Category Archives: Korean Film Reviews

Korean Film Nights: On Foreign Ground

Starting in May and finishing in June, the Korean Cultural Centre is running their second curated mini-season of the year.  This season is focusses on stories of immigration to South Korea: from North Korea, Vietnam, Burma, Vietnam, and Bangladesh along with diasporic Koreans. It has been curated by students from the Film Studies Programming and Curation MA at the National Film and Television School: Maria Bolocan, Mark Donaldson, Andrew Espe, Irene Silvera Frischknecht, Roberto González, Maureen Gueunet, David Perrin and Nicolas Raffin.

 

 

The programme was launched on Thursday, April 27th at 19:00 with the UK premiere of Burmese on The Roof (2016)which follows three “unnamed” Burmese migrants from very different socio-economic backgrounds who live together on a prefabricated hut on the rooftop of Masoek Furniture Industrial Corporation. The film captures their everyday life in fine detail without constructing them in terms of irreducible difference providing an insight into the struggles of living and working away from home.

 

Bandhobi (Shin Dong-il: 2009).

Date: 3rd May 2017

Time: 7:00 pm

Bandhobi centres around the relationship between Min-seo (Baek Jin-hee), 17-year old Korean girl who has a difficult relationship with her mother and her mother’s lover with whom she lives, and Karim (Mahbub Alam), a 29 year old migrant from Bangladesh whose work visa is about to expire.

The film is showing at the Korean Cultural Centre in London, which is just a three minute walk from Charing Cross Station. Tickets can be booked through Eventbrite.

 

Scenery (Zhang Lu: 2013)

Date: 11th May 2017 & 31st May (Deptford Cinema)

Time: 7pm

Venue: Korean Cultural Centre

The third film in this mini-season is Scenery, a documentary which follows fourteen migrant workers as they live and work in a foreign country. Clips of interviews with them are combined with footage of their everyday lives. Zhang Lu is a Korean-Chinese film director, who prior to directing was a Professor of Chinese Literature at Yabain University,  whose films focus on the marginalised and disenfranchised. Scenary is adapted from his 30 minute short documentary, Over There, which was shown at the 14th Jeonju Digital Film Festival as part of a strand on the theme of strangers. Scenery is Zhang Lu’s first full length documentary and has won multiple awards including the Critics Prize at the 15th Black Movie Independent Film Festival in Geneva.

Booking via Eventbrite

The Journals of Musan (Park Jung-bam: 2011)

Date: 1st June 2017

Time: 7pm

Venue: Korean Cultural Centre

In The Journals of Musan, a North Korean defector Seung-chul (Park Jung-bam) who barely makes a living putting up posters of sex shops in Seoul. He lives in a crumbling apartment house on the outskirts of the city with another defector, Kyung-chul (Jin Yong-ik). Unlike his roommate who embraces the South Korean ‘dream’, Seung-chul finds it difficult to adjust to his new life. The Journals of Musan offers an insight into the often marginalised and alienated lives lived by those who cross the border from North to South Korea.

Tickets can be booked via Eventbrite.

Seoul Searching (Benson Lee: 2015)

Date: 8th June 2017

Time: 7pm

Venue: Korean Cultural Centre

Seoul Searching is a South Korean teenage movie. Set in 1986, the film focusses on experiences of ethnic-Asian teenagers at a Summer camp in Seoul which seeks to teach the teenagers about their Korean heritage. Loosely based upon Lee’s own experiences, Seoul Searching has been compared to the US teen pictures of the 1980s such as The Breakfast Club (John Hughes: 1985). In Justin Chang’s review for Variety, he makes a direct comparison by calling the film the “Bibimbap Breakfast Club.” It examines the complexity of cultural identity for second and third generation diasporic Koreans.

Tickets can be booked via Eventbrite.

He’s On Duty (Yook Sang-hyo: 2013)

Date: 15 June

Time: 7pm

Venue: Korean Cultural Centre

He’s On Duty explores the racism and marginalisation that migrants working in South Korea face through the experiences that Bang Tae-sik (Kim Im-kwon), a South Korean national, who pretends that he is from Bhutan in order to find work as he feels that he is discriminated against because he doesn’t look ‘Korean’ enough. The film uses comedy to expose the hardships that migrant workers face when working in a country with a strong sense of national identity which is based upon ethnic difference.

Tickets can be booked from Eventbrite.

The film is also showing at SOAS, on 12th May at 5:15pm. Tickets can be booked via SOAS.

The students at the National Film School have done a really great job curating this season. In post-Brexit Britain, we can all learn something from the experiences of ‘Others’, whether they are fictional or factual. I would highly recommend that people catch at least one if not more of the films in this season.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Missing (Lee Eon-hee, South Korea: 2016) – Screening 10th April 2017

Director Lee’s second feature, Missing/Lost Child follows the desperate search of a single mother, Ji-sun (Eom Ji-won), recently separated from her physician husband, for her young daughter, Da-eun (Seo Ha-nee), who goes missing one day seemingly abducted by her Chinese nanny, Han-mae (Gong Hyo-jin). Following Princess Aurora (Pang Eun-jin: 2005) – which was screened as part of the recent Chills and Thrills mini-season at the KCCUK – and The Truth Beneath (Lee Kyoung-mi: 2016), Missing explores the fragile bond between mother and daughter through a female perspective. Starring Eom Ji-won, who played the mother in Lee Joon-ik’s heart-breaking Hope (2013) and the Principal of the strange girl’s school in The Silenced (Lee Hae-young: 2015), and Gong Hyo-jin – a prolific actresses – whose most recent film is A Single Rider (Lee Joo-young: 2017), Missing boasts a stellar cast and recorded over 1 million admissions on its release in South Korea last year and an award by Korea’s Film Actor’s Association for Gong Hyo-jin.

It is nice to see ongoing recognition of the work of female directors by The London Korean Film Festival and Korean Cultural Centre UK and as such, it is important that we support such work as the spotlight all too often fails to fall on female directors, relegating them a secondary status and as a consequence silencing female voices and perspectives in the process.

The film is the second in the series of Teaser screenings for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival 2017 and is the UK premiere of the film. It will be introduced by Evrim Ersoy, Head Programmer for Fantastic Fest (Austin, Texas). The screening takes place at Picturehouse Central on Monday 10th April 2017, at 6.30pm.

Tickets can be booked direct at the following link: https://www.picturehouses.com/cinema/Picturehouse_Central/film/lkff-preview-screening-missing/tickets/24224

Hope to see some of you there.

 


Chills and Thrills: Korean Film Nights

 

Starting from the 16th February, Korean Film Nights begins the first in three mini-seasons that comprise of a year long screening programme. Each season will showcase six films, many of which are being screened for the first time in the UK.

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to curate the first mini-season: ‘Chills and Thrills: Korean Horror Cinema.’ In 2016, South Korean Horror Cinema went global with the critical and commercial success of The Wailing (Na Hong-jin), Train to Busan ( Yeon Sang-ho) and The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook). With this mini-season, I wanted to showcase the breadth and depth of South Korean horror. As such, the films chosen act as a primer for both genre enthusiasts and cinephiles. From a desperate mother whose loss of her daughter is unbearable and can only be assuaged by killing those responsible, to a pair of high-end shoes whose surface beauty hides a deadly secret, a suicide pact between young high-school girls which is not quite what it seems, a sadistic serial killer who forces his victim to tell him scary stories, a young boy whose life is blighted by the fact that he can see ghosts , and an adolescent girl whose life is brutally cut short, these films show the rich tapestry of K-horror. Each film will have an introduction. Film critic Anton Bitel will be introducing  Mourning Grave and Horror Stories.

The programme is as follows:

16th February: Princess Aurora (Pang Eun-jin: 2005)

23rd February: The Red Shoes (Kim Yong-gyun: 2005)

2nd March: A Blood Pledge (Lee Jong-yong: 2009)

9th March: Horror Stories (Kim Gok et al: 2012)

16th March: Mourning Grave (Oh In-chun: 2014)

23rd March: Fatal Intuition (Yun Jun-hyeong: 2015)

There will also be additional screenings in the Echoes programme including a screening at Deptford Cinema on Saturday 25th February 2017.

In addition, I will be giving a talk on ‘School Horror’ at New Malden Library on the 21st of February between 6pm and 7pm. Tickets are free and can be booked at the following link: Talk at New Malden Library


Train to Busan

As a specialist – or so I like to think – in horror cinema, I have seen many zombie films ranging from the good, bad to the mildly indifferent. And just when I thought there the zombie genre was near exhaustion along comes Train to Busan with its hordes of ferocious zombies terrorising the passengers on a high-speed train whose destination is, of course, Busan. Known for his anime films and their insightful critical commentaries on socio-economics conditions in contemporary South Korea – The King of Pigs/Dwaejiui Wang (2011) and The Fake/Saibi (2013) which took on the consequences of bullying within the stratified structures of South Korea’s High School system and its impact on adulthood and religious fanaticism respectively, it is no surprise that Director YEON imbues his first live-action film with social critique utilizing the figure of the zombie as a metaphor for class disparities in late-capitalist South Korea where the gap between the uber-rich and the poor has never been more divisive.

The zombie is not an indigenous monster and the recent spate of zombie films from East Asia could be seen as an example of the globalization of horror cinema mirroring the contemporary Western obsession with zombies especially on the small screen e.g. The Walking Dead (AMC: 2010-) and iZombie (CW: 2015 – ) . With films such as Zombie 108/Z-108 qi cheng (Joe CHEIN, Taiwan: 2012),  Yakuza Apocalypse/Gokudo Daisenso (MIIKE Takeshi, Japan: 2015) and I am a Hero/Ai Amu a Hiro (SATO Shinzuke, Japan: 2016), the archetypical long-haired ghost with her creaking joints, strange vocal range and fractured body seems to have been displaced by the zombie, the living dead of Marxist thought, spectres born from neo-liberalist geopolitics – linked to the rise of corporate capitalism and the corresponding alienation brought about by the illusory freedom of consumption necessitated by the economics of the free market.

Image result for train to busan

The slow-moving, crippled, zombies of early zombie films are no longer figures of fear, instead we have fast-moving, communities of the living dead – 28 Days Later (Danny BOYLE, UK: 2002) and World War Z (Marc FORSTER, US: 2013) who are gradually becoming conscious, as envisaged by George ROMERO in his fourth instalment of the Night of the Living Dead series, Land of the Dead (US: 2005). In Train to Busan, the zombies are by-products of a leak at nuclear plant and while fast-moving, they lack the type of consciousness to repeat basic human actions which means that ultimately humans will triumph as consciousness will always prevail over pure instinct.  Despite the hordes of zombies who infect those they come across with impunity, Train to Busan’s success lies not so much with the set-pieces – as extraordinary as they are, but with the resilience of human spirit brought into focus by the presence of death. As in BONG Joon-ho’s The Host/Gwoemul (2006), the re-establishing of familial bonds – specifically those between a father and his daughter – is central not just to the narrative trajectory but to the film’s global success.

Image result for train to busan

The father here is Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and the daughter, Soo-an (KIM Soo-ahn). Seok-woo is a busy fund manager who is separated from his wife and although she lives with him, he spends little father to daughter time with Soo-an. However, he begrudgingly concedes to Soo-an’s birthday wish to visit her mother in Busan. Once on the train, Seok-woo must fight to the death to keep his daughter safe. And it is through the reconnection of father and daughter and Seok-woo’s realisation that the world of corporate capitalism to which he belongs is responsible for corrupting the fragile human relations between people, pitting rich against poor, young against old, able-bodied against disabled as embodied by the zombie threat that the film’s success lies. The desire to preserve one’s life at the expense of others is and ignore the suffering of others are essential components of late capitalism which operates through the alienation of man from his labour, and construction of a sphere of pure consumption which offers respite from the psychological warfare of capitalism. The Train to Busan offers the viewer a glimpse into contemporary socio-economic conditions in South Korea – which mimics those in the West – and argues for the importance of connections between people as the only possible response to these spaces of dissolution and destruction, private, public and environmental.

Train to Busan merges our expectations of the contemporary zombie film with action-packed scenes of zombie hordes mercilessly creating havoc and destruction both on and off the train with the family-centred [melo]drama which connects us to the film emotionally as well as viscerally. It is a film that needs – or perhaps more appropriately – demands to be seen on the big screen. It is nothing but spectacular. But it is the human heart of the film brought into relief by the hordes of zombies that makes us stay.

As a preview to the London Korean Film Festival 2016, Train to Busan is showing on 6th October at 7pm at Picturehouse Central. For tickets visit: https://www.picturehouses.com/cinema/Picturehouse_Central/Whats_On

The animated prequel, Seoul Station/Seoulyeok, is showing at LKFF2016. Details available: http://koreanfilm.co.uk/

 

 

 

 


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.

Image result for 12 deep red nights chapter 1
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.

mourninggrave1

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).

 

 


Choi Min-sik: The Interview

Attending the group interview of Choi Min-sik at BAFTA was without doubt the highlight of my year. Charming, modest and humorous, Choi was a delight to interview and opened up about his career to date to the assembled Asian film bloggers and writers.

While Choi Min-sik has become inseparable from the iconic vengeful victim Oh Dae-su in OldBoy, he is one of South Korea’s most respected actors with a long career dating back to 1989 when he appeared in Kuro Arirang directed by Park Chong-won. Since, he appeared in some of the most successful South Korean films of all time including Shiri /Swiri (Kang Je-Gyu: 1999) and The Brotherhood of War/Taegukgi (Kang Je-Gyu: 2004) – playing a North Korean ‘anti-hero’ in both. In between these two block-busters, Choi Min-sik took on the role of the legendry nineteenth century painter, Jang Seung-Up, in Im Kwon-taek’s Chihwaseon (2002). Although Choi Min-sik has played some meditative characters, including  Kang-jae, a washed up gangster who enters into a marriage of convenience with the beautiful Failan (Cecilia Cheung) in Song Hae-Sung’s 2001 film of the same name, and Choi in Himalaya, Where the Wind Dwells, a white collar executive who finds spiritual enlightenment when delivering the remains of a Nepalese migrant to his family, Choi Min-sik is better known – particularly in the West where he will forever be associated with Oh Dae-su – for his action roles, particularly those that explore the brutal side of human nature.

The Interview (please note that the questions and answers are from the transcribed interview by Paul Quinn of Hangul Celluloid). 

I was interested to discover when researching for the group interview that Choi Min-sik had actually taken the script of I Saw the Devil to Kim Jee-woon, which formed the basis of my first question.

Dr. Colette Balmain: I would like to ask a question about I Saw the Devil: I read that you were the one who took the script to director Kim Jee-woon and I wondered what attracted you to it since the character you play has really no redeeming qualities or characteristics at all; it’s a very evil character?

Choi Min-sik: When I first saw the script what I felt was this person could only have been born this way with evil genes. He looks like everyone else but the way he was born and who he became felt incredibly sad to me. However, the victim who had been sacrificed by this utter psychopath and having been embroiled in a huge amount of sadness and anger transformed into a devil that’s even worse than the psychopath; I found that idea and process very interesting – almost a reversal of the origins of violence. I felt that the two characters being gridlocked in these extreme acts as the audience watches the process would also be of interest to those viewers and would in some way contaminate them, in the process, and what lay beyond the acts of violence of the two men played by Lee Byung-hun and myself was what I really found interesting. The violence in I Saw the Devil grows to such an extreme that it almost becomes comedic, in a sense, and objectively watching it you can see members of the audience laughing because they realise it’s so outrageous and I wanted to look at that contamination of violence and violation that takes place. I also wanted to share society being rather overwhelmed with act of violence in the world we live in now, and share the terror and feelings of fear that come with that.

My comments: I found Choi Min-sik’s philosophical response about violence as a form of contamination particularly instructive especially as someone who writes about and teaches extreme cinema. Media panic around violent cinema (and of course video games) for me functions merely as a mechanism through which to divert societal/governmental responsibility from socio-economic issues that impact on the prevalence (and I am not saying that deprivation is the only reason for violence, but that it is a formative one in many cases) of real-life violence. Moral outrage over violent cinema also does not take into account the viewer’s relationship to the screen, or indeed the manner in which violent films such as I Saw The Devil engage the viewer into an act of complicity with that violence by making us aware of the cinematic frame. By doing this, it is our desire to see violence and enjoy that violence that is being foregrounded – in these terms, I Saw The Devil provides a critical commentary on violence rather than a how to do it guide as the press and politicians would have us believe.

(Interestingly enough although we were all trying not to ask Choi Min-sik about Spike Lee’s recently release remake of OldBoy, or indeed specific questions about the original, when I did eventually come around to the topic, Choi Min-sik response was both enthusiastic and illuminating (making me wish that perhaps I had asked the question sooner).

Dr. Colette Balmain: I wanted to ask about Oldboy: When I showed Oldboy to my students, I think it resonated with them more than any other film I’ve ever taught. There’s something in Oldboy that is very Korean but it’s also universal as well – there is something that speaks outside of Korea in a very direct way. Given that and given the remake that’s about to come out, how do you feel about remakes of Korean films? And I know many of my students are horrified that Oldboy is being remade, even by Spike Lee.

Choi Min-sik: Today at lunch, I was at the headquarters of Universal which shot the remake of Oldboy and they had a very “sorry” attitude towards me [Choi Min-sik laughs]. I had huge expectations for the film and to have Josh Brolin, who I consider to be an excellent actor, play my role I felt was extremely positive but when I told them I was full of expectations they replied that I really shouldn’t have high expectations for the film at all. However, I think they were being very modest and I think they were just treating me with according respect as the actor who was in the original film. I am very expectant of how the remake will be, I’m greatly anticipating it and I think it will be very interesting to see how a different culture interprets the story.

My commentary: I really liked this response as I feel exactly the same way about remakes. Yes, they might not work some, or indeed most, of the time but that it can be interesting to see how another culture interprets the same story. And I often argue that a remake can lead a viewer to the original, which for me has to be a win-win solution for everyone involved – even if it is just too say how much better the original is.

My concluding thoughts: Choi Min-sik is one of his generation’s truly great actors – and as Mark Morris pointed out in the Q&A after the screening of Nameless Gangster (my review will follow shortly) – not just of South Korean cinema but of cinema. In person, he is charming and irrepressible and extremely modest for an actor with such an outstanding body of work.  It is not often you get to meet a cinematic hero, but thanks to the Korean Cultural Centre UK and BAFTA I did just that. I am still slightly overwhelmed by the experience. Despite masquerading as an academic, I am at heart a fan who cannot believe her luck at what she gets to do for a living.

Thanks to Paul Quinn of Hangul Celluloid for transcribing the interview, which you can find in full  here: Choi Min-sik Group Interview

Again thanks to the KCCUK for making this possible.


A Good Lawyer’s Wife (Im Sang-Soo: 2003)

Most of Director Im’s films to date could be classified as ‘woman’s films’ as the protagonists are strong woman who are shown having to navigate the many obstacles placed in their way in order to be independent in what remains a predominantly patriarchal society in which women should know their place and that place should be one of subservience and obedience. While in the West, Director Im is probably best-known for his 2010 remake of Kim Ki-young’s classic 1960 Gothic melodrama, The Housemaid (하녀: 1960) which had its UK premiere at the 5th London Korean Film Festival, he is one of South Korea’s most noted directors, both domestically and on the international festival circuit. Never shying away from addressing key social and political issues, Director Im directly addresses female subjectivity, subjugation and sexuality in A Good Lawyer’s Wife (바람난 가족: 2003).

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The protagonists of A Good Lawyer’s wife, is Ho-jung (Moon So-ri) , who is, as the title tells us, the wife of a lawyer. Yet the title is deceptive in its English translation, as it is Ho-jung who is good, and not in fact her husband, Joo Young-jak (Hwang Jung-min). Indeed, Young-jak is a largely unsympathetic figure, not only does he have sex with a succession of young woman but he has little time for his clients, viewing the practice of the law as a purely money making venture: a capitalistic attitude which will lead to tragedy. Ho-jung’s search for an identity outside of being a ‘good wife’ takes the form of a sexual journey of discovery. Unable to have an orgasm with  Young-jak, she seeks satisfaction elsewhere and finds it in an unconventional relationship with the teenage son, Shin Ji-Woon (Hong Tae-gyu), of her neighbor. At the same time, Young-jak’s mother, Hong Byung-han (Yoon Yeo-jung) is on her own voyage of sexual discovery after her husband succumbs to liver failure as a result of alcoholism.

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Like Director Im’s other woman-centred films, A Good Lawyer’s wife is very direct in its representation of female sexuality and female desire. While the search for sexual fulfillment as a metaphor for the search for female emancipation is in some ways a cliche, the powerful central performance by Moon So-ri as torn between patriarchal desires and her own desires, adds authenticity to the journey for self-discovery. While I did enjoy the film, especially when it took a darker turn, I felt that it was still a patriarchal vision/ version of female emancipation in that the sex-scenes said more about male desire than female desire or fulfillment.As such it could be argued that A Good Lawyer’s Wife, despite Director Im’s intentions, is complicit with the dominant ideology of patriarchy which relies on a conventional view of compulsory heterosexuality and gender binaries.  The fact that A Good Lawyer’s Wife was partly promoted in terms of its explicit scenes of sex, thus reconstructing the female – here Moon-ri -as the object of male desire seems to attest to the difficulty of defining female subjectivity without recourse to sexual cliches.

Having said all this, I would recommend A Good Lawyer’s Wife but more because of the performance of Moon-ri than the overall narrative of the film itself.


Stoker (Park Chan-wook, US: 2012)

Stoker, Director Park’s first foray into directing an English language film, is an intense Oedipal drama which although making a number of intertextual visual references to Bram Stoker’s seminal Dracula (the asylum from which Charlie escape, the spiders that climb up India’s body), eschews the supernatural and preternatural worlds and instead instead focuses in on the fragility of the human condition through an interrogation into the functioning of the familial unit. As in his earlier female-centered Gothic dramas, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨: 2005)   and I’m a Cyborg, but that’s OK (싸이보그지만 괜찮아: 2006), Director Park is concerned with exploring female subjectivity as contained and constrained by patriarchy.

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At the center of the dysfunctional family unit in Stoker is the sullen and emotionally distanced India (Mia Wasikowska) who when the film begins is in mourning for the sudden loss of her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), and in constant war with her glamorous mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) who she perceives as not grieving sufficiently. Into this fraught mother-child dyad, comes a substitute father figure in the form of Richard’s brother, Charles (Matthew Goode), completing the oedipal triangle of mommy-daddy-me. With his debonair charm and worldly ways, Charles soon becomes an object of desire for both women, and the stage is set for a bitter conflict which can only be resolved through death in order for India to complete and resolve her oedipal complex. Stoker is a paradigmatic example of pop-psychoanalysis and the narrative navigates Freud’s drama of desire and death within the familial unit. While the resolution might be unconventional vis-à-vis the oedipal complex,  the playing out of the Oedipal conflict is not.

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As to be expected, Director Park’s strong aesthetic and artistic sensibilities are evident and he creates a beautiful and timeless canvas which frames the drama. However, the script by Wentworth Miller, is cliched and I found Mia Wasikowska as the sullen teenager transiting to adulthood as unconvincing. This is partly because  she looks too old to be a teenage girl on the verge of adulthood (Wasikowska was in fact 23 during the filming).

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Compared to similar horror film heroines,  Brigitte Fitzgerald (Emily Perkins) in Gingersnaps (John Fawcett, Canada: 2000),  Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) in Heathers (Michael Lehmann, US: 1988), who are obsessed also obsessed with death and have difficulty in dealing with the transitions into adulthood,  India is a one-dimensional figure as played by Wasikowska, whose entrance into womanhood is signaled by a scene of masturbation in the shower while she fantasizes about Charlie and the ‘primal scene’, after which she symbolically takes her mother’s place by wearing  the same type of glamorous clothes as her mother rather than the drab, figure concealing costume of a sexually repressed teenager. Swapping the unconventional narrative and genre conventions of South Korean cinema, Director Park constructs an all too conventional narrative with an over-codified female lead, who is the object of patriarchal fears and desires, as signaled by the first low-angled close up shot of India which fragments the threatening female body and thus disavows the possibility of castration through the substitution of the fetish – here shoes function as the fetish throughout, with the sneakers that India receives on her birthday (which she thinks are a present from her father, rather than her Uncle) being symbolically exchanged for high-heels when she enters into adulthood.

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The dark threatening tones of the opening scene construct a mise-en-scene of danger and disavowal, containing a threat of death (castration), which will be fulfilled towards the narrative’s conclusion. To successfully navigate the Oedipus complex, the girl-child needs to separate from the mother (the original love object in both Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis) and go from desiring to have her father’s child to desiring father-substitutes thus according with the incest injunction and the needs of bourgeois society. India’s separation from the symbolic father, Charlie, is done using the tools that her real father taught her, while her separation from her mother takes the form of imitating the mother – the frequent mirroring of shots framing mother and then daughter in the same position and taken at the same angle) – before the act of vengeance in which the daughter becomes the mother.

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It is certainly possible, to view India as the typical unreliable Gothic heroine  whose point-of-view is compromised by her fantasies and repressed desires. This is suggested by offering more than one version of the death of a young man who attempts to rape (or does he?) India and who is murdered by Charlie (or is he? does this ever in fact take place?). As such the narrative becomes one which is located in the pre-Oedipal or Lacan’s imaginary (the world of images and  narcissism), and is a playing out of childish fantasies and wish-fulfillment rather than a staging of the Oedipal complex. While such a reading is perhaps more productive, it does not alter the fact that Stoker is a conventional replaying of normative heterosexuality and the dictates of compulsory femininity. After all if the killing of Charlies, as the substitute father-figure, is just a fantasy, then patriarchal order is restored.  However, even if the murder is a reality within the diegetic world, it says more about male fears and desires than female subjectivity thereby conforming to the dictates of the dominant patriarchal ideology that informs so much of US cinema.

In conclusion, I found the film to be an uncomfortable fit with Director Park’s oeuvre and one of his least challenging works. Having said this, I realise that I am at odds with critics and audiences in the West who have raved about Stoker. Stoker is beautifully composed as one would expect of a Park Chan-wook film, but in the final analysis, just too Americanized and conventional for this viewer.  However, Director Park remains one of my favourite directors and his Sympathy for Mr Vengeance ( 복수는 나의 것: 2002) remains an uncompromising cinematic tour-de-force. I preferred the supernatural and preternatural Gothic of his previous film, Thirst, rather than the domestic Gothic of Stoker.