Korean films at NYAFF 2011 back with a ‘Vengeance’

Written by on September 18, 2011 in Korea Abroad, Special Report

* This post is written by Elizabeth Shim, one of the Korean Cultural Service in New York’s Cultural Reporters.

Ryoo Seung-wan, Lee Jun-ik, Na Hong-jin, Kwon Hyuk-jae, and Goran Topalovic at a NYAFF Press Conference. (Photo courtesy of Goran Topalovic)

Ryoo Seung-wan, Lee Jun-ik, Na Hong-jin, Kwon Hyuk-jae, and Goran Topalovic at a NYAFF Press Conference (Photo courtesy of Goran Topalovic).

“Korean films are catching Hollywood’s attention,” declared Goran Topalovic, “because they are best known for their raw humanity.”

Topalovic should know. He is a co-founder of the annual New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF), one of the city’s most singular film festivals focusing on cutting-edge films from Korea, China, and Japan. And this year, with the support of the Korean Cultural Service of New York, the festival introduced an unprecedented number of Korean thrillers, 11 in total, under the synoptic banner, ‘Sea of Revenge.’

Several film directors from Korea were in attendance, including veteran filmmaker Lee Jun-ik, auteur Ryoo Seung-Wan, and emerging talents Kwon Hyuk-Jae and Na Hong-Jin.

Na’s second full-length feature Yellow Sea (2010) was a Festival highlight, having been screened at Cannes to critical acclaim, and the subject of much anticipation in New York this summer.

Movie poster for Na Hong-jin's hit thriller 'Yellow Sea' (2010), with stars Ha Jung-woo (left) and Kim Yun-seok (right)

Movie poster for Na Hong-jin’s hit thriller Yellow Sea (2010), with stars Ha Jung-woo (left) and Kim Yun-seok (right)

On the final evening of the festival, the Walter Reade Theater was packed with enthusiastic fans of Korean film eager to watch Yellow Sea. Not surprisingly, the crowd went wild with enthusiasm. Yellow Sea’s action-packed scenes ignited several moments of applause throughout the screening. The movie’s most riveting, and yes, phantasmagoric scenes were also abundant in blood-letting and free-wheeling violence, but drove home a compelling allegory of love, trust, and the parlous relationship between men and women. It was this balance of mind-numbing action and perspicacious storytelling that sets Yellow Sea a class apart from other movies of its genre, and even from its predecessor, The Chaser (2008), Na’s first full-length feature film.

Na was inspired to write a script about a penurious Joseonjok taxi driver after spending a few months in Yanji, a city in northeastern China with a significant ethnic Korean population. The city, proximal to the North Korean border, is also an interesting crossroads of Korean and Chinese culture. The protagonist, Ku-Nam, leads the audience in and out of a trifecta of seedy rest stops but before long, a deadly mission takes him on an illegal boat to South Korea. What happens next even surprises himself.

Director Na Hong-jin takes questions from the audience. Na lived in China to directly immerse himself in the lives of ethnic Koreans in Yanji. (Photo: Lee Hyun-woo)

Director Na Hong-jin takes questions from the audience. Na lived in China to directly immerse himself in the lives of ethnic Koreans in Yanji (Photo: Lee Hyun-woo).

Director Na first became intrigued by the Joseonjok, or ethnic Koreans living in China, when he heard of a true crime by a Joseonjok man in South Korea. “This man,” the filmmaker explained, “was hired to murder another man in South Korea for $5,000. He received the first installment of the money, but was caught and deported before he received the rest. This made me wonder about the plight of the Korean-Chinese. So I went to live in Yanji, to learn more about these people.”

Film-wise, Na certainly made the right move. The focus on the Joseonjok, an oft-neglected corner of Korean diaspora, is unprecedented in Korean cinema, and provides a polemical entry point in which to explore Korean society.

“Making movies is a challenge,” Na confessed. “The frustration, the excitement are all there. But out of the difficulties come joy.”

“But,” he added, as he raised his hand during the post-movie Q-and-A session, “My finger is still numb from Powerpoint.”

Powerpoint? Yes, that’s right. True to form, Na’s filmmaking expertise was not the only highlight of the evening. Due to a last-minute technical glitch, Na also single-handedly inputted the English subtitles to his film via computer software. This, too, over the course of a 157-minute movie.

Needless to say, his passion and dedication to filmmaking, in all its unexpected facets, did not go unnoticed by his appreciative audience. In fact, it only underscored the power of an emerging filmmaker who’s riding at the crest of the latest of Korean cinema, a movement that’s not to be missed.

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Starting in May 2011, we have been the first class of the Korean Cultural Service New York’s cultural reporters to help promote the uniqueness of Korean culture to New York City -- the world’s cultural hub. As cultural reporters in New York City, we first take on challenges and initiatives to report about dynamic Korean culture to the metropolitan area, but we project that we will eventually reach beyond just New Yorkers to raise awareness about Korean culture to the world.