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Diversity marks South Korean cinema

For the past half decade, arguably no nation has produced more eclectic, provocative, and entertaining films than South Korea. A darling of both critics and cineastes, South Korea is now considered the region with Asia's most potent and influential filmmakers. Greatly influenced by Hollywood, Korean filmmakers are now garnering much-deserved praise here and throughout the world.

Still, such attention overlooks a rich, difficult history dating to the early 20th century. After acrimonious decades of colonialism, civil war, political assassination, and government censorship, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Korean cinema isn't just its current vitality, but that it even exists at all.

Beginning today at the Harvard Film Archive, ''Visions From the South" is a retrospective series culled from nearly a half-century of Korean filmmaking. Spanning from 1960, an era commonly regarded as the golden age of Korean film, to the present, these films represent the breadth of a cinema that continues to evolve politically and culturally as quickly as the nation itself.

''Right now, there's a big emphasis on big budget, commercial films in Korea, but I wanted to offer different kinds of films for people to discover or rediscover," says Gina Kim, a filmmaker and curator of the HFA series, which concludes in May. It is sponsored, in part, by the Korean Film Council, Korean Film Archive, the Korean Cultural Service New York, and Harvard's Korea Institute.

''There really isn't a consistent theme linking these films," Kim says, ''but I wanted to feature very prominent and important Korean filmmakers who may not be very well known in the United States."

One of those filmmakers, Im Kwon-taek, will have three of his films -- ''Chi-hwa-seon" (Friday), ''Chunhyang" (Saturday), and ''Sopyonje" (March 7) -- featured in the series, and the acclaimed director will be in attendance Friday and Saturday. There will also be appearances by E J-Yong (''Untold Scandal") and Kim Dong-won, whose film ''Repatriation," the series' only documentary, concerns two North Korean men who spent 30 years in a South Korean prison after they were convicted of espionage.

From costume dramas to a modern horror story based on a Korean folk tale, these 12 films represent the diversity of Korean cinema, Kim says. Such variety is one of the hallmarks of Korean films. Movies from Japan and Hong Kong are mostly defined by genres -- in Japan, it's gangster (yakuza) films and horror stories; in Hong Kong, it's martial arts and high-energy crime films. Korean films generally defy that kind of national identity, spanning the 19th-century romance of Im's ''Chunhyang," to Kim Jee-woon's ''A Tale of Two Sisters," a contemporary horror story based on an ancient Korean folk tale.

''Korean cinema is a melting pot of different types of filmmaking," says Anthony Leong, author of ''Korean Cinema: The New Hong Kong."

''A lot of these filmmakers are young, they're Western educated, they're fans of Western cinema, French New Wave, Hong Kong filmmaking, Japanese cinema," he says. ''They take all these techniques and perspectives, and meld them into something very unique. And they also take different genres and blend them together."

In her book ''Contemporary Korean Cinema: Identity, Culture, Politics," Hyangjin Lee maintains that one of the most ''distinctive traits of Korean film is its political nature." Even during years of oppression, Korean filmmakers created works that irked the government -- and were subject to censorship -- but spoke to the people's frustration and alienation.

Yu Hyun-mok's 1960 classic ''The Aimless Bullet," which opens this series , is a fine example. It's the sobering story of a desperate North Korean family living desolate lives in the South in postwar Korea. Influenced by Italian neo-realism, this film was banned during its original release.

But with democracy came a new sense of open artistic expression as an integral part of a modern Korean society.

Even as recently as 15 years ago, South Korean filmmakers risked imprisonment for creating sympathetic North Korean characters. Park Chan-wook's poignant ''Joint Security Area," (2000), one of South Korea's highest-grossing films, proves just how much things have changed. In the military murder mystery about a deadly shootout between North and South Korean soldiers stationed along the DMZ, the North Korean soldiers aren't demonized, appearing humane, and even heroic. And, at its core, this film is less a whodunit than an examination of the deep psychic toll of living in a nation divided for nearly 50 years.

Another example of the progress of Korean film as a social critique is Lee Chang-dong's remarkable film ''Oasis," which revolves around an unlikely romance between a mentally challenged ex-con and a woman suffering from cerebral palsy. More than just a warm, fuzzy love story, it's also a subtle revelation of the hidden fractures and closely guarded secrets in Korean family life, as an indictment of how Korean society regards the disabled.

Even in period melodramas, such as ''Chunhyang," there's a whiff of political commentary. In this lushly beautiful film, a nobleman's son secretly marries the daughter of a prostitute, but they are soon separated when he is sent away to prepare to become a member of the Royal Court. As the nation itself is divided, lovers in Korean romances are often separated by geography, class, or even time. (Time travel is a recurrent theme.)

''When you see mainstream filmmaking in a country that's so politically aware, it always tries to make political points and observations," Leong says. ''It would be like going to see a Jerry Bruckheimer movie that criticizes the Bush administration -- it's unthinkable.

''There might be a one-liner here or there, but you wouldn't expect the political subtext to dominate the movie. The political changes have allowed this type of expression to occur. It provides a lot of rich material and reflection for filmmakers."

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