London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

Variations on Jang Sun-woo

Tony Rayns tells us in his KOFIC book about Jang Sung-woo that he once interviewed the famous director naked in a jjimjilbang. Rayns’s documentary film about Jang, entitled the Jang Sung-woo Variations, is bookended by extracts from the interview, with Jang being given a relaxing back massage; and in between are other extracts of the interview where Jang is sitting naked facing the camera with nothing but a casually crossed leg preserving his modesty. In the background, tubby Korean males reveal their all. The off-beat style of the documentary is a suitable tribute to the maverick director himself. As Rayns himself comments on the paradox of Jang’s career:

“A director who knowingly and happily situates himself in the margins of the Korean film industry produces work with popular appeal which exactly mirrors the rapid evolution of the film industry itself.”

Rayns’s documentary was made ten years ago while Jang was working on making Resurrection of the Little Match Girl – which Jang was looking forward to as a fun, enjoyable product: a big budget action movie in which he was working with Hong Kong martial arts stunt men. Sadly, the movie flopped. It was a year when a number of big-budget films flopped at the box office, and Jang seemed to come in for more criticism than the other directors. Jang took the failure hard, and has been living in partial seclusion in Jeju-do since then; a big budget film set among Mongolian nomads had to be abandoned through lack of funding, but he is now working on the script for another Buddhist film, and hoping that there will be sufficient funds from well-endowed Buddhist foundations to bring it to reality.

Jang Sun-woo in Jeju
Jang Sun-woo in Jeju

Rayns, following his championing of Korean films during the 90s1, was invited to create this documentary, and it was an invitation he was ready to accept. He was however realistic about the likely audience: documentaries about film rarely get an enthusiastic theatrical reception, and so Rayns consciously made the film for a DVD audience – putting more on the screen at one time than can readily be taken in at the first viewing. Thus while the main window is showing an interview with a director or actor, smaller windows might show the next person to be interviewed, or a sequence from the film being discussed. The documentary, divided into a dozen chapters, is palindromic in structure, something you might only spot on second viewings, or if you have the director pointing it out to you as Rayns did at the Q&A after the screening. In addition, Rayns has inserted various visual clues – rather like easter eggs – to point certain structural elements in the film. Hence a squished persimmon appears enigmatically at the bottom of the screen for some of the chapter headings but not others.

The documentary discusses Jang’s early career in the student underground movement which earned him a place on a government blacklist. His first real encounter with the performing arts was traditional talchum masked plays when he was an anthropology freshman at Seoul National University. He found the experience profoundly shocking2 and promptly joined the troupe.

Dance of 8 monks
Dance of the eight dark-faced monks: a traditional talchum performance

The films on show at the KCC during August have shown a wide variety of themes. But maybe one common thread has been male violence and awkward, unnatural or violent sex. In A Petal, the young girl is regularly subjected to rape which seems to offer the man no pleasure; in Road to the Racetrack the man’s initial attempts to rekindle the relationship are crude, aggressive lunges which makes you wonder how they ever got things together in the first place; in the secondary phase of their renewed relationship R suffers from impotence, and it is not until much later in the film we catch a glimpse of the enthusiastic sexual compatibility that the couple enjoyed in Paris.

The bad sex and the pointless, meandering relationships between intellectuals examined in this film eerily foretell the movies of Hong Sang-soo. In fact, it has been suggested with some justification that if you’ve seen Jang Sun-woo’s Road to the Racetrack, you don’t really need to watch any Hong Sang-soo. It’ll save you a bit of time.

Film-followers who subscribe to Kim Kyung-hyun’s thesis about the demasculinisation of male leads in Korean films might find food for thought in Jang’s films – and indeed in Rayns’s documentary one of the talking heads suggests that while in commercial films of the 1990s the male leads have conventional macho roles, in the more thoughtful films such as Jang’s a more troubled male figure can be found. In Lovers in Woomuk-Baemi, for example, although one of the male characters regularly beats his wife, the main male character, Bae, played by Park Joong-hoon3, is a complete contrast. He is the only male employee doing piecework at a garment factory, and is regularly beaten by his wife for his sullen behaviour at home and womanising outside the home. There are several hilarious domestic fight scenes, culminating in one where she drags him through the village by his testicles.

Lovers in Woomuk Baemi
Lovers in Woomuk Baemi

Rayns’s documentary made you want to go and watch the films a second time – or indeed for the first if you have not already seen them. It is a shame that many are not readily available with English subtitles.

Jang Sun-woo filmography
Seoul Jesus (1986) (with Sunwoo Wan)
The Age of Success (1988)
Lovers in Woomuk-Baemi (1989)
Road to the Racetrack (1991)
Hwa-Eom-Gyeong (1993)
To You, From Me (1994)
Cinema on the Road (1995)
A Petal (1996)
Timeless, Bottomless Bad Movie (1997)
Lies (1999)
Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (2002)

Unfinished projects
Princess Bari (Animation) (2002)
A Thousand Highlands (2005)

Upcoming – a Buddhist film.

  1. He curated the pioneering screenings of films by 5 major Korean directors at London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts in 1994 []
  2. As did the authorities – this particular production was banned after its first performance. []
  3. Playing such a different character from the thuggish cop in Nowhere to Hide []

2 thoughts on “Variations on Jang Sun-woo

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.