The UCLA Film Archive's presentation of "New Korean Cinema," which is keyed to the Olympics in Seoul, begins Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Melnitz Theater with Bae Chang-ho's "Our Sweet Days of Youth" (1987).
That film is an unfortunate introduction to a national cinema little known outside the Korean community, but Sunday's "Pong" (1985) by Lee Doo-yong is a knockout from a world-class film maker. (Lee's "The Spinning Wheel"--which screens Oct. 9--and his "Eunuchs" have won acclaim on the film festival circuit.) The extremes these two films represent suggests that an unpredictable 13-picture retrospective is in the offing.
"Our Sweet Days of Youth" would seem to be South Korea's belated variation on "Love Story." A pathologically shy, terminally klutzy Seoul college student (Ahn Sung-ki), who's an aspiring playwright, becomes infatuated from afar with a beautiful young actress (Hwang Shin-hae). Many reels later, the story becomes one of unrequited love unexpectedly but only fleetingly fulfilled.
Those of us who've survived such an experience know how wrenching that can be, but while Bae's emotions are rightly intense, he's a shameless heart-tugger with an unforgivably heavy hand and a leaden pace.
"Pong," which screens Sunday at 7:30, offers a glorious contrast. A superb storyteller, Lee Dong-yong spins a ribald yarn, set in the '20s and worthy of De Maupassant, with the kind of wise detachment and resonance we associate with the great comprehenders of human nature.
The virile but shiftless Sambo (Lee Moo-jing) is a chronic wanderer, returning to his impoverished rural village only several times a year. This means that his lush and sensual wife Anhyup (Lee Mee-sook) is both desperate for funds and filled with sexual longing. In no time Anhyup has taken on virtually all the men in the village for her profit and their mutual pleasure--and to the growing rage of the men's wives.
The resulting turmoil leads to a matter of considerable suspense and reveals Lee Doo-yong and his writer Yoon Sam-yook as possessors of moral imagination of the first order. The film is highly erotic as well as comic, but in its political and economic implications about the hated Japanese occupation of that era, it's marked by an underlying seriousness. Gorgeous and striking from start to finish.
For full schedule and more information: (213) 206-FILM or 206-8013.