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Directing a Film Rebirth in S. Korea

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Unlike the Japanese cinema, which was respected both by the Japanese public and the intelligentsia not only as a powerful indigenous industry from its beginnings in the 1920s but also as a worthy form of artistic expression, the Korean cinema has labored under narrowly prescribed conditions in a historically restrictive atmosphere.

It is for these reasons--the country’s 40 years of colonial domination by Japan and 30 years of military dictatorship following liberation, along with a smaller scale of indigenous studio production and only a handful of filmmakers going back before the 1950s--that the Korean cinema has largely been neglected in the West.

But all of that has begun to change, says Kyung Hyun Kim, a UC Irvine film scholar, because of the emergence of young Korean directors eager to address political and cultural themes that reflect a resurgent populist movement toward democracy in South Korea, despite its current financial crisis.

He offers as proof “Post-Colonial Classics of Korean Cinema,” a weekly series of 19 key historical and contemporary films that begins Saturday with Kim Ki-young’s “The Housemaid” (1960), 4:30 p.m., and Jang Sun-Woo’s “Lovers in Woomuk-Baemi” (1989), 7 p.m. In the UCI Film and Video Center, UCI Humanities Instructional Building, Room 100, off Pereira Road. $4-$6. (714) 824-7418.

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“There is a phrase in Korean--han--which means suffering and grief,” said Kim, who is co-directing the series with Chungmoo Choi (of the UCI department of East Asian languages and literatures) and Soyoung Kim (of the Korean National University of the Arts).

“Han is particularized in the Korean films emerging these days. How to reconcile that suffering through films is one of the primary goals of many Korean filmmakers,” he said. “Not that all they deal with is tragedy. A lot of the popular films engage the audience through comedy.”

Kim notes that “The Housemaid” was a milestone of the 1960s, Korea’s “golden age” of cinema (when 200 feature films were being made annually), because it dealt with the taboo subject of sexuality and the conflict it causes within a harmonious bourgeois family.

Ki-young, now in his 80s, was one of the major filmmakers of that period. His films were forgotten through the 1970s and ‘80s but are being rediscovered these days by Korean moviegoers.

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“We’re trying to highlight him,” Kim said, pointing out that three of his films--the most by any director--will be screened before the series ends in April.

“He also made melodramas and horror films,” Kim added. “Because they were [intended as] popular entertainment, everyone overlooked the fact that they had serious themes. But we realize now that they’re more than entertainment. Politics and history are encoded in all of them.”

Moreover, “Westerners will get a sense of Korea’s shifting moral codes and the difference between modern and traditional values” from Ki-young’s films.

Sun-Woo’s “Lovers in Woomuk-Baemi” centers on an affair between two married factory workers and takes place in a farming community near Seoul. The movie’s lack of an explicit political critique of Korean society--in sharp contrast to his first film--took his followers by surprise, Kim says.

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Before becoming a director, Sun-Woo was a political activist and--not unlike French New Wave directors Francois Truffaut, Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard--a film theorist and critic with strong political and social views.

“The first film by Sun-Woo was a critique of capitalism and corporate values,” Kim said. “It allegorized the inhumanity of that system.” Why the sudden change in style? “The first film flopped commercially, and the critics took him to task artistically. They found it didactic.

“This film takes a very realistic view of people who are trapped by their surroundings and obligations. They cannot escape the vigilance and expectations of others. The impossibility of fulfilling their love raises important questions, even though they’re implicit.”

“Lovers in Woomuk-Baemi” was favorably received when it was released, he added, and did well at the box office too.

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Also screening in Orange County:

* “King: Montgomery to Memphis,” a documentary about Martin Luther King Jr., screens at 3 p.m. today at Irvine Valley College, Room B209, 5550 Irvine Center Drive. Free. (714) 451-5376.

Interest in King is especially high, not only because of Monday’s national holiday commemorating his birth and the upcoming Black History Month of February, but because of Taylor Branch’s just-published “Pillar of Fire: American in the King Years 1963-65" (Simon & Schuster, $30), the second volume of his monumental King biography .

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(The first volume, “Parting the Waters,” covering the years 1954-63, won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for history. A third and final volume, “At Canaan’s Edge” is also planned.)

Branch makes the case that King is “our century’s epic hero.” Certainly the FBI regarded him as the century’s most threatening, notwithstanding the more militant stance of Malcolm X and other black revolutionaries.

In 1963, for example, an FBI memo named King “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation” and spied on him with phone taps and bugs planted in his hotel rooms on the personal order of then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who sought to blackmail King with evidence of sexual philandering.

* The Cult Classics Festival continues at the Port Theatre in Corona del Mar, with double-bill screenings of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Raging Bull” (1980), tonight; Bruce Robinson’s “Withnail & I” (1987), a dark British comedy about 1960s hippies living in squalor, and Hal Ashby’s “Harold & Maude” (1971), a light satire about an irrepressible woman whose affair with a depressed young man of 22 is consummated on the eve of her 80th birthday, Friday-Saturday; James Cameron’s “The Abyss (Special Edition)” (1989/93), a single bill, that might be considered a tsunami prequel to his “Titanic,” Sunday; Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s “The City of Lost Children” (1995), packed with surrealistic creatures, and Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985), also jammed with eye-popping visual imagery, Monday-Tuesday; and Christopher Guest’s “Waiting for Guffman” (1996), a so-called mockumentary set in an Orwellian (George, that is) future, and Rob Reiner’s rockumentary “This is Spinal Tap” (1984), Wednesday-Jan. 29.

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* Not to be outdone in the cult category, Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984), a quirky, black-and-white comic take on American life centered on three drifters (made on a $125,000 shoestring and shot over one weekend), screens Friday at 7 and 9 p.m. in the UCI Student Center’s Crystal Cove, near West Peltason Drive and Bridge Road, UCI campus. $2.50-$4.50. (714) 824-5588.

* Michael Winterbottom’s “Welcome to Sarajevo,” which blends drama re-creation and reality about the embattled Bosnian city, continues at the Edwards University cinema (4245 Campus Drive, Irvine). Based on a book called “Natasha’s Story,” it tells how a British journalist became involved in the fate of a young Bosnian orphan. (714) 854-8811.

* Frank Capra’s “The Battle of Britain” screens Tuesday, at 10 a.m. at the Mackey Auditorium in the Ruby Gerontology Center, on Gymnasium Way, Cal State Fullerton, 800 N. State College Blvd. It is part of a film and lecture series being offered by CSUF’s Continuing Learning Experience. Free. (714) 278-2446.

* Stephen Low’s 40-minute 1995 “Titanica,” which offers an eerie, thrilling and poignant voyage to the bottom of the sea for a close-up look, via submersibles, of the ill-fated ocean liner Titanic, is currently at the Edwards Irvine Spectrum, (714) 832-4629, and Ontario Stadium, (909) 476-1500. That “Titanica” should be revived at this time is obvious; less so, is the fact that its feature-length version is as yet unreleased in Southland Imax theaters.

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Screening in L.A. and beyond:

The UCLA Film Archive launches two important series this week, “Meet Albert Maysles,” a tribute to the veteran documentarian, which commences tonight at 7:30 p.m. with the landmark “Salesman” (1968) and an appearance by Maysles; and “Contemporary Latin American Films,” which begins Saturday with Patricio Guzman’s new “Chile--The Obstinate Memory,” an eloquent postscript to his monumental “The Battle of Chile.”

Both series will be in the James Bridges Theater in Melnitz Hall.

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With his late brother David and other key colleagues, Albert Maysles pioneered “direct cinema,” which took full advantage of the immediacy and spontaneity in filmmaking made possible by lightweight hand-held camera and sound equipment that became available in the late ‘50s.

“Salesman” is one of the Maysles’ best-known works, an account of a group of door-to-door Bible salesmen coming slowly unraveled. (Maysles is also known for “Gimme Shelter” (1970), which started out as a concert film of the Rolling Stones performing at Altamont but took an unexpected direction when a fan was murdered. The film screens Sunday at 7 p.m.)

All Maysles productions are worth seeing, but two rarely seen older works, “Showman” (1963) and “Grey Gardens” (1976), screening Friday, and a stunning newer film, “Letting Go: A Hospice Journey” (1996), are of special interest.

In “Showman,” the Maysles followed Joe Levine, a shrewd Boston-born film distributor and later producer who unapologetically mixed trash and class. His big breakthrough came in picking up the Italian-made “Hercules” with Steve Reeves, which he promoted into a huge international hit. He moved swiftly on to “Two Women,” which won Sophia Loren a best actress Oscar.

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The Maysles go with Levine, a short, squat, plain-talking man, through his busy globe-trotting schedule of constant deal-making. But the filmmakers’ best insight into the man occurs when a group of middle-aged men who grew up with him in Boston’s West End throw him a banquet. Levine is moved by the salute but refuses to be sentimental. “I told them that I wasn’t going to get up there and discuss the good old days in the West End because they weren’t good. They were [filled with] misery and poverty.”

In “Grey Gardens,” the Maysles take on a different subject. In the mid-'70s, an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter made headlines when authorities ordered them to clean up their deteriorating 28-room East Hampton estate or get out. That’s when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis came to their rescue, for Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie were her aunt and cousin, respectively.

The Maysles and their colleagues befriended the Beales and the unforgettable result was “Grey Gardens,” taken from their home’s name. Mrs. Beale, or Big Edie, had been a beautiful, wealthy matron who loved to sing, and her daughter, known as Little Edie, had been an equally beautiful World War II-era debutante.

But Mr. Beale split and went broke. Somehow, Little Edie eluded the marriage expected of her class and never latched onto a career. Her mother summoned her home in 1952, and more than 20 years later, Little Edie, an aging bohemian, has the crazed desperation of a Chekhov heroine eager to escape to the big city. Or so she says. For “Grey Gardens” is a portrait of a mother-daughter relationship laced with mutual dependency, reprisals, conflicting views of the past and an underlying love in which we can perceive the decisive consequences of fate, circumstance and choice.

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In “Letting Go: A Hospice Journey” (Monday at 7:30 p.m.), which Susan Froemke and Deborah Dickson directed with Maysles as cinematographer, we discover how hospice workers, once a dying person’s condition is made as pain-free as possible, can step in and help that individual as well as his family and friends. As a result, the patient achieves a remarkable degree of acceptance and reconciliation that gives death as much meaning as possible while reducing its trauma upon the survivors.

The documentarians follow three dying people: a little boy whose parents have experienced a bitter divorce; a macho San Francisco fireman distant from his wife and estranged from his daughter for 18 years--half her life; and a beloved 46-year-old mother whose religious faith and that of her loved ones threaten to create a state of denial. “Letting Go” is a mesmerizing experience, comforting rather than depressing. There will be a panel discussion with Maysles Sunday at 5 p.m.

The other UCLA Film Archive series focuses on documentarian Patricio Guzman, who returned to his homeland in 1976 after a 23-year exile to make “Chile--The Obstinate Memory.” This film updates his masterful “The Battle of Chile,” on the brave rise and tragic fall of Salvador Allende, a democratically elected Marxist. In this film, Guzman shows “The Battle of Chile” both to old comrades and to students who for the most part have been ignorant about Allende’s government and its pluralistic principles and the brutal U.S.-backed coup that overthrew it in 1973.

We meet Guzman’s elegant 80-year-old uncle, who not only hid the reels of “The Battle of Chile” but also smuggled them out of the country. We also meet a student who asserts that Gen. Augusto Pinochet “struck the first blow in bringing down the Berlin Wall.” The first part of “The Battle of Chile” follows. It is a grueling, remarkable account of a country hurtling toward chaos with the inevitability of Greek tragedy. This monumental, three-part undertaking is an utterly unique and awesomely sweeping record of political upheaval that proceeds in a brisk, straightforward fashion from an upfront leftist point of view.

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Guzman and his five technicians--Federico Elton, Jorge Muller Silva (imprisoned and tortured to death after the September 1973 coup), Bernardo Menz, Jose Pino and Marta Harnecker--were incredibly brave in reporting history in the making, plunging into the midst of riots and gunfire as well as the stately halls of government and political meetings of the oppressed and angry working class.

As the tumultuous, traumatic events of 1973 unfold, beginning in March with the leftist victories in the congressional elections, there emerges a massively scaled portrait of a society in which the wealthy right wing, aided and abetted by the United States, commences to declare war on the world’s first freely elected Marxist government.

“The Battle of Chile” is above all a classic confrontation between the haves and have-nots. Its particular tragedy is that the paranoia among the warring elements escalates so fiercely and rapidly that a coalition of moderates becomes impossible. Seen and heard only in public declarations--"The Battle of Chile” is a virtual newsreel visually--Salvador Allende himself comes across as singularly brave and intelligent.

Indeed, for all its Marxist commitment, “The Battle of Chile” expresses powerfully a passionate, anguished concern for freedom and justice instead of merely concerning itself with propagandizing communism. Its primary concern is in fact not with a particular form of government but with the right of a people to choose for itself what kind of government it shall have--and without foreign intervention.

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Parts 2 and 3 screen Feb. 1 at 7 p.m. (310) 206-FILM.

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The American Cinematheque’s “Fast Forward: Recent French Filmmaking, 1986--1998" continues Friday at Raleigh Studios. Jean-Francois Richet’s “Ma 6-T Va Crack-Er,” yet another drama of gang violence in suburban Paris housing projects, a subject that tends to wear thin fast, shows at 7:30 p.m. It is followed at 9:30 p.m. by Andre Techine’s superb “I Don’t Kiss,” a classic tale, told with the utmost simplicity and compassion. This is a tale of a naive, idealistic 20-year-old (Manuel Blanc) from the provinces who takes off for Paris to become an actor only to discover he has no talent and no survival skills beyond prostitution. The result is a bruising coming-of-age story, beautifully acted by Manuel Blanc and featuring equally impressive performances by Philippe Noiret, Emannuele Beart and Helene Vincent, among others.

Olivier Assayas’ “Paris at Dawn” (Saturday at 7:15 p.m.) is a stylish, quietly affecting portrait of a beautiful 18-year-old named Louise (Judith Godreche) trying to make her way in the present-day City of Light. With little education, a recurrent drug problem and not much more than vague ambition, she is vulnerable to men unworthy of her love: first, a middle-aged tour guide (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who rages at her incessantly--and perversely--out of fear that she doesn’t truly love him; second, his long-absent 19-year-old son (Thomas Langmann), a drifter who seems headed for trouble.

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Louise’s ultimate fate is doubly ironic: She winds up with far more professional success than she probably could have ever realistically expected, yet that fate is prosaic and trivial alongside her dreams. Followed at 9:45 p.m. by Maurice Pialat’s outstanding 1991 “Van Gogh,” with Jacques Dutronc in the title role. (213) 466-FILM.

Times staff writer Kevin Thomas contributed to this report.


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