This fortnight at the Wellington Film Society: dangerous liaisons, anarchy in Korea.
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses has had a number of glossy, attractive re-workings. This Korean adaptation has similarities to its other more famous siblings (Dangerous Liaisons, Valmont, Cruel Intentions)—essentially it’s beautiful people doing despicable things to each other. And while it’s hard to really care about the awfulness on display at times, Untold Scandal is an immaculately shot, rather sexy version of a society in freefall and moral decay.
Lord Cho-Won (Bae Yong-Jun) is a lascivious nobleman in 18th Century Korea. Lusting after his cousin, the glacial Lady Cho (Lee Mi-Sook), he promises to impregnate Lady Cho’s husband’s new concubine and also seduce the virginal Lady Chung (Jeon Do-Yeon). The unexpected results and self-flagellation which eventuates makes for engaging if cold viewing – it is very hard to sympathise with most of the characters involved. However, Lee Je-young’s film is nothing short of compelling, and even those who are familiar with the storyline would relish the intricate narrative unwinding. Beautifully shot, with intimate camera angles and immaculately composed chamber imagery, it’s almost too pretty—the behaviour jars a little too much with the prettiness on show, which in turn limits its resonance.
The novel has been read to predict the French Revolution when it was released, with its nobility (or the ancien régime) driving themselves to oblivion by their own insular games—and as a result, is a highly moral tale. Untold Scandal retains this morality to an extent, and is set just before internal and dynastic turmoil in Korea would plunge the peninsula into chaos. It shows a Korea on the verge of transition—Western influences such as Christianity, a rise in intolerance, and a mobile population (caused by things such as the plague) are part of the backdrop. This does allow the immoral behaviour to speak to a wider resonance (perhaps more so than films like Dangerous Liaisons) and the petty and cruel behaviour fits right into the times ahead. After all, when people can be this cruel when it comes to love, just imagine what they’d be like when it comes to hate.
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I’ve seen Kim Sang-jin’s brilliant Attack the Gas Station! twice in large crowds now, and have witnessed totally divergent reactions. Half the crowd walked out during the Film Society screening, perhaps put off the dubbed American accents which sounded positively Brechtian. The other time was in a class studying Korean cinema, and the audience were hooting and clapping along with the film. To fully appreciate how pointed the film really is, an understanding of its targets, like the latter audience would have had, might assist.
The plot is almost a perfect contender for a cult film. It’s at once ludicrous and strangely emotionally engaging. To alleviate their boredom, four disaffected punks decide to stick up a petrol station. However, after finding only a small amount of money, they decide to start running the petrol station themselves, and keeping whatever money comes their way. In the process, they interact with members of the highly stratified Korean society from rich to poor, and end up subverting the hierarchical social structure that chucked them at the bottom of the heap. Even the simple forcing of the boss and policemen to put their head on the ground carries such subversive connotations as this is a common punishment for children imposed by adults or teachers. If there’s a chink in the anarchy, it’s the pat credits sequence, but the film’s main narrative so joyously demolishes the ‘rules’ (e.g. a hierarchy that is created by age, occupation, money, parental background, gender, power, and physical strength) that it’s hard not to get caught up in the fun.
But the four youth were also speaking to a disaffected Korea. When one of the punks smashes a sign which says “help build a better Korea”, it’s clear to see that there’s a lot of anger at the old way of doing things. Made slap–bang in the middle of the IMF crisis (where the Korean banks were on the verge of collapse and the IMF promised money to Korea if the government didn’t bail out the banks—a process which ruined the lives of many Koreans and formed an integral social context in many Korean films of the last decade), the gang’s contempt for capitalism’s rules and niceties would have struck a chord with audiences (it was the second biggest box office success of the year in Korea). Korea is portrayed as a highly globalised and technological society (e.g. one of the gang mistakes the Pepsi logo as the Korean flag), but shows that this globalised and technological society in cahoots with the stratified society has contributed to Korea’s current misery.
The cultural politics do tend to mask what is a fun action film. Full of twists and turns, crazy camera angles, and the genre hybridity of some of the great Korean blockbusters of recent years (it’s at once a comedy, a thriller, an action film and social commentary), it is also a film that you’re able to switch your mind off and enjoy. And while on a superficial reading it would easily justify the polarising reaction that most ostensibly silly movies tend to have, Attack the Gas Station’s resonant social context and razor sharp satire might well elevate it alongside films such as L’Age D’Or, Duck Soup and Dr. Strangelove as one of the best anarchic pieces of cinema ever made.