Category Archives: London Korean Film Festival 2012

Director YIM Soon-rye

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It was nice to end the wonderful Year of 12 Directors, with a month devoted to the films of a female director, YIM Soon-rye (임순례). I didn’t make the first screening which was Waikiki Brothers (와이키키 브라더스: 2001), Director YIM’s second feature film, but managed to catch the other three films that were shown. While I wasn’t that keen on Forever the Moment (우리 생애 최고의 순간: 2008) – probably because I am not a fan of sports based films – I really enjoyed both Fly Penguin (날아라 펭귄: 2009) and Rolling Home with a Bull (소와 함께 여행하는 법: 2010) and it was great to have the opportunity to meet and talk to Director YIM before the screening of the later at the Apollo Cinema on the 20th December. Director YIM’s films focus on marginal characters and identities and as such can be considered within the broad banner of social issue cinema. While her primary focus is not on the oppression suffered by women under patriarchal capitalism, she does bring a sense of truth and authenticity to her female characters, who are more rounded and complex than generally found in female centered films by male directors that struggle to find a midway path between the virgin/whore binary or the good wife/the new woman, and in which women’s voices are often appropriated in order to construct/reconstruct a viable and sometimes violent masculinity. Poignant moments in Forever the Moment tell of an authentic female experience, from not being acknowledged as authoritative  or as being able to be in a position of power and/or being torn between the seemingly exclusive roles of being a good wife and an independent woman. In Fly Penguin, two of the interlinked stories concern woman’s struggle to be heard in both the domestic – the home – and the public – the workplace, while in Rolling Home with a Bull, a young woman helps guide a would be poet on his journey to spiritual enlightenment.

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It is not surprising therefore to learn that Director YIM had participated in the first Human Rights  omnibus film, If You Were Me/ 여섯개의 시선 in 2003, with The Weight of Her, a short film about female students being forced to change their appearances  – lose weight and/or have plastic surgery – in order to accord with the dictates of compulsory femininity under a patriarchal society (there have been four other films in the series since, including an anime film). Director YIM has a cameo appearance at the end of The Weight of Her, juxtaposing reality and fiction, and foregrounding the centrality of image as constitutive of female identity in contemporary South Korea.

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Meeting the Director

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Before the screening of Rolling Home with a Bull, I was invited along with other critics/reviewers to meet Director YIM for a group interview. A number of us, including myself, were interested in her experiences as a female director and her feelings regarding responsibility to women to deal with specifically female issues/identities (this came up again in the Q&A session with Tony Rayns after the screening). Director YIM pointed out that her films did not deal specifically with female experiences/identities, and that in fact she was as interested -if not more so – with male identities and in particularly oppressed male identity and the violence such oppression often results in. I think for a woman, it is always exciting to meet a female director – as there are still so few of them relatively – and there is a need (for me at least) to see the representation of woman outside of patriarchal constraints, fears and desire. I think this need is difficult for some male critics (including Tony Rayns) to understand. It is not that we want female directors to be limited to telling female stories (and I am not being essentialist here, I think it is our experiences as being woman that unites us in a multitude of complex and difficult ways) but we want to be able to connect to female characters on screen rather than disconnect.

Director YIM pointed out that when she started in film in 1996, she was the only female director, and therefore there was pressure on her to direct female-orientated if not feminist films. However these days there are feminist film directors in South Korea who have emerged over the last ten years, and this has taken the pressure of her. Interestingly enough – and in opposition to some of the articles I have read on Korean cinema – Director YIM said that there are no more female directors today in South Korea than when 10 years ago. However, in terms of people involved in the making of films including production staff and editors, the industry is divided equally 50/50 .  While this demonstrates a significant shift in gender relations in the film industry, it does not take away from the fact that there is a shortage of woman at the helm of the industry. (There will be a link to the full transcript of the group interview in due course).

It was such a pleasure to meet Director YIM and was a wonderful end to a great year of Korean Cinema in London courtesy of the Korean Cultural Centre in London and the London Korean Film Festival. I am looking forward to what 2013 holds for Korean Cinema with a great deal of anticipation.


The King of Pigs (돼지의 왕, Yeun Sang-ho: 2011)

Besides Japanese anime, The King of Pigs is the first full-length adult animation that I have seen. I certainly wasn’t expecting such a dark, demented and nihilistic vision of class and social relations in contemporary South Korea that grips from the opening shot to the final bleak shot of the concrete city. This is no dystopian imagining of a future yet to come, but rather a confrontation with the present as fully imbricated with the past and a condemnation of the brutality beget by social disfranchisement and economic failure in a society that privileges success and wealth above all else.

The King of Pigs starts with a slow panning shot of the broken body of a dead woman slumping over at the kitchen table – the brutal aftermath of a violent domestic murder by Hwang Kyung-min (Oh Jung-se), whose company has just gone under and who has lost everything – visually signified by the stickers on the apartment’s furniture and appliances. In The King of Pigs, violence is always perpetrated against those lower in the social pecking order:  The rich against the poor, men against women and humans against animals who represent the lowest rung on the ladder and the most vulnerable.  Financially and morally bankrupt, Kyung-min seeks out his old school friend, Jung Jong-suk (Yang Ik-june) in order to talk about their past and the events that led to 15 years of silence.  In their middle school years, both Kyung-min and Jong-suk were classed as outsiders as a result of their lowly social class, called ‘Pigs’ by the privileged and wealthy in-group  who were known as the ‘Dogs’. One day, a new student, Kim Chul (Kim Hye-na) transfers in and offers the ‘Pigs’ a way to combat the brutality of the Dogs.  Yet the solution is as violent as the problem, with Chul, in a chillingly disturbing scene, stabbing a cat to death and encouraging the others to join in. Chul becomes ‘The King of the Pigs’, and encourages the others to take revenge against the other boys in the class. There is no redemption possible from this degeneration into primitive violence as signaled by Chul’s death at the hands of Kyung-min just as Chul is attempting to rebuild his life after his father’s death. Brutality begets brutality, violence leads to more violence, and the past is resolved in the present with another senseless death.

Critics have noted the similarity in theme with other texts about disaffected youth including William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Yet despite similarities, The King of Pigs is distinctively Korean and belongs to the socio-economic context in which it was produced as does Lord of the Flies. While the competitiveness of the South Korean education system has produced many horror films, together known as School Horror, starting with Whispering Corridors/여고괴담 (Park Ki-Hyeong) in 1998, it has mainly focused on the female experience and films tend to be set in single-sex girls’ schools – for example Roommates/ 어느날 갑자기 세번째 이야기, directed by Eun-kyeong Kim (the 3rd in the ‘Four Horror Tales’ series, 2006) which is set in a crammer school for girls who have not achieved the necessary grades to succeed in either obtaining work or continuing in education. However, in content and theme The King of Pigs bears more resemblance to the narrative of    male brutality and disaffection of A Bloody Aria (구타유발자들; Won Shin-yeon: 2006) than female-orientated School Horror.

The King of Pigs touches on social inequality in South Korean society, an inequality which was predicated by the suffering of the working classes in the building of modern South Korea’s economic miracle. Further the film comments on the rise of domestic violence as a consequence of male disenfranchisement – something which has been noted in recent studies about the correlation between male unemployment and violence within the home. In an unequal society, oppression against those weaker, marginalized and ostracized flourishes – a reassertion of lost potency is gained through the activity of aggression. Jong-suk’s voice-over with which the film ends stresses the moral bankruptcy of late capitalism which is predicated on the survival of the fittest and which has no empathy for those who it sees as valueless and therefore as not fully human: “Where I am is the place that is covered by cold asphalt as ice and by bodies colder that it: it’s called the World.”

The King of Pigs is a gripping piece of contemporary cinema, beautifully animated with an almost photorealistic touch punctured with moments of surrealistic brilliance, and is without doubt one of the best films that I have seen this year.

The King of Pigs will be available on DVD next year, and is distributed in the UK through Terracotta Distribution who specialize in bringing cinematic gems from East and South East Asia to the UK. It is available to pre-order from Amazon:

King of Pigs DVD


Im Kwon-taek

 

I was honoured to be part of a group interview with Director IM Kwon-taek during a major retrospective of his work organised by the Korean Cultural Centre in London. Screenings of Director IM’s films were split between the BFI and the ICA and offered audiences an opportunity to see films from the most influential South Korean director, who at the age of 76 still finds enthusiasm and energy to continue to make ground-breaking and extraordinary films. His most recent, Hanji (달빛 길어올리기: 2011), brought the retrospective to a close.

Since his first film, Farewell to the Duman River (두만강아 잘 있거라) in 1962, Director IM has been at the forefront of South Korean cinema. Starting off making quickie genre films, Director IM has developed into a visionary auteur, whose work has been responsible for raising awareness of traditional Korean arts both domestically and globally. His 1993 film, Seopyeonje (서편제) about the dying art of Pansori, was the first South Korean film to break through 1 million admissions at the domestic box-office, and demonstrated that a low-budget lyrical film could compete with commercial cinema.

He was also the first South Korean director to win best Director at the Cannes Film Festival with his 2002 film, Chihwaseon (취화선), as well as being made a Knight of the French Legion of Honor in 2007.

As there were a number of us interviewing Director IM, unfortunately due to time restraints I did not manage to ask a question of my own. However a full transcript of the group interview can be found at Paul Quinn’s site, Hangul Celluloid.

Transcript of Group Interview with Director IM

I had hoped to ask Director Im about what made him still want to continue making films and in particular experiment with new film-making technology. His 101st film, Hanji, was shot on digital. I had also prepared a question regarding why he felt it was so important to preserve and/or bring to light dying cultural traditions. The final question I had prepared was regarding how different he found it making films now than he did when he started out. Much of the detail of my questions were covered in the Group interview, and I am hopeful that I will get another opportunity to interview Director IM in the future, perhaps even after the release of his 102nd film. I did, however, manage to get his autograph!

IM KWON-TAEK in Conversation

This event took place before the screening of Mandala (만다라: 1981), with Tony Rayns interviewing Director IM, inbetween clips of some of the Director’s most famous films including The Surrogate Woman (씨받이: 1987) and General’s Son (장군의 아들: 1990).

Talking about The Surrogate Woman, Director IM told us that the film was made in protest at the repressive military regime and strict censorship control over cinema at the time. The emphasis on the destruction of the family as a result of the necessity to give birth to a son, provided the type of social commentary that Director IM would be associated with in the second half of his career. As a result The Surrogate Woman can be seen as a proto-feminist text.

The second clip shown was from Mandala, which concerns two Buddhist monks who seek very different paths to Enlightenment. Director IM talked about the difference between Southern and Northern Buddhism. In Southern Buddhism ‘enlightenment is achieved through practice’, while Northern Buddhism concedes that the road to enlightenment is a difficult one and needs to be sought through interaction with the ‘common people’.

The third clip was from Seopyeonje, which saw a revival of the nearly forgotten Pansori art-form in South Korea. It is an example of the very best of South Korean cinema, both beautiful and lyrical and an cinematic experience not quickly forgotten.

The final clip was from General’s Son, which marked a return to genre filmmaking – a type of filmmaking for which Director IM has little time going so far as to wish his early genre films no longer existed – but a genre film very much in the style of auteur cinema.

Conclusions

It was a privilege to meet Director IM, who not only was generous of his time to participate so fully in the retrospective including making time to meet critics and fans, but was in person an extremely lovely man, his humility impressive given his standing in the film community. I wish I had been able to attend more of his films, and came away feeling inspired and hoping to make time to make some in-way in to Director IM’s substantial back catalogue.

Some of Director IM’s films can be accessed via the online Korean Archive youtube channel:


Korean Cinema Forum (09/11/2012)

The Forum took place at the Korean Cultural Centre in London and what follows is a short write-up of the main points of discussion. I would have to say how useful I found the forum, especially in light of the range of South Korean film experts who were on the panel.

PANELLISTS

Tony RAYNS – World renowned East Asian Cinema expert,  writer and director of The Jang Sun-woo Variations.

OH, Dongjin –  chairman of Jecheon International Music and Film Festival (JIMFF).

KIM, Youngjin – Professor at MyongJi University, writer and film critic.

JEON, Chan-il – Film critic and programmer for Busan Film Festival.

RA, Jegy – Film journalist for Hankook Ilbo (a Korean daily newspaper) who has served on the Jury for both the 5th Cinema Digital Seoul Film Festival and the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival.

KIM, Hye-ri – Film journalist, writer and contributor to Cine 21 (a Korean weekly film magazine).

CHOI, Jinhee – Lecturer in Film Studies at Kings College, London and author of The South Korean Film Renaissance: Local Hitmakers, Global Provocateurs. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010.

The Forum was chaired by Tony Rayns and moderated by Dr Jin-hee Choi.

Discussion

One of the topics discussed was the role of film festivals in promoting South Korean cinema. Traditionally festivals are associated with providing a platform for low-budget independent cinema/art cinema and as a consequence have played a very small part in the promotion of commercial cinema. In 2011 two films, Unbowed (부러진 화살 , Chung Ji-Young) and Punch ( 완득이 , Lee Han) premiered at the Busan International Film Festival (Busan, South Korea). As a result Punch became the 3rd highest grossing South Korean film of 2011, with over 5 million admissions at the domestic box-office, having only accounted for half a million admissions before the premiere – and went on to a limited release in the U.S.

Similarly Unbowed also saw a surge in popularity after its screening at Busan with well over 3 million admissions at the domestic box-office, a substantial leap for a film that cost £300,000 to make and marking a successful return to directing for Director Chung after 13 years.

While the closing film of this year’s London Korean Film Festival, Masquerade was not officially invited to Busan, the Director and cast visited the festival in order to promote the film, marking the increasing importance of film festivals in helping to increase the visibility of commercial cinema.

There followed some discussion of the monopolization of the film industry in South Korea by a few corporations, which impact the diversity of production and the opportunities for exhibition for non-commercial films. In these terms, the film festival circuit continues to be extremely important for the promotion of non-mainstream cinema, as demonstrated by the success of Kim ki-duk’s Pieta(피에타)  and Jeon Kyu-hwan’s The Weight (무게) at this year’s Venice Film Festival.

With film festivals, low-budget non-commercial cinema would be easily ignored and/or forgotten. In these terms, Busan continues to lead the way in the promotion of the diversity of South Korean cinema.

These was also a discussion of The Thieves, which broke box-office records in South Korea this year, a record which had previously been held by Bong Joon-ho’s The Host ( 괴물) and whether its success was due to the localization of elements of Hong Kong and Hollywood cinema. This localization is shown by the insertion of a sad ending to what is typically a light-hearted genre. It was also suggested that the Korean audience identified with the thieves of the title, as the South Korea’s economic miracle was made possible by the oppression of the rights and needs of the working classes on whom this miracle was built. In addition, The Thieves’ impressive and spectacular action scenes were comparable to those in Hong Kong action cinema, even though the cost of the production was significantly smaller. There followed a short analysis of the relationship between the needs of localized and global audiences. Whether the success of The Thieves and/or Masquerade (광해, 왕이 된 남자, Choo Chang-Min) will open the door to larger audiences outside of South Korea is still to be seen.

The panel agreed that overall 2012 had been a great year for South Korean cinema with audiences reaching 100 million, the highest since 1969.

Two trends in contemporary South Korean cinema were distinguished:

Firstly: Films such as Silenced (도가니, Hwang Dong-HyukL 2011) and Unbowed, which are based on ‘true’ stories and create a sense of moral indignation around events in the past.

Secondly: The increasing age of the demographic for South Korean cinema domestically. While in the past the target audience were women in their early twenties, this audience is now in their 30s/40s and continues to be the main demographic, explaining the popularity of nostalgic films such as Dancing Queen (댄싱퀸, Lee Suk-Hoon: 2012) and films based upon true events from the recent past.

These trends are perhaps problematic as they deal with the recent past, and have nothing to say about either present-day of future South Korea. The success of both The Thieves and Masquerade was addressed, and the possibility of whether the success was done to the current political climate in South Korea. It was suggested that both films spoke to a collective anxiety about the outcome of the forthcoming elections and contained a political message about the need to be a humane and caring society. There was also some concern expressed over the separation of aesthetics and narrative in contemporary South Korean cinema as opposed to cinema of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The final part of the panel discussion revolved around what the South Korean Government and KOFIC can do to increase the visibility of South Korean cinema in the global marketplace where it tends to be associated with a few directors such as Kim Ki-duk and Park Chan-wook. While these directors have an established and ardent fanbase, it is more difficult for other directors, including those who make commercial cinema, to find success. One way that was put forward, which returns us to the beginning of the discussion, was making a wider variety of films visible on the global stage. One way discussed was through co-productions as is the case with Bong Joon-ho’s Snow Piercer (설국열차: 2013). Snow Piercer is a collaboration between the US, France and South Korea and has a multi-national cast including Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton and Song Kang-Ho to name but a few. Snow Piercer is a South Korean film based upon a French manga, and with universal themes that should appeal to Western audiences.

This raised interesting questions, which have been going on since the beginning of Korean cinema, about what makes a ‘South Korean film’: is it the nationality of the Director? the nationality of the cast? or contained within the locations? This is particularly interesting as in the pre-screening messages that showed before films at the London Korean Film Festival, both Park Chan-wook (Stoker: 2013) and Kim Ji-woon (The Last Stand: 2013) spoke of hoping to show their films at next year’s festival, even though both films are being made in the US, and in English.

The panel concluded with some dire statistics regarding World cinema in the West, with Tony Rayns pointing out that subtitled films represent between 1% and 2% of all films shown in the West and that things have in fact got worse over the last 10 years or so. It is unfortunately the case that on television, most films screened are English language films, and subtitled or World Cinema is relegated to the early hours of schedules therefore limiting the potential audience. Personally I hope this will change, although I share the concerns expressed at the Forum about the dominance of US cinema both at the box-office and on television. Perhaps the opening and closing films of this year’s London Korean Film Festival – The Thieves and Masquerade – can lead the way.


Masquerade (광해, 왕이 된 남자, Choo Chang-Min: 2012)

Having recently won 15 awards at the 49th Daejong Film Awards, Masquerade is a sumptuous period drama about a man who would be king. Set during the Joseon era (1450-1750), Masquerade embellishes on historical fact by imagining  scenario in which the 15th King of the Joseon Dynasty, King Gwang-hae has been poisoned, and a court clown, Ha-Sun, is persuaded to impersonate the King during his recovery – thus explaining the 15 missing days in the Court records during the reign of King Gwang-hae.

South Korean actor and heart-throb, Lee Byun-hun, plays the dual roles with intensity and skill, and indeed this is the best performance that I have seen from him. The mechanics of the daily life and rituals of the Court are visualized in detail, offering many a humorous moment including  Ha-Sun’s first Kingly bowel motion which is performed in front of a large audience of palace women and servants to his overt dismay and the overt delight of the packed audience present for the closing gala of the London Korean Film Festival. As Ha-Sun becomes more immersed in his role as King, he begins to assert his own voice on behalf of the people rather than allowing Court officials,  and the desires of the wealthy to influence his decisions. As a result, officials begin to suspect that the King is not actually the King, but rather an impersonator and seek to reveal his true identity.

There is no doubt that Masquerade is a aesthetically stunning piece of  filmmaking, or that the performances of the key players including Lee Byun-hun are extremely good, but I found that I did not emotionally connect with the film in the way in which most of the audience did during the screening.  Whether this is due to the fact that I felt that the female roles were not fully developed, or that I did not find Lee Byun-hun charismatic enough in the central role (and I suspect that I was the only one judging by the hysterical reaction that Lee Byun-hun got when he entered the cinema) I am not sure. Personally I liked both The King and the Clown (왕의남자, Lee Jun-ik: 2005) and Shadows in the Palace ( 궁녀,  KIM Mee-Jeung: 2007)  more in terms of South Korean period drama, which might be simply because of my preference for a darker cinema that toys with your emotions, which both films do so effectively.

Whether Masquerade will be the South Korea film to make an impact on the international box-office, as is hoped, I think is debatable. I wonder whether it is too dialogue centred and action light to be the sort of “Oriental” fantasy that Western audiences consume so avidly, but of course I could be wrong – and I suspect I may be here. In the final analysis, I hope that Masquerade does well as it is the antithesis of the South Korean festival film that audiences in the West seem to privilege over commercially orientated cinema. As much as I am a fan of KIM Ki-duk, KIM Ji-woon  and PARK Chan-wook, it is such a shame that the other side of South Korean cinema does not  get enough recognition or appreciation in the West. It is about time that this changes, and the variety of films at the London Korean Film Festival clearly demonstrated the breadth and variety of contemporary South Korean Cinema, of which Masquerade is an excellent example.


Deranged (연가시, Park Jung-Woo: 2012)

While more medical thriller than outright horror, Deranged is thoroughly enjoyable, albeit  slightly antiseptic on the body-horror front for a film in which the body is the site of invasion by horsehairs worms. The emotional core of the film comes from the troubled relationship between a police officer, Jae-pil (Kim Dong-wan) and his brother, Jae-hyeok (Kim Myung-min), a sales executive for a pharmaceutical company. Due to unwisely investing all of his savings in the stock market on a tip from his brother, Jae-hyeok is struggling to provide for his wife (Mun Jung-hee) and his two children whom he unwittingly neglects and whom as a result become victims of a deadly epidemic that is rapidly spreading throughout South Korea leaving a trail of dead and emaciated bodies in its wake.

The infected are herded up by the government and quarantined while doctors desperately try to find a cure for the pandemic and the pharmaceutical company that makes medication that can cure the infection, stockpiles existing stocks, and refuses to hand over the formula to the government unless the government buys it for a hugely inflated price. Jae-hyeok desperately tries to buy the medication on the black market, only to have it stolen from him when eventually he manages to find some in a truly effective set-piece of mob hysteria and brutality. Meanwhile, Jae-pil is involved in the official police investigation into the cause of this mysterious and deadly illness, and with his girlfriend, the beautiful Dr Kim (Honey Lee), who works for the Department of Health, races against time to solve the deadly mystery.

Park Jung-woo handles the material well, creating a fast-paced and absorbing medical thriller, while Mun Jung-hee is particularly effective as the mother trying to prevent her children from succumbing to the madness caused by the infection while struggling to contain her own destructive desire for water, which signals the final part and terminal part of the virus. The social commentary on big-business’s lack of empathy for human suffering is effective and timely given South Korea’s highly developed capitalist society in which the relationship between the rich and the poor has never been so stratified. The creation of a disease by the pharmaceutical company in order to enhance its stock profile, and the holding back of the cure for the disease until sufficient monetary settlement has been made, is an explicit metaphor for the workings of capitalist society that creates the wealth through the suffering of the working classes laying bare the machinery of capitalism and South Korea’s economic miracle.

Deranged has a great deal to offer the viewer both at textual and metatextual levels, and it is no surprise that it was a hit at the domestic box office.


Gabi ( 가비, Chang Yoon-Hyun: 2012)

Based upon the novel, Russian Coffee by Kim Tak-hwan, Gabi concerns the [fictional] attempt to assassinate King Gojang (Park Hee Soon), the 26th King of the Joseon Dynasty. The film opens with the capture of Illichi (Ju Jin Mo) and Tanya (Kim So Yeon), thieves who make a living stealing from both the Japanese and the Russians. In exchange for their lives, Illichi and Tanya are forced to work for the Japanese, who want them to kill the King. The plan is named ‘Operation Gabi’, one of the multiple references to coffee that runs throughout the film, and Tanya turns out to be an expert at making coffee (which at the time was newly introduced to Korea) which enables her to get close to the King, who is depicted an irresponsible leader, more concerned with his own status, than the suffering of his country. Ultimately the plot to kill the King fails  as neither Tanya nor Illichi are able to go through with it, even though it is the only way to ensure their safety, leading to a typical Korean melodramatic conclusion.

While there have been criticisms of the film’s veracity to detail, use of CGI and problems regarding linguistic accuracy in relation to the use of both Russian and Japanese dialogue, Gabi is a great deal of fun to watch and there is much to enjoy about it. The locations and costumes are visually stunning, and the performances are nicely realised, drawing the viewer into identifying with the doomed lovers Tanya and Illichi while not constructing events within a simplistic good/evil binary and thus avoiding a nationalistic jingoism about good Korea and evil Others.

Like the coffee that Tanya serves, bitter with a touch of sweetness, Gabi is a multi-layered narrative that needs to be savored more than once. The complexity of the conspiracy to assassinate the King and the relationships between the main players in the plot also necessitates repeated viewings. Gabi ultimately is a visual and aural treat for the senses, and as long as one does not confuse with fiction with reality, is well worth the admission price, and is certainly a film that I will be purchasing on DVD when, and if, it becomes available in the UK.


Black Eagle aka R2B: Return to Base (R2B: 리턴투베이스, Kim Dong-Won: 2012)

Return to Base is purportedly a loose adaption of SHIN Sang-Ok’s The Red Muffler (빨간 마후라: 1964), which was released at the height of tensions between South and North Korea. Yet, the two films have very little in common, with Return to Base relying on the star power of superstar singer and actor, Rain, to draw in viewers and in the process neglecting the intricacies of the relationships between characters caught up in the Korean War which drives the narrative of The Red Muffler.

The plot of Return to Base,such as it is, concerns the exploits of Tae-Hoon (Rain), a member of the elite Black Eagles combat squad, whose arrogance leads him being dismissed from the squad during an aerobatic team display in which he flouts the rules in order to win the competition. Dismissed and disgraced, Tae-Hoon is summarily transferred to the 21 combat flight unit, where he meets the beautiful engineer Se-Young (Shin Se-Kyung) with whom he falls in love – despite her reluctance to have a relationship with him. Tae-Hoon also comes in conflict with Cheol-Hee ( Yu Jan-Sang), whose rigid following and adherence to the rules is at odds with Tae-Hoon’s inability to accept them. Then one day, a unidentified fighter plane crosses the DMZ (the border between North and South Korea), and it is up to our titular hero, Tae-Hoon, to save the day.

While the aerial acrobatic sequences are visually stunning, as are the combat scenes towards the film’s conclusion, the first half of the film drags by caught up in the fine nuances of daily life in a combat squadron. It is only in the second half, that the film comes to life and we are given a glimpse of the film that Return to Base, could have been with tighter editing and more integration between characters’ relationships and the conflict between a rogue North Korean element and the South. Herein lies a big part of the problem, while the North/South conflict continues, it is no longer a military conflict and indeed attempts continue to be made to reunite North and South. Indeed, the most explicit critique in the film is not about North Korea or against communist ideology but against the continuing presence of the US in South Korea – at one point a South Korean general tells the US military that they can deal with the problem on their own, i.e. the US is no longer either needed or wanted and is seen as an impediment in the process of reconciliation between North and South.

For those members of the audience, who are fans of Rain, myself included. There was nice moment, albeit totally gratuitous, in which half naked, and heavily oiled, Tae-Hoon and Cheol-Hee fight each other.

This aside, the performances were strong, but the actors were let down by a poor script and lack of narrative coherence. However each to their own, and a large part of the audience at the screening last night seemed to thoroughly enjoy the film, to the extent that a smattering of applause broke out at the film’s conclusion.


The Thieves (도둑들, Choi Dong-Hun: 2012)

The opening gala of the London Korean Film Festival at the Odeon West End, 1st November 2012, was packed, and rightly enough so, as the Festival opened with the  The Thieves, a crime/heist drama which has broken box-office records in South Korea. The high octane action takes us between Busan,  Hong Kong and Macao, as two groups of thieves – the first from South Korea – Popie, Chewingum, Yenicall, Pepsee and Zampano, and the other from Hong Kong –  Andrew, Chen, Johnny and Julie – attempt to be the first to steal a priceless diamond ‘Tear of Sun’ from gangster boss, Wei Yong. Throw into the mix, a backplot in which one of the South Korean gang, Macao Park, seemingly doublecrossed the group during a previous heist, the consequences of which threatens to tear the group of thieves apart, a growing romance between Chewingum and Johnny which is brutally cut short and dark twist towards the second half of the film and you have a particularly South Korean take on the heist genre.

It is, however, a film that needs more than one viewing, to be able to offer a more detailed review as there are subtleties which I am sure that I missed the first time around. Someone I was discussing the film with, pointed out the film’s use of local dialects, which does not come over through the subtitling process, and which contained a great deal of humour and nuances that some of the audience seemed to get more than others. It is easy to see why The Thieves has been such a success in the domestic marketplace, in that it brings a Korean sensibility to an action-packed genre that cannot fail to engage its viewer.

Crossing over as the film does between South Korea, Macau and Hong Kong, this Korean sensibility is imbued with a Pan-Asian cosmopolitanism, offering the spectacle of East Asia as a place of vibrancy and vitality, which will certainly appeal to a global audience,  more so than some of the smaller and more localized films showing at the London Korean Film Festival this year. I am not sure whether The Thieves will be my top pick of the Festival, as I tend to be drawn to more independent and smaller films.  But what The Thieves highlights is the very diversity of South Korean cinema as well as an ability to compete on a global stage and it is a film that is worth going out of your way to see, especially on the big screen.


The London Korean Film Festival 2012

Details have just been released of this year’s London Korean Film Festival. A great line-up includes the record-breaking The Thieves which opens the festival in London and Masquerade, which brings the festival to a close. I am saying London, because there are also screenings in Bristol and Bournemouth. Details are available at the London Korean Film Festival Home Page including information on the venues and how to book tickets:

The 2012 London Korean Film Festival

Paul Quinn of Hanguel Celluloid has put together a helpful guide to the films showing which I used when putting this blog post together.

The LKFF 2012 Programm

 

FRIDAY 1ST NOVEMBER – OPENING GALA

The Thieves/도둑들 (Choi Dong-Hun: 2012) +Q&A; Dir. Choi Dong-Hun & Actor Kim Yoon-suk

Genre: heist drama/action/crime

Time: 7:00pm (135 mins)

Venue: Odeon West End

 

FRIDAY 2ND NOVEMBER 2012

Pace Maker/페이스메이커 (Kim Dal-joong: 2012)

Genre: sports

Time: 6.45pm (124 mins)

Venue: ICA

The Thieves + Q&A Dir. Choi Dong-hoon & Actor Kim Yoon-suk (as 2nd November

Time: 6:45 pm

Venue: Odeon Kingston

 The Big Swindle/ 범죄의 재구성(Choi Dong-hoon 2004)

Genre: crime/mystery/thriller

Time: 7:00 pm (116 mins)

Venue: KCCUK

The Weight/무게 (Jeon Kyu-hwan: 2012)

Genre: queer/fantasy

Time: 9:15 pm (102 mins)

Venue:  ICA


SATURDAY 3RD NOVEMBER 2012

Katuri: A Story of a Mother Bird /엄마 까투리(Jung Gil-hoon 2012)

Genre: animation/short

Time: 3:30 pm (28 mins)

Venue: ICA

Woochi: The Taoist Wizard/전우치 (Choi Dong-hoo: 2009) + Q&A: Dir. Choi Dong-hoon

Genre: action/fantasy/comedy

Time: 4:30pm (136 mins)

Venue:  KCCUK

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Padak/파닥파닥 (Lee Dae-hee 2012)

Genre: animation

Time: 6.30pm (78 mins)

Venue: ICA

The King of Pigs /돼지의 왕  (Yean Sang-ho 2011)

Genre: animation

Time: 8.30pm (97 mins)

Venue: ICA

SUNDAY 4TH NOVEMBER 2012

Dancing Queen/ 댄싱퀸(Lee Seok-hoon 2012)

Genre: musical/drama/comedy

Time: 12:30 pm (124 mins)

Venue: ICA

Running Turtle/거북이 달린다 (Lee Yeon-woo 2009)+ Q&A: Actor Kim Yoon-suk

Genre: Crime/action/comedy

Time: 2:30pm (117 mins)

Venue: KCCUK

Mr Idol/Mr. 아이돌 (Ra Hee-chan 2011)

Genre: musical/drama/comedy

Time: 5:35pm (114 mins)

Venue: KCCUK

Tazza – The High Rollers/타짜) (Choi Dong-hoon 2006)

Genre: comedy/crime/thriller

Time: 7.30pm (139 mins)

Venue: Odeon PS

Mise en Scene – Selection 1 (five shorts)

Time: 8.00pm (132 mins)

Venue: ICA

MONDAY 5TH NOVEMBER 2012

Papa /파파 (Han Ji-seung 2012)

Genre: music/comedy/drama

Time: 6:30pm (118 mins)

Venue: Odeon Paton Street

Black Eagle aka R2B: Return to Base/R2B: 리턴투베이스 (Kim Dong-weon, 2012)

Genre: aerial action drama

Time: 8:45pm (113 mins)

Venue: Odeon PS

TUESDAY 6TH NOVEMBER 2012

A Muse/은교 (Jeong Ji-woo)+ Q&A with Director Jeong Ji-woo

Genre: melodrama/romance

Time: 7.00pm (129 mins – film)

Venue: ICA

Dangerously Excited/ 나는 공무원이다 (Koo Ja-hong 2012)

Genre: comedy/drama

Time: 8:45pm (101 mins)

Venue: Odeon PS

WEDNESDAY 7TH NOVEMBER 2012

Gabi/ 가비 (Jang Yoon-hyeon 2012)

Genre: historical mystery

Time: 6:30pm (115 mins)

Venue:  Odeon PS

I am /아이엠(Choi Jin-seong 2012)

Genre: K-pop documentary

Time: 8.10pm (116 mins)

Venue: ICA

All about my wife/ 내 아내의 모든 것 (Min Kyu-dong 2012)

Genre: romantic ocomedy

Time: 8:45pm (121 mins)

Venue: Odeon PS

THURSDAY 8TH NOVEMBER 2012

 The Ugly Duckling /미운 오리 새끼 (Kwak Kyung-taek 2012)

Genre: military drama

Time: 5:45pm (96 mins)

Venue: ICA

The Grand Heist/바람과 함께 사라지다 (Kim Joo-ho 2012)

Genre: period heist drama, comedy

Time: 6:40pm (121 mins)

Venue: Odeon PS

Deranged/연가시 (Park Jun-woo 2012)

Genre: Science Fiction/Horror

Time: 8;45pm (109 mins)

Venue: Odeon PS

FRIDAY 9TH NOVEMBER 2012

White Night / 백야 (Lee Song-hee-il 2012)

Genre: melodrama/romance/queer

Time: 6:00pm (78 mins)

Venue: ICA

I am the King/나는 왕이로소이다 (Jang Kyu-sung 2012)

Genre: period comedy drama

Time: 7:00pm (120 mins)

Venue:  Odeon PS

 Korean Cinema Forum

Time: 6:30pm

Venue: KCCUK

As One, Korea /코리아 (Moon Hyeong-seong 2012)

Genre: sports

Time: 8:45pm (127 mins)

Venue: Odeon PS

SATURDAY 10TH NOVEMBER 2012

Mise en Scene 2 (four shorts)

Time: 3:35pm (120 mins)

Venue: Odeon PS

Closing Gala: Masquerade/ 광해, 왕이 된 남자 (Choo Chang-min: 2012) + Q&A with Dir Choo Chang-min & actor Lee Byung-hun

Genre: historical drama

Time: 7.00pm (131 mins)

Venue: Odeon West End

SUNDAY 11TH NOVEMBER 2012

A Barefoot Dream/맨발의 꿈 (Kim Tae-gyoon 2010)

Genre: sports

Time: 1:30pm (121 mins)

Venue: Odeon PS

Acoustic /어쿠스틱 (Yoo Sang-hun 2010)

Genre: music drama

Time: 4:15 (88 mins)

Venue: ICA

Sleepless Night/잠 못 드는 밤   (Jang Kun-hae 2012)

Genre: drama

Time:  6:30pm (65 mins)

Venue: ICA

Spring Snow/봄, 눈 (Kim Tae-gyoon 2012)

Genre: melodrama

Time: 8:30pm (109 mins)

Venue: ICA

I cannot over-emphasize what a great line up of South Korean films are showing at this year’s festival. There are films for everyone from animation, to k-pop, to crime drama, historical mysteries, science fiction, melodrama and more. If I had to pick out what I was really looking forward to, I would have to say Deranged, The Weight and White Night: the later two because I am particularly interested in cinema that challenges the mainstream and represents marginalized identities and the former, just because horror/science fiction are my favorite genres. We have award-winning films,The Weight won the Queer Lion at the recent Venice Film Festival and b0x-office smashes – The Thieves (which is the biggest selling film domestically in South Korean film history) and Masquerade. There are free events, including the Korean Film Forum at the Korean Cultural Centre, and Q&A sessions with Directors and Stars.

2012 has been a wonderful year for South Korean cinema, both at home and abroad. It is, as always, a privilege to be involved with it. The Korean Cultural Centre has put on an exceptional year of Korean films and events, and the London Korean Film Festival represents another highlight in a year full of highlights.

VENUES:

Odeon Panton Street (Odeon PS)

Odeon West End

Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA)

Korean Cultural Centre

FINALLY

And you never know there might be some ‘Gangnam Style’ flashmobs!