The 1st London East Asian Film Festival (LEAFF) 20th – 30th October 2016

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The London East Asian Film Festival, organised by Hye-jung Jeon, is an annual film festival which brings together the best of East Asian film, including both mainstream and independent cinema. Her vision is to bring together Asian films that will help audiences understand the diversity and richness of East Asian cinemas and cultures. This festival plays a vital part in de-orientalising ‘Asia’ and ‘East Asia’ by making visible local connections, cultural specifity and global flows between East Asia and the West. This is perhaps best epitomised by Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden which is based on Sarah Watter’s bestselling historical thriller, Fingersmith (2002).

The festival is divided into five carefully curated and programmed strands: Official Selection; Competition, Retrospective, Stories of Women, and Film Festival Focus. In the Official strand is a film by one of my favourite Japanese directors, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Creepy, which has been creeping out audiences on its way to us in London. To say that I am excited is an understatement, especially as Kurosawa will be in attendance at the festival and doing a Q&A after the screening of the film.

It is a film that NEEDS to be seen on the big screen and is a chance to get to know one of Japan’s foremost directors whose 2008 film Tokyo Sonata won Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

The opening film is The Age of Shadows by KIM Jee-woon who will also be present at the screening. KIM Jee-woon operates with precision with a saturated cinematic palate that affects viewers on an emotional as well as an intellectual level.

Of special importance is the screening of Spirit’s Homecoming about the Comfort Women which will be followed by a Q&A in association with PAWA.

The fact that this film was crowd-funded testifies to its importance and is another film that should not be missed in my opinion. The Comfort Women are women, used as sexual slaves during the Japanese Occupation of Korea, who were subjected to harrowing ordeals at the hands of soldiers. Their stories are captured in the documentary series, made up of The Murmuring (1995), Habitual Sadness (1997) and finally My Own Breathing (1999), directed by Byun Young-joo. This fictional addition to the stories of these women, whose voices had been silenced and whose voices will be silent when the last comfort woman dies, forms a part of the representation / restoration of history that should never be forgotten.

Another special mention goes to the screening of Beautiful 2016, an omnibus film, with shorts by JIA Zhangke (China), Stanley KWAN (Hong Kong), Alec Su (Taiwan) and NAKATA Hideo (Japan & another of my favourite directors), co-produced by the Hong Kong International and Film Festival Society (HKIFFS) and Heyi Picture, encompasses the philosophy behind the inception of LEAFF. The ‘Beautiful’ film series has been running since 2012 and boasts shorts by KUROSAWA Kiyoshi, TSAI Ming-liang, Christopher DOYLE, HUANG Jianxin and many others.

The Retrospective section of the Festival is devoted to PARK Chan-wook, who rose to fame in the West with the second film in his Vengeance Trilogy, OldBoy (2003) and has been making audiences laugh, scream and even cry ever since. His 2009 vampire film, Thirst, is a cinematic tour-de-force, while his 2006 fantasy drama, I’m A Cyborg: But That’s OK is one of the most lyrical and beautiful films produced in contemporary times. I recommend catching the later, as it is one of those films that doesn’t get as much critical or cultural appreciation as his others.

The Full Programme is:

Thursday 20th October

19:30 – AGE OF SHADOWS (ODEON Leicester Sq, sc1) | Q&A | Official Selection

Friday 21st October
18:30 – THE HANDMAIDEN (Picturehouse Central, sc1) | Q&A | PCW Retrospective

Saturday 22nd October
10:00 – GREAT PATRIOTEERS (ICA Cinema, sc1) | Film Festival Focus
13:30 – BAFTA talk w/ PCW & NIGHT FISHING (BFI, sc1) | Q&A | PCW Retrospective
15:30 – GOSANJA (Curzon Soho, sc1) | Q&A | Official Selection
18:00 – SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE, OLD BOY, LADY VENGEANCE (Picturehouse Central, sc2) | INTRO | PCW Retrospective

Sunday 23rd October
10:00 – CURTAIN CALL (ICA Cinema, sc1) | Film Festival Focus
15:30 – TUNNEL (Curzon Soho, sc3) | Q&A | Official Selection
18:00 – GOODBYE SINGLE (Curzon Soho, sc3) | Q&A | Official Selection
20:30 – CREEPY (Curzon Soho, sc1) | Q&A | Official Selection

Monday 24th October
14:00 – NFTS seminar w/ PCW | PCW Retrospective
18:30 – BEAUTIFUL 2016 (Curzon Soho, sc1) | Official Selection
20:30 – HARMONIUM (Curzon Soho, sc3) | UK PREM | Official Selection

Tuesday 25th October
18:30 – A YELLOW BIRD (Curzon Soho, sc3) | Q&A | Competition
20:30 – MIDNIGHT DINER (Curzon Soho, sc3) | Q&A | Special Spotlight

Wednesday 26th October
18:30 – THE WORLD OF US (Regent Street Cinema) | Q&A | Competition | Stories of Women
18:30 – STOKER + DAY TRIP (Hackney Picturehouse, sc3) | PCW Retrospective
20:30 – BY THE TIME IT GETS DARK (Regent Street Cinema) | Stories of Women

Thursday 27th October
18:30 – HEE (Regent Street Cinema) | Q&A | Stories of Women
20:30 – SPIRIT’S HOMECOMING (Regent Street Cinema) | Q&A in association with PAWA | Stories of Women

Friday 28th October
15:30 – KARAOKE CRAZIES (Curzon Soho, sc1/3) | Q&A | Competition
18:30 – JOINT SECURITY AREA (Ritzy Picturehouse, sc2) | PCW Retrospective

Saturday 29th October
10:00 – BREATHING UNDERWATER (ICA Cinema, sc1) | Film Festival Focus
15:00 – NESSUN DORMA (Curzon Soho, sc3) | Offical Selection
15:30 – SPIRIT’S HOMECOMING (Sheffield Showroom) | Q&A | Stories of Women
18:30 – THIRST + JUDGEMENT (Ritzy Picturehouse, sc2) | PCW Retrospective

Sunday 30th October
10:00 – THE LAUNDRYMAN (ICA Cinema, sc1) | Competition
13:00 – PEKAK (Curzon Soho, sc3) | Offical Selection
15:30 – BANGKOK NITES (Curzon Soho, sc3) | Official Selection
18:30 – I’M A CYBORG + BITTER SWEET SEOUL (Hackney Picturehouse, sc3) | PCW Retrospective
19:00 – THREE (Ham Yard Hotel) | Q&A | Official Selection

*Subject to change (venues, times)

For up-to-date information, please visit the official Facebook site:http://www.leaff.org.uk/

Web Page:

On Twitter: @LEAFilmFest

You will find me on twitter, talking all things East Asian especially with relation to horror cinema and videogames, although I have been known to ramble about K-Pop and K-drama @ColetteBalmain

Mark your diaries and book your tickets. I hope to see some of you there.


Tokyo Tribe (Sono, 2014)

 

Sono is one of the most prolific Japanese directors, although not up to the standards of Miike who manages more than one film a year without a noticeable drop in quality. Ever since Suicide Club/Jisatsu Saakuru (2001) and Exte/Ekusute (2007), I have been a big fan of his work. Suicide Club has perhaps the best opening sequence in horror.

Unfortunately, I found the overt misogyny of  his 2010 film Cold Fish/Tsumetai Nettaigyo (2010) very hard to come to terms with. Humour, black or not, around rape is highly problematic. I didn’t feel that I could watch it again, and therefore never wrote a review as films need repeated viewing in order to write a proper review – at least for me it is the case. I suspect that part of my problem with it was culturally located as rape itself, is unfortunately, a common component of Japanese cinema. Since then, I have avoided Sono’s films but the trailer of Tokyo Tribes was interesting and I felt that perhaps I had been too hard on Sono. After all missteps are common in any field of the arts and most great directors have one or more turkeys in their back catalogue.

So back to Tokyo Tribe, a film that sets out – consciously  or unconsciously – to offend women and members of the LGBTQIA community in the first 10 minutes. The overall concept is great. A hip-hop musical about competing tribes in a dystopic Tokyo, who eventually come together in peace against a common enemy, is both inventive and innovative. Tokyo Tribe is based on the best-selling manga by Santa Inoue (1987-2005) which was published in Boon, a street fashion magazine which is now published by Shodensha, and feels like a throwback to the mid to late 1980s. The fact that Sono choose to introduce the tribes to the audience by having Mera – the boss of Bukuro Wu-Ronz – trace the geography of the different tribes over the half-naked body of a policewoman (who tries to arrest him on her first day on the job) alerts us to the insistent discourses of male voyeurism and fetishism than run throughout the film. The fact that the female tribe members, are either prostitutes, or dressed up like 2000s Missy Elliot and coded in non-normative terms,  is highly problematic. In addition, the schoolgirl heroine, Erika, who has some kick ass moves – we are told that she comes from Wong Kong (Hong Kong) – is often freeze framed or in slow motion as the camera pans in up skirt to linger on her white underwear is even more troubling.

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Not another panty shot please!

While as other critics have argued, Tokyo Tribe like other Sono films, embeds a social critique of Japanese society, politics and patriarchy, it seems to me that the film simultaneously constructs figures of female empowerment and strips them off that empowerment by overt sexualisation through the use of  terms ‘cultural scopophilia’. I use the term ‘cultural scopophilia’ here to foreground the othering of cultural and ethnic difference in Tokyo Tribe through the visual lexicon of fashion as signifier of Otherness. Erika’s innocence – or sexualized innocence as connoted by her schoolgirl uniform at the beginning – is the opposite to the hyper-sexuality and non-normative sexuality of the Kabukico Gira Gira girls. In addition, while the Mushashino tribe might be all about love and peace, there are limits to this love and peace – as the transcribed lyrics go “No homos, we ain’t Kissing Dudes”. While homophobia, unfortunately, remains at the heart of contemporary hip-hop and rap, Sono did not have to replicate and foreground this homophobia.

Nkoi gets his ‘freak on’

Further the son of the film’s bloated baddy, Lord Buppa (Riki Takechi), Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka) keeps slaves that they don’t eat for dinner and pleasure, as his personal puppets cocooned in an ivory room in which his harem have to position themselves as furniture or perform for him in order not to incur his wrath. Once again, suppressed homosexuality is coded as inherently deviant and monstrous, in its opposition to dominant heterosexuality which is capable of ‘peace and love’ but not, as I pointed out previously, to all.

There is much to be enjoyed in its visual excesses and poetic raps, it is just necessary to be aware of what problems such excesses may mask. Excess is not necesssarily subversive. Here excess functions as licenced rather than unlienced carnival, the former  of which props up the dominant ideology by allowing space for subversion and by controlling that space. While I always enjoy Sono’s visual mastery, I was uncomfortable with the gender and sexual politics on display here. As much as it could be claimed that Sono is critiquing such politics, in the end he reinforces such politics at the level of image and sound. In repeating the visual and aural legacy of hip-hop which is predicated on the oppression of women and non-normative sexualities, the message of ‘love and peace’ rings rather hollow.

 

 


PAINTED SKIN (HUA PI: GORDAN CHAN: 2008)

As part of my research for my forthcoming book on East Asian Gothic Cinema, I have been watching as many mainland Chinese films as I can. Of these, Painted Skin is one of my favourites. Directed by the prolific Gordon Chan, Painted Skin is based upon a short story by Pu Songling in Strange Tales from A Chinese Studio about a beautiful sixteen year old woman who turns out to be a monstrous demon, whose abject interior is concealed through the use of a carefully painted human pelt.

In Chan’s film, the supernatural elements are downplayed as the dominant communist ideology of China allows no space for what are seen to be archaic beliefs at odds with a secular society. By replacing the monstrosity of the original folktale with a melodramatic love story between a human and a fox spirit, known as Huli Jing in China, Painted Skin domesticates the monstrous other and in the process foregrounds filial loyalty and patriarchal values around appropriate femininity.

In the film, Xiao Wei (Zhou Xun) – a fox spirit – who keeps her beauty and youth through a diet of human hearts, is taken into the household of General Wang Sheng (Chen Kun) and becomes obsessed with him, desiring to take the place of his much-loved wife in both his bed and his household. However as in the original story, her disguise is discovered and she is cast out from the household. But rather than being killed and trapped by the forces of good, she sacrifices herself in the name of true love in order to bring both Wang and his wife, Peirong (Zhao Wei/Vicky Zhao) back to life.

Like many Chinese films, the narrative is considerably more complex than this short synopsis suggests. There is an inexperienced demon hunter, Xia Bing (Betty Sun), who joins forces with Pang Yong (the ever present Donnie Yen), an ex-general in Wang’s army who is in love with Peirong, to vanquish Xiao Wei. In addition, there is Xiao Wei’s chameleon companion, Xiaoyi (Qi Yuwu), who serves his mistress by bringing her hearts and tries to prevent her sacrificing her humanity for Wang.

Despite the presence of Donnie Yen, Painted Skin is not a typical martial arts fantasy with fight scenes few and far between. Rather it focuses in on female subjects, who attempt to escape from predefined, constraining stereotypes of womanhood through agency and activity. However such agency and activity is limited, and in the end both Peirong and Xiao Wei must conform to the age old archetype of the self-sacrificing woman: an archetype which is not limited to East Asian cinema but can also be found in Western cinema. Yet, it is the performances of Zhao Wei and Zhou Xun that make Painted Skin so compelling and an engrossing watch. As anti-feminist as the ending might at first glance seem to be, the image of Xiao Wei confined to eternal life in her original form as a white fox lingers in the memory encapsulating her inability to be truly human suggests the difference between the demonic and the human is not so clearly defined as in the day when the original story was written. Further, beauty, we are told, is only skin deep. A necessary reminder in an age of selfies which promotes unrealistic images of beauty and plastic surgery which offers us the tools to become as unrealistic as those images that we are perpetually bombarded with.

 

Notes

The best translation of Strange Stories of a Chinese Studio, is in my opinion, the Penguin Classics version, which is translated by John Minford (2008).

East Asian Culture has many variations on the fox spirit, including the Japanese Kitsune and the Korean, Gumiho.

This review is subject to copyright. I am happy for it to be shared but please do not cite without permission from me as portions of this will appear in my forthcoming book.


12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter 1 (OH Inchun: 2015)

 

 

BiFan 2015 Review: 12 DEEP RED NIGHTS: CHAPTER 1, A Competent But Unremarkable Practice Run

English Language Trailer

Director OH’s 12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter I might not be particularly original, especially in terms of South Korean horror, but it is effective. A low-budget take on the vengeful ghost narrative, OH manages to create a suspenseful and interesting tale of office politics, spurned love, suicide, and alienation. The omnibus structure – 12 Deep Red Nights is composed of four short films – works well here producing short, sharp spurts of horror in which horror is mainly generated through the operation of the fantastic (cf. Todorov): the fantastic is that which is generated through uncertainty – in which explanations for events can either be supernatural or psychological without the narrative foreclosing on one or the other.

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Searching for Sound in ‘atmosFEAR’

The four short films in order are ‘Driver’; 11:55PM; ‘atmosFEAR’ and ‘The Secret Night’. In the first, a taxi driver, In-sik, is made an offer he can’t refuse, but should have refused, by his mysterious, beautiful female passenger. The second short revolves around a translator, Young-ran, who is finishing up work for the night when her doorbell rings persistently at 11:55pm: should she answer the door or not? The third, my personal favourite, concerns an audio sound engineer who in attempting to capture ambient sound at night, records something quite different and much more menacing. The final film, takes on the office politics as a young female employee who is suffering from financial problems returns to the office at night only to run into her unpleasant superior with deadly consequences.


Office Politics in ‘The Secret Night’

For a low-budget independent film, 12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter 1 is effective enough, playing on fears of the alienation that lies at the heart of modern South Korea as a result of the economic miracle which has created an ever increasing gap between the super-rich and the working classes. By placing ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, OH taps into contemporary socio-cultural anxieties around the isolating nature of late-capitalism. Purportedly the first in three anthologies, 12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter 1, is sandwiched between OH’s mainstream commercial features, Mourning Grave (Sonyeogoedam: 2014) and Chasing (Jabaya Sanda: 2016). There is enough here to create anticipation for the next two instalments if OH’s success allows his time to complete them.

Notes

See my review of Mourning Grave (OH In-chun: 2014)

OH’s short Metamorphosis is well worth seeking out. My review: Metamorphoses (변신이야기, OH In-chun, 2011)

Tzvetan Todorov  distinguishes between the fantastic, the marvellous and the uncanny in his book, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1975). The fantastic is defined in terms of uncertainty, ‘The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event’ (Todorov 1975: 25). In opposition to this, the uncanny is rooted in the psychological, while the marvellous in the supernatural.

 

Please note that the images are courtesy of HanCinema: http://www.hancinema.net/hancinema-s-film-review-12-deep-red-nights-chapter-1-84776.html (accessed 8th July 2016).


Mourning Grave (OH In-chun: 2014)

A high-school boy, In-su (Kang Ha-neul) returns to his hometown in order to face up to, both literally and metaphorically, ghosts from the past. Like his Uncle, with whom he is staying, In-su has the ability to see and speak to [female] ghosts who have suffered violent and untimely deaths. Returning to his school, In-su discovers that someone is violently murdering his classmates. As he attempts to unravel the trauma in the past that has resulted in the present vengeance, In-su is accompanied by a unnamed girl ghost (hence the alternative title: Girl Ghost Story) whose presence is unexplained. Just who is responsible for the deaths, and what was the original trauma that led to such dreadful and bloody vengeance.

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Mourning Grave is a welcome addition to one of my favourite Korean horror genres, High School Horror, and Director OH manages not to merely recycle the old but to breathe new life into the genre. Traditionally High School Horror of the vengeful ghost variety, is female-centric, and male characters are either non-existent or marginal to the plot. Mourning Grave breaks with this tradition, with its empathetic male protagonist In-su who seeks to right the wrongs of the past. The relationship between In-su and his constant female ghost companion (Kim So-eun) is nicely realised and the relationship has an authenticity to it which is aided by excellent performances by the two leads, Kang Ha-neul and Kim So-eun. In-su’s Uncle, Kim Jeong-tae (Seon-il), who is trying not to speak or appease ghosts, is also haunted by a female ghost, who despite his attempts to ignore her and banish her, refuses to leave.

mourningwomen

Other critics (including Pierce Conran) have pointed out that the trend in Korean horror these days is towards hybridity. Mourning Grave demonstrates this hybridity in multiple ways. Firstly, through the character of Seon-il, who as Shaman priest (Mu) and Exorcist is the centre of a number of comedic interludes, and seems to have been imported in from classic Hong Kong Horror Cinema and secondly through multiple intertextual references (as with Seon-il) to other horror cinemas and specific films, including Carrie (Brian de Palma, US: 1976) (in particular the prom scene), and Carved: A Slit Mouthed Woman (Koji Shiraishi, Japan: 2007) – the visual iconography of the ghost is obviously a direct reference to the Japanese urban myth on which the film is based. The concept of the ghost fracturing into a number of different characters as a result of the trauma of her death was an interesting one, and added another layer of mystery to the central narrative enigma in a similar way to  A Tale of Two Sisters without giving the plot away.

 

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This is not to suggest that Mourning Grave isn’t scary or that it doesn’t have the sort of socio-political commentary around bullying that is associated with High School Horror. The bullying that lead to the death of the vengeful female ghost is horrific when it is eventually revealed, as is the reluctance of teachers and other students who are not directly involved in the bullying to intercede. Here, as elsewhere, after all according “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” (a quotation often attributed to Edmund Burke, but who never said these exact words). Those who look away are situated here as equally culpable as those who actually perpetrate the violence against those weaker than them.

mourningbully

 

Mourning Grave harkens back to the early days of Korean horror cinema, when well-made genre films were all the rage, and first time directors produced films that were both narratively and technically proficient and resonated with young and older audiences alike, with prospective actresses queuing up to be considered for roles in the films. With his feature film debut, Director OH shows technical expertise, an ability to not to over-complicate the cinematographic frame, and a distinctive aesthetic style in addition to generating excellent performances from his cast. OK Clarice Eunhae’s score never overwhelms the image, instead it adds to the underlying melancholic sensibility that imbues this ghost story and coming of age story.  Director OH’s feature film debut, like his short films, is engaging and extremely well-directed and I look forward to his next film with a great deal of anticipation.

Overall, this is a film for fans of Korean horror cinema, and in particular High School Horror, which hearkens back to the age of the well-made genre film while at the same time, being innovative and original.  I really hope that Mourning Grave will do well at the domestic Box Office, and demonstrate to producers and directors in South Korea that horror film remains a lucrative investment – after all horror is perhaps the one genre that travels across national and international borders the easiest. I find myself wondering about a US remake, but really do not think it would work.  While the film has transnational elements, seen in the intertextual and visual references to both Eastern and Western horror, it still has a specifity which marks it out as Korean without Director OH pandering to the exoticism and orientalism that underpin the West’s desire for a traditional, nostalgic and markedly Korean products that confirms stereotypes around Confucian values and irreducible alterity.

 

And finally, what is not to like about a film that opens with a subway ghost!

subway

 


Hope (Lee Joon-ik, South Korea: 2013)

 

A young girl, So-won (Lee Re) is walking to school one day, but instead of being accompanied by her friend as usual, she is on her own. Even though the school is a short distance from her home, she is abducted by a remorseless paedophile and rapist Choi Jong sool (Gang Seong-hae) who brutally assaults her and leaves her for dead. Found, So-won is taken to hospital where she undergoes emergency surgery to try and repair the damage done to her during the merciless attack. As a result So-won is left with major physical and psychological scars and the film charts the slow and painful process of healing of not only So-won but her parents and the wider community. Can Hope/hope persist despite trauma?

Hope  is Director LEE’s 9th feature, and a welcome return to cinema for a director who not long ago was contemplating leaving the industry partly as a result of the failure of his engaging 2011 film, Battlefield Heroes, which I personally enjoyed. Hope is Director LEE at his best, dealing deftly with difficult issues in a quiet but heart rendering manner. I met Director LEE in 2012, and he was one of the nicest people, and funniest, that I have ever met. Yet, watching Hope is a devastating experience, seemingly at odds with the Director’s sunny personality. However, the social critique in Hope is a common theme in his films, as is the finely tuned understanding of relationships, particularly here in relation to the family.

 

While typically such a film would deal with the search and capture and then suitable punishment by the law or outside the law by family members, Hope is more concerned with So-won’s battle back to health, overcoming both her physical and psychological traumas. Signs of the attack are etched through the scars on her face and the ileostomy that she has to wear as in order to live, the surgeons are forced to remove her colon and divert waste into a bag that is attached to a stoma (the small bowel brought out through the stomach). So-won’s devastated parents, Dong-hoon (Sol Kyung-gu) and Mi-hee (Uhm Ji-won), grapple to come to terms with their daughter’s injury and their guilt over her attack. Her father, Dong-hoon struggles to eke out a meagre living at the metalworking factory where he works, while her mother Mi-hee who runs their small grocery store, aptly enough named after their daughter, ‘Wish’s Variety’, is coming to terms with being pregnant with their second child. As working parents, Mi-hee and Dong-hoon are constantly struggling to have enough time together as a family with Dong-hoon so tired at the end of his working day that he leaves the parenting to the equally tired Mi-hee. On the day of the attack, Dong-hoon is called into work early while Mi-hee is opening up the shop, meaning that So-won ends up walking to school on her own. The attack itself is left to the viewer’s imagination; instead shots of the broken and bloody body of So-won in the aftermath of the attack communicate the horrific nature of the assault just as the shots of a broken kite and a rolling bottle of alcohol before the attack signal the horrific nature of what is to come.

hopepicture

 

Based upon a shocking true event in which a young girl was brutally assaulted and her attacker sentenced to a derisory 12 years by the Court, Director LEE’s film was criticised by some in South Korea for shining a spotlight on the unpalatable existence of child assault and stranger abuse, and in addition for subjecting the family of the original attack to increased media attention. Statistics reported by Bae Hyung-jung in an article originally published in The Korean Herald (03/03/2010), are stark: of ‘5,948 suspects who were investigated on charges of sexual abuse from January 2007 to July of this year, 2501 … were not prosecuted, according to Justice Ministry data. Even among those who were prosecuted, only 0.4 percent were handed down a life sentence and more than 42 percent were fined and 30.5 percent received a suspended term, according to the Health Ministry data.’ It needs to be noted that in the UK, while those who do get convicted get substantially longer sentences there is a history of the non-prosecution and high level cover up of sexual abusers, as highlighted by the Jimmy Saville case. And then there is the all too frequent rape of young girls in India about which little is done. These two current examples (and there are many more sadly)demonstrate that Hope’s message has a much wider application than just related to incidents in South Korea and the particular horrific assault on which the film is loosely based. And in addition to contemporary human rights issues, Hope is one of the few films to represent disability in a direct manner, without being melodramatic in the process. Although in the US alone over 100,000 people a year have surgery for a permanent or temporary ostomy, it remains a taboo topic and relegated to representation in film as the object of revulsion or ridicule. It is refreshing therefore to see how So-won and her parents learn to deal with So-won’s ‘new normal’ (a term widely used in the ostomy community): the embarrassment of the bag leaking while she is in hospital, the rustling of the bag against the skin (and Dong-joon’s ingenious solution to it), her desire to be treated normally and her gradual coming to terms with such a radical change in her bodily integrity.

hope2

Together with this refreshing approach to disability and highlighting human rights abuses (and it needs to be noted that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by those known to the child: either other family members or people in authority that they have contact with), Director LEE displays his usual sensitivity and understanding of relationships and how relationships can be broken and then reformed, perhaps encapsulated most fully by the relationship between So-won and Dong-hoon which is pivotal to the emotional resonance of the film. Terrified by men after her attack, So-won retreats into herself and refuses to allow her father to help her. In order to bridge this gap, Dong-hoon dresses up as one of her favourite TV characters, Kokomong, visiting her in hospital and then accompanying her to and from school. While this allows for much needed moments of light relief, I found the relationship between the two to be authentic touching a reality that many directors never get close to. Indeed, it is the subtle and moving performances by Lee Re, Sol Kyung-gu and Uhm Ji-won that together with Director LEE’s subtle and nuanced filmmaking make Hope such an extraordinary cinematic tour-de-force. It is no surprise that the film won the award for the best film at Dragon Film Awards, or that all three of the main actors were recognised for their performances in 2013.

In conclusion, if you are looking for a film about retribution and punishment, then this isn’t the right film, however if you are looking for a film about recovery, redemption and hope, then here it is. Tackling a difficult subject with a great deal of sensitively, this is one of Director LEE’s finest films to date.

Notes

  1. The only other film that I remember dealing with an ostomy is the French Canadian revenge thriller, 7 Days (Daniel Grou, Canada: 2010) and here it is meted out as punishment to the rapist and murderer of a couple’s young daughter. [I do really recommend 7 Days; I found it an extremely powerful piece of cinema, but it is very much the opposite approach to that taken by Director LEE in Hope].
  2. I had a temporary ileostomy when I was much younger and think this is why Hope particularly resonated with me.
  3. The Korean title, So-won, I have been told translates as ‘Wish’ but was changed into Hope for UK and US release as Hope is a girl’s name in English. I have used ‘Hope’ here for the title of the film, but need to put a caveat that actually Wish’ has a much more subtle meeting in Korean ‘To a non-native speaker, maybe less so. Nuance. Wish feels more unattainable? phonetics? wish is softer on the lips and to the ear…wistful, fleeting, sad.’ (thanks to Jin Hee Cho for these words of wisdom).

 

 


Rigor Mortis (Juno Mak, Hong Kong: 2013)

 

A tribute to classic Hong Kong horror,  and the Mr Vampire films (1985 – 1992),  Rigor Mortis is the directorial debut of well-known actor, Juno Mak. In a self-reflexive mode, the protagonist in Rigor Mortis is Chin Siu-ho, of the original Mr Vampire films, who is playing himself. Out of work and favour Chin is forced to move to a decrepit and largely derelict apartment building. Once moved in, Chin tries to take his own life (there is a back story about the death of his wife and son which is offered as reason for his suicide attempt), but is rescued in the nick of time by Anthony Chan (who also appeared in the Mr Vampire films), a tenant who runs a food stall in the basement of the apartment building. For some reason, Chin’s attempted suicide and rescue sets of a series of ghostly and ghastly events: an old women tries to bring her dead husband back to life, and the ghosts of twin girls are set free. Will Chin and his sidekick Chan save the day? Will they be able to vanquish the ghosts of the dead?

Although I haven’t yet seen the Mr Vampire films (but will be doing for my book on East Asian Gothic Cinema), and therefore missed some of the more subtle intertextual references to the original series, I found Rigor Mortis a great deal of fun to watch. Not only does Rigor Mortis with its actors and mixture of slapstick comedy and grotesque horror evoke the days of classical Hong Kong horror but the addition of twin ghosts –  revenants of the Japanese ghost story – adds a transnational and contemporary motif to the mix. Given that SHIMIZU Takashi, the director of Ju-on series,  was the co-producer,  it is no surprise that female vengeful ghosts who died as a result of male oppression are inhabiting the same ghostly space as hopping vampires.

 

While comic relief is provided by the pairing of Chin and Chan Yau (Anthony Chan) who reluctantly are drawn into exorcising the ghosts, the emotional core of the film is provided by the relationship between an elderly women, Auntie Mui (Hee Ching Paw) and her husband Tung (Richard Ng). When Tung falls  down the stairs and breaks his neck,  Auntie Mui is unable to let her husband go, and instead turns to Chung Fat, a temple priest who has taken up black magic in order to combat the cancer that is gradually killing him, to help her in her quest to return her husband to life. Of course dabbling in black magic is never a good thing in Hong Kong cinema and really the dead should be left well alone in case they return as vampires, ghosts or other permutations of the undead and the demonic. I was reminded of another Hong Kong Horror film, Going Home (Peter Chan: 2002), where Mr Yu (Leon Laid) uses Chinese medicine to bring back his recently deceased wife Hai’er (Eugenia Yuan). The inability to let a loved one go, in Rigor Mortis, as in Going Home, can only lead to tragedy.

The film is beautifully shot, with the cinematography evoking both the cinematic past and the cinematic present. The kung-fu set-pieces are well choreographed, and the vengeful ghosts well realised, offering something for everyone who is interested in East and South East Asian cinema. It made me want to see the original Mr Vampire film series and any film that brings new audiences to old films is a great thing in my book. In these days of remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels, Rigor Mortis manages to do something new by creating something innovative and original from the revenants of the old rather than just blandly recycling the old.

 

 

 

 


Seoul in the City at The City of London Festival (22nd July – 17th July)

 

 

Seoul in the City is part of The City of London Festival. It runs from 22nd July to 17th July, and offers performances from acclaimed classical and traditional musicians, artists, actors and dancers.  I attended the ‘Seoul in the City Party: Forum and Reception’ held at the KCCUK on Tuesday, 24th July 2014 which started with a fascinating discussion of the history of South Korean arts and the struggle to promote Korean culture in the age of the internet. Interesting enough, we were told that numbers of people attending live performances had gone up – something that seems to be at odds with recent theories of audiences which posit the internet as displacing the audience and substituting the filmed event for the live performance. Here, access to information about performers through the internet seems to encourage rather than discourage audiences in attending a live performance. Social media, we were told, provides a mechanism to promote,  interact and participate virtually in the event, giving audiences ‘a closer physical connection to the object’. Part of the discussion was devoted to questions around how to promote Korean arts outside of Korea, and specifically in terms of ‘Seoul and the City’. Consideration was also paid to what festivals can bring to people, one response was that festivals promote cultural tourism and give context to the performance/screening. The tension between the traditional and the contemporary was also explored. In order to promote Korean, emphasis on the traditional can offer Western audiences a sense of nationhood which is aligned with the exotic.  But at the same time, contemporary art and music is necessary in order to offer a more balanced view of Korean arts. I was reminded of the latest instalment in the X-Men franchise, The Wolverine, which I watched the other night. Set mainly in Japan, the scenery and architecture was constructed through a Western orientalism, and the Japan envisaged was one in which everyone was either a Ninja, black belt in Karate, or obsessed with power and technology. There was little in the film that evoked contemporary Japan, instead (Western) views are offered a landscape of Japan filtered through romantic and orientalist glasses (and of course, the white man saved the world as is par for the course). Seoul in the City is an example of trying to overcome this dichotomy by offering an impressive range of performances and exhibitions that offer audiences a sense of the ‘exotic’ while at the same time providing contemporary artists a platform through which to share their art.

‘Seoul in the City’ has three distinct strands: K-classic (classical and traditional music); K-theatre (contemporary dance performances and a Korean Hamlet) and Dynamic Korea (a series of performances by the internationally acclaimed ‘Seoul Metropolitan B-boys ‘Gamblerz Crew). More information can be found at here: The Korean Cultural Centre

Events can be booked here: http://www.colf.org/
Alternatively ring +44 (0)845 120 7502

 

 

 

Personally I am looking forward to Lee Kyung-ok Dance Company’s performance of Andersen’s Gazes, which takes place tomorrow, 28th June at 7:00pm. The company is noted form its series of ‘Dance fairy tales for adults’ and in 2012 was award the grand prize at the Dance Korea Awards. I am interested in the intersection of fairy tales and horror cinema in my research and am fascinated how Hans Christian’s life will be portrayed through dance. The performance takes place at the Mermaid Theatre, Puddle dock.

 

Seoul in the City

 

I am also extremely excited about Yohangza Theatre Company’s version of Hamlet and seeing how Shakespeare’s play will be translated into Korean and localized through the use of traditional Korean costumes, music and characters. Anyone worried that they won’t be able to understand the play, there will be translations of the dialogue that accompany the performance. Hamlet takes place at the Peacock Theatre on Saturday 12 July 2014 at 7:30 pm.

 

This is a great opportunity to learn more about the Korean arts, and I hope to see some of you there.

 

Thanks to the Korean Cultural Centre as always.

 

 


Moebius (Kim Ki-duk, 2013)

Trailer:

 

 

Synopsis:

 

When a mother (Lee Eun-woo) discovers her husband’s (Cho Jae-hyun) infidelity with a beautiful and younger woman, she takes a violent revenge on her wayward husband, by first attempting to castrate him with a butcher’s knife, and when he throws her off, completing the said castration on their teenager son (Seo Young-ju). So begins an Operatic and Oedipal journey into the fractured spaces of the contemporary family, during which the father ‘donates’ his own organ to his son (but not before searching on the internet for alternative ways to orgasm), his son is bullied and then becomes an unwitting participant in the group rape of a beautiful woman who works at the local store (also played by Lee Eun-woo) before teaming up with her to mete out appropriate revenge on her attackers, before ending as unhappily and even more brutally then it began.

Review

Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius is in short a film about castration, both literally and psychological, and as such, is an uncomfortable viewing experience.   It is at the same time, one of the most blackly humorous film of Kim Ki-duk’s I have seen to date.  From the moment the mother cuts of her son’s penis and eats it, therefore severing any possibility that it might be re-attached in the future, to the rather inventive onscreen substitutions for sex that I have seen in a long time (perhaps in order to get around the censor’s scissors), Moebius is as funny as it is violent. In fact, I would argue that Moebius, is a tragi-comedy, and while a particularly brutal one, and should not be consigned to the  ‘extreme’ moniker  that some Western critics use as an umbrella term to implicitly critique Kim Ki-duk’s films.

 

Kim Ki-duk, who I consider one of contemporary cinema’s finest auteurs (and I do not use the overused term ‘auteur’ lightly here), should be an inspiration to any aspiring director even if they choose not to plumb the depths of human depravity and indifference, or construct cinematic commentaries on the human condition, as to demonstrating the possibilities (and liberations) offered by low-budget filmmaking. Shot in one week (that is right – a whole week), Moebius deals with what can best be expressed as the ‘human condition’: in other words the messiness,  pain and love that defines our relationships with each other. The family here, as elsewhere in Kim Ki-duk’s work,  is the very epitome of such relations: relations which are always on the verge of imploding.  Of course, Moebius takes the concept of the family to Grand Guignol proportions and the implosion becomes an explosion of incestuous desires and sexual violence. The fact that the  wonderful Lee Eun-woo plays both central female roles, situates a Freudian framework of interpretation (whether intentional or not)  demonstrating that if oedipal desires are not repressed then the civilization itself would be threatened with total destruction (Freud argues that the incest taboo is crucial to the formation of ‘civilized’ society in Totem and Taboo). If the family as a unit is interpreted as an ideological signifier of the dominant ideology (heterosexuality, patriarchy, nationality) then the destruction of the family is a necessary proviso of emancipation, and the Oedipal drama takes on its implicit political critique of the status-quo.

Kim Ki-duk’s cinematic flair is apparent here, as always. His ability to use props and costume to decorate the mise-en-scene to create a richer looking cinematic canvas than low-budget filmmaking would normally allow -can be seen  in the carefully composed contours of the small cloistered spaces that most of the actions occurs in. In addition, his signature dismissal of the centrality of dialogue to the cinematic narrative is taken to the limits here, as there is no dialogue, and besides only use of extra-diegetic music is when the camera follows the mother walking down an eerily deserted high street, Moebius is silent, with the only sounds being those emerging from the body-in-pain or the body-in-desire (both of which are substitutable here). Some critics have argued that the lack of dialogue is a cynical ploy on the part of Kim Ki-duk to make his films more ‘global’ and therefore more attractive to the Western marketplace, but this is a feature of Kim Ki-duk’s oeuvre, long before he was feted on the festival circuit and his films became more popular outside rather than inside South Korea, so it seems rather nonsensical to me. I have written about how Kim Ki-duk manages to capture the attention of the viewer without using typical cinematic conventions of dialogue or action in relation to my review of his documentary Airirang which I named as film of the year in Directory of World Cinema: South Korea (Intellect: 2013). And it is the same with Moebius, the lack of dialogue- or need to ‘explain’ the narrative – means that imagistic language which surrounds and captures the performances of the actors is riveting in and of itself: here the viewer is asked to construct the meaning of the narrative rather than as traditionally being manipulated by the camera, editing and narration, into acquiescing with the dominant (and often reactionary) ideological meaning of cinema which repeats the dominant narrative of the nation and the state. Indeed, like in the work of the French comic book artist,  Jean Giraud, who used the pseudonym of Moebius for his epic fantasy,  Arzach (which first appeared in 1974), in which there were no dialogue or sound bubbles  – and is possibly an influence on Kim Ki-duk  particularly  remembering that Kim Ki-duk started his career as an artist based in France – the pictorial image is used to generate meaning by itself, and thus challenges the formal conventions of the relation between image and text, in which the image’s meaning is anchored through dialogue and/or other textual cues. As such the use of silence, like the shattering of the familial unit, can be seen as providing a critique of the dominant ideology through which individuals are interpellated into appropriate positions dictated by those in power.

 

While  the performances of Cho Jae-hyun (a Kim Ki-duk regular) and Lee Eun-woo are great, it is the youngest member of the cast, Seo Young-ju (15 at the time of the shooting),who stands out. Having not seen any of his work before  – he has been acting since he was 10 in K-drama (South Korean Television Dramas) – I was extremely impressed by what a mature performance, in a difficult role for someone of his age, that Young-ju gave. In a group interview, organised by Terracotta Distribution, Young-ju told us that it was his (award-winning) role in Juvenile Offender (Bumjoe Sonyeon, dir. Kang Yi-kwan, 2012) that led to Kim Ki-duk  sending him the script for Moebius, and it shows an emotional maturity that even though Young-ju, as he freely admitted, did not understand the plot  – but then, who does understand a plot of a Kim Ki-duk film? – accepted the role despite Kim Ki-duk’s reputation as a director of controversial and challenging cinema. In fact, it seemed that this reputation was what made Young-ju accept the role. He told us that he wanted to play similar roles in the future, ones that involved difficult and dark emotions in order to evolve as an actor.  In Moebius, Young-ju -despite his protestations in the interview that he could have done better – embodies a range of emotions, from vulnerability, to anger, hate,  [forbidden] desire, captured through a performativity which is always authentic, in a manner that is far beyond his years.  The shame when he discovers that the only way that his father’s supplanted penis will inflame  with desire is through the presence of his mother and his mortification and eventual self-castration, like his performance throughout the film, is finely judged and never once becomes unbelievable.  Without Young-ju’s strong central performance, Moebius would have the visceral and intellectual intensity that it has – which is, of course, why Kim Ki-duk sent Young-ju the script in the first place. Without doubt, Young-ju Seo is an actor who on the basis of this will go from strength to strength in the future.

For me, Kim Ki-duk never disappoints, and Moebius is a riveting piece of art cinema at the hands of one of the most innovative and interesting directors of contemporary times and as such, not to be missed.

 

Thanks to Joey Terracotta and Terracotta distribution for arranging the group interview with Young-ju Seo, during the Terracotta Film Festival 2014. and to Young-ju Seo for being so generous with his time.

 

 

 


The Flu/Gamgi (KIM Sung-Su: 2013)

The Flu that threatens South Korea with disaster is transported into the country by a shipping container from Hong Kong in which a group of illegal immigrants are hiding, hoping for a better life. Instead locked inside the hot and suffocating container, they all succumb to a deadly virus, with the exception of one male survivor. Within hours, a deadly virus is sweeping over Korea and people are dying by the hundreds. Can the beautiful Dr. Kim In-Hae (Soo-ae), whose young daughter becomes infected, discover the cause of the virus and find a cure before it is too late for her daughter and everyone else?

First up, I was one of the few who enjoyed Deranged (PARK Jung-woo: 2012) at last year’s London Korean Film Festival, and secondly, I prefer zombies, and lots of them, or else suitably decaying and abject bodies in a contagion film (yes, I know that I mixing genres to please myself). The emphasis in The Flu was not so much on individual stories of infected families – as is usually the case – but rather the political battle between the president and prime minster and and the US military over the ‘final solution’ to the problem. And indeed, the most effective scenes were the large scale action scenes, rather than the human interactions between Kang Ji-koo (Jang Hyuk) – a rescue worker – and In-hae and  Mi-reu (Park Min-ha). which provides the core of the human interest drama and the main focus of audience identification and empathy.

In opposition to the small-scale human drama, the large scale action scenes were gripping and showed Director KIM as having a real deft touch and skill when it comes to action. The scene in which infected people were cold-bloodily shot down and their bodies dumped in a large pit was particularly effective and resonated at a number of levels in relation to real-life acts of genocide including the death pits of Auschwitz. In a subsequent scene, the non-infected but quarantined people, attempt to cross over the line between the excluded zone and the city, as the South Korean military take aim to fire upon them, a visual allusion to the Gwangju massacre in 1980. Neither politicians nor the US military come over particularly well, and indeed it is the US military that insist on the ‘final solution’ – again it is easy to see a correspondence between the fictional here and the factual situation in South Korea where the US military remains in order to police the border between North and South Korea (the so-called DMZ).

While I know this sounds bleak, there are enough crowd pleasing moment in the film that  make it an overall enjoyable experience. As I have said, I found the human element of the film not convincing, but the action sequences on their own were executed exceptionally well.

The Q&A

After the screening, most audience members stayed for the Q&A which demonstrates how much they enjoyed the film – as usually the beginning of a Q&A is marked by the mass exodus by the majority of the audience.

Tony Rayns began by discussing the outbreak of SARS in Hong Kong in 2003 and why South Korea had no cases (in fact he relayed an anecdote about a study that seemed to prove that Kimchi [picked cabbage, a staple of the South Korea diet, and very delicious) killed the SARS virus). He also asked about the political implications of the film, some of which I note above in my review. Director KIM was reluctant to admit to an explicit political critique, although he admitted that growing up in South Korea at a time of political repression very likely had an unconscious impact on the narrative and spectacle of the film.

In relation to the mass burials (which for me, as above, resonated in terms of the Holocaust  – as it is always about our own cultural frames of references in how we interpret a film), Director KIM talked about the foot and mouth outbreak between 2010-2011 which lead to the mass culling of thousands of pigs as being his point of reference. He talked about the necessity of mass burials happening out of sight so there are no witness (again I cannot help but think about the Holocaust), and said that was his reason for setting the mass murder in a football stadium, which is a space isolated from ordinary life and vision. He went on to say that he used a football stadium to increase the impact of this scene, as a stadium is usually associated with festival and happiness and not despair and death.

There were a number of other questions asked about the use of face masks and dialogue (voices were dubbed in postproduction), the casting of the daughter and an interesting sidebar about there being no regulations to protect child actors in South Korea at the moment. The director admitted that he tried to do his utmost to protect her during the shooting, although at one stage he got her mother to say something to her so that she would cry for real rather than just act sad.

Director KIM finished by saying that he realized that he wasn’t very good at disaster films in line with the typical refreshing honesty of Korean directors to actually admit if they are not altogether happy with their films and wouldn’t be making another one. His next project he said would be an action film. On the basis of this, I shall look forward to it.