Tag Archives: Koreanculturalcentreuk

Coming Out (KIM Jee-woon: 2000)

At 45 minutes, Coming Out is longer than your average short film and clearly signals the aesthetic and visual vocabulary which will come to define Director Kim’s oeuvre. Hyun-yoo, an attractive young woman, tells her brother, Jae-min, and his girlfriend Ji-eun  that she has a secret that she wants to reveal, but will only do it through the mediation of the camera lens. The secret, that she is a vampire, is one that is initially met with disbelief, and she is forced to demonstrate her vampiric nature to Jae-min and Ji-eun, in order to get them to ‘accept’ her difference.

The title of the film makes it clear that the film is not really about vampirism at all (although that could be argued about all vampire texts) , but rather about ‘coming out’ in relation to sexuality. Indeed the figure of the vampire has been used for centuries to articulate desire outside of the heterosexual matrix. Arguably in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Count’s object of desire is not Mina but rather the rather feeble and feminine Jonathon. Mina is merely the object of exchange between men which effectively allows a disavowal of homosexuality and the implication that same-sex desire has a society built upon compulsory heterosexuality.

Theoretically vampiric desires are often interpreted as examples of pre-oedipal oral desires within a Freudian pop perspective, or perhaps more problematically as articulating the subject’s refusal to leave the imaginary and enter into the symbolic and all that entails (the Lacanian perspective). I say problematically because of the association of the imaginary with narcissism which seems to me to deny homosexual desire a symbolic identity (I am thinking here of Judith Butler’s discussion of unintelligibility) and such refusal thereby continues to prop up the patriarchal order. Theory aside, vampires penetrate rather than are penetrated, orally rather than genitally (a good old displacement), which allows the figuration of other desire in a metaphorical form, even though as often the case with female vampires, it merely provides a mise-en-scene of ‘aberrant’ sexuality for the desirous gaze of the male spectator.

Coming Out is aware of the history of the vampire, including the postmodern reinvention of the vampire as a figure no longer doomed to darkness, or threatened by the mere ‘empty’ presence of religious relics. Instead Kim Jee-woon’s vampire walks in daylight, eats solids rather than merely ingests liquids, and certainly does not sleep in a coffin at night. Indeed, the beginning of Coming Out with the brother reporting the tale of his sister’s revelation of her true identity to a reporter, is reminiscent of the opening to Interview with a Vampire (Neil Jordan).  At the same time, the fact that Hyun-yoo insists on revealing her identity to the camera means that Coming Out is also a meta-narrative on the very nature of cinema and its relation to reality. This is signalled within the reenactments of events that took have ‘past’ within the ‘present’ with the actors receiving an onscreen credit when they first appear on screen. In a postmodern celebrity obsessed society, ‘reality is television and television is more than reality’ (and yes, I love quoting from Videodrome [Cronenberg: 1983]). However Jae-min and Ji-eun don’t trust the image and insist that Hyun-yoo demonstrate her vampirism, because seeing is believing after all (a contradictory act which reinforces the primacy of the image as spectacle). Again, this is shown to us through a re-enactment, as with a comic touch Hyun-woo deflowers a young Korean schoolgirl in a ‘red’ phonebox, after which they share a cigarette. There is nothing subtle about Coming Out, but then it is not meant to be subtle, Director Kim is not asking the audience to interpret the image but rather to recognise the image for what it is. This is apparent when Ji-eun’s curiosity gets the better of her, and she desires to be bitten and experience the ecstasy that such an act promises. Hyun-yoo concedes to Ji-eun’s desire, and bites Ji-eun on the inner thigh, making the implicit sexual penetration of the vampiric act an explicit depiction of lesbian desire.

Even within the low-budget format of Coming Out, Director Kim’s sense of aesthetic beauty which finds its fulfilment in abject horror is apparent as demonstrated by the painterly canvas with its broad brush strokes of red splattered against a white background which constitutes the cinematic mise-en-scene. The fact that Hyun-yoo having ‘come out’ on camera, then flees to Europe and more specifically to England is a telling fact on the repression of sexual difference in South Korea at the time and indeed where sexual diversity is still not celebrated or fully accepted these days. Coming Out is an important film, both in terms of Kim Jee-woon’s development as a director but also in terms of LGBT cinema in South Korea.

It was a shame that I wasn’t aware of this short when writing about queer cinema in the forthcoming ‘Directory of World Cinema: South Korea’ (Intellect, September 2013), but it will certainly find its way into the next one. [Sorry about the plug folks]

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London Korean Film Festival 2013: My Picks

This year sees the 8th London Korean Film Festival with premieres, retrospectives and a variety of film-related events. The Festival takes place between 7th and 16th in November, with additional screenings in Bradford and Oxford between 16th and 22nd November. Year on Year, the LKFF continues to grow and offers audiences a diverse range of Korean films from children’s films, animation, romantic comedies to art house independent cinema.

MY TOP PICKS

Thursday, 7th November 2013 – Opening Gala: Hide and Seek 

Hide and Seek/Soombakkokjil (dir. HUH Jung: 2013). This low-budget thriller topped the Korean Box-Office on its release in August, and looks intriguing and hopefully suitably creepy. After the film will be a Q&A with actor SON Hyun-joo and Korean film expert Tony Rayns.

Venue: Odeon West End. Time: 7:00 pm.

Saturday 9th November 2013 – Rough Play & Kim Jee-Woon Shorts

Rough Play/Baewooneun (dir. SHIN Yeon-shick, 2013). This drama stars Lee Joon of the K-Pop group, MBLAQ, and I am anticipating hoards of screaming girls judging by the posts under the trailer on the Asian Wiki page. And the screenplay was written by KIM Ki-Duk, enough said then.

Venue: Odeon Panton Street. Time: 1:45pm.

KIM Jee-woon shorts: One Perfect Day/Sarangui Gawibawibo (Romance, 34 mins, 2013);  Heavenly Creature (Sci-fi drama, 34 mins, 2012); Present (Thriller 30 mins, 2009) and Coming Out (Horror, 45 mins, 2000). Following the screening is a Q&A with KIM Jee-woon.

One of my favourite directors, this is a no-brainer for me.

Venue: Odeon Covent Garden. Time:  7:00 pm.

Sunday 10th November 2013 – Pluto

Pluto/Myungwangsung (dir.  SHIN Su-won, 2012).  This critique of the highly competitive Korean education system has been garnering rave reviews, especially in terms of the uniqueness of the cinematic style. One not to be missed and SHIN Su-won seems to be a force to be reckoned with on the basis of the success of his directorial debut.

Venue: Odeon Covent Garden. Time: 8.45 pm.

Monday 11th November 2013 – Flu

The Flu/Gamgi (dir. KIM Sung-woo, 2013). Very timely given the time of year, this is one film where the addition of sniffs and sneezes from the audience will function to add to the atmosphere rather than the irritation. This is followed by a Q&A with director KIM Sung-woo.

Venue: Odeon Covent Garden. Time: 7:00 pm.

Tuesday 12th November 2013 – Korean Cinema Forum & Hope

Korean Cinema Forum. Directors KANG Woo-suk and KIM Sung-soo and film critics Tony Rayns and OH Dong-jim will be on hand to answer questions and give insights into the Korean Film Industry. Always a good choice.

Venue: KCCUK. Time: 4:00 pm.

Wednesday 13th November 2013 – Behind the Camera & Hope

Behind the Camera/ Dwitdamhwa: Gamdokyi Micheotseoyo (dir. E  J-yong, 2013). This mockumentary is by one of Korea’s most interesting contemporary directors and is followed by a Q&A with the director and actress YOUN Yuh-jung.

Hope (Wish)/ Sowon (dir. LEE Joon-ik, 2013 ). Followed by a Q&A with actor SOL  Kyung-gu. .

I was lucky enough to chat with the director LEE Joon-ik last year, and he was a really lovely man whose films never fail to please. I am so pleased that threats of abandoning the film industry have not come true, LEE Joon-ik would be a real loss if he stopped making such engaging films – although this one seems to be darker than usual. I am really looking forward to this one. [This is also showing on Thursday at the Kingston Odeon]

Venue: Odeon Covent Garden . Time: 6:00 pm.

Thursday  14th November 2013 – Fatal

Fatal/Gashi Ggot (LEE Don-ku: 2013), Odeon Panton Street, 6:30 pm. Can you ever be forgiven or indeed forgive yourself for complicity in an act of sexual violence? Director LEE Don-ku’s film grapples with an emotive topic with sensitivity and nuance.

Venue: Odeon Panton Street. Time: 6:30 pm.

Friday 15th November 2013 – Closing Gala –  Boomerang Family

Boomerang Family (dir. SONG Hae-sung), Seeing my picks have all been a bit gloomy as I veer towards the dark side in my cinematic choices, it seems apt that the box-topping comedy, Boomerang Family closes the London strand of the Festival and should cheer me up. The film  is followed by a Q&A with director SONG Hae-sung, actors YOON Je-moon and YOUN Yuh-jung, and critic Tony Rayns.

Credit goes to Philip Gowman of London Korean Links for putting together the schedule from which I have used rather liberally here.  His painstaking work can be found here  Full Schedule London Korean Film Festival.

Here is the Official Page: London Korean Film Festival 2013 which gives more details about the films to be screened and how to book tickets.


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.


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.


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


Maundy Thursday (우리들의 행복한 시간: 2006)

 

Moon Yu-jung (Lee Na-young), a successful University Lecturer, attempts suicide for the third time. Jung Yun-soo (Gang Dong-won) is on death row for rape and murder. Neither wants to continue living as a result of events in their past. Yu-jung is traumatized as a result of a rape when she was 15 and Yun-su’s criminal path was predestined when his mother abandoned him and his brother when they were just children.  The two meet when Yu-jung’s aunt, Sister Monica (Yun Yeo-jong), persuades her to accompany her when she goes to visit Yun-soo in prison. What transpires is a touching love story between two damaged people, whose love for each other reignites a desire to continue living, but can only end in death.

Unlike the conventional death row film, Director SONG”s 4th feature, Maundy Thursday is not so much concerned with critiquing the penal system as it is with illuminating social injustice in wider society and specifically class inequalities. Yun-soo ends up on death row because he cannot access health care for his girlfriend who suffers an ectopic pregnancy in a manner in which mirrors his younger brother’s death, who dies as a result of starvation compounded by a severe beating by a group of young thugs because of lack of access to medical care. In addition social injustice is compounded by familial neglect as embodied by the mother who neglects her child/children. Yu-jung’s mother blames her daughter for the rape, while Yun-soo’s mother is too wrapped up in her own problems to care for her children. The figure of the mother, here as elsewhere in contemporary South Korean cinema, is a metaphor for the nation, collapsing the personal and political onto one composite uncaring and unforgiving figure but whose affections are desired irrespective of her disregard for the needs of her children/people. This is highlighted by the fact that what brings the doomed couple together is the national anthem, as seeing Yu-jung sing it on television when he is a child, and with his brother, marks one of the truly happy times in Yun-soo’s life and this is the reason that Sister Monica takes Yu-jung with her when she visits him for the first time. It is therefore particularly poignant that as Yun-soo waits to die in the execution chamber, he sings the national anthem while Yu-jung listens on the other side of the one-way glass.

The title of the film, Maundy Thursday, refers to both the day on which Yu-jung visits Yun-soo, but is also the day on which Yun-soo is executed: a date marked in Christian calendar’s as the Last Supper, when Jesus dines with his 12 apostles for the last time before his execution. This religious subtext adds another level of meaning to the film’s diegesis and stresses the need for redemption and forgiveness for those cast aside by society and the state. Director Song constructs a multi-layered narrative of pain and suffering, love and hate, which never once degenerates into mawkishness. Both Gon Dong-won and Lee Na-young are excellent as the doomed lovers, while Kim So-hee – who plays Yu-jung’s mother – exhibits a considerable range of acting skills as she transforms from an unfeeling Matriarch to a vulnerable woman coming face to face with her mortality and finally recognizing her own sins (of denial/omission).

I thoroughly enjoyed Maundy Thursday despite the persistent chattering of some of the audience, and am looking forward to seeing more of Director Song’s films this month.


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.