With such a great variety films to see at the 14th Jeonju International Film Festival, and precious little time to write full reviews, here is the first in a series of ‘Quick Fire Reviews’ from the festival.
Groggy Summer (그로기 썸머) – ★★☆☆☆
Groggy Summer depicts the life of frustrated teenage poet Min-joon, whose poverty-stricken lifestyle leads him to despair. Misunderstood by his parents, the young man finds solace with his friends who are similarly displaced social outcasts. The story is a very interesting one, and director Yun Su-ik (윤수익) initially does well in conveying the difficulties of being a creative person in Korean society. As the film continues Min-joon is constantly beaten down by the trappings of capitalist society, where money is the solution at every turn. Yet the film doesn’t really explore any of the features in great detail, instead seeking to add more and more different challenges to Min-joon’s life, which results in a loss of focus and invites predictability. There are also intriguing parallels to be had with his artistic father, which unfortunately are not capitalised on. The major issues with Groggy Summer are the camerawork and editing. While the mixture of close-ups and extreme close-ups creates intimacy and provides a penetrating exploration of emotion, it also makes for uncomfortable viewing as the world in which Min-joon inhabits is not fully portrayed. The intensity of this style helps to convey frustration, but when used in conjunction with highly kinetic hand-held camera movement the result is dizziness and nausea. The editing also detracts from the story as it noticeably jumps in several areas. The story has a lot of potential and shows promise, yet the filmmaking techniques detract from the experience.
Cheer Up Mr. Lee (힘내세요, 병헌씨) – ★★★☆☆
A mockumentary about an aspiring but lazy director, Cheer Up Mr. Lee is a very funny examination of Korean dramas and documentaries. Based on the life of the director, Lee Byeong-hun (이병헌), the film wonderfully pokes fun at the contrived cinematic conventions to be seen in Korean media in a variety of ways. The central protagonist and his friends are very amusing as they are all losers who berate each other for fun instead of working hard to achieve their dreams, while the frustrations of the documentary team as the follow them are comedic. This postmodern sensibility extends to the awareness of filmic conventions, as Byeong-hun berates the film crew for employing techniques such as music during crises. Yet while the film begins strongly the narrative and comedy aren’t consistent, and as such the film often flits between fun and dull points as the focus is repeatedly found then lost. The second act suffers acutely in this regard, especially as the team travel to Busan. Luckily the film picks up towards the end, where the director pokes fun at short film and art film conventions, as he makes his debut in a very comedic manner. A fun film that often loses focus, yet very entertaining.
Karaoke Girl – ★★★☆☆
Thai director Visra Vichit Vadakan has produced a fascinating insight into the life of young Thai women who find themselves working in the seedy bars of Bangkok. The film explores the life of Sa, a 22 year old woman who moved from the country to the capital in order to find work and money, yet did so at the expense of her happiness. Karaoke Girl is not a depressing effort however, as while Sa is treated terribly by her on-again-off-again boyfriend director Vadakan portrays the young woman as strong and passionate, and that she understands she deserves more than what life has provided for her. Sa’s spirit drives the film, and the actress is talented and engaging throughout. The director also wisely steers clear of any sexual content that could have so easily been included and instead focuses on Sa’s journey as she becomes stronger. Yet Karaoke Girl suffers from the mixture of drama and documentary techniques that occur throughout, never managing to fully blend them into a coherent whole which ultimately detracts from the viewing experience. The film jumps from following Sa’s life, which is utterly engaging, to interviewing her family in the countryside, and draws the audience out of the film. This is a genuine shame as Sa is an intriguing character/real life subject.
Juvenile Offender (범죄소년) – ★★★★☆
With a story concerned with the abandonment of youth, Juvenile Offender is a highly poignant and engaging drama. Director Kang Yi-kwan (강이관) explores several very important and timely social issues within Korean society, including teenage pregnancy, parental abandonment, poor social care, unfair legal system, and misunderstood youth. The film follows Jin-gu, a teenage who lives with his elderly grandfather. Falling into the wrong crowd and with anger problems, Jin-gu quickly earns a criminal record and finds himself in a detention center. When his mother, who was thought to be dead, surfaces to take him in, their relationship is explored as the two struggle to overcome their own strife as well as to forge a relationship. Director Kang deftly sidesteps any melodrama and the film emerges the stronger for it, while the powerful performances by both Seo Yeong-joo (서영주) as Jin-gu and Lee Jeong-hyeon (이정현) as his mother are captivating. While it feels unfair to comment negatively on appearance, Lee Jeong-hyeon’s quite obvious plastic surgery detracts from her role as a teenage mother with a criminal past. The youthfulness of her face appears similar to her son, which invites some oedipal anxieties at certain points. The film also somewhat loses track as it draws to a close, seemingly unsure how to wrap up so many issues and ends rather abruptly, yet it is also quite fitting. A powerful and timely film.