• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (30/10/2020)

(An overview of the 15th London Korean Film Festival)


Such is the current way of the world that the 15th edition of the London Korean Film Festival is a hybrid affair. In addition to physical screenings at a handful of venues in the capital, the programme will also be available online so that viewers across the UK can catch up with the latest releases, as well as the various live and virtual events that have been laid on to mark this banner year for South Korean cinema.


Indeed, in recognition of Bong Joon-ho's unprecedented achievement in winning the Palme d'or and the Academy Award for Best Picture for Parasite, LKFF 20 presents two of his early shorts for the first time in Britain. Made while Bong was studying at the Korean Academy of Film Arts, Incoherence (1994) is divided into four parts to expose the hubris at the heart of Korean society. The first vignette shows a college professor with a penchant for Penthouse magazine regretting the decision to ask a female student to fetch a book from his office, while the second centres on a jogger who can't resist stealing milk cartons from doorsteps during his morning run. After the third segment shows an office worker desperately trying to find a bathroom after a heavy night's drinking, the 30-minute short ends with the three protagonists appearing on a TV chat show to ruminate on what is wrong with modern life.


Making innovative use of CCTV footage, Influenza was originally made for Digital Short Films by Three Filmmakers 2004 (2004), which also contained Sogo Ishii's `Mirrored Mind' and Nelson Lik-wai Yu's `Dance With Me to the End of Love'. As much an exercise in technique as a critique of Korean mores, the action switches between monochrome and colour, silence and sound. It centres on Cho Hyuk-rae (Yoon Che-moon), as he descends ever more deeply into a life of crime. Having failed to make it as a salesman pitching a miracle glue, the thirtysomething Cho resorts to scamming an old lady at a cashpoint before the scolding of a female accomplice (Ko Su-hee) results in him being caught up in a violent confrontation in an underground car park.


An additional treat is a free screening of Kang Dae-hee's short, Some Light? (2009), in which Bong takes a supporting role. This is one of several gratis items available during the festival (https://www.koreanfilm.co.uk/page/free-screenings/.), alongside a trio of classic features. Drawing on a novel by Kim Dong-ni, Byun Jang-ho's Eul-hwa (1979) chronicles the rivalry between a shaman and the mudang whose powers he had helped develop, which takes an unexpected turn when the ailing son Eul-hwa had nursed returns to the village as a disapproving Christian.


This comeback vehicle for Kim Ji-mee (who is regarded as South Korea's Elizabeth Taylor because of her occasionally colourful private life) is joined on the free slate by two pictures by one of the early masters of the pre-new wave era, Im Kwon-taek, whose period pictures have been compared to the jidai-geki of Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa. Made between the career-defining duo of The Genealogy (1978) and The Hidden Hero (1979), The Divine Bow (1979) marked the start of Im's 25-year partnership with cinematographer Jung Il-sung. Filmed on a remote island, it opens with the residents of the village of Jangsanpo pleading with former mudang Wang-yeon (Yoon Jeong-hee) to help them after a poor fish harvest. However, a flashback reveals how she and her husband were mistreated by the local boat builder and a conniving loan shark.


The shamanic theme continues with Im's Daughter of Fire (1983), which centres on the pressure besetting reporter Hae-joon (Park Geun-hyeong), whose Christian wife and mother-in-law blame his daughter's dangerous illness on his reluctance to join them in prayer. Troubled by nightmares about his late mother, he accepts his psychiatrist's suggestion to return to his childhood home in South Jeolla Province, where he runs into Haw-ryong (Kim Hee-ra). The one-eyed woodcutter has always been fond of Hae-joon and reveals that his mother, Yong-nyeo (Bang Hee), had been a Muist mudang in the 1960s, who had enraged him while performing a dedication ceremony for the souls lost at sea. She had forgiven Haw-ryong for assaulting her, but the mental scars never healed and her insistence on practicing rites that had been declared illegal by the state prompted the local menfolk into taking drastic action.


Elsewhere on the programme are the gala screenings of Kim Jin-yu's Bori and Kang Dae-kyu's Pawn, while the Cinema Now slate is comprised of Kim Byung-seo's Ashfall, Kim Joo-ho's Jesters: The Game Changers, Jung Jin-young's Me and Me, Jeon Gye-soo's Vertigo and the peerless Hong Sang-soo's The Woman Who Ran. Women's Voices are represented by Lim Sun-ae's An Old Lady and Kim Mi-jo's Gull, while the Friends and Family selection includes Kim Tae-yong's Family Ties, Lee Joon-ik's The Happy Life, Lee Jae-koo's Intimate Strangers, Kang Yi-kwan's Juvenile Offender and Yoon Dan-bi's Moving On. Offering perspectives on reality, the Documentary triptych is made up of Kim So-young's Even Little Grass Has Its Own Name, Kangyu Ga-ram's Itaewon and Byun Young-joo's My Own Breathing, while the Animation section brings together Kim Bo-young's The Levers, Kim Lee-ha's Mascot and Oh Sung-yoon's Underdog.


ASHFALL.


Providing a distinct change of pace from the other titles on the LKFF slate, Lee Hae-jun and Kim Byung-seo's Ashfall is a gung-ho adventure that ropes in elements of the espionage, disaster and buddy movie genres, while also tossing in a hint of sentimental melodrama and lashings of cross-DMZ banter. It's not the subtlest and sometimes hits the buffers. But the co-directors and their excellent leads have their tongues firmly in their cheeks throughout.


When Mount Paektu erupts on the Chinese-North Korean border, the tremors can be felt across the whole peninsula. Panic breaks out and geologist Kang Bong-rae (Ma Dong-seok aka Don Lee) hits upon a plan to use a nuclear missile to prevent the volcano from causing untold damage. Jeon Yoo-kyung (Jeon Hye-jin) is entrusted with the mission to infiltrate the People's Republic of Korea and hook up with Lee Joon-pyeong (Lee Byung-hun), an agent serving in the People's Army. Despite the fact that wife Choi Ji-young (Bae Suzy) is pregnant, bomb disposal expert Jo In-chang (Ha Jung-woo) is chosen for the mission.


Forced to parachute after their plane malfunctions, Jo assumes command and manages to rendezvous with Lee, who has broken out of a prison camp. However, he is more concerned about the whereabouts of his missing daughter than the fact both the North Koreans and an American garrison in the south have rumbled their plan. They are after the chunk of uranium that the interlopers have stolen from a power station. But, when they arrive at Bocheon, some Chinese gangsters demand that Lee hands over his radioactive package. Despite their clash of personalities and ideologies, Jo and Lee forge a pact to deliver the goods to a mineshaft beneath the volcano before it can erupt again - even though there's only a 3.48% chance of success.


The fact that the computer-generated imagery is on the flimsy side only adds to the charm of this full-throttle romp that laces its mission: impossible with plenty of Bond-like quips. Despite the limited SFX, Kim Ji-yong's photography is bullishly muscular, while Kim Byun-hang's production design, the editing of Kim Hye-jin and Kim Jin-oh, and Bang Jun-seok's propulsive score are all fit for purpose.


Moreover, Ha Jung-woo and Lee Byung-hun make splendid sparring partners, with the script staying just the right side of the line in its criticisms of both Seoul and Pyongyang. Brandishing their love of Hollywood blockbusters, Lee and Kim pull out all the stops in making the plot as preposterously convoluted as possible. But they also handle the quieter moments with aplomb before hurtling headlong towards the explosive denouement.


GULL.


Debuting writer-director Kim Mi-jo got the idea for Gull when she was walking beside a river and noticed a man following a middle-aged woman who reminded her of her own mother. She felt there was something menacing about the pursuer's body language and tagged behind for a while to make sure nothing untoward was going on. But the notion of society being oblivious to the plight of a woman alone stuck with her. Taking its title from Anton Chekhov's play, The Seagull, this dissertation on domestic dynamics very much reflects the concerns of the Time's Up and #MeToo movements, while also laying bare South Korean attitudes to gender expectation.


In her early 60s, O-bok (Jeong Ae-hwa) works as a fishmonger in a street market in Seoul. She has three daughters and doubts about the man her eldest, In-ae (Ko Seo-heui), is proposing to marry. However, she knows there's no point in fussing, as her opinion on family decisions tends to be ignored. O-bok is even more self-effacing at work, although she helps fellow vendor Gi-taek (Kim Byung-cheon) with the committee that has been formed to prevent the market from closing so that the district can be gentrified. Following a late night drink, however, Gi-taek rapes O-Bok and she is appalled when none of her colleagues come forward to back her story. Even her husband and In-ae wish she would forget about the assault and focus on the preserving the family's good name before the wedding.


Kim considered her mother for the lead (and did cast older sister Kim Ga-bin as O-bok's youngest daughter), but felt the burden of the role would be too much for a non-actor. Her decision proves well-founded, as Jeong Ae-hwa excels as the menopausal working woman whose voice goes unheard by everyone other than her mother, who is suffering from dementia. Not only does she convey the psychological strain of her ordeal, however but Jeong also explores a middle-aged woman's relationship with her body and the perceptions that others have of her. In interviews, Kim has compared her to a small, spicy pepper and this is certainly a zesty performance.


Given the underdog nature of the storyline, this could easily have descended into melodrama, as the odds are stacked so high against O-bok (whose name, ironically, means `five blessings'), whose co-vendors are scared to speak out against Gi-taek in case they lose their compensation in the ongoing negotiations. But it's the lack of support she gets from her own family that makes this so disconcerting, as they question whether she was actually raped and put their own petty concerns above the fight for justice. It's this sense of isolation that links the protagonist with the eponymous bird, as gulls can only fly so far out to sea before needing to return to land and it's O-bok's realisation that she has to stand her corner and survive that makes her such a compelling and inspirational character.


INTIMATE STRANGERS.


There are currently 17 remakes of Paolo Genovese's Perfect Strangers (2016) doing the rounds. The highest profile versions are Spaniard Álex de la Iglesia's Perfectos desconocidos (2017) and Frenchman Fred Cavayé's Le Jeu (2018), while Issa Rae is reportedly hard at work as the star-producer of the long-overdue English-language take that went into limbo during the Weinstein scandal. However, Lee Jae-kyoo's Intimate Strangers does a decent job in translating the teasing tale to a South Korean setting, although the universal nature of the narrative still comes through loud and clear.


Having just moved into a luxurious new apartment, plastic surgeon Seok-ho (Cho Jin-woong) and psychiatrist Ye-jin (Kim Ji-soo) throw a housewarming dinner for some close friends. They give the impression of being a model couple, with a delightful daughter in So-young (Ji Woo) and an enviable sense of security. The same can't be said for Seok-ho's childhood pal, Tae-soo (Yoo Hae-jin), and his wife, Soo-hyun (Yum Jung-ah), as she is convinced that her husband is tiring of her and she is running out of ways of clinging on to him. She is jealous of newlyweds Joon-mo (Lee Soo-jin) and Se-kyung (Song Ha-yoon), as the younger woman seems to have tamed the inveterate playboy, who seems besotted with his bride. Even divorced teacher Young-bae (Yoon Kyung-ho) seems to be having a happier time with his love life, but he is keeping shtum.


The meal passes with plenty of chit-chat and the odd awkward silence. So, when the subject turns to mobile phones, Ye-jin suggests that everyone places their own in the middle of the table so that everyone can read each other's incoming texts. They also agree to put all incoming calls on speaker phone. Some of the diners dislike the idea, but they are talked into participating after being teased that they have something to hide. At first, the assembled are amused by the mundane and harmless nature of the messages. But it's not long before juicier revelations ping in and tempers start to fray, as the secrets and lies begin to flow as freely as the alcohol.


Anyone familiar with Genovese's ingenious original will know precisely where this chamber drama is heading. But it's fascinating to see how different nationalities handle the core elements, while those unfamiliar with the conceit will be gripped once the initial pleasantries are dispensed with. The ensemble playing is sharp and cunningly conceals the twists until Lee Jae-kyoo and screenwriter Bae Se-yeong deal them like poker players who knows precisely what everyone else has in their hands.


Korean watchers will recognise some of the off-screen voices, with Lee Soon-jae, Ra Mi-ran as Kim So-wol, Jo Jung-suk as Yeon-woo and Kim Min-kyo among the more familiar. Cho Hwa-sung's production design is impeccable, while Kim Sung-an's photography and Shin Min-kyeong's editing ensure no one has anywhere to hide for long. But it's the concept that triumphs here, as the majority of the viewers will spend the picture torn between enjoying watching some well-heeled hypocrites squirm by wondering how things would play out if someone invited them to play the same game.


MOVING ON.


With its roots in her graduation project at the Graduate School of Cinematic Content at Dankook University, Yoon Dan-bi's prize-winning debut feature, Moving On, has often been compared to the domestic dramas of Hirokazu Kore-eda. Yet, while his influence is palpable, Yoon is on record as having cited Yasujiro Ozu, Edward Yang and Emir Kusturica as her inspirations for a rite of passage that is remarkable for its lack of first-timer ostentation and the clarity and simplicity of its thematic and technical approach.


When their father (Yang Heung-ju) break up with their mother, siblings Ok-ju (Choi Jung-un) and her younger brother Dong-ju (Park Seung-jun) are forced to move out of the family apartment. As he needs to work, the father billets the children with their grandfather (Kim Sang-dong), whose declining mental faculties mean that he needs babysitting as much as the kids do. The situation is both ameliorated and exacerbated, however, by the arrival of an aunt (Park Hyeon-yeong) who has just walked out on her argumentative husband. As Ok-ju and Dong-ju settle into their new surroundings, she begins to experience the stirrings of first love. But she also has to confront the grimmer realities of life, as her grandfather's steady decline means that painful decisions will soon have to be taken.


Invariably finding the right place to position Kim Gi-hyeon's camera, Yoon invites the audience to get to know her characters and acclimatise themselves with their new surroundings. Using long takes, she gives the story room to develop, and makes evocative use of both the cosy interiors and the slowly deteriorating garden to explore the shifting situation. For all the intimacy of the drama, however, there's no sense of intrusion, as events play out at a measured pace with a lack of cloying contrivance.


Family life has always been pivotal to Korean society and Yoon explores how the traditonal unit is changing and how the younger generations are coming to rethink their attitudes towards love and commitment. Choi Jung-un excels as the watchful teenager slowly coming to understand the mysteries of adult life, but she remains innocent, whether she is trying to fathom her father's problems, growing tired of her brother's pranks or coping with her own confused feelings, as she realises that the time is coming when she will have to start making difficult decisions on her own. Hugely relatable and delicately done.


UNDERDOG.


The mention of Korean animation always brings to mind the name of Yeon Sang-ho, who has impressed Western audiences with The King of Pigs (2011), The Fake (2013) and Seoul Station (2016). But titles like Sung Baek-yeop's Oseam (2003), Lee Sung-gang's Yobi, The Five Tailed Fox (2007), and An Jae-Hoon and Han Hye-Jin's Green Days: Dinosaur and I (2011) are also hugely popular, as is Oh Sung-yoon's Leafie, A Hen into the Wild (2011) and he has joined forces with Lee Choon-baek on Underdog (2018).


When his owners take him for a ride into the forest Moong-chi the Border Collie (Do Kyung-soo) expects to go on another of their walks with his favourite tennis ball. He dotes on his owners, but they have grown tired of him and abandon him to his fate. More puzzled than frightened or hurt, Moong-chi meets up with a pack of dogs led by Jjanga (Park Chul-Min). He explains that humans betray dogs all the time, but Moong-chi is certain that there has been a mistake and that his people will come looking for him. When the sad realisation finally dawns, he becomes part of the group. But he soon becomes entranced by Bami (Park so-dam), who runs with a wild pack that is keen to find a safe place to dwell, where dogs can be free and safe from vicious human predators.


Produced through a blend of 3-D modelling and 2-D rendering, this touching tale took eight years to write and realise. Oh and Lee are careful to avoid anthropomorphising the animals in the Disney manner, although there are moments of tearjerking poignancy. There are also references to the Korean practice of dog farming that will take some explaining to younger viewers.


Where the picture surprises, however, is in the final destination that the hounds settle upon - the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea. Given the emphasis placed upon fences and barriers, this may seem an unlikely Shangri-la. But wildlife thrived in the No Man's Land around the Berlin Wall, as Bartek Konopka revealed in his 2009 documentary, Rabbit à la Berlin. Besides, the DMZ provides plenty of perils and challenges, which Oh and Lee have announced they intend to explore in a forthcoming sequel.


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