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Riding Korea's New Wave: Swiri and Tell Me Something

Special Feature by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2002

This article appeared in Issue 34 of Asian Cult Cinema

Swiri artwork

1999 was considered a watershed year for South Korean cinema. After spending many years taking a backseat to big-budget Hollywood imports, Korean filmmakers reclaimed the country's movie screens as nine homegrown productions earned a place in the box office top 20. South Korea's film industry no longer needed to rely solely on the country's quota system (where all cinemas are required show domestic films for 146 days of the year) for financial viability, as a 'New Wave' of filmmakers, schooled abroad in Europe and the United States, returned home to create commercially-viable films that appealed to domestic audiences.

Tell Me Something Poster

In addition to finding critical and financial success at home, the films of this 'new wave' tapped the key element that catalyzed the phenomenal growth of Hong Kong's film industry during the Eighties and early Nineties-- international sales. Instead of being limited by the 600 screens of their native South Korea, filmmakers were reaching out to international audiences with more readily-exportable films boasting pristine production values and more mainstream narratives.

Two films from 1999 that found success, both at home and abroad, were Jacky Kang's "Swiri" (also known as "Shiri" in some Asian markets) and Chang Yoon-hyun's "Tell Me Something". In addition to earning the top spot in the 1999 domestic box office, espionage actioner "Swiri" had until recently been the most successful film in South Korean box office history and was dubbed by the press as 'the small fish that sank Titanic'. "Tell Me Something", a 'hard gore thriller', ranked third, just behind "Swiri" and another homegrown success story, "Attack the Gas Station!". Having won over audiences throughout Asia through their theatrical and DVD/VCD releases, both films have finally arrived in North America, with "Tell Me Something" finding a limited release in fall of 2001 and "Swiri" in February of 2002.

Swiri (Shiri)

Han Suk-kyu

The story of "Swiri" begins in 1992 at a training camp for assassins in the North Korean countryside. Using live ammunition and live targets, one soldier proves herself to be a superior killing machine, a young woman named Lee Bang-hee, who is promptly shipped off by her superior, Park (popular actor Choi Min-shik) to take out political and military targets in South Korea. Fast-forward a few years later, and Bang-hee is still on the loose in South Korea, and the South Korean agents on her tail are Ryu (ultra-hot actor Han Suk-kyu of "Christmas in August") and his partner Lee (Song Kang-ho, who recently appeared in 2000's box office hit "Joint Security Area"). Unfortunately, Bang-hee's identity remains a mystery, since she has undergone plastic surgery to change her appearance.

Cover of Asian Cult Cinema issue 34

However, Ryu and Lee have more pressing matters to attend to. Acting against orders from their own government, Park and a squad of North Korean commandos cross the border to steal a shipment of CTX, a powerful new explosive indistinguishable from water. The timing couldn't be worse, as the soccer teams of North and South Korea are about to partake in a symbolic game at the Seoul stadium, signalling a potential thaw in the long-running Cold War. To further complicate matters, the CTX heist brings Bang-hee out of hiding, whose superior sniping abilities wreak havoc on Ryu and Lee's attempts to foil Park's plans. In addition, it appears there is a leak within the South Korean intelligence service, which trigger Ryu and Lee to suspect the other of being a double agent.

The film takes its name from a freshwater fish indigenous to the DMZ, the swath of land dividing Korea between the democratic South and the communist North. Like the fish which knows no borders or cares little for the rival ideologies on either side of the 38th parallel, writer/director Jacky Kang ("The Gingko Bed") speaks to the hopes of reunification for his divided country. Another reunification-minded fish-related symbol appears in the film in the form of gourami, so-called 'kissing fish', which cannot live apart-- if one of a pair dies, the other follows suit soon after. Furthermore, according to marine biologists, the 'kissing' observed in the gourami is actually territorial behavior, mirroring the symbiotic yet adversarial relationship between the North and South.

Choi Min-shik

Kang even goes as far as portraying the North in a somewhat sympathetic light, as Park asks Ryu, "How can you, who grew up eating Coke and hamburgers, understand that your brothers in the North are starving?" This, of course, would have been unheard of a few years ago under South Korea's formerly draconian censorship laws. What is even more surprising is that despite the sympathetic tone towards the North, the South Korean military made "Swiri" required viewing for its troops, since its terrorist subject matter promoted the notion of eternal vigilance.

But aside from the political symbolism, the script for "Swiri" is a somewhat disappointing run-of-the-mill action-thriller, something not too far removed from the Jerry Bruckheimer school of filmmaking. Kang has studied the trappings of the American action movie to a fault, with its preponderance of terse and functional dialogue, unfunny comic relief characters, and overwrought 'ticking bomb' climax. And while Kang tries to add a layer of poignancy with a romantic subplot centered around Ryu and his fish store proprietor fiancée Hyun (Kim Yoon-jin), the poorly-defined motivations assigned to these characters ends up making the film's climax a little on the emotionally-cool side.

Kim Yu-jin

That said, the film's action sequences are rather fun to watch, and probably the film's saving grace. Though the film was made for a paltry $5 million US (which is, incidentally, six times the typical budget for a typical Korean feature), the production values, particularly in the action department, are top-notch. In order to bring such an ambitious project to life, both Kang and his two lead actors opted for Hollywood-type 'back-end deals', leaving more money up-front for the production itself, much of it can be seen on the screen. Fans of the Hong Kong 'SDU' action sub-genre will feel right at home, as there's plenty of hardware on display here, as the intrepid secret agents, North Korean terrorists, and dozens of MP5-carrying SWAT teams exchange blows in and around Seoul. Kang's cinematic action direction is more than competent, blending the 'hyper-reality' of Kirk Wong ("The Big Hit") and the graceful slo-mo of John Woo ("Mission: Impossible 2") in a number of memorable sequences, such as a daring daylight heist of the CTX on a highway, a pitched exchange of gunfire through city streets, and the film's climactic and visually-stunning showdown in Seoul stadium.

"Swiri" catapulted to the top of the South Korean box office with its blend of action and romance, and ended up toppling the record previously held by "Titanic". To its credit, the film boasts impressive action set pieces and production values that rival those of American action films. Unfortunately, it also suffers from a by-the-book script and half-baked characterizations that end up making "Swiri" a somewhat 'fishy story'. Narrative shortcomings aside, this pioneering Korean 'blockbuster' marked a turning point in the evolution of South Korean cinema towards a more market-driven industry, and has since become the de facto model for the industry for producing commercially viable fare.

Tell Me Something

Shim Eun-ha and Han Suk-kyu

"Tell Me Something" is South Korea's entry into the 'serial killer thriller' genre, and thanks to a big-budget marketing campaign, a slick trailer, and the drawing power of its two ultra-popular leads, it was another big hit in 1999. With its rich cinematography, polished production values, and basis in an established Hollywood genre, the recent stateside release of the film by Kino International is hardly surprising.

The story kicks off during the summer of 1999, when a number of black garbage bags begin appearing around Seoul, filled with the assorted body parts of three murder victims. The high-priority case ends up falling into the lap of Detective Jo (Han Suk-kyu once again), a disgraced cop who he has just been put through the ringer by an internal affairs investigation. With the help of his partner Oh (Jang Han-seong) and a dedicated task force, Jo quickly learns that all three victims were former boyfriends of a comely but quiet museum curator named Chae Su-yeon (Shim Eun-ha, who co-starred with Han in "Christmas in August").

Han Suk-kyu

With his attention focused on Su-yeon, Jo spends most of his time with her, uncovering clues from her troubled past as a means to track down the killer. Meanwhile, the body count continues to mount, and Jo soon finds himself in the killer's crosshairs. But who is behind these heinous crimes? Is it Kim Ki-yeon (Yu Jun-sang), an artist who is obsessed with Su-yeon? Or is it Su-yeon's best friend, a medical resident at a local hospital? Or could it be Su-yeon's estranged father, whom she has not seen in five years? Or could it be Su-yeon herself?

Using the neon- and rain-drenched settings to great effect, "Tell Me Something" is a slick and gritty piece of neo-noir, rivaling the stark urban tableau seen in Wong Kar-wai's "Fallen Angels" or Ridley Scott's "Black Rain". Director Chang Yoon-hyun has a good understanding of creating the requisite atmosphere, as he infuses "Tell Me Something" with the creepiness and tension that you would associate with "Seven" or "The X-Files". This is also helped by the underplayed performances of Han and Shim, and the low-key script with a smouldering mystery that is gradually unveiled. Chang also earns the film's 'hard-gore' reputation by pulling no punches in the sporadic visualizations of the killer's crimes, which include dissections, severed limbs, decapitated heads, and copious amounts of blood. For the faint of heart, "Tell Me Something" is definitely best viewed on an empty stomach.

Han Suk-kyu

For most of its two-hour running time, "Tell Me Something" is engaging as it gradually ratchets up the suspense, drawing the audience deeper into the mystery while raising the stakes. Unfortunately, it is in the last act where the film starts to fall apart. Like the lesser entries in the 'serial killer thriller' genre (such as "Along Came a Spider" and "The Watcher"), the overly-elaborate scheme of the killer ends up overwhelming the logical concerns of the narrative. While the film's climax is well-shot and executed with a great soundtrack (including the best use of "Red Right Hand" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in a film, which was also used in "The X-Files" and "Scream"), it ends up not making sense when viewed in the context of what led up to it. Even more distressing is the film's coda, which introduces another logic-defying plot twist courtesy of what film critic Roger Ebert dubs the 'Kodak moment' cliché of murder-mysteries.

Though some of the plot points hold up on subsequent viewings of the film, a number of them do not, requiring character motivations and circumstances to jump through hoops in order for the story to remain cohesive. In fact, audiences in Korea have been so mystified that a number of Internet discussion groups have sprung up just to unravel the film's convoluted narrative (the Hong Kong import DVD even includes an 'FAQ' to explain the story's more nebulous developments). I suspect that part of the reason for the confusion could be due to the omission of a few key scenes, which may have been left on the cutting-room floor. Two obvious logical gaps would be how Detective Oh is able to link a seemingly unrelated crime scene to the gruesome murders, and a significant 'change of heart' experienced by one of the characters, triggering the film's climax.

If it were not for the confusing ending, "Tell Me Something" would gain a wholehearted recommendation. But if you are able to forgive the story's narrative missteps (as I was), then there is still a lot to like in "Tell Me Something", which is an entertaining, suspenseful, and visually-arresting thriller that is on par with the better 'serial killer thrillers' that Hollywood has cranked out over the years. Just don't watch it alone.

Riding the New Wave

Since 1999, both the market share of domestic productions in South Korea, as well as overall interest in Korean cinema (both domestically and abroad), have grown by leaps and bounds. As an indication of how far Korean filmmakers have come, as of the end of May 2001, homegrown films have captured a 42.2% market share of the domestic box office, up from the low 15.4% achieved during the Nineties, making South Korea one of the healthiest film industries in the world on a per capita basis. Hollywood is also taking notice too-- distributors of North American product are now giving wide berth to potential mass appeal homegrown productions when scheduling their releases.

The future certainly looks bright for Korean cinema, and there already is talk that South Korea could become the 'new Hong Kong'. Regardless of what the future brings, "Swiri" and "Tell Me Something" will probably remembered in the years to come as landmark films of the 'Korean New Wave', signaling the time when South Korean filmmakers finally learned how to compete on the world stage.

Images courtesy of Edko Video and Kino International. All rights reserved.



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