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Friday, 24 March 2017

On Blu-ray - A restored edition of a major film in the South Korean filmography, Lee Myung-se's GAG MAN and some other thoughts

Gag Man
The DVD and the Blu-ray Disc (BD) were/are technology from a decade or more ago. Yet for the arch enthusiast, collectors seeking to have personal collections of the highest video and audio quality especially, those formats remain the choice. The advent of Blu-ray has not quite fulfilled all dreams mainly I suspect because collectors cant be convinced to rebuy ever more titles in a format which while offering upgraded quality doesn’t offer it at prices that warrant wholesale replenishment. But whatever the reason, BD and DVD remain the preferred format and such alternatives as holding thousands of titles in hard drives are a second level method for storage, confined in most cases to unrestored movies and titles obtained through what David Hare calls ‘backchannels’.

‘Backchannels’ is the where super-enthusiasts with a techo bent and possibly infinite patience (for preservation) and love (for such things as fan subtitling) come into their own and good luck to them. While ever the only copy available happens to be from a damaged 16mm print located in a backwoods film exchange, a TV station that has converted to digital or a place where films are taken to be disposed of by fire or the like then the collector will accept it for the sake of current completeness. Who knows when some real rights holder will dig down into their cellar and come up with the negative of Sidney Lumet’s A View from the Bridge. In the meantime all we have to go on is something on Youtube.

But, I digress. All this is prompted by observing the randomness of how the retrieval and restoration sector goes about its business. So let me start here. Until only a few days ago, I have never been aware of the entrants for Bologna’s Annual DVD Awards. The winners have been known but not the entrants or the finalists. Maybe the Cineteca always released a list like this of the thirty finalists that will judged by the all male white-haired jury again in 2017. Whatever, it causes me to wonder whether this is the first time anything from the Antipodes has ever got this far in the competition. The superb selection of shorts by Kiwi experimentalist Len Lye and a restoration by the NFSA of Philip Noyce’s Aquarius festival doco Good Afternoon from 1971 have both got through into this group.

Look around the list of the finalists though and you discover just how random the whole process is. If you were choosing to restore something would it be these films or would it be one of a million others. Everyone would have their own thoughts and nobody can keep up even with knowing what’s on offer notwithstanding the efforts of a few, most notably Jonathan Rosenbaum in his inevitably endlessly rambling columns of his Global Discoveries on DVD  which feature in the Canadian journal Cinema Scope.

Lee Myung-se

So, another quick segue, what can I say about Gag Man,  a new Blu-ray issued by the Korean Film Archive, a copy of which was sent to me by Tony Rayns who contributes an essay in English to the booklet which is included in the package. Gag Man was made in 1989 and was the official debut of Lee Myung-se. Lee has made nine features all up, the last M being made in 2007. Only a couple of years before that he had a mega-hit with the thriller Nowhere to Hide.

Gag Man is presented as one of the first films by a young director influenced by things that have taken place outside the country of origin. It’s easy to spot the homages to Chaplin, Coppola, George Gershwin and Michel Legrand. In most cases Lee has simply swiped their music. New Waves land everywhere and this film, along with early films by Jang Sun-woo and Park  Kwang-su, is a clearly defined moment in the progress of South Korean production from the long time hidebound and protected Chungmuro studio cartel to the somewhat more freewheeling production conditions of today where everything from smart student feature productions to a sector of indie work heavy on oppositional politics seems to vie for attention.

Gag Man’s story concerns a young comedian with a Charlie Chaplin moustache and a burning ambition to move on from compering the show in some dive night club to writing a script for a movie. Early efforts to attract the attention of a famous director have some funny bits of business around a movie studio. But throughout its two hour length the film keeps returning to the lack of reality. The comedian and the two cohorts he enlists in his schemes take on all comers but that’s their ambition on display. The end has a sadder feel which I wont spoil notwithstanding that it’s probably near impossible for most to get hold of the disc. Along the way, the trio turn into amateur bank robbers and spend much time daydreaming about bright futures all the way to Hollywood. It’s funny and sweet and its trio of leads have an easy sense of timing. You don’t get the impression they are amateurs struggling with the technicalities of acting.

The Rayns essay naturally provides an enormous amount of background material on the conditions of production of the day, the national politics, the restrictions on young smart talent and especially on how radical the film was in its time. It spends some very useful effort considering the nature of the daydreaming structure and the fact that at no stage are we ever quite sure just what is ‘real’ for both the audience and the trio.


The fact that it has been the subject of some loving restoration work by the Korean archive would seem to be a further indication of the film’s importance in the national filmography. The Korean Film Archive has also uploaded the film onto Youtube.

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