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KOREA AND JAPAN

Tenuous but important movie links

by Donald Richie

THE CINEMA OF JAPAN AND KOREA, edited by Justin Bowyer, preface by Jinhee Choi. London: Wallflower Press, 2004, 258 pp., 24 b/w photos, £45.00 (cloth), £16.99 (paper).

The linking of two national cinemas is, as the editor of this interesting collection of essays points out, problematic. Geographical proximity is scarcely reason enough. Nor is historical resemblance.

Films were first shown in Japan in 1897 and in Korea in 1903. The first Japanese productions were seen in 1899, but Koreans had to wait considerably longer to see their first “national” product, a 1923 picture. Just two years later, however, its first major film, “Arirang,” produced, directed and starring Na Un Kyu, managed to get made.

One of the reasons for the slow development of Korean cinema was, of course, Japan itself. It had occupied the Korean Peninsula in 1910 and remained there until its war defeat in 1945. Having set out to eradicate Korean culture — including forcing Japanese names onto the populace and mandatory Japanese-language study in schools as well as fostering and coercing Shinto beliefs — it was not about to allow a nascent film industry.

Though interesting, such conflicting parallels are not really enough to link these two very different countries into a single volume. This is readily admitted by the editor who reasons that the collection is really a “celebration” of two interrelated cinematic cultures, about which all too little is yet known.

This is true, especially for Korean cinema. These 24 essays (13 on Japanese and 11 on Korean films) offer information not found elsewhere and constitute what the editor identifies as an initial introduction.

In particular, it is an introduction to the more recent films of the two countries. Half of the Korean films discussed were released in the last 10 years. There is also a bias in favor of genre and trendy subject matter.

Satoshi Kon’s animated “Perfect Blue” is discovered to be a masterpiece; Kinji Fukusaku’s “Battle Royale” is found to be “remarkably powerful, important;” and there is a degree of genuflection toward current idols Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike, Quentin Tarantino and their recent Korean colleagues.

In the interests of presenting “a true cross section from the diversity of the national cinemas,” there are sadly no films by Yasujiro Ozu, not to mention such serious younger Japanese directors as Atsuhiko Suwa, Makoto Shinozaki and Hirokazu Kore-eda — and I presume that this rush toward the “new” conditioned the selection of Korean directors as well.

Although such extraordinary Korean pictures as Im Kwon Taek’s 1981 “Mandala” are not included, at least his 1993 “Seopyeonje” is. While the remarkable films of Jang Sun Woo are not here, such popular commercial fare as Park Chan Wook’s “Joint Security Area” is.

Yet this year’s “Korean Independent Cinema” in Japan (organized by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs, and Image Forum) showed an abundance of new talent interested in themes other than violence and other fashionable subjects.

This new Japan-Korea compilation does, however, find room for essays on films more seminal than chic. Jasper Sharp offers a close analysis of Teinosuke Kinugasa’s “A Page of Madness” (1926); Nina Caplan gives a feminist reading of Kenji Mizoguchi’s “The Life of Oharu”; Magnus Stanke writes on Akira Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog”; and Samara Lea Allsop offers an allegorical interpretation of “Godzilla.”

Allsop also gives a searching reading of Nagisa Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses”; Maria Roberta Novielli has written a full essay on Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s neglected “Fire Festival” (this 1984 (film is one of the finest of the decade); and Chris Berry, a scholar long associated with Chinese film, leads an interesting inquiry into the late Kim Ki Young’s “Killer Butterfly.”

There is so little in English on Japanese film, and even less on Korean, that such collections as these are to be welcomed despite their admitted limitations.