This weekend, American audiences will be introduced to a filmmaker they most likely have never heard of – South Korean director Kim Jee-woon. A talented, genre-bending filmmaker whose artistic depth is matched only by his technical proficiency, he's making his western debut with "The Last Stand," an old-school action thriller starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (read our review here). But for fans of Asian cinema, he's been a director many have been keeping an eye on for a long time now.
If anything has distinguished Kim Jee-Woon's career, it has been his ability to shift gears. Just take a look at his last three films: the gonzo western "The Good, The Bad, The Weird"; the thrilling serial killer flick "I Saw The Devil" and a sci-fi short in "Doomsday Book." But, for many it was likely "A Bittersweet Life" that brought the helmer to their attention, with the twisty crime flick putting him on the international map. Indeed, it's even getting an American remake with Allen Hughes signing on to direct last fall. And it's not exactly a surprise that Hollywood also came calling for Kim Jee-woon himself, so in honor of his first American outing debut, we thought we'd run down the director's filmography and give you an idea of where to start if you're not familiar with his work. While not as well known as his South Korean contemporaries Park Chan-wook or Bong Joon-ho, in our estimation he's just as important and entertaining. Read on below....
Kim made his debut with "The Quiet Family," an assured, tonally light-footed tale of a family that runs a failing bed-and-breakfast in the country and whose sporadic visitors have a tendency to wind up dead (or murdered… or poisoned…). "The Quiet Family" is very much a product of its time, with brilliantly anachronistic music selections reminiscent of Tarantino-era American crime cinema (there are two Stray Cats songs and a tense body-removal sequence is scored to '80s cheese-ball hit "So Alive" by Love & Rockets), but all the foundations of Kim's lengthy, brilliant career are already in place, including his comic-book-panel compositions, roving Steadicam shots and, of course, the casting of star Song Kang-ho in a prominent role. It's a testament to the film's power that it was quickly (and, it should be noted, loosely) remade by Kim's Japanese contemporary Takashi Miike as "The Happiness of the Katakuris," which reframed the story from whacked-out sitcom to something more kaleidoscopically bizarre and amoral. "The Quiet Family" was a taste of things to come from the director, and remains one of his most purely enjoyable movies, a brisk, often hilarious film that incorporates and synthesizes elements from "Psycho," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," Blake Edwards comedies and a host of '60s sitcoms, into something altogether unique and unforgettable. [B+]
"Three" was a horror/thriller anthology from Asia whose initial directorial line-up was trumped by the talent assembled for its sequel, the more vicious "Three… Extremes." But since "Three… Extremes" came out in America first (also featuring a segment by "Oldboy" director Park Chan-wook), the original "Three" was finally released here as "Three Extremes II." But no matter how you catch up with it, it's hard not to be dazzled by Kim Jee-woon's segment, "Memories." The short charts the parallel stories of a man (Jeong Bo-seok) whose wife (Kim Hye-soo) has recently disappeared (he's starting to lose it), and the wife herself, who awakens on a strange, eerily deserted road. As the two characters slowly regain their memories of what happened, it leads to a genuinely shocking, deeply emotional climax that feels like the saddest ever ending of a "Twilight Zone" episode. Even more impressive is seeing the director thread a compelling, relatable portrait of how memory works (especially after the end of a relationship) amidst all the shock-show horror stuff. A minor triumph, for sure. [B+]
One of the all-time biggest South Korean box office heavyweights, "A Tale of Two Sisters" is a horror film inspired by a fourteenth-century Korean folktale ("Rose Flower and Red Lotus"), which, since it's a piece of Korean cinema, is really violent and twisty and weird. Two young girls go to live with their father and his new wife at a house in the country (which looks, from certain angles, like the whacked-out abode from Japanese cult classic "House") and, almost immediately after, are visited by a ghostly woman. Their father, of course, is resistant to any talk about his new wife or the otherworldly visitor that seems to be harming the girls (and scaring the hell out of their dinner guests). While as stylish as anything Kim has ever done (editorially, he had gained even more bravado), the film doesn't quite work, mostly because the third act, which blends past, present, and future, as well as fantasy and reality, becomes incredibly difficult to untangle. This wouldn't have been such an issue – it is based on a fairy tale and a certain amount of dream logic shouldn't just be accepted but openly embraced – if it wasn't for the emotional undercurrents that also run through that incredibly busy third act (up until this point the movie's pacing could be conservatively be described as "glacial"). "A Tale of Two Sisters" could arguably be described as Kim's first crossover hit, which included a brief but well-regarded run in the United States, complete with an unnecessary and totally watered down western remake by DreamWorks, unimaginatively retitled "The Uninvited." [C+]
After the astronomical hometown success of "A Tale of Two Sisters," it probably would have been pretty easy for Kim to make a string of horror movies, but instead, he turned his ambitions towards crime cinema, and came up with the astounding, ass-kicking "A Bittersweet Life." The first of a string of collaborations with outrageously handsome Lee Byung-hun, who here plays a mob enforcer tasked with trailing (and possibly killing) the young girlfriend of his ruthless boss. When he refuses the task, he is hunted by not only his former boss but also a rival gang. Unrelentingly stylish (almost hypnotically so) and tense (epitomized by the scene where he squares off with a gunrunner to see who can assemble a gun the quickest), "A Bittersweet Life" is Jee-Woon's magnum crime opus, full of blood and bullets and broken hearts. What's so surprising about "A Bittersweet Life," too, is how it shifts – it goes from being the John Travolta/Uma Thurman section of "Pulp Fiction" to the last act of "The Departed" at lightning speed, and doesn't slow down to catch its breath (speaking of which, a sequence where they bury our "hero" alive will have you gasping for air). A nearly miraculous triumph that, for pure entertainment value and pop art sizzle, is almost incomparable. And after witnessing that command of the craft, it makes watching the new Kim Jee-woon action movie "The Last Stand" perplexing by how comparably anonymous it is. Meanwhile, the good name of "A Bittersweet Life" will be tainted in fresh ways soon enough – "Broken City" director Allen Hughes has his sights set on a remake. Somebody should whack that idea before it gets much further. [A]