Fantasia 2012: ‘Poongsang’ – another brilliant Korean cinematic jewel

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Poongsang

Directed by Juhn Jai-hong

Written by Kim Ki-duk

South Korea, 2011

The year in cinema would not be complete without a new South Korean gem. The much revered Kim-Ki-duk wrote and produced this Juhn Jai-hong directed action thriller, Poongsang, about a a mysterious smuggler (Yoon Kye-sang) who helps families reunite by transporting, via his own one-man operation, men and women from North Korea to the South. His missions always occur under the blanket of night, but let that not have believe there are no risks involved. Highly skilled, extremely professional, and never uttering a single word, his austere nature is betrayed by humanity the night he falls for his latest parcel: the wife (Kim Gyu-ri) of a wealthy Northern expat. Now, the Korean federal police are after him, as are Northern spies who have infiltrated the South.

It is ironic that Poongsang should have its North American premier at Fantasia film festival in the leadup to the release of the latest Bourne adventure, The Bourne Legacy. There are some striking similarities between the two characters and how they go about their projects. Both operate outside the boundaries of institutions, both have earned reputations as being near-mythic individuals, both are trained in the martial arts so as to make any assailants appear as pathetic amateurs, both are quick and creative thinkers when the odds are stacked against them and neither says very much. Actually, Poongsang‘s protagonist literally says nothing in the entire film, save for some grumbles whenever in unspeakable pain. Evaluting a performance like Yoon Kye-sang’s is no esy task, for what criteria are to be used if the actor says absolutely nothing. It all comes to down presence, and Yoon’s is terrific. He is exactly what many would call a bad-ass, yet still possesses an ounce of humanity to make him somewhat worthy of the audience’s empathy. He has the physicality of the role down pat. The rest of the cast must therefore be up to the task of providing altogether different perspectives and points of view on this world of espionage and smuggling so as to make it three-dimensional and compelling enough for the audience. Everyone pulls their own weight, adding compelling drama and even some humour to the proceedings.

One can always count on the South Koreans to inject humour when it is least expected in movies where the overall mood is serious. ‘Why so serious? indeed. Discussions of infidelity, smuggling methods and even a passionate kiss when two characters are reunited just before their certain doom are all cleverly devised and executed. That is the greatest strength of South Korean filmmakers. Originality is not of the utmost importance when conjuring up a story. Nay, the execution is where the surprises come in fast and furiously. Poongsang is no exception, earning its place as one of the year’s coolest movies and as another in a long line of brilliant Korean cinematic jewels.

-Edgar Chaput

 

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