London Korean Film Festival 2020: Another festival strong on content – though slimmer and focused online – as Helen M Jerome discovered.
Now Korean film is finally getting the critical plaudits, mainstream audiences, and major awards we all knew it deserved (thank you, Bong Joon-ho and Parasite!), it’s been hard to witness its progress momentarily paused by the global pandemic. But this is an extraordinarily resilient industry, and this year’s festival had already made the wise decision to make (nearly) everything available online, which made the experience feel more intimate, but less collective, of course. I doubt any of us will take it for granted again. Watching a handful of key, current films via a laptop still means feeling connected – albeit remotely. So without further ado, let’s look at the highlights:
Skipping past the opening gala film, Pawn (not available online, but I hope to see at a later date) let’s go straight to the closing film, the fine family drama, Bori (above). This was partly inspired and definitely shaped by the director Kim Jinyu’s own childhood memories, when he was the only one in his family who could hear. Released in 2020, this focuses on an incredibly close family of hardworking mum and dad – who are both deaf – plus their hearing daughter Bori, and her deaf little brother, who loves football more than just about anything. Bori is 11 years old, hovering on the edge of independence, and resenting being the sole interpreter and translator 24/7. Which understandably makes for a rather quiet film. She’d feels like she’d rather fit in with her peers, but then hatches a plan to seem like she’s also lost her hearing and be more like her folks. Then she begins to see what it’s like from their point of view. There’s lots hovering just under the surface here, about signing and lip reading and communication, and although it’s not as political as Nina Raine’s excellent play Tribes, it covers much of the same fertile ground, with main cast, Kim Ahsong as Bori, plus Lee Lynha and Kwak Jinseok, very believable.
Bori also fits neatly into the festival’s deliberately framed Friends and Family section – which feels very apt in this COVID year of isolation. Central to this section is generational drama Moving On, which is poignant from the first minute. Released in 2019, and directed by newcomer Yoon Dan-bi, it revolves around the dilemma facing a family when the grandfather gets sick. Meanwhile moody teen girl Dongju (Choi Jung-un) feels under pressure to conform, and wants plastic surgery to have her eyes ‘fixed’, as her single parent dad struggles to get by. Warm and charming, with lots of universal themes, yet tinged with sadness around the edges.
The entire premise of Intimate Strangers is so perfect (and perfectly simple) that you immediately think the idea must have already existed – and you’d be right. For this deliciously provocative 2018 film from Lee Jae-kyoo/ aka JQ Lee is a remake of 2016 Italian film Perfect Strangers. It initially feels reminiscent of The Big Chill, with old friends getting back together, then turns into a classic dinner party set-up. Mainly comprising couples, and with an all-star cast (including Yoo Hae-jin, Cho Jin-woong and Lee Seo-jin), this gathering of well-heeled pals takes a bit of a turn when they all agree to let their friends round the table see any messages and hear all calls coming into their smart phones. Secrets come out thick and fast, some misleading, some potentially relationship-ending, all revealing different sides to the characters, like a lighter version of Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen. But will these emerging secrets bust this close-knit clan wide open? It’s certainly fun finding out in this witty farce with lots of darkness!
Building on previous years’ festivals, the Women’s Voices section boasted a brand new, strong centrepiece movie in Gull, from director Kim Mi-jo. The older woman at the heart of the film, O-bok, is going through her ‘time of life’, confronting health matters, with spirit and body feeling crushed, her daughter about to get married, and stress descending like a cloud. Then, in the vein of a #MeToo revelation, O-bok (the excellent Jeong Ae-hwa) is struck by the revelation that she has been sexually assaulted, and once she airs the accusation all hell breaks loose, with misogyny out in the open. But she’s as mad as hell and not going to take it any more. Some taboos are aired, it feels all too real, and everyone realises that you should never mess with a menopausal woman, even in a movie.
Delightfully animated full-length feature, Underdog, directed by Oh Sung-yoon and Lee Choon-baek, is layered not only in its canine narrative, but also in the mix of two and three dimensional animation, thanks to the skills of Doh Kyung-soo, Park So-dam, and Park Chul-min. Cleverly, the central voice actor, playing our heroic abandoned border collie Moong-chi is K-Pop sensation Doh Kyung-soo, better known as singer D.O. from Exo. The plot is a mix of focused, animal cruelty message – as Moong-chi and all kinds of other mutts are abandoned by their owners and 101 Dalmatians-type dog-catchers lock them up – with wider, ecological concerns, and a dash of Incredible Journey. And the setting for the dramatic, final scene is unexpected. Message is to treasure and protect your friends!
First rule of the London Korean Film Festival is you must include something big, glossy and epic. And Ashfall (above) from writer/directors Lee Hae Jun and Kim Byung Seo ticks all the boxes – and more. This a movie that doesn’t draw breath, packed throughout with action, impending doom, a double agent for both sides of the Korean divide, plus an imminent baby to be delivered, while in the background seismic activity sees Mount Paektu suddenly spewing lava. Though the American characters seem clunkier and less convincing, the charismatic central performances from Lee Byung Hun, Ha Jung Woo and Ma Dong Seok carry you through any bumpy parts of the film. Special effects are great, and the structure feels like a western crossed with a disaster movie. Recommended for fans of thrills and spills.
Can’t wait until LKFF 2021. Hopefully in person… fingers crossed.
Check out the London Korean Film Festival website!