[K-FILM REVIEWS] 오감도 (Five Senses of Eros)

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If there is anything the recent history of Korean omnibus films has taught us, it is the notion that making one that works seems like a nearly impossible task. Although the omnibus itself is certainly not a new format, its profile in Chungmuro started gaining momentum right around the same time most of Asian cinema embraced the idea, one of the reasons why many passable examples come from Panasian collaborations, such as the 쓰리 (Three) franchise or the yearly JIFF omnibus project. When you're lucky, you find gems like Song Il-Gon's 마법사(들) (Magicians) and 깃 (Feathers in the Wind), two films which started as parts of two omnibus projects, but were later released solo; or Park Chan-Wook's Cut, from horror omnibus 쓰리... 몬스터 (Three... Extremes) - still one of the better Asian omnibus films of recent years. And when your luck runs out, something like 오감도 (Five Senses of Eros) is likely to be the result. The proliferation of omnibus films with very little raison d'être other than the wish of stuffing big names together inside a compact frame often leaves a puzzling aftertaste - Tokyo! being the last in line, with Bong Joon-Ho's curious Shaking Tokyo becoming all the more pleasant, after the grating faux kewl of Michel Gondry, and Léos Carax aptly-titled Merde (not unlike what I'd describe the film as). And puzzling is indeed what we're presented with here, once more. What was the point of this all, again?

The story goes somewhat like this: producer, KAFA (Korean Academy of Film Arts) lecturer and occasional director Yoo Young-Shik was preparing an Internet omnibus in collaboration with a Korean news portal. The idea wasn't too bad: picking ten directors, and making an interactive movie - interactive in the sense that netizens would get to write the script and help casting auditions. I'm not sure how they would have effectively implemented that, what with the rather "salty" nature of many a Korean netizen (particularly those of a very young age), but it matters not, as the economic crisis hit this project in predictable ways, and the portal rather nonchalantly pulled out of the game. Yoo kept getting similar offers for a while, but he finally ended up with a solid project on the table, attracting five other directors: Lee Jae-Yong of 다세포 소녀 (Dasepo Naughty Girls) and 스캔들 (Untold Scandal), Oh Gi-Hwan of 작업의 정석 (The Art of Seduction) and 두사람이다 (Someone Behind You), Byun Hyuk of 주홍글씨 (The Scarlet Letter) and 인터뷰 (Interview), and finally two much more prestigious names like Min Gyu-Dong and Hur Jin-Ho. The catch here is that they all are KAFA alumni and know each other well, making the prospect of shooting an omnibus for theater release all the more feasible. With Lee Jae-Yong dropping out to shoot his upcoming 귀향 (Homecoming), we were left with five names, and the project was greenlit.

What is rather perplexing about the idea behind the title is that either the five didn't really have a solid enough idea to start with, or marketing and investors might have stepped in to orientate things towards the finished product later. As the Korean title suggests, the first idea was to make an omnibus about the five senses, but it must have been a very vague notion, as only Hur Jin-Ho's short can convey any such theme (the sense of smell). What is much more likely, although Yoo and colleagues will likely never admit it upfront, is that the higher ups asked for something a little saucier, in line with current trends. With the government going back to a fifth republic-like junta, a lot of sexier films dealing in some way with eroticism have been gaining a good response from the public, the recent success of period fare like 쌍화점 (Frozen Flower) and 미인도 (Portrait of a Beauty) reminding of the exploits of vapid 1980s potboilers like 뽕 (Mulberry Three) and 어우동 (Eoudong), their historical relevance paling in comparison with the amount of nipples filling the frame. Not that I'm complaining.

What is a much more significant cause for complaint, though, is the rather spurious approach to marketing this kind of films the industry has been taking for the last few years. It has become almost routine: a few months before release, marketing companies "encourage" vultures in the media to mention the possibility of a starlet disrobing in an upcoming film, creating buzz. A misleadingly piquant trailer is released, often suggesting much more than what you will actually find in the finished product - think of the recent trailer for melo-sageuk 불꽃처럼 나비처럼 (The Sword with No Name), whose trailer pretty much shows all the sex you're going to get in the film. Then, what Koreans call 언플 (short for 언론 플레이, press manipulation) ensues, with a barrage of articles pestering news portal for days, throwing the magic word at their prey, like a succulent bone thrown to hungry tigers: 노출 (exposure). Treating their purveyors like horny teenagers, marketing companies manage to create buzz with what are essentially lies, and although you will find stars and directors refute any such claim at the press screening, they're certainly in on the joke. Recent history has shown that only the films which truly deliver (need I be more explicit?) end up doing decent business, regardless of quality - both Frozen Flower and Portrait of a Beauty are notoriously inept when it comes to historical relevance, and save for pretty art direction and decent sex scenes have very little to offer. But countless flops haven't stopped marketing gurus from repeating the same trick time and time again, just like in Five Senses of Eros' case.

Considering that this was an extremely low budget production (1 billion before marketing, less than half of the average budget for a Korean film), the film sold a pretty satisfying 440,000 tickets for about 3 billion won, but you'd think producers and investors would have expected a tad more, particularly considering the cast they were working with. Ultimately, Five Senses of Eros is more likely to be remembered for what it couldn't deliver (and I'm not just talking about nudity, or any sort of eroticism, but more important fundamentals like, say, quality storytelling and intriguing visuals?), and will further reinforce the notion that omnibus films have become a dime-a-dozen in Chungmuro.

PART 1: His Concern
Director: 변혁 (Byun Hyuk)
Cast: 장혁 (Jang Hyuk), 차현정 (Cha Hyun-Jung)
RATING: 6

Things didn't start too badly, admittedly.

KAFA and La Femis alumni Byun Hyuk might have debuted in the industry with cult shorts - 호모비디오쿠스 (Homo Videocus) - and dogme films - 2000's madly uneven but watchable Interview, Shim Eun-Ha's last work before retirement. But what best describes the style displayed in this short is his previous work, the decadent male fantasy 주홍글씨 (The Scarlet Letter). Sure enough, His Concern repeats the exact same pros and cons of his previous, rather maligned work (more for Lee Eun-Joo's suicide than for the film itself, truth to be told): it is so concerned with form and ambiance, it forgets it's actually depicting human beings. The premise is simple to a fault, but not entirely devoid of charm: a one night stand between two pretty people, narrated by the man's voiceovers. More than suggesting the male character's inner feelings as he slowly falls for this alluring lady, His Concern feels more like a step-by-step guide to scoring in a one night stand, while at the same time highlighting how petty and insecure the inner psyche of a man which looks so cool on the exterior might be. Hence the "concern."

They could have certainly done more with the subject, particularly when the film does a u-turn in the second half - surely, giving the two's different perspective vis-à-vis the road towards the one night stand, right as it was happening, would have worked in a better way? Then again, done that way it would stop being a male fantasy, I guess. The voiceover tends to become a little grating, particularly considering how unimaginative the dialogue is, and Jang Hyuk's enunciation is certainly to blame as well - should I start worrying about 추노 (Slave Hunters)? But Byun has a way with atmosphere, for sure. The two young actors look like two models coming out of some commercial advertising an apparel brand: they're sexy (particularly Cha, who's been showing sparks of talent in the last twelve months both on TV and the big screen), polished, but also betray that 2% of human frailty which is never enough to crack their outer image, but makes for better characters. Again, a little too thematically barren for its rather gaudy exterior, but quite the passable start.

PART 2: 나, 여기 있어요 (I'm Right Here)
Director: 허진호 (Hur Jin-Ho)
Cast: 김강우 (Kim Gang-Woo), 차수연 (Cha Su-Yeon)
RATING: 4

Seeing talented directors fail is always somewhat painful, particularly in the case of people you'd think would never make such mistakes - think Park Chan-Wook in 사이보그지만 괜찮아 (I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK). After all, Hur Jin-Ho gave us two of the most distinctive melodramas of the last twenty years, with his debut 8월의 크리스마스 (Christmas in August) and 봄날은 간다 (One Fine Spring Day). After watching the excellent 행복 (Happiness), I kept telling myself that 외출 (April Snow) was merely a case of Bae Yong-Joon's roaring persona dominating the entire production, his concern for the God-like status he enjoys in the eyes of Showa-nostalgia inclined Japanese housewives trampling every other aspect of anything he gets involved with. Then again, the longer and slightly more effective Japanese cut of the film might suggest otherwise. But one realization emerging after watching this short is that Hur is not another Lee Chang-Dong. That is, the quality of his films also depends dramatically on the type of casting he goes through. Of course Lee has never worked with less than stellar actors (Han Suk-Gyu, Seol Kyung-Gu, Moon So-Ri, Song Kang-Ho, Jeon Do-Yeon is not exactly a bad lineup, is it?), but it's now clear that Hur finds himself a little bit at a loss when dealing with lesser talents. Whether 호우시절 (A Good Rain Knows) reinforces that thought, I'm not sure, but this short sure makes a good case for it.

What doesn't work in I'm Right Here is that, like in April Snow, the male lead can't live up to his end of the bargain, in turn making chemistry and emotional punch an afterthought. Just like many other Hur Jin-Ho films, it's structured with extreme simplicity, following the last few days spent together by a couple, before a fateful surgery separates them. The idea is making the ordinary feel special, run-of-the-mill moments of intimacy feel distinctive, because you rarely get to have the dramatic and romantic sendoff many a tearjerker make you dream of. Just like the first short, not a bad premise, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Maybe Hur just needs a larger canvas to make his stories effective - then again, his short 나의 새 남자친구 (My New Boyfriend) as part of Twentidentity is wonderful, striking just the right balance in a matter of minutes. What I'm Right Here lacks, then, is the emotional punch. I'm not talking of over-dramatic histrionics, but anything which may suggest the impact of this important loss for the main character. And that's where casting comes into play. Cha Su-Yeon predictably does quite well with the little she's given, but Kim Gang-Woo once again is below par. After the success of 식객 (Le Grand Chef), Kim has gained some notoriety, but he still hasn't shown much other than good looks and a propensity for doing fairly well in guy-next-door settings, the pseudo-In Jung-Ok vibes of 나는 달린다 (Breathless) still being his best work. The lack of range and charisma was particularly painful in his turn as a villain in Song Ji-Na's disastrous drama 남자 이야기 (The Slingshot), but the problem is similar here: Kim accentuates every emotion like a preppy accountant putting all the dots in order, when body language and screen presence would do the trick. And by making the ordinary feel manufactured, he essentially renders the rest of the film an insipid journey into a couple's last moments. It's like picking an average scene out of a likely decent film, and expecting it to make for a compelling short. Afraid not.

PART 3: 33번째 남자 (The 33rd Man)
Director: 유영식 (Yoo Young-Shik)
Cast: 배종옥 (Bae Jong-Ok), 김민선 (Kim Min-Sun), 김수로 (Kim Su-Ro)
RATING: 4.5

Just like Park Chan-Wook's Cut, the perfect kind of story for a short film. But I'm not sure. Alas, not everyone can boast Park's eerie talent for mixing moods and genres of a seemingly polarized nature, and The 33rd Man is a peculiar beast, akin to the bastard child of a slightly softer Jesús Franco flick and a Lee Jang-Ho potboiler from the 80s, 무릎과 무릎 사이 (Between the Knees) meets Vampyros Lesbos. Maybe it all boils down to Yoo's long hiatus away from the director's chair. he's been involved in the industry as a producer and lecturer at the KAFA for years, but his last feature film was 2000's curious period action drama 아나키스트 (Anarchists), film for which I still have somewhat of a soft spot for, but it should have been directed by its producer, a certain Lee Joon-Ik. Yoo's lack of touch is all the more evident when we're graced with the big genre u-turn towards the end, which feels out of place with all its manufactured decadence, since we had been treated to mostly ironic fare for the preceding quarter hour.

Ironic also because Kim, usually quite the capable actress when in good hands, is actually more awkward post-"enhancement," when what happens to her character supposedly transforms a talentless debuting starlet into a surprisingly effective actress. Ironic because Bae Jong-Ok, who is a major talent, has confessed that she was looking for a more "aggressive" character after years of more reserved ones, but the beauty of her acting is that she manages to make the over-the-top tendencies of the innocent characters she often plays ring true, and now that the opposite is asked from her... she's indeed awkward. It's clear that what Yoo wanted to do - his first project was actually something really similar to Byun's short, although the one night stand was of the "Mile High Club" kind - but the tonal shifts are obvious enough that the u-turn feels only like the first spark of rather insipid fare, waking you up at the last moment with some unintentional hilarity. Someone with a talent for luscious ambiance, and who could better manage the genre aspects of this story would have done wonders with this subject (Im Pil-Sung? Park Chan-Wook? Kim Jee-woon?), but what we get is once again not too inspired, both technically and thematically.

PART 4: 끝과 시작 (In My End is My Beginning)
Director: 민규동 (Min Gyu-Dong)
Cast: 김효진 (Kim Hyo-Jin), 엄정화 (Eom Jung-Hwa), 황정민 (Hwang Jung-Min)
RATING: 3

Were this still 2005, I probably would still consider Min Gyu-Dong amongst the most talented directors of his generation. Just as his partner crime in concocting the wonderful 여고괴담 두번째 이야기 (Memento Mori) Kim Tae-Yong went on to direct the brilliant 가족의 탄생 (Family Ties), Min's second feature film was just as accomplished as his cult debut, although by now it has largely (and undeservedly) been forgotten. 내 생애 가장 아름다운 일주일 (All for Love) was in fact a Working Title romcom done well, the Korean way, without all the artificial soho chic(anery) of its western counterpart. Also, although it played a much less significant part here than in his debut, Min continued his obsession with the dichotomies of queer films, which has continued marking his career down to this short. That would be fine, except for the fact that his films have become increasingly shallow, more focused on the irreverence and arthouse-friendly hauteur that such themes can bring to the table. This short, which is screening at this year's PIFF in a longer, re-edited cut, is essentially more of the same. Lots of angst, some The L Word moments thrown at the wall with little characterization and impact, and a complete waste of what is quite the good cast, particularly considering Eom's sex appeal, and Hwang Jung-Min's immense talent (he was cast on the cheap and quickly as Min needed someone reliable, but for that kind of character, anyone could have worked just fine). Shame to see promising people choose glitzy shallowness over substance, but I guess 앤티크 (Antique) had sufficiently warned us before.

PART 5: 순간을 믿어요 (Believe the Moment)
Director: 오기환 (Oh Gi-Hwan)
Cast: 신세경 (Shin Se-Kyung), 이시영 (Lee Si-Young), 김동욱 (Kim Dong-Wook), 송중기 (Song Joong-Gi), 정의철 (Jung Eui-Cheol), 이성민 (Lee Sung-Min)
RATING: 1

Oh boy.

I sort of cringed the moment I saw Oh was part of the roster, and anyone who's seen The Art of Seduction or his asinine "horror" flick Someone Behind You might guess why. We're not exactly dealing with a subtle director, and when you tackle an argument as touchy as swapping amongst high school students is, you better drive superficiality out of the window fast. But such was not the case, as Believe the Moment essentially borrows a page from the Beverly Hills 90210 or Melrose Place canon, and runs with it through the end, what with its vapid encounters between characters spewing platitudes about their relationships, awkward kissing and even more hilariously misguided moments of intimacy. So many are the characters, you can't even begin to wonder or care about where it all started from, since no character has any personality to begin with. Even the performances are of the trendy drama kind, with only Shin Se-Kyung (who oozes a Jennifer Connelly-like aura, and it's not the first time she does) and Song Joong-Gi standing out. If the idea was making a breezy, sexy swapping romp a la 내 여자의 남자친구 (Cheaters), then maybe Oh should have focused on less couples, make the story feel less like teenybopper pop music video fare, and make the "moment" feel a little more special. Then, and only then, maybe we would believe...

오감도 (Five Senses of Eros)
Directors: 변혁 (Byun Hyuk), 허진호 (Hur Jin-Ho), 유영식 (Yoo Young-Shik), 민규동 (Min Gyu-Dong), 오기환 (Oh Gi-Hwan)
Screenplay:  변혁 (Byun Hyuk), 허진호 (Hur Jin-Ho), 유영식 (Yoo Young-Shik), 민규동 (Min Gyu-Dong), 오기환 (Oh Gi-Hwan)
Produced By: Daisy Entertianment
128 Minutes, 35mm 1.85:1 Color
Release: 07/09/2009 (18 and Over)
Box Office: #60 - 442,184 Admissions - 3.1 Billion Won
Cast: 장혁 (Jang Hyuk), 차현정 (Cha Hyun-Jung), 김강우 (Kim Gang-Woo), 차수연 (Cha Su-Yeon), 배종옥 (Bae Jong-Ok), 김민선 (Kim Min-Sun), 김수로 (Kim Su-Ro), 엄정화 (Eom Jung-Hwa), 김효진 (Kim Hyo-Jin), 황정민 (Hwang Jung-Min), 신세경 (Shin Se-Kyung), 송중기 (Song Joong-Gi), 이시영 (Lee Si-Young), 김동욱 (Kim Dong-Wook), 정의철 (Jung Eui-Cheol), 이성민 (Lee Sung-Min)
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