London Korean Film Festival 2018: One of the best films at the glittering, main London Film Festival 2018 was undoubtedly the enthralling-twisting-turning Burning, starring Steven Yeun in his first Korean-language feature. And thankfully, the quality of the Korean Film Festival itself was equally strong and varied.
When I started going to the LKFF way back in 2011, there were fewer films on show, and the look, feel, breadth and depth of fare was strikingly different – plus the festival now carries on across the country into a handful of cinema-loving cities.
In past years there have been far more House of Flying Daggers-type films, featuring extraordinary millinery and special effects (like War Of The Arrow). Plus lots of hard-boiled crime dramas (like The Unjust), centuries-old slices of history (also featuring big hats), occasional flashbacks to the Korean War, and stories of the North/South divide. Many of these genres and subjects are still around, but there’s also a much bigger swathe of contemplative cinema on offer, examining relationships, social problems, and offering more nuanced character studies.
In the opening gala film, Microhabitat (top picture), director Jeon Go-woon’s debut, we glimpse the impossibility of living in Seoul through the experience of central character, Miso (Lee Som). She’s a free spirit grounded by the realities of life on minimal wages, and an unshakeable addiction to smoking and drinking. Surprisingly, her way of coping is to go without accommodation, becoming literally homeless and rootless and seeing if any of her old bandmates will put her up – with mixed success. Jeon’s highly promising feature, with its sideways swipe at raw materialism, makes her a director to watch.
Closing gala film, The Return (above), from another female director, Malene Choi, couldn’t be more different. Choi herself was adopted from Korea to a Danish family, and this story echoes her own experience, starring Karoline Sofie Lee almost as herself (she was also adopted by Danes from Korea, returning to Korea to seek out her birth parents. Cleverly blending fact and fiction in style and content (Choi initially intended that it should be a documentary), with scenes outlined but mainly unscripted for the actors, it co-stars Thomas Hwan (known for Follow The Money, Borgen and The Killing), who was also adopted. Riveting as revelations unfold and the task becomes more daunting for Karoline. Another remarkable feature debut.
Cinema Now is the shiniest section in the festival, chock-full of new hits and UK Premieres. I absolutely loved Jung Ji-woo’s nailbiting legal thriller Heart Blackened (above), which has such huge twists and shocks it’s like being on a Thorpe Park rollercoaster ride. One of the many remakes and reworkings of previous movies, this was sourced from the 2013 film Silent Witness, and is pretty scathing about power and wealth and guilt. Some missing CCTV footage, an unexplained death, divided family loyalties and some very elaborate set-ups propel the plot through numerous hoops, but it’s the acting chops of veteran Choi Min-sik and Park Shin Hye (as his lawyer) that really impress.
There’s a different aura permeating Choo Chang-min’s thriller Seven Years Of Night, which is based on the novel by Jung Yoo-jung. Set alongside an enormous dam, this adds to the great sense of menace throughout. Entirely unsettling, as the drama focuses on vengeance and unfolds through a distinctive visual and sonic style, it shows that the past cannot hide the secrets of a missing girl and a town drowned under water. Cleverly, it also rewinds to show specific parts of the narrative from different points of view, revealing that multiple characters are steeped in guilt.
Little Forest, from Yim Soon-rye, might be sourced from a manga series, but it’s really about connecting with your past. This gorgeous film is drenched in food memories as Hye-won (Kim Tae-ri from The Handmaiden) revisits the country home her mother has abandoned, and plunges herself into the rhythms of nature as she cooks up a storm. Also from 2017 was the European Premiere of Kim In-seon’s debut feature, Adulthood, which is one of those films that starts off as one genre and ends as another. There’s high comedy when an unwelcome young uncle comes to ‘help’ stubborn teenager Kyung-un after her father’s funeral, and we discover he’s a bit of a scam merchant who romances older women to part them from their money. The high-jinks continue when the grifting gigolo and his niece realise they’re better off teaming up in the scam plan, until the film evolves into something more subtle and nuanced under Kim’s nimble direction.
The London Korean Film Festival even had a category called A Slice Of Everyday Life this year, which gave an insight into the earliest work of many established directors and actors. Have to admit I rather wallowed in this section of outstanding features. There are no big twists in Lee Kang-hyun’s Possible Faces, but it shows the fallout for a couple splitting up, with its unhurried style feeling genuine. Coincidentally, its core subject of an older man being drawn to a youth, which shakes them out of their safe existence, is also the main thrust of the narrative in Kim Yang-hee’s debut feature, The Poet And The Boy. Centred on a sensitive writer Hyeon (Yang Ik-june), his wife, and the boy he becomes besotted with, who works at the new doughnut shop, this is superficially played for laughs (mainly at Hyeon’s expense), but also offers unexpected depth and poignancy.
The festival neatly allowed us to witness actor Yang Ik-june’s own, 2008 directorial debut Breathless (above), which he also wrote and starred in. The violent opening scene, with uncomfortable, extreme close-ups and strong language is just a taste of what’s to come. Unsympathetic protagonists, snapshots that show history repeating itself through the generations, and a vivid, shocking plot make it all the more surprising to learn that Yang hasn’t directed since, merely sticking to acting.
Quieter films, like Park Chan-ok’s debut, Jealousy Is My Middle Name (2002) boast fine performances but hard-to-like characters, and it’s hardly shocking to discover that Park was mentored by Hong Sang-soo. The European Premiere of Jung Hyung-suk’s classy, black and white feature, The Land Of Seonghye, shows what a relentless, hard slog life is for the protagonist. And This Charming Girl (2004), the debut feature from Lee Yoon-ki, is another gentle story that would probably star Sally Hawkins if it were made here. All the drama comes from the star Kim Ji-soo taking in a stray cat and falling for a customer at the post office where she works, as we meanwhile piece together – via two major flashback sequences – the reasons why her past has blighted any chance of happiness for her present.
Straddling two distinct genres, social issue-driven drama and thriller, Bleak Night (2010) (above), the directorial debut of Yoon Sung-hyun is influenced by works from Yoon’s cinematic heroes, Ken Loach and Gus Van Sant. More remarkable is that this was Yoon’s graduation film, yet he hasn’t made a feature since. Ostensibly the story follows a father’s desperate quest to discover why his son killed himself, but in parallel we witness the relentless, casual bullying going on at school among a previously tight group of friends. As social and academic pressures to succeed spiral, and young Koreans suppress their emotions, this film shows the potential fall-out.
The idea of surviving as a defector from North Korea was behind the making of Park Jungbum’s 2011 debut, The Journals Of Musan. It tells the story of Park’s friend, Seong-chul, who sadly passed away before the film was made, and experienced knock-backs, threats, a few highs and endless lows. Park says he had a rage towards the world after Seong-chul died, and he boldly takes the central role of his friend, who is shown to have a unique moral compass and dogged determination, while those around lack compassion, and whose slog is emphasised by Park’s handheld, almost documentary style of filming.
Even bleaker, in-your-face desperation is on show in Park’s follow-up 2014 feature, Alive, in which he again takes the lead role of Jungchul. With a primal, survival-of-the-fittest feel from the start, we follow Jungchul as he tries to keep his family together, including a sister having a breakdown and a stubborn young niece, Hana, the only character who gives hope. Intense, bleak and uncompromising to watch (let alone make in sub-zero conditions), this bodes well for Park’s next project, which he’s just started planning…
Here’s to the London Korean Film Festival 2019! Can hardly wait.