some in the industry note that the attention given lately to Korean films can itself be seen as one of those “cinematic trends,” taking the place of the “fifth-generation” Chinese filmmakers who fascinated European critics in the 1990s.
Be that as it may, a growing number of Korean producers and directors now try to garner foreign acclaim before opening their films in Korea, as a way of boosting sales locally.
Hong Sang-soo’s “Woman is the Future of Man” was screened at Cannes before its local premiere in June, and Kim Dong-wan’s “Repatriation” was shown at the Sundance Film Festival before opening locally. An “unofficial screening” of Park Chan-wook’s “Three Monsters” was held for foreign journalists at July’s Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival before its Korea opening.
“I joked to Kim Ki-duk, saying he can probably just forget about what the critics in Korea say about his work,” said Lee of LJ Films. “He is winning awards overseas. Why should he care what the critics in Korea say?”
by Park Soo-mee