Friday 15 January 2016

Discovering Jang Jin - Plotting a way through the work of an interesting South Korean film-maker

Jang Jin
I have to start at the start. At the Vancouver International Film Festival in 2014 I saw Man on High Heels, a fine neo-noir chosen by Tony Rayns as part of the VIFF Dragons and Tigers selection about which more later. I’d like to quote Rayns’ program note in full but when the search engine took me to a single click away all I got was a notice saying I’m not authorised to look at the page. Who knows why that would be. Anyway the short version that was available says: Yoon (Cha Seungwon) is the ultimate hard man, a battle-scarred cop who gets his man by any means necessary. But Yoon has a secret: she’s a woman trapped in a man’s body. Arch-satirist Jang Jin delivers all the thrills and ultraviolence we’ve come to expect from Korean cop/gangster movies, but with a very subversive twist.

And so it proved. It made me very curious about Jang’s work. Not long after there was, another Rayns initiative, a retrospective  at Rotterdam in 2015 which rounded up most of Jang’s work all the way back to his script for Lee Minjong’s A Hot Roof (South Korea, 1995). I wasn’t there and I’m doubtful that this sidebar attracted much attention from anyone in the Antipodes.

The intro on the festival website is succinct. The multi-talented satirist Jang Jin is a favourite with both large audiences and critics and in-crowd alike in the film, theatre and television worlds owing to his independent spirit and penetrating vision.

This South Korean film, theatre and television-maker is a pure satirist. In his oeuvre, which spans many genres, he has got to the heart of many political and social issues, as a writer, director, producer and actor. He works with relatively large budgets and for a pretty wide audience, but is able thanks to his original, independent vision, his razor-sharp, dry humour and innovative work to also attract arthouse enthusiasts. Alongside some ten feature films and a few shorts, the versatile Jang also hosted three seasons of the Korean version of Saturday Night Live and was on the jury of Korea's Got Talent.

So, I’m starting late and at the very start and, though I may not get them in chronological order, below here and in some later posts will be some notes about Jang’s films. Regrettably there are going to be gaps in knowledge. I  cant confess anywhere near enough information being to hand on such things as the general view of the competence of the South Korean police force or whether the criminal classes are quite as droll in their activities as Jang makes out on more than one occasion. But here goes.

We are Brothers (Jang Jin, South Korea, 2015, 101 minutes)
The opening scenes tell us that after their father was swept away by a typhoon  two young brothers were placed in an orphanage by their beset  and impoverished mother. One brother gets adopted by an American couple the other is left behind. The latter becomes a Shaman and displays a very short temper as he tries his best to look after their increasingly befuddled mother. It’s proposed by a TV show that the brothers and mother be re-united on camera but things go wrong when the mother wanders off, setting off a manhunt that lasts for most of the picture.

In the meantime, venal TV producers, dopey cops and a host of other incompetents contrive to be constantly foiled in their efforts to locate mother. Strangely, the pace is measured with much opportunity for conversation, flashbacks to childhood, including the info that the American adoptee was abused as a child and subsequently killed a man in a fight before adopting the dead man’s son. Humanity shines through and when you think the movie has satisfactorily resolved the re-unification it goes off on a further plot tangent.

I’m trying to think who makes movies like this, a reference point for a combination of satire, drama and  smart comedy but I’m not coming up with anything. In other places, it’s the sort of material that fits into sitcoms and continuing series better than it does feature films, at least in these parts. More about that as things develop.

Guns and Talks (South Korea, 2001, 121 minutes)
Jang's fourth feature gives the signs of a satirist of both modern mores (the infatuation with hit men) and the representation of those mores. The group of young men living idyllically together in a roomy suburban house in between carrying out contract killings requiring immense planning. (For one of them the leader builds a stage maquette to more closely plan the execution of an actor playing the lead in Hamlet  on stage at the National Theatre.)

The group, all of them young and beautiful, remind you of The Beatles and the communal house in Help!  but Jang is only 44 and was barely born when that item emerged so who knows if it had any inspiration. After setting up this scene, a few more tangents are inserted. Inevitably it would seem with Jang there are bumbling and self-important cops. There are also two women, a knowing young one dressed in a school girl's uniform who by movie's end has graduated into full membership and a TV newsreader whom the group sit around and moon over and who later enters the action when she takes out a contract. 

Maybe the satire is just a bit too elongated and the riffs on Shakespearean drama a bit over-inflated for most tastes. But still the situation is clever and if its humour is gentle rather than lacerating, if its characters talk in the language of well brought up college kids who eschew bad words (leading to one good final joke) then it's all part of a serious look at how such drama has become formulaic and the interior world of the hitman become a cliche that could use a little levity to puncture pretensions.

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