Two Movies of South Korea at the 36th Hong Kong International Film Festival

in 36th Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Helmut Merker

Frozen relationships, frosty encounters: Korea can be very cold. At the beginning of Choked (Kashi) by director Kim Joong-hyun we see a couple walking across a snowy field. Then, taking a short break, Youn-ho offers his friend a cup of hot tea from a thermos flask. This is the most tender moment of the film, but nothing is thawing there. At the end, the snow has turned even more dirty, the boy is lying at the side of the road and remembers his last conversation with his mother Hee-su, who had just received a reminder letter from the district court and laughed about it when he rebuked her: “Don’t laugh. This is going to suffocate us.” The title already hints at it: debts choke you. Youn-ho’s mother got trapped by some kind of pyramid scheme for buying and selling magic nutrition, and she cannot get rid of the products. Even though this nutrition is supposed to have helped rejuvenate the US president’s wife, the unhappy Korean family cannot expect any presidential support when it comes to paying their debts. Mother, son and aunt: none of them can find a way out of this obscure business, each one of them rotates faster and faster on a downward spiral and they all make each others’ lives even more complicated. The mother disappears, leaving behind a pile of debts, the son refuses to take responsibility for these debts, and the aunt blames both of them.

The second film Stateless Things (Jultak Dongshi) directed by Kim Kyung-mook is in a certain way quite the antonym, with numerous scenes full of hot, dramatic, sexual action. It is divided into two acts. In the first part the main character is an illegal North Korean, who has to escape from tyrannical surroundings as well in the south, this time from the inhumane work conditions. The second part shifts to a male prostitute living with a rich businessman. This relationship ends in a failure. Suddenly it turns out that these two main characters are twin brothers, and the whole film changes from a social to a kind of existentialist drama where both of them see their only exit in suicide by suffocation.

Over the past years, Korean cinema has become very important in Asia: genre movies, melodrama, thriller and film noir, often very brutal and sexually explicit. However, the economic crisis has also reached the film industry. To sign a free trade agreement with the US, Koreans gave in to the pressure from Hollywood and reduced the quota for national productions in cinemas. Choked shows a common aspect of Korean everyday life: families torn apart by divorce, divorced women not having good standing in society, generations growing apart. Frozen frames, full shots or knee shots underline the loneliness of the characters.

The pressure from neighbours trying to collect their debts becomes unbearable for the Choked family. Even the police have to intervene to calm down the parties involved because, after all, everybody in this game is a victim. The aunt establishes a miserable black market in the back of her car and gets caught. Youn-ho is pressured by the organ mafia and an aggressive real estate company. Hee-su tries to survive as a kitchen help in a restaurant until she gets sold out and temporarily arrested. All these elements combine to make a real “feel-bad movie”. The way the story is told, with its many ellipses, its leaps in time and its many minor characters that suddenly appear and then disappear again, does not make it easy to maintain an overview. More impressive than the big debt crisis are the series of emotionally painful moments that hit the characters in their inner selves. Their conversations end in helpless screaming or gloomy silence, in shouting or with an endless monologue. The mother realises more and more the growing distance between her and her son. The aunt’s husband forbids his wife to see their daughter, so she can only look at her from distance. When the boy presents a new flat to his girlfriend, he experiences the disappointment of his life: the girl remarks that a person renting such a small flat certainly cannot be able to afford a car. Just three steps into the flat and she turns round again, her look is pure calculation, her coat like armour to protect her and a handbag on her angled arm — an image seemingly copied from a manual for successful businesswomen.