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This year’s Cannes jury achieved something near impossible last week: pleasing almost everyone – apart, maybe, from bookies’ favourite and longtime bridesmaid Pedro Almodóvar – with their choice of Palme d’Or winner. No one at the festival had a word to say against Bong Joon-ho’s darkly funny, socially conscious thriller Parasite, and the win was viewed as a very belated honour for South Korean film as a whole, which has long held a reputation for vibrancy and daring, but has never produced a Palme champ before. (Others considered it balm on the wound of last year’s surprise snub, when Lee Chang-dong’s critically adored Burning failed to win a single jury prize.)
Parasite won’t be out in the UK for months yet, but as critic Cathy Brennan pointed out on Twitter, there’s another way to celebrate the country’s cinematic victory (or at least to whet your appetite), courtesy of the official Korean Film Archive’s remarkable YouTube channel Korean Classic Film. With nearly 200 feature-length films available to stream, legally and for free, it’s an invaluable resource for fans and students of a national cinema not very well served by international DVD distributors, particularly as you delve further back into the last century. If not always immaculate, the image quality is acceptable: for many of the selections you won’t find them any other way.
Unless you’re an expert, chances are you won’t have heard of most of the films in this library, which is organised in no particular fashion; I’ve certainly learned a lot by browsing and dipping into titles at random. If you’re looking for some kind of measure of where to start, you could do worse than seeking out films with the most plays, though 10m views for the intriguing but rather esoteric 1984 erotic drama Between the Knees does not make it an essential pick.
More instructively, that metric will draw you to the channel’s rather strong collection of works by the auteur Im Kwon-taek, a major figure of the turn-of-the-millennium New Korean Cinema movement, which raised the country’s profile on the international arthouse scene. His 2000 film Chunhyang is the blockbuster in the bunch. An extravagantly gorgeous epic romance drawn from an 18th-century folktale, it’s 140 minutes of such saturated visual pleasure that you wind up feeling a little drunk on it. It’s in a very different register from Im’s more starkly stirring 1987 drama The Surrogate Woman, with its superb performance from Soo-youn Kang (a best actress winner at Venice that year) as a destitute teenager enlisted to carry a nobleman’s child. And Im’s Sopyonje, from 1993, is just ravishing, playing out a tender, but never maudlin, parent-child relationship through the traditional musical form of pansori.
Going further back, a friend’s recommendation led me to Hyun-mok Yoo’s 1961 postwar drama Aimless Bullet, uploaded to the channel in quite crisp restored form. It’s a blinder, hitting as hard as its title does not. Following three siblings variously trying to get their lives back on track amid the poverty and social rubble left by the Korean war, it bears the influence of Italian neorealism, but is mesmerising as a snapshot of its own very specific time and place. I was also taken with Lee Won-se’s irresistibly titled A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball, from 1981. Also known as A Ball Shot by a Midget (the channel’s titles don’t always square with those on reference sites like IMDb), it’s not an absurdist comedy, but a quiet, lovingly textured and beautifully shot observation piece, tracking the daily lives and trials of a little person’s hard-up family.
Finally, you won’t find many of the currently favoured Korean auteurs such as Bong included here, but if Mubi’s recent Hong Sang-soo retrospective got you curious, his strange, scrappy, sometimes appealingly lewd 1996 debut The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well is on offer. It’s as good a gateway into this Korean banquet as any.
Also on DVD or streaming this week
(Mubi.com, from 7 June)
Maintaining its hard, icy edges even under a beating Aegean sun, Swedish director Isabella Eklöf’s fiercely impressive debut isn’t for faint hearts, but this thriller centred on an abused gangster’s moll brings an unblinking female gaze to a toxic male underworld.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Marielle Heller and Nicole Holofcener’s witty, sneakily moving adaptation of author-turned-forger Lee Israel’s memoir was one of the singular joys of last year’s awards-season crop, not least for Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant’s salty chemistry.
Meanwhile, Adam McKay’s hyperactive, smarmily satirical Dick Cheney biopic felt like it had exhausted its purpose once it lost all its Oscar nods. Christian Bale’s technically immaculate Cheney impersonation is something to see, but it doesn’t linger.
A Cannes standout last year, Camille Vidal Nacquet’s raw, on-edge debut study of a near-feral gay prostitute surviving the streets is as sobering as you’d expect, but imbued with a more surprising sense of humour and community.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Streaming: a feast of Korean film for free | Film