Back Row Banter

From explosions to pathos

Review: Christmas In August May 31, 2010

   Exquisitely lensed in soft pastel hues by Yoo Young-kil, the renowned cinematographer who also created the sumptuous aesthetics of A Petal and Green Fish, Christmas in August is as delightful a movie as one could ever wish to see. Whilst nominally the film could be described as a melodrama, Hur Jin-Ho’s elegiac tale transcends any of the pejorative connotations of the word. Melodramas are usually the domain of the big gesture, the awe inspiring act, the larger than life sacrifices. Christmas In August is something altogether different; rather than try and force tears with over the top and contrived moments, Hur Jin-ho’s delicate feature is instead made up of a tapestry of small, intimate, discreet moments that add up into something much greater than the sum of its parts.

    The 1998 South Korean classic stars Han Suk-kyu as humble portrait photographer Jung-won. His life, in many ways, is entirely unexceptional up until, and including, the moment he is diagnosed with terminal illness. Rather than kick and scream or cause a fuss Jung-won endeavours to carry on living his life with simple acceptance, remaining quiet to those around him about his condition. As Jung-won prepares for his final days a young parking attendant, played by Shim Eun-ha,  becomes a regular at this shop and the two find themselves becoming more and more attached.

   The power of Christas In August comes in its restraint – what the characters don’t say, the subtext of their silence, is more powerful than any words could be.  The episodic series of events that unfold are given as much weight by his terminal condition as they are by his calm, considered reactions. The moment Jung-won drunkenly spurts out his condition to his drinking partner the news that he is dying is met with a swift rebuttal. His friend believes it to be a joke and Jung-won doesn’t want to press the issue; he is determined to just enjoy the little time he has left with his friend even if he does worry there’ll be few moments like this again. Its only in drunken fear does his calm, placid mask slip. Aside from this one instance Jung-won never troubles anybody. Instead he undertakes a series of tasks aimed at helping those around him in even the smallest of manners. He painstakingly and stoically shows his father step-by-step instructions on how to use a video remote knowing full well he’ll have no chance learning this skill alone. In one extraordinary sequence Jung-won is shown helping an elderly woman come to term with her own death by taking her funeral portrait; he spoils her, makes her feel special and puts her at ease. It is a truly astonishing example of how Christmas in August manages to capture the sublime beauty in ordinary decency, the profound pathos in quiet dignity. It is an ecstatically humbling piece of humanist art.

   The film is truly emotive but to call it a tear jerker would be misleading; the term suggests a pre-planned, contrived attempt at directing audience’s emotions in a specific manner. Instead Jin-ho provides a luminous, meditative film in which each tender and laconic moment is as beautiful as the next. The quiet moments such as Yoo’s camera catching the fleeting impermanence of the condensation caused by Jung-won’s breath against his shop window are emotionally devastating in their tiny elegance. Fans of Yoo’s work will remember a thematically similar shot in Lee Chang-dong’s Green Fish.

   A truly life-affirming movie, Christmas In August is a film that deserves to be considered in the same canon as Groundhog Day and It’s A Wonderful Life as works that celebrate the best in human nature, as joyful triumphs. In the famous poem mis-attributed to Emerson success is defined as, amongst other things, being able to make just one person’s life easier because of your existence. In Christmas In August, Jin-ho is able to show how a humble photographer can live a life full of success, away from riches and wealth, solely through his kindness. Jung-won is a success because he helped his father with a video recorder and because he provided comfort to an elderly lady. If there is a more important lesson to be learned in all of art then I have yet to stumble across it.



The Dear Leader, The Director and The Director’s Wife May 27, 2010

   The story of Kim Jong-Il, North Korean dictator, whose fascination with films led him to kidnapping a director to make a movie for him. A tale of power, rubber monsters and Hulk Hogan. Full film of Pulgasari embedded.

   Kim Jong-Il is perhaps most famous in Western cinema as a lonely marionette in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America. The directing duo show no mercy with their depiction of the diminutive dictator and, just like in South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut, take great pleasure in having reprehensible, almost pitiful characters belt out show-stopping musical numbers. In one of Team America’s most famous scenes the Dear Leader is shown crooning a lament to his solitude brought about through his own personal excellence.

   The remarkable fact is that there is a real, distinct possibility that General Kim may have indeed seen Team America. The dictator in real life, as unlikely as it seems, is a huge movie buff. With a personal collection of over 20’000 titles Kim rates Gone With The Wind as the greatest film ever made whilst also noting an admiration for the likes of Friday the 13th and Rambo. Elizabeth Taylor is his favourite actress. To further his cinephile credentials he has also penned a book on the subject of film – The Art of Cinema.

   As such Kim Jong-Il has used his position of power to stress the importance of movies as a tool of propaganda and has attempted to create a film industry based on North Korea’s juiche ideology. Unfortunately this very ideology created an insular industry where creativity was hard to come by as North Korean directors relied on stories and themes that endlessly regurgitated themselves. So, unable to create a director of his own who could produce work of the standard he craved, Kim Jong-Il decided to undertake an unprecedented decision – he stole one from another country.

   One of South Korea’s most respected directors in the 1970s was a man called Shin Sang-ok who, with his actress wife Choi Eun-hee, had created a spate of movies until the country’s militant leader shut down his studio. Shortly after this event both Shin and Chi were drugged and abducted from Hong Kong. Upon relocation to North Korea Shin and Choi were separated and thrown in prison where they were kept for more than four years. Shin, after an attempted escape, was brutally forced to survive on a diet of rice, grass and salt whilst neither Shin or Choi knew if the other was alive.

   Upon release Choi and Shin were granted an audience with Kim Jong-Il which the actress managed to record. In this conversation the North Korean leader apologised for the length of time they were in jail, he had been busy at the office, and set about outlining his new plan. Kim wanted Shin to become the new figurehead of North Korean cinema with Choi as his star. For the next several years this is exactly what happened – Shin and Choi set about creating a total of seven films in North Korea, with Kim Jong-Il acting as executive producer, including, most infamously of all, a Kaiju (monster) movie called Pulgasari

   Pulgasari, to say the least, is a strange movie. The film tells the tale of a starving village under threat from a selfish leader. The local blacksmith uses a mouthful of rice and a drop of blood from his daughter to bring to life the titular metal eating monster which would help them overthrow the dictatorial bully. (Pulgasari himself looks very similar to Godzilla which can be attributed to the Japanese team who were brought in to work on the feature’s special effects – amongst their number was Teruyoshi Nakano who worked on Godzilla 1985.) Having overthrown the tyrant, Pulgasari himself becomes a source of fear. His insatiable love of metal impoverishes the village and they must once again find a way to defeat an overbearing ruler. The message for the film is confusing – Jonathan Ross remarked it to be a parable of uncontrolled capitalism in which Pulgasari represents the monster of free market democracy. It would, however, not be a flight of fancy to see parallels between Pulgasari and the Kim family themselves. The film is one of the few North Korean films to get a release outside the country’s borders when it was made available in Japan and, due to its unrelenting poor quality, has achieved somewhat of a cult status. In terms of quality Pulgasari rivals Yongary, a 1967 South Korean film, in a battle for the title of  “worst giant lizard creature film of all time”.

   Shin and Choi both managed to escape from North Korea when, having gained the trust of the Dear Leader, they managed to abscond from their guards during a business trip in Vienna. The two migrated to America as they feared that their abduction tale would not be believed by South Korea’s officials and, whilst there, Shin resumed film making by entering the 3 Ninjas franchise as a director and then a producer for two sequels. High Noon: 3 Ninjas Escape Mega Mountain marked the only time in history in which an exile from North Korea has collaborated with Hulk Hogan as the muscle bound wrestler took one of the lead roles in the Shin produced film. It is also one of the few times that Hulk Hogan has appeared in a film role with a full head of hair.

   Eventually, over two decades after their abduction, Shin and Choi returned to South Korea where, with the evidence of Choi’s recorded conversation with Kim Jung-Il, their tale was believed. South Korea’s public radio broadcast the conversation between Kim, Shin and Choi and Shin returned to making his first films in South Korea in twenty plus years. Shin passed away in 2006.

   Below is the full version of Pulgasari. Enjoy.