Filmmaker Retrospective: The Versatile Cinema of Kim Jee-woon
Kim Jee-woon is a filmmaker who not only adores the cinema, but tries to push his style a bit farther than his contemporaries. While other filmmakers that are uniquely South Korean — a strict theme, sensibility, or historical importance — Kim makes films that are unique love letters to the genre films, commenting and elevating the material beyond parody or imitation.
That doesn’t mean his films are empty experiences — there’s a lot to digest whether it’s a gangster, horror, sports, western, or the action film (well, maybe not so much on the last one).
As a child, Kim’s father was a huge film buff, taking Kim to the theaters countless times. As a film student, Kim studied stage acting and theater direction at the Seoul Institute for the Arts in the mid-90s, an absolute must in his mind if was going to be a filmmaker. Before making his debut film in 1998 with “The Quiet Family,” he wrote and then entered the script into the country’s Cine21 Screenplay Competition a year before to gain a little traction.
Aside from “The Quiet Family” and “The Foul King,” Kim has also made short films in between a few of his features. For him, it’s a directorial exercise in style and form to see what works for his next film. His background in stage acting has made him stand out when working with actors. The talent are usually taken back when Kim vividly acts out the scene for the performers. It’s mostly worked for him, especially when working through a language barrier. .
As a cinephile, Kim is drawn to all types of films, arthouse and mainstream. To my modest surprise, I learned some of his favorites include Godards “Le Mepris,” Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror,” Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring,” and pretty much all of Robert Bresson’s films. When asked about choosing his favorites, Kim stated these films and directors due to their universal, human stories being done with their own touch.
Kim also took a page from Tarkovsky’s book “Sealed Time” and found nostalgia to be a powerful device in telling his story, using every bit of his experience to make a scene work and come alive. He’ll even borrow from other filmmakers, but does so with a point other than simple allusion or homage.
This makes sense when considering how Kim uses the universality of genre films and their individual conventions when reaching the widest possible audience. People might not have seen a South Korean film about the nation’s democratization in the 80s, but I’ll bet they’ve seen a western or anything starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
With seven features and a few shorts, Kim still has a long career ahead of him. With CGV — South Korea’s premiere cinema chain — releasing their new multi-projection theater system, they asked Kim to be the first filmmaker to make the first film for their new format. It’s still early to see if it catches on (I’m not that hopeful), and not much has been said about it since almost late 2013.
His most recent film was his underrated, English-language debut “The Last Stand,” which also doubled as the big-screen return of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a starring role. While it wasn’t a hit that he or Schwarzenegger probably wanted, it hasn’t stopped Kim from working again in the states.
In October 2013, he announced that he’ll be directing the live-action adaptation of Ed Brubaker’s “Coward,” taking over from David Slade. In addition to “Coward,” Kim is adapting the anime-classic “Jin-Roh” for South Korean audiences.
Kim Jee-woon’s feature films are all readily available for purchase and/or streaming, so they’re not tough to find. Rather than making a distinction of the best and worst films, this article will go through every single feature film by Kim, exploring the feature in relation to their respective genre, but also a look behind the scenes for each title.
1. The Quiet Family (1998)
A family of six adults — the father (Park In-hwan), mother (Na Moon-hee), Uncle Chang-goo (Choi Min-sik), and the adult children Young-min (Song Kang-ho), Mi-soo (Lee Yoon-seong), and Mi-na (Go Ho-kyung) — move from Seoul into a large home in the mountains. The family converts the building into a lodge for travelers, only to get no business when they aren’t scaring potential customers away.
One night, they nervously accept an old man. In the morning, they find the man dead, assuming it was a suicide. The father decides to cover it up, burying the body in the woods. Thinking things have passed, the family starts receiving more and more guests, only to find more mishaps and bodies to bury.
Judging by the description above, the film could come off as a creepy little horror or thriller about a family unprepared for death. Horrific stuff happens, but it’s light and played for laughs. This is immediately evident as the opening credits consist of a Cypress Hill-type hip-hop beat bumps as the camera travels through the interior of the lodge.
“The Quiet Family” is a black comedy that’s bit more grounded than something like “The Addams Family.” Once again, for a film that features murderers, perverts, rapists, and assassins, it’s all pretty much played for laughs.
In a 2005 interview in Florence, Kim stated that he wished to push the situational moment of the family to quite absurd heights, essentially granting their wish via Monkey-paw route. When the daughter exclaims her boredom with the countryside, Kim’s film starts to take off, only for the family ultimately regret the decision.
For him, that was the comedy, what would essentially move the film. Whenever something bad is seemingly solved after some painstaking event, Kim happily throws another obstacle in there to stress out the characters. Their misery becomes our comedy.
Watching the film now, “The Quiet Family” feels slightly fresh in 1998. South Korean comedies post-new wave have many films based off the dynamics of a nuclear family like “Marrying the Mafia,” while older films from decades ago will treat the subject in a more serious fashion like “The Oldest Son.”
Personally, I think when “The Quiet Family” gets to its second-half, you start to see the sub-plots being slightly forced into the finale, also affecting the tone. I think Bong Joon-ho nailed the genre-bending family film with “The Host,” but “The Quiet Family” is still far more interesting than a lot of other comedies.
In 1998, Kim and many of the films stars (outside the actors playing parents) were relatively unknown. It’s impressive to see him cast two men who’d become South Korea’s biggest drawing stars. Song Kang-ho and Choi Min-sik were previously in “No. 3” together, and “The Quiet Family” shows that these actors truly have what it takes to win audiences, especially Song.
“The Quiet Family” is constantly being rediscovered by fans after seeing Kim’s later films, but also by those who enjoyed Miike’s more heightened and surreal remake “The Happiness of the Katakuris” in 2001. That film has dancing zombies.
2. The Foul King (2000)
Dae-ho (Song Kang-ho) is a banker who’s completely miserable and unsatisfied with his life. When he’s not slaving away at work, he’s always being beat and bullied by his boss for being late — most notably, in the form of a headlock. He wants to defend himself, but doesn’t know how. As he walks by a wrestling gym, Dae-ho thinks back to his childhood wrestling hero, Ultra Tiger Mask.
After a bit of hesitation, he signs up with the gym. Despite being terrible at first, he creates the identity of being the villain, a joke wrestler whose main objective is to get the audience exciting through cheating. As he trains more and more, Dae-ho slowly starts to gain a bit of confidence that no longer makes him a pushover.
Like many others, I rediscovered “The Foul King” after seeing his later films on DVD, and immediately got the impression as Kim Jee-woon doing the sports genre. While the film does have some impressively shot and choreographed wrestling — training montage and all — it doesn’t play like a typical sports film.
“The Foul King” spends a lot of time on not only Dae-ho, but also the people in his gym, his bank manager, love interest, and his troubled best-friend. Whereas most films would probably build up Dae-ho to a talented contender, Kim makes his Dae-ho into a joke character in the ring before he’s taken seriously.
The real training is not only something he has to earn, but must happen after he believes in himself. It’s an interesting way to convey the same love, danger, and admiration for the sport by using a perspective that initially can come off as mocking. In a weird way, it kind of reminded me of Steve Rogers’s journey in the first “Captain America” movie.
Also, I haven’t seen another sports film with visible chapter breaks, each one being more or less a fancy label for the following scenes. As a result, the pacing feels inconsistent compared to the conventional sports narrative.
Dae-ho’s first match is actually a great encapsulation of the entire film: quiet, unattractive, and unexciting — a few laughs here and there — only to be capped by a big, crowd-pleasing moment or joke.
In the scene, it involves a poke in the butt and a fork (believe it or not, separate incidents), but as a film, it’s mostly a slow-build to the climactic match in the ring. A lot of reviews and Korea’s own year-end industry newsletter have labeled “The Foul King” a missed opportunity, but out of Kim’s filmography, it’s one of the few that actually spends time on character.
Still, I’d recommend this film not as a way to sell Kim Jee-woon, but rather his star: Song Kang-ho. Being his first leading role, he doesn’t disappoint, showing that the man can carry a film after spending many years in the background or in supporting roles. Also, despite the wrestling itself be a source for many jokes, it’s hardly made fun of by the film and Song. The actor trained in the sport to prepare for the role, doing his own dives and flips in the final film.
There’s an odd reverence for old-school wrestling, and Kim doesn’t downplay some of the more troubling elements of the sport. Even when watching a recorded tape of a (then) modern WWF (pre-WWE) match, Dae-ho doesn’t laugh or mock it, but rather studies it seriously.
While uneven, it’s hardly a terrible film. “The Foul King” and “The Quiet Family” to me feel like great South Korean movies that go great with a lot of the local hits that get released each year. It’s not until his next film that Kim would go onto becoming a favorite among cinephiles worldwide.
3. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
After a long stint at a mental institution, Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) returns to her family, most notably her younger sister Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young). To help Su-mi heal and transition back into normalcy, their father and stepmother (Yum Jung-ah) take the girls to a beautiful, lakeside cabin in the fall.
Upon arrival, there’s immediate conflict between the sisters and the stepmother, hinting that Su-mi’s condition might’ve been caused by the woman. Su-mi suspicions are slowly confirmed, as strange incidents suggest something unnatural is occurring.
For those interested or already familiar with South Korean cinema have probably heard of “A Tale of Two Sisters.” Based on a popular Korean folktale, the film has both local and international success, and is considered an important film in the South Korean new wave. It not only received a limited release out in the U.S., but was also remade as the mediocre “The Uninvited.”
As Kim prepared to make “A Tale of Two Sisters,” he spent a long time finding what horror meant to him and his style. He looked at South Korean, European, and specifically, Japanese horror films to get an understanding of what worked for him. Afterwards, he thought a lot about his audience, wondering if it should be more arthouse or much more commercial. He tested the waters with his short film “Memories” for the second round of entries in the “3 Extremes II.”
Casting the biggest actors at the time with a budget stretched to its limits, Kim was meticulous with the performances in “A Tale of Two Sisters.” In an interview for a German broadcast, his star Moon Guen-young, told him in an interview — also conducted by Kim — that she felt like she got many takes wrong, that she never knew when Kim was happy. She even went on to admit that she didn’t even understand the script upon first read. She still signed on, feeling scared and shaken after the first read.
In the same series, Kim interviews the actor playing the stepmother, Yum Jeong-ha. While they’re segment is mostly pleasantries, she gave Kim props for directing her in a way that she didn’t recognize doing those takes. Even though she performed those scenes, she confidently states that a lot of choice movements didn’t originate during her process. These testimonials even extend to the production.
As the composer and songwriter for the film’s central theme’s — which also was a minor hit — only instruction was to make a “sad song about memories,” what audiences get is something far more haunting than a generic horror theme or sound cue.
A lot has been written about the use of psychology in relation to horror in “A Tale of Two Sisters,” and to repeat those notions here would not only do the film and this article a slight disservice, but I would need to spoil one of the best reveals in recent memory. Let’s just say that all scary moments used in many other horror films — haunted house, grizzly images, jump scares —all serve a purpose here.
What also makes “A Tale of Two Sisters” a step above the rest is the form. A lesser filmmaker would’ve brought a South Korean version of the J-horror craze brought upon by the original “Ringu” and “Ju-on.” There are nods to those films in “A Tale of Two Sisters,” but what elevates this film is the attention to the detail, such as the camera movements, edits, mise-en-scene, acting, spatial awareness, etc. — all working harmoniously for this horrific story that stays with audiences like it does the main characters.
Many consider this film to be Kim’s masterpiece, but I’d argue that it’s not the fan favorite among his releases. I feel that honor goes to his next film, also my favorite film by Kim Jee-woon.
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