This year the 10th Annual San Francisco Asian Film Festival ("SFAFF") joins forces with the 5th Annual San Francisco Korean American Film Festival ("SFKAFF") to provide Bay Area audiences a spectacular selection of films from Hong Kong and South Korea, running November 8-18 at both the Four Star and The Castro Theatre. The full schedule for both festivals can be found here.
Synopsizing his portion of the program, Adam writes: "San Francisco audiences have not had an opportunity to watch older South Korean films from the 50's, 60's and 70's that preceded the recent wave of dynamic South Korean cinema in the 00's and late 90's. That is, until now.
"The San Francisco Korean American Film Festival, in partnership with the San Francisco Asian Film Festival and the Korean Film Council (KOFIC), is bringing three classics of South Korean cinema to the SF Bay Area, one from Shin Sang-ok—Jiokhwa (Flower In Hell, 1958)—and two from Lee Man-hee—Toraoji annun haebyong (Marines Who Never Returned, 1962) and Deulgughwaneun pietneunde (Wildflower in the Battlefield, 1974). Director Shin Sang-ok and his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee, are both greatly admired as director and actress respectively. And Flower In Hell, which follows two brothers struggling to survive in the economy of the immediate years following the Korean War, will show you exactly why Shin and Cho are held in such high esteem. Lee Man-hee's films both take the Korean War as part of their subject matter, a subject matter felt directly by most everyone in front of and behind the camera making Marines Who Never Returned and Wildflower in the Battlefield since they lived through the experiences of the very war they are portraying….
"Of course, we'll also be screening some recent films, although two place their plots within the days of the Chosun Dynasty. Eumranseosaeng (Forbidden Quest, 2006) follows what happens when a self-produced, illustrated erotic novel gets out of hand after getting into the wrong hands. We're also bringing back the south Korean submission for Best Foreign Language Oscar, Wang-ui namja (The King and the Clown, 2005). Stepping into the modern day, Ane-eui aein-eul mannada (Driving My Wife's Lover, 2007), having screened at Sundance this year, is an unusual road trip with some quirky characters. South Korea's Yeoseot gae ui siseon (If You Were Me, 2003) series of human rights shorts was well-received at 2005's SF Asian Film Festival, so we've brought Daseot gae ui shiseon (If You Were Me 2, 2006) to this year's festival. The various shorts, by such respected South Korean directors as Ryoo Seung-wan (Arahan and The City of Violence) and Jang Jin (Guns & Talk and Murder, Take One), deal with the rights of the disabled, contract workers, women, gay men, and Northern Koreans and Chinese citizens living in South Korea. And from Chinese citizens living in South Korea to Korean citizens living in China, we've also decided to bring back Zhang Lu's powerful Mang zhong (Grain In Ear, 2006). On the documentary front, the popular Our School (2007) looks at the life of Koreans living in Japan and a school that attempts to keep them connected to their Korean identity.
"With the recent success in the States of Bong Joon-ho's The Host, San Franciscans will be delighted to hear we're providing another opportunity to see Bong's wonderful debut film, the dog-murder mystery Flandersui gae (Barking Dogs Never Bite, 2000). …If you've only recently discovered the joys and thrills, tears and laughs of South Korean cinema, this festival—in conjunction with the San Francisco Asian Film Festival—will help you catch up on one of the world's hottest movie industries."
Intrigued by this welcome collaboration, I arranged to meet film bud Adam Hartzell at Peets Coffee in Embarcadero 2 to discuss his participation in helping KOFIC program SFKAFF. After our chat, I then joined him in Berkeley to canvas cafés and coffeehouses where we could strategically place the festival programs for maximum exposure. I have to say I'm quite impressed with Adam's breadth of engagement: from helping to program the films to hitting the streets to get the programs circulated. His commitment is inspirational.
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Michael Guillén: Adam, how did a goodlooking Caucasian like yourself end up becoming such an expert on South Korean film?
Adam Hartzell: I'm very hesitant to say that I'm an "expert" because I don't know dates very well—I write so that I constantly have to cite myself and confirm what I'm saying—so I'm not an "expert" in the sense that I feel I can talk it very well. There's a lot of stuff I still have yet to learn; but, I do feel—compared to a lot of people talking about South Korean film—I know a significant more than some other people; but, I'm hesitant to call myself an "expert" [as] in a scholarly [sense]. I couldn't survive in an interview for professorship. I already know there's a lot I would need to learn.
However, I was writing a lot. In school I minored in writing but my writing was all over the place; I didn't really have a focus. I was kind of okay with that but I felt that—to push my writing further—I would have to focus on something and it was at that time that I moved out to San Francisco. I think first there was a Jang Sun-woo retrospective. Jang Sun-woo was the "bad boy" of South Korean cinema before Kim Ki-duk came around. He had done a lot of controversial films—one of them was Lies [Gojitmal, 1999], which was sexually explicit and another one was Bad Movie [Nappun yeonghwa, 1998], which was with outcast kids and there were questions about the ethics of what he was doing, having them tell their stories and using their stories—and he did the first movie [Ggotip (A Petal, 1996)] that dealt with the Gwangju Massacre and he was pretty in-your-face; he used a 14-year-old girl to represent things in the film that shocked a lot of people. So, the Jang Sun-woo festival was happening and I was like, "Whoa, these are some powerful films! I'd never seen those before."
Then later on there was an Im Kwon-taek festival. I had been introduced to Im Kwon-taek a little bit when I was in college. I had seen the Jang Sun-woo and I'd seen the Im Kwon-taek and I was like, "Whoa, how come no one else is talking about these films as much as I feel they should be talked about?" I decided to casually start focusing my writing. I was on Epinions and doing that online as well as my own private writing, nothing publicized, nothing published formally, and then of course when I came across Hong Sang-soo I was like, "All right, this stuff … I get a lot out of it." The thing is, I get a lot out of it with my own life, with my own philosophy on things and I can work with the films and what they present pretty powerfully. Whether or not I can be the best without talking about, "Well, this is what it means to Korean culture" and that kind of thing and Korea's just as vast as anywhere else so to say, "This is what it means for Koreans", I'm hesitant to say that kind of thing because everybody's going to receive it differently.
But there's so much going on in South Korean cinema that was what I needed to be going on in cinema so I just started writing about it because I was fascinated by it and wanted to learn more. To learn more, I had to learn about the history, more about the important figures in the art world and that kind of thing. I didn't want to do a drive-by of it. Particularly because of being a white guy talking about South Korean cinema, I didn't want to be like "flavor-of-the-month" so I basically made a commitment to make that my focus. But I am very conscious of [being a] white guy writing about non-white cinema and I feel it's very important to stay aware of that and to bring up in my writing all the time that, "By the way, I don't know the Korean language very well. I didn't grow up with this experience. My experience is the film." However, I source myself. I bring in people who have studied more or if I want to talk about some book that interests me, like Jeong Jae-eun was this woman who did Take Care Of My Cat [Goyangileul butaghae, 2001] and her second film [Taepungtaeyang (The Aggressives, 2005)]was about inline skaters. I don't necessarily know about inline skaters in South Korea but I know what I find fascinating about inline skating, breakdancing, all those kinds of things, and so I brought that into [a] piece [I was writing] well aware that this was me; this [was] my experience. I kind of see it as though I'm doing a monograph of my own reception of film.
Guillén: And that's valid. I'm respectful of your modesty, which I do appreciate, but the point is that Korean film has achieved a transnational profile and, therefore, it isn't just limited to a Korean critique.
Hartzell: Which is wonderfully summarized! [Laughs.] Can I quote you?
Guillén: But that's the importance of a non-Korean critique and I'm sure that Koreans—in their way—appreciate a multicultural critique of their national cinema. Now, I first saw your writings on Darcy Paquet's Korean page. How did you become involved with Darcy and Koreanfilm.org?
Hartzell: I was focusing my writing on South Korean cinema on my own and not really getting it out there that much outside of the Epinions website and that kind of thing. I stumbled upon Koreanfilm.org one day in 2000. I emailed Darcy letting him know these things I'd written on Epinions. He was really nice in his response. That was back when he had a lot of free time before he'd gotten his Hollywood Reporter and now his Variety job. He set up links with [what I'd written] and then I [wrote him and said], "Hey, I notice you don't have a review of this film up—I believe it was Motel Cactus—and is it okay if I write a review of it?" He was really open to it and liked what I'd written. Any website that's really worked—Twitch, Crooks and Liars, Feministing or all these other websites that are really working—it's because they have multiple people writing for them. You can't have it be on your own. So Darcy has lost a lot of time now being a father and working at Variety. He's trying to work it out so he can get things updated more but there has been a big gap lately, just because he's got so many writing gigs and he doesn't have time to do it. But for a while there, every time he'd post something [of mine], I'd just be so thrilled. [Laughs.] Every single time! I've got about 80 reviews up and he's got about 10 or so waiting to be posted that I've done.
Guillén: The point is the collaboration works. You know I'm a great fan of online journalism and I believe it works. Reputations are being built on these kinds of collaborative arrangements at popular websites. I first turned on to the Korean Film Page during the Korean American Film Festival a couple of years back while researching the films I was planning to see. That's when I first started noticing your name. Now, you've been pulled on as the program director for the Korean American Film Festival this year; have you been their program director before?
Hartzell: They would call on me and Kyu Hyun Kim—another person from the Bay Area who writes for koreanfilm.org—he works at Davis in Japanese and Korean history. He lives in Berkeley. I met Kyu through the page when we both started writing for it. They would call on Kyu Hyun Kim and I to write the program notes because we were open for that. Kyu would also do some translation[s] for them when[ever] they brought people. This year when Chul Heo Lee—the former director of the festival—sent out an email saying, "We're trying to rework this" and included me on the email, I wanted to give more. I don't think that anything is really passive; there's an active aspect to everything. I was like, "Okay, I want to be more active in helping them bring certain films, but also keep my distance because this is the Korean-American community and I don't want to intrude." But they're asking for my help so I'm like, "Okay."
When I got there Chul Heo nominated me to be the director of programming and I was like, "Well, I have a pretty serious day job to survive so I don't know what kind of time I have for that." I was told there was going to be a relationship with KOFIC who was trying to tour these films across the U.S. Knowing that, I was like, "Okay, I can get involved because it will be a little bit easier to coordinate with them." So, I was still hesitant because, like you said, Korean cinema has to be open to a transnational critique but I also don't want to own this or take this; but, I felt comfortable about it because KOFIC was saying, "Here's the films that we can bring. Which ones do you want?" So somebody else was making some decisions about what films they wanted to bring, whereas I was a part of that decision also but I wasn't the only person making the decision. It's become way more involved. Like any festival, you get way more involved than you really expect so it's a bit of a stressor for me. But I really appreciate what's brought and I wanted to be more a part of that—rather than just receiving the films that are coming—have some part in it. I'm really glad that we've connected up with Frank Lee because I really appreciate what Frank does and the films that he brings. I love all the worn charm of the 4Star Theatre. [Laughs.] The fact that we're involved with Frank and what he does and what he brings to help bring Korean films to the festival is great.
Guillén: When was it decided to hinge the two festivals together? Frank's Asian Film Festival and the Korean American Film Festival?
Hartzell: My work sent me abroad a couple of times. I was out of it; a complete reverse of time zones. Things got kind of murky about who was really going to help out with the festival and who wasn't and that kind of thing. We got to the point where we had to make a certain decision about when it was going to happen. Then we found out Frank was scheduling his festival at the same time. The last thing we wanted to do was to compete against Frank. I see Frank as the elder in this scenario because of the history he has in [San Francisco]. Waylon [McGuigan] is the Festival Director whereas Hun Yul [Lee] is the director of the organization and I said to Waylon, "What do you think about just asking Frank if he wants us to screen Korean films for his festival so that they're going together rather than competing with each other?" Frank was open to that and really wanted to expand what he could bring.
Guillén: It creates a much more diverse program.
Hartzell: The Korean Student Association and the Asian Students Association [are] going to be helping with the festival a great deal. They're going to be the volunteers. Frank really appreciates that because he doesn't have much on the promotion arm or that kind of thing, whereas what we could really offer Frank was the promotion arm on the web, to set up a web page for him, and to [print] the flyers. We are limited on the number of people we have to get them out. We're all really trying to do that as fast as possible, but that's another aspect that we brought to Frank.
Guillén: Was it your input that brought historical focus to this year's Korean program?
Hartzell: Sun-Young Moon and Denise Hwang [who work in KOFIC's L.A. office]—along with Chul Heo and KOFIC themselves—came across wanting to set it up so you could have a couple of films from every decade, start[ing] in the 50's so they would get basically a total of 10, two from each decade. Of course, they're dealing with copyright issues and those kind of things and so they couldn't swing it, unfortunately; but, they still wanted to bring the older films. Thankfully, they were able to bring A Flower In Hell. I haven't seen it but it's a big-name director from back in the day so I'm excited to see [it]. They did a retrospective of the work of Lee Man-hee in Pusan two-three years ago. Marines Who Never Returned is a good movie to watch. He's got that little bit of melodramatic fringe from back in the day; but, it's great to see Korean film about the Korean War from people who were in it, who lived it, in front of the camera acting because one of the interesting things about South Korean cinema is that—when you see actors playing military roles—because military [service is] compulsory in South Korea, they all know it. It's not like you have to have people train the actors. They all know what it's like to be in the military. They can work from that experience. That's an interesting take on that genre. I'm just very excited that they were able to bring the older Korean films because there hasn't been an opportunity to see them.
Guillén: Going back just a bit, I know for myself it was Memories of Murder that made me sit up and take notice that the last handful of Korean films I'd seen had all been sumptuously filmed with top notch tech credits. By contrast to other Asian film I'd seen, South Korean cinema seemed to possess accomplished production values. The look of the films aside, however, what is it about South Korean film that has hit the American appetite in recent years?
Hartzell: If you look at Shiri, which broke in South Korea, it's a film I don't like but it's a significant film. The production values had gotten a lot better even though there are some parts of the film that are funny production-wise, like when the one agent blows up. The key [elements] are the breaking down of the censorship; they could talk about more things. As much as a lot of people find the North Korean portrayal in Shiri a bit black and white, the way it was presented was a step forward of understanding the other; the "other" being North Korea. Censorship-wise, they could do a lot more. They could talk about a lot more topics. Also, you had a lot of Koreans studying abroad and either they were soaking up the movies then or actually involved in the program selection and bringing that expertise they had learned back to South Korea. They had an influx of money with the growth. So it was just the right time at the right place for [South Korean cinema] to break out. They spent a lot of time on the production value, bringing it up to par, and there are certain films that are significant in that regard, around sound, around visuals; but, [these were developments] that were bubbling for some time. They didn't come out of nowhere. Shiri is, of course, "fish" and so I would say that film was very much a fish in water. Everything came together at the right moment. People were looking around for something new and there it was. Everybody talks about [South Korean cinema] being on a downturn now, but this provides another level of foundation. [South Korean cinema] is not going to be completely lost.
Guillén: Now for the dreaded question. For people who don't have a whole lot of money but want to sample SFKAFF, can you recommend three films they should see?
Hartzell: I'm going to go with three films in the Korean Film Festival and three films in the Asian.
Guillén: I haven't asked much about the Asian Film Festival because I assumed that was Frank's baby and that he's in charge of that.
Hartzell: He is; but, I definitely want to be talking about the Asian Film Festival with the Korean Film Festival. I understand that people don't necessarily go to see film like I do. I'm really excited about seeing Initial D. and Zebraman, two in the Asian Film Festival. I have Japanese friends who [tell] me Zebraman's a lot of fun. And Sick Nurses. So in Frank's festival, those are the three [that will be fun to see] because Frank does show a lot of fun films. I know nothing about drift racing and I'm fascinated by it and that's why I want to see Initial D. I saw Tuya's Marriage at the Mill Valley Film Festival and—as long as you're fully caffeinated—it's a really good film.
As for the Korean films you'd be spending money on, Barking Dogs Never Bite is awesome. No animals are harmed in the making of the film but discussion of animals being harmed is there so people who have concerns with that [might] not want to go. Bae Doo-na is such a great actress and Bong Joon-ho is a great director. What I love about Bae Doo-na is people [make the] mistake that she's popular; she's not. She's known, so she's popular in that sense in South Korea, but she's not "popular" as in "Oh, everybody likes her!"
Guillén: She has a peculiarly American affect, particularly her sense of humor.
Hartzell: And she plays ugly characters; that's probably why. In Barking Dogs Never Bite she's beaten up. She doesn't look good; but, that's what I love about her. She's just a great actress. She has much more a following and a certain appreciation outside of South Korea that she doesn't have in South Korea. So I would definitely recommend Barking Dogs Never Bite.
Marines Who Never Return to get a sense of what David Scott Diffrient says about genre mixing of South Korean war films, where it's a mix of the melodrama genre in with the war film. It's a good example of that as well as just an example of seeing a film made by people who experienced what they're portraying.
Guillén: And the third?
Hartzell: I would say A Flower In Hell. I haven't seen it; but, when have you gotten to see a film from the 1950's from South Korea? I would say take advantage of that opportunity.
Guillén: You spoke a little earlier about the "melodramatic fringe" sometimes detected in South Korean film—which is something I've observed in several South Korean films I've had the chance to see—and I'm curious if you can contextualize the usage of melodrama in South Korean film?
Hartzell: Part of why Kyu and I get along is because we stay away from certain clichés; but, clichés are there because they actually do work. There's that whole belief in the unreconcilable love that parallels the DMZ. It's there, but I feel like it's too there sometimes; people see it when it's not really there. But it's always something that people can grab on to talk about. I've not going to deny it because a lot of people really experienced that and so I also don't want to downplay it. But I think there's that whole melodramatic aspect of crossing a barrier in the present films. I guess it does apply to a film like Marines Who Never Returned because there is this North-South obvious play talking about the war going on. There is that whole thing about suffering, what the country had to suffer in the division that was imposed upon it and so it has a deeper resonance because of that for a lot of people. I don't watch the films that way because I didn't experience that so sometimes I can forget about it. But again, like Kyu, I kind of want to stay away from that and look at different ways the films can be talked about and not assume that's always the way it is. But I would say obviously there is that unique aspect about the trauma of the Korean War, the separation of the peninsula and the irreconcilability of that at the present time. You can't cross. And so you have films that deal with that on many different levels. Ditto where you have two lovers from different time zones; The Isle where you also have that, the one that was remade with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves [The Lake House]. But I like to write about things that other people aren't writing about so I tend to stay away from that a lot; but, I have to acknowledge that obviously it's there and it has to be there. The things that I focus on are the films that don't get as much press, so I'm not talking about Park Chan-wook as much or Kim Ki-Duk as much, not that I don't enjoy Park Chan's films or whatever; but, the melodrama—if anything—has the tension of family members on the other side that one can't reconcile with because of the political situation that can seep into the melodrama of the irreconcilable [love] or the suffering mother.
Guillén: Just having come through the Arab Film Festival, I'm aware of the similarity in Lebanese cinema where—as you say—irreconcilable political concerns are mapped onto familial and individual bodies so that—through the expression of personal interrelationships—political concerns are expressed or represented. Thus, the suffering mother, the mother who's waiting for the son that never comes home or the husband that's been kidnapped and has been missing for years personalizes the Lebanese situation so that it can be explored and understood emotionally.
Hartzell: It's interesting that you say that because the whole idea of the suffering mother in South Korean cinema is, to me, problematic because of what is expected of the mother. As a feminist, I sit there and think, "Yeah, I understand you're idolizing the mother here and she represents South Korea and what it's had to suffer"; but, I'm like, "C'mon! Open things up. Give Mom some more resources. Give her a freedom to be. That sort of thing." I don't mean to apply my Western Feminism to South Korea—I mean, I know South Korean feminists so I don't feel so bad about it in some ways because they're teaching me how to talk about certain things—for example, maybe a Western feminist would view the South Korean mother and how she becomes "Michael's mom"; that's how their name would become. "Oh, here's Michael's mom." Some people might think, "Oh, she's fully identified with her son"—but, that is something a lot of South Korean moms take on and they really cherish—so it's not seen as they're losing their identity. It's more like they think, "Oh, now I have this new identity."
Im Kwon-taek has a lot of characters of suffering women that are supposed to represent South Korea. It's fetishized in a way that I would like to eventually [get away from]. Initially, when I saw these films I thought they were really powerful films; but, then I look back at them and they have become problematic films. That's not to discredit the importance of Im Kwon-taek; he's obviously a very important director and I get a lot out of Sopyonje and the other films and I really do like Sopyonje as a masterpiece; but, yeah, that suffering—as you say you're seeing it through Lebanese cinema—my problem is always that with certain portrayals it's not the particular portrayal … well, let's look at the crap that Asian-American actors and actresses have to deal with in Hollywood, having to play [stereotypes]. But if that's only what you get to play, that's where the problem is. If that is the only role that is constantly forced upon you, that's where it gets really frustrating. I'm glad that South Korea's had this blossoming of diverse roles for South Korean mothers. There's much more wealth [in the available roles] now, and thus it's less problematic for me now.
Guillén: How would you characterize your film writing?
Hartzell: A film doesn't always have to be brilliant for me. Darcy just put up my review of Beautiful Sunday. It's not a great film except there are these moments where I'm like, "Oh, okay, that's cool" and I take them in the context of: "This is a first time director." There's that whole thing about film writing where it's fun to slam—and, mind you, I've done it—but I try to do it less these days. My reviews are abstracts. Here are some ideas I have about the film. I don't know if I can fully prove it. I always want to cite what I say. [If I say,] "The film does this", well then I try to show you how it does that. I don't want to have these toss-offs. I want to have some evidence. But my reviews are like an abstract of a longer work where I try to defend what I've said. The review doesn't have to be, "Here's the plot. Was it good? Was it not?" I want it to [have] more depth than that.
Guillén: The way I look at it, it's no fun if they're all masterpieces. If a film is too perfect, if it has too burnished of a surface, I can't catch it. I can look at it. I can admire it or not admire it; but, my spectatorial engagement is limited either way. I like films to have a slightly serrated or rough edge so that my critical sensibility can snag onto it. And I agree with you 100% that it's too easy and essentially uninteresting for me to slam films. Just as you've now gained an appreciation of the perils of being a festival programmer, I don't believe in slamming films. I haven't made a film. Until I've made a film, I don't feel right dismissing something too readily. Certainly not committed to print.
Hartzell: You don't have to make a movie to talk about films. You don't have to. But I do want to be aware of just how frickin' hard it is to make a film, how frickin' hard it is to program a festival, and I know the work that you do, the work that I do, in putting these pieces together. We're not just spouting it off. I do research. That's why it takes me a long time. I confirm my research on what I say about a film. If it's a film that I don't like, I'm going to tell you why I don't like it. But I've learned from slamming things in the past and realizing I just don't want to go there. It's going to be the rare, really hateful, harmful film that I'm going to slam like nobody's business. Otherwise, people go to films for different reasons. People go see Fast and the Furious because they're really into car porn. I have no problem with car porn. As long as we know that's what we're seeing and we're not thinking it's a masterpiece. People go to movies for different reasons. The same people who slam me and say, "Well, I just go to movies to have fun." Well, having fun for me is talking about the political subtext of the film, the social subtext, that's fun to me. If it's not fun for you, I'm not going to force it on you, or me on you. What you're telling me is that you really just don't want to read my shit. And that's okay. The people who want to, will. What I like about film and the way I see it is as a reception study of one. You can look at what I'm saying and compare it to what other people are saying and get a fuller view of how films are received.
Cross-published on Twitch.