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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mourning Grave (OH In-chun: 2014)

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

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

mourningwomen

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

 

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

mourningbully

 

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

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

 

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

subway

 


Hope (Lee Joon-ik, South Korea: 2013)

 

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

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

 

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

hopepicture

 

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

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

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

Notes

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

 

 


Moebius (Kim Ki-duk, 2013)

Trailer:

 

 

Synopsis:

 

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

Review

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

 


The Flu/Gamgi (KIM Sung-Su: 2013)

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

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

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

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

The Q&A

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

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

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

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

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


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]


Hide and Seek/Soombakkokjil (Huh Jung: 2013).

The opening film of this year’s London Korean Film Festival, Hide and Seek is a fairly effective variation on the home invasion film. Director Huh’s debut, Hide and Seek was a surprise box-office smash at the South Korean box-office, keeping the big-budget blockbuster, The Flu (Kim Sung-su) from the top.

In Hide and Seek, a bourgeois family, Sung-soo (Son Hyun-joo), his wife (Jeon Mi-sun) and two children, Soo-A (Kim Soo-ahn) and Ho-Se (Jung Joon-won) find their palatial home in an exclusive apartment complex under threat when Sung-soo attempts to find his estranged brother, who he thinks has been spying on him and his family. Sung-soo runs into a middle-aged mother Joo-hee (Moon Jung-hee) and her strange daughter, Pyeong-hwa (Kim Ji-young), who appear at first to be helpful when visiting the run-down and condemned apartment complex where his brother lives. Appearances, however, are deceptive in Hide and Seek, and is it really the estranged brother who is the threat to Sung-soo’s domestic harmony?

The film is nicely shot, and the contrast between the poor and the rich is expressed in visual terms, as a question of space and place, of those that have and those that have not reminding us of the fact that South Korea’s economic miracle was built on the back of workers who were asked to sacrifice their present for the bourgeois future, in which they had no place. The unsympathetic bourgeois family is a convention of the home invasion film, which in South Korea, finds its finest expression in Kim Ki-young’s 1960 masterpiece The Housemaid/Hanyeo. However, because we do not know who the threat to the family is, our sympathies are not split in the way in which they are in The Housemaid, and we do not long for the family’s destruction in quite the same way.

With a number of effective jumps, and twists and turns, Hide and Seek is well worth seeing, especially on the big screen. My only issue was that there was a rather large plothole that was never explained which has to do with Sung-soo’s brother, and it left me with unresolved questions. I believe that this particular narrative thread had been excised due to the running-time, but I would have liked to see it having been left in. I am hopeful for a director’s cut which will include the deleted scenes when the film, as it surely should, makes its way onto DVD. And I look forward with great anticipation to Director Huh’s next film.


Interview with Director Kim Jee-Woon

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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.


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.


Choi Min-sik: The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again thanks to the KCCUK for making this possible.