Films are brilliant; they provide each and every one of us with the chance to escape the ordinary and live vicariously through the lives of characters plastered across a giant screen. We get to enjoy numerous films daily which showcase different scenarios for us to not only observe but also imagine ourselves in. On Monday we can be a Marvel superhero saving New York City from a villainous Alien force. On Tuesday we can choose to be one half of the perfect couple; both of whom are extremely attractive, have successful careers, beautiful abodes, etcetera. On Wednesday we can be the lovable, animal sidekick of a Disney princess, setting out on an amazing adventure either on land or across the open sea. On and on our week goes until we get to the weekend and decide to watch a horror film and spend the night tossing and turning, all too afraid of being visited by a creepy, long-haired ghost girl or a demon disguised as a nun. The Western industries, primarily Hollywood, produce and develop films with extreme escapism in mind; they want people to believe in the characters they create. They want us to admire their backgrounds, their stories, their ambitions in the hope that we too will experience something similar. I grew up watching and revelling in the productions of the Western industries, unaware of the growing competition on the other side of the world.
I first stumbled across the Chinese film industry while studying my bachelors at university; there was a transnational media module which introduced me to early 2000 wuxia dramas, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers. These three films, in addition to many more, are quite simply stunning. The cinematography, the costumes, the martial artistry; everything is visually beautiful. Kudos to the American studios, Sony Pictures Classics and Miramax Pictures, who distributed them for bringing such incredible cinema to Western audiences but massive congratulations to the Chinese film industry for creating something so beautiful in the first place!
I could not write about the Asian film industries without mentioning the anime genre, a style the Japanese industry naturally excels in. From the world-renowned sci-fi hit Akira to the more recently released Your Name, Japanese anime films are one of a kind. The animation is next level; it is sublime. I was in awe watching Your Name, excited to see the next beautifully drawn landscape, mesmerised by the comet breaking in the sky, elegantly falling towards the doomed Itomori. Even if the story doesn’t compel you, it is impossible to deny the impressive quality of the animation that brings it to life.
But now on to the reason for this post… the Korean film industry!
My cousin first told me about Oldboy back in 2012 after a brief discussion about how much we both admire the Asian films we had seen so far. He recommended Park Chan-wook’s revenge thriller to me and heralded it as ‘one of the greatest films he has ever seen’. So I decided to have a film night at uni and watched it with a few friends and it certainly did not disappoint. The story is so unique, so original and the performances of the cast complement it perfectly; you can taste Lee Woo-jin’s bittersweet desire for unyielding revenge throughout the entire 120 minute running time and can resonate with Oh Dae-su’s misery and denial in the closing few minutes, watching his face crumple as the ultimate realisation dawns. The superiority of Oldboy as a revenge thriller in comparison to other films within the same genre encouraged me to branch out and explore the Korean industry further. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance, Chaser, I Saw the Devil, Memories of Murder, The Yellow Sea and so many other magnificent Korean thrillers have been added to my watched list and none have failed me thus far.
So what is it that I love so much about the Korean film industry? Remember earlier when I said the Western industries provide their audiences with extreme escapism? The Asian industries, specifically Korean films, play host to extreme realism. Sure the storylines are out there; they are incestuous, gruesome and sometimes downright crazy but they inform the viewers that everything doesn’t always work out in the protagonists favour. Korean revenge thrillers are determined to tell their viewers a fantastic story whilst maintaining a fairly realistic element. The guy doesn’t always get the girl, the bad character doesn’t always get their well-deserved comeuppance and everyone doesn’t always live happily ever after. Kim Soo-hyun, the protagonist in I Saw the Devil, particularly comes to mind here because even after completing his revenge mission against Jang Kyung-chul, the man who kidnapped and murdered his pregnant fiancé, he still does not feel complete; he walks away from his final act eventually breaking down in to a flurry of tears, the realisation that he has become a monster whilst in pursuit of another monster hitting him, as the rain pounds down around him.
Other Asian industries also practice extreme realism. For example, Infernal Affairs, a film which came out of Hong Kong in 2002, tells a double-sided cat and mouse tale; a police officer, Chan Wing Yan, working undercover to infiltrate a triad whilst a second officer, Lau Kin Ming, masks his real identity as a member of the same gang. Sound familiar? Hollywood remade Infernal Affairs with Martin Scorsese at the helm; The Departed was released in 2006 with a star studded cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Vera Farmiga and Mark Whalberg amongst others. The difference between the original and the remake however perfectly illustrates the difference between extreme realism and extreme escapism. Both good cops, Chan Wing Yan and Billy Costigan, die unexpectedly during the climaxes, however Lau Kin Ming and Colin Sullivan suffer different fates. Infernal Affairs has Lau ultimately get away with all of the bad deeds he has committed whereas The Departed shows Sullivan being shot and killed by another cop, Sean Dignam; a character who does not have a counterpart in the original. Dignam was added to The Departed to give the audiences what they want, he provided the necessary resolution for the narrative by killing the bad guy.
Don’t get me wrong… I absolutely love The Departed, it is a great film and I cheer along with others when Sullivan gets what is coming to him! But sometimes Western remakes can be a real flop; Spike Lee’s 2013 remake of Oldboy, was in my opinion, terrible. I did not connect well with the characters and I felt there was really no need to take an already messed up storyline to the next level. You’d understand what I mean if you have seen both the original and the remake – I don’t want to delve too far in to what happens due to the fear of ruining the surprise for those who haven’t yet seen either. Ultimately some remakes work, some do not; I cannot deny my mixed feelings when I read Your Name is to be remade by Paramount Pictures and J.J. Abrams. I just hope they do the story justice and can produce such epic animation like the original!
What do you think about the Asian film industries? Do you prefer Western escapism or revel in the realism of Eastern productions? Let me know your thoughts and any other films you think I may be interested in watching down in the comments!