Two By Kim Ki Duk

The first Korean film I may have seen, as a wee nearly-29-year-old bairn, was Yongary, Monster from the Deep, the Korean Godzilla, if you like, which was almost as popular in its day as the giant Japanese lizard. Then for nearly 29 years…nothing. And then in 2003, this odd film called Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring actually turned up on some local (not even art-house) screens, and we decided to go see it.

Not by a long shot.

Not the worst living arrangements I’ve ever seen.

I was actually going to talk about it last time, but that was right after Christmas and Spring is a quintessentially Buddhist film. An old monk living on an island/houseboat has a young boy for a ward. They live a simple life, but the boy sneaks off and torments small animals, and the old monk teaches him a painful lesson. In the Summer section of the film, the boy is now a young adult, and learns about the temptations and pitfalls of sex. He goes out into the world and discovers ever more and more trouble, and his own capacity for evil. The film never leaves the area with the houseboat, but the now-grown man comes back looking for peace and sanctuary against a vengeful society. In Winter, the young man has become old, returning to the house boat after learning that peace and happiness are not necessarily found in pursuit of worldly things, and in the final Spring, a new young boy is delivered to the boat, and the cycle continues.

Beautifully shot and a reminder that Korea is a beautiful place (if you’re not fighting a war there), the film is slow paced and poetic, as well as almost passive. That is, it never tries to excite sympathy: We are observers to the vicissitudes of life, but we are outside them. Thus, when the boy (and later man) does things that are wrong, we are not inclined to hate him, or weep for him, or do anything other than hope he is steered on the right path.

Compared to life in, oh, say, America, say, right at this moment, it is the antithesis. It is calm and simple and all about the current moment. It was unlike any movie I had seen up to that point.

Is that some kind of Eastern thing?

Some days you tie a rock around the frog and some days, well, the frog ties a rock around you.

Because I had found this film so moving, I endeavored to see the director’s next film, 3 Iron in the theater. But as often happens with foreign features, it played for a week at most (if it played at all), and I ended up seeing it on cable. I was similarly blown away by the story of Tae-suk, a strange outsider who has what is the most demeaning job in Korea (next to cleaning saunas): Posting flyers on people’s doors. But what Tae-suk does is go back to the neighborhood where he posted his flyers and see which ones weren’t removed or discarded—and then he breaks into the house or apartment and crashes there for the night.

While he’s there he does things like use their cookware, food and even toothbrushes, but he also fixes up the place, especially any broken devices. He’s never been caught at this, as far as we can tell. But one night he does it to a very nice house which turns out not to be empty: A woman, Sun-hwa is there hiding from her abusive husband, and things shake out that Tae-Suk basically beats the tar out of the husband (when he comes home) by launching golf balls at the guy using his own 3 iron (which he then steals).

Not by a long shot.

Not the worst basis for a relationship I’ve ever heard.

Tae-suk and Sun-hwa go on their own road adventure, posting flyers and breaking into houses until the vengeful husband comes to track them down. While Spring has elements of what you might call magical realism—as Spring goes along, we begin to wonder how the old monk ends up in such perfect vantage points to view things when the boy has taken the boat which is the only means to get off the island—3 Iron takes its metaphorical conceit, a young man figuratively invisible to society, and turns it literal.

It’s not magical realism in the western sense—where a momentary non-flashy, even dubiously legitimate suspension of the physics provides a plot resolution or advancement. This isn’t “the magic was inside you all along” get-out-of-jail-free card-type bromide.  Tae-suk, while likable, isn’t a particularly heroic figure except somewhat in his defense of Sun-hwa, who herself is more tragic than heroic (we piece together that she’s married the wealthy man because he supports her parents). Their relationship is interesting, and the resolution of the films is downright spooky.

The unseen.

Does this bother you? I’ m not touching you!

There’s not a lot of talking in either of these films. In 3 Iron, the lead characters don’t talk at all for the first half-hour or more. And they are very measured in pacing, with the (never formally trained) director eschewing any temptation to sentimentalize or sensationalize. But to me, they represent an amazing and relatively rare use of cinema.

Kim Ki-duk directed over two dozen films in his 20 year career without ever really approaching this level again, as far as I know. He was #metoo’ed a couple of years ago and fled to Latvia when his prospects in Korea dried up. (I have no comment on the veracity of the claims made against him, but he was an indie in his country and I have no doubt protection extends to some more than others, as it is everywhere. I would also point out that he himself plays the criminal adult pursued by the law in Spring.) Kim died last month, a couple of weeks before his 60th birthday, apparently of the coronavirus, out-living his namesake by only a few years.

His directing namesake—Kim Ki-duk, no relation—died a few weeks before his 83rd birthday in 2017. This Kim, however, directed cheesy soapers and, most famously, the giant monster movie Yongary.

Christmas Ornaments

One of our evolving Christmas traditions had been to see a Korean movie on Christmas Eve. Since the Korean chain is closed forever, and since most of the other theaters are still shut down for me (and possibly forever)—and since Wonder Woman 84 (the only thing playing at our local drive-in) doesn’t exactly scream “Christmas!” (though I guess they’re trying to market it that way)—I thought I’d assemble a list of Christmas Classics you may have missed and which may enhance your holiday season.

Nothing on my list is from the ’60s or ’70s or ’80s, I notice as I complete it. That’s because the ’60s and ’70s sucked for Christmas material, except for the really well-known gems, your Grinches and Charlie Browns, your Rankins and your Basses. My favorite Scrooge, Albert Finney’s Scrooge! is in there, but preferred versions of Dickens’ story are highly personal and contentious. The ’80s gave us Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Gremlins, Edward Scissorhands and so on, but a lot of nearly-29-year-olds give those plenty of play.

So without further ado, a dozen films you might not have seen, or at least seen recently.

He's just not sure!

Jimmy Stewart giving Margaret Sullivan the side-eye in the publicity still.

The Shop Around The Corner (1940): Comedy/Romance/Drama

Less screwy than Preston Sturges and warmer than Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch has a special place in my heart among the romcom directors of the ’40s. This story takes place at the Matuschek Company in Budapest, Hungary—speaking of things that just aren’t done any more, placing things in foreign countries without any worrying about accents is one—where a brilliant but imperious Jimmy Stewart picks fights with a lovely but stubborn Margaret Sullivan, neither of them aware that they are courting each other through the mail. The dialog and characterization in this make a mockery of any modern Hollywood film. Remade as a cute (but inferior) musical, In The Good Old Summertime, with Judy Garland and then remade again with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as the cute (but vastly inferior) You’ve Got Mail. (Free on HBOMax)

Holiday Inn (1942): Comedy/Musical

Kind of an obvious one, I suppose, but under-rated in modern times: Singer Bing Crosby wants to run off to the country and settle down with partner Virginia Dale, but she’d rather stay on Broadway with their other partner, Fred Astaire. The comic conceit is that Bing has had it with the hard showbiz life and wants to run a nice, easy farm. That, of course, is brutally hard, and he ends up running a hotel that’s only open on holidays. There he meets the beautiful and talented Marjorie Reynolds, whom he hides from visiting partner Astaire by slathering her in blackface for Lincoln’s Birthday. (One of my favorite cinematic blackfaces next to Stormy Weather and Gene Wilder in The Silver Streak.) ($3.99 on Redbox and Play)

The Bishop’s Wife (1947): Comedy/Drama

Bishop David Niven, troubled with his efforts to get a new church built and an increasingly unhappy wife, prays for guidance and gets it in the form of Dudley, an Angel played by Cary Grant. Everyone loves Dudley except the Bishop, who finds his life becoming increasingly hectic even as his wife (Loretta Young) is increasingly enchanted with the attentions paid by an angel. A very troubled production which (according to some) started with Grant as the Bishop and Niven as the angel! Somewhat overlooked these days (except to remake as The Preacher’s Wife with Denzel Washington a ways back), this is a clever and charming movie, with Young managing to outshine Niven and Grant. (Free on Prime)

The Holly and the Ivy (1952): Drama

You’re up for some heavy holiday drama but you’ve already watched It’s A Wonderful Life 348 times this week. Try this English drama about a widowed pastor whose children don’t tell him what’s going on in their lives because, well, he’s a pastor and they’re sinners (and a saint). Encapsulates the increasing alienation between secular and religious culture (though in a less materialistic way than Bishop’s Wife). Sir Ralph Richardson (Time BanditsRollerballDr. ZhivagoFour Feathers, etc.) stars, with a small role featuring William Hartnell, the original Dr. Who. (Public Domain at Internet Archive)

It's a safe bet.

Bing, Rosemary, Danny and Vera suspect there may be snow in Vermont.

White Christmas (1954): Comedy/Musical

The follow-up (twelve years and one World War later) to Holiday Inn sees Danny Kaye take the co-starring role next to Bing, with new dames Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen. Though not much less frothy than the original, the plot is the somewhat more serious one of enlisted men (Bing and Danny) trying to help out a man who had been their general during the war, but is now reduced to hard times. This makes for some very moving moments, including a rendition of the title song, and Vera Ellen is a delight to watch. (Free on Netflix and Philo)

“Santa Claus Conquers The Martians”  (“Mystery Science Theater 3000”, 1991, Season 3, Episode 21)

Typically coming in high in any list of MST3K, the Pia Zadora vehicle Santa Claus Conquers The Martians is a holiday classic only improved by copious riffing. Some of the simplest in-film jokes (“headbutt”, “lentils”) have stuck with us for years, and Crow T. Robot’s rendition of “Patrick Swayze Christmas” (written by Michael J. Nelson) surely competes with Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” as the definitive ’90s Christmas Carol. (Free on YouTube—don’t forget your ad blocker!—and lots of other places.)

You heard me.

Old Pitch tempts a pure-hearted orphan, while Santa and Merlin cook up some Christmas cheer in Santa’s lab on a cloud. (Santa Claus, 1959)

“Santa Claus” (“Rifftrax: Live!”, 2014, Season 6, Episode 14)

Speaking of holiday riffing, the live version of Rifftrax’ take on Santa Claus (the 1959 Rene Cardona kiddie film) stands as the funniest Rifftrax episode ever. When I saw it originally, I was laughing so hard I had trouble breathing. Rifftrax generally suffers from the lack of host segments (which can help break up an otherwise hard to watch film) but this film is so off-the-wall, so very much of its time-and-place, and such a melange of religious and secular ideas, the WTFness manages to keep the momentum going all the way through. (Rifftrax) Some people consider the MST3K version better than Martians.

“The Tick Loves Santa” (“The Tick”, 1995, Season 2, Episode 10)

I was a fan of “The Tick” comic book back in the day, and used to love the cartoon show as well. These days the sound mixing on all those ’90s era cartoons is jangly and jarring as hell, with the overly broad, brassy comical score overwhelming the dialogue (see also “Sam and Max”). In this, a bell-ringing-corner-Santa is cloned, and ends up using his clone powers for evil, presenting a problem for The Tick who obviously cannot punch Santa Claus. Contains a line I’ve been finding excuses to say for the past 25 years. (Free on YouTube, complete with great opening theme song.)

Joyeux Noel (2005): War

World War I stuff always chokes me up, I think because it was just such an outbreak of insanity and failure of global elites—well, of course, these days, that hits a little too close to home. This movie, about the outbreak of peace in the trenches on Christmas 1914, is a reminder that the people of Christendom are not natural enemies and we really should just be fighting the Muslims. (A little Christmas kidding!) Good movie, and I also recommend the book Silent Night on the same topic, which gives a lot more detail. (Redbox, Prime, $2.99)

In Bruges (2008): Crime/Drama/Black Comedy

A couple of hitmen (Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell) are sent to the Belgium tourist town of Bruges after screwing up a job with the underlying idea being that they’re not coming back. The first (and best) of three features (to date) by Martin McDonough (Seven PsychopathsThree Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri). (Free on Peacock)

Ho, ho, ho: Who wouldn't go?

A right jolly old elf, if you’re Finnish. (Rare Exports, 2010)

Rare Exports (2010): Horror/Adventure

This Finnish gem deals with a “mining” company that is actually just a front for a mad old coot who’s trying to excavate Santa Claus from the frozen grave angry Laplanders put him in hundreds of years ago. The topic is treated earnestly, though without taking itself too seriously, and it has a very kid-movie vibe—with the primary gore coming from a scene where the boy-hero’s father butchers a pig (and tells him to close his eyes) and a fairly long-shot of some reindeer carnage. There is a whole lotta Santa dong, however, which (while it makes perfect sense in the plot) is not something you see in your average holiday film. (Without that, this could easily have been a PG-13 flick, or maybe even PG.)

Krampus (2015): Horror/Drama

A heart-warming family drama that shows a bickering family that comes together to fend off the evil Santa monster on Christmas Eve. I reviewed it when it came out, and I stand by that review (except perhaps to amend my snark about Christmas Evil, which is an odd film for sure and clanky in a low-budget way, but also not without interest).

In conclusion, I hope you find something in hear to enjoy and to brighten your holiday before the coming horrors of 2021. Merry Christmas to all, and God Bless Us Every One.