THN’s Korean Cinema Style Week 1: Kim Jee Woon – The Quiet Family

With Gangnam Style destroying the charts the world over, we will soon see a second wave of the Korean invasion taking place. Three of South Koreas most commercially successful and critically acclaimed directors have their English language debuts set for next year. Kim Jee Woon (THE LAST STAND), Park Chan Wook (STOKER), and Bong Joon Ho (SNOWPIERCER) have already proved themselves in their homeland, and here at THN we are taking a look back over their past efforts. Starting with the films of Kim Jee Woon, join us each week over the course of the next few months as we explore The Land Of The Morning Calm.

Director: Kim Jee Woon

Year: 1998

Cast: Park In Ha, Na Mun Hee, Song Kang Ho, Choi Min Sik, Go Ho Kyung, Lee Yun Seong

Plot:  A family that has recently bought a mountain lodge find that on the rare occasions they do receive guests, a strange and tragic fate awaits the paying customers.

We start with the films of Kim Jee Woon, a man whose directorial debut is probably most familiar to people in the guise of its Japanese remake THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS directed by Takashi Miike. THE QUIET FAMILY is a very dark comedy with lashings of hysterical set pieces. Black humour is something that is common in all three of the directors’ work and is very much presented here as slapstick, social commentary, and dramatic irony.

The film begins with a close-knit family taking over a lodge in the mountains. Although business is exceptionally slow, a new road being built looks set to bring some extra custom their way. The family consists of a father, mother, uncle, son, elder daughter, and younger daughter. The family work together rather well but each member has an individual trait that creates some conflict. This is important in allowing for humorous battles of verbal abuse, while also making it believable when they work together.

One night a mysterious guest comes to stay at their lodge. The sheer excitement and curiosity prevalent in the family shows Kim’s grasp on using exaggerated forms of comedy. As the guest signs in, the family stands around him and stares as though he were some kind of alien. However, that night the man commits suicide by stabbing himself in the chest with his own room key. After the family discover the body they are faced with a dilemma. Fearing that it may actually be a murder, the family decide not to tell the authorities in case they scare away any potential visitors, and thus their comedic downfall is set into motion. Like all films of this ilk, that one choice snowballs into a series of consequences leaving the family with more than they bargained for.

In a film such as this it is very important, not to mention difficult, to ensure that we never dislike the characters but never excuse their actions. One way of doing this is to make us realise what is at stake and put us in the family’s shoes. Obviously if they had gone to the police in the first place then nothing too untoward would have taken place. However, as soon as they hide the first body it becomes a serious offence. Kim ups the absurdity by having the next guests also commit suicide together, but as the family goes to bury the bodies one of the corpses reveals itself to still be alive. In fear, the father kills the man with one hit of a shovel. We can clearly imagine such bad luck happening to us, making the family always human if a little imperfect.

Slapstick humour in this context works exceptionally well, because the violence and tension is juxtaposed against silly but recognisable actions. People slip in blood, prevent attacks with well timed openings of doors, and use a myriad of larger-than-life facial expressions. These moments break the tension that Kim builds up with Hitchcockian confidence. The family never intend for things to get out of hand, but their foolish actions lead to events they consider beyond their control. Characters are always a brief second from seeing something they shouldn’t and being aware of the previous incidents we naturally fear what the repercussions might be.

The film also uses a brilliant soundtrack that mixes a range of popular songs of both Korean and western origin. There were a few numbers that seemed as though it was trying too hard to sell a soundtrack, not surprising as this came in the 90s after Tarantino had turned compilation soundtracks into an art form. It also has one of those finales where a song starts to play just before the end credits, and even though it’s familiar, its strange usage hypnotises you into watching until the song ends. This time it’s The Patridge Family’s I Think I Love You, which brought about a strong vibe that reminded me of Andy Williams’ Happy Heart used at the end of SHALLOW GRAVE.

Kim makes the most of the isolated setting, which he captures in a full range of browns and golds during the autumnal season. In some respect, this family are a victim of circumstance. They are simply looking for their slice of success, and are willing to work together to make their dreams come true. With greed, paranoia, and deception gradually rearing their ugly head we soon come to the realisation that this is vicious circle from which it is doubtful the family will break free from.

Two of South Korea’s biggest stars Choi Min Sik and Song Kang Ho give the most memorable performances, as the calm uncle and the slightly perverted son respectively. They have a real chemistry that has enough ear-tugging and foot tapping in disapproval that makes them a true comedic double act. My favourite part was seeing the two run after a couple with no cruel intentions, but unfortunately waving weapons they had been doing chores with. Choi and Song will appear many times throughout this season as they both built strong relationships with Korea’s best and brightest.

Despite never sticking to one genre, Kim really showed a lot of promise with his debut feature. This was at a time when South Korean cinema was just on the brink of bursting onto the world stage. It certainly took a lot of influence from previous murder comedies and similar films of the 1990s, but this still feels fresh. Dark and unexpected humour is something South Korean cinema really did perfect in later years. The only major gripe is that certain plot strands seem incomplete and abandoned, such as a police investigation which doesn’t go anywhere and hints towards something supernatural that isn’t elaborated on. It may not be as stunning as later efforts, in terms of cinematography, but this is a wonderful dark gem to appeal to your more sinister side.

What To Take To THE LAST STAND? The dark humour and tension is something that should transpose well over to an action film, but with what looks like a slightly more comical edge, maybe it’s the slapstick we’ll see more of. I think we’ll have morally obvious characters in THE LAST STAND, so perhaps we’ll see more of Kim’s lighter approach from THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD.

THE LAST STAND is released on 18th January 2013 in the US and 25th January 2013 in the UK. It stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro, Jaimie Alexander, Forest Whitaker, Peter Stormare, Luis Guzman, and Genesis Rodriguez.

Join us next week for a look at another Kim Jee Woon classic. You can find all the articles in the series here.

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Luke likes many things, films and penguins being among them. He's loved films since the age of 9, when STARGATE and BATMAN FOREVER changed the landscape of modern cinema as we know it. His love of film extends to all aspects of his life, with trips abroad being planned around film locations and only buying products featured in Will Smith movies. His favourite films include SEVEN SAMURAI, PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, IN BRUGES, LONE STAR, GODZILLA, and a thousand others.