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Bite out of Hell

Bite out of Hell

With "Korean Cinema Now (and Then)," The UCLA Film & TV Archive spotlights the many sides of Korea, old and new. Here are our short takes on some of the films in the series.

By APA Staff

Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
dir: Bong Joon-ho

Prompted by Memories of Murder and The Host's international success, the UCLA Film Archive screened director Bong Joon-ho's feature debut, for those of us who may have missed it the first time around. Not only does Barking Dogs Never Bite shed light on Bong's versatility as a storyteller, but it's also a joy to see the two leads, Lee Sung-jae and Bae Doo-na (now acclaimed actors in their own rights), play off each other so exquisitely in one of their earlier film experiences. Yoon-ju (Lee Sung-jae) is an aspiring professor who is under pressure from his pregnant wife and on the verge of losing his mind. Hyun-nam (the priceless Bae Doo-na) is an office assistant who longs to create more meaning in her hum-drum life. Current project: find the crazy man who has been hurling dogs off of high-rise apartment complexes. Although the "barking dogs" in question are often innocent victims of grotesque crimes -- a disclaimer promises that no animals were harmed during the filming -- to call Barking Dogs Never Bite a dark comedy gives the impression that the film is more disturbing than it is. The over-the-top world that Bong creates humors more through earnest absurdity than sadistic glee. An infantile bet between man-and-wife solved by a toilet paper roll, a visual gag involving a long metal skewer, and a hallelujah moment of conscience-clearing confession that is not quite consummated: these are the seeds of an original voice that has somehow figured out how to tease authenticity out of an abnormal world, whether it includes dog-eaters or Han River monsters.  --Ada Tseng

The Marines Who Never Returned (1963)
dir: Lee Man-hee

In The Marines Who Never Returned, Korean militant jingoism is paraded for in glorious cinemascope. With its fatigued heroes agonizing and slapsticking their way through the Korean civil war, Marines is a remarkable window into the masculine politics of the battlefield. Like a Sam Fuller film, it spins itself on hairpin rearrangements of the most audacious materials -- hangings, tortured corpses, stacks of bodies, clenched jaw heroism. There is even one scene where the commander strolls through the no man's land of a hollowed out city in thoroughly mannered John Wayne cadence, all the bullets magnetically repelled by his macho aura -- all unraveled around the kewpie gravity of the cutesy Korean orphan. She's like the good-natured, fat-cheeked Shirley Temple or a blushing, young Snow White that insistently sends off her private battalion off to the Korean brothel with a precious salute. It's this relationship that really describes the charm of this film -- bloodied, serious civil war pathos injected with faux, hangdog comedy: Fuller through and through. It's your grandfather's smokey, wartime memory fringed with exaggeration that begins with: a) brutishly cutting down a warpath in a brothel until the mistress and everyone share a laugh; and ends with: b) loud exhales, "there's nothing more tragic than war!" More than anything, a look back at Marines doubles back on Korean history and provides deeper insight into a violent moment of the past century. By the film's close, one gets the sense of stream-lined politics that finds the hard questions answered by easy refusals and displacements: the issue of antagonism at the very end reduces to wave-upon-wave of fleece jacketed Chinese, as if the entire Hunan province decided to encroach upon this small band of Korean foothill.  --Clifford Hilo

Our School (2007)
dir: Kim Myung-jun

An intriguing contribution to the discourse of Korean identity in Japan, director Kim Myung-jun's documentary film, Our School, portrays the very emotional consequence that marginality has on students of Hokkaido's only Korean school. Filming over three years, Kim follows these students, born and living in Japan, but also learning to embrace their ethnic Korean identity while at school. For students who start at the "vocational school" (as it's officially termed according to Japanese standards) from the very beginning, classmates are the same for the twelve straight years between elementary and high school. Classes are small, the Korean language code is strict, and teachers find deeply rooted connections to the students, as most are alumni of the few Korean Schools in Japan. We follow them through songs, through broken Korean and Japanese conversations, through the unrelenting snow of Hokkaido, through the doors behind noisy dormitory rooms, through the tears shed after their soccer defeat, and even through their journey back to the "fatherland" of North Korea. Glorifying the unity of Korea as an essential step, Kim also ends with the realization by a handful of graduating senior students that their understanding of what it means to be Korean, has fully blossomed into a gratitude for their school and the future of schools like it in Japan.  --LiAnn Ishizuka

A Flower in Hell (1958)
dir: Shin Sang-ok

From the opening urban jungle teeming with the seedy remnants of American militarism, to the jaw-dropping final half-hour culminating in an expressionistic mud-bath of greed and deception worthy of Clouzot, A Flower in Hell is one shockingly brilliant tour de force. The social critique stings while the gritty detail of the Seoul underworld clings to your skin like a rash. Aside from the tacked-on final scene, this is a film that makes no compromises and takes no prisoners, picking out an innocent country bumpkin and dragging him through the violence of the black market, the underclass, and the seductions of prostitution. With such a sordid set-up, the film can only pay off with further insanity, from the hysterics of a sexy femme fatale (whose over-the-top wickedness borders on cliché -- easily the weakest link of an otherwise perfect film), to a chase scene as suspenseful as any filmed in the 1950s anywhere in the world. Director Shin Sang-ok is an undeniable master of social drama, innovating new ways of shooting everything from dance numbers to robbery scenes. And then there's the climactic sequence: a moody rhapsody of fog and mud as unforgettable for its craft as for its faultless sense of excitement.  --Brian Hu

Previous APA reviews of films from the "Korean Cinema Now (and Then)" series:

If You Were Me 2
(dir: Kim Dong-won, Jung Ji-woo, Jang Jin, and Park Kyung-hee)
Woman on the Beach (dir: Hong Sang-soo)
The Forbidden Quest (dir: Kim Dae-woo)



Asia Pacific Arts