December 8, 2019 – 5:56 am


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There are many unsung heroes in the history of Asian cinema. They are the Kagemusha, the infamous shadow warriors of Kurosawa’s classic. They have fought the battles for Asian cinema many times over without being known. Yet when you examine the evidence of history they are ALWAYS there. One such shadow warrior for Korean Cinema is Park Kiyong. Philip Cheah tells you why.

The history remains buried. It just needs a little excavation. For example, when Park Kiyong was the Dean of the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA) from 2001-2009, he started the “feature film and animation production program”. No other Korean film school at that time thought of producing feature films by their graduating students. In fact, no other film school in the world had such a feature production programme.

It became such a success with features such as Jo Sung Hee’s End Of Animal (2010) and Yoon Sung Hyun’s Bleak Night (2010) that other Korean film schools started to follow suit. Films made in the programme were shown in leading international film festivals, won numerous awards, and even had commercial distribution. The Asian Film Academy (AFA), co-organised by KAFA and the Busan International Film Festival in 2006, was another film training program Park initiated and developed with passion to become a core film training programme in Asia.

Born in 1961, Park made his film school graduation short film, Winter Story, in 1987. I met him then - he as a young graduate in 1989 - and took his short for screening at the 3rd Singapore International Film Festival (1990). He then made his first feature, Madness (Gwang, 1990), which (if I believe him) he disliked so much that he destroyed all existing copies. There is no trace of it online as well and I have not seen it!

He turned to producing for Korean New Wave director Park Kwang Su’s To The Starry Island (1993) and established another breakthrough. This was the first Korean co-production with Europe. He continued this by producing Jang Sun Woo’s Cinema On The Road (1995) for the British Film Institute’s Century of Cinema series and then Tony Rayns’ Jang Sun Woo Variations (2000) that documented this controversial director.

But his desire to direct received a major break a few years earlier with Motel Cactus (1997), which was invited to screen at the 2nd Busan International Film Festival and won the New Currents Award. (Note that this is officially billed as his “debut” feature!) While everyone had their attention focused on the fact that Motel Cactus was shot by Wong Kar Wai’s cinematographer, Chris Doyle, it’s actually more pertinent to note that his assistant director and co-scriptwriter was Bong Joon Ho (Memories Of Murder, 2003/The Host, 2006/Snowpiercer, 2013/Parasite, 2019) with his first important screen credit.

Park gave Bong that important career break. To Doyle’s credit, his trademark intimate camera distortions can be seen in an early conversation scene when the couple’s faces are refracted off some shiny balloons. For Doyle fans, Motel Cactus was uniquely twinned with Wong’s Happy Together (1997), as both films were shot at that period with the lightbox picture of an animated waterfall appearing in both films.

Motel Cactus sets the tone for Park’s next fiction work. First, we find an enclosed space where disappointed lovers try to find themselves. In the case of Motel Cactus, it’s Room 407 that defines four short stories of couples coming and going in vintage pre-airconditioned modern Korea where electric fans served to cool down sweat-drenched, sex-starved bodies.

Second, while the characters do ask the meaning of why “Cactus” is used to name the motel, the answer can only be guessed at in the next film. In the arid desert of love, only the hardy can grow and last the distance. In 2001, Park’s “second” important feature, Camel(s), travelled the world from Berlin, Toronto, $ingapore, Fribourg, and London International Film Festivals and won numerous awards including the Grand Award in Fribourg.

(I)t’s actually more pertinent to note that Park Kiyong’s assistant director and co-scriptwriter was Bong Joon Ho (director of the award-winning Parasite, 2019) with his first important screen credit. Park gave Bong that important career break.

It is to my mind a classic of early Korean digital cinema. It showed the possibilities in terms of the cinematic textures that could be achieved on a low budget. The youthful couples in Motel Cactus are now reduced to a single middle-aged couple, who have to decide whether or not to continue their love affair. Camels travel together in a caravan but these Camel(s) meet together but are actually apart (hence the bracketed title).

After meeting at the airport, having a meal and a karaoke session, the two lovers check into a motel. She’s a pharmacist, he has a headache and some cures are naturally found. However, the woman is surer of the ending of this episode and, in the final five-minute scene in the car when they drive off, she keeps silent to his question of whether he should call her again.

Camel(s) actually begins Park’s unofficial trilogy of Middle-aged Romance and this continues in Old Love (2017), where another couple plays an even older pair. Again, the airport serves as the meeting point, another transit space as the motel, where people continually come and go. The pair was once student lovers when practising theatre. Now as an emigrant visitor from Canada, she finds out that he has quit theatre and is recovering from a failed advertising company.

The theatre motif is repeated when they meet their old alumni who continued to practise theatre but failed and a group of aspiring theatre students whom he predicts will not last the distance. “I’m a guest wherever I go,” she says, “even in Canada and now in Korea.” Both the theatre motif and the symbol of the transient guest echo the desert imagery of Motel Cactus and Camel(s); that only the toughest can stay on track in the journey of love and life.

To break the convention of romantic films, Park has destroyed the gaze in these three films. There are no limpid eyes to look into, no yearning glances or dreamy stares. The camera often keeps us at a distance from them either through distorted angles circa Motel Cactus or medium shots in Camel(s) and Old Love. The message is simple. Finding love when isolated or alienated is a shot in the dark.

Park draws from reality in his fiction. This could be due to his early assistant directing work for the 1988 Seoul Olympics documentary. In Motel Cactus, he features a TV segment on educational reform and in Old Love, he gets the female character to walk straight into a demonstration to impeach the now ex-President Park Geun Hye.

So when he shifted to documentaries, starting with Moving (2011), about Korean families in New Zealand who survived the Christchurch earthquake, and Garibong (2013) on the lives of Korean Chinese migrants in Korea, and Yanji (2015) about the Chinese city that houses over two million Korean Chinese), it was another facet of his interests, this time concerning diaspora and migration.

In between, he made one personal documentary, Fifties (2014), that serves as a bridge between his narrative “trilogy” and his documentaries. When Park turned 50, he became curious about finding out from his peer group whether they too, felt ambivalent about the tribulations that life threw at them. These reflections are partly an influence on the script for Old Love. Another oddity in Park’s filmography is Picture of Hell (2016), a two-take film that follows a narrative of two characters split only by the title sequence. It’s really an extreme follow-up of Park’s interest in slow cinema since his Camel(s) period.

Then we come full circle with Noli Timere (Fear Not, 2018), the official film of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Paralympic Games (30 years after his work on the 1988 Seoul Olympics), that removes the talking head interviews of conventional documentaries by presenting observational scenes showing athletes preparing for the races and competing; and even a candid moment with the North Korean delegation.

After joining the Graduate School of Cinematic Content, Dankook University (DGC), since it opened in 2012, Park is now its current Dean. He started producing student’s features again at DGC and these graduation films have won three Grand Prizes at the Jeonju International Film Festival (A Fresh Start, 2014; Seeds of Violence, 2017; Scattered Night, 2019) and one Grand Prize from the Busan International Film Festival (End of Winter, 2015).

In Tears Of Mokpo (2019), the final part of the Middle-aged Romance Trilogy, Park does for the port city of Mokpo what Hong Sang-soo did for a mountain resort in The Power Of Kangwon Province (1998). The film opens in a gorgeous trek through Yudalsan Park that breaks the enclosed spaces of Camel(s) and Old Love but oddly enough, this liberating panorama only reveals to us that the protagonist is so discouraged with her marriage that she is planning to kill herself.

But her depression leaves her little energy to take action, except to meet an old flame whom she can’t even remember. Their meeting reminds her that she was once considered the “princess” in her class, a small glimmer of hope and validation that she has managed to recover from her life’s journey.

Today, while many filmmakers such as Bae Chang Ho and Lee Myung Se are having a second life as film festival directors, they ought to thank Park. He started the trend in 2007 when he became the festival director of the Cinema Digital Seoul Film Festival that played an important role in promoting Asian digital cinema. And so, here we are with the world premiere of his latest feature, I Hear Your Heart Beat.

Note: This essay was first published in Showcase Cinema, Park Kiyong’s Cinema on His Road, Griffith Film School, Australia. September 2019.

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