[K-FILM REVIEWS] 오로라 공주 (Princess Aurora)

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오로라 공주 (Princess Aurora)

Princess Aurora - KOREA 2005
Orora Gongju (lit. Princess Aurora)

107 Minutes - 35mm Cinemascope 2.35:1 - Colour
Produced by: 이스트 필름 (East Film)
Distributed By: 시네마 서비스 (Cinema Service)
International Sales: CJ 엔터테인먼트 (CJ Entertainment)

Opening Day: 10/27/2005
Rating: 18 and Over
Box Office: 946,372 Nationwide Admissions

note: SPOILERS

Director - 감독
방은진 (Bang Eun-Jin)

Cast - 출연
엄정화 (Eom Jung-Hwa), 문성근 (Moon Sung-Geun), 권오중 (Kwon Oh-Joong), 최종원 (Choi Jong-Won), 현영 (Hyun Young), 김용건 (Kim Yong-Geon), 김익태 (Kim Ik-Tae), 박효준 (Park Hyo-Joon), 장현성 (Jang Hyun-Sung), 박성빈 (Park Sung-Bin), 이지수 (Lee Ji-Soo), 최예진 (Choi Ye-Jin), 이대연 (Lee Dae-Yeon)
CAMEO: 박광정 (Park Gwang-Jung), 정은표 (Jung Eun-Pyo), 김연재 (Kim Yeon-Jae), 유혜정 (Yoo Hye-Jung), 김선화 (Kim Seon-Hwa), 정성화 (Jung Sung-Hwa)

Staff - 스테프
Writer - 각본: 서민희 (Seo Min-Hee), 방은진 (Bang Eun-Jin), 김창래 (Kim Chang-Rae), 정용주 (Jung Yong-Joo)
Planning - 기획: 강우석 (Kang Woo-Suk)
Executive Producer - 제작: 명계남 (Myung Gye-Nam)
Cinematography - 촬영: 최영환 (Choi Young-Hwan)
Lighting - 조명: 김성관 (Kim Sung-Gwan)
Music - 음악: 정재형 (Jung Jae-Hyung)
Editor - 편집: 김현 (Kim Hyun)
Art Director - 미술: 전수아 (Jeon Soo-Ah), 최재훈 (Choi Jae-Hoon)

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AWARDS
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- 25회 한국영화평론가협회상 (25th Korean Critics Association Awards) - 신인감독상 (BEST NEW DIRECTOR) - 방은진 (Bang Eun-Jin)

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THE FILM
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NOTE: SPOILERS

근데 왜 남의 일 같냐....
(Why does it feel so much like someone else's business?)
오성호 (문성근) - 오로라 공주 中
Oh Sung-Ho (Moon Sung-Geun) - Princess Aurora

Mid-sized, big eyes, and gentle looking. Not exactly how you'd describe your average serial killer, but that's our Princess Aurora, or at least one of the many Princess Aurora which populate the world of Bang Eun-Jin's debut film 오로라 공주 (Princess Aurora). The combination of a leading role for female icon Eom Jung-Hwa and such a title probably led some people to think this was going to be another romcom in the vein of some of Eom's past successes, like the delightful 싱글즈 (Singles), but while we're dealing with a completely different film, if you think about what kind of role Eom plays in the film, then 'Princess Aurora' becomes all the more ironic. Originally, Princess Aurora was one of the main characters in a hugely popular Toei Anime called SF 西遊記スタージンガー (SF Sayuki Starzinger) [also known as Spacekeeters], which aired on Fuji TV between 1978 and 1979.

Along with her three companions -- a group of cyborgs named Porkos, Jesse Dart and Airmos -- this Aurora (the Princess of the Moon) had to face several battles with mutants and monsters to reach her destination, the 'Great King' Planet, where she'd finally restore the ever decreasing energy of the galaxy. Coming from the pen of legendary Matsumoto Leiji, 'Starzinger' was one of the many tragic Space Operas which made him one of the most famous figures in the industry, with works like 銀河鉄道 999 (Galaxy Express 999). That Sayuki in the title is very important, as those familiar with Chinese characters might recognize it as the Japanese spelling for what is known as 서유기 (Seoyugi) in Korea, and 西遊記 (Xī Yóu Jì) in Chinese. Yes, I'm talking about one of the classics of Chinese literature, that Journey To The West telling the story of Sun Wukong (손오공 - Son Oh-Gong or Sonokong in Korean) -- better known as the Monkey King. It's been used as the foundation for many works, including several film and TV adaptations, like Stephen Chow's 大話西遊 (A Chinese Odissey) films and the classic 1986 CCTV Series.

'Starzinger' was later broadcast in the early 80s in Korea as 오로라 공주와 손오공 (Princess Aurora and Sonokong), which jumpstarted sales of toys in the country, with Hyeopseong Industry (later renamed, you guessed it, Sonokong) establishing what would become one of the world's leading brands in the toys industry. The show, now renamed 별나라 손오공 (Sonokong From The Land of Stars) was re-broadcast on KBS in 1989, once again rousing interest in the characters, especially Aurora. That beautiful, tragic heroine trying to restore peace in her world, fighting off forces which seem stronger than her, forces which threaten her peace of mind. It does sound a little familiar, doesn't it? Bang might have simply used that 'Princess Aurora' to mirror little Min-Ah's (Eom Jung-Hwa's daughter in the film) condition, or simply as a McGuffin tacked on (literally) every murder our 'tragic heroine' commits. But it's much more interesting to look at the character putting it in context within the frame of the film.

Be it because of misleading marketing, or the expectations certain keywords ('murder', 'kidnapping', 'detective') create on moviegoers, most people approaching 'Aurora' will expect a thriller, with all the tropes coming with it. But if Bang commented this film was just a very 지독한 멜로 (cruel melodrama), I'd argue the best description for Bang's impressive debut is a 지독한 모성 신파 (cruel motherhood shinpa). We're not simply dealing with a whodunit, or even a morality play using revenge as its moving force, like those who compare this film to Park Chan-Wook's masterful 친절한 금자씨 (Sympathy For Lady Vengeance) often describe it. Geum-Ja and Jung Soon-Jung (Eom Jung-Hwa) are two completely different 'beasts', moved by a different kind of rage and instincts, with different modus operandi, and most importantly much different aspirations.

That maternal instincts form the centerpiece of this film is something which might sound predictable, coming from one of the few female directors in the country, but it's one of the reasons why a film like 'Princess Aurora', using plot elements which are not exactly original, can feel so fresh despite often adhering to the genre's tropes. And then again this is not a feminist film per se, raging tirades against those 'pigs' called men, as Soon-Jung does not spare women from her symphony of rage. When she received the prize for Best New Director at the latest Korean Critics Association Awards, Bang commented that people on the set felt as if a male and female director joined hands in leading this project, and that's the same feeling you get watching the film. Of course there's no absolutes when it comes to female and male sensibilities, but the fact Bang doesn't paint her film with extremes makes for a better viewing experience: just like excessive machismo can be grating, the sledgehammer 'feminism' of certain female filmmakers can have a similar effect.

Yet, it seems the few female directors who've emerged in Chungmuro in recent years are finding a niche of their own without resorting to such cheap tactics. Take Jung Jae-Eun of 고양이를 부탁해 (Take Care of My Cat) and 태풍태양 (The Aggressives), one of the few directors in Chungmuro who seems to understand the dynamics at play with today's generation, without necessarily taking sides; take Park Chan-Ok of 질투는 나의 힘 (Jealousy is My Middle Name), who's been favorably compared to Hong Sang-Soo, with a little less wit and and a little more... balls? Bang is the same. She's not afraid of showing strength, raw intensity but then she balances that with more tender and touching moments -- an applause to her and Moon Sung-Geun for finally showing a man crying on screen without resorting to the 'I'm fighting desperately to hold my tears' 진짜 사나이 (real man!) mode most male characters in Korean Cinema show. Power and tenderness, male and female, grace and courage, determination to combat the forces scheming against you. Kind of like the Princess Aurora of the anime, but also a little like Bang Eun-Jin the actress and finally the director, if you think about it.

Half the world is women, and something in between 60 and 70% of the country's moviegoing populace is made up of women, so why is it so hard for a female director to emerge in Korean Cinema? Just like everyone else who preceded her, Bang had to show she had the talent to emerge from the rest, she was never given an easy, producer-driven open door to the industry, like most of the first time directors who begin with Summer Horror flicks do nowadays. She had to spend years fighting to climb the totem pole, and find someone who would give her a chance. It all started in the early 70s, when in her primary school years Bang joined a chorus group for KBS, which made her a sort of enfant prodige. By the time she was in high school, Bang was already acting in a theater troupe created in school, which paved the way for her theater debut. She won the best newcomer at the 1992 Seoul Theater Festival, and the Best New Actress prize at the Baeksang Awards in 1993.

Those years in theaters -- along with a few TV Drama appearances -- prepared Bang for her film debut, which came in Im Kwon-Taek's 1994 masterpiece 태백산맥 (The Taebaek Mountains), where she played Kim Gab-Soo's newfound belle de nuit. But although she impressed in her first role, the film which cemented her place in Chungmuro was Park Chul-Soo's delirious satire 301 302 a year after. One of the best black comedies of the 90s, the film saw Bang make an incredible transformation in the film, from a slender 45kg newlywed excited about her newfound role as a wife, to an hypersensitive 70kg depressed woman fed up with the patriarchal routines of married life. Her 'transformation' won Kim Sung-Moon the first ever Make-Up Effects prize at the Chunsa Awards, which paved the way for the impressive prosthetics and make-up we see in today's Chungmuro (and which obviously make their appearance in this film too).

Bang continued her collaboration with Park Chul-Soo's glorious answer to Im Kwon-Taek's 축제 (Festival), in the 1996 black comedy 학생부군신위 (Farewell My Darling). Still my favorite of Park's work, the film captured perfectly the festival-like feeling (hence the title of Im's film, dealing with the same subject) of traditional Korean funerals, focusing on several characters coming together at the same venue to celebrate the life which just ended. Although Im's film might be more 'accomplished' in many ways, Park's 'My Darling' oozes 사람냄새 (smell of real people), is much funnier and in many ways also smarter. Her third partnership with Park Chul-Soo came with 1997's 산부인과 (Push! Push!), again reunited with co-star Hwang Shin-Hye, and again threading similar waters -- social satires with a dark comic streak, and a strong touch of feminism.

For many reasons, Bang wasn't too prolific in the late 90s, as she started the road which would lead to 'Princess Aurora' in 1998, working as assistant director on a short film, and eventually directing her own first short, 파출부, 아니다 (Ain't No Maid). More than the striking lead roles she played in the early years of her film career, the late 90s and early 00s saw her feature in interesting cameos and supporting roles. From Kim Ki-Duk's 수취인불명 (Address Unknown) as Yang Dong-Geun's mother, to the underrated 스물넷 (My Beautiful Days), from the excellent 로드무비 (Road Movie) to her hilarious 'crazy lover' in the omnibus 묻지마 패밀리 (No Comment); certainly not roles which helped her climb popularity rankings, but all unique and strangely charming in their own ways. And of course Bang wasn't just resting through those smaller roles, she was preparing for her big splash in the industry, this time as a director.

She acted with him in a few films, and of course their friendship lasted much longer than their partnership on screen, but in the meantime Bang and Myung Gye-Nam tried to bring their working relationship to another level. Known to most fans for his small but often memorable roles in films like 반칙왕 (The Foul King), 성냔팔이 소녀의 재림 (Resurrection of the Little Match Girl) and a Million other films, it's kind of ironic that Myung's best performance and most memorable role came from a collaboration with Bang, in the 2002 drama 'My Beautiful Days', where he played a sort of father figure for Kim Hyun-Sung (who he would later work with in 'Match Girl'), a much gentler and 'normal' role than his usual sneaky, snappy characters. But Myung is also one of the most influential producers in the country, the man behind most of Lee Chang-Dong's works, and the mind behind East Film, which produced this film and many others.

Myung commissioned what should have become Bang's debut four years ago, entitled 덜림 (Tremor), which never got past the script writing process. It was just the first of a couple of false starts for Bang, who couldn't get her 첼로 (Cello) greenlighted either. Completely unrelated to the horror film starring Sung Hyun-Ah released last summer, 'Cello' told the story of a stepmother, her daughter and their love for each other. Sounds interesting, yes, but investors didn't think so, especially without big stars attached to the project, a situation which has become all too familiar recently, what with all the trials and tribulations Kim Hae-Gon's 보고싶은 얼굴 (The Face I Miss) and Im Kwon-Taek's 천년학 (Thousand Year Crane) went through. But Bang was ready to throw another card in the mix, a good friend of hers called Kang Woo-Suk, back then still the most powerful figure in Chungmuro. Enter 오로라 공주 (Princess Aurora).

One day Mr. Kang called Bang, telling her he'd send in a promising script which needed a little touching up. With an impressive tagline -- 'Love and Anger are inside the same face' -- the film, which at the beginning was just entitled 입질 (Bait) featured a serial killer on the run, the detective going after her (who happened to be her former husband) and was much more concerned with genre tropes. Bang almost completely rewrote it, reversing the motives of the original, which more or less focused on the fight between this killer and her husband, between conflicts of interests and demons of the past. Bang might have been hesitant at the beginning, giving the failure of her past projects, but the fact veteran Moon Sung-Geun became an important part of the project probably gave her the strength she needed. Director Lee Chang-Dong helped her with a few details, like pushing all the flashback scenes -- explaining in detail why Soon-Jung commits those murders -- at the end, but most importantly painting Oh Sung-Ho as a detective with the intention of entering priesthood.

Of course the first thing you think about when mentioning that might be a search for redemption, which is at the center of Sung-Ho's heavy religious tendencies, but in a way it helped Moon get into the role in a stronger way, after spending a few years off the scene. How? Moon might be a famous actor, at least to the past generation (this new generation of moviegoers associate him with political involvement a lot more than they should), but his father might be even more famous. And his father is none other than the late Reverend Moon Ik-Hwan, one of the most respected Presbyterian pastors in the country, someone who helped translate the Korean version of the Bible in the 70s, and was one of the most outspoken human right activists during the Park Jung-Hee regime. One of his many famous feats was going to North Korea to meet with Kim Il-Sung in the 80s, which in some ways paved the way for the unification movement whose power has grown incredibly over the years. That character then sounded a little easier to relate to for someone like Moon, didn't it?

With Moon on board, Bang just needed her 'Princess Aurora', who at the beginning was a different actress. Before Bang's adaptation, the film was set in a mid-sized city and its heroine was a woman from the countryside, opposed to the Soon-Jung in the final film, spending her days in that cosmopolitan jungle called Seoul, making a living selling luxurious imported cars. It was the Summer of 2004, and Eom was deciding her next movie projects, in a period of 'rest' from her Chungmuro life, in which she produced her 8th Album (which is pretty decent electronica mixed with pop, BTW) and starred in a couple of successful TV Dramas. Although a clear difference between her roles on TV and the big screen existed already, she needed that serious role, something a little darker than what she played in 'Singles' or even before that in Yoo Ha's 결혼은 미친짓이다 (Marriage is a Crazy Thing) to develop her acting skills.

Transformation was the keyword here, as Eom became famous for always changing her image with every new album, and in some ways she felt the urge to do so in her acting career as well. Eom called Bang, saying she was really interested in playing Jung Soon-Jung, so this gave the debut director a very exciting, if conflicting enigma: she now could enjoy the added clout the star power Eom carried with her could give to the film, but then again she didn't know whether Eom would adapt to this kind of darker role. But be it because they found it easier to work together as two women, Bang and Eom connected instantly. Now Bang had her cast, with Moon, Eom and even veteran Choi Jong-Won and longtime friend Jang Hyun-Sung, all she needed was a title for her first project, finally reaching that word she waited for years: green light, carte blanche. Ladies (and gentlemen), start your engines. At first the film's title was simply 그녀의 적 (Her Enemy), just to poke a little fun at Kang Woo-Suk's popular 공공의 적 (Public Enemy) series, but when an assistant director asked her what to do with the Princess Aurora stickers they created, that instantly gave her an idea. Why not call it 오로라 공주 (Princess Aurora), just like the tragic heroine of Matsumoto's space opera?

The sound of her high heels capturing the entire room, slowly walking on the pavement covered with stylish mosaic tiles. It's the ladies' room of a luxurious department store, and she's about to commit her first murder. You'd think a whodunit revealing the culprit during the first 5 Minutes of the film would be an instant failure, but 'Princess Aurora' is not your average thriller, and Jung Soon-Jung definitely not your average serial killer. Soon-Jung. What a name. Another of Bang's little ironic touches, meaning 'purity' (純正), her cynical and cruel murders look everything but pure, genuine. They're moved by an uncontrollable force working inside her mind, a place with a huge void left by a loss she will never be able to find again, if not in her memories. Because like she says, 'the only thing remaining after someone dies is the memories they leave in other people's minds'. Those memories are that of her daughter Min-Ah, cruelly raped and killed by a psychopath, left dying near a street, her murderer receiving the long end of the stick thanks to corrupt lawyers, her ordeals starting from the indifference of people, who left this poor child alone in the cold of the night, open to all sorts of dangers. Soon-Jung used to be a normal mother like everyone else, but now her life has become a huge facade, a dark cloud of nothingness and extreme loneliness, selling expensive imported cars and pretending to be a happy, single, career woman. But when her plan begins, we don't expect to sympathize with her, let alone relating to her murdering ways and almost rooting for her in the long run.

Rooting for a killer? That wouldn't be anything new, or did we forget already about a certain Geum-Ja? Just like Prof. Baek in Park Chan-Wook's 친절한 금자씨 (Sympathy For Lady Vengeance), the 'villains' in this film are little more than caricatures, icons to make a bigger point and define the main characters and their actions. We have the evil stepmother, the womanizing pig(s), the dumb pretty girl, and many more evil presences infesting our society. But whereas Park moved those 'pawns' around to present a critique of the meaning of revenge itself and how Geum-Ja reacts to its completion at the end, Bang deals with something entirely different, although some themes are tangential with Park's 2005 shocker. Soon-Jung never looks for atonement, which in some ways might make the film look a little simplistic compared to 'Lady Vengeance'.

But that would be missing the point: yes, the revenge is important, but it's not the key. Revenge is only the means with which Soon-Jung fills that void the loss of her daughter left. But she's not the only one who suffers because of that void, as the failed relationship with her former husband, detective Oh Sung-Ho (Moon Sung-Geun) shows. Perhaps the most important line in the film is what Sung-Ho utters to his colleague looking at hints to find this serial killer. He knows already who's behind those murders, yet in a melancholic way wonders why it all feels 'like someone else's business'. As Soon-Jung ironically reminds him, he used the facade of his priesthood studies to hide the fact he couldn't even take care of his family, he only worried about work and abandoned them when they needed him the most, without even trying to put the culprit behind bars for life.

This strange connection, this conflict of interest, this interplay between Sung-Ho and Soon-Jung feels refreshing, and it's a relief Bang decided to opt for this instead of a cat and mouse run between former lovers who now sit on opposite ends of the spectrum, with a smarmy feminist heroine making fun of her clueless husband. No, Bang's portrayal of the relationship between the two is almost tender in its subtlety. We're dealing with two people who are trying to deal with loneliness, each in their own ways. Their first meeting and the following sex scene (very passive, distant) the best example of that lost, terminated connection between the two. And that of Sung-Ho is a tremendously fascinating character, one of the most interesting Moon has played in his entire career. The initial premise of a detective with the ambition of becoming a pastor could have been risky: if this were a Hollywood film, we might have been dealing with a sanctimonious figure, spitting his sutras at the evils of society and trying to right wrongs through his work -- a sort of 공공의 적 2 (Another Public Enemy) meets Paul Schrader's Hardcore. But Sung-Ho knows all too well his books and religious activities (things he will clearly not continue, although saying why would be too much of a spoiler) are an escapade to avoid thinking about 'that'.

That's why when the flashbacks begin, when you start looking at their relationship as that of a couple reconciling (at least mentally) through the desire to fill that void, then 'Princess Aurora' stops being the thriller it seems to be at the beginning, and becomes a melodrama about parenthood -- or motherhood, since Soon-Jung is the protagonist. A very cruel, emotionally touching one, hence the 'cruel motherhood shinpa' of the beginning. That sex scene and what happens later is crucial, as it both 'wakes up' Sung-Ho from the mental sleep he felt into, and slowly opens him to what's going on inside Soon-Jung's mind. They might have been a failed couple for a variety of reasons, but they had something in common, something strong which would leave a lasting bond forever: little Min-Ah. 'Someone else's business' starts hitting closer to home, and that's when Sung-Ho understands what she's doing, why she's doing it, and who and what caused it.

Most directors' film debut tends to be very personal, possessing a style of its own, governed by its own rules and with characters who lived in the directors' heads for years. Look at Jang Joon-Hwan's 지구를 지켜라 (Save The Green Planet), or the demons of the past blinding the characters in Im Pil-Sung's 남극일기 (Antarctic Journal). But even though Bang mighthave thrown many of her past experiences into this film, 'Princess Aurora' doesn't feel like a debut film. It almost feels like a great director from the past returned to filmmaking after a long hiatus, balancing what made her famous with today's changing trends. Just take two simple scenes, the opening and closing credits, almost hypnotic in their rhythm and visual splendor. Brilliant scenes, orchestrated to perfection by a director who seems to know already what's important, leaving a lasting impression with visuals and emotions first, worrying about genre and the tropes associated with it a little later. The professionalism and artistry Bang shows might have to do with her personality, but one of the reasons why 'Princess Aurora' might have excited Korean critics so much is because it retains that energy of the first timer, but doesn't fall into the pitfalls that enthusiasm can generate on them.

This thing is incredibly polished, from the look of the film, aided by DP Choi Young-Hwan of 혈의 누 (Blood Rain) fame, the splendid sound design and especially a fantastic soundtrack from Jung Jae-Hyung. Jung is quite a particular case, as he's only a 'part time' music director, and is more famous for his musical career, first with the group Basis then going solo. Mixing dark ambient pop, electronica, tango, a sound structure similar to films like 분홍신 (The Red Shoes) and 얼굴없는 미녀 (Hypnotized), this is one of the most impressive soundtracks of recent memory. The final song, which Jung sang himself alongside Rollercoaster lead singer Jo Won-Seon, fits to perfection with the images, creating a strangely mysterious vibe, between the thriller and melodrama.

Eom Jung-Hwa's performance is excellent, transforming herself once again in a vortex of emotion, from the scary intensity of her killing ways, to the playful irreverence of her games against her 'predators', to the almost disarming display of emotions in the film's climax. But personally the real winner is Moon Sung-Geun's performance. I felt Moon fell into a sort of mannerism with his role in Hong Sang-Soo's 오!수정 (Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors), playing similarly cynical and cold characters in two consecutive films, but his Sung-Ho here feels like a huge u-turn in his career. His mix of melancholic nothingness and his gradual opening in the second half marks one of the most hard hitting performances of the year, and is his best work since Lee Chang-Dong's 초록 물고기 (Green Fish). But then again if the film works the way it does, it's all thanks to Bang Eun-Jin. Debuting with a film like this, set up like a big project with a burdensome cast, marketed by a major in a way which partially betrayed the intentions of the film, wasn't going to be easy for anyone, let alone a female director in Chungmuro. But she did it, scoring decently with the public (almost a Million tickets), and impressively well with the majority of Korean critics. 'Princess Aurora' is a very accomplished debut, something which allowed Bang to enter Chungmuro with a bang, and makes me crave for more. It took many years to get here, but we have a potentially impressive directing career in the making. Director Bang Eun-Jin. I like the sound of that already...

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DVD SPECS
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2 Disc Limited Edition

Cinema Service
Release Date: 02/14/2006

DVD - Korean Version (English, Korean Subtitles)
OST

Aspect Ratio: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Region Code: Region 3
Format: NTSC
DVD Format: DVD-9 (Single Side, Dual Layer)
Audio: Korean DTS, Korean Dolby Digital 5.1, 2 Commentary Tracks (2.0 Each)

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