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This Week in South Korean Film - 3/17/2021
Wanderers, Welterweights, and Wardens
It’s another quiet week at South Korean movie theaters with no new major releases, and the more minor releases of note not expected to make a big impact. Of these, the most significant is A Distant Place which had its premiere at the 2020 Jeonju International Film Festival. For a JIFF film A Distant Place has actually been quite popular, appearing at four other local film festivals as well as one in Estonia, so it’s little surprise the movie is enjoying fairly widespread distribution at the COVID-19 depressed South Korean box office.
Of somewhat greater surprise is the fact that A Distant Place is a gay movie, with a gay leading character living alongside his daughter on a ranch. Conflict is stoked first by the arrival of an old lover, and then by his sister. Gay film in South Korea can be a bit counterintuitive. They’re almost never written as issues-based films, but rather as stories where characters happen to be gay, with this typically mattering more for characterization than it does for conflict. The most extreme example of this is LOVE+SLING, where the homosexual identity of one character is never actually addressed in the story. The story element only really exists because the character in question could seemingly solve the main conflict by coming out, but chooses not to. This also dovetails nicely with how the true conflict is about life goals, not the superficial form they take in the main conflict.
The next most relevant release this week, FIGHTER, is from a genre that is more typically seen as an issues related film- the plight of the North Korean defector. The movie deals with a young North Korean woman who tries to find her way in the South by taking up boxing. All of writer/director Jero Yun’s movies have dealt with North Koreans one way or another. Not just his own movies but the whole genre of South Korean movies with North Korean protagonists deals explicitly with their alienation. Despite their low profile releases, almost always intended primarily to be consumed on streaming services, these movies are surprisingly relatable as South Korean society as a whole grapples with issues of detachment. Last year’s Dreamer took this to a particularly dark extreme, with the situation degenerating so badly the lead character eventually attempts to redefect back to the North.
Those movies tend to have artistic pretensions, albeit ones not often recognized at film festivals. The last movie this week, Asurado, doesn’t even have that going for it, with the film being a pure action crime flick taking place in a prison. It has the distinction of Jang Kwang in the leading role as the warden. He’s one of those distinctive faces you’ve probably seen before in a Korean drama or movie somewhere, even if he’s not that big an actor. A big part of what’s driving the production of so many straight to streaming movies in South Korea right is that there’s a lot of actors like that who can shoulder a leading role but just can’t reasonably expect to be cast as one in a more mainstream project.
Well, streaming has a lot more than that going for it really. COVID-19 for one thing, but even before then the sheer ease of on-demand services has greatly increased the ease with which low budget projects can make back their operating costs. And more traditionally aimed festival films like A Distant Place and Fighter also benefit from this process, since they show up on these services too.