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'Sorum' - Korean thriller captures true spirit of classic film noir

2006/03/27 | 1195 views | Permalink | Source

Kim Kyu-hyun (internews)

"Sorum ("soreum" in Korean means "goosebumps")" will make an excellent departure point for debating the definition of "film noir". Is film noir predominantly a style, with cameras prowling dark corridors and sinister, silhouetted figures threateningly emerging out of shadows? Or is it more a matter of attitude or sensibility, evincing a jaundiced, cynical view of humanity through its sexy but ice-hearted "femmes fatales", hardboiled but foolish tough-guy heroes (and anti-heroes) and leering, corrupt authority figures? Today, even in such critically worshipped films as the Coen Brothers' "Miller's Crossing", John Woo's "The Killer" or Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction", the modalities of film noir are present more as a surface affectation than a coherent style or a worldview.

Production Notes

A KTB Network/Dreammax Co. Production. Domestically distributed by Buena Vista Korea. Written and Directed by Yoon Jong-chan. Cinematography by Hwang Seo-sik. Executive Producers Phil Hwang, Ha Seong-kun, Lee Sang-yong. Produced by Baek Jong-hak. International distribution by Cineclick Asia. 112 minutes.
We laugh and applaud at the clever ways with which these films have kitschy-cool characters conversing in mock-philosophical overtones and blowing each other up with shiny, fetishized guns in a series of setups evocative of "classic" noir situations. But those who have had chances to savor the "original" noir made fifty or sixty years ago, especially masterpieces like "Nightmare Alley", "Touch of Evil" and "Night and the City", are unlikely to mistake these contemporary variants for the real thing.
Despite its very Korean setting -- a dilapidated apartment complex populated by less privileged residents seething with class resentment -- "Sorum" is a true film noir in my opinion: truer to the spirit and form of the noir, in fact, than "Miller's Crossing", "The Killer" or "Pulp Fiction". "Sorum" must have been a nightmare for the marketing department to sell to the unsuspecting public. Judging from the trailer and poster arts, it was sold as an out-and-out horror film, which is a bit like marketing "Brokeback Mountain" as a classic Western in the mold of Howard Hawks. So let me state it clearly here: if you are looking for one of those Asian spook shows, by all means avoid this film. It really gets under your skin in the way generic horror films seldom do, and it has weighty moral issues to ponder, beneath its superficially engaging thriller premise: think David Cronenberg's A History of Violence" or Stephen Frears' "The Grifters", and you are much closer to the mark.

A young cab driver, Yong-hyun (intense, vaguely reptilian Kim Myung-min), moves into a crumbling apartment standing at the outskirts of Seoul. His neighbors include a smarmy writer (Ki Joo-bong), a depressed young girl ("Jo An") who accuses the writer of ripping off her dead boyfriend's ideas, and a battered housewife Sun-young (Jang Jin-yeong). Yong-hyun is disturbed by inhuman violence dealt out by her scuzzball husband. He drifts toward an affair with her almost out of pity, and for a while it looks like he might be the ticket out of the private hell she has cornered herself into. But both Yong-hyun and Sun-young are carrying disturbing secrets of their own, and despite their desperate attempt to build a trusting relationship, their dark pasts eventually catch up with them in a devastating climax.

"Sorum" is suffused with rain-drenched, dank atmosphere, as well as the core film noir theme of the character's sordid pasts dragging their present lives back into a sinkhole. Director Yoon Jong-chan extracts excellent performances from the main cast. Jang, an actress usually disadvantaged by her scrubbed-clean, soap commercial girl image, here skillfully embodies a bruised (both literally and figuratively) woman whose spirit is being slowly crushed under the weight of her guilt. Kim Myung-min is memorable as a seemingly obtuse working stiff who may or may not be a sociopathic criminal: when Yong-hyun makes keening, cat-in-the-heat noises trying to imitate Bruce Lee, you are momentarily unsure whether to be frightened of him or to laugh at him. "Sorum" also features one of the very best performances by Ki Joo-bong, an insanely busy supporting actor perhaps best known to non-Korean viewers as blockheaded authority figures in "JSA - Joint Security Area" and "Save the Green Planet". He perfectly portrays an "intellectual" hypocrite, always angling for some good to be made out of the misfortunes of others, the kind unfortunately all too familiar to contemporary Koreans.

Indeed, there are several set-pieces in "Sorum" that are so shockingly on-target as raw depictions of the ugly and hypocritical side of ordinary Koreans that I have no doubt most Korean viewers experienced squirming-in-the-seat discomfort watching them. One such scene shows Yong-hyun, with a drunken, middle-aged businessman in the back seat of his cab, running into a road-hogging deliveryman on a motorcycle. The customer immediately begins to berate the delivery guy. When they later pass by the scene of an accident in which the latter was apparently killed, the businessman becomes overjoyed, guffawing and shouting, "Boy am I glad that scumbag is dead!" Yong-hyun begins to laugh together with his customer, first hesitantly and soon uncontrollably, as if they had just shared some terrific joke between them.

"Sorum" is in many ways a far more acerbic and stringent indictment of contemporary Korean society than the alleged populist thrillers such as Kang Woo-seok's "Public Enemy", which simply set aside a segment of the Korean population (usually politicians and lawyers) for blame and exonerates the rest from moral culpability. The downside of the film's fortitude is that the viewers might be tempted to take Yoon's portrayal of the modern human condition as an endorsement of the-world-is-hell fatalism. Even an extreme movie like "Seven" had to end with Morgan Freeman's comforting, fatherly voice telling the viewers that no, we are not going to give up believing in humanity, despite the hellish visions we have just endured (an innocent, pregnant woman being decapitated, etc.). No such reassurance presents itself at "Sorum's" end.

Falling short of being a genuine masterpiece, "Sorum" remains a deeply challenging, intelligently written allegorical thriller deserving a reassessment as a fundamentally humanist critique of the ordinary vices, including denial and indifference, that, like grapevines twining a trellis, join and conjoin one another to eventually bring our lives down to the level of unspeakable tragedy.

DVD Presentation:

Tartan USA DVD. NTSC. Dual Layer. Region 1. Audio: Korean (Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, DTS). Subtitles: English, Spanish. Retail Price $24.99. Street Date: July 26, 2005.

It is obvious that Tartan USA is not having any easier time promoting "Sorum" in North America than the Buena Vista Korea did for the domestic Korean market. The cover artwork sets up the false expectation that "Sorum" is a horror film in the mold of "Ju-on: The Grudge" or "Ringu". I have already read a few English-language reviews of the Region 1 DVD expressing befuddlement and disappointment at the fact that no flesh-carving bloody murders, long-haired eyeless female ghosts, or other generic ingredients of Asian horror ever turn up in "Sorum".

At least the Tartan DVD is blessed with a pleasing transfer, a reasonable improvement over the now-out-of-print Atlanta Contents Group Region 3 release from 2003. The latter's video presentation was basically good but marred by specks, spots and other types of film-derived debris. The Tartan USA version removes a good deal, if not all, of the debris, tones down the contrast, and has more balanced black levels. There are no standout compression artifacts, save for aliasing in some daylight scenes. Overall, the transfer enlivens the film's foreboding lighting schemes and muted color palette. The Region 3 DVD however has an upper hand in terms of audio. While Tartan's Dolby 2.0 channel track is serviceable, for some reason the sound comes out more muted than the Atlanta version's. Since sound design is an important source of "Sorum's" overall effectiveness, I suggest those with proper equipment try the DTS track, which is not my usual recommendation.

The English subtitles are somewhat cleaned up in terms of grammar and timing but are substantively the same ones used for Region 3 release. The quality is better than average, although in a few spots the translation becomes overly "creative" and adds cusswords or implied meanings not present in the original Korean dialogue.

Special features include a rather rudimentary making-of featurette, a picture gallery, a completely misleading if well-put-together theatrical trailer, and trailers for other Tartan releases. Very much missed from the Atlanta Region 3 Special Edition release are three short films directed by Director Yoon while he was a student at Syracuse University, "Playback", "Memento" and "Views". These films are fascinating in and of themselves but one of them, "Memento", set in an apartment building, featuring an entirely non-Korean cast and filmed in English, is particularly interesting because it is obviously a chrysalid version of "Sorum". To have it included in the Region 1 special feature would have definitely enhanced the viewer's appreciation of Director Yoon's designs and intentions.

Kyuhyun Kim is Associate Professor of Japanese and Korean History University of California, Davis.

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