From 1961 to 1975,the Korean director Lee Man-Hee made an astonishing 50 films, 11 of them dating from 1967 (Lee’s annus mirabilis) alone. His life was, quite literally, his work — during the editing of what would become his final film, A Road to Sampo (1975), he coughed up blood on his own editing table and collapsed, only to protest later from his hospital bed, “I have a film I have to make, so keep me alive at least until I finish it.” A few days later, he was dead, of a cirrhotic liver, at the age of 45. That is a life that itself might inspire a film, but while Lee was a popular and acclaimed moviemaker in his day, 30 years after his untimely death, he is a virtually unknown figure both at home and abroad.
So the 10-film retrospective “Lee Man-Hee: The Poet of the Night,” presented as part of the 10th Pusan International Film Festival (October 6–14), was a potent reminder that, even in an age when it would appear no cinematic stone remains unturned, there are still major careers waiting to be reclaimed from obscurity. As it happens, the first of Lee’s films that I saw in Pusan was one of his last — Break the Chain! (1971), a roaring comic Western, set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, in which a spy (whose wardrobe consists of a zebra-striped fur coat and battered fedora), a “trustworthy” hired assassin, an acrobatic escaped convict and a no-nonsense barmaid traverse a desert expanse in search of the coveted Buddha statue that bears the names of anti-Japanese resistance fighters. Packed with exuberant barroom brawls, allegiances that turn on a dime and a rogues’ gallery of wily self-preservationists, the picture suggests Hawks by way of Leone. And if that doesn’t sound to you like something close to movie heaven, may God have mercy on your soul.
Over the next week, I had the pleasure of viewing seven additional Lee titles (including the abortion-themed Holiday, which was banned in 1968 and unseen until now), and though it is obvious that Lee’s heart was in the war movies and noirish thrillers that account for some three-quarters of his filmography, he was also — like so many of the American and European B-movie directors he clearly emulated — a chameleon who easily adapted his style to a wide range of subjects and genres. In the complex domestic melodrama A Road to Return (1967), the unhappy wife of a paralyzed Korean War vet plays out a destiny that mirrors the tragic heroine of her husband’s latest manuscript. The Devil’s Stairway (1964) is a Les Diaboliques–style horror show in which an ambitious doctor torn between two women — a girlish cutie (who happens to be the daughter of the hospital director) and a sophisticated vixen — bumps one off to be with the other, only to suffer the paranoid consequences. In the ravishing Water Mill (1966), the strange romance between a vagabond and a village widow leads to startling eruptions of jealousy and murder; one sequence in that film is missing its dialogue track, making it all the easier to appreciate Lee’s vibrant background detail, seductive moving camera and mastery of the wide-screen frame. And if Lee was a poet of the night, he was also one of nature, both human and elemental — his films, regardless of genre, are full-scale sensory immersions in which a downpour is always preferred to a drizzle and a full-force gale to a gentle breeze, as if the virulent emotions of the characters were expressing themselves through the weather.
No less remarkable than Lee’s films was the fact that the average audience for these screenings — and, indeed, for nearly every film I saw in Pusan — was composed of people in their late teens to early 20s, leading to one priceless “eureka” moment, during a post-screening Q&A session with Lee’s longtime cinematographer, Suh Jong-Min, in which a teenager declared that he never watches “old” movies, but that Lee’s films are “good enough to be released today.” Having written here earlier this year that Sundance “is one of the youngest of film festivals,” after a few days in Pusan, I find myself having to eat my words. Indeed, Pusan is so overrun with the young — even the 60-ish festival director, Kim Dong-Ho, possesses the energy (and the ability to party into the wee morning hours) of someone one-third his age — that you begin to wonder what exactly they do with all the old people. Maybe it’s not such a mystery, after all, why Michael Bay’s clones-on-the-run thriller, The Island, was an enormous local hit.
Kidding aside, with its $22 million haul at the South Korean box office, The Island ranks among the most popular U.S. imports this year, though that still puts it several paces behind such domestic smashes as Welcome to Dongmakgol ($46 million), Marrying the Mafia 2 ($31 million) and Marathon ($31 million). Simply put, South Korea is one of the last markets left in the world where homegrown product routinely gives Hollywood a run for its money, thanks in no small part to the long-standing “screen quota” system that requires Korean cinemas to book at least 40 percent of their screens with Korean films. As outlined in director Lee Hoonkyu’s dry, but informative, documentary Fatal Attraction — one of the few new films I saw in Pusan — it’s a situation that has long earned the ire of the American film industry and, in particular, that wolf at the door known as the MPAA, which has repeatedly striven to either reduce the quota or eliminate it altogether.
Although Fatal Attraction itself had only one, sparsely attended screening during Pusan, the quota debate was unmistakably the talking point of the festival, spurred on by a September 23 Korea Times report in which the country’s top economic policymaker, attending the annual IMF meeting in Washington, D.C., expressed his willingness to grant U.S. film studios greater access to the Korean market. It is by this sort of aggression on the part of Hollywood that national cinemas in many parts of the world have been killed off entirely or placed in intensive care, forced to rely on government subsidies and elaborate international co-production deals to survive.
Not that American imperialism is the only woe presently facing the Korean film industry; word also spread quickly through the festival that two leading Korean filmmakers, Im Kwon-Taek (Chihwaseon, Chunhyang) and Im Song-Soo (The President’s Last Bang), had been waylaid in the preparations for their new films as the result of increasingly outrageous demands (both creative and monetary) being made by Korean talent agents — a profession that did not even exist in the country as little as five years ago — prompting longtime Asian film enthusiast and Pusan festival consultant Pierre Rissient to comment, “The Korean agents are even more dangerous than the quota situation.”
Despite those nagging concerns, and the lack of a consensus “discovery” among the festival’s new Korean films, Pusan’s 10th year was a robust one, in which the festival’s Pusan Promotion Plan (a networking opportunity for international filmmakers and investors) continued to thrive, and a new educational component called the Asia Film Academy (through which film students from across the continent spent a month studying under the tutelage of such mentors as Hou Hsiao-Hsien and the Thai filmmaker Nonzee) was successfully launched. Such vitality on the part of a national film industry should be a model for the rest of the world to follow — not a target for colonization.