South Korea boasts perhaps the most interesting film scene in the world right now, and part of the reason it's so interesting is that, on the surface, it's not that interesting. That is, there is no particular stylistic flash or ground-breaking type of work or new school of cinema you can attribute to filmmakers from the bottom half of the Korean peninsula. South Korean films—or, at least, the ones increasingly distributed here—resemble typical Western action flicks or thrillers, melodramas or quiet, observational indies. (Park Chan-wook, director of Oldboy and other outré revenge flicks, is the exception that perhaps proves the rule.) But there is clearly a generation of filmmakers hard at work making exemplary renditions of these standard types, the best of them so exemplary that it makes you wonder why so many smart, well-crafted films seem to be so blithely cranked across the Pacific when Hollywood seems to have such trouble with those these days.
This month sees the U.S. release of two recent films by Korean director Lee Chang-dong, 2010's Poetry (Kino Lorber Blu-ray and DVD) and 2007's Secret Sunshine (Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray). If you had to log them, genre-wise, they'd be filed under humble female-focused domestic dramas—no romance, no action. But what Lee does with these films is use these characters and their stories to tilt at far bigger issues (perhaps in the case of Secret Sunshine, too big). Which is not to say he doesn't make the most of the characters and their stories.
Poetry's Mija (Yun Jeong-hie) is a familiar type on this side of the ocean, too—an older lady prone to riotous flower prints and big hats, gentle and quiet and frequently sporting a slightly nervous smile. Her pleasant exterior belies a hard life, as she raises her lunkish teenage grandson Wook (Lee Da-wit) on government assistance with the help of a meager wage she draws from working as a part-time nurse for stroke victim Kang (Kim Hira). Perhaps looking for a little transcendence as she enters her waning years, Mija signs up for a poetry class, dutifully making notes of the things she sees and feels, placidly waiting for poetic inspiration to strike. At the same time, her life off the page spirals downward thanks to family scandal, a grim diagnosis, and money problems she couldn't have planned for.
Given the film's title and focus, you might expect Poetry to be a sentimental, impressionistic character-study ramble—a Pacific Rim A Trip to Bountiful. Not so. Lee's film, which he also wrote, takes its time with Mija, but there's a deft plot pushing everything forward as she struggles to do what she feels she must do even as she reaches for something, anything to salvage for herself from her trying circumstances. And when the denouement arrives, Lee has earned every second of it. As a story about pulling good from ruin, about what we can take from this world and all that we must leave behind, it has no contemporary rivals.
Secret Sunshine also centers on a woman facing insurmountable challenges, in this case pretty young widow Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon, seen most recently here in The Housemaid). She moves with her young son from Seoul to her late husband's provincial hometown to start over. She collects a friendly admirer (Song Kang-ho) and inspires gossip among the townies. And then a tragedy destroys everything remotely stable about her tentative little world.
Hurt in a soul-deep way that Jeon evokes with her entire physical being, Shin-ae turns to God, and Lee pivots Secret Sunshine 90 degrees from a story about a woman picking up the pieces in a new place to a story of grief and faith and their limits. Shin-ae, as it happens, finds the limits of faith fairly quickly and goes from raising to God her prayers for healing and peace to railing against God, actively spiting the source of her pain, her eyes raised to the sky in hatred. It is an unsettling story, not least because her conversion and her fall from faith as presented are so entirely understandable. Lee perhaps overreaches with the extremity of Shin-ae's reaction to her plight, but that unsettled feeling could also be due in part to a filmmaker probing the frontiers of belief and doubt that we most often would prefer left unexplored. And like Poetry, it's exquisitely thought-out and crafted, from very first frame to very last.
And now, a short, subjective list of entryways into contemporary Korean cinema; not all of these films will be for every viewer, but they're all worth seeing: Oldboy (Park Chan-wook's sui generis revenge fantasia, with one of the most indelible performances in any language of the past decade from Choi Min-sik); Daytime Drinking (a dry indie comedy for fans of early Jim Jarmusch); I Saw the Devil, a brutal account of the flipside of revenge, also starring Choi Min-sik); The Housemaid (melodrama as class war); The Host (Bong Joon-ho reinvents the monster movie); and Treeless Mountain (a quiet neo-realist family drama about two little girls adrift).