Last week, I re-watched two of my all-time favourite Korean films. Or at least, I thought they were.
Film number one: E J-yong’s An Affair (1998), which was in the first dozen of Korean films I ever saw. I caught it at the 2001 London Korean Film Festival (yes, there have been Korean Film Festivals in London that far back and maybe even further) and was immediately bowled over by its beauty. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what’s good about the film, but at its centre is the simplicity of the story as the relationship between the two lovers develops. An extra-marital affair is never inevitable to start with, but once commenced this film portrays its development with complete honesty and naturalness. And eventually this relationship is inescapable despite all its adverse consequences.
It helps that the two main characters are so good-looking: the 38 year-old Lee Mi-sook, with nearly 20 years in the industry, and the well-sculpted 20-something Lee Jeong-jae, in one of his earliest features. And the love scenes are so sensitively filmed that you can believe in the emotions of the two characters. When I first saw An Affair over 10 years ago the only other Korean films I had seen to compare the sex scenes were Jang Sun-woo’s Lies and one or two Hong Sang-soo films, so An Affair was a useful counterbalance which assured me that, yes, Koreans could make love as if they actually liked each other.
Looking at my notes when I originally saw it, I gave it a surprisingly precise 8.5 out of 10. But 10 years on, were my memories of the film clouded by the fact that I’ve had a secret crush on Lee Mi-sook ever since? Was it really just one of those syrupy romantic melodramas which the Korean film and TV industry churns out so efficiently? Did it really only deserve a 2 out of 10, like Scent of Man, released in the same year?
No, no and no. And on the basis of a second watching, I’d round it up to a 9 out of 10.
Film number two: Lee Chang-dong’s Milyang, also known as Secret Sunshine (2007), a film which won its lead actress the Best Actress prize at the 2007 Cannes festival. Having been a fan of Lee’s previous films, I was really looking forward to this come-back after a 5 year break during which he had served as Roh Moo-hyun’s Minister of Culture. When I saw it at the BFI London Film Festival in 2007 I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed. And when I came to drawing up my list of top 10 Korean films of the noughties Milyang was a serious contender for the list.
But somehow the things which engaged my interest or even shocked me the first time round didn’t really register when I re-watched it last week. The relationship between Shin-ae and her son didn’t seem so touching. Song Kang-ho’s character seemed less interesting and more of an opportunist. And the expression on Shin-ae’s face as she realised that the kidnapper didn’t need her forgiveness after all no longer seized my attention as it did the first time: maybe I had read too much into it before.
Maybe when she asked the pastor to take her for a drive she wasn’t plotting an act of vengeance. And maybe the picnic mat that the pastor had in the boot of his car was simply that, and not a convenient mattress to be used whenever he had one-on-ones with female members of his flock.
Whether or not you enjoy a film depends of course on the quality of the film itself, but also the circumstances in which you watch it. What sort of mood are you in? Are you tired? Who are you watching it with? And are you watching it on the big screen or small? So my lukewarm attitude to Milyang on second viewing might have been the fact that I’d just driven for four hours on the motorway, it was 2 o’clock in the morning and I was watching it on a 23 inch screen. But somehow, I’ll be getting An Affair out of the DVD drawer before I watch Milyang again.
We’re now half way through the E J-yong month at the KCC, with Untold Scandal and Actresses to come. Both of them include Lee Mi-sook in the cast, so I’m going to be at both of them.
- LKL reviews E J-yong’s Dasepo Naughty Girls, which screened at the KCC two days ago.