When Harmony Korine's short film Umshini Wam screened alongside the latest from Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Thirst) at SXSW, both efforts had an unproven element to unveil. For Korine, the wild cards were his stars, the South African hip-hop act Die Antwoord. But for Park, it was something even more groundbreaking: he filmed the mystical, spiritual ghost story Night Fishing entirely using the iPhone 4.
Filmed with an appropriately cold naturalism, Night Fishing (Paranmanjang) is evidence that cell phone movies can transcend their gimmicky trappings. The 33-minute narrative short, shot entirely on the iPhone 4 and financed by Korean iPhone provider KT for $130K, is a hauntingly evocative tale alighting on a fisherman (Oh Kwang-rok) who treks deep into the wilderness for a weekend trip, unaware of a coming storm. He catches a woman’s drowned body in and, in a comically tense sequence of events, panics and becomes entangled in fishing line with the corpse. And then things get really strange.
Night Fishing takes an unexpected turn from that horror film set-up into ghostly spirituality, as Park and brother/co-director Park Chan-kyong explore Korean death rituals and employ actress Lee Jung Hyun in a dual performance as both the ghostly corpse and a living shaman tasked with contacting the world of the dead. Lee, a pop idol in Asia, mesmerizes in the role, embodying multiple souls in quick succession.
Park's story jumps around with little warning and explanation, leaving the viewer to piece together what's happening on their own. For a few SXSWers in attendance that was asking too much, but those with patience and the fortitude to follow the events onscreen, Night Fishing can be a transcendent experience ?even more so if you're also conscious of how Park is using his camera.
The camera floats ethereally through the world of Night Fishing like a disembodied specter, the picture alternately grainy and clear, with a compactness and freedom you can feel. Close-ups on Oh's face are captured with stunning clarity so clear and sharp that it's difficult to imagine Park and his crew were merely using an iPhone to capture the scene.
Of course, it did cost $130,000, much of which Park credited to paying his crew of 80 and buying food. Any old smartphone video won't look this good without proper cinematography, lighting, and a mind for tweaking the in-phone camera for optimal use. But Night Fishing proves that it can be done, and well. Could 3D iPhone filmmaking be next?