Gong-ju's trauma apears on the internet for all to see

Han Gong-ju (한공주) – ★★★★★

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주) is undoubtedly the best Korean film of 2013. Bold, unflinching, insightful and powerful, director Lee Su-jin (이수진) has crafted an exceptional film about serious social issues that exist within contemporary Korea. What makes the film such an exemplary piece of cinema is the manner in which such issues are conveyed. Through the experiences of traumatised teenage protagonist Gong-ju, her world opens to reveal a broad array of socio-cultural problems ranging from absentee parents to corrupt institutions, from high school bullying to mid-life crises, as she simultaneously attempts to reconcile with her own tragic past. Employing an impassioned sense of social injustice in conjunction with a skillfully balanced narrative structure, director Lee Su-jin evokes the spirit of a raw Lee Chang-dong which is mighty praise indeed.

Gong-ju attempts to start her life over, yet keeps everyone at a distance

Gong-ju attempts to start her life over, yet keeps everyone at a distance

For reasons unknown, high school student Gong-ju is sent to a new school far from her hometown. The extremely quiet yet polite student is constantly treated as a burden by teachers, parents, as well as her new carer – her teacher’s lonely single mother. As Gong-ju attempts to rebuild her life in new surroundings by learning to swim and taking on a part-time job, new friends emerge and discover her beautifully melancholy singing ability. Yet in revealing her talent, Gong-ju’s horrifying past catches up to her with disastrous results.

Treated as little more than a burden, Gong-ju attempts to start her life anew

Treated as little more than a burden, Gong-ju attempts to start her life anew

Han Gong-ju is a rare gem and a stunning debut feature from director Lee, whose previous shorts Papa (2004) and Enemy’s Apple (2007) were both award recipients. The social issues that are explored throughout the film are not new in neither mainstream nor independent Korean cinema, but nonetheless are incredibly powerful and emotive due to the strength of the central protagonist alongside a gripping flashback structure. As the heart of the film, Gong-ju is a very complex character; melancholy yet passionate, distant yet likable, her tragic story is one of shocking trauma and inspirational strength. Indeed, it is Gong-ju’s courage that forces confrontation with further injustices – including a runaway mother and corrupt authority figures – that serve to make her an increasingly endearing and admirable young woman. Director Lee wisely employs editing to accentuate audience empathy, gradually revealing tidbits of information into Gong-ju’s elusive past until neither she, nor the audience, can hide from the truth any longer. In doing so director Lee not only conveys his skill as a storyteller, but also potently exposes the contentious role of parents in crime and punishment.

As Gong-ju, actress Cheon Woo-hee (천우희) gives an incredible performance. The role itself is subtle and nuanced, and she delivers wonderfully. Simultaneously innocent yet worldly-wise, Cheon Woo-hee conveys the agony of the troubled teenager mixed with a sense of hope and inner-strength that is staggering to behold. In lesser hands Gong-ju would be either cold and unlikable or overly pitiable, yet Cheon balances both realms effortlessly.

Gong-ju attempts to let people into her world, with disastrous results

Gong-ju attempts to let people into her world, with disastrous results

Verdict:

Undoubtedly the best Korean film of 2013, Han Gong-ju is a rare gem of independent cinema. Director Lee Su-jin has crafted an extraordinary tale of a girl struggling to reconcile with a traumatic past, who courageously confronts further social injustices in her attempt to do so. Beautifully performed by Cheon Woo-hee, the actress balances the inner strength and turmoil of the character to produce one of the most emotive and powerful cinematic experiences of the year. Bold, insightful and heart-wrenching, Han Gong-ju is the must-see film of the year.

★★★★★

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Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Reviews
Tensions build as Tae-sik and Won-joon clash in the bid for superiority

Top Star (톱스타) – ★★☆☆☆

Top Star (톱스타)

Top Star (톱스타)

Actor-turned-director Park Joong-hoon (박중훈) has crafted a highly polished and glitzy directorial debut with Top Star (톱스타).

The heavyweight actor – who has hit films including Haeundae (해운대)Radio Star (라디오 스타) and Nowhere To Hide (인정사정 볼 것 없다) in his back catalogue – has clearly exercised his connections within the industry as Top Star features an assortment of high profile names from Korean cinema.

Unfortunately however, while there is enjoyment to be had in watching the beautiful faces, lavish lifestyles and celebrity scandals, there is precious little substance beneath the glamour. Director Park has clearly aimed his debut at a broad audience and in doing so he has produced a competent, though unremarkable, film about the nature of stardom.

Diligent manager Tae-sik helps superstar Won-joon at every turn

Diligent manager Tae-sik helps superstar Won-joon at every turn

Superstar Won-joon (Kim Min-joon (김민준) has it all – good looks, a career in film and television, an expensive lifestyle, and a beautiful girlfriend named Mi-na (So I-hyeon (소이현). Yet behind all the glitz and glamour, Won-joon is taken care of by an agency, particularly by diligent manager Tae-sik (Eom Tae-woong (엄태웅). Tae-sik’s adoration of Won-joon leads him to help cover up scandals and, in helping in one case of some magnitude, Tae-sik suffers great personal distress. Stunned by his selflessness, Won-joon grants Tae-sik a sizeable role in his latest television series and is happy to see his ambitions of becoming an actor finally materialize. Yet in discovering fame, Tae-sik begins to change, leading him into a rivalry with Won-joon.

One of the great benefits of having a veteran actor step behind the camera for Top Star is that the portrayal of the world of celebrity is convincing. The conversations and behind-the-glamour events clearly come from a person of experience, from discussions in limousines and public-relations meetings to relaxation at home portrayed with insight. Director Park does well in balancing the realms of stardom and downtime, conveying the former as merely attractive but shallow superficiality and working to build character in the latter. It generally works well, although the script routinely employs cliches and contrivances that have been utilised better before, as in 200 Pounds Beauty (미녀는 괴로워). Foregrounded, however, is the rivalry that develops between Tae-sik and Won-joon that occurs in both worlds, which is also where the more interesting events transpire.

Tensions build as Tae-sik and Won-joon clash in the bid for superiority

Tensions build as Tae-sik and Won-joon clash in the bid for superiority

The initial friendship between Tae-sik and Won-joon is articulated well, as the manager idolises his talent by helping to cover up scandals with no questions asked. Yet the story does become somewhat absurd as Tae-sik suffers a great personal burden in order to provide an alibi for one particular scandal, one that stretches believability almost too far. As Top Star is clearly marketed towards family audiences, director Park omits psychological exploration of Tae-sik’s adoration, yet while it is arguably ‘dark’ material it is depth that is sorely required as the film is so concerned with his unstable personality. Still, sequences in which Won-joon advises Tae-sik on the merits of acting are enjoyable and humourous as their camaraderie deepens on the set of their TV show. Yet just as the story begins to get interesting the film jumps years into the future, bypassing all the fascinating moments that have transpired to trouble their relationship and instead placing audiences in the distressed middle period.

As such Top Star loses all momentum, and the film is forced to reestablish itself once more by reintroducing characters and their new situations. It’s an event from which the story never fully recovers and as the film once more sets up events and attempts to take a belated darker tone, they lack the potency they would otherwise have contained. Additionally the (again belated) inclusion of melodrama amongst all the protagonists is horribly cliched and detracts from the viewing experience. One of the major benefits of Top Star‘s second half however is the greater screen time afforded to actress So I-hyeon as TV producer Mi-na. The role is wafer thin and one-dimensional with So I-hyeon very much required to be just a pretty face, although the actress stretches the material as much as she can and is quite charismatic. Yet undermining everything is the manner in which the story wraps up, as it is far too neat and with little – if any – ramifications despite all the wrongdoing. Top Star is great in representing the glitz and glamour of the movie business but, try as it might to explore the nature of celebrity, the film crucially lacks any depth to do so.

Tae-sik's longing for Mi-na and Won-joon's life in general clouds his judgement

Tae-sik’s longing for Mi-na and Won-joon’s life in general clouds his judgement

Top Star (톱스타) is a highly polished and glamourous directorial debut from veteran actor Park Joong-hoon (박중훈). The film attempts to explore the nature of celebrity as a talent manager turned actor desperately works to retain his fame, even creating a rivalry with his idol. As director Park aims Top Star squarely at family audiences however, he doesn’t delve into the psychology of his protagonists resulting in a film that is wonderfully glitzy, but lacking in any real depth.

★★☆☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013 Reviews
With a killer on the loose, the inhabitants must do whatever it takes to survive

Intruders (조난자들) – ★★★☆☆

Intruders (조난자들)

Intruders (조난자들)

Suspense-filled and gorgeously picturesque, quirky thriller Intruders (조난자들) is director Noh Young-seok’s (노영석) second feature film following his critically acclaimed Daytime Drinking (낮술).

Appearing within the ‘Korean Cinema Today – Vision’ category at BIFF 2013 following a world premiere at Toronto, Intruders has been likened to Pekinpah’s Straw Dogs due to the similar themes of disquieting locals and a house under siege.

While it never reaches those heights, director Noh’s film is indeed a refreshing change of pace. The foreboding dark alleys of Seoul have been replaced with stunning winter landscapes, while the isolation and bizarre behaviour of everyone involved provides a vastly different form of thriller. However, with its uneven pacing and unsatisfactory third act, Intruders never quite manages to fulfill its potential and as such is an entertaining rather than genre redefining entry.

Screenwriter Sang-jin inspects his cabin the wintry countryside

Screenwriter Sang-jin inspects his cabin in the wintry countryside

In order to complete his screenplay undisturbed, writer Sang-jin (Jun Suk-ho (전석호) journeys into the remote countryside to stay at his boss’ cabin alone. Surrounded by snow-covered mountains and with the nearest town 30 minutes away, Sang-jin is certain he will finish his work before the deadline. Yet on the way he reluctantly befriends odd ex-con Hak-soo (Oh Tae-kyung (오태경) who is determined to form a relationship, while the arrival of young ski enthusiasts at the adjacent cabin complicate his plans further. More disturbing however are the hunters who stalk the surrounding area, creating a deep sense of unease. When Sang-jin discovers one of the young skiers has been murdered, a shocking chain of events are set in motion.

First and foremost, Intruders is an extremely attractive film. Director Noh frames each scene to make the most out the stunning country landscapes and the blanket white snow that engulfs it, and as such the film is consistently visually impressive. Locations also wonderfully evolve according to the context in which Sang-jin finds himself, as beautiful scenes suddenly become uncomfortable when awkward situations arise. It is remarkable how the isolated cabin changes from being a romanticised place of work to a source of terror, yet director Noh’s framing techniques and pacing succeed in slowly building a sense of foreboding that completely changes the atmosphere within the film. This is in no small part due to the quirky and downright weird characters that are introduced throughout the story, with the suspense and tension generated by their actions reaching palpable levels.

The arrival of local law enforcement only serves to complicate matters further

The arrival of local law enforcement only serves to complicate matters further

The assortment of characters within Intruders makes the film equal parts scary and darkly comic, as their unpredictable behaviour is constantly fascinating to watch unfold. Oh Tae-kyung is great as odd ex-con Hak-soo, genuinely leaving the audience wondering about his motivations through his ability to switch from overly-friendly to threatening in a heartbeat. Also within the mix are young and crude male skiers, a cop with a twisted sense of justice, and rugged hillbilly hunters whose disheveled appearance – coupled with their random gun shots in the wilderness – place everyone ill at ease. Only one character, that of the bitchy lone female skier, tends to ruin the story as she is so one-dimensional it’s continually frustrating. Her constant complaints and moans are initially amusing, but as the only woman in the script director Noh really should have elaborated her role further. Luckily however actor Jun Suk-ho is brilliant to watch as everyman Sang-jin. His reactions to the bizarre happenings and weird people around him are always compelling and entertaining, leading the audience through the minefield of weirdness as well as providing the story with central focus.

Yet for all the suspense and enjoyment, Intruders doesn’t quite manage to elevate itself into the realms it should. Director Noh has done remarkably well in constructing the premise but all too often he lingers on moments for too long rather than move to the next event. This is wonderful in terms of creating tension, yet these and earlier scenes could (or perhaps should) have been trimmed in editing to allow later events time to advance. Furthermore while plenty of clues and red herrings are subtly laced within the story, certain features really come out of left field that are simultaneously laughable and shocking. All these issues culminate in a finale that is quite underwhelming and lacking in satisfaction, a shame as for the most part Intruders is a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable film.

With a killer on the loose, the inhabitants must do whatever it takes to survive

With a killer on the loose, the inhabitants must do whatever it takes to survive

Verdict:

Intruders is a wonderfully quirky tale of a screenwriter who ventures into the countryside yet gets more than he bargained for with the odd locals. Director Noh Young-seok’s second film is beautifully picturesque and consistently laced with dark humour throughout, with the bizarre situations the writer finds himself in compelling and entertaining. While the film never manages to capitalise on the great premise, for the most part Intruders is a fun, engaging and refreshing thriller.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013 Reviews
A priest telling lies or a devil telling the truth - The Fake examines the nature of religion

The Fake (사이비) – ★★★★☆

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비) is a brutal and intense viewing experience, with the shocking and visceral manner in which depicts a community under siege quite brilliantly executed. Director Yeon Sang-ho (연상호) has taken the dark themes he explored so wonderfully in King of Pigs (돼지의 왕) and expanded them into a wider sociological framework, and the result is a darkly explosive and constantly compelling social commentary.

A small village deep in the countryside is under threat from the construction of a new reservoir, which will submerge the whole community. With few options, the villagers turn to the newly formed church and its young priest for salvation, with their faith strengthened ever further by witnessing ‘miracles’. As their religious fervour becomes increasingly fanatical, a violent and abusive man returns to the village and, horrified by what he sees, attempts to reveal the machinations behind the church’s intent. Yet who should the country-folk believe – a man of God, or the devil himself?

The Fake adopts many of the conventions from the western genre as a lone ‘anti-hero’ returns from the wilderness to a corrupt civilisation. Director Yeon takes such motifs and intelligently plays with them in deconstructing Korean society, religion, and morality in ways both overt and nuanced, balancing them all incredibly well. Such a penetrating examination is conducted through the outsider character, who is far more devil than saint as he steals, drinks and beats women for his own selfish gain. Yet his status as an outsider also grants him the freedom of perception. With the threat of the reservoir – a wonderfully symbolic biblical flood – approaching, a con man and his young sidekick priest all too easily manipulate the villagers into doing their bidding by appealing to their base fears and desires. As the outsider attempts to reveal the scam and help them, the story explores just how illogical and frightening society can become when an ideology built on false promises is introduced and adhered to.

Religious fervour becomes increasingly fanatical as perceived threats loom on the horizon

Religious fervour becomes increasingly fanatical as perceived threats loom on the horizon

The examples of fanaticism that increase throughout the film are wholly believable, as the country-folk are continually duped by false miracles and promises set up by the clergy and his financial backer. As sick people refuse medicine in favour of ‘holy water’, women become prostitutes, as well as villagers selling property in order to donate to the church, The Fake is exemplary in depicting not only the seemingly inherent corruption within religious institutions but also the sheer ignorance of society as a whole, especially when under threat. There are no conventional ‘good’ characters to be found within the world of The Fake and as such the atmosphere generated is deeply intense and disturbing, and as the community continues to descend further into a moral abyss the film is consistently riveting.

It is also wonderfully ironic that the ‘saviour’ of the village is akin to the devil personified. At times even wielding a forked weapon and using fire, the outsider is an appalling brute who destroys everyone in his path and is routinely expelled from the community as the spawn of satan. His evil ways while speaking the truth are counter-balanced with the priest who behaves saintly while telling lies, and their interactions and conflicts are intelligent as well as explosive. The violence that occurs due to their personal war is ferociously bloodthirsty, with the fluidity of the animation a remarkable evolution for director Yeon. Indeed, with the exception of one rather ‘blocky’ church dancing scene, The Fake sports impressive visuals throughout whilst retaining director Yeon’s distinct style, with his use of colour and shadow adding tremendous weight to the intensity of the story.

A priest telling lies or a devil telling the truth - The Fake examines the nature of religion

A priest telling lies or a devil telling the truth – The Fake examines the nature of religion

Verdict:

The Fake, director Yeon Sang-ho’s second film, is a brutal, dark, and intense viewing experience that examines a rural community manipulated by a religious institution. Employing genre conventions from the western, director Yeon intelligently explores Korean social issues through the increasing conflict between con artists, duped villagers and evil men. The Fake is a genuine evolution of style for the director, and is a continually riveting and explosive social commentary on the nature of morality.

★★★★☆

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013 Reviews
Haewon meets Seong-joon, the married professor with whom she has an on-and-off affair

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (누구의 딸도 아닌 해원) – ★★★★☆

Nobody's Daughter Haewon (누구의 딸도 아닌 해원)

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (누구의 딸도 아닌 해원)

Director Hong Sang-soo’s (홍상수) 14th feature film Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (누구의 딸도 아닌 해원) is a wonderfully charming and beautifully endearing tale. The film received it’s world premiere at Berlin before invitations to festivals throughout Europe, the Americas, Asia and Oceania, which are a testament to not only director Hong’s popularity but also for the seemingly effortless sincerity captured within the story.

Fans and newcomers alike will find much to enjoy from Nobody’s Daughter Haewon. Director Hong has infused the film with his trademark nuanced style, employing a subtle and understated method that belies the depth and symbolism within, while also referencing previous works. Yet the film is also notably given heart and soul by the quite lovely performance of Jeong Eun-chae (정은채) as Haewon, a young woman struggling to reconcile her identity and place in the world.

Haewon meets Seong-joon, the married professor with whom she has an on-and-off affair

Haewon meets Seong-joon, the married professor with whom she has an on-and-off affair

Haewon (Jeong Eun-chae (정은채) is a lonely film and acting university student who, due to her attractiveness and strength of character, is often set apart from her classmates. When her mother announces that she intends to live in Canada, Haewon’s loneliness increases dramatically leading to a reunion with married professor Seong-joon (Lee Seon-gyoon (이선균), with whom she has an on-and-off affair. As the couple begin to rekindle their feelings for each other through dates at a traditional park and an old hiking trail, their interactions become increasingly fraught.

Director Hong’s seemingly effortless, almost meandering style perfectly captures the inner turmoil of his lead protagonist. His deceptively simple camera movements and mise-en-scene may appear whimsical at first glance, which is indeed part of the film’s charm, yet there is also symbolic depth within every frame. The empty – and previously restricted – park, the uphill struggles of hiking, the overbearing statues and so forth all emphasise Haewon’s evolving psychology following the departure of her mother and rekindling of a self-destructive relationship. Director Hong employs such aesthetics in conjunction with his trademark ‘repetition with difference’ sequences, and as such each time an interaction is conducted the subtle changes produce alternative meanings and endings that are fascinating to watch unfold. In constructing such repetition seamlessly within the story, each ‘chapter’ – or rather reenactment – is a product of Haewon’s diary entries or dreams adding further allure as she is very much in control of the unfolding events, further accentuated through her occasional narration.

Haewon's dreams and diary entries mark different 'chapters', or rather renactments, within the film

Haewon’s dreams and diary entries mark different ‘chapters’, or rather reenactments, within the film

This would of course mean very little if Haewon was unlikeable, however actress Jeong Eun-chae is wonderfully charismatic throughout. In what is arguably her breakout role, Jeong Eun-chae infuses her character with strengths and flaws in equal measure, conveying a nuanced complexity that is mesmerizing. It’s not so much that her performance is perfect, but that when over-acting or stoicism appears it is wholly natural within the context of the scene. When Haewon meets actress Jane Birkin in the early stages of the film, for example, the awkwardness and slightly cringeworthy moments express not only being star-struck but also Haewon’s desire for a mother-figure to admire and be valued by. Jeong Eun-chae is also great at adapting Haewon as a slightly different person for each repetitive sequence, also symbolised by her striking red and autumnal coloured clothing. The subtle changes, as well as the criticisms and compliments that come her way, are all indicative of a young woman attempting to establish her identity through dreams and diary recollections, and are consistently lovely to watch unfold.

That said, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon will not be for everyone. Critics of director Hong’s style will undoubtedly find the same issues within this film as they have in his previous works. The story does indeed meander; the plot doesn’t progress particularly far due to the repetitive nature of scenes; the intellectual male characters are all indicative of contemporary masculine immaturity. Ultimately it will be down to individual viewers tastes whether such themes are a source of charm or frustration. Yet for fans and audiences interested in non-cliched representations of modern relationships, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon will be a refreshing delight.

Haewon and Seong-joon awkwardly meet another couple in a similar situation at Namhan Fortress

Haewon and Seong-joon awkwardly meet another couple in a similar situation at Namhan Fortress

Verdict:

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is an incredibly charming and quite lovely film by director Hong San-soo. In depicting lonely film and acting student Haewon as she rekindles an affair with her married professor, a deceptively simple and subtlety nuanced film about identity and direction is constructed, employed through the director’s trademark aesthetics. Jeong Eun-chae is wonderfully charismatic and gives a career best as Haewon. While the story does meander and the male characters are quite immature, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is a delightful and refreshing tale of modern relationships.

★★★★☆

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013 Reviews
Min-su and the mob boss form a relationship through the gentleman's game of baduk

The Stone (스톤) – ★★☆☆☆

The Stone (스톤)

The Stone (스톤)

Despite his young age, Min-su (Jo Dong-in (조동인) is an extremely intelligent and talented baduk (Go) player. To make ends meet and with few prospects, Min-su uses his skills to hustle other players, forming friendships with small-time crooks as well as making several enemies in the criminal underworld. Yet when a local mob boss (Kim Roe-ha (김뢰하) unwittingly challenges Min-su to a duel and loses with significant embarrassment, the gangster hires Min-su as his baduk teacher and the two become close, changing them both irrevocably.

The gentlemen's game of baduk turns violent in the criminal underworld

The gentlemen’s game of baduk turns violent in the criminal underworld

First and foremost, The Stone (스톤) is a palpable love letter to the game of baduk, often referred to as ‘Go.’ Director Cho Se-rae (조세래) uses the game as a form in which to emphasise a person’s personality through their technique, as well as to express the evolving relationships between players.  Baduk is continually conveyed as something of a gentleman’s game, requiring a cool demeanor and keen intellect to truly master. As such the unlikely bond that forms between hustler Min-su and the gang boss is quite believable, as they converse about increasingly personal stories during their friendly matches. Their tournaments also allow them to gain insight into each other’s lives. The gangster recognises his own tormented youth in Min-su, while Min-su dislikes the path the boss has chosen yet sees it before himself, and as their bond increases they attempt to guide each other while playing.

Min-su and the mob boss form a relationship through the gentleman's game of baduk

Min-su and the mob boss form a relationship through the gentleman’s game of baduk

However at nearly two hours in length The Stone is far too long, as the story continually expands to add further menial sub-plots that are quite unnecessary. It is also acutely ironic that with such an excessive running time that the character development is also quite minimal. Despite the fact that Min-su and the gangster are the central protagonists, surprisingly little depth is ascribed to either. Hints are alluded to, such as Min-su’s unrepentant mother who suffers from a gambling addiction, yet there are precious few moments that help to define the characters in any detail, nor give any reason why the audience should care about them. As such the film becomes a series of vignettes about baduk in the criminal underworld, rather than a character-driven study.

Luckily Park Won-sang (박원상) is on hand to provide a wonderfully charismatic and humourous performance as the mob’s second-in-command. The actor has risen to prominence in recent years following his roles in Unbowed (부러진 화살) and National Security (남영동 1985), and as a foolish gangster who constantly oversteps his bounds he brings a sense of genuine enjoyment to The Stone. Whenever Park Won-sang appears on screen he overshadows everyone with his performance, yet he is no mere comedic foil as he infuses the character with a deep such of integrity and loyalty, as well as danger, that makes him extremely likable. It is often due to his appearances within the vignette-style storytelling that The Stone becomes an entertaining film.

The mob boss uses baduk as respite from his violent world

The mob boss uses baduk as respite from his violent world

Verdict:

The Stone is an interesting drama about the game of baduk (Go). Conveyed as a gentleman’s game, director Cho Se-rae uses it as a way for characters to develop relationships, as well as a window into the gambling habits of the criminal underworld. Yet the overly long running time and lack of character development, in conjunction with the vignette-style storytelling, stops the film from being a deep and compelling exploration. Actor Park Won-sang makes the film entertaining whenever he appears, yet even with his significant performance The Stone is a rather standard affair.

★★☆☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013 Reviews
Scenes that require depth have the greatest impact in Screen X

The X (더 엑스) – N/A

The X (더 엑스)

The X (더 엑스)

Commissioned by film production powerhouse CJ CGV, short film The X (더 엑스) has been specifically created with the purpose of experimenting with Screen X technology. By utilising the space either side of the screen, Screen X intends for films to be a more immersive experience for audiences.

In order to fully explore the possibilities offered by the technology, famed director Kim Jee-woon (김지운) has been brought on board to helm the short film, while stars Kang Dong-won, Shin Min-ah, and E Som fill the roles within the spy thriller. The story itself is intended as a tongue-in-cheek parody of the spy sub-genre, and in all honesty is rather inconsequential. Ultimately The X is intended as an experiment, and as such it deifies review. Instead, it is more apt to discuss the pros and cons of Screen X technology, as director Kim and his team only somewhat succeed  in exploiting the extra space they have been afforded.

New camera technology allows for a more immersive experience

New camera technology allows for a more immersive experience

The Good

Screen X is indeed an immersive experience when employed correctly. One of the earliest scenes features Kang Dong-won in a room filled with light reflected from a ’70s disco ball, and when the screen expands to envelop the audience it does truly feel like being within the film itself. There are two or three shots such as this within The X, and in each case the film looked quite stunning as the extra depth generated genuinely creates a feeling of immersion within the events on screen.

By director Kim’s own admission during a press conference at BIFF 2013, there was only one particular sequence he focused on within the film, and it shows. The car chase sequence is short but thrilling, as motorcycles and cars weave through all three of the screens and into adjacent areas, with the action flowing well throughout. Director Kim’s incredible vision for action is fully on display during these scenes, and as villains are mown down in hails of bullets their bodies and motorcycles fly from one screen to the next. The manner in which such devices are executed allows the audience to follow the carnage naturally, before moving back to the action on the central screen. While short, it’s an impressive sequence that utilises the technology well.

Action scenes tend to stay centrally located, rather than exploit the extra space

Action scenes tend to stay centrally located, rather than exploit the extra space

The Bad

The chief issue with The X is that director Kim hasn’t adjusted his directing skills in order to fully exploit what Screen X technology provides. The story and action are continually centrally located, and when the side screens suddenly appear it is extremely jarring and pulls the audience from the film easily. Throughout The X this is a key problem, as rather than gradually guide the audience from one screen to another, the impromptu flash of a new screen unexpectedly appearing is quite frustrating and distracting. Moreover what often appears on the peripheral screens is of little importance anyway. When Agent Fingers (E Som) uses her computer, for example, images of her PC screen appear on the outer cinema screens – extremely odd considering she is looking it in the central area. As such, several members of the audience complained they didn’t know where to look, or what action to follow.

Another issue with Screen X is actually within the cinema itself. Unless a cinema is equipped with the two additional (angled) side screens, the film must be projected onto the walls of the room. This may seem a minor quibble, however in attempting to follow a story from one area of the room to another the 90 degree angles of the cinema walls made the transitions awkward and interrupted the flow. This also begs further questions as to whether cinema chains will want to refit screens to provide such an experience or, perhaps more importantly, if other directors will wish to use the medium in the first place to justify such expenditure.

Currently Screen X is an interesting concept, although at this early stage is somewhat gimmicky. However the same was said of 3D and 4DX once upon a time, and it will be interesting to see whether industry professionals decide to take the technology a step further and make it a permanent feature of the cinema-going experience.

Scenes that require depth have the greatest impact in Screen X

Scenes that require depth have the greatest impact in Screen X

Verdict:

The X is ultimately a technological experiment rather than a short film. Commissioned by CJ CGV and directed by auteur Kim Ji-woon, the production is intended as a showcase for Screen X technology which employs two additional, peripheral screens. Aside from an impressive car chase and one of two key shots, director Kim and his team generally fail to exploit the potential offered by Screen X making it feel somewhat gimmicky, although time will tell if the industry adopts what’s on offer.

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013