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Korean films in Times 2008 chamber of horrors

Two years after its Korean release, Won Shin-yeon’s A Bloody Aria received a limited theatrical release in the UK. It came to the Institute for Contemporary Arts in October, and the ICA will be releasing it on Region 2 DVD in February next year.

A Bloody Aria

Shot in grimy HD video with just a handful of cast members, Bloody Aria is guaranteed to deeply divide non-Korean viewers into two opposing camps, as much as it has for the domestic audience and critics. Some will no doubt revile it as a premier example of Korean cinema’s gloating indulgence in nauseating depictions of physical violence and horrible treatment of women: ugly characters doing ugly things to each other, with not a shred of wisdom to be found at the end. Others might champion it as one of the more honest cinematic statements about the vicious cycle of violence, an unflinching snapshot of degraded human souls hobbling toward, not redemption, but the Nietzschean abyss in which they see shiny-black reflections of their own bloodshot, insanely grinning faces.

So says Kyu-hyun Kim at, who then promptly proclaims himself to be in no-man’s land between the two opposing camps.

No such prevarication in London’s Times. The Times has a film critic who is rather sensitive to violence in Korean film. For Wendy Ide, the madcap piece of craziness that is Save the Green Planet is “another piece of graphic Korean nastiness”. It therefore comes as no surprise that she didn’t like A Bloody Aria:

If this ugly tale of power abuse and violence is intended as an allegory for some tendency in modern Korean society, then this is one of the most unflattering depictions of a nation’s psyche I have seen.

With one star out of five in The Times’s ranking system, it’s also no surprise that A Bloody Aria appears in The Times’s list of the 100 worst films of 2008, published last week. The film appears at number 29. Worse even than the Paris Hilton vehicle The Hottie and the Nottie, but at least scoring more than Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The number 1 worst film is judged to be the appropriately named Disaster Movie.

The ChaserIde’s sensitivities are clearly spreading to other critics on that august organ. “The latest scuzzy, violent thriller to reach us from South Korea” says Edward Porter of The Chaser, which had a rave review from Jonathan Ross on the BBC and Saharial on LKL. The Times awards two stars out of five, and The Chaser ends up at number 76 on the list.

Yes, The Times list is just a bit of year-end fun, recycling some of the past year’s articles in the hope of getting more advertising clicks (we all do it). But it does raise an interesting problem. You might disagree with the Times’s assessment (I do in respect of The Chaser, but not having seen A Bloody Aria I can’t comment). It’s sad that (to my knowledge) the only two Korean theatrical releases this year have been in the Asia Extreme genre. In a year which saw the demise of Tartan video, who perhaps have done more than any other label to popularise Korean film in the UK but who in the process created the Asia Extreme brand into which so many of the K-films were categorised, it is to be hoped that the next theatrical releases show some more diverse aspects of the Korean film industry.


One thought on “Korean films in Times 2008 chamber of horrors

  1. i imagine this is what they call cultural relativism. few people watching a pinter play would really believe the english speak to each other out of sequence or trade poisonous barbs, draging their ghosts around all the time. likewise not all “asian extreme” are what they appear on surface.

    my impression of Chaser was gripping thriller that contrasts one moral depravity against worse ones, so that OTT, gory revenge is justified by starting beyond the point of nihilism.

    Aria was more off-putting at first (got better on repeat viewing), since unlike Chaser violence isn’t justified through some “special” story setup — it’s just the way people learned to live from institutional experiences (school, army, interface with cops.)

    i don’t know what kind of korean culture they were hoping to stomach…

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