The Admiral: Roaring Currents (명량) – ★★★☆☆

The Admiral: Roaring Currents (명량)

The Admiral: Roaring Currents (명량)

It would be remiss for any discussion of The Admiral: Roaring Currents (명량) not to examine the colossal achievements the period film has made. Director Kim Han-min’s (김한민) film has broken seemingly every Korean cinematic record the country has – the fastest film to gain over 10 million viewers (12 days); the most viewers on an opening day (682,797); the biggest opening weekend ($25.94 million); and the first film to attract over 1 million viewers and 10 billion won in a single day, amongst other similar milestones (source: KoBiz). To call The Admiral: Roaring Currents a success is an understatement of the highest order.

Yet the accomplishments have not come without marked criticism. Of the 2,584 cinema screens in South Korea, The Admiral: Roaring Currents initially occupied over 1,500, during a time of school vacations and oppressive summer heat. Bolstered by a 3 billion won marketing strategy by the country’s largest distributor CJ Entertainment, which combines with the biggest cinema chain CGV to form the conglomerate CJ-CGV, debates concerning the monopolization of the industry by chaebols have again risen (sources: VarietyThe Hankyoreh).

With all the success and criticism aside, the question remains – does The Admiral: Roaring Currents live up to the hype? The answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a resounding no. While it’s a well-made historical yarn, the simplistic script, weak characterisation and insanely – and often comically – overt nationalism detract from the film, making it less of a war epic and more of an entertaining matinee.

Admiral Yi Sun-shin returns from incarceration and toture to fight the Japanese invaders

Admiral Yi Sun-shin returns from incarceration and toture to fight the Japanese invaders

The year is 1597. Admiral Yi Sun-shin (Choi Min-sik (최민식), the most fearsome – and unbeaten – naval commander in the history of Joseon (Korea), who has been imprisoned and tortured by the very country he fought for, is finally acquitted and released. His task is not small. With only 12 ships at his command, Admiral Yi must fend off the impending invasion of  330 battleships belonging to the Japanese navy, led by pirate Kurujima (Ryoo Seung-ryong (류승룡) and General Wakizaka (Jo Jin-woong (조진웅). Against all odds, Admiral Yi must not only engage his enemy but also overcome the fear gripping his men, to defend Joseon from colonization in the famous Battle of Myeong-ryang.

The great strength of The Admiral: Roaring Currents lies in director Kim Han-min’s vision and incredible ability in capturing adrenaline-fueled scenes of carnage. Director Kim has already proved his kinetic prowess on the fun action-adventure War of the Arrows, yet with the larger budget and scale of The Admiral he surpasses himself to display a genuine evolution in style. Given that the Battle of Myeong-ryang itself takes roughly half of the film’s running time this is a particularly impressive feat, as director Kim uses every means at his disposal to make the conflict as thrilling, compelling, and downright entertaining as possible – and it works. Warfare is dramatically captured through a variety of techniques, from establishing shots conveying the scale of the battle and the horrifying size of the invasion, to smaller intimate scenes of bloody hand-to-hand combat and exciting quick changes in strategy. In one exhilarating long take the camera moves around the deck of Admiral Yi’s ship as he and his men clash violently with their foe. Plus, in a moment of inspired genius, The Admiral features Buddhist warrior monks cleaving Japanese forces in two, which never fails to raise a smile.

Japanese pirate-turned-general Kurujima leads the invasion...in thick make-up

Japanese pirate-turned-general Kurujima leads the invasion…in thick make-up

Unfortunately such sensibilities haven’t been extended to the script, which is generally really poor. The complexity of the period is constantly simplified and subsumed beneath incredibly overt nationalism, which is a real source of frustration. Whether it be the blinked-and-missed-it scenes of Admiral Yi’s torture at the hands of the country he defended, or the shambles of a navy that he inherits upon release, the lack of exploration of such issues really halts any audience investment in the historical figures/characters themselves. There is an attempt to add empathy by conveying Admiral Yi’s post-traumatic stress from torture as well as the relationship with his son, but again, they really are fleeting and add very little to the overall story. Instead, the film consistently strives to deify Admiral Yi, presenting him as an omnipotent saviour figure. This gives actor Choi Min-sik, who is undisputedly a phenomenal talent, very little material to work with, largely requiring him to look determined and to adopt the statuesque posture for which he is renowned.

The most obvious heavy-handed nationalism unsurprisingly appears in regards to the Japanese invaders. Visually, their costume design and make-up is frankly awful, which combines to convey them as one-dimensional drag acts sent from hell. This is acutely the case for Ryoo Seung-ryong as pirate-turned-general Kurujima, whose devil-esque costume and thick black eye-liner are laughable. The most comical moments however are reserved for the dialogue as Ryoo, on multiple occasions, is required to snarl and exclaim, “YI SUN-SHIN!” whenever the Admiral does well, inducing sniggers. The Japanese forces are undoubtedly the villains of this historical event, yet portraying them in such a simplified shallow manner undermines Admiral Yi’s achievements both in the past and on celluloid.

Admiral Yi prepares to engage in close combat

Admiral Yi engages in close combat

The Admiral: Roaring Currents is arguably the most financially successful Korean film of all time, shattering a multitude of box office records during its phenomenal cinematic run. Director Kim Han-min’s war-drama featuring revered Admiral Yi Sun-shin is nothing short of a filmic sensation. The film itself however, while a well-made historical actioner and displaying a genuine stylistic evolution by director Kim, suffers from a poor script, weak characterisation and over-zealous nationalism, combining to make The Admiral: Roaring Currents less of a war epic and more of an entertaining matinee.

★★★☆☆

Haemoo (AKA Sea Fog) (해무) – ★★★★☆

Sea Fog (해무)

Sea Fog (해무)

Haemoo (aka Sea Fog) (해무) is an exquisitely shot, beautifully melancholic tour de force and a welcome return to form for Korean thrillers by director Sim Seong-bo, here making his feature debut. Co-written by director Shim and film maestro Bong Joon-ho – who also takes a producer credit – Haemoo is a riveting account of a sea expedition gone wrong, and the depths to which humanity can sink when faced with calamity. While the story is a compelling drama for the most part, Haemoo wobbles in the final stages by slipping into traditional genre fare, with the tying up of loose narrative ends feeling somewhat tacked on. That said, Haemoo is still one of the most provocative and gripping films of 2014 so far.

What remains to be seen is how Korean audiences will react to the film. With the Sewol ferry tragedy still very much a sensitive issue within the social consciousness, Haemoo – with its story about macabre events at sea – may very well turn cinema-goers off which is understandable, although a great shame indeed. Foreign audiences will undoubtedly embrace the film however, particularly with the hype it’s receiving for its international premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

The crew work hard in fraught conditions, but camaraderie prevails

The crew work hard in fraught conditions, but camaraderie prevails

After a long and laborious expedition at sea, the crew of a small fishing vessel return to port with a frustratingly meagre haul. As the men take a well deserved rest on land, Captain Cheol-joo (Kim Yoon-seok (김윤석) is provided with an opportunity to make some serious cash – by transporting illegal immigrants from China into Korea. Hastily agreeing, Captain Cheol-joo gathers his crew, including young deck-hand Dong-sik (Park Yoochun (박유천), and set sail for open waters once more where they dock with a ship to acquire their human cargo. Following a near-death experience with pretty migrant Hong-mae (Han Ye-ri (한예리), the vessel begins the voyage home yet weather and the authorities seem to conspire against them, leading to a tragic event that sees their very humanity tested.

Haemoo opens with a wonderful montage featuring the crew toiling at sea, capturing the backbreaking labour and arduous conditions of life on the waves with tremendous vision. The attention to detail is absolutely superb – from the grimy, rundown equipment and rusting, dilapidated boat to the tattered old clothes and sweaty brows of the crew – as each scene conveys the daily routine of a fishing boat with confident authenticity.

The same deft technical precision is applied within the ship. The mise-en-scene in each location is constructed with such meticulous consideration that each arena becomes akin to a different realm, whether it be the hellish steampunk engine room or the cluttered yet cosy sleeping quarters, providing distinct interiors within which the action takes place.

Cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pyo (who previously worked on Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer) exploits the opportunities afforded by such locations with absolute relish, with his compositions continually stunning and one of the great highlights of Haemoo. Space would initially seem to be an issue with a film largely set in the confines of a small fishing vessel, yet his uncanny ability to capture arenas in alternative fashions never ceases to be visually striking.

The composition within Haemoo is continually striking, both within the ship and without

The composition within Haemoo is continually striking, both within the ship and without

While it may sound bleak, the camaraderie between the crew quickly makes for endearing viewing as they smile and tease while undertaking their grinding tasks, portraying the rugged ensemble as an unlikely family of sorts. That is, until tragic events occur that serve to generate incredible tension between them replacing the humorous juvenile antics with well-paced suspense that builds into abject terror. The cast are excellent in conveying the range of emotions required by the harrowing story and understandably so as Haemoo contains some of Korea’s most experienced supporting actors in the form of Moon Seong-geun (National Security), Kim Sang-ho (Moss), Yoo Seung-mok (Han Gong-ju) and Kim Yeong-woong (How To Use Guys With Secret Tips). Acting powerhouse Kim Yoon-seok (The Thieves, Chaser) headlines the talent on display and gives a respectable, competent performance although as he has been playing these kinds of roles for quite some time, Kim is never really pushed into new territory. Haemoo notably serves as a great showcase for new talent in the form of Han Ye-ri (Dear Dolphin) and Park Yoochun (Kpop’s JYJ). The duo, particularly Han, are remarkable in capturing the awkward relationship that arises between them and form the emotional center of the film, which is an impressive achievement considering the wealth of talent on display.

Where Haemoo falters however is in the final act. After a wonderful set-up followed by a compelling crisis, the story descends into standard genre territory in order to wrap up all the narrative loose ends. That is not to say that Haemoo’s finale isn’t exciting as director Sim displays great prowess in creating an effective thriller, but given the quality of what’s gone before, it’s something of a disappointment. This is particularly the case with the epilogue scenes which feel tacked on and offer very little to the story. Yet even with such criticism, Haemoo is still head and shoulders above other Korean thrillers released this year, and is very much recommended viewing.

Han Ye-ri is the break out star as migrant Hong-mae, and forms the emotional heart of the film

Han Ye-ri is the break out star as migrant Hong-mae, forming the emotional heart of the film

Haemoo is a beautifully shot, extremely compelling film by first time director Sim Seong-bo, and is a welcome return to form for Korean thrillers. Based on a tragic true story, the film is a powerfully provocative exploration of morality pushed to the extreme, with the tense situations performed superbly by the experienced all star cast. Coupled with the gifted vision of cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pyo the story is consistently visually striking, and while it falters during the final act, Haemoo is undoubtedly one of the most gripping films of the year.

★★★★☆

The 10th Jechon International Music and Film Festival

The 10th Jechon International Music and Film Festival

The 10th Jechon International Music and Film Festival

The 10th Jechon International Music and Film Festival (JIMFF) is due to commence on Thursday the 14th of August, running through until Tuesday the 19th.

JIMFF has always been one of the more unique festivals in Korea due to the focus on films featuring music, screening international and Korean productions as well as hosting three nights of live music on the picturesque Cheongpung Lake Stage.

The Cheongpung Lake Stage will also be the venue for the JIMFF Cinema Concert, arguably the most iconic event of the festival, which features classic films accompanied by a live orchestra. For JIMFF 2014, two classic Japanese films have been selected – Ozu Yashujiro’s A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and Shimizu Hiroshi’s Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933). Pianist Yanashita Mie, one of the most prestigious and celebrated contemporary musicians in silent cinema, will perform alongside the classic works.

The official trailer for JIMFF 2014, helmed by director/actress/screenwriter Ku Hye-sun (The Peach Tree (director), Boys Over Flowers (actress)), can be seen below.

Opening Film

Golden Chariot in the Sky (하늘의 황금마차)

Golden Chariot in the Sky (하늘의 황금마차)

Golden Chariot in the Sky (하늘의 황금마차)

Director O Muel

JIMFF 2014 will open with director O Muel’s Golden Chariot in the Sky (하늘의 황금마차). The film, which received its world premiere at the 49th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, is the eagerly awaited follow up to critically acclaimed drama Jiseul. With Golden Chariot in the Sky, director O Muel has gone back to his more quirky comedic style in depicting the life of Ppong-ddol, a man with ambitions of forming a successful band. He recruits friends and neighbours to join him, although they quickly discover that none of them are particularly good musicians and run into financial difficulties, which in turn opens past wounds for Ppong-ddol and his family. Golden Chariot in the Sky is also the debut of Korean ska band Kingston Rudieska, who perform a unique blend of Jamaican-inspired jazz music.

For more information about JIMFF 2014, please click the link here to visit the official homepage. 

Mourning Grave (소녀괴담) – ★★★☆☆

Mourning Grave (소녀괴담)

Mourning Grave (소녀괴담)

Ever since he was young, high school student In-su (Kang Ha-neul (강하늘) has had the ability to see ghosts. Following a traumatic incident In-su moved to Seoul, only to find that his ‘gifts’ developed further, and apparitions appeared ever more frequently. Finally deciding to give up city life In-su returns to his countryside hometown, reuniting with his agoraphobic shaman uncle Seon-il (Kim Jeong-tae (김정태). Yet almost immediately upon his arrival a mysterious girl ghost (Kim So-eun (김소은) begins following him, and a relationship begins to blossom. Meanwhile, at In-su’s new high school, students begin disappearing one by one as a masked, vengeful spirit patrols the hallways.

A masked, vengeful ghost stalks the hallways of In-su's new school

A masked, vengeful ghost stalks the hallways of In-su’s new school

Mourning Grave (소녀괴담) is marketed primarily as a horror film, yet in truth director Oh In-cheon’s (오인천) feature debut actually amalgamates an array of genres to become a teenage romantic-comedy-drama with a macabre twist. The mix of generic features works surprisingly well as Mourning Grave is consistently an entertaining and quite enjoyable addition to the K-horror canon, one which contains an infectious appeal due to the light-hearted tone throughout.

Ironically, the jovial nature of the film, in conjunction with a narrative structure told through a series of vignettes rather than an overarching whole, is competent yet also halts the story from being particularly effective. This is perhaps understandable given director Oh’s history as an acclaimed director of short films, however the approach results in the originality of the screenplay, as well as the serious social issues within, lacking in resonance. Bullying is of central concern within Mourning Grave and the film is noteworthy for emphasising the role of the teachers, students, and even society in the creation of, and ignorance towards, the abuses endured by students. Yet as it features within an episodic sequence rather than as an underlying theme throughout, the portrayal is provoking albeit fleeting, which is a genuine shame.

Kim Jeong-tae steals the show with his turn as agoraphobic shaman Seon-il

Kim Jeong-tae steals the show with his turn as agoraphobic shaman Seon-il

As central couple In-su and ‘girl ghost’, both Kang Ha-neul and Kim So-eun are delightful. The development of their friendship and burgeoning romance is conveyed with sincerity and is lovely to watch unfold. Unfortunately due to the vignette style of the narrative the screen-time Kang and Kim share is infrequent, yet when they appear together the film embodies the qualities of innocent first love, propelling Mourning Grave into a compellingly sweet love story. However both they, as well as the other actors who fill the high school roles, are clearly too old to be playing students and serve as a distraction from the story. Luckily veteran actor Kim Jeong-tae helps to allay such issues by stealing the show as uncle Seon-il. As the agoraphobic shaman Kim is incredibly funny, employing all sorts of trickery to stop ghosts from bothering him, with his comedic timing never failing to hit the mark.

Due to the gentle nature that permeates the film, Mourning Grave is quite a predictable affair. Hints that are laced throughout the story are particularly easy to ascertain, although it is still enjoyable to see the results achieve fruition, while even the various comedic, romantic, and dramatic cliches employed are entertaining enough to raise a smile. The ever-present horror epilogue sequence, which attempts to bond the characters through a shared history and destiny, also features within Mourning Grave and while such scenes are frustratingly commonplace, director Oh has crafted an endearing finale that is poignant and heartfelt.

Central couple In-su and his ghostly companion form an endearing romance

Central couple In-su and his ghostly companion form an endearing romance

Mourning Grave is billed as a horror film, yet in truth director Oh In-cheon’s directorial debut actually encompasses an array of generic conventions, underpinned with a ghostly mystery. Due to the light-hearted tone the film is consistently entertaining, and the approach to serious social issues such as bullying is refreshing. Unfortunately such themes aren’t explored fully thanks to the vignette storytelling style, yet the endearing central couple, and a show stealing performance by Kim Jeong-tae as an agoraphobic shaman, make Mourning Grave an enjoyable addition to the K-horror canon.

★★★☆☆

Tunnel 3D (터널 3D) – ★★☆☆☆

Tunnel 3D (터널 3D)

Tunnel 3D (터널 3D)

When shy twenty-something Eun-joo (Jeong Yoo-mi (정유미) is invited to an exclusive party followed by a night at a new luxury resort in the mountains, she and her friends prepare for a wild time. Hosted within an abandoned coal factory, the group drink and dance throughout the night…until a scarred and disheveled old man crashes the party, claiming that the area is cursed. Unless they all leave immediately, he professes, they will all be damned. Ignoring the old man’s warnings, Eun-joo and her pals continue partying, until they encounter him again in the woods and, during a struggle, kill him. Deciding to dispose of the body within the coal mine, the friends venture into the dark labyrinth, and are horrified by what they find.

During a fatal encounter, Eun-joo and her friends commit a terrible crime

During a fatal encounter, Eun-joo and her friends commit a terrible crime

Tunnel 3D (터널 3D) is a horror film where the embrace of 3D technology has incredible potential to heighten tension. The depth of field it generates has the ability to draw the audience within the claustrophobic environs of the tunnels, to be engulfed in suspense-filled shadows before terrifying situations occur. Unfortunately such hopes are quickly dashed as it becomes obvious within the first few minutes that director Park Gyu-taek (박규택) has constructed a horror film appealing to the lowest common denominator, featuring a generic story and few scares. While there are some enjoyable moments to be had from the antics, led by charismatic actress Jeong Yoo-mi, Tunnel 3D squanders the possibilities the technology affords to become a menial, vacuous offering.

The premise of Tunnel 3D is solid – a group of twenty-somethings get lost in tunnels – yet it falters in execution due to a lackluster script and terrible characterisation. Each member of the group is a cliche, ranging from the handsome jock to the nerd, from the shy girl to the promiscuous vixen, and are continually a source of frustration. This is particularly the case when they behave incompetently as such actions are extremely contrived and often downright silly, built into the narrative in order to push the group towards the titular tunnels. Sequences where jock Gi-cheol (Song Jae-rim (송재림) punches people he dislikes, Se-hee (Jeong Si-yeon (정시연) repeatedly emphasises her sluttiness, or the cringeworthy swimming pool sequence, are sources of annoyance that ultimately serve little purpose. The cast all overact their respective stereotype accordingly, with only lead actress Jeong Yoo-mi seeming aware that she is acting within a film rather than a Kdrama. Yet as she has very little development – and ironically, screentime – to work with, Jeong often becomes subsumed within the absurdities although to her credit she tries hard to make the story compelling.

The friends attempt to ditch a body in the tunnels. leading to macabre events

The friends attempt to ditch a body in the tunnels. leading to macabre events

Once the group are within the network of tunnels, the horror factor kicks up a notch though more from quick scare tactics rather than atmospheric, unnerving suspense. Certain sequences are effective, spurred on by the attractive cinematography of the contrast between light and shadow in the subterranean environment. However potential is again wasted due to uninspired camerawork and composition, while the scenes of horror are often so farcical they induce laughter. The over-reliance on dream sequences are chiefly responsible for such humour as the ridiculous events that occur and the fake blood that flows are so B-grade it’s hard not to laugh. It would likely not be as bad if not for Neil Marshall’s far superior The Descent (2005), which the filmmakers seem to be unaware of as had they taken inspiration from it, Tunnel 3D would undoubtedly be a more effective horror film.

As is often the case with Asian horrors, the tendency to add a form of epilogue to wrap up any narrative loose ends is also apparent within Tunnel 3D. It’s unfortunately quite asinine, yet at this stage in the film audiences will unlikely care either way.

Shy girl Eun-joo steps into the darkness alone and discovers secrets long buried

Shy girl Eun-joo steps into the darkness alone and discovers secrets long buried

Tunnel 3D is a vacuous horror film that appeals to the lowest common denominator. While the premise of twenty-somethings getting lost in a network of tunnels is solid, the execution is considerably lacking. Amid the terrible script, abundance of cliches and silly contrivances are a handful of entertaining moments and scares, although they are quick shocks as opposed to deep unnerving suspense. Actress Jeong Yoo-mi is the highlight of the cast, yet even with her talent it is impossible to elevate Tunnel 3D out of being an asinine B-grade horror.

  ★★☆☆☆

My Ordinary Love Story (내 연애의 기억) – ★★★☆☆

My Ordinary Love Story (내 연애의 기억)

My Ordinary Love Story (내 연애의 기억)

Following a series of bad relationships, pretty 29 year old Eun-jin (Kang Ye-won (강예원) again finds herself on the receiving end of heartache. Dumped by her boyfriend, Eun-jin gets horribly drunk and, unable to pay for a taxi home, shares a ride home with geeky Hyeon-seok (Song Sae-byeok (송새벽). Despite being very different people Eun-jin and Hyeon-seok feel the spark of romance and begin dating, with the relationship going so well that they eventually begin to talk of marriage. However as they pick to choose furniture for their future together, curiosity gets the better of Eun-jin and she checks her lover’s phone…only to find a message from another woman. Filled with anger and jealousy Eun-jin starts investigating Hyeon-seok to prove he’s the same as every other bad guy. Yet as she digs deeper, nothing could prepare Eun-jin for the dark secret of Hyeon-seok’s identity.

The closing film for the 2014 Bucheon Fantastic Film Festival, My Ordinary Love Story (내 연애의 기억) is an enjoyable and quite refreshing romantic-comedy from director Lee Kwon (이권), who is more recently known for the 2012 TV drama Shut Up: Flower Boy Band (닥치고 꽃미남밴드). Initially My Ordinary Love Story is a formulaic rom-com yet in true Korean style the story comes to embrace a multitude of genres, with the blend elevating the film out of mediocrity to be a surprisingly effective viewing experience.

Eun-jin and Hyeon-seok plan their future together, until a text message threatens to destroy their relationship

Eun-jin and Hyeon-seok plan their future together, until a text message threatens to destroy their relationship

My Ordinary Love Story is very much Kang Ye-won’s film, with her performance the central reason why the story is so endearing. Kang captures Eun-jin’s selfish, jealous and nagging personality well yet never makes the character unlikeable, largely due to Eun-jin’s terrible dating history and potential as a victim of cheating, but also thanks to Kang’s unique overacting style which suits the role – and filmic style – agreeably. As the film is, for the most part, a generic rom-com the sexual politics are particularly unenlightened – the desperation for a woman to be married before 30, for example – however as Eun-jin takes agency and launches an investigation to prove Hyeon-seok’s guilt, a sense of empowerment also pervades and promotes Eun-jin as a character to root for.

Director Lee Kwon attempts to infuse various strands of quirkiness within the film in order to generate a sense of identity, seemingly inspired by the remarkably fun How to Use Guys With Secret Tips. He somewhat succeeds, yet the lack of consistency ultimately undermines his attempts as onscreen text, animation and voice-overs appear and disappear randomly, creating a sense of stylistic incohesion. Luckily such issues don’t impact the entertainment too deeply as the flighty stylisation, coupled with the enjoyably silly supporting characters and jokes, still serve to entertain.

The unique nature of My Ordinary Love Story comes from merging typically disparate genres to become one of the more memorable recent rom-coms. In steering the generic romance into macabre territory director Lee takes a big gamble yet it’s one that works, adding new layers of enjoyment to an otherwise predictable narrative. The change in direction unfortunately comes a tad too late in the story as the compelling nature of such scenes, and Hyeon-seok himself, lack sufficient exploration to be effective, yet as the story is largely a light-hearted comedy it’s perhaps understandable and is enjoyable regardless.

Hyeon-seok and Eun-jin attempt to overcome their hidden truths

Hyeon-seok and Eun-jin attempt to overcome their hidden truths

My Ordinary Love Story is an enjoyable genre-bending outing by director Lee Kwon. The film elevates itself out of mediocrity by beginning as a generic rom-com before delving into darker territory, carried ably by the charismatic performance of Kang Ye-won. While there are pacing and technical issues within, My Ordinary Love Story is an entertaining feature and is one of the more refreshing examples of the genre.

★★★☆☆

PiFan 2014: World Fantastic Cinema

The 18th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival

The 18th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival

The 18th Buchon Fantastic International Film Festival (PiFan) is due to commence on July 17th, showcasing genre films from around the world during its 10 day run. For an overview of the festival, please click here.

In the World Fantastic Cinema program are a selection of 44 films that blur the lines between reality and fantasy, a focus that matches the overall theme of the festival of ‘Love, Fantasy, Adventure.’

Within the program are 8 Korean films highlighting the genre output of the past year, featuring science-fiction, thrillers, as well as a handful of recent horror releases. The films range from big-budgeted fare through to smaller indie output, and feature some of the industry’s top talent both in front of and behind the camera. Each Korean entry is profiled below.

World Fantastic Cinema

11 AM (열한시)

Director Kim Hyeon-seok (김현석)

11 AM

11 AM

11 AM

11 AM

Time travel thriller 11 AM is quite a rarity in Korean cinema due to the combination of a futuristic science-fiction narrative and big name actors. The film stars Jeong Jae-young and Kim Ok-bin as scientists who succeed in creating a time machine, propelling themselves to 11 am the next day on a test mission. Yet upon arrival they discover the lab has been destroyed and someone with murderous intent is on the loose, and the duo must work together to figure out what went wrong.

11 AM secured modest returns when released back in November 2013, garnering over 728,000 admissions and accumulating just over 5 million dollars at the box office (source: Kobiz).

Broken (방황하는 칼날)

Director Lee Jeong-ho (이정호)

Broken

Broken

Broken

Broken

Based on the Japanese novel by Keigo Higashino, thriller Broken features Jeong Jae-young as struggling single father Sang-hyun, who works hard to support his daughter Soo-jin. When Soo-jin is found raped and murdered, Sang-hyun desperately wants the culprits brought to justice yet the investigation uncovers little of worth. When Sang-hyun receives a text message indicating the criminals, and where they live, the grieving father sets out to deliver his own brand of revenge.

Broken had the misfortune of being released around the same time as the Sewol ferry disaster, and given the nature of the narrative, audiences where understandably reluctant. PiFan 2014 provides a great opportunity to catch the film again.

Hwayi : A Monster Boy (화이 : 괴물을 삼킨 아이)

Director Jang Joon-hwan (장준환)

Hwayi: A Monster Boy

Hwayi: A Monster Boy

Hwayi: A Monster Boy

Hwayi: A Monster Boy

Director Jang debuted with the phenomenal Save the Green Planet, a film that instantly became a cult classic despite low returns. After years of starts-and-stops on various projects, the director returns with thriller Hwayi.

The film depicts the story of teenager Hwayi who lives in the country with his five criminal fathers, each of whom teaches the youngster the skills of the underworld. Life is fairly uneventful until the gang take on a new job, forcing a couple to leave a town in Incheon for a development company, and Hwayi is brought along to prove his worth. As events unfold, it becomes clear that there is much more to Hwayi’s past than he was led to believe, and the young man sets out to discover the truth of his origins.

Mourning Grave (소녀괴담)

Director Oh In-cheon (오인천)

Mourning Grave

Mourning Grave

Mourning Grave

Mourning Grave

Korean horrors are unfortunately something of a rarity in recent years, yet luckily Mourning Grave, which fortuitously opened only two weeks prior to PiFan, has stepped up to fill the void.

Director Oh’s feature length debut follows student In-su (Kang Ha-neul), who has the ability to see spirits. Despite moving around and changing schools, In-su’s ‘gift’ hasn’t left him, and he decides to return to his hometown where his ability first manifested. However his plan backfires as he is beset by apparitions, yet he manages to befriend a mysterious girl ghost (Kim So-eun). As time passes, In-su begins to notice that students are disappearing, with all the evidence pointing towards a girl sporting an horrific mask.

Nothing Lost (아무 것도 사라지지 않는다)

Director Kim Seung-hyeok (김승혁)

Nothing Lost

Nothing Lost

Nothing Lost

Nothing Lost

Nothing Lost receives its world premiere at PiFan 2014, and is one of the few Korean films in the category to do so.

Director Kim’s feature length debut is a crime thriller set in a sleepy country town. When a high school girl suddenly disappears, a local detective is dispatched to investigate and bring the girl home. Yet as he starts to gather clues and piece the evidence together, the case becomes ever more complicated as new witnesses and suspects emerge that serve to embroil the detective deeper into the mystery.

Can the detective solve the mysterious disappearance in this violent, 18-rated thriller?

A Record of Sweet Murder (원 컷 – 어느 친절한 살인자의 기록)

Director Shiraishi Koji

A Record of Sweet Murder

A Record of Sweet Murder

A Record of Sweet Murder

A Record of Sweet Murder

A Record of Sweet Murder is a Korean/Japanese co-production, and was well received at Hong Kong Filmart. Director Shiraishi Koji previously helmed horror Grotesque in 2009, and with his latest film he descends into the dark recesses of the human mind once more with a Korean cast, notably featuring indie darling Kim Kko-bbi (Pluto).

The story features journalist So-yeon who, after receiving a call from childhood friend turned serial killer Sang-joon, decides to visit and record his version of events to help redeem himself. Traveling to a run down old town with her Japanese cameraman, So-yeon quickly bares witness as grisly and bloody events begin to unfold as Sang-joon attempts to complete his master plan.

The Tunnel 3D (터널 3D)

Director Park Gyoo-taek (박규택)

The Tunnel

The Tunnel

The Tunnel

The Tunnel

Director Park Gyu-taek provides the only 3D entry in the category and, due to the nature of the horror genre combined with the confines of claustrophobic tunnels, looks set to be an effective use of the technology.

A group of friends are invited to the opening ceremony of a new resort, located in the mountains and built on top of an abandoned coal mine. As drinks flow and a good time is had by all, a mysterious man bursts into the celebration shouting that they will all be killed by a curse. When the friends accidently kill the man during a terrible series of events, they decide to hide the body within the subterranean network, yet find more horrors than they bargained for.

Zombie School (좀비스쿨)

Director Kim Seok-jeong (김석정)

Zombie School

Zombie School

Zombie School

Zombie School

Director Kim’s Zombie School may well have one of the most inspired synopses in recent memory.

During the foot and mouth scare in Korea during 2010-2011, thousands of pigs were culled, many of them buried alive in large pits. Today, nearby the peaceful Chilsung School, some of the now-zombified pigs have emerged from their mass grave and have bitten teachers from the school, turning them into the undead. The students are forced to band together in order to fight against the zombie menace as teachers and pigs alike threaten their very lives.

Zombie School looks set to be a black comedy in the vein of Black Sheep (2006), and has the potential to be one of the more unique offerings at PiFan.

The 18th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival

The 18th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival

The 18th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival

The 18th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan) is due to commence from July 17th through to the 27th. The festival takes place in Buchon City, although has retained the spelling ‘Puchon’ from its inception.

As the title suggests, PiFan is orientated towards celebrating genre films during its run, and over the past 17 years has carved a reputation as the place to experience some of the most imaginative films from around the world.

PiFan 2014 looks set to be no exception. Fantasy and adventure have been prolific genres of late and are wonderfully reflected in the official poster (right) and trailer (below), with the blurring between reality and fiction the focus of this year’s festivities. That said, there are still plenty of horrors and thrillers to satisfy audiences seeking an adrenaline rush, particularly through the special programs on offer.

The Great Kaiju, GODZILLA 60 Years

The Great Kaiju, GODZILLA 60 Years

In addition to returning favorite categories such as Puchon Choice (which features 12 films highlighting the evolution of modern genre filmmaking), World Fantastic Cinema (showcasing 44 productions that blur fantasy and reality), and Vision Express (emphasising films that push the conventions of genre storytelling), there are special programs dedicated to the history of popular genre films. The Great Kaiju, GODZILLA 60 Years will undoubtedly be one of the more popular categories at PiFan 2014, featuring the original 1954 classic as well as some of his greatest battles, all to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the iconic character. Blood Window to Latin America showcases some of the best emerging talents in genre filmmaking from the region, while PiFan Classic includes Tobe Hopper’s acclaimed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Poltergeist (1982).

Shim Eun-kyoung is the 2014 PiFan Lady

Shim Eun-kyoung is the 2014 PiFan Lady

Each year PiFan selects a PiFan Lady, an actress whose filmography represents the identity and values of the festival. For this installment actress Shim Eun-kyoung (Miss Granny (2014), Masquerade (2012), Sunny (2011)) will be the face of the festival, a selection that will certainly will increase awareness following her win for ‘Best Actress’ at the PaekSang Arts Awards last May.

To visit PiFan and get the most out of the festivities, please refer to the map below.

PiFan 2014 Map

PiFan 2014 Map

For more information, please visit the official PiFan 2014 website here.

The Avian Kind (조류 인간) – ★★★★☆

The Avian Kind (조류 인간)

The Avian Kind (조류 인간)

For fifteen years, celebrated author Kim Jeong-seok (Kim Jeong-seok (김정석) has been searching for his missing wife (Jung Han-bi (정한비) following her sudden disappearance. Refusing to admit defeat, the mean-spirited and poor father-figure continues to travel throughout the Korean countryside looking for his long lost spouse, until novel-fan and executive Kim Soy (Kim Soy (소이) offers help to track her down. As the duo embark on the case, a cabal of wealthy individuals demand Jeong-seok’s help, for they too have missing relatives who vanished in a similar manner. As Jeong-seok and Soy follow the clues across the wilderness, the mystery begins to unravel in a way none could have imagined.

The Avian Kind (조류 인간) is one of those films where audiences will quickly find themselves polarized. For some, the breathtaking cinematography and existential narrative will prove to be a captivating experience; others, meanwhile, will likely find the art-house sensibilities to be too opaque and the story impenetrable. As such, director Shin Youn-shik’s (신연식) fifth film is likely to have limited exposure which is a great shame, as The Avian Kind is a rare breed in the Korean industry.

From the outset, The Avian Kind constructs an enchanting world in which Jeong-seok’s quest occurs. Cinematographer Choi Yong-jin displays incredible prowess throughout, capturing the natural beauty of the Korean countryside in a manner that greatly strengthens the mysterious, supernatural-esque, nature of the story. In conjunction with Mowg’s melodically unnerving musical score, the film exudes a potently eerie sensibility that is both captivating and haunting.

The mystery surrounding Jeong-seok's wife is explored via flashback

The mystery surrounding Jeong-seok’s wife is explored via flashback

The enigmatic nature of the film is further heightened by director Shin’s use of editing between time periods. While Jeong-seok’s investigation transpires in the present, the tale leading up to his wife’s disappearance fifteen years prior is explored via flashback. In employing the narrative structure in this way the story becomes as compelling as it is cryptic, posing possible answers while generating more questions. Yet rather than being stagnant there is always a sense of momentum to each journey that will ultimately provide answers the mysterious disappearances.

However as The Avian Kind embodies mostly art-house aesthetics, the abstract nature of the story may well be a source of frustration for many. The existential philosophies underpinning the narrative are alluded to yet offer no concrete answers, and audiences expecting otherwise will be in for a disappointment. That is not to say the issues with the film lay solely with the audience; characterisation is a problematic area within the story, as are the generic devices used to propel the story into a finale. Typically in an adventure or road film the protagonists develop and grow on the journey, yet none of the central cast do so. The later attempts to inject tension into the film through incorporating chase sequences akin to the thriller genre is also a misstep, dispelling the impressive atmosphere in what seems to be a bid to satisfy mainstream audiences.

Jeong-seok is summoned by a cabal of wealthy socialites, yet their motivations are dubious

Jeong-seok is summoned by a cabal of wealthy socialites, yet their motivations are dubious

The Avian Kind (조류 인간) is a beautifully realised existentialist road film, and due to the art-house aesthetics within the film is likely to polarize audiences. Director Shin Youn-shik (신연식) has crafted a compelling tale of a man searching for his long lost wife, featuring stunning cinematography of Korea’s natural countryside alongside a melodically unnerving score that serve to generate an enchanting experience. While not for everyone, The Avian Kind is a rare breed of film in the Korean cinema industry and an absorbing exploration on the nature of contemporary identity.

★★★★☆

Let’s Dance (자, 이제 댄스타임) – ★★★★☆

Let's Dance (자, 이제 댄스타임)

Let’s Dance (자, 이제 댄스타임)

Although abortion has long been illegal in Korea, women who have required the procedure typically had few problems locating a surgery willing to help them. While the law is quite clear on the issue, given Korea’s fraught recent history – Japanese occupation, the Korean War, IMF crisis, and so forth – abortion has been, generally speaking, considered an unfortunate yet uncontroversial societal practice, allegedly supported by the state-run population policy. Yet in 2009 a hospital was accused of performing abortions, catapulting the issue into the mainstream spotlight as a source of controversy. Amongst all the debates that have taken place, ironically the women involved have been largely ignored. In documentary Let’s Dance (자, 이제 댄스타임), director Jo Se-young (조세영) provides a platform for women who have undergone the procedure to give their personal accounts, and for their voices to be heard.

Abortion has become a controversial issue in recent times, but when can women's voices be heard?

Abortion has become a controversial issue in recent times, but when can women’s voices be heard?

Let’s Dance is a wonderful documentary and a tribute to women everywhere who have ever considered or undergone an abortion. The beauty of the film lies in the unbiased perspective, as director Jo expertly removes the veil of anonymity and simply allows her subjects to speak about their experiences without fear of judgment. Such a description may imply Let’s Dance is a melancholy affair yet this is far from the case, as the diverse range of women interviewed informally discuss the reasons that led to the decision, generating a context that the black-and-white word of law doesn’t provide. Each interviewee gives a sincere, poignant, and comprehensive account of their respective situation at the time that never fails to create empathy, while the surprising amount of humour – one woman shyly laughs as she describes how her then-boyfriend claimed he simply wanted to fall asleep whilst holding hands – add ever more layers of affinity and insight.

Encounters discussed by the interviewees are recreated by actors, often with humourous results

Encounters discussed by the interviewees are recreated by actors, often with humourous results

Throughout Let’s Dance, director Jo also wisely includes reenactments of scenes discussed in interviews, which serve to add further understanding as well as comedy. It is intriguing to watch the actors struggle to understand and portray the complex emotions of the situations, which often swing between powerfully moving and funny in the absurdity. Chiefly the comedy is derived from the silliness of the male partners in their attempts to have unprotected sex, while ironically they are also the source of disappointment when it comes to making the difficult decision of abortion. Wonderfully, director Jo never represents the women as victims in the reconstructions, but as women claiming ownership over their bodies, candidly conveying their strength and fortitude.

The documentary also makes a point to discuss the social judgement and stigmatization applied towards women who have had abortions. Such vilification typically comes from religious groups, law makers, and men, and the film does a great job of highlighting the ignorance of such groups in an effective manner. Scenes from a genuine abortion debate in a courtroom are equal parts frustrating and comedic, as the mostly male lawmakers discuss the issue without any real notion of women’s human rights or even biology – one particular male representative hilariously doesn’t know how long pregnancy lasts – with such scenes emphasizing how women’s voices and rights have been pushed to the margins.

Women's rights and voices regarding abortion are controlled by men, yet Let's Dance provides the freedom to speak without judgement

Let’s Dance provides the freedom to speak without judgement about abortion

Let’s Dance (자, 이제 댄스타임) is a wonderfully frank, moving and surprisingly funny documentary about abortion. Through interviewing a diverse range of women about their experiences with the procedure, director Jo Se-young (조세영) provides a platform for them to informally discuss their respective situations with the resulting stories never failing to generate empathy and insight. Due to director Jo’s unbiased approach, and in conjunction with humourous reenactments by actors, Let’s Dance is powerful testament to women who have ever considered or undergone an abortion.

★★★★☆

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