I have to confess that when I heard that Ryu Seung-wan was to be the featured director on the London Korean Film Festival 2011, my reaction was lukewarm. Of the films I had already seen, the silliness of Arahan did not endear the film to me, while seeing Jeon Do-yeon and Lee Hye-hyoung severely thrashed turned me off No Blood No Tears. I had tried hard to like City of Violence and only succeeded on the third watching. Re-watching all three films again on DVD simply confirmed my remembered impressions.
In preparation for the festival I also got out my unwatched DVD of Crying Fist (sporting movies are not my thing) and it immediately made me re-think my assessment of Ryu. I found it one of the most stimulating Korean films of the decade. Nowhere near the top ten, but possibly in the twenties. Definitely one to watch again and recommend to others.
Then came the first night of the Festival retrospective: a Die Bad / Dachimawa Lee double bill, respectively Ryu’s first feature and his most-recent-but-one. I was expecting to be underwhelmed by Die Bad, but was astonished at the assurance of the four short films stitched together into a compelling deglamourisation of the gangster lifestyle. Arahan was definitely several steps backwards from that barnstorming debut.
And Dachimawa Lee, about which I had heard nothing before the Festival, was an amazing surprise: a deliriously madcap caper, with for the most part the comedy just the right side of silliness. Perhaps a description of “Austin Powers meets The Good the Bad and the Weird” captures the flavour of the film. It’s interesting that Dachimawa Lee and The Good, the Bad and the Weird, both of which pay homage to the Manchurian Western (and both of which include a chase across the desert involving a motorcycle with sidecar), both came out in the same year (2008). But whereas Kim Ji-woon’s hyperactive offering outstays its welcome (at 120 minutes in the Cannes cut and even longer at 139 mins in the domestic version), Ryu’s briefer (100 minute) and much more varied feature packs in just as much action without leaving you exhausted at the end, throws in as many gags as you can take, and is far to be preferred as an entertainment experience.
Ryu digests all sorts of influences: comedy from the likes of Police Squad; action and gadgets from the likes of James Bond; hyper-stylised colours and stylish sets from Seijun Suzuki, heroic conventions from Akira Kurosawa, a one-armed swordsman from Chang Cheh and choreography from the best of the Hong Kong action directors. One influence he does not absorb: unlike your typical comedy spy / agent from a western movie (Clouseau, Frank Drebin), Dachimawa Lee is very competent. He might not have the looks to justify his inexplicable attractiveness to women, but he certainly has the moves to ensure he stays on top of the villains.
Like Kim Ji-woon’s Manchurian Western, Dachimawa Lee is set during the Japanese colonial period. Ryu is strangely schizophrenic in his attention to historical detail. He is punctilious in having our hero being an expert in Taekkyeon rather than the more modern martial art of Taekwondo; and he has the Korean resistance fighters singing their national anthem to the tune of Auld Lang Syne rather than the more modern melody composed by Ahn Eak-tai in 1935 and not officially adopted until 1948. But then there are the comedy anachronisms: a female double agent is saved from a bullet by her silicon breast implant, while towards the end there an inexplicable showdown on a US wind farm.
Altogether, this is an entertainingly escapist action comedy, outrageously politically incorrect in its portrayal of the Japanese, and thoroughly enjoyable. The Unjust is reputed to be Ryu’s best film yet, so I’m looking forward to the final screening of the Festival this Thursday.