The London Korean Film Festival 2012 – The DVDfever Review

The London Korean Film Festival 2012The London Korean Film Festival 2012: Gosh. Hardly seems a year since the previous Korean Film Festival hit the UK, and it didn’t come a minute too soon.

My appetite whetted by the 2011 experience, I threw myself into the seventh LKFF, spread across eleven days, numerous genres and a couple of main venues. Oh, and riveting dramas about wars over coffee and ice… no, really.

Directed by Choi Dong-hoon with tremendous visual wit and style, opening gala feature The Thieves (right) proves to be an Eastern Ocean’s Eleven, similarly boasting its own all-star cast, but this time from Hong Kong and Korea. Including Kim Yoon-suk (from 2011’s fabulous thriller Yellow Sea), Kim Hye-soo, Lee Jung-jae, Simon Yam (from Election), and Derek Tsang, this crowd-pleasing, box-office smash sees a bunch of unlikely criminals team up, each with different skills and from different backgrounds, and every single one of them a master of disguise. They wise-crack their way up and around the criminal food-chain as they plan the ultimate heist – with a priceless diamond their inevitable target. The endlessly twisting plot features people tailing people tailing people and much slick casino action – always with tongue firmly in its cheek.

To prove this is no fluke, Dong-hoon’s brilliant 2006 feature, Tazza: The High Rollers, also featured in the festival, and also centres around a motley crew of criminals coming together. Right from its punchy opening sequence, split screens and jazzy soundtrack, you’re gripped. The sympathetic lead character, Go-Ni (Cho Seung-woo) is a gambling addict whose luck changes when he meets and studies under the Master. When lust leads him astray, followed by revenge, a classic crime caper unfolds. But who really is the top dog? Who is the kingpin who is pulling everyone’s strings?

Gathered under the genre “K-Pop” – but featuring no Gangnam-stylings – were a varied bunch of films, but each had that quirky, feel-good factor. Papa (right), from Han Ji-seung, is half in English, half in Korean, and chock-full of laughter and emotion. When the title character marries hurriedly to get a visa, then sees his new wife die unexpectedly, he has to take on all her kids from her previous five husbands to stay in the States. They’re all different ages and races, but one of them, June (Ko-ara), has a staggering singing voice, and their new ‘papa’ sees a quick way to make a buck. Plus he’s got debts that no honest man can pay – and scary debt-collectors on his tail. And believe it or not, the rest of the kids can also play instruments, so they turn into a kind of Benetton Partridge Family.

Acoustic is another kettle of fish: three films in one. The first is about a singer who seems to specialise in writing songs about broccoli, and will die unless she keeps eating noodles. Food is also central to the second, based on Haruki Murakami’s short story, and featuring bakery-loving musicians. And the final film, set in the future, sees old technology being fixed, including old relics like iPhones, and links neatly back to the first film.

I guarantee you won’t have seen a better drama centred around coffee, than GABI, well not since the Gold Blend ads. Labelled under the “K-Mystery” heading, and set at the end of the 19th Century, this plot sees Russians and Japanese in a power struggle over the highly-prized new beverage. Childhood sweethearts, covert arms deals, new railway lines, knowing looks, class, nobility, tradition, ceremony and, of course, terrific millinery, are the rest of the ingredients in this sweeping historical epic, marvellously directed by Chang Yoon-hyun.

As for The Deranged, this pretty scary “what if” plot starts as a regular dysfunctional family drama. Then suddenly mass drowning suicides and panic break out, emaciated corpses start to turn up in rivers, and the action spills into everyone’s lives. Those affected by the rabid parasite develop a huge appetite, then an insatiable thirst – hence the drownings. A dramatic situation is proposed, but who is in control? Can a conspiracy theory explain what’s really going on? And if a guy working at the pharmaceutical company with the right drug can’t help his own family, then what hope is there for everyone else? Director Park Joung-woo poses the paranoid questions…

Sleepless Night, in the “K-Arthouse” strand, is a lovely, restrained, yet sophisticated story about a young, working couple, directed by Jang Kun-Jae. With a docu-drama feel, it shows how a yoga teacher and a factory worker live their lives, putting us right there at their ordinary intimacies, as they wash, eat, argue and sleep together.

Almost rivalling K-Pop as a genre, “K-Sports” brings inspirational stories – both true and fictional – to the fore. As One, Korea has the more incredible plot, yet it actually happened. The two eternally warring Korean nations, who also have a massive sporting rivalry, unify for diplomatic and sporting purposes, to compete in the World Table Tennis Championships in Japan in 1991. After initial controversy, they manage to unite behind their common goal of striving to defeat China’s team. It’s a classic sports movie, with fast and furious action and mainly female stars, expertly steered by director Moon Hyung-sung, but with added tension from the knowledge that there’s real jeopardy (just as in its handball equivalent Forever The Moment). Hopes and dreams are dashed, lessons are learned and bitter rivalries put to one side, while politics constantly hovers in the background.

Kim Tae-kyun’s Barefoot Dream may be fictional, but is much easier to believe, focusing on Kim, a genial ex-soccer star from Korea, who is sent to East Timor. Once his initial plans are thwarted, he needs a Plan B, and ends up coaching a rag-tag bunch of kids amidst continuing political unrest. But luckily some of these boys see football as a means of escape, and a way to fulfil their dreams. Festering rivalries still divide Kim’s own team, with enmities left over from the civil war, and youngsters remembering relatives killed by team-mates’ relatives – and one can’t help but recall the likes of the Rwandan sitting volleyball team at the 2012 Paralympic Games. The message of both films is that sport really can heal wounds.

Bringing together disparate kinds of movies, “K-Spotlight” included the crowd-pleasing Black Eagle: R2B Return To Base (right). Stylishly directed by Kim Dong-won, this is basically a Korean version of Top Gun, but with added internal politics and some K-Pop-star glamour in the shape of Rain, aka Jung Ji-hoon. Featuring a mixture of aviator rookies, daredevils and rebels, and filmed like a video game crossed with a pop video, it’s high on CGI and special effects, albeit leavened with humour, romance and not a little tragedy. But all the characters must pull together when they’re threatened by some militaristic, gung-ho North Koreans and must go on a rescue mission. Altogether more downbeat, but refreshingly frank, is SPRING, SNOW, which focuses on a selfless wife and mother (the immaculate Yoon Suk-hwa) who is diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live. Improbably, this brings her variously pathetic and feckless family members closer, as the film evolves into a genuinely moving tear-jerker.

Anyone who loves the likes of Hero and Flying Daggers, will feel right at home with “K-Period Drama”, including Kim Joo-ho’s The Grand Heist (right), which sees rival forces battling for the most important commodity of its time: ice. Forced labour, brutality and poverty underpin a world in which life is cheap, and you can only come out on top if you team up. Complete with fabulous period costumes, broad, knockabout comedy and rather a lot of fighting, this is an ancient heist movie in which the unlikeliest bunch of experts come together. So an underwater swimmer, an explosives maker, plus various plucky pugilists and strongmen, combine in the most ridiculous, far-fetched, edge-of-your-seat climax imaginable.

By contrast, Jang Kyu-sung’s I AM THE KING zones in on two individuals who have been put in the wrong boxes and want out. One is literally a prince about to succeed to the throne, the other a pauper, and they swap places. So each one becomes a fish out of water. Suspension of disbelief is vital for the audience, and mistaken identities, cover-ups, action sequences and moments of high and low comedy help propel this costume drama towards a credible conclusion. Both prince and pauper show chivalry and honour to become better people, especially the prince, who turns from feckless to fearless.

The festival’s big budget closing gala feature, Masquerade also boasted a prince and pauper theme. Directed by Choo Chang-min and starring the superb Lee Byung-hun (from Red 2) in both lead roles, the story is based on fifteen missing days in King Gwanghae’s sixteen-year reign. No-one knows where he is, but everyone comments on how much he’s changed when he suddenly turns up again. And this film explores a possible explanation. Played for laughs throughout, and looking ravishing, the narrative unfolds when the paranoid king falls into a sudden coma, and a lookalike is employed as a stand-in. Bewildered by the change in their ‘king’s’ behaviour, his advisors and followers continue their struggle for political supremacy. But who can be trusted? Who is only out for self-interest? Soon they are also plotting against the poor stand-in, as true nobility, fairness and justice battle against lust for power.

Yet again, the London Korean Film Festival – which also rolled out to Glasgow, Bristol and Bournemouth – came up trumps. With treats, surprises, new directors and stars, and quality throughout, this is a cinematic event that I cannot recommend highly enough. If you like movies and you want to try something a little bit different, do come along next November…


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