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Year: 2005
Director: Lee Myeong-se (이명세)
Screenplay: Lee Hae-kyeong (이해경), Lee Myeong-se (이명세)
Cinematography: Hwang Ki-seok (황기석)
Music: Jo Seong-woo (조성우)
Cast: Kang Dong-won (강동원), Ha Ji-won (하지원), Ahn Seong-gi (안성기), Song Yeong-chang (송영창)
Runtime: 111 min
Trailer: on YouTube (not subtitled)

Seen at the Apollo Cinema (Piccadilly Circus) as part of the KCCUK‘s Korean Film Night programme “2012: Year of the 12 Directors”. The screening included an introduction by Dr. Daniel Martin and a Q&A with the director after the film.

The first word that comes to mind – probably within a minute or two of watching Lee’s Hyeongsa - is ‘idiosyncratic’. Classed as part of the Korean New Wave of cinema – yet distinct from many of them – it was released within a few years of a slew of internationally successful East Asian martial arts films (also known as 武侠/wuxia). Hyeongsa was somewhat misunderstood by Western critics, as this short Guardian review readily demonstrates. Although equally a period drama involving spectacular sword fights, Hyeongsa is nothing like 臥虎藏龍 (Wòhǔ Cánglóng/Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, 2000) 英雄 (Yīngxióng/Hero, 2002) and 十面埋伏 (Shí Miàn Mái Fú/House of Flying Daggers, 2004) and did not fit into the mould of expectations created by these sleek productions.

Internationally successful 武侠 (wuxia/Asian martial arts) films

Instead, Hyeongsa is an idiosyncratic creation by Lee. It consists of a plot that is minimal as well as enigmatic – detectives Namsoon (Ha Ji-won) and her elder Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki) are hunting for a gang of counterfeiters and happen upon a mysterious, masked man (Kang Dong-won) on a buzzing market day – but remains largely indiscernible even by the time credits roll by. The film also makes eccentric use of cinematic techniques as norms of genre and characterisation are defied.

Hyeongsa opens with a fish story, which at that point can still be attributed to the low-brow character telling it. Soon after, we encounter the aforementioned masked man, whose bewitching prancing tricks us into the territory of those arresting, if outlandish, fight scenes typical for wuxia films. We seem to be on track then, or, at least, not entirely off track just yet. However, the moment Namsoon and Ahn chase after mask-man – somersaulting in autumnal leaves and hopping up stairs as images reel by in fast-forward motion, the comic hilarity of the scene further underscored by modern-style guitar chords, dog barks and rooster cock-a-doodle-doos – that illusion is shattered forever. While Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon & co. did not fit into Western genres, Hyeongsa also refuses the ‘exotic martial arts period drama with people that bizarrely defy gravity’ category that was created as a result of that.

Namsoon: The gutsy, determined and disheveled heroine.

Set in a past perhaps a century or more ago – the exact year is never specified – Hyeongsa is often very contemporary. The female lead is a paragon of this. Namsoon is brash and loud, and repeatedly explodes into answers (“Nam! Namsoon!”). She distorts her face and throws hissy fits at regular intervals. She is distinctly not a woman of her times, neither in her choice of profession (as the only woman detective among a group of men) or general mannerisms: her walk is too masculine, the stretching exercises randomly performed while in disguise as a lady of the court are unsuited. While independent, sword-wielding heroines do appear in wuxia dramas, they usually act under cover of elegance or mysterious charm. Ha Ji-won’s character however has more in common with the stuntwoman she played in the modern-day K-drama 시크릿 가든 (Secret Garden, 2010) than with these heroines of long-ago and although her presentation can feel jarring, it fits into Lee’s general approach.

Unfathomable Sad Eyes: face, identity and soul hidden.

Meanwhile, mask-man, who is later referred to as Sad Eyes (his real name is never revealed), is the epitome of stillness and mystique. The secret that surrounds his character is set up in part through the narrative perspective as the film is primarily told through Namsoon’s eyes, but persists because what initially seems like a puzzle to be figured out, never is. Few details are uncovered about the character during the course of the story, and we know nearly as much – or as little – about him at the end as we did at the beginning. Tall, dark and regal, Kang Dong-won also makes a visually mesmerising Sad Eyes. The actor is beautiful, although not in the cookie-cutter, flower boy way as Kang’s facial features are more unique than that and evoke that unfathomable aura that makes him perfectly cast for the role.

The soundscore is another one of the film’s past/present dichotomies. Haunting, Far Eastern music familiar from waxia films is combined with much more modern (and western) sounds: guitar chords, orchestral pieces like Strauss’s “Radetzkymarsch” and rock. The effect again is jarring. Lee’s modus operandi is unapologetic and not guided by artificial norms or standards of genre or otherwise. His philosophy is, as he explained in the Q&A, to use what ‘fits’: just like “God created the world and saw that it was good”, he too creates without imposing restraints.*

A lethal fight, an aerial dance, a sensual scene of love-making.

This leaves the cinematography. What to say? It is fast-paced (see continuous image-cutting during the initial scenes set at the market) and glorious, very much made for the big screen. When characters dance with their swords, the camera dances too, the most beautiful example of this being the final fight scene between Sad Eyes and Namsoon: our hero and heroine brandish their lethal weapons, they dance in the air, they make love.

Photographic in its vision, the film thus relies on the cinematography to create tone and mood for different scenes, with colour symbolism (blood is spilled invisibly, but the fabric of the cinema screen turns red), precipitation (particularly snow) and the light all being used strategically. The sense of mystery that pervades Hyeongsa, for example, is enhanced by the fact that most scenes take place in an absence of light: at nighttime or in the dark indoors. But even when there is daylight, it is as if a veil has been cast over everything. Sunrays are blinding. Dust rises. Cloth sheets and the woven texture of hats become screens that blur or transform people into silhouettes. Smoke and vapour obscure our vision: there is never a complete moment of clarity.

Fights are essentially bloodless, but symbolic red infiltrates the imagery.

What we feel, and what Lee wants us to feel, is the power of the camera, capturing and captivating us in alluring audio-visual frames. It is why the lack of explanations – that things remain as unknown in the end as in the beginning – never becomes frustrating: lush, vibrant, constantly in motion and visually mesmerising, usual demands for plot development and character formation are rendered insignificant as viewers are held spellbound.

Not everyone will agree with this verdict. However, for myself, Hyeongsa’s idiosyncrasy is something to cherish. I have watched several of the acclaimed wuxia films and remember enjoying them, but cannot recall details: Was it Hero and House of Flying Daggers that I saw? Or Hero and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon? And what was it exactly that happened in them? Which one had the cave scene? The fly-fighting high up in the bamboo? Undoubtedly, those films too were thrilling and often breathtakingly beautiful in their cinematography, but within my memory they have merged into one another. Lee Myeong-se’s Hyeongsa, meanwhile, is so uniquely his that I’m certain it is one creation I will distinctly remember.

Overall Verdict: Hyeongsa is an idiosyncratic period drama – plus mystery thriller, comedy and romance at the same time. Lacking a full-fleshed plot and as a medley of, well, everything, it is unlikely to suit everyone’s tastes, but for viewers willing to suspend cinematic preconceptions, the film becomes one enthralling experience.

Rating: 9/10

*Lee did however apologise for invoking such a grandiose quote to explain his approach to filming.

Bonus Links:

  • Hangul Celloid’s Interview with Lee Myeong-se.
  • Mini Mini’s Interview with Lee Myeong-se.
  • The DVD (Region 2, English subtitles) is available at amazon.co.uk - and at a reasonable price too!
  • To learn more about the Korean New Wave you can read Darcy Paquet’s book New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves. Purchase it at amazon.co.uk, or, if you live in London, borrow it from SOAS’s library.
  • Lee Myeong-se mentioned during the Q&A that K-pop star Rain was initially considered as the male lead, (jokingly?) noting that, had he been cast, the character would have been Happy Eyes.
  • A number of audience members recorded the Q&A on their Smartphones. If I track down a copy of the recording, I’ll add a link. UPDATE: One of the KoreanClassMassive bloggers videotaped the interview. Little snippets (I guess they were using their phone), but worth watching – plenty of interesting questions.

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