The London Korean Film Festival 2014 – Who’d have thought it! Just nine years ago, the inaugural event showed just 11 films. Fast forward to 2014 and the total is 55. And the variety of genres, directors, stars, budgets and issues has never been stronger. Try to seek out some of these gems. You won’t regret it – and it might make you just as passionate as DVD Fever is about Korean movies.
You could not get a more kick-ass start to the festival than the high-tech epic KUNDO: AGE OF THE RAMPANT, set towards the end of the Joseon Dynasty, where obscene wealth and desperate poverty live cheek by jowl. Directed by Yoon Jong-bin, this stars Gang Dong-won as the villainous Jo Yoon, with Ha Jung-woo as his nemesis, Dolmuchi, an ex-butcher who is rather handy with a pair of cleavers. Starting with a one-sided, almost comic-book fight, we are introduced to a bunch of Robin Hood-type insurrectionists – the Kundo – who steal from the rich to give to the poor, pitted against Yoon, the bastard son of the corrupt, weak governor. In classic style, Yoon aims to wipe out any opposition to his power and wealth, and when he kills Dolmuchi’s family, the butcher feels impelled to join forces with the Kundo.
No-one is beyond corruption, even officials of justice, so the outlaws have their work cut out. Jong-bin blends the Three Musketeers with the Magnificent Seven (Samurai) for their distinctive image, as a highly-motivated gang of men and women with strong personalities. Each highly choreographed fight sequence, with weaponry including spears, swords, bows and arrows, is superb – and although the ambush scenes are outstanding, it’s the breathtaking bamboo forest fight between deadly rivals Yoon and Dolmuchi that lives in the memory – with the cleaver-wielding hero clad in black, and the villain in white. With all due respect to House of Flying Daggers, and to paraphrase Brian Clough, I wouldn’t say this is the best ever Bamboo Forest Fight Sequence, but it is in the top one – as one of the characters is also holding a baby! Oh, and it’s worth noting that this entire movie is accompanied by Jo ‘Oldboy’ Yeong-wook’s fantastically funky soundtrack, reminiscent of Ennio Morricone in full spaghetti-western flow.
Han Dong-wook’s confident debut film MAN IN LOVE is a mix of comedy, love story and poignant drama, with a few brutal action sequences thrown in for good measure. The plot is propelled by the actions and passions of a deeply unpleasant protection/loan racketeer, Tae-il who uses heavy-handed techniques to recover debts. But when he unexpectedly falls for the daughter of one comatose loanee who is in hospital, Tae-il takes on the loan himself, and devotes himself to wooing her. So besotted is he, that he even bathes the ailing father, and in return for helping them out financially, Tae-il insists the daughter’s side of the bargain must be to talk and eat with him on a set number of occasions. Meanwhile he can’t escape from his dysfunctional family and criminal associates who set him up, and just as he’s made the daughter fall in love with him, Tae-il’s destiny seems to be going back into jail… again. Will they still have a future together? And does he have a future at all?
If there’s one thing the Korean film industry is known for, it’s making thrillers with the twistiest plots imaginable. And THE TARGET is director Chang’s superb addition to the genre, starring the brilliant Ryu Seung-ryong as Yeo-hoon, a man with assassins on his tail from the first minute. Even the medic, Tae-jun, who saves his life – and the medic’s pregnant wife – find themselves under threat. For Yeo-hoon has witnessed a brutal murder, and everyone is after him: the assassins, the cops, and even Tae-jun. Without the luxury of time, and in an almost-constant hail of bullets and blood, Yeo-hoon has to piece together what happened to make him the prime suspect in the murder, try to protect his simple brother, and help save Tae-jun’s kidnapped wife. The pursued becomes the pursuer. There are car chases and shoot-outs aplenty. Yeo-hoon is framed by the corrupt cops, led by Song, of whom it’s said “he’d kill his own parents for money”. Who will be left standing at the close?
The other explosive festival thriller, Kim Seong-hun’s A HARD DAY, also deals with a corrupt cop trying to wipe out anyone who gets in his way, and similarly contains The Most Massive Twists Imaginable. Conflicted protagonist and accident-prone homicide detective, Gun-su, is expertly portrayed by Lee Sun-Kyun (Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Our Sunhi), with his nemesis, Park played with huge relish by Cho Jin-woong of Kundo and Nameless Gangster fame. Already a huge hit in Korea, it’s not hard to imagine the likes of Scorsese imminently developing a US remake.
Lee Yong-seung’s institutional, workplace drama 10 MINUTES most resembles Falling Down, except this time the person under pressure is an intern, Hochan. He works all hours while studying to enter the film/TV industry. His parents want him to stick at the office job and become a staff member for an “easy life”, and give up his dreams, mainly so he can provide for them. Should he compromise his principles? His girlfriend doesn’t want him to, but he is stitched up when full-time work is promised and then his job is given to someone else who is unqualified, but has ‘connections’. Meanwhile Hochan doesn’t dare tell his family, as their debts continue to pile up. Part drama, part commentary on the stressful lack of current work-life balance for many Koreans, this raises many questions.
Another domestic issue, child custody, dominates the final part of THE DINNER, from Kim Dong-hyun, a drama that revolves around a series of family meals. We see the everyday mundanity, setbacks and beauty of family life and strife. Ageing grandparents look after their spoiled, hyperactive grandson; their elder son is laid off and his other half is sick from pollution; their younger son is still paying off his student loan, has a pregnant wife, and works as a taxi driver for drunken businessmen; their daughter is a struggling, stressed single mother. They’re all going through the economic downturn – and then an accident and a death happen in quick succession and events threaten to spin out of control.
Go to page 2 for more films from The London Korean Film Festival 2014.