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South Korean Cinema: ‘Oldboy’ and ‘Save the Green Planet’

South Korean cinema is hot, not only at home but also abroad. Korean films typically hold their own at the local box office with Hollywood fare, and internationally they are popular with film festivals. But as the Korean industry grows bigger, it poses challenges for filmmakers interested in more independent projects. Beth Accomando looks at a pair of South Korean films that attempt to push the boundaries of what's acceptable.

Park Chan-Wook’s “Oldboy” and Jeung Jun Hwan’s “Save the Green Planet” are a pair of South Korean films that push boundaries and confound audience expectations.

“Oldboy” is the middle film of the planned Revenge Trilogy of Park Chan-Wook. It’s done well in Korea. “Save the Green Planet” marks the debut of director Jeung Jun Hwan Jeung is quite frank about how his film has fared at home.

JEUNG JUN HWAN: Oh, miserable.

But he sees a certain similarity between his film and Park’s “Oldboy.”

JEUNG JUN HWAN: The similarity is both films are challenging to make something new and very strong.

Making something may not be welcomed by the industry that’s looking for predictable box office hits but it is appealing to film critics like Henry Sheehan. He says these films challenge and surprise audiences.

HENRY SHEEHAN: Its amazing the corners they turn and corners you don’t even think are there. And they’re not purely plot points but they also completely change attitude toward characters.

In “Save the Green Planet,” a downtrodden young man named Byeong-gu is convinced the world is about to be taken over by aliens disguised as corporate executives. So he decides to kidnap and torture these extraterrestrials in the hopes they will confess their evil plans.

Jeung says two unrelated things inspired “Save the Green Planet.”One was, seeing Kathy Bates portray a kidnapper in the Stephen King film “Misery” that made him want to make a film that provoked sympathy for a kidnapper. The other was reading an article about people believing that Leonardo DiCaprio was an alien. Jeung takes these diverse elements and spins them into a wild mix of genres. He also creates a protagonist who shocks viewers yet also inspires some sympathy.

JEUNG JUN HWAN: I just want to tell story about demented young man who suffered so much from this world. The theme is very serious but I didn’t want to do it in a serious way.

One serious issue that Jeung does raise is class. Byeong-gu’s poverty is set in sharp contrast to the wealth of his victim. Film critic Henry Sheehan says this sense of class is important in Korean films.“Oldboy” also sets up class distinctions It tells the story of a businessman named Dae-Su who’s imprisoned without explanation for 15 years by a wealthy man with a grudge.

Again Henry Sheehan.

HENRY SHEEHAN: The hero of “Oldboy” is kidnapped and placed in a prison in the year 1988, which was the first year of Koreas democracy period, which extends to today, and he’s locked in room, a comfortable room, with a television set. So in this way he becomes a representative of the Korean middle class. Even though there is a democratic movement in Korea this guy a businessman is locked away in his room watching television.

Sheehan suggests that the anger in films such as “Oldboy” and “Save the Green Planet” reflects frustration over the fact that newfound freedoms havent brought all that was hoped for. These films also reveal a sense of division both the self divided and the country divided.

HENRY SHEEHAN: In “Save the Green Planet,” the protagonist, you could never call him the hero, believes that there are its aliens living on the earth but they’ve disguised themselves to look exactly like us but they are preparing to take us over well this is an obvious reference to North Korea and the infiltrators they’re always sending south of the border and they can pass themselves off as South Korean because before they are South or North Koreans, Koreans are Koreans. So again and again you see this idea of division between people coming into play.

But director Jeung says Korean filmmakers don’t always express their political situation or sense of division intentionally.

JEUNG JUN HWAN: They do not recognize it but down inside they are always aware that we are divided into two countries and there are so many people separated from their families that can affect on filmmakers, I think but they do not express it intentionally or quite open or they don’t recognize it.

Jeung and Park say the response they are getting with their films is mixed because they provoke their audiences with something new and unconventional. In fact their penchant for the extreme may send some viewers running for the exit. In “Oldboy” a character says, “Even though I am no worse than a beast don’t I deserve to live?” And that’s the question both Jeung and Park ask their audiences, say Sheehan.

HENRY SHEEHAN: You know its very easy to put a happy ending on a movie and to say yes we all deserve to be happy, but it takes a very special artist to show how low we can be brought by circumstances and how badly we can act when we are brought that low but how were still entitled to a certain amount of relief and happiness.

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