Martin Scorsese is a goodfella to have if you are involved in the film industry. A prominent film luminary such as Scorsese can shine a light on a film, a director, or a country’s national cinema, encouraging some folks to look where they might not have otherwise. South Korean cinema didn’t need Scorsese to break into the international scene, but Scorsese has offered up his services and influence to help expand its reach. Scorsese pitched in through his place on the board of the World Cinema Foundation to have a much improved print made of Kim Ki-young’s classic horror film The Housemaid (1960). Scorsese showed up as part of the extras for Hong Sang-soo’s Region 1 release of Woman Is the Future of Man (2004) bestowing high praise for Hong’s films. And Scorsese provided the introduction for the book Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era (Duke University Press, 2011) by Kyung Hyun Kim, a film scholar at the University of Irvine who focuses on South Korean cinema and who happened to be the person who arranged Scorsese’s appearance on Hong’s DVD. In the introduction to Kim’s book, Scorsese lists some of his favorite South Korean films, two of which I wanted to discuss here on VCinema as part of the Korean Film Blogathon – Park Ki-young’s Camel(s) (2002) and Park Chan-ok’s Jealousy Is My Middle Name (2003).
I was delighted to see that one of my favorite South Korean films from the first decade of the 21st century was also one of Scorsese’s favorites too – Park Ki-young’s Camel(s). Park rode the beginnings of the current that brought South Korean film to the international festival circuit with his film Motel Cactus (1997), a film better known for being the only South Korean film to have Christopher Doyle as cinematographer. But Motel Cactus and Camel(s) would be Park’s only 2 feature films. (He had a short in the 2009 edition of the prestigious Jeonju International Film Festival Digital Film Project entitled Technophilia that was sadly one of the missing shorts when the JIFF DFP series was shown in San Francisco at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, so I still have yet to see it.)
Instead of the pretty colors and lush visuals of Motel Cactus, Camel(s) is presented in a stark black and white. And instead of spending the entire film inside motel rooms, Camel(s) spends some time outside of them, although a considerable amount of time outside is spent within the confines of a car. In Camel(s) we follow two tentative lovers who escape from their legal partners for a weekend in the coastal town of Sorae. (That adjective is used literally, since South Korea is the only secular nation that makes infidelity illegal by risk of a jail term if caught and prosecuted.) A patient film that requires you to sit with silences and awkward dialogue, it is the type of film many hate that I often love. The economy of the dialogue is wonderful at times, such as the first line in the film where Myeong-hui (Park Myeong-shin – who has actually had minor roles in major films – Oasis, Old Boy, Secret Sunshine, and Poetry) greets Man-sup (Lee Dae-yeon – who has also had small roles in big films, such as Park Chan-wook’s entire revenge trilogy) by noticing that he’s changed his car. This lets us know this couple is not married to each other, but at the same time letting us know they have a history that we will have to put together. I don’t wish to ruin how their relationship is slowly revealed, since that is part of the pleasure of the film. The problem for some might be how the relationship is revealed through what might appear as irrelevant dialogue. If you prefer the scripts of films such as Margin Call (2011) where every character has only witty poignant things to say, this is not the film for you. But for me, the mundane conversation, along with the awkward looks and silences, is what makes this relationship appear more ‘real’, as tenuous as claims of authenticity can be. Awkward moments and people being less than commendable towards others while still anguishing for human contact was part of what so intrigued me about South Korean film when I began to follow it in 1996.
Black and white was a nice choice for this film, because the lights of the yogwan (love motels) take on a different feel, as if they are lighthouses acting as beacons for disembarking and resting from the day to day ebb and flow of obligations and responsibilities rather than the fleeting pleasures suggested by the colored neon of a Las Vegas or a carnival ride. Outside of the motel room, the amount of time we spend in the car with the couple’s silence might be excruciating for some, but I revel in these cinematic moments. The use of mirrors in the car to show these individuals are closer than they may appear, the tick-tocking of the turn signal as a time measure to the silence accentuates how much time we spend in our cars saying nothing to our fellow passengers, alone together pursuing a goal of a destination while forgetting about the journey. For this aspect more than any other in Camel(s), as I think about my viewing history with South Korean film, I keep returning to time with this couple in the car and the mute poignancy of moments of stillness, sadness, and slight discomfort in South Korean cinema.
Jealousy Is My Middle Name was an exciting film for us early-wave South Korean film enthusiasts because it announced another woman director to the screen. The debut film by Park Chan-ok, Jealousy Is My Middle Name was released in 2003 and fueled further hope for what appeared to be an emerging number of South Korean female directors between 1999 – 2003: Lim Soon-rye (Three Friends, 2001 and Waikiki Brothers, 2003), Jeong Jae-eun (Take Care of My Cat, 2001), Gina Kim (Gina Kim’s Video Diary, 2002 and Invisible Light, 2003 – Scorsese mentions in his introduction how much he liked Kim’s later film Never Forever, 2007), Lee Jeong-hyang (Art Museum by the Zoo, 1998; The Way Home, 2002), Mo Ji-eun (A Perfect Match, 2002), Byung Young-Joo (documentaries – The Murmuring, 1995; Habitual Sadness, 1999; My Own Breathing, 1999; and feature film – Ardor, 2002), and Yun Jae-yeon (Wishing Stairs, 2003). Unfortunately, like Park Ki-young, Park Chan-ok fell into the difficulty many directors face, the sophomore stumbling block, where it takes quite a few years to produce a second feature film. Park Chan-ok didn’t succeed in completing her second film, Paju, until 2009. But her debut, besides being a Scorsese favorite, was a festival favorite that showed more than promise, but complete fruition of vision.
The characters that fill Jealousy Is My Middle Name include Won-sang (Park Hae-il), an ABD (All-But-Dissertation) graduate student and writer who works his way into a regular gig at a literary magazine; Seong-yeon, a veterinarian who leaves that profession to pursue photography at the same magazine around the same time Won-sang comes on board as a regular writer; Yun-shik (veteran Moon Sung-keon from classics such as Black Republic (1990) and Out to the World (1994) and three Hong Sang-soo films – Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000), the voice you hear in Woman on the Beach (2006), and Oki’s Movie (2010)) is the editor and womanizer, having affairs with both Song-yeong and Won-sang’s ex-girlfriend; and Hye-ok (Suh Young-hee, who debuted in this film and later featured in The Chaser and Bedeviled) is the immature daughter of Won-sang’s alzheimer-stricken landlord.
Won-sang loses his girlfriend of his generation to the much older editor Yun-shik. But, although he makes slight efforts to bring Yun-shik down, more than hinting to Yun-shik’s wife that he might be having an affair and pleading to Seong-yeon to no longer sleep with Yun-shik, Won-sang is drawn towards Yun-shik as if he wants him as a father-figure or mentor in the ways of the less reputable. (There is a moment of suggested revenge near the end of the film, however, that I will say no more about since it could be seen as a major plot spoiler.) Yun-shik, however, is perfectly capable of almost destroying himself, as an unfortunate run-in leads to a subtle confrontation scene later on.
As a result, Jealousy Is My Middle Name is not a comfortable movie. Scorsese found it “an extremely subtle and emotionally complex film” (p. x), As noted in the review by my colleague over at Koreanfilm.org, Professor Kyu Hyun Kim, (not to be confused with Professor Kyung Hyun Kim mentioned in the first paragraph), Park Chan-ok found her film compared with Hong Sang-soo’s discomforting narratives. But Park’s plot and direction are clearly her own. The most interesting character is Seong-yeon. With her Robert Smith of The Cure hair designed as if she stuck her finger in a light socket, Seong-yeon doesn’t give a shit what others think about her, yet she isn’t an obnoxious sassy girl. She has simply made her own path, discarding one career for another, smoked ’em when she’s got ’em, and refusing to cling to the men that pursue her and those she pursues on her own grounds. Even near the end when she thinks she might commit to Won-sang at the wrong moment for Won-sang, the plot does portray this failure as punishment for an independent woman. It’s simply two souls missing each other in the drunken revelry of Seoul nights.
Both films, Camel(s) and Jealousy Is My Middle Name, are films that might be missed by folks who came to South Korean Cinema later, thanks to the likes of another Park (Chan-wook) and Bong Joon-ho. For those of us who caught these films as South Korean cinema was announcing herself to the world, we slowly became, in Scorsese’s words, “. . . absorbed in Korean cinema and its development, . . . absorbed with each new picture from these directors and others” (p. x). Park Ki-young and Park Chan-ok were great examples of what was so exciting to us as South Korean cinema burst with creativity through the loosening of cultural and political constraints in 1996 and through the blossoming of production quality that bloomed in the 00’s.
Since 2000, Adam Hartzell has been a contributing writer for the premier English-language website on South Korean cinema, Koreanfilm.org. He has written extensively on Hong Sang-soo for websites, festival programs, and The Cinema of Japan and Korea (Wallflower Press, 2004). He contributed several essays on various South Korean films for the upcoming World Directory of Cinema: Korea (Intellect, Ltd., 2012). He has even written on films not from South Korea for websites such as sf360.org and Hell on Frisco Bay.