November 24, 2008

A Dirty Carnival: How Do You Say Brando in Korean?

If the only Korean movie you ever saw was A Dirty Carnival (and frankly you could do a lot worse), you'd probably think to yourself, "Oh, I get it. Korea is the Italy of the Orient." This would be of course because you'd never set foot in Korea (or Italy) and had founded your interpretation on the films of Francis Ford Coppola and a passing knowledge of both countries' cuisines. And it's not just that A Dirty Carnival is so clearly an homage to the Godfather trilogy with its electrifying depictions of violence, its detailed deconstruction of family dynamics, and its paranoid portrayal of working for the syndicate. Once you engage in Korean-Italian associations, you realize how much the two nations have in common: noodles, a shoe fetish, a sense of pageantry for funerals, a love of public singing and drinking, even the art of film-making. If Yu Ha's mafia epic feels Italian (or at least Italian-American), it's because on some level that's what it wants to be. You can easily imagine Talia Shire cast as the sickly girlfriend played by Lee Bo-young, Al Pacino in the role of Zo In-sung's overly ambitious gangster and Brando in the role of the mafia don (ably embodied by Chun Ho-jin). Re-cast to your heart's content, people. A Dirty Carnival remains great on its own terms because the substitutions or cross-cultural counterparts never feel like inferior replacements. They feel like they demand respect. You respect what inspired it? You'll respect this, too.

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