NYC Happenings: Get To Know The Late, Great Park Chul-soo With 301, 302

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
Perhaps not as well known to this generation of cinema goers, Park Chul-soo was an important staple in modern Korean cinema. Why you ask? Inspired by his time in Manhattan and the independent film scene that was flourishing there in the 90s, he all but jump started what became Korea's own fiercely independent and creatively prosperous period of cinema, a time that gave us the likes of Kim Ki Duk, an artist that Park mentored.

Park died earlier this year by the reckless hand of a drunk driver. He was on his way home from shooting his now final project. As our own Pierce Conran put it in his obituary: " Known for his energy and enthusiasm, the last 24hrs have featured many fond remembrances from those that knew him. His premature death comes as a shock and is an unfortunate reminder of just how dangerous roads can be in Seoul. It's not for nothing that many of the Korean films you may have seen feature many traumatic traffic collisions."

Celebrating an artist's work is then appropriate at a time like this and that is why the fine folks behind Korean Movie Night in NYC are presenting their fifth series for the year as a remembrance of Park's legendary body of work. Tomorrow night, October 1st, the series kicks off with Park's seminal 301, 302, one of the first modern Korean films to tackle a feminist slant (with an obvious genre slant), to play at Sundance and get distribution in North America, ultimately solidifying the appetite for Korean cinema on the international stage. Peter Gutierrez saw 301, 302 and was kind enough to share his thoughts on why attending tomorrow's screening is well worth it.

Understandably billed by many of its admirers as something of a "shocker," 301, 302 is both a lot more and a lot less than that brief summation might suggest.  Shocking by Korean cinema standards at the time of release? Perhaps--maybe even undeniably so: I'll leave that to the historians to debate. But it's certainly not news that since 1995 Korean cinema has excelled in artfully assaulting sensibilities the world over. And arguably one of the ways that filmmakers as talented as the late Park Chul-soo have managed this is by simply not caring where exactly their work falls on the high-art/lurid-genre divide; the gutsiness anchors the brainy stuff while the ideas makes all the passion meaningful.

In 301, 302 this blend still has some chunky spots in it, as if it hadn't been fully pureed, and that's why it intrigues. B-movie horror fans will delight in its fetishism of shiny knives, the '80s-style score, and the giddy sense that "anything goes." Others may appreciate the stylized production design--rarely has a kitchen looked so like a morgue--the striking use of close-ups, the bold jump cuts, and the generally cunning storytelling. Of course this is not to say that these groups constitute two discrete audiences--the lowbrow and the aesthete--but what's special here is how Park satisfies both these viewers without ever pandering to them. Or maybe I'm wrong, and he doesn't satisfy them, or at least not in the way that they expect to be.

For example, as a visceral thriller, sure, there's lots of blood, and actually a lot of real viscera in the form of meat being prepped in the aforementioned kitchen. But in terms of the narrative surprises we'd expect from a story established by one missing neighbor (Apt. 302) and one apparently unhinged one (Apt. 301), the script comes up pretty empty, either telegraphing developments or just informing us outright what will happen (via its interesting flashback-within-flashback structure). In terms of being a feminist psychodrama about these two neighbors, much of 301, 302's thematic content is equally obvious, and in fact wouldn't even come close to passing a male version of the Bechdel Test. Abusive dads and husbands?  Check. Body image issues and eating disorders? A big check.

Yet while a filmmaker like Bergman might have focused on the complementary psyches of Hwang Shin-hye and Bang Eun-jin (who's quite impressive) and merely suggested horror, Park leads with horror but slows things down so that you're sure to pick up on social and psychological commentary. The result is ambitious and a little crazy, but for these reasons I can't think of a better way to start off October.

301,302 plays tomorrow evening at 7pm at Tribeca Cinemas on Varick Street. Tickets are free and will be handed out on a first-come, first-serve basis. Click here for the full details.

Peter Gutierrez and Pierce Conran contributed to this story.

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