London Korean Film Festival 2019: Epic, intimate, diverse and diverting, this year’s festival has Helen M Jerome in raptures.
What an extraordinary year it’s been for Korean film in general, including Bong Joon-ho winning hearts, minds, awards and audiences with his latest global hit, Parasite. But there’s also a much wider, deeper pool of talent emerging, across all the genres and showcased in the Korean Film Festival 2019, that started its journey in London and moved out to a handful of fortunate cities around the UK.
Opening Gala film, The Seashore Village kicked off the festival and illustrated the quality that’s marked out so much Korean output. Made by veteran director Kim Soo-yong, the screening of this 1965 black and white classic was graced by his presence. With a story focusing on widows of seafaring fishermen, bold close-ups and narratives of community and belonging contrasting with the alienation of outcasts, and scenes of passion, toil and anguish, there is an overwhelming sense of inescapable fate that seems to toy with the main characters. The director (who has made 109 features, with almost half being about women) admitted they’d based this film on a short story of only five scant pages, and added ever other element. It’s interesting to contrast this with the recent Locarno Special Jury prize-winning thriller, Height Of The Wave, from director Park Jung-Bum (who also stars in it). Also set near dangerous waters, with a claustrophobic small town corruption and dark secrets, this is all about building the mood and showing how a female cop is thwarted at every turn as she tries to expose a conspiracy behind closed ranks of disturbing toxic masculinity.
It was a quick jump from the veteran opening film-maker to the debutants who made the closing gala, Scattered Night. What’s more, the two female directors filmed this divorce drama as their graduation project, and one of the duo – Kim Sol (above left, with me) – attended to speak about everything from casting the two young siblings (the girl Sunim, came via an audition website; the boy Jinho, was spotted playing Billy Elliott), to working with her co-director Lee Jihyoung, and their choice of handheld camera, wide angles, long takes and a sudden ending. Set in the quiet firestorm of a marriage on its last legs, with a focus on how the fallout affects the children, this is like Marriage Story, but from the other point of view. The good news is that their promise from this assured movie is huge; the bad news is that the co-directors have decided to go it alone from now on, with Kim Sol telling me that she’s making a film about her relationship with her father next.
A bonus at this year’s festival was seeing some bona fide classics to mark the centenary of Korean cinema. From 1961, Aimless Bullet is Yu Hyon-mok’s hardboiled anti-war tale, steeped in postwar nihilism, with thwarted love and damaged protagonists ensuring it was banned initially. Pitch-black noir with added relevance, and nods to American film noirs from Humphrey Bogart, Howard Hawks et al, its feeling of worthlessness also links to the likes of the Lower Depths and On The Waterfront, with any flickers of hope soon snuffed out. Unmissable.
The 1980s might be the decade that taste forgot in many cultures, but Korean filmmakers forged ahead and into new territory. Ticket (1986) is from another veteran Im Kwon-taek, who has some 102 films under his belt, and is set in a run-down brothel equally at home catering for dock workers and ageing movie stars. Although the fashions are all shoulderpads and Laura Ashley styles, there’s some unexpected depth in the characters, notably the matriarch who runs the operation and has some baggage in her past. Sleazy and touching in equal parts, it’s very much of its time.
Screened very late on a cold Sunday night, I’m afraid the charms of Lee Jang-ho’s The Man With Three Coffins (1987) were lost on me and I didn’t make it to the end. Allusive, episodic, but not quite the sum of its parts, it felt part Godard, part Adam Curtis and all morbid. What a contrast with The Age Of Success, Jang Sun-woo’s 1988 larger than life, Wall-Street-meets-Dragons-Den-meets-Apprentice drama. Exposing capitalism at its rawest, this satire feels all too credible, with scenes of excess, militaristic business techniques, and a main character devoid of scruples and reminiscent of Don Draper.
Going into the 1990s, one is immediately reminded of issue-driven Ken Loach and even John Sayles fare with Park Kwang-su’s magnificent A Single Spark (1995) (above), based on a disturbing true story of activism against oppressive labour practices. With black and white flashbacks to scenes in 1965 sweatshops and colour for the 1990s scenes, this is also notable for one of its co-writers being the young Lee Chang-dong, who went on to make 2018 breakout hit, Burning.
In contrast, The Contact (1997) is pretty much a Korean version of the romantic Hanks/Ryan drama You’ve Got Mail crossed with Cyrano de Bergerac, with added Velvet Underground (their song Pale Blue Eyes on repeat throughout), endless unsuitable matches and a late-night DJ. My favourite details are the cutting-edge 1990s tech, with clunky pagers, faxes, huge phones and PCs combining with the online-messaging-driven plot, to slow the whole story right down.
The second feature film from Lee Chang-dong, Peppermint Candy (1999) has become a rare, cult classic, hunted down on eBay and beyond. Made the year before Christopher Nolan’s Memento, its plot starts with the protagonist’s suicide right upfront and in the here and now, then gradually winds back year by year over two decades to trace exactly what caused this. An ex-cop with a far from unblemished record, he’s an unlikeable anti-hero for whom happiness remains elusive, with the shadows of PTSD and lost love hanging over him. Just superb, and a glimpse of what was to come from Lee Chang-dong.
Folded into the festival was the customary Women’s Voices section, which gets stronger every year and this time notably celebrated fresh, first-time filmmakers, all with UK Premieres. A Bedsore (above) is a subtle study of something we’re all facing, how to care for our ageing population, especially our family members. There’s fantastic depth from her two leads, in a cast sourced primarily from the theatre, in an ambitious debut for Shim Hyejung. She answered questions afterwards on the film’s candid, sometimes comic view of caring, admitting she hadn’t realised how universal the story would feel, as she tapped into her favourite subject: people on the periphery, from women to migrant workers, and the fear everyone else has that they might lose their place to them.
Ahn Ju-Young’s A Boy And Sungreen is about the search of the boy for his father, helped by best friend and totally opposite character, Sungreen, a girl who is as confident as he is awkward. In truth, everyone in the film is a kind of orphan or lost sold searching for their place and meaning, and it’s beautifully done. Completely different in tone and plot, nevertheless, Youngju from Cha Sung-Duk, is also about orphaned youngsters who want to belong, but are instead pushed around like pawns when their parents are killed. Unscrupulous relatives gather like vultures to rip them off, as Youngju tries to find the man driving the car that killed her folks, while keeping her hopeless brother from going off the rails. And just when you think it’s heading for an inevitable revenge/justice plot, the story shifts and opens its heart… Lots of promise in all these directorial debuts.
By far the most popular strand at each festival is the Cinema Now section, which showcases the very best releases from the past 12 months. Lots of sold-out screenings, inevitably, for movies like director Lee Byeong-heon’s ensemble crime heist thriller Extreme Job. With nods to the likes of Stakeout, this ratchets that kind of plot up several notches, as our undercover cops set themselves up in a Chicken Shop franchise and get so good at their restaurant business that they almost forget their actual purpose. Played for comedy as much as drama, it’s overloaded with familiar Korean stars, whose capers are intended to catch a crime kingpin in their web, until they get sidetracked. Lots of fun.
Shot in beautiful, pristine black and white, Hong Sangsoo’s Grass (above) has made me reappraise my previous antipathy towards the celebrated, influential director. Packed with sharply drawn characters and considerably more laughs, and mainly set in a coffee shop where various duos and groups chat and eat, time loops around (very Hong Sangsoo) and he might just have won me round…
Finally, two of my absolute favourites of the entire festival were screened as a Saturday night double-bill I’ll never forget. Both were based on true stories, and both moved me to tears. A Resistance (above), from Joe Min-ho is visually and tonally similar to Hollywood blockbusters like Papillon and The Shawshank Redemption. But I found it more powerful than either of its predecessors, perhaps because the protagonist is female, joining an overdue shift in film-making. Uncompromising and brutal from the beginning, with endless prisoners crammed into one freezing cell, the story covers the imprisonment of non-violent protesters one century ago, by focusing on one female freedom fighter, Yu Gwan-sun (played by the remarkable Ko A-sung).
There are elements of Spartacus, too, when fellow prisoners echo a defiant cry, and you’ll be made of strong stuff if you don’t look away during the torture scenes. Interestingly, the ‘present day’ prison scenes are shot in black and white and the shifts back to the past are in colour, all helping to imprint this on the consciousness.
With Birthday, one of the key figures behind Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine and Poetry, Lee Jong-un, finally takes her own place as director. And she knocks it out the park with supressed emotions, tragedy, family bonds and grief occasionally bursting through the tightly plotted drama. The background subject is the highly controversial Sewol ferry sinking in which so many young people died, and although it’s been covered in documentaries, this is the first drama to tackle the aftermath. With the star of Peppermint Candy (Sul Kyung-gu) 20 years later, trying to reconnect with his estranged, damaged wife and their young daughter long after their son drowned in the disaster, this is a lesson in less being more. We see characters buttoned down, barely able to express their gnawing grieving, so when their emotions do escape they’re all the more affecting. With any luck, Lee Jong-un will emulate Lee Chang-dong (who also produced this).
What a tremendous London Korean Film Festival 2019, with so many fresh names, classics plus favourites on form. I cannot wait for 2020’s to roll around.
Check out the London Korean Film Festival website!