Radio Star (라디오 스타, Lee Joon-ik, 2006)

radio star posterWhat do you do if you’ve just directed a box office smashing, taboo busting, giant mega hit? Well, you could direct Star Wars, but if you’re Lee Joon-ik you go back to basics with a low budget, heartwarming tale of friendship and failure. Radio Star (라디오 스타) reunites frequent costars Ahn Sung-ki and Park Joong-hoon whose shared history runs all the way back to ‘80s movies Chilsu and Mansu, Two Cops, and Nowhere to Hide. ‘80s nostalgia plays not a small part in Lee’s film as it takes a washed up one hit wonder from 20 years back and gives him a new opportunity to shine…if only he can get over himself first.

1988 was something of a banner year for Korea, a newly minted democracy the country put itself on the international map with that year’s Olympic Games taking place in Seoul. It was also a big year for rock star Choi Gon (Joong-hoon) who scored a chart topping mega hit with his song The Rain and You which won him a prestigious musical prize. However, it all went to his head and despite the best efforts of his best friend and manager Park Min-soo (Ahn Sung-ki), 18 years later in 2006 Gon is a cafe singer with a habit of getting into fights which land him in jail. After yet another “incident”, Min-soo is having trouble finding the money to bail his friend out, until, that is he hits on the opportunity of selling Gon’s name as a radio host in an isolated rural town.

Of course, this doesn’t go down well with Gon who’s still every inch the edgy rockstar despite his reduced circumstances. Eventually Min-soo talks him into taking the gig but he’s anything but enthusiastic about his new life as a disembodied voice talking to a handful of country bumpkins who still have transistor radios. Gradually, through learning to appreciate his surroundings Gon begins to understand exactly what it is that’s important in his life.

Playing off its central dynamic, Radio Star undoubtedly brings a lot with it in the casting of Ahn and Park whose similar trajectories add to the film’s otherwise straightforward narrative. Min-soo appears to have only the one client to whom he remains completely devoted (even neglecting his wife and daughter in the process) though it’s true Gon’s career has not gone in the hoped for direction. Still dressing like an ‘80s rock god with sunglasses, torn jeans and a leather jacket, Gon is his own worst enemy as he plays the rockstar game all the way into a jail cell he fully expects Min-soo will get him out of. His new assignment as a local radio DJ is one he finds beneath his dignity and only takes because he thinks it’s a favour to a friend (rather than a friend doing a favour for him), but when it brings him unexpected success he finds that it’s all worth nothing if Min-soo isn’t there to enjoy it with him.

Though many in the small town barely remember Choi Gon or his iconic, prize winning song, he still has a few fans in the form of local garage band East River (played by real life punk band No Brain) who become devoted supporters of the show even helping to spread the word and putting on a special celebratory tribute concert. Ironically enough, the show starts to take off with Gon’s nonchalant approach to hosting which often sees him abandoning the mike to a random local either by phone or getting a guest into the studio. Sliding into talk radio territory, Gon begins taking calls and offering (to begin with) flippant advice on such topics as jobs for the unemployed and the proper rules for card games but he’s soon involved in a campaign to help a shy florist declare his love to a bank cashier and eventually makes a heartfelt personal appeal in support of a little boy who’s father has run off, encouraging him to come back home if only to apologise for making the kid think it’s all his fault that his dad went away.

It’s undoubtably small scale stuff, which of course means that it’s infinite in scope as Gon’s growing sense of interconnectedness takes the show out of the local area and eventually all the way to Seoul after the East River boys’ internet fan site gives him a potentially global (well, to anyone who can speak Korean) reach. As Min-soo points out, stars don’t shine alone – they reflect the light they’re given, and therefore Gon’s only rises because of his friendship with Min-soo and the support he begins to win from the local people once he drops the aloof rockstar persona and begins to engage. Necessarily sentimental and drenched in the dust of broken dreams, Radio Star is a sometimes melancholic though warm tribute to the power of friendship and redemptive possibilities offered by unlikely second chances.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gon’s prizewinning song – Rain and You as sung by Park Joong-hoon

And sung by Korean punk band No Brain

 

Gagman (개그맨, Lee Myung-se, 1988)

gagman cover

Is everything we see a waking dream or does it just appear that way? This question posed (or perhaps dreamed) by the protagonist of Lee Myung-se’s debut becomes a kind of key for unlocking much of what has gone before as Lee freewheels between fantasy and reality as his cast of movie obsessed dreamers attempt to inhabit their very own stretch of celluloid within the “real” world. Released in 1988, Gagman (개그맨) catches Korea in a moment of transition. Newly free of a lengthy dictatorship and back on the world stage after hosting the 1988 Olympics, the country was eager to promote itself as a modern liberal democracy. Hence, the arts were the first to feel the new freedom with young directors given the chance to create boundary pushing films and show just how far Korea could go. Lee was just one of these directors but Gagman is no political treatise (at least, not directly) preferring to experiment with form as a farcical exercise in meta comedy.

Cinema obsessed comedian Lee Jong-sae (Ahn Sung-ki) wants nothing more than to make the next great Korean movie which every one of the 40 million Koreans will fall in love with. Consequently he’s blagged his way onto the film set of a top director to whom he’s already sent his “prize-winning” script. Eventually thrown out, Jong-sae does not lose heart but promises the lead role in his movie to his equally film obsessed barber Moon Do-suk (Bae Chang-ho) whom he sends out on “research” missions walking into banks and asking about security. A fortuitous meeting with a feisty young woman in a cinema, Oh Sun-young (Hwang Cine), provides a another impetus for Jong-sae’s filmmaking dreams and so when he unexpectedly gets his hands on a gun after an encounter with a deserting soldier things just got real in a very unexpected way.

Lee signals his intent early on with a static camera shot focusing on the barber, Do-suk, as he waxes on about Kirk Douglas in the Vikings whilst simultaneously remarking on the fall in quality of his beloved dog meat. Do-suk feels that when it comes right down to it, Korean mutts are the best – not these scrawny poodles that cheap restaurant owners are substituting for the real thing. His comment might easily go for himself and Jong-sae, two scrappy working class Korean guys trying to make it in a walled off industry, but interestingly enough bar a mention of Sorrow Even Up in Heaven, Lee’s references are to European and American cinema rather than that of his homeland.

The most obvious of these lies in the central gag – that the gagman has a “funny” face. Ahn Sung-ki is saddled with a Charlie Chaplin moustache throughout the film (with the added bonus that it of course looks like a Hitler moustache to European/American viewers) and plays Jong-sae as someone who’s constantly doing a Chaplin impression with his strange walks and silent cinema plaintive looks. Ahn even begins layering his performance so that we get Charlie Chaplin impersonating Brando in the Godfather to recite the melancholy monologue which seems to open Jong-sae’s unfilmable script. For Jong-sae his existence is cinema, the life he lives is unreal or surreal always with an added dose of narrative in the ongoing story of his rise to greatness as the most famous Korean filmmaker of them all.

Fantasist as he is, Jong-sae has a way of pulling other people into his unrealisable dreams including the barber Do-suk and a young woman who unexpectedly starts canoodling with him in a cinema in an attempt to avoid some other creepy guys. Oh Sun-young is almost a mirror image of Jong-sae in her pragmatic realism though she too is looking at the stars and willing to engage in fantasy to get there. It is she who first suggests that the “research” they’ve been doing might have a more practical application and she is also the one to maintain a calm approach to their eventual need for escape but, even if she always has one foot in reality, Sun-young cannot escape the gravitational pull of Jong-sae’s strange dreamverse. Do-suk, by contrast, is a willing convert – just as obsessed with cinema and comics as Jong-sae, his desperation to be a part of the movies and unwavering faith in his friend lead him to give up everything in service of art even going so far as to get painful eye surgery to increase his box office potential (apparently a meta dig at a Korean celebrity who did something similar).

In keeping with the Chaplin theme Lee’s humorous universe is defined by slapstick and absurdity, his dialogue needlessly theatrical and mannered with a melodramatic seriousness. Nevertheless Lee makes the most of his canvas as the film goes on behind Jong-sae while he enters one of his reveries as in one particularly amusing scene in which he attempts to declare his love to Sun-young without noticing that she’s long wandered off and been replaced by Do-suk. Despite the cartoonish, comedic tone the atmosphere is a melancholy one reflecting the final destination of Jong-sae’s film project but also of his continuing inability to integrate the two distinct universes into one concrete whole which could be termed “reality”. In this Lee returns to that first question but this time he asks us as cinema lovers which world it is we live in, and which it is that is the more “real”.


Gagman is available on region free blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive but you can also watch the whole thing legally and for free via their YouTube channel!

Revivre (화장, Im Kwon-taek, 2015)

revivreThe 102nd film from veteran Korean film director Im Kwon-taek may appear close to the bone in its depictions death, suffering, and the long look back on a life filled with the quiet kind of love but Revivre (화장, Hwajang) is anything but afraid to ask the questions most would not want to hear as the light dwindles. The inner journey is just too hazy, as one man puts it, unknowingly commenting on the human condition, yet Im does manage bring us nicely into focus, if only for a moment.

Oh (Ahn Sung-ki), a successful salaryman working in marketing for a cosmetics company, finds himself slightly adrift as the brain tumour his wife, Jin-kyung (Kim Ho-Jung), had previously suffered from resurfaces. The treatment this time is apparently not as successful leading to prolonged hospitals stays as Jin-kyung’s condition deteriorates and she begins to require a greater level of medical care. While all of this is going on, Oh is still very much dedicated to his work but has also begun to indulge in an old man’s folly, fantasising about the pretty new girl at the office.

Much of Revivre is concerned with Oh’s inner life, the things he does not say (which are many because Oh is a quiet sort of man). Ahn Sung-ki captures this quality well in playing Oh with a kind of blankness that could be the numbing sensation of grief or an extension of his ordinarily reserved nature. This makes his impromptu verbal attack on the figure of his fixation, Choo Eun-joo (Kim Gyu-ri), all the more unexpected though his remorse over having acted in such an out of character way may actually help to generate a kind of relationship between the pair albeit more of a paternal than romantic one.

Oh’s continuing fixation on Eun-joo, the woman who becomes the accidental focus of his world even though his wife lying dies in a hospital, is intended to be a fantasy and nothing more. An early dream sequence sees Oh participating in an elaborate traditional funeral taking place in a desert in which all of the mourners are dressed in black, except, of course, for Eun-joo – the only fixed point of reference, clothed in vibrant purple and smiling back at him in contrast to the solemn faces of the other guests, each staring at the floor. In the real world time slows down for him as Eun-joo dances youthfully in a nightclub and as he leaves the party early, her’s is the lone still face, haunting him as he looks back at the other revellers still enjoying themselves heartily even outside the club.

Indeed, “looking back” with all of its various advantages and disadvantages becomes another central theme as Oh becomes a kind of Orpheus descending into his own personal hell in the hope of dragging back his departed Eurydice – an idea neatly recreated in one of the film’s few outright fantasy sequences in which Oh dreams himself into an avant-garde dance show. Like Orpheus, Oh cannot help but look back though he risks losing all in the process. What Eun-joo represents for him is perhaps not the woman herself but an image of his own youth and a desire to live again as he once lived before. The present and the past begin to overlap for him, Eun-joo becomes the future he cannot touch as well as the returning spectre of a past he cannot return to.

Oh’s daughter asks him at one point if he ever really loved her mother. His reaction to losing his wife is, it has to be said, restrained, practical. Yet this question is answered with an immediate cut to Oh helping his wife to the bathroom, performing the most intimate of tasks with unwavering devotion. As his wife fades, Oh’s fantasies become a shield against the growing fears of his own mortality as his body also begins to fail him. The melancholy sense of loss and loneliness coupled with the inevitability of the passage of time pervade as each of Oh’s points of reference slips away from him at exactly the same time.

Im opts for a non-linear approach beginning with Jin-kyung’s passing and thereafter moving freely, reflecting Oh’s fleeting memories and interior confusion as he deals with such a traumatic, life altering event. Neatly framing Oh’s dilemma within his work in which he faces a choice of sticking with the current marketing strategy or striking out in a bold new direction, Im plays with the eternal theme of transient beauty in a society which prizes bodily perfection above all else. The film’s Korean title plays on a pun involving a homonym which means both “cremation” and “makeup” perhaps harking back to the central theme that you dig a grave for yourself if you attach the wrong sort of importance to the impermanent, but is in a sense ironic as one represents a final acceptance and the other an attempt to hold off the inevitable. Poetic and intensely moving, Revivre is another characteristically multilayered effort from Im, still at his full strength even in this late career effort.


International trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Chilsu and Mansu (칠수와 만수, Park Kwang-su, 1988)

Chilsu MansuThough not a big box office hit at the time of its release, Park Kwang-su’s Chilsu and Mansu (칠수와 만수, Chil-su wa Man-su) is not only fondly remembered by its contemporary audience chiefly because of the amusing performances of its still popular leading actors, but is also credited with kicking off what would become known as Korean New Wave. Released in 1988 and set sometime in 1987, this is the new Seoul emerging into democracy after decades of military rule and looking ahead to the glory of the 1988 Seoul olympics. However, as ever, the future has not been evenly distributed and there are those who find themselves unable to climb its ladder through no fault of their own.

Based on a story by (banned at the time) Taiwanese writer Huang Chunming, the film begins with the blaring sirens which denote a “civil defence drill” is about to take place. Chilsu is forced off the bus he’d been travelling on and takes refuge in a video arcade where he encounters college student Jina. After the drill ends Chilsu continues to pursue her at her job working part-time in a Burger King. When he gets back to work, Chilsu finds that his boss has paid someone else to cover the time he was missing. Chilsu argues with him and quits but pesters the man he’s just met, Mansu, to take him on as an assistant and help him find work. The pair become friends and begin working together as billboard painters but one fateful outburst seems fit to change both of their lives forever.

Chilsu is an animated fellow who’s constantly wandering off to do his own thing to the consternation of everyone else. He’s a chancer and an opportunist and, as it turns out, a compulsive liar. Almost everything he says is untrue. In order to get closer Jina, he tells her he’s an art student and tries to impress her by speaking English with stories of going to America to study where his brother has a house in Miami. He dresses like Bruce Springsteen and has Stars and Stripes patterned T-shirts but his taste for Americana is merely aspirational, he has no education or connections and his stories about going to America to study are a fantasy. He does have an older sister who has apparently been disowned by their father for fraternising with Americans and may have have gone to America with a man, but no one even knows if she’s alive or dead.

Mansu, by contrast is sullen and standoffish. He drinks too much and says little though his anger is of the subdued kind. His problem is that his father had, and continues to have, communist sympathies which he refuses to renounce. This causes a problem for Mansu because each time he receives a background check he gets flagged up and in one notable instance he’s refused a passport that would enable him to take an overseas job precisely because of his father’s record. He’s trapped in poorly paid menial work through no fault of his own simply because of something that his father did that is nothing at all to do with him.

Chilsu is also resentful of his father who worked as a “houseboy” for the American military but now does nothing much of anything at all. After Chilsu’s mother died, his father remarried and lives off his second wife’s earnings. A drunk and a layabout, Chilsu’s father sets a poor example for his son who is terrified of becoming just as feckless and miserable as his deadbeat dad. Both men are paying the price for the actions of the previous generation who have left them with nothing but barriers preventing them from escaping the years of difficulty for the bright and shining future that men like themselves are building for other people’s sons to prosper in.

The climax of the film occurs as the pair are just finishing a giant billboard for an alcoholic drink and are taking a break. Chilsu climbs up on top of the billboard and Mansu goes up to join him. The pair get chatting and Chilsu eventually confesses his lies as he realises all of his dreams have been shattered. He has no hope left, no possible future to consider. Mansu is now angry for both of them and takes this opportunity to scream in rage into the uncaring void that is the expanding city below. Obviously, they can’t be heard or understood but the pair’s wild gesticulations create quite a show for the people down below and a crowd starts to gather. This results in the police being called and a further agressive motion by Chilsu makes them think the pair have petrol bombs. Neither of the two quite realises the fuss they’ve caused by unwittingly making a “political protest”, possible suicide bid or perhaps both. This absurd misunderstanding will have profound consequences for both of them.

This final scene continues the tragicomical tone that has characterised the film so far which adds to its absurdist quality rather than pushing it into a harder political statement. Chilsu and Mansu was the first film of Park Kwang-su who had already been politically active during the dark years of the dictatorship and was committed to socially-conscious filmmaking. Kicking off a similar trend for years to come, Chilsu and Mansu is an early example of commercial realist cinema that although not a big hit on original release has gone on to be regarded as an enormously important step in the history of modern Korean cinema.


Chilsu and Mansu is the fourth in the Korean Film Archive’s series of remastered blu-ray releases and like the others in the series includes English subtitles on not only the main feature but also the commentary track with director Park Kwang-su and film critic Kim Young-jin. The discs also boast an image gallery and the set comes with a 42 page booklet in both English and Korean plus a 20 page photo booklet.

You can also watch the entirety of Chilsu and Mansu (pre-restoration version) with English subtitles for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel

No trailer but here’s a prominent song from the film’s soundtrack which includes some early Korean rap: