Article – Cinema Below the 39th Parallel

The phrase ‘golden era’ was originally coined in relation to film as a label for 1930’s Hollywood, a time when anything seemed possible and megalomaniac producers mobilised their harems of stars to appear in some of cinema’s all time classics.

Since then many countries film industries have experienced their own mini eras of success and creativity. Post war Japan was a reflective time for the country and developed true masters such as Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and of course Ozu. The French new wave of the 60’s was a particularly strong period for a consistent producer of quality artistic films, before the baton was returned to the USA in the 1970’s, as the film school generation of Coppola, Scorsese and Lucas stretched their wings. In my book, Hong Kong cinema reached a cultural peak in the 90’s, an opinion I’m happy to bore people with on a daily basis. Yet a different Asian location has been growing in confidence and now has bragging rights as home to some of the most interesting, inventive and shocking cinema of the last decade. That country is South Korea.

A Cultural Divide

The 39th Parallel is the circle of latitude which segregates a people. It runs straight across the border between North and South Korea and divides families, old friends and philosophies of life and politics. To the North is the militaristic communist state, run by Supreme leader Kim Jong-il. His people look south across the parallel to the American backed Republic. Like feuding brothers they cruelly and stubbornly refuse to resolve their fundamental differences. This truly is a broken family situation and sadly one which weighs heavily on both sides of the border. But I’m here to talk about movies rather than politics so I won’t delve too deeply into the history of the Korean peninsula, just how it relates to their cinematic output and the way they project their views of the situation onto the silver screen.

Face to Face - scenes from JSA

The parallel itself is one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world. Soldiers from both sides stare each other out emotionlessly each day, brothers divided by a line on the ground and the political ideologies in their minds. On the North side of the boundary propagandist messages are spouted over loudspeakers while the southern side is a tourist destination in the mould of Niagara Falls or the Empire State Building. This strange and perplexing border area is a microcosm for the peninsula itself, reflecting the individual characteristics of the societies each half has produced. Cinema can be used as a tool of exorcism, an attempt to heal scars, and the South have used it in this way. The 39th parallel features heavily in their cinema. North of the line the output is relatively unknown. They are represented regularly in film from the South but we are very rarely privy to how they represent themselves.

Kim Jong-il – a friend of the arts

Kim Jong-il is said to be a huge fan of western film and TV. He beams it down to his satellite dish and watches that which he prohibits his nation from viewing themselves. His favourites are reported to be Hong Kong action movies (great taste) and James Bond. His is author of the book On the Art of the Cinema, a title I can’t profess to have read.

Kim Jong-il - author, film fan, dictator

To progress his nation as a cinematic giant, Kim took matters into his own hands. In 1978 he ordered the kidnapping of respected Southern Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choi Eun-hee to form the base of his new film industry. The pinnacle of their forced labour in the North is the 1985 creature feature Pulgasari, a Godzilla style monster movie with none too subtle political overtones. Abandoned monster Pulgasari is taken in by a kindly village but proceeds to ‘consume’ all their wealth and steel before they banish him through ‘community’ action. It’s a real curio of a film and worth checking out on YouTube. Kim has worked behind the camera for a number of productions but the Western viewing public are probably most aware of his hilarious lampooning in Team America.

The South have taken a more even handed approach when dealing with the Parallel, the finest example being Park Chan-wook’s JSA: Joint Security Area . This sublimely crafted film shows a murderous incident on the border as told in flashback by soldiers from both sides. When the actual truth is unearthed it is soul destroying. No other film shows the outright futility of cross border hatred like JSA. Park has gone on to make a real name for himself, most notably with Oldboy, the extreme and stylish enigma of a film which won the Grand Prix prize from the Tarantino headed Cannes jury of 2004. Oldboy is only the second film in Park’s vengeance trilogy, sandwiched by the beautifully brutal Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Lady Vengeance.

Although JSA shows the current situation between these divided nations, the origin of the problem is explored in the glossy epic Brotherhood (Taegukgi). This film broke all box office records in Korea when released in 2004 and although at times taking the treacly Saving Private Ryan approach the pain of the scar on the nation is clearly evident. The effects on both sides are sympathetically revealed while previous blockbusters such as Shiri treat the North as stereotypical pantomime villains. That films namesake is a female assassin, as ruthless as she is beautiful who uses southern prisoners as training targets.

Brotherhood (Taegukgi)

After Park there are a number of directors also penetrating the international consciousness. A personal favourite being Kim Jee-woon. Kim must have been bullied alongside Park at school because revenge also dominates his films. A Tale of Two Sisters is a visually outstanding psychological horror with a devastating climax. Like a number of Asian films it’s more about questions than answers. We the audience are not treated as fools and the puzzlement A Tale of Two Sisters leaves us in locks the film in the mind for days. Kim’s later film A Bittersweet life lives up to its name entirely. This Sergio Leone styled gangster film is something of a noodle western. It holds all the stylings and narrative of the Italian cowboy flicks but with an added visual flair which is characteristically Asian.

A Bittersweet Life

A third filmmaker of note is Bong Joon-ho, a man who visited Edinburgh for the 2008 film festival with his superior monster movie The Host . This gives Jaws a run for its money for pure scares and enjoyment but also manages a little subliminal politicking, this time against South Korea’s relationship with America rather than the Communist North.

This may be the director’s biggest hit but it is completely eclipsed by his outstanding 2003 serial killer drama Memories of Murder. Again Bong is critical of the politics of the South and subtly twists this into the backdrop of this intelligent and suspenseful masterpiece. The great actor Song Kang-ho stars, as he does in almost all of the above films. This is a man who deserves international recognition alongside some of Hong Kong’s most prestigious names.

Last year the Edinburgh Film Festival showed Breathless, a sledgehammer dissection of domestic violence from young filmmaker Yang Ik-joon who showed up to answer questions. It’s well worth checking if any talent from South Korea are invited for this year’s programme, the next Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon or Bong Joon-ho may be amongst them. There is also as I’ve suggested above a very worthwhile back catalogue of Korean movies. Pulgasari apart, the films noted above are all fairly mainstream and widely available. Korean cinema has for some years now been developing a very distinctive voice. It’s definitely a voice worth listening to.

If anyone has some suggestions of films missing from here please leave a comment below, I’m sure there are many more I need to check out.

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