Friday, January 28, 2011

Book Report: "Korean Film Directors: Jang Sun-woo", by Tony Rayns

Tony Rayns, the leading English-language critic on East Asian cinema, in collaboration with the Korean Film Council, has presented this introductory volume on the work of director Jang Sun-woo, the so-called Bad Boy of Korean Cinema. It is one of many books in the series "Korean Film Directors": slim volumes meant to introduce the English-speaking world to the best film makers in South Korea. Each volume is presented by a different critic. Rayns has separated the book into three distinct sections: his opinions, presented in the book's most lengthy single article; the opinions of Jang Sun-woo, being excerpts from interviews with Jang, taken from Rayns' documentary "The Jang Sun-woo Variations"; and the opinions of others, segments from English-language articles, and translations from noteworthy Korean critics, such as director Lee Chang-dong's insightful reaction to "Lies".

Even though we are very lucky to have these English translations of Korean film articles available, I cannot give it a 5 out of 5 because there really should have been more discussion on "Bad Movie", which is one of his very important works, the crux of his trademark nihilism. A lot more time seems to have been given to "Passage to Buddha", "To You, From Me", and "Lies". While I don't mind this at all, it would have been more enjoyable had it been balanced. Giving a little more analysis to "A Petal" would have been beneficial as well, since I think that an English-speaking audience would not have the background in Korean history to dissect it. But overall, this is a MUST-HAVE book if you are even slightly interested in Jang Sun-woo. The info and analysis on his early films, "Seoul Jesus", "The Age of Success", and "The Lovers of Woomuk-Baemi" is much-needed as well, since all but Seoul Jesus (which has recently turned up on the web) seem to be completely missing from market circulation. While I have been able to locate VHS copies of these films, including To You, From Me, sans subtitles, the sites which they are available on are unreliable.

In the introduction, and throughout the book, Rayns and others suggest that while this director may bring controversy everywhere he goes, he exists because he brings to light the many contradictions of modern Korea, which even the amnesiac consumer culture cannot ignore (the book's very self-critical tone of society and the individual within it are welcome and quite needed today). Yet, his real reason, of course, for being in the industry, and not an outsider in the underground/experimental realm, is the fact that his work is profitable. So, it is very understandable that he, like many Korean directors, it seems, is punished with silence when he is not able to make a commercially successful work (the new censorship). The financial failure of "Resurrection of the Little Match Girl" is reflected on in the book's most memorable article, an interview with Jang on his Elba, of sorts, the mythic Jeju Island, where he appears to be regretful of artistic mistakes (which I don't think are as grave as he or others believe), but hopeful to re-enter the industry with something better. He has yet to make another feature after his big-budget, wire-string sci-fi Match Girl, but is still trying.

* 4.5 out of 5

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