Neither North Korea nor South Korea have released enough movies to the Western market for me to be able to build effective models of their history and culture. Here is a brief sampler of a few movies from South Korea that touch on some high points. I will not dignify The Interview as a movie about North Korea.

The King and the Clown (2005)

The author of the South Korean play upon which this film is based appears to have studied his Shakespeare. This film opens with a small troupe of street players performing a tightrope act in a provincial square. It is set in the year 1502. The repartee is gratuitously raunchy, but the show is good. Their irreverence gets them into difficulties with the local government and the two key players head off to Seoul to make it in the big time. They are a brash young man, named Jang-saeng, and his pretty partner, named Gong-gil, who is also a male.

In the city, they face even stiffer opposition for their mockery of the King. They manage to evade punishment by demanding to perform for the King so he may decide for himself if their satire has merit. In the middle of the command performance, the members of the motley company are certain they will be put to death when suddenly the King bursts into laughter and lets it be known that the clowns will take up residence in the palace. There are echoes of King Lear in the relationship of King and Jester, but it is Hamlet that provides the prototype for this drama. The King is obsessed by the poisoning death of his mother, who was consort and queen to the previous king, his father. He orders the players to perform a drama that airs these allegations. The performance is beautifully mounted in the style of Chinese opera. When two consorts object to these insinuations, the King draws his sword and kills them. The madness that power brings has settled on him.

There is jealousy and resentment within the court and palace intrigues become lethal. All does not end well. The original play, produced in 2000, was based on details from the life of King Yeonsangun of Joseon (1476-1506), reportedly the worst king in Korean history. The film was hugely popular in Korea. Assaults on the old aristocracy apparently meet with both public and governmental favor.

Chihwaseon (Painted Fire) (2002) – South Korean

This film won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s a biopic of Korea’s greatest artist, Jang Seung-ub, called Ohwon. Centered on the year 1882 in or near Seoul, and subsequent years of revolution against the aristocratic past, this dissolute genius applies black brushstrokes to white paper to the awe and admiration of nobility and commoners alike. He is a contrary personality, however, and rebels against any occasion where he is expected to paint to order. His forte is in painting highly expressive birds and trees that come to life under his brush. He struggles in his early years with formal training as an artist, and develops a reputation for following the rules and breaking them at the same time. In his love life, he is mostly cruel and unhappy, and he is a drunkard. This is a classic parable on the tyranny of talent. As the social-political situation deteriorates, with the intervention of the Chinese and Japanese, Ohwon ends up an itinerant pottery painter. At the end, he appears to crawl into a fiery kiln but then the film proceeds as if he had not. A legend says he disappeared in 1897, perhaps becoming an “immortal hermit.”

The Way Home (2002) – South Korean

Reading the video box, this film sounds from like it will be full of charm and insight into the clash of city and rural life in South Korea. A young mother who is out of work takes her son (about eight or ten) to stay with his grandmother in a remote farming village. The kid is insufferable, petulant, self-obsessed, interested only in his battery-powered computer game, and is terribly abusive to the mute, crippled old woman. He demands everything of her, and helps her not at all. One might think things would change somewhere mid-film, but it does not happen. It just gets worse until the mother comes and takes the boy away again. He does not even say good-bye, much less thank you, as he jumps on the rural bus. In the final shot, he runs to the rear of the bus and waves to her. It is meant to be a redeeming moment. This little bastard aside, the film offers a pleasant glimpse into life in the Korean countryside. The trailer, in my opinion, totally misrepresents the film.

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