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OCTOBER 25, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 16

Sin and Skin in Seoul
Two hot Korean films--one slick, one grimy--raise the bar for the serious depiction of sex
By RICHARD CORLISS

The three young women in Im Sang Soo's Girls' Night Out are discussing Topic "A" over a meal. They talk about sex, they think about sex; occasionally they even have sex. "It's like my whole body has become one big vagina," one of the women says. Another, looking up from her food, snaps, "Shut up and eat."

Hollywood, mired like a pre-teen in fantasy violence and fart jokes, long ago shut up about sex. But serious movies from the rest of the world suddenly can't get enough of it. Go to a film festival in Cannes, Venice, Toronto or New York; if you choose the right pictures (Pola X from France, the Italian La Donna Lupo), you'll find plenty of soulful dirty talk and more high-rise erections than the Manhattan skyline. And why not? Somebody ought to dramatize a subject that a lot of people have on their minds an awful lot of the time.

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Now it's South Korea's turn. For decades Korean cinema was repressed financially and socially by the ruling dictatorship; then, as in Spain after Franco, things opened up. Films got loose, urgent, a little frantic; for a while, every Korean movie seemingly was obliged to have a vicious rape scene. Today's directors are as free to say and show what they want as any in Asia, and they have taken advantage of it--as Im does in Girls' Night Out, his debut film, and as perpetual bad boy Jang Sun Woo does in the steamier, quirkier Lies. There is room in Korean cinema for political curmudgeons, narrative renegades, sexual scamps; for directors who take their cues from Hollywood or Hong Kong or the European art film or their own whispering demons.

Some films are a bright blend of styles--like Girls' Night Out: a comedy-drama about sisterhood and, of course, a little sex. The three "girls," all in their 20s, are Yeon (Jin Hee Kyung), a waitress who is engaged but restless; Hoi Jun (Kang Soo Yeon), a fashion executive for whom sex is a good way of working up a sweat; and grad student Soon (Kim Yeo Jin), a virgin with a stubborn streak. They vacillate between romantic notions of sexuality--that semen, like glue, "can hold a relationship together"--and an expert's ennui. As one of them says, "I prefer one romantic kiss to 10 nights of bad sex."

The women are smart and pert, but can't find a decent, or even interestingly indecent, man in all of Seoul. "Can't you do something about your bedroom skills?" one guy says after some huffing sex. Yeon, who is supermodel-gorgeous (Jin could be a star anywhere), says to her lover, "I look great even without makeup," but the slug doesn't react. After one abrupt love bout, the man goes off to play a video game. Guys--Jeez! It's enough to make a girl cynical about men on the prowl: "Once they stick it in," one of the trio says, "they think they know everything about you. But it's not like it's a space shuttle collecting samples from Mars. It's only meat."

The aim of a serious film about sex is to transform meat into metaphor, porn into poetry. Lies--based on Jang Jung Il's 1996 novel Tell Me a Lie, which raised censorship cries in Korea--wants it all: the intensity and the artful distance, the power games, heat, longings, floggings. Floggings? Yes, this is a sadomasochistic romance, about J (Lee Sang Hyun), a sculptor in his late 30s, and Y (Kim Tae Yeon), a precocious high-school girl. They meet in featureless hotel rooms and make love. Make sex, rather--love comes later. And as the tryst turns more vigorous, with no orifice left unexamined, we hear only the purring of the camera; we are a part of the film crew, watching a spectacle made for the cinema.

The film is very modest about male genitalia; it uses jump cuts to avoid erections or penetration. But the sadism has the sting of reality: those whippings--with branches, metal strips and a washboard (the things people think of!)--hurt. At first J is the aggressor, the teacher. But Y is a quick study. Soon she learns to be the boss, and J is smitten. For them, true love is to be in bondage to the beloved.

Jang, who brackets the heavy petting with chapter headings and comments from the main actors, knows that sadomasochism is made for movies. It gives an affair a narrative propulsion. It imposes suspense on the storyline: Who's in charge? Who hurts and gets hurt? Who displays love by inflicting or enduring pain? What in the world will they do next? And even more than hard-core sex, which for all the aerobic exertions is an internal entertainment, S & M is all visual--intimacy made pictorial, personal, dramatic.

J and Y's bizarre intimacy may provoke laughs and gasps in the community of strangers that is a movie audience. But such responses are tonic--reminders that the job of art is to astonish, outrage, keep the customers awake. The two Korean films do that job. Girls' Night Out has the rueful wit of a nifty pajama party; Lies has the troubling taste of one man's, and one woman's, truth.

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