London Korean Film Festival 2021 Review by Helen M Jerome: To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, if you’re tired of Korean film, you’re tired of life… such is its breadth and quality. Positioned in its own sweet spot in early November in a space between various variants of the pandemic, the 2021 London Korean Film Festival was fortunately able to function fully in-person in its 16th year. And what a programme it put on, with directors able to attend Q&As and fully appreciate actual audience applause and joy after sitting at home, head-in-hands, wondering how their movies were going down for the past year. Previously I’ve been known to bully folk into coming along, but now everyone’s a fully signed-up Korean film fan and willing to dive in, sight unseen. After all, they all loved Parasite and Minari and Train to Busan…
To begin at the end, one of my favourite films was the closing gala, Heaven: To the Land of Happiness. Not only was the director Im Sang-soo there to introduce his movie and for the post-screening Q&A, but I was lucky enough to meet and chat with him afterwards – and admire his Vans footwear. Starring Choi Min-sik (of Oldboy fame), Park Hae-il (The Host) and recent Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-jung (Minari) in her fourth collaboration with the director, this is a crime caper played for laughs that you have to see. In fact, Im says the actors were so professional he could just sit back and enjoy himself. The movie is against the clock, with one character given two weeks to live, teaming up with a disaffected guy on the run, with a crime syndicate and incompetent cops in hot pursuit. And it’s very meta and aware of itself… “life is a goddam noir movie” says one man, while Youn steals every scene as an ageing matriarch, POV shots abound and it self-references past classics like The Getaway, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Im says that as he gets older, a lot of his films are about the contemplation of mortality, and also reckons this movie is his least malicious and provocative. Fortunately for his fans, Im hasn’t just been sitting on his hands the past two years, and he now has three films in preparation, including a spy drama and another crime film. Can’t wait.
Youn Yuh-jung is now such a legend – deservedly – that she had her own Special Focus section in the festival. I’ve admired Youn’s work for many years, notably in The Bacchus Lady (2016) where she plays an ageing prostitute with a past, and a very individual way of helping her clients, and it was good to see it screened again for this tribute. From the same year, and completely new to me, was her first collaboration with director Chang, Canola (above). Youn is utterly convincing as a devoted grandmother, and you feel her chill of fear when she loses her precious grandchild during a shopping trip in the market, seemingly forever. When the story jumps forward a dozen years you still feel her sharp loss and you hope against hope that the young woman who reappears just might be the same child. Yes, it’s got a melodramatic seam running through it, but the acting elevates it above that genre’s norm. Another film Youn made with Im, A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003), is considered a Korean classic, and with graphic, raunchily intimate scenes and an uncompromising attitude to marriage and relationships, it certainly feels like it wasn’t so much breaking taboos as totally crushing them. With an unsettling, voyeuristic style from the handheld camera work, it propelled its stars (Moon So-ri and Hwang Jung-min) into the mainstream and confirmed Youn, albeit in a supporting role, as a peerless matriarch at the core once more. We learned a good deal more about her brilliant career as “the Meryl Streep of Korea” in a specially made documentary tribute, discovering that she was one of a trio of actresses who swept the sixties, but later found it hard to get cast after experiencing the “stigma” of being divorced. An unexpected Youn joy popped up in the short film, Ladies of The Forest (2016) where she comes down to earth seeking love, in a charming if silly tale. She says she’s “greedy to try new things” which can only be a good thing for us. More Youn, please.
One of the most epic films screened was Lee Joon-ik’s prize-winning The Book Of Fish, shot in beautiful black and white and unspooling its historical tale across many years and through much tip-top millinery. Three brothers are martyrs to their faith, and the one whose story we follow most closely is exiled to the remote Black Mountain Island and its village of fisherfolk. He realises that corruption (even taxing the dead) is rife, but finds comfort in a young local’s knowledge of sealife, and together they embark on cataloguing and describing everything, in their ‘book of fish.’ There’s loads of wit and warmth amongst the casual cruelties and hardships, with an acknowledgement that “the people plough the fields and the government ploughs the people”. There’s optimism too though, with the idea that education can not only elevate the locals but also help them make the land more productive and live better. A pretty much perfect film.
At the other end of the scale is the incredibly intimate Aloners, Hong Sung-eun’s debut as director. Set mainly in a claustrophobic call centre, it focuses on awkward, stubborn loner Jina (Gong Seung-yeon), recently bereaved and resentful of babysitting a newbie. There’s a touch of Howard’s End in her neighbour’s death too, crushed to death not by books, but by his porn collection. Also plunging us into a different world is Awoke, from writer-director duo Jung Jae-ik and Seo Tae-Soo. Their in-depth look at how the disabled are treated started with workshops and tells its story by foregrounding the newly paralysed Jaegi (Jo Min-sang, excellent). Wrongly assessed from the very start, he quickly finds himself in a Kafka-esque spiral of bureaucracy and idiocy, ripped off by strangers who befriend him and bleed him dry, misunderstood by those who should be helping him. It’s heartbreaking to watch on as the vicious circle constantly pushes him out and those gaming the system rise up. Feels as effective in exposing the cruel system as Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake.
With Kim Jong-kwan’s Shades of the Heart, we were lucky to have Kim in attendance for his latest masterpiece. Novelistic in structure, it’s also the story of a novelist actually building up his new work. He is eager to please, and despite the woman we meet first being easily bored, he persists on his journey, addressing issues around ageing and memory in locations from bars to coffee shops, and it could be subtitled ‘Close Encounters’. The feeling of sharp grief is almost tangible, such is the depth and empathy Kim achieves. As the director says, he’s building up a tower of lies to create something truthful here, all tightly storyboarded in advance. One to see again.
I’m still on the fence about Hong Sangsoo, but if you’re already a fan you’ll rush towards his new movie, In Front Of Your Face. With a familiar feeling of being unfiltered and in real time, this is basically a portrait of a woman of a certain age, built up from seemingly inconsequential details of manners, food, drink and encounters, while gradually revealing that she’s been hiding a secret. Is there a filmmaker in the story? Yes, of course. Very meta, and very Hong.
Smash hit crime caper movie Collectors is superficially a mash-up of Indiana Jones and Ocean’s Eleven as it focuses on a motley crew of grave robbers – or “tomb raiders” – involved in a series of increasingly audacious heists. No one trusts anyone else, understandably, but you do find yourself wondering about the deeper motives behind one protagonist’s motivation, and there’s definitely a bigger message here about greed and cultural theft. Lots of fun too.
Amnesia thriller Recalled, from Seo You-min, has echoes of Before I Go To Sleep but ramped right up to the extent that you really don’t know what you’ve witnessed. No-one is quite what they seem. The protagonist, Soo-jin, has had a fall, and she is left with zero memory of her previous life. The man who seems to be her caring husband (there are wedding photos, after all) is also pushing pills down her to control her, so can he be trusted? The framing of the action means you don’t know whether Soo is experiencing premonitions or memory flashbacks – and whether her partner is abusive and controlling or merely keen to fly them both to Canada to start afresh. As viewers we are hand in hand with Soo as she seeks the truth, so we never get ahead of ourselves in unravelling the mystery. Very clever.
With some quirky touches reminiscent of Amelie, Kwak Min-seung’s pandemic-set indie drama, Rolling features a lot of masks, a zoom job interview, and many appetite-whetting scenes as mother and daughter seek to roll the perfect kimbap. Bonding over food is, as with so many Korean features, a vital part of this film, but there’s also bonding over cigarettes, which appear heavily right across this festival.
To prove that nothing is off the table in Korean cinema, Kim Hye-mi’s animation feature Climbing crosses multiple genres, starting with lead character Choi’s fear of failure as a top climber. How will she fare when she discovers she’s pregnant just before the World Championship? We sense all her stress, dreams and constant pressure – and there’s a thin line between her recurring nightmares and reality, so much so that she starts to receive messages from an alternate version of herself. Dealing with loss, a theme across many films in the festival, is also tackled here.
Variety is the spice of life with Korean cinema right now, and this fine festival certainly showed it. Bring on LKFF 2022!
Check out the London Korean Film Festival website!