First shot of the lonely boy Xiao Wu in 4:30.

First shot of the lonely man Kyoji in Invisible Waves.

Alienating school life in 4:30: “I don’t have dreams.”

Invisible Waves’ wanderers Kyoji and Noi meet on shipboard.

Images from 4:30.

The Korean tenant’s failed suicide attempt…

… is witnessed by the boy in 4:30.

Mise en scene and composition underscore proximity and distance between characters in 4:30.

“Do you know where people you love go when they die? In your head…”

Orange juice and Korean beef noodles with a note in Korean.

“Thank you.”

At the end of 4:30, Xiao Wu paints the window black, just before the screen fades to black.



Visible “waves”: notes on Koreanness, pan-Asianness, and some recent Southeast Asian art films

by Anne Ciecko and Hunju Lee

As Korean cinema’s profile continues to flow and ebb in the international image market, it becomes clearer that the legendary Korean hanryu or wave of popular cultural products (television shows, music, movies and stars) is not a single globally encompassing tsunami but a complex system of many currents.[1][open endnotes in new window] While Korean cinema remains one of the dominant tidal forces in East and Southeast Asian markets, films from countries such as Thailand and Singapore have also been sweeping through the international film festival circuit. This article examines two recent striking cinematic cases, Royston Tan’s 4:30 (2005) and Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Invisible Waves (2006) in order to discuss patterns of textual and contextual cultural displacements and convergences. The diegetic inscription of Koreanness within these films includes Korean characters (and, extra-diegetically, Korean actors) who must negotiate unfamiliar geographical and linguistic terrain. Additionally these films raise larger questions about the nature of Asian identities more generally, though interstitial and hybrid elements of pan-Asianness.

Korean actress Kang Hye-Jeong as Noi (with her character’s baby)  in Invisible Waves. Director Pen-ek Ratanaruang and star Asano Tadanobu present Invisible Waves at the Hong Kong International Film Festival 2006.

The Korean wave paradigm is a transnational media invention, with even the term itself, first coined by Beijing journalists, registering the presence of Korean cultural products in China. The term hanryu is a translinguistic homophone to an existing compound word suggesting a “cold current.” It has been suggested that hanryu has undergone four historical evolutionary moments:

  1. a germination period (1993-1997) in which Korean dramas and popular songs were introduced to and positively received by mainland Chinese audiences;
  2. a growth period  (1998-1999) when other East Asian countries and territories including Vietnam, Taiwan, and Hong Kong showed a keen interest in Korean pop culture (for example, Korean content on Hong Kong’s Channel V);
  3. an explosive third period (2000-2004) in which hanryu became recognized as a cultural zeitgeist with successful K-pop concerts and fandom in China and extraordinary popularity in Japan of Korean singers, TV dramas, and films; and
  4. an expansion period from 2005 onwards in which Korean popular cultural products have crossed over to wider global audiences.[2]

Besides courting Korean blockbuster auteurs such as Park Chan-Wook and Bong Jun-Ho, Hollywood has registered the impact of hanryu with the casting of Korean actors and a growing number of co-productions. Veteran Korean actor Park Joong-Hoon co-starred in a cop thriller set in New York City and Seoul, American Dragons (directed by Ralph Hemecker, 1998) with the U.S. straight-to-video title Double Edge (although it reportedly had a theatrical release in South Korea). He also appeared in the tepid Jonathan-Demme-helmed Hitchcock remake, The Truth About Charlie (2002). The popular star of one of Korea’s major hanryu hits, the comedy My Sassy Girl (2001), Jeon Ji-Hyun, is renamed Gianna Jun and plays Saya a human-vampire hybrid in Blood the Last Vampire (Chris Nahon, 2009), the live action adaptation of the Japanese anime classic (Hiroyuki Kitakubo, 2000) which spawned popular manga and videogames. [See essay on Jeon Ji-Hyun in this issue.] One of Asia’s biggest pop music sensations, Korean singer-actor Rain (or Bi in Korean), has a small supporting role and a few lines of English dialogue in the Wachowski Brothers’ live action remake of the Japanese cult TV series Speed Racer (2008).

Korean actorJang Dong-Kun is an Asian futuristic hero in Laundry Warrior (written and directed by Sngmoo Lee, 2009) an English-language action/fantasy set in the U.S. West, and co-starring Geoffrey Rush and Kate Bosworth. Filmed in New Zealand, Laundry Warrior is a Hollywood, South Korean, and New Zealand collaboration that in an earlier incarnation was envisioned to be a Korean-Chinese co-production with a co-starring role for Zhang Ziyi. The New Zealand partnership is facilitated by the recent signing of a South Korean and New Zealand co-production treaty agreement and the participation of Lord of the Rings’ producer Barrie Osborne.

Films with U.S. indie origins are also increasingly featuring Korean actors. Never Forever (2007), directed by Korean-born Gina Kim, casts Ha Jung-Woo as an immigrant laborer who becomes involved in a relationship with a white American suburban housewife married to a Korean American man. Korean actor Jeong Jun-Ho has a significant cameo in the Korea-U.S. co-production West 32nd (2007), a New York Koreatown-set drama starring Korean American actor John Cho and directed by Korean American filmmaker Michael Kang.[3] West 32nd was backed by Korean conglomerate CJ Entertainment, Korea’s largest and most powerful film producer and distributor in the post-Asian economic crisis (1997-98) era. CJ Entertainment has had successful partnership relations with Paramount and DreamWorks, as well as close ties with the multiplex via its subsidiary, CJ CGV. Kang’s film, although critically well-received, had limited release; presumably the Korean American experience was not perceived to be widely relatable or intelligible to Korean audiences. On the other hand, CJ Entertainment’s involvement with and investment in the Hollywood musical fairytale August Rush (Kirsten Sheridan, 2007), which featured small cameos by Korean actress Ku Hye-Sun and rapper Tablo from the Korean hip-hop group Epik High, led to huge Korean box-office returns.[4]

Xiao Wu finds a hair while bathing. He then steals another from the drunken sleeping man.
He adds it to his “book" with other ... ... relics and quotidian observations.

With Asian artfilms such as Royston Tan’s 4:30 and Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Invisible Waves, the casting of Korean actors can be viewed as a vehicle for “networking” in the international film festival circuit and international arthouse theaters. Such pan-Asian financing contributes to the creation of a cinema of dissociated and decontextualized Korean (and other Asian) characters. The casting of Kang Hye-Jeong in Invisible Waves, for example, enabled a fiscal co-production arrangement with CJ Entertainment (which also led to limited screening in Seoul multiplexes in May 2006). However some Korean critics and audiences took note of a self-conscious creation of pan-Asian filmic identity, and the transparent exaggeration of Kang Hye-Jeong’s image in the marketing of the film in Korea.

Both 4:30 and Invisible Waves have traveled widely, with screenings at major Asian, European, and North American film festivals; and their respective pedigrees are decidedly transnational. 4:30 had its premiere at the NHK Asian Film Festival in Japan in December 2005 followed by the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2006; it then screened the Deauville International Film Festival in France, the Hong Kong International Film Festival, the Singapore International Film Festival, the Cannes Film Market, and elsewhere. Invisible Waves had its world premiere at Berlin just days before playing the Bangkok International Film Festival in February 2006, followed by theatrical release in Thailand and screening at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in April. Its festival life continued to India (Osian’s Cinefan Asian Film Festival), Toronto, Portland, Argentina, and elsewhere. Invisible Waves, which was submitted and then withdrawn as Thailand’s entry for the best foreign language film category of the Academy Awards, is a Dutch, Thai, Hong Kong, and South Korean co-production with dialogue in English, Japanese, Cantonese, Korean, and Thai.

“…and in your heart.” Xiao Wu seeks to console and be consoled.

Made by Singapore’s enfant terrible filmmaker Royston Tan as the follow-up to his controversial street-kid debut dramatic feature 15: The Movie (2003), 4:30 is a Japanese and Singaporean co-production with dialogue mainly in Mandarin Chinese, as well as a small amount of English and Korean. The Japanese backer, the film fund of NHK (the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation) scouted the project in its early stages as a second feature at film festivals, and worked with it as a script translated into Japanese, developed from Tan’s treatment into a feature-length screenplay by collaborating writer Liam Yeo.[5] Through NHK World television, non-festival Asian audiences in countries such as South Korea were exposed to the movie, which was also supported by Zhao Wei Films, the Singaporean independent production house started by filmmaker Eric Khoo and financial manager James Toh to nurture local talent. Several of multilingual/multiethnic Singapore’s national languages — which include Malay and Tamil, as well as Chinese (Mandarin dialect) and English — are spoken in 4:30. While the local vernacular patois Singlish with slang derived from the suppressed Hokkien Chinese dialect and Malay is used rather subversively in a number of other contemporary Singaporean films, such as those by pop auteur Jack Neo, Tan’s features to-date have been primarily in Mandarin and Hokkien Chinese dialect. However, 4:30’s unseen teacher ideologically drills her class on national identity in “proper” (although accented) English and berates the protagonist in the language; hers is a disturbingly unsympathetic neo-colonial voice.

4:30 focuses on the relationship between a fatherless, young, ethnically-Chinese Singaporean boy (Xiao Li Yuan) with an absent mother working in China, and a suicidal Korean male tenant (Kim Young-Jun) living in his home. Following his previous foray into the laconically surreal misadventures of a Japanese man in Thailand in Last Life in the Universe (2003, a Thai/Japanese/Singaporean/Dutch co-production), Ratanaruang’s Invisible Waves incorporates the unlikely encounter between a Japanese man (again played by Last Life’s Japanese star Asano Tadanobu) and an at least partially Korean woman (Kang Hye-Jeong) on a ship between Macau and post-tsunami Phuket. In 4:30 the Korean character is profoundly isolated, abject, and self-destructive, and his alienation charges the boy’s fixation on him with a special poignancy. In Invisible Waves, the seemingly vacuous yet quirkily attractive Korean woman Noi, a distracted young mother and convenient romantic interest for a hitman on the lam, is literally set adrift in a state of interdeterminacy.

After the Korean tenant disappears, Xiao Wu sinks his illicit nocturnal photo in the aquarium ... ... and tapes the clock to permanently read 4:30.
Xiao Wu grieves his loss in close-up... ...  and imagines a pair of comforting and guiding hands.

Royston Tan is quoted on the website for his film 4:30 as saying,

“The reason for using a Korean character was in part, a way of thanking the people at Pusan especially the Pusan International Film Festival for their tremendous support for many of my short films over the last few years. It was also my intention to show that loneliness is universal and cross–cultural….”[6]

The Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF), with its successful promotional plan and industry market, is arguably the most powerful Asian festival in the current pantheon. Likewise talented Thai director Ratanaruang’s festival-darling embeddedness/indebtedness also has an impact upon and is impacted by his pan-Asian casting and connection with production/sales powerhouse company Fortissimo Films involved in the promotion and distribution of the film.[7] These components reflect the fact that Invisible Waves is an international co-production with a team of collaborators that also includes Australian-born, Hong Kong-based (but increasingly global Asian oriented), prestige cinematographer Christopher Doyle. In addition to Tatanobu and Kang, the cast is rounded out by eccentric characterizations by Hong Kong veteran Eric Tsang and Macau-born singer-actress Maria Cordero, as well as several other Japanese actors in ambiguous, portentous roles.

In stark contrast to Korean actress Kang’s certifiable star reputation (having appeared in Park Chan Wook’s international sensation Old Boy (2003) as well as the domestic blockbuster Welcome to Dongmakgol, 2005), Seoul-based Korean actor Kim Young-Jun brings to his role in 4:30 a slender resume of TV credits. While Kang’s character in Invisible Waves may be seen as a curiously self-conscious reconstitution of her trademark, sexualized, naïf persona, Kim is arguably freed from such intertextual baggage.

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