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Festival Makes Strong Case for Cinema From South Korea

October 10, 2002|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In recent years the South Koreans, like the Taiwanese and the Iranians, have produced some of the most challenging and provocative films being made anywhere in the world. Consequently, the UCLA Film Archive's Seoul Cinema is an important event, presented with the Korean Cultural Center at the James Bridges Theater in UCLA's Melnitz Hall tonight at 7:30 p.m. through Oct. 26.

Never mind that the opening attraction, Song Il-gon's "Flower Island" is heavy going, especially for the uninitiated. The other three films screening over the weekend more than make up for it.

As for "Flower Island," Song, who will appear at the screening, piles on the grief right from the first frame. He introduces us to three women whose lives have taken horrific turns and who meet each other as they proceed to get away from it all, if only briefly, for vacations along the Southern Sea. They wind up instead in snow-covered mountains, and the film charts their fairly standard experiences as they make their way to a mythical island where they can heal. This is one journey that's hard to go along with.

That's happily not the case with Park Ki-young's "Camel(s)," which screens Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Park is a master of maximum impact though minimal means and makes full use of the camera's resources as he records a woman (Park Myung-shin) picked up at an airport outside the port city of Wilgot by a man (Lee Dae-yeon) she has never before met but has clearly arranged to meet. They are in their late 30s, both in long-term arranged marriages, and they speak of themselves forthrightly but not confidentially during their brief rendezvous. What goes unexpressed does not go unfelt, however, and as this intensely cinematic film unfolds, it leaves the feeling that their emotional reserve is a way of protecting each other's feelings in a relationship that may never get a chance to go any further.

"Camel(s)" will be followed by Im Soon-rye's ingratiating, bittersweet and often ruefully funny "Waikiki Brothers," in which a faltering rock band heads to the hometown of its lead singer and guitarist Sungwoo (Lee Uhl), the faded resort Suanbo, for a last stand at the local hotel that gave the group its name. Sungwoo apparently has no family left in the town he hasn't visited in 15 years, and discovers that the friends he left behind have not fared so well; indeed their stories reflect the wrenching changes South Korea has experienced in the past decade.

As the Suanbo gig starts coming apart, Sungwoo inevitably encounters his first and unrequited love, In Hee (Oh Jee-hae), a strong rock 'n' roll singer in high school but now a widow supporting herself by peddling vegetables from a truck. "Now that you're a man you're not bad for a date," she says to Sungwoo, who is hesitant to chance getting his heart broken all over again. By the time this delightful and perceptive film is over, director Im Soon-rye reveals she understands men very well indeed.

Addressing the recent upheavals in South Korea more seriously is Lee Chang-dong's electrifying "Peppermint Candy" (Sunday at 7 p.m.). Seol Kyeong-ku, in a stunning portrayal, stars as Yeong Ho, a ravaged-looking 40-year-old man inappropriately dressed in a suit and tie for a country picnic, a 20th reunion of a group of small-town factory workers. The celebrants try not to notice Yeong Ho's increasingly erratic behavior, which at its climactic point triggers a series of seven flashbacks spanning 20 years, in which the man's disintegration mirrors his country's turbulent and repressive political and industrial history. Lee, who wrote the landmark "A Single Spark," a broadside against the brutality and corruption in Korean society, suggests that Yeong Ho is no less responsible for his fate.

Yeong Ho's curse is that he is too questioning for his humble station in life as he progresses from sensitive rural youth through a savage rite of passage in the military that leaves him ripe to become a violent cop and then a no-holds-barred entrepreneur. Familiarity with recent Korean history is undeniably a plus, but this bravura film connects on a timeless personal level, exemplifying why South Korean cinema at its best generates has generated so much interest. (310) 206-FILM.

*

Outstanding documentarian Arthur Dong, whose "Coming Out Under Fire," recounted the experiences of nine gay soldiers serving in World War II, and whose "License to Kill" was composed of interviews with murderers of gay men, continues his exploration of gay life in America with "Family Fundamentals," which explores the ultimately unbridgeable chasm between Christian fundamentalist parents and their gay children.

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