The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨) – ★★★★☆

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)

Enormously controversial documentary The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨) premiered at the Busan International Film Festival to nervous fanfare, despite calls from politicians in the ruling Saenuri party, as well as Busan Mayor/Festival Chairman Seo Byung-soo, to have it removed.

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol is a hugely impressive and powerfully emotional film, which begins shortly after the ferry began to sink on the 16th of April, 2014. Racing to the scene of the tragedy as with most other members of the press, documentary director Ahn Hye-ryong (안해령) and journalist Lee Sang-ho (이상호) join forces to cover the event. With time running out for the mostly student passengers, and the efforts of the Coast Guard and Navy proving largely ineffectual, directors Lee and Ahn come into contact with diving expert Lee Jong-in who claims his diving bell technology will help the rescue effort. Using real footage, news reports and interviews, The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol follows the effort to use the diving bell, and the obstacles placed in their way.

Lee Jong-in (left) explains how to diving bell technology can save lives

Lee Jong-in (left) explains how the diving bell technology can save lives

With less than 6 months occurring between the Sewol tragedy and the inaugural screening of the documentary, there were concerns that the film would not be as comprehensive an account as the situation, and public outcry, demanded. Directors Lee and Ahn have brilliantly allayed such fears as The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol is an intelligent, insightful, and captivating documentary that resonates long after the credits have rolled.

Throughout the film director Lee employs a journalistic approach to the events that transpire, and the results are never less than impressive. Featuring a mixture of media including interviews and coverage of situations from the scene of the sinking itself, as well as news reports, behind the scenes footage and even text conversations, the film strives to support claims with facts and statistics that are sure to make the Coast Guard, mainstream media, and the ruling Saenuri government particularly uncomfortable. Given the delicate subject matter with which the film deals with, and the still raw position the sinking occupies in the Korean social consciousness, manipulation and bias had a strong potential to arise and overshadow the issues explored. Yet while The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol is indeed constructed from the perspective of the filmmakers, they avoid crude exaggerations and endeavor to include counter-arguments and statements from both the mainstream media and government, which often, rather ironically, feature the very embellishments the directors refrain from. In pointing out the misinformation being reported from respected news sources as well as the political statements that conflicted with actual events, the film consistently challenges and condemns the official declarations made, alluding to the collusion between the government and the media in an effort to hide their failures.

Footage of the media frenzy at the site convey the chaos and demand for answers

Footage of the media frenzy at the site convey the chaos and demand for answers

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol takes a dark turn through following the assistance offered by Lee Jong-in, the man responsible for initiating the diving bell controversy. Using roughly $150,000 of his own money, Lee Jong-in arrived at the scene of the disaster claiming to be able to help save lives with a diving bell, which allows divers to work for longer in the wreckage and potentially find survivors. As directors Lee and Ahn investigate Lee Jong-in’s claims and attempts, the obstacles placed in their way to help are documented. Excuses presented by the Coast Guard to exclude the trio are not only proven false but also insinuate incompetence, generating an intense array of emotional responses from those within the film and without. Horrifyingly, the directors convey how the increasing excuses gradually transform into threats against Lee Jong-in’s person, and begin to explore further assertions of the link between government organisations and the mainstream media as they seemingly coordinate a character assassination on the diving bell operator. As such The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol becomes an increasingly damning account of Korean institutions, not only in their failure to save the innocent and report the truth, but in demonizing those who tried to help.

Directors Lee and Ahn become increasingly close with Lee Jong-in during the course of the film, and as such they form the heart and conscious of the documentary. With the myriad of issues plaguing them from the beginning, the trio articulate their frustrations and concerns with incredible sincerity and passion as their attempts to help are constantly denied. Their attempts to save the passengers and refusal to stop trying drives the film forward with palpable energy, resulting in a documentary that is simultaneously intellectual, emotional, and courageous. While the filmmakers are consistently professional and dedicated it is obvious from the start that these men care, and care deeply, making The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol one of the most compelling Korean documentaries in recent memory.

News reports about the disaster, Lee Jong-in and the diving bell are scrutinized

News reports about the disaster, Lee Jong-in and the diving bell are scrutinized

Verdict:

Controversial documentary The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol is an intelligent, insightful, and captivating film that resonates long after the credits have rolled. Directors Lee Sang-ho and Ahn Hye-ryong have crafted a powerfully charged account about the sinking of the ferry and the diving bell controversy, employing a journalistic stance that is both intellectual and sincere. A brave piece of filmmaking, Sewol is one of the most compelling Korean documentaries in recent memory.

★★★★☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014

So Very Very (찡찡 막막) – ★★★☆☆

So Very Very (찡찡 막막)

So Very Very (찡찡 막막)

Now in his 40s, Sung-hoon (Oh Chang-kyung (오창경) still desperately fights to achieve his dream of being a film director. Yet success constantly eludes him, forcing him to take menial jobs while suffering from abject poverty as he bids to get his projects made. Such a lifestyle would not be so bad, if not for Sung-hoon’s recent marriage to younger Thai woman Pan (Cho Ha-young (조하영). As Pan diligently studies Korean and the couple strive to better communicate with each other, the economic strain soon puts their relationship in jeopardy. Fighting hopelessness and attempting to stay strong in the face of financial hardship, Pan soon becomes frustrated with Sung-hoon’s selfish ways and begins to dream of returning to Bangkok.

Sung-hoon and Pan are romantic newlyweds until economic hardships cause tension

Sung-hoon and Pan are romantic newlyweds until economic hardships cause tension

So Very Very (찡찡 막막) is an interesting perspective on interracial couples in contemporary Korea by director Park Jae-wook (박제욱). Typically, such representations involve a woman from a less economically developed nation seeking a more affluent, stable life through a union with a man from a stronger one. However, as with last years BIFF entry ThuySo Very Very reverses such portrayals and as such is an empowering film for foreign brides.

Pan is very much the heart and soul of the film as she works hard studying the Korean language and to adjust to life in the country, while her husband selfishly forces them deeper into poverty through his stubborn refusal to get a job. Problematically, director Park attempts to generate a sense of sympathy for Sung-hoon by aligning the narrative with his perspective, however it is Pan’s frustrations that push the story into new and interesting territory. Pan’s development from bored foreign housewife to empowered, independent woman is compelling and the driving force of the film.

Ironically while Pan’s growth sets So Very Very apart from other films of its ilk, the casting of Korean actress Cho Ha-young as a Thai woman is a distraction, diluting the sincerity of the relationship as well as her own journey. While Cho performs the role competently, her obviously Korean appearance becomes evermore of an issue as she interacts with genuine foreigners from her language academy, and particularly during scenes with locals filmed in Thailand.

One if the interesting features of So Very Very is the manner in which Sung-hoon and Pan communicate, through an amalgamation of Korean, English and Thai. The representation is quite unique, offering a refreshing perspective on the difficulties of communication between newlywed interracial couples. Again however casting is an issue, as for actor Oh Chang-kyung his pronunciation and intonation during the interplay between languages is natural and instinctive, whereas for Cho Ha-young she is forced to engage in a ‘Thai performance’ of sorts, that ultimately detracts from the events that transpire.

Frustrated with her selfish husband, Pan begins to dream of returning to Thailand

Frustrated with her selfish husband, Pan begins to dream of returning to Thailand

Verdict:

So Very Very is an interesting perspective on interracial marriages in contemporary Korea. Director Park Je-wook reverses the typical trend of such films by crafting an empowering journey of development for the foreign bride, rather than merely portraying her as a victim of circumstance. However the attempt to make the selfish husband as a sympathetic protagonist, as well as casting and language issues, distract from the wife’s journey, resulting in an agreeable film.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews

A Midsummer’s Fantasia (한여름의 판타지아) – ★★☆☆☆

A Midsummer's Fantasia (한여름의 판타지아)

A Midsummer’s Fantasia (한여름의 판타지아)

In Chapter One – First Love, Yoshiko, a Korean director travels to the Japanese city of Gojo. There he intends to scout for locations for his next film, and meets a young and attractive bilingual Korean woman who helps as a translator. As they and their Japanese guides wander around the city, the director takes notes and listens to the stories of the local people. In Chapter Two – Well of Sakura the story jumps to a few years prior and is seemingly inspired by a romantic story from one of the guides. A young Korean actress travels to the city of Gojo and meets a Japanese man, and as they walk around the area together they become close.

A Midsummer’s Fantasia (한여름의 판타지아) is the latest film from director Jang Kun-jae (장건재), the man behind the beautifully moving relationship drama Sleepless Night (잠 못 드는 밤). As with his previous work A Midsummer’s Fantasia seems to be based upon director Jang’s experiences which he separates into two distinct chapters. Shot entirely in black and white, Chapter One – First Love, Yoshiko captures the difficulties of working on foreign soil as the director, translator and Japanese guide walk around Gojo City together looking for suitable locations for the director’s next film. Due to the language barrier everything must be translated and repeated multiple times, and often certain meanings and details are lost amongst them. The black and white shots are very attractive, particularly when used in conjunction with location shooting as Gojo City is quite picturesque. However it is all frustratingly dull, as nothing of note actually happens. While it is interesting to see a director working on location scouting, tedium very quickly sets in, particularly as there are no characters and character development for the audience to invest in.

The director, translator and Japanese guide communicate while traversing Gojo City

The director, translator and Japanese guide communicate while traversing Gojo City

Chapter Two – Well of Sakura fares marginally better however. Perhaps inspired by a guide’s story from the first chapter, or perhaps just a mere fantasy, the film changes into colour and depicts the story of a Korean actress walking and talking around Gojo City with a local Japanese man. As is his trademark, director Jang constructs the relationship with sincerity as he captures the awkwardness of two young adults becoming closer. As they visit places related to the guide’s childhood and eat together at small quaint restaurants, it is interesting to see their relationship develop. Yet as they are so shy and reluctant to engage in more than small talk the film again quickly sinks into dull monotony. The actress in particular is so averse to discussion that she conveys a cold and unlikeable demeanor, with neither of them growing or developing during the course of their encounter. The chapter appears to be an attempt of sorts at constructing a Before Sunrise-esque narrative, yet unlike Richard Linklater’s classic the main protagonists discuss very little about life and have precious little chemistry between them, and as such it’s particularly difficult to care about their journey.

The actress and guide walk around teh city and visit a rundown countryside school

The actress and guide walk around teh city and visit a rundown countryside school

Verdict:

A Midsummer’s Fantasia is separated into two distinct chapters; of a director scouting for locations, and of a fantasy meeting between an actress and local guide in Gojo City. Director Jang Kun-jae films both episodes with his trademark sincerity in capturing the realism in relationships, while the use of film stock is effectively used. However the film is inescapably dull, as the protagonists rarely engage in anything other than small talk, making A Midsummer’s Fantasia one primarily for fans of realist cinema.

★★☆☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews

We Will Be Ok (그들이 죽었다) – ★★☆☆☆

We Will Be Ok (그들이 죽었다)

We Will Be Ok (그들이 죽었다)

In late 2012, three wannabe actors decide that they’ve had enough of living a squalid existence while waiting for stardom to arrive, and plan to collaborate together on an independent film. Their expectations and excitement are initially high, yet complications occur during the course of filming that serve to create problems between them. Meanwhile, hysteria involving the end of the world is gathering as the end of the year draws nigh, forcing the trio to consider their final night on Earth.

The rookie director ponders his existence

The rookie director ponders his existence

At recent Korean film festivals a project always seems to arrive that attempts to explore the difficulties and frustrations of independent filmmaking. Each time it becomes increasingly problematic for the production to approach the issues from a new and interesting angle, as well as to make the audience root for the underdogs to succeed, and ultimately, to stand out in an overcrowded arena.

Director Baek Jae-ho (백재호) opts for a familiar approach in We Will Be Ok, choosing to focus on a group of down-on-their-luck aspiring stars, yet underscores the entire film with the 2012 anxieties of armageddon which is a refreshing perspective. The intention is clearly to force the protagonists to confront their mortality and thus spur them into (filmmaking) action, yet while the idea is solid enough it is difficult to really engage and care about whether the actors achieve their dreams of making it big.

Lazy wannabe filmmaker Sang-seok meanders through life

Lazy wannabe filmmaker Sang-seok meanders through life

Primarily this is due to the lack of characterization and a narrative that tends to meander. Main protagonist Sang-seok, as well as friends Tae-hee and Jae-ho (also the director), aren’t compelling characters as they convey a sense of laziness and selfishness rather than determination. Similar approaches appeared in Director’s CUT, and worked well to a certain extent in 2013’s Cheer Up, Mr. Lee due to the comedy underpinning it, yet in We Will Be Ok such wit is absent. The film is occasionally funny however, particularly when the trio attempt to shoot their own indie as they clearly have no idea how to make a film, simply pointing an iPhone and shouting “Action!” without having prepared a storyboard or, for that matter, anything else.

Strangely, after the story trudges along without any real conviction, in the final act We Will Be Ok suddenly becomes an engaging road movie with a situation to invest in, as Sang-seok and karaoke bar girl/friend Lee Hwa take a trip to the coast to enjoy the last sunrise before the end of the world. Their discussions are poignant and revealing, particularly when referring to people who fall through the cracks of society and having a reason to live. It’s a real shame that director Baek didn’t focus his entire film on the great ideas generated within the final act, for as it stands We Will Be Ok is mediocre offering.

We Will Be Ok becomes an interesting road movie in the final act

We Will Be Ok becomes an interesting road movie in the final act

Verdict:

Director Baek Jae-ho’s We Will Be Ok is yet another independent film attempting to explore the difficulties of making it big in the industry, and while it treads familiar ground it offers a refreshing angle by incorporating 2012 anxieties of armageddon. However as the narrative meanders coupled with a distinct lack of character development the film is hard to invest in, yet We Will Be Ok is saved by an engaging road movie-esque final act.

★★☆☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews

Wild Flowers (들꽃) – ★★☆☆☆

Wild Flowers (들꽃)

Wild Flowers (들꽃)

Running away from danger, homeless teenagers Soo-hyang (조수향) and Eun-soo (관은수) encounter a man beating a screaming girl in an abandoned underpass. Furious, the duo rush to the rescue and attack the man, knocking him unconscious and saving youngster Ha-dam (정하담) from harm. The three teens band together and decide to look out for each other as they attempt to survive on the streets of Seoul. However, on their first night together the friends are tricked by a woman’s charity and are abducted by pimps.

Soo-hyang and Ha-dam meet in troubled circumstances

Soo-hyang and Ha-dam meet in troubled circumstances

Wild Flowers (들꽃) begins in exemplary, captivating fashion as director Park Seok-young (박석영) brilliantly captures the dangers of living on the streets with powerful, raw intensity. From the moment the film opens the audience are thrust into the perilous excitement of Soo-hyang and Eun-soo’s lives, as the duo seemingly run for their very lives only to find themselves confronted with further danger. Typically Korean independent films begin slowly and build towards a central theme, yet in adopting an alternative strategy Wild Flowers begins dynamically and is all the stronger for it. The handheld camera adds a potently raw quality that heightens the sense of danger and unpleasantness of young vulnerable girls living homeless in Seoul, particularly when violence and intimidation enter their lives. Yet even in the quiet moments the filming style conveys a tense realism, as when the trio are driven to a motel to begin working as prostitutes, making the waiting in itself an unbearable ordeal.

Eun-soo, as well as her friends, are beaten and forced to dye their hair

Eun-soo, as well as her friends, are beaten and forced to dye their hair

Yet following such an impressive opening Wild Flowers quickly begins to lose momentum. Thankfully the narrative isn’t concerned with depicting scenes of teenage sexual exploitation as the girls are able to escape before the ordeal begins, due to thug Tae-sung’s affections for Soo-hyang. Instead, the film simply follows the trio as they forge a home for themselves in a dilapidated part of Seoul, foraging and stealing. While initially interesting, the story just flounders aimlessly as little of note actually occurs, and is somewhat of a wasted opportunity to explore not only key issues that afflict young female runaways but also as a character study of young women, making the running time of 110 minutes quite unjustifiable.

A further key issue with Wild Flowers is that director Park doesn’t seem to appreciate how compelling and poignant his central protagonists are, as he constantly strives to include tertiary male antagonists into the narrative to the detriment of all involved. By forcefully interjecting tangents involving pimp ‘Uncle’ and his morally conflicted junior Tae-sung – as well as a kindly deaf mute who helps the girls with cash – into the film, the main impetus of the girls attempting to survive and break out of poverty becomes further diluted, with the distraction also resulting in a lack of character and relationship development involving Soo-hyang, Eun-soo and Ha-dam.

Tertiary male characters, such as Tae-sung, add little to the narrative

Tertiary male characters, such as Tae-sung, add little to the narrative

Verdict:

Wild Flowers begins in intense fashion as director Park Seok-young effectively conveys the dangerous ordeals faced by homeless teenage girls in Seoul. Yet after such a grand opening the film rapidly loses momentum as the narrative simply flounders, further enhanced by the unnecessary inclusion of male antagonists that serve as a distraction from the far more compelling central female characters.

★★☆☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews

The Fatal Encounter (역린) – ★★★☆☆

The Fatal Encounter (역린)

The Fatal Encounter (역린)

The year is 1777. King Jeongjo (Hyeon Bin (현빈) has only been in power for a year yet has survived numerous assassination attempts, while the political machinations within the kingdom due to conflict with the rival Noron group has resulted in a tenuous grip on power. Paranoid and afraid, King Jeongjo retreats to a small study to protect himself and to find a resolution to the crisis, trusting only his eunuch servant Kap-soo (Jeong Jae-yeong (정재영). Unbeknownst to King Jeongjo, another attempt on his life will soon be made by a collusion between his young grandmother Queen Jeongsun (Han Ji-min (한지민) and Noron military General Goo Seon-bok (Song Yeong-chang (송영창). Yet the conspirators have also enlisted the services of an assassins guild led by Gwang-baek (Jo Jae-hyeon (조재현), who orders his best killer Eul-soo (Jo Jeong-seok (조정석) to carry out the task lest his girlfriend Wol-hye (Jeong Eun-chae (정은채) be killed instead. In the final 24 hours leading up to the attack, King Jeongjo must use every means at his disposal to save himself, his mother Lady Hyegyeong (Kim Seong-ryeong(김성령), and the very kingdom itself from the sinister coup.

The paranoid King retreats to his secuded study to avoid assassination and to find a resolution for the internal political crisis

The paranoid King retreats to his secluded study to avoid assassination

The Fatal Encounter (역린), also known as The King’s Wrath, is a visually impressive feature debut by director Lee Jae-gyoo (이재규), whose previous credits have largely applied to television dramas. Director Lee makes to leap to film with incredible confidence and fortitude, expertly constructing the ominous tone leading to the assassination attempt with beautifully realised composition and quite lovely cinematography. His prowess is often astonishing, ranging from scenes depicting a dark foreboding rain-soaked palace at night to stunningly colourful scenes in which the King’s clothes are dyed and worshipped; from ethereal shots on a lake during clandestine meetings to tense and sexually-charged confrontations between the King and his young grandmother. From beginning to end, The Fatal Encounter is a gorgeously attractive film.

Yet while the film is consistently visually engaging, unfortunately the same cannot be said for Choi Seong-hyeon’s (최성현) script which, while competently written, becomes weakened due to the overly-ambitious narrative juggling act and the vast number of characters within. Set in the 24 hours leading up to an assassination attempt, the narrative attempts to fill in the gaps of certain complex relationships and historical events by employing flashback sequences. This is itself is an effective storytelling device, however the great number of flashbacks utilised within the narrative structure proves a great distraction from the main tale of King Jeongjo’s efforts at securing stability within the kingdom, becoming subsumed beneath the weight of so much excess. With far too many protagonists and antagonists to cover, it’s difficult to invest in the King’s struggles, or to care that this could potentially be his final day on earth.

Scenes in which King Jeongjo confronts his grandmother are intense

Scenes in which King Jeongjo confronts his grandmother are intense

The Fatal Encounter features a stellar cast, headlined by superstar Hyeon Bin as the King. The actor is an imposing presence as the royal leader, conveying a restrained strength and stoicism that is expected of such a role. The stoicism does however occasionally veer towards blankness, while the absence of subtlety suggesting paranoia is something of a missed opportunity. Interestingly it is Jeong Jae-yeong who steals the limelight as devoted eunuch Kap-soo, as he impressively balances his unquestionable loyalty to the King with nuances suggesting disquiet as well as a range of emotional angst. The best moments of the film come from the interplay between the King and Kap-soo as their relationship is explored and develops into new territory.

For the myriad of other talents within The Fatal Encounter, their characters tend to be limited to one-dimensional stereotypes, yet the cast all perform competently. Han Ji-min is particularly impressive as femme fatale grandmother Queen Jeongsun, conveying an intense sexual energy in her scenes with King Jeongjo which she has clearly perfected from her similar characterisation in Detective K.

The abundant cast results in so many narrative strands and sub-plots, in multiple time streams no less, that The Fatal Encounter loses the sense of urgency required in making the countdown to assassination compelling. While director Lee excels in crafting a visually striking film, and in executing a kinetic action-filled finale well, the overly-ambitious narrative structure ultimately combines to make The Fatal Encounter a mediocre period piece.

The Fatal Encounter is consistently visually impressive

The Fatal Encounter is consistently visually impressive

Verdict:

The Fatal Encounter is a visually arresting feature film debut by Lee Jae-gyoo, who confidently and impressively constructs beautifully realised compositions of the ominous 1777 era. Yet the film loses agency due to the combination of an overly ambitious narrative structure in conjunction with an over abundance of characters, resulting in a very attractive period film that is difficult to invest in.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews

One on One (일대일) – ★★★☆☆

One on One (일대일)

One on One (일대일)

While walking home one night from school, a young girl is chased through the streets by a team of men and is brutally murdered. One year later, a mysterious team known as ‘the shadows’ arises. Led by a powerful leader (Ma Dong-seok (마동석) and his deputy (Ahn Ji-hye (안지혜), the shadows begin abducting seemingly random and successful men, demanding a written confession. If the abductees are unwilling, then various forms of torture soon remedy the situation. Yet when Oh Hyeon (Kim Yeong-min (김영민), the first victim to receive punishment from the shadows, begins trailing them, he is alarmed by what he uncovers.

The murder of a school girl begins a chain of torturous events

The murder of a school girl begins a chain of torturous events

One on One (일대일) is quite a refreshing change of pace for director Kim Ki-duk. His past few films, such as Moebius and Pieta, have arguably tended to focus more on excess and shock value rather than storytelling which, as a marketing tactic, has done wonders for his career and international exposure – awards. With One on One director Kim has returned to more traditional filmmaking fare by incorporating a linear narrative framework, while the story itself deals with individuals in the back alleys of Seoul who have fallen through the cracks of contemporary Korean society. Coupled with camera techniques reminiscent of his early works, director Kim has seemingly returned to his roots through this ‘raw’ tale of the circular nature of revenge.

Director Kim has always been a particularly divisive director, yet within his films his consistent desire to explore the social problems in Korea are always present and interesting. For many audiences it’s the manner in which he conveys such issues that raises alarm, however One on One is a much more toned-down affair than his previous efforts, less violent (both psychically and sexually) as well as less gratuitous, although it still contains his indelible stamp. Instead, director Kim allows his characters to express his societal concerns through the dialogue, quite a change of pace considering his tendency to focus his critiques through physicality.

The shadow group abduct and torture men for their criminal past

The shadow group abduct and torture men for their criminal past

Within One on One, the primary issue explored is one particularly unique to Korea – that in order to be successful, a junior must do whatever a senior demands, regardless of the ethics involved. Director Kim examines the socio-cultural phenomenon in an interesting, and ironic, fashion, as ‘the shadows’ simultaneously attempt to take revenge against those who were carrying out orders, yet following those of their leader in order to do so. The narrative impressively links all the characters together through their sense of ‘Han’ (suffering), depicting them all as victims of a cultural system that demands success at any cost, regardless of their wealth and social status. For the shadows, each member has been wronged in a manner that has forced them into poverty, whether by greedy landowners, oppressive spouses, or even the Korean education system. In regards to those comprising the social elite, their very souls have been tainted by what they have undertaken, turning them into fascistic monsters.

However while the film explores some very complex social features – issues that have risen to prominence following the Sewol ferry disaster – the narrative is incredibly overambitious. In scrutinizing such a vast array of issues the result is a rather superficial examination of each area, whereby the suffering of each shadow member is only glimpsed. As such it’s difficult to become wholeheartedly invested in their plight as well as the moral quandary arising from taking revenge. Also contributing significantly to the lack of empathy is the poor dialogue, which at times is quite naïve and simplistic, especially during the scenes spoken in English. Similarly, while Ma Dong-seok provides a powerful performance, and to a lesser extent (boy and girl), the supporting cast range from mediocre to poor which adds to the apathy.

The confessions procured reveal the nature of obeying orders at any cost

The confessions procured reveal the nature of obeying orders at any cost

Verdict:

One on One is something of a refreshing film by director Kim Ki-duk. In focusing on social issues through a traditional narrative framework, and in conjunction with rather ‘raw’ camera techniques, director Kim has crafted an interesting examination that removes the excess of his prior films. However as One on One is overly ambitious as well as containing poor dialogue, the film is difficult to fully invest in, and as such is an intriguing yet flawed addition to his filmography.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말) – ★★★★☆

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Life is good for single mother Hyeon-sook (Kim Hee-ae (김희애) and her two teenage daughters Man-ji (Ko Ah-seong (고아성) and Cheon-ji (Kim Hyang-ki (김향기). Despite the financial hardships of living in a single parent household, the three are like any other typical family. That is, until the day Cheon-ji commits suicide. Devastated by the loss, Hyeon-sook and Man-ji move to a new home and attempt to start afresh. Yet as Man-ji begins to think more and more about her younger sister’s death, as well as the lack of a suicide note, she becomes driven to find the cause behind Cheon-ji’s suffering. As she  questions those close to Cheon-ji, including best friends Hwa-yeon (Kim Yoo-jeong (김유정) and Mi-ran (Yoo Yeon-mi (유연미), Man-ji starts to unravel the elegant lies involved and begins to understand that she may not have known her younger sister as well as she previously thought.

The family are devastated from Cheon-ji (center) commits suicide

The family are devastated from Cheon-ji (center) commits suicide

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말) – or directly translated as ‘Elegant Lies’ – is a powerfully compelling and tender family drama by director Lee Han (이한) and screenwriter Lee Sook-yeon (이숙연). It is a well-documented fact that the suicide rate in Korea is the highest amongst the countries in the OECD – and in particular it’s the leading cause of death amid the younger generations – yet while several films have explored the issue from the perspective of those suffering from depression, Thread of Lies approaches the topic quite differently. By exploring the situation from the view of a family struggling to come to terms with loss, the film effectively captures not only the trauma and guilt generated by losing a loved one to suicide but notably how it’s possible to live with someone and not truly know who they are. Director Lee beautifully conveys the complexity of emotions and relationships in the aftermath of loss with acute sincerity, while also subtly intertwining a critique on the notion of pretense in Korean society. Falsity is presented through a heartbreaking scene in which Cheon-ji arrives late to a birthday party and is bullied on kakao messenger service, within her view and by people claiming to be her friends, and is superbly contrasted with a scene depicting her mother being forced to practice customer service and etiquette at a supermarket. Thread of Lies examines the various ways in which people in contemporary Korea are forced to subsume their true emotions for socially acceptable ones, yet director Lee also superbly manages to balance such weighty material with tasteful light-hearted comedy, infusing the story with positivity and hope as well as tender poignancy .

Cheon-ji is bullied by her entire class, yet keeps her suffering to herself

Outcast Cheon-ji is bullied by her entire class, yet keeps her suffering to herself

Thread of Lies is in many ways an examination of guilt, and the lies told in order to assuage it. Older sister Man-ji is cool to the point of arrogant, yet in her quest to discover Cheon-ji’s motivations she uncovers a web of depression, pain, and half-truths that fundamentally change her, and as such her development into a more mature and aware young woman is a deeply affecting journey. The conversations Man-ji has with Cheon-ji’s classmates Hwa-yeon and Mi-ran are incredibly illuminating, as the young girls reveal a history of bullying and psychological abuse yet desperately remove any notion of their role in the lead up to the suicide. Their interactions are brilliantly contrasted with the truth via flashback scenes depicting the events as they occurred, revealing the full impact of wrongdoing on the young and sensitive Cheon-ji. Director Lee effectively employs such moments to reveal that blame lies not with one singular person, but with a large number of people who are all culpable in the build-up to suicide as they thoughtlessly mistreat those around them. As such, Thread of Lies is a socially-conscious, poignant and sincere examination of a timely issue, and is an exemplary piece of filmmaking.

Man-ji and her mother learn to cope with the loss after discovering the truth

Man-ji and her mother learn to cope with the loss after discovering the truth

Verdict:

Thread of Lies is a powerful and compelling family drama that deals with the aftermath of suicide. Director Lee Han captures the complex emotional and relationship issues within Lee Sook-yeon’s script with sincerity and tenderness, as Man-ji attempts to understand her younger sister’s death. Featuring an exemplary examination of the guilt and lies associated with suicide, and cultural existence of pretense within contemporary Korean society, Thread of Lies is a fascinating and empowering exploration of a timely issue.

★★★★☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews

A Matter of Interpretation (꿈보다 해몽) – ★★★☆☆

A Matter of Interpretation (꿈보다 해몽)

A Matter of Interpretation (꿈보다 해몽)

Frustrated that her acting career isn’t progressing in the manner she hoped, Yeon-shin (Shin Dong-mi (신동미) decides to quit the profession and walks out on her director. Her anger is such that she fights with old friends and in a moment of unbridled immaturity, breaks up with long term boyfriend Woo-yeon (Kim Kang-hyeon (김강현). Time passes and Yeon-shin, feeling sorry for herself, visits a hilltop to gather her thoughts where she encounters an unorthodox detective (Yu Joon-sang (유준상) with a talent for interpreting dreams.

A Matter of Interpretation (꿈보다 해몽)

Seeking solace, actress Yeon-shin comes across an odd but charismatic dream interpreter

A Matter of Interpretation (꿈보다 해몽) is perhaps best described as a quirky, surreal comedy-drama with Hong Sang-soo-esque stylisation, which makes sense considering writer/director Lee Kwang-kuk (이광국) worked with the auteur as an assistant director on several of his films. Through the incorporation of witty conversations and humourous encounters however director Lee has made A Matter of Interpretation arguably more accessible for audiences, which should appease critics of Hong’s work.

His second feature following the acclaimed Romance Joe, director Lee’s A Matter of Interpretation is a highly enjoyable affair and one that rewards repeated viewings due to the nature of the narrative. The story chronicles the fraught lives and relationships of the central characters yet focuses primarily on how such issues present themselves through dreams, and watching the reenactments unfold is a consistently surreal and entertaining experience. Yet rather than a Freudian analysis, director Lee attempts to interrogate the notions of life and happiness within contemporary Korea through symbolism, touching on a range of social issues with wit and ingenuity in the dream-like spaces within the film.

The enigmatic detective attempts to interpret Woo-yeon's dream

The enigmatic detective attempts to interpret Woo-yeon’s dream

Central to the enjoyment are the fascinating assortment of characters, particularly the wonderful acting and comedic timing by lead actress Shin Dong-mi. Shin is superb as sassy frustrated performer Yeon-shin, with her sharp-tongued insults and bad-temper consistently funny as well revealing her own subconscious issues. She portrays Yeon-shin’s trajectory extremely well, which along with that of her boyfriend, form a genuine and insightful examination of couples who reach a certain period in their lives. Meanwhile frequent Hong Sang-soo collaborator Yu Joon-sang brings expert timing and a charismatic aloofness to the film as the detective. His delivery of dialogue, notably his dream interpretations, are engaging and humourous yet he also manages to convey a sense of tragedy to the character, adding complexity to a role that could have been bland in lesser hands.

Yet for all of the enjoyable and interesting moments throughout A Matter of Interpretation, the film suffers from an inconsistent tone and fragmented narrative that ultimately leads to a story that fades in and out of being compelling. Such issues arise when focus is directed away from Yeon-shin towards the detective’s and, to a lesser extent, Woo-yeon’s dreams and backstories. From the very beginning it is Yeon-shin who is the fascinating central character who has huge potential for growth, such is Shin Dong-mi’s performance, and in ascribing time to those around her Yeon-shin’s development becomes subsumed. That’s not to say that the cast are dull as they are consistently entertaining, however the fragmentation between the characters, the stories, and between reality and dreams itself results in a film that, while very enjoyable, lacks the potency it would have had through more engagement with Yeon-shin.

Yeon-shin achieves a moment of clarity following the interpretation of her dream

Yeon-shin achieves a moment of clarity following the interpretation of her dream

Verdict:

A Matter of Interpretation is a wonderfully quirky and highly enjoyable second feature from writer/director Lee Kwang-kuk. The influences from his mentor Hong Sang-soo are clearly apparent yet Lee infuses his film with an alternative sense of biting wit alongside comedic – and often somewhat surreal – socio-cultural insight. Actress Shin Dong-mi shines as central protagonist Yeon-shin, while Yu Joon-sang is wonderfully charismatic as the odd detective. The film does suffer due to the fragmented narrative and inconsistent tone, yet A Matter of Interpretation is an entertaining take on modern happiness.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews

Daughter (다우더) – ★★★☆☆

Daughter (다우더)

Daughter (다우더)

When San-e (Koo Hye-seon (구혜선) discovers that she is pregnant, what should be happy news sends her into a serious emotional breakdown despite her boyfriend Jin-woo’s (Lee Hae-woo (이해우) best efforts to comfort her. San-e’s newfound pregnancy forces her to revisit the trauma of her past, of living with an extremely strict, highly religious mother (Shim Hye-jin (심혜진) who controlled every facet of her young life and who violently punished her if she disobeyed the rules. As San-e remembers the emotional and physical anguish she endured as a young girl (Hyeon Seung-min (현승민) she also attempts to reconcile her issues in the present, for the sake of her unborn child and her own sanity.

San-e's pregnancy sparks a resurgence of long-repressed psychological trauma

San-e’s pregnancy sparks a resurgence of long-repressed psychological trauma

Daughter (다우더) is a powerful and emotionally charged drama of child abuse by writer/director/actress Koo Hye-seon, one that is acutely timely given the prominence of the issue in contemporary Korean society and media. Daughter is a particularly impressive outing for director Koo who effectively juggles the non-linear narrative between San-e as she suffers horrific physical and emotion trauma as a youngster, with that of her as an adult coping with the psychological afflictions later in life, with both stories evolving with a palpable sincerity. Each area poignantly explores trauma from multiple angles, whether it be young San-e’s physical punishments for failing to be perfect on a test through to the psychological and emotional abuse she endures on a daily basis, while the ramifications of such an ordeal are more subtly conveyed through adult San-e’s fashion and demeanor. Director Koo also employs particularly effective use of colour, focus and lighting in portraying San-e’s complex psychological states that add a tragic beauty to her story, depicting a potent portrayal of a vulnerable yet strong young woman scared of motherhood.

As a youngster San-e experiences aborrent phsyical, emotional and psychological abuse from her mother

As a youngster San-e experiences aborrent phsyical, emotional and psychological abuse from her mother

Yet Daughter is also a keen examination of the complex emotions involved in having an overbearing mother. While the devoutly religious mother is controlling, abusive, and vicious – as well as clearly psychologically deranged – there is the constant sense that she is misguidedly attempting to perform her motherly duties in the best manner she can. Indeed, the film is bookended by a poem that simultaneously declares the love/hate relationship felt with mothers in that there is an appreciation for her sacrifices and an emotional need for her love, yet it is one plagued by frustration and anger. Such sensibilities are acutely Korean in nature, and are transposed on screen as adult San-e reluctantly attempts to achieve a reconciliation that she knows will never come. Such scenes however are puzzlingly fleeting, as at a rather short 84 minutes long the film would certainly have benefitted from greater exploration of this key issue.

Ultimately, such a criticism also leads to the film’s greatest flaw. While Daughter is a poignant and effective drama, the short running time focuses more on the dramatic events in young San-e’s life at the expense of more subtle, character-driven moments, and as such audiences empathise with her situation more through pity than anything else. This also applies with adult San-e, as while her character is conveyed well through the mise-en-scene key moments in her evolution as a victim of abuse and as a pregnant woman are curiously absent. With the quite brief running time of 84 minutes there is certainly more room for such character examinations and development which, if included, would have undoubtedly elevated Daughter into the upper echelons of the genre.

As time passes, young San-e begins to realise a better life awaits her

As time passes, young San-e begins to realise a better life awaits her

Verdict:

Daughter is an impressive and emotionally charged drama by writer/director/actress Koo Hye-seon. In focusing on the timely issues of child abuse through a non-linear narrative, director Koo explores the physical, psychological and emotional trauma from multiple angles with poignant sincerity, as well as examining the love/hate relationship with strict, overbearing mothers. At a brief running time of 84 minutes the film would have benefitted from more subtle, character driven moments, yet Daughter is nevertheless a powerful tribute to victims of domestic abuse.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews