Tag Archives: filmfestival

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.








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.

Interview with Director Kim Jee-Woon


Yesterday I was lucky enough to interview one of my favourite South Korean directors, Kim Jee-woon for the second time. If I remember correctly, Director Kim was the first director that I ever interviewed. At least this time, I was less terrified and overwhelmed by the experience. As before, Director Kim was charming and his responses thoughtful.  There was some confusion about whether the interview was a group or individual, and I had prepared for a group interview, so my questions would have been different if I had realised that I was going to be given the opportunity to interview him one-to-one. I only had fifteen minutes, so managed to ask just three questions.

CB: One of the issues in the news at the moment is about cuts to Korean films for international release, e.g. Snowpiercer. In opposition, the international DVD release of I Saw the Devil is different to the Korean DVD release (which we got in the UK). Such changes, as in the case of I Saw the Devil, and The Good, The Bad and The Weird, alter the meaning of the film. How do you feel about having to make changes to your own films for different markets?

KJW: Director Kim explained that the reasons for the differences in the international and Korean cuts of I Saw the Devil and The Good, The Bad and The Weird were different. In relation to I Saw the Devil, cuts were made because the Korean system does not have a restrictive (R or 18) rating, therefore if he had not made cuts in terms of the graphic violence then I Saw the Devil would not have received a theatrical release in Korea (which is a shame because the cannibalism scenes were the most interesting for me).  With The Good, The Bad and The Weird, it was necessary to get the film edited quickly in order for it to be entered into competition at Cannes. In this case, it was the Korean version that was the Director’s cut, as he had longer to actually edit together and produce his directorial version.  Normally therefore it is the Korean versions that should be taken as the director’s cut.

Commentary: I asked this question in light of the ongoing debate about whether Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer will be cut for the international release and also in light of the fact that last year when writing a book chapter about Director Kim’s I Saw The Devil, I mistakenly ended up with the Korean DVD cut of the film and not the international cut. While the Korean cut of I Saw the Devil is longer by 2 minutes I think, most of the references and scenes to do with cannibalism had been cut and replaced with either exposition or in one case an extended sex scene. As I was writing about cannibalism, this then proved to be slightly difficult for me. I was also aware that the international version of The Good, The Bad and the Weird was different to the Korean cut. While such strategies may well be seen as necessary in terms of localization, the end result is that a film’s meaning is altered by such changes.  Of course, the worst example of this is Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985), which when released as Creepers with half an hour missing which rendered the film unintelligible.

In relation to Director Kim’s response, it is interesting to know that in most cases (with the exception of I Saw the Devil and Director Park’s Thirst) the Korean version should be taken as the director’s cut.

CB: You lived in France for a while. How important was this in terms of your subsequent career? (it seems to me that France always made less distinction between art and genre cinema – which is what defines your films.

KJW: I spent 5 months travelling around Europe and 3 months in Paris, during which time I watched over 100 films which gave me a wealth of cinematic knowledge and understanding.

Commentary: There was a bit of mistranslation going on here, and I don’t think Director Kim knew what I was asking (or it might be that I was being a bit unclear with my phrasing of the question). For me the striking feature of Korean cinema is its affinity with French cinema, and my point here was that the type of distinctions between art and genre cinema in French cinematic thought and practice are not mutually exclusive as they tend to be elsewhere. You only have to look at the fact that films by Mario Bava and Dario Argento, both Italian horror film directors, were premiered in France at art-house cinemas, whereas in the US they were much more likely to have appeared on double bills of exploitation cinema for the drive-in crowds.

CB: Despite the fact that The Last Stand opened to mixed reviews, I have read that you are attached to another English language feature Coward. What lessons have you learnt from The Last Stand that you will be able to put to use with Coward? (based upon graphic novels).

KJW: The Last Stand was difficult as the studio system in the US is very different to the system in South Korea. The shorting days were shorter, as was the shoot itself. In the US, you are answerable to producers, the studio, actors, assistant directors and thus has less say over the final product. Having experienced this, I believe that it will be easier making Coward as I now understand how the system operates. I also feel as it is a noir film that it will fit in with my style better.

Commentary: I was particularly interested to read that he had signed on for another English-language production despite the fact that The Last Stand had not done particularly well either critically or commercially, unlike Park Chan-wook’s Stoker which did very well critically although not commercially. Very few foreign directors had managed the transition, especially those who have a very strong directorial signature. The horror stories about experiences with studios that foreign directors have had are well-known.  At the same time, I fully understand a director’s desire to take on additional challenges and be able to address the widest audience possible, and have no problems with the fact that foreign directors attempt to make this transition. Success stories though are few, John Woo mainly managed it, Hideo Nakata flunked badly and Dario Argento said that after the experience of Trauma he would never again make a film in the US again (one can only wish that he had kept to this promise).

Do I think that Director Kim will have a better experience this time? I am not sure, I hope he does, but at the same time fear that his strong aesthetic sensibility and imagistic vocabulary will be contained. I live in hope and wish Director Kim the best of luck.

Thanks to the Korean Cultural Centre UK for arranging the interview, and of course to Director Kim for being so generous with his time. Apologies for any mistakes in transcribing his responses. 

The reviews of Director Kim’s shorts and the Q&A session that followed will be posted shortly.

Crocodile (악어, Kim Ki-duk: 1996)

Crocodile is the directorial debut of enfant terrible of South Korean cinema, Kim Ki-duk. It is an astonishingly accomplished piece of work for a first film, even more so taking into consideration that Kim Ki-duk had no formal training. Instead Kim Ki-duk studied fine arts in Paris, and it is his impeccable understanding of aesthetics that permeates his films enabling the director to construct complex, layered mise-en-scene utilizing natural objects and locations as backdrops to his intense tales of the fragility of  human relationships and the landscapes of concrete modernity against which these relationships are formed and deformed.

Crocodile itself sets the template for many of Director KIM’s early works, including Bad Guy/나쁜 남자 (2001) which it reminds me the most of, with its detailed analysis of the lives of society’s outcasts, and their struggle to exist in a hostile landscape. The film concerns the lives of a group of four of these outcasts – Crocodile (JO Jae-hyeon), grandfather (JEON Moo-song), a young boy Yang-byul (AHN Jae-hong) and a young woman Hyun-jung (WOO Yun-gyeong) that Crocodile rescues from drowning from the Han River where he and the others live, eking out a living by the selling the effects of suicide victims and hustling on the city’s busy streets.

These are lives almost bereft of hope in which violence is a fact of life, as perpetrated by those surrounding this ‘family’ including corrupt cops, mobsters and a variety of street hustlers – here as elsewhere in Director KIM’s films, violence only begets more violence, and death is never very far away. Crocodile himself is the archetypal male protagonist of Director KIM’s early works, whose hatred of self is expressed through violence towards [female] others. For Crocodile rape is the currency that expresses relations between men and women, and is the only way that he can communicate with them.  At one point, when Crocodile  is attempting to rape the girlfriend of a rich businessman who he is attempting to blackmail, he uses a condom telling his unwilling victim that he wouldn’t want to bring another like him into the world, which foregrounds Crocodile’s self-loathing. Scenes such as this in Crocodile would seem to give credence to criticisms of Director KIM’s misogynism.  However this would be to fail to understand that at is heart, Crocodile is  a love story, albeit it a cruel one, in which Crocodile is humanized through his relationship with Hyun-jung, a redemption that is only fulfilled through death with the lovers at the bottom of the Han river, amid the discarded belongings that Crocodile has fashioned into an underwater living space. There is beauty in cruelty here, as elsewhere in Director KIM’s oeuvre, and beauty that is fashioned out of the rubbish of modernity.

As in the death scene with which the film ends, the cinematography is stunning utilizing a color palate drawn from the natural world to externalize and emphasize character psychology. There is beauty in nature, and KIM Ki-duk’s cruel beauty serves to remind us of that beauty, which is being discarded through the process of modernization and industrialization, mimicking the manner in which Crocodile and his ‘family’ have been discarded by society in order to remind us of the human costs of such intractable machinic process.

Crocodile is available to buy on double DVD with Arirang, Director KIM’s award-winning documentary, and can be purchased direct through Terracotta Distribution at a discounted price. These are two films – at polar opposite ends of the scale – by one of South Korea’s leading directors, that should take pride of place in any cinephile’s collection.

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

Director Jeon Kyu-hwan (전규환)

Director JEON is still relatively early on in his career, yet has produced an oeuvre of exceptional films starting with his town-trilogy (2009-2010) – Mozart Town (모차르트 타운: 2008), Animal Town (애니멀 타운: 2009), and Dance Town (댄스타운: 2010). His next film was the critically acclaimed From Seoul to Varanasi (바라나시: 2012) which was screened on the 27th September 2012 at Vue Cinema in Leicester Square, and was followed by a Q&A.

The group interview was well-attended and thought provoking, especially hearing about the difficulties that independent cinema still faces in terms of exhibition and distribution in South Korea which brought home how lucky those of us in London are to have access to such a wide range of South Korean cinema via the Korean Cultural Centre in London.

I asked Director JEON about his latest film The Weight, which had recently won the Queer Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, and whether it had been his intention to make a ‘queer’ film. His response was that he was more concerned with addressing issues of marginality thus continuing the themes of his other films, rather than a conscious intention to make a ‘queer’ film.  My interest in asking this question was a result of my research in South Korean ‘queer’ cinema for the Directory of World Cinema: South Korea that I was in the process of completing, through which I gathered that dealing with issues surrounding ‘queer’ identity was still considered relatively taboo in South Korea. So it was interesting that homosexuality and transgender issues were less significant in terms of the film that other issues of marginality including social class that were addressed. I did not have the chance to see The Weight when it screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival as I was at a conference in Cardiff that day, but I have heard and read very positive responses and hope to be able to see it fairly soon.

My second question was also a product of my recent research and indeed preparation for the group interview during which I read an article that talked about Director JEON’s films as working within a ‘traditional Korean aesthetic’. For those of us that study South Korean cinema, one of the topics that is addressed the most is what exactly South Korean cinema is – how we define it? and what are its particular characteristics that set it apart from other cinemas? In these terms the concept of a ‘traditional Korean aesthetic’ seemed to come in handy, but I felt perhaps hard to see in the films of a Director who is concerned with contemporary social issues. This was confirmed when Director JEON said that he did not know what it meant either, in general, or how it pertained to his films. Instead, he suggested that it is up to the audience to complete the film, rather than a film to complete the meaning for its audience – a view, that I as a film scholar and sometime Deleuzian, have always ascribed to. All in all, I found the group interview really interesting and extremely useful in terms of what I am working on at the moment.

The full transcription of the group interview can be found, as always, at Hangul Celluloid:

Group Interview with Director JEON

I would recommend Director JEON’s films to anyone interested in South Korean Cinema. I only managed to see Dance Town due to work commitments and unfortunately was not well the night of the screening of Seoul to Varanasi.

Dance Town,the last in the town-trilogy,  focuses on the plight of North Korean defectors to South Korea. The narrative is focalized through the point-of-view of  Jung-rim (Ra Mi-ran) whose husband is arrested by the North Korean authorities when a neighbor reports him for bringing in banned South Korean goods, including cosmetics and DVDs, to North Korea. She attempts to make a life for herself while waiting for news of her husband, but finds herself doubly displaced, away from home while at the same time lacking any sort of belonging in her new ‘adopted’ home. As a result, she is forced onto the margins along with society’s underclasses whose lives intersect with hers including a disabled man, Lee Joon-Hyuk, whose wife has abandoned him as a result of his disability;  Ji-na (Noh Seul-gi), a young schoolgirl who is dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, Kim Song-heui (Ju Yu-rang), her ‘minder’ whose job it is to integrate Jung-rim within the community;  and a  South Korean police officer, Oh (Oh Sung-Tae), who takes a shine to the lonely Jung-rim, but whose attentions are unwanted. Dance Town also boasts a small role for Darcy Parquet, whose work on South Korean cinema has been a pivotal in the growing appreciation of South Korean cinema in the West, as an American missionary who works in the community in which Jung-rim has been placed.

The overall impression of the film is one of bleakness and sadness, which culminates in tragedy: Jung-rim is raped by Oh after a night of heavy drinking only to subsequently discover that her husband, her soul mate, has been executed by the North Korean authorities. The feeling of loneliness, of isolation and alienation is communicated through the use of a realistic aesthetic, which is only punctured when Jung-rim fantasizes about being with her husband again, suggesting that fantasy is the only mechanism through which to deal with the social isolation experienced by the society’s underclasses. As such, Dance Town as Director JEON’s other films, contains an explicit critique of contemporary South Korean society, whose capitalist surfaces hide beneath them the suffering and brutality experienced by those who are positioned as societal outsiders through no fault of their own whether it is a result of birth, disability or gendered expectations. I found Dance Town a profound mediation on the cruelty of contemporary capitalism, whether in South Korea or elsewhere, and its creation of marginal communities. In short, Dance Town is a profoundly moving mediation on postmodern identity formation and fragmentation, that while it is specific to its place of production, has a message that rings true elsewhere including here in the UK where we learn to ignore the homeless while navigating our way around the city and where people in power would rather the rich had more money than provide for those less fortunate – which as Dance Town suggests, could be any of us, any day, any time…..

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.


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.


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.

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.