After weathering decades of political instability, featuring coups, assassinations and persistent threats by its neighbor to the north, South Korea is enjoying unprecedented prominence. The peninsular nation is now the tenth largest cultural exporter in the world, with its television shows proving especially potent in translating to screens across Asia. 1999’s Tell Me Something came right as the wave was starting to build in earnest, and embodies many of the qualities typical of Korean pop cinema. It combines an immaculately glossy surface with violent material that would make CSI and Bones blush. The story’s simple: trash bags full of hacked-up body parts are being left all over Seoul, the corpses later found with mixed-and-matched parts. The tone is moody, the raindrop count high. Directed by Chan Yoon-hyun, this domestic megahit presaged the films that would do huge business both at home and abroad. As you watch it, here’s five things to keep in mind:
1. South Korean cinema is insanely violent. South Korea has a healthy quotient of comedies and melodramas, but of the 10 highest grossing Korean films to date, only two don’t feature war, mobsters or slaughters to some extent. Two of the best set-pieces in Something basically involve bags of blood exploding — once on a highway, causing all kinds of automotive havoc; once in an elevator, leading to slip-and-slide fun. It’s debatable whether or not the bloodshed that permeates South Korea’s history has anything to do with the preponderance of violence in its movies (even in comedies, like the smash franchises My Wife is a Gangster and Marrying the Mafia) but it’s the kind of violence American viewers might expect to see only in horror films.Violence is a calling card even for the arthouse variety of Korean directors: when festival regular Kim Ki-Duk was first trying to get established, he made movies like 1997’s Wild Animals, in which a man is stabbed to death with a frozen fish. Other popular Korean directors include Park Chan-Wook —whose ultraviolent Sympathy For Lady Vengeance and Oldboy are #41 and 47 on the Korean success chart —and uber-phenom Bong Joon-Ho, whose Memories of Murder sits at #22. In Hollywood terms, these films amount to refined, respectable versions of Saw.2. Corrupt police and/or mobsters are mainstays, often interchangeable. At the beginning of Tell Me Something, protagonist Detective Cho (Han Suk-Kyu) is under suspicion of having medical fees paid for by one gangster Won. Why would a man he’s investigating pay for his fees? Cho has no explanation, and the film’s implication is that our hero is, in fact, corrupt from expediency. Cops often show up in Korean film, and they’re rarely honest; their relationship to the criminals they’re supposed to be prosecuting is ambivalent on the moral corruption scale. Police pervasiveness (and the de facto skepticism about what they’re achieving) can be read as the unsurprising hangover from decades of instability, when military presence and the suppression of student demonstrations was all too common.There’s often little difference between how the gangsters and cops act. Sudden lunges to smash someone in the face are shared by both sides, best exemplified by the louts in Memories of Murder, who prefer kicks to questions. Tell Me Something follows up Cho’s interrogation with him getting taunted by a fellow officer on a crime scene; he responds by administering a brief but sound beating. This doesn’t weigh on his stance as hero; it’s just something you expect. It’s a world of difference from this kind of shrugging acceptance of police corruption to American movies, where the “bad cop”can be figured out from their violent disdain of rules and suspects.3. Tonal whiplash prevails. Even among the most internationally successful Korean films, novice viewers often have trouble adjusting to the radical juxtapositions between disparate elements. If a thriller like Se7en picks its “moody raindrops” tone and sticks it, but Tell Me Something keeps undercutting its designer gloom with bits of business that wouldn’t make it into the American equivalent. The film switches from police drama to quasi-erotic drama to childhood-trauma flashbacks with zero heads-up. Even in a film like Memories of Murder, some critics are put off by the idea that brutal violence and comedy can be separated by a few seconds (or that they might be one and the same). One way to start accepting this is noticing how rarely the movies let up: everything’s at the same heightened pitch, with no ideas about “comic relief.”
4. Everything looks really, really good. “I don’t really understand the politics, but all their movies look like cotton candy,”a friend once admitted. South Korean populist cinema generally looks stunningly glossy, a decision that’s not just aesthetic but a matter of commercial survival. Critics compared Tell Me Something to Se7en repeatedly, what with all the rain and lights flashing through the dark. But don’t think of Korean films —with their immaculate compositions, sharp foreground-background relationships and oft-eye-popping lighting —as ripoffs of their Hollywood competition. Becoming one of the biggest exporters of entertainment in the world is no easy matter. What South Korea’s cinema does is offer scenarios that are much grimmer than what Hollywood normally allows, but present it with even flashier technique than most pedestrian Hollywood action films can offer. It’s a matter of economic as much as aesthetic competition.5. Student characters matter. American movies generally treat students as fresh-faced kids living up their youthful days in hedonistic pursuits. In Korean cinema, though, the “student” is an archetype that often bears a distinctly political subtext. Students were at the forefront of many protests against military-backed government oppression, often at cost to their lives (One 1980 incident left hundreds dead). Their presence carries a symbolic cue to native audiences of raw, youthful idealism – in Bong-Joon Ho’s The Host, a disillusioned ex-student demonstrator resurrects his pipe bomb-throwing skills to fight a giant monster. Tell Me Something has one such character —a doctor who quickly clarifies that she’s still an intern —but she’s mostly a red herring. The suspense is in the question of whether or not a student, as such, could be corrupt. It’s a long way from there to the American movie campuses, where idealism amounts to getting into exclusive frat parties or inventing Facebook.
Vadim Rizov is a freelance film writer based in Brooklyn. His work regularly appears in Sight & Sound, the LA Weekly and the AV Club, among others.