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How South Korea became the home of 'noir' film

Asian powerhouse churning out some of finest genre movies ever made

A still from "Night in Paradise," which premiered at the 77th Venice International Film Festival last September and has been described as the best Korean gangster film ever made. (Netflix)

SEOUL -- Critics have called it the best Korean gangster film ever made. But few people outside the judges and small audiences who attended the 77th Venice International Film Festival where it premiered last September had seen Park Hoon-jung's "Night in Paradise" until it was released on Netflix earlier this month.

The film tells the story of a powerful young Seoul gangster who after butchering a mob boss to avenge the assassination of his sister and niece goes into hiding on Jeju Island, a popular holiday destination. There he forms a bond with a femme fatale with a terminal illness whose family members were killed under similar circumstances. But their relationship is doomed. When the mob arrives in Jeju to avenge their boss, the island's wind-swept coast and rolling green hills provide a stark juxtaposition for a bloody Shakespearean tragedy writ large.

The cinematography is slow and dreamy, the dialogue is layered and cynical ("You filthy bastard," one cutthroat says to another for not showering that morning) while the violence builds up slowly but surely before hitting with the speed of a bullet train. In one notable fight scene, the protagonist, trapped in a car while being attacked by a dozen immaculately well-dressed gangsters, uses a car key to pull out a few eyes before making a daring escape -- all the while accompanied by a gripping original score.

More than just another shoot'em-up, "Night in Paradise" is a brilliant example of film noir -- French for dark film -- a heavily stylized form of filmmaking defined by Encyclopaedia Britannica as possessing elements such as "cynical heroes, stark lighting effects, frequent use of flashbacks, intricate plots and an underlying existentialist philosophy."

The term was first applied by French critic Nino Frank in 1946 to Hollywood films from the hard-boiled school of crime dramas of the post-WWII era that have roots in German Expressionist cinematography of the 1920s. "Whoever went to the movies with any regularity during 1946 was caught in the midst of Hollywood's profound postwar affection for morbid drama," American screenwriter Donald Marshman wrote in Life magazine in 1947. "Deep shadows, clutching hands, exploding revolvers, sadistic villains and heroines tormented with deeply rooted diseases of the mind flashed across the screen in a panting display of psychoneurosis, unsublimated sex and murder most foul."

A still from "Night in Paradise" -- film noir at its best. (Netflix)

The neo-noir genre that emerged in the Cold War era reflects the cynicism and possibly of nuclear annihilation with classics like "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), a film about American prisoners of war during the Korean War; Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" (1974); "Taxi Driver" with Robert DeNiro (1976); Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" (1984), "Basic Instinct" starring Sharon Stone (1992); and Quentin Tarantino's noir classic "Pulp Fiction" (1994).

The term has also been used to describe films that emerged around the world from the 1960s onward and share attributes with American crime films. Europe, South America and East Asia developed their own particular styles, sometimes cross-pollinated with science fiction, horror, fantasy, zombie or martial arts genres. But since the turn of the century, South Korea -- a devout moviegoing nation with the world's fifth-largest film industry -- has churned out some of the most outstanding, strange and searching noirs ever seen.

"Oldboy" (2003), the story of a drunk who wakes up one day to find himself imprisoned for apparently no reason, is probably the best known. When the protagonist is mysteriously released 15 years later, he is given five days to work out why he was locked up or face a grisly death. "Oldboy" has chalked up 29 awards at international film festivals and was the subject of a Hollywood remake by director Spike Lee.

"Oldboy" (2003) is probably the best-known noir film to come out of South Korea. (Tartan Films)

"The Handmaiden" (2016) is another noir category killer. Set in Korea under Japanese colonial rule, it tells the tale of a con man who seduces a wealthy heiress before having her committed to an asylum to steal her wealth. The film received an uncannily high approval rating of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes and was described as "a masterpiece" by the Economist magazine.

"If you look at noir filmmaking around the world, the Koreans are producing more than any other country and also leading the way in the terms of the most groundbreaking examples," says Caleb Kelso-Marsh, an associate lecturer at the Korea Research Centre at the University of Western Australia and co-author of the book "East Asian Noir."

He says the political turmoil and corruption of South Korea between the 1960s to 1990s when many of today's directors came of age helped them perfect noir cinema. "At the time, the country was still emerging as a democracy after decades of authoritarian dictatorship and cinema became an integral form of political activism," he says. "A lot of the repression and violence these directors experienced or saw is reflected in their films."

The Handmaiden, a 2016 noir film set in Korea under Japanese colonial rule, was described by the Economist magazine as "a masterpiece." (Moho Film) 

Christine Choy, a Chinese Korean filmmaker who teaches Korean cinema at New York University says noir cinema is a perfect match for the Korean condition.

"In Korea, the word 'han' is used describe grief and resentment for the terrible history of the last century: 35 years of brutal Japanese occupation, the wholesale abuse of 'comfort women,' Chinese invasion during the Korean War, the dictatorship that everyone hated, decades of military conscription and unjust laws like one that allowed men to beat their wives with a stick in public. No matter how much she screamed, no one would lift a finger to help her.

"Basically han means you eat a lot of s**t and it relates perfectly to noir cinema, where the characters are initially helpless but get their revenge at the end," Choy explains. "Noir cinema is very psychological, full of unspoken bitterness and has elements of surrealism. Koreans can really relate to how filmmakers have harnessed han and used it to develop the unique characteristics of Korean films."

Yet Kelso-Marsh says there is also great beauty in Korean noir. "If you look at the current crop of Korean directors," he says, "most of them studied genre cinema, Hitchcock and the old French and Hollywood classics, at university. So they have a real emphasis on creating films that are not just focused on being blockbusters but are aesthetically pleasing -- one of the key elements of noir.

"'Night in Paradise' was really impressive on this front," he says. "The cinematography is fantastic -- I was blown away by the camera angles, and the shots are near-perfect. You don't see that very often in genre films made anywhere else in the world."

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