SINCE THE U.S. PREMIERE OF THE SOUTH Korean action blockbuster Shiri (1999) last February — three years after it outgrossed Titanic at the Seoul box office — 2002 has proved a watershed year for local awareness of Korea's cinema boom. Well, at least there've been more films to see. In the next few weeks, Paramount Classics will release Lee Jeong-hyang's sentimental hit The Way Home, to be followed by Kino's continuing rollout of Jeong Jae-eun's coming-of-age ensemble Take Care of My Cat. More immediately, hot on the heels of the UCLA Film and Television Archive's excellent Seoul Cinema series in October, comes the USC School of Cinema-Television's third annual Korean film festival.

If Korean cinema seems poised like a crouching tiger to go big-time in the States, this year's USC festival suggests why its ultimate impact on American audiences will be nothing like Hong Kong's full-scale aesthetic penetration — and why that's a good thing. Where Hong Kong's gangsters, ghosts and high-flying kickers all buzz within a recognizable and readily appropriated style, the six Korean films screening here defy easy grouping while avoiding sensory exhaustion. Masked wrestlers, 19th-century painters, a one-hour photo clerk (who doesn't go psycho) and a trio of lovers trapped in a Rashomon roundelay are among the diverse subjects pursued by rapidly emerging talents and one old master through a refreshing array of approaches.

The program's most deceptively conventional film, writer-director Hur Jin-ho's Christmas in August (1998), explores the quiet life of photo technician Jeong-won (Han Suk-kyu) facing a terminal illness. Drawing on a national tradition of understated melodrama, Hur keeps a respectful distance from the specifics of Jeong-won's ailment just as he never overplays the metaphors of memory that hang all around the clerk's unassuming camera store. Instead, he focuses on Jeong-won's shyly engaged relationship with a pretty meter maid (Shim Eun-ha) and on Han's delicate performance so that the affirmation we expect doesn't pummel us, but rather wells up through delicate powers of observation.

What is observed once is frequently observed again with significant variation in Hang Sang-soo's Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), a landmark of contemporary Korean art cinema that brought its director international acclaim. Shooting in a rangy digital black-and-white, Hang takes the repetition compulsion of films such as Run, Lola, Run and Memento and pushes beyond shuffled time and space to replay the crucial scenes of a tawdry love triangle from the multiple subjectivities of its needy participants. The film unfolds almost entirely in public spaces — cafés, restaurants, offices, hotel rooms — to trenchantly underscore the characters' inability to claim anything, even their own stories, as entirely their own.

In The Foul King (2000), writer-director Kim Ji-woon offers a more commercial response than Hang Sang-soo's to the alienation of modern Seoul: Instead of drifting through narrative ellipses, put on a mask and learn to wrestle. A Korean Fight Club, the film follows a put-upon bank clerk from cubicle to professional wrestling ring, where he assumes the legendary mantle of Ultra Tiger Mask. The Foul King's feverish comic-book style weaves between low slapstick and high pathos before culminating in the coolest wrestling choreography ever. The Foul King was Kim's second feature when it slammed the box-office in 2000, which points to the remarkable fact that the great majority of Korean films made in the last five years have been by first- and second-time directors.

Korea's most famous filmmaker, Im Kwon-taek (Chunhyang, Sopyonje), on the other hand, has directed more than 100 films since 1962. His latest, Chihwaseon (2002), won the Best Director prize at Cannes and stands as his most fiercely personal film to date. But it was back in the 1970s that Im, who will appear in person to present the film, turned away from a thriving commercial career to craft more serious explorations of Korean identity. In Chihwaseon, a painter, drunk and turn-of-the-century cultural hero, Jang Seung-up (Choi Min-sik), repeatedly rejects — in the interest of pursuing his real art — lucrative offers to illustrate erotic books. While on one level this breathtaking period film unfolds as a conventional story of self-destructive genius, it comes with a vision of an artist at the height of his reflective powers and an exploration of how an artist's personal obsessions can feed the self-image of an entire nation.

Also screening: Song Il-gon's Flower Island and Im Soon-rye's Waikiki Brothers. For times and location, see Film & Video Events in Calendar.

LA Weekly