Blue Butterfly Effect (파란나비효과) – ★★★★☆

Blue Butterfly Effect

When the Korean and American governments announce that the military THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system is to be located in the rural county of Seongju, residents quickly become alarmed. As the local citizens begin researching the issue further they become increasingly politically aware, ultimately organising protests against THADD that continue to grow in strength and number. Blue Butterfly Effect (파란나비효과) documents the protests against THADD, from its grass-roots origins through to the nationwide coverage the issue generated.

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The protests grow throughout the province

Director Park Moon-chil, who debuted with the wonderfully sensitive and empowering My Place (2013), returns with an inspiring tale of protest in Blue Butterfly Effect and in doing so cements his status as one of the best documentary filmmakers currently working in Korean cinema.

Blue Butterfly Effect proves to be so engaging largely due to the central subjects at the core of the story, as housewives, farmers, seamstresses et al from the community come together to explain how they became aware of THADD, detailing the passion and outrage it generated that ultimately led to forming a protest movement. Such scenes are brilliantly executed, providing not only an informative piece on the nature of the issue but also an insightful commentary on protest culture within contemporary Korea.

Director Park wisely goes beyond purely representing their opinions of THADD however, as he delves into the subjects’ voting habits, regional identity, and the increasing political and historical awareness each member experiences, unveiling acute character development. No matter how big the challenges over THADD become, the film never loses focus of the personal dimensions of the conflict, making the story an intimate portrait of nationwide debate and virtually demands audience investment.

In documenting the manner in which the THADD protests and responses escalate, director Park goes where few filmmakers dare to tread in depicting the ‘dirty tricks’ employed by those in favour of the military technology. In presenting the ways local politicians change stance and ‘spin’ alternative narratives, the collusion between the government and big business, as well as featuring elitist prejudice – misogynistic comments, and the head of the Education Ministry’s comment that 99% of Koreans are “like dogs and pigs” – combine to produce a startling portrait of modern politics, one that taps into the zeitgeist of anti-conservatism sweeping the country following President Moon Jae-in’s inauguration.

BBE4

As politicians spin narratives, public outrage and peaceful protests increase

Verdict:

Blue Butterfly Effect is a powerful testament to the spirit of Korean people and the power of protest, as well as an important cultural text in its own right. Director Park Moon-chil again proves his talent as a documentarian to watch, for Blue Butterfly Effect is a film that, for current and future generations, and those interested in the politics of the peninsula, demands to be seen.

 ★★★★☆

 

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Reviews

Yourself and Yours (당신자신과 당신의 것) – ★★★☆☆

Yourself and Yours (당신자신과 당신의 것)

Synopsis: When aspiring artist Young-soo (Kim Joo-hyuck) discusses his intention to marry Min-jung (Lee You-young), the idea is laughed at by a close friend (Kim Eui-sung). Clearly offended, Young-soo demands answers – and hears of the rumours that Min-jung has been meeting and drinking with different men around the neighbourhood. Deeply hurt, Young-soo confronts Min-jung about the rumours – all of which she denies – and following the fight she decides to leave. Young-soo desperately wants to make things right with Min-jung – but what is the truth?

Young-soo hears rumours his girlfriend is meeting other men

Notions of truth, jealousy and trust are playfully explored through director Hong Sang-soo‘s Yourself and Yours, with the film navigating such potentially dramatic material with the charismatic whimsy audiences have come to expect from the celebrated auteur. Whereas director Hong’s previous film Right Now Wrong Then explored the ramifications of truthfulness in a relationship, Yourself and Yours takes a markedly different approach. While Young-soo’s suspicions initially drive the couple apart, Min-jung is presented in the sequences that follow in completely different personas, seemingly not recognising past acquaintances and behaving erratically.

The film doesn’t provide any simple answers for the situations that arise – perhaps Min-jung has a disorder; perhaps the sequences are purely from Young-soo’s jealous mind – but that’s seemingly not particularly important as audiences are swept along the journey due to the quirky interactions and comedically awkward moments. What the narrative does appear to embrace is that control within a relationship is folly and that compromise is a necessity, while identity is a fluid construct that alters depending on how a person wishes to present themselves. Traditional answers are not the ultimate goal of Yourself and Yours, rather, it’s a charismatic journey of discovery and one that fans of director Hong will undoubtedly appreciate.

Min-jung meets writer Jaeyoung at a cafe, yet her behaviour is erratic

Verdict:

Yourself and Yours is a whimsical exploration of identity and trust within modern relationships, featuring charismatic performances by all involved yet particularly by Lee You-young. Those unfamiliar with director Hong Sang-soo’s work might be a little perplexed, but for the converted Yourself and Yours is real treat.

★★★☆☆

Reviews

4th Place (4등) – ★★☆☆☆

4th Place (4등)

4th Place (4등)

Youngster Joon-ho (Yoo Jae-sang (유재상) loves to be in the water and has a real talent for swimming, yet for some reason he always places fourth in competitions. Furious at her son’s lack of improvement despite her constant scolding, Joon-ho’s mother (Lee Hang-na (이항나) seeks out a renowned swimming coach with terrible reputation – former olympic hopeful Gwang-soo (Park Hae-joon (박해준). As Joon-ho’s training commences, coach Gwang-soo’s methods become increasingly violent, revealing the extremes taken and endured in such a competitive culture.

Joon-ho adores swimming and is mesmirised by the nature of light and water

Joon-ho adores swimming and is mesmirised by the nature of light and water

Produced in conjunction with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, 4th Place is a potent exploration of the extremely competitive education culture that exists within Asia. Studies routinely reveal that Korean children are amongst the unhappiest in the world with shocking levels of suicide, due the incredible stress heaped upon them by strict parents and teachers, and as such director Jeong Ji-woo deserves respect merely for broaching the issue on film.

Director Jeong examines the issue through Joon-ho, a youngster who deeply enjoys swimming yet is incessantly berated and belittled by his shrill mother for not taking the sport more competitively. The manner in which she psychologically torments her son is equal parts horrifying and infuriating to behold, as she manipulates Joon-ho into equating his lack of success as a lack of love for her, initiating deep internalised guilt. Through her machinations at church – which director Jeong subtly insinuates as a place of corruption – she finds a coach for Joon-ho, one who verbally and physically abuses the youngster. Parallels are clear with the exceptional drama Whiplash, and while 4th Place never reaches those heights it deserves commendation for tackling such a vital societal issue.

Joon-ho's training often includes bouts of violence and verbal abuse by the coach

Joon-ho’s training often includes bouts of violence and verbal abuse by the coach

Visually, 4th Place is beautifully shot during the swimming scenes. The lighting and lenses used serve to create a world of majesty and elegance under the water, a place where Joon-ho can escape and find enjoyment in solitude. Such sequences wonderfully convey the youngster’s love of swimming and the freedom it brings, as he gracefully glides through the water as if it’s his natural state of being. Yet such cinematic stylisation rarely extends beyond the arena of the pool however, with director Jeong’s more sophisticated dramatic techniques as employed in prior films Eungyo (A Muse) and Happy End sadly missing during scenes of family conflict.

The dramatic tension is also undermined by the lack of a central figure. Whiplash is a phenomenal film largely due to Miles Teller’s central performance from a mild-mannered to psychologically unhinged student, yet in 4th Place acting duties are generally shared equally among the cast resulting in a lack of singular perspective and characters that are largely one-dimensional. Perhaps worryingly, the most developed member of the film is the violent coach due to (an overly long) prelude that simultaneously infers the circular nature of corporal punishment and generates sympathy for him – arguably more so than young victim Joon-ho. In more adept hands the emotional complexity of the mother and coach could shine through despite the script’s shortcomings, though Lee Hang-na and Park Hae-joon are unfortunately not up to the task as they over-exaggerate their respective performances.

Nevertheless the story is a timely and important one, with the film’s finale one of the most creative and enjoyable sequences witnessed in Korean independent cinema in quite some time.

Follwing physical abuse and family strife, Joon-ho must decide his future

Follwing physical abuse and family strife, Joon-ho must decide his future

Verdict:

Co-produced with the Korean Human Rights Commission, 4th Place is a powerful reminder of the brutal nature of Korea’s competitive educational system, and the inordinate abuse applied by authority figures toward students. Director Jeong Ji-woo explores the issue well and is particularly impressive during swimming sequences, resulting in a timely film that deserves commendation for tackling important and challenging subject matter.

★★☆☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (20회 부산국제영화제) Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews

Reach for the SKY (공부의 나라) – ★★★★☆

Reach for the SKY (공부의 나라)

Reach for the SKY (공부의 나라)

Every year, Korean high school students undertake the infamous ‘Suneung’ exam – a gruelling series of college scholastic ability tests that will  determine which university they can attend, the status of which in turn will dictate potential opportunities that will arise in later life. The most prestigious and highly sought after institutions are Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei universities which form the an acronym SKY, respectively, with students often resorting to extreme measures in order to achieve enrolment. Documentary Reach for the SKY follows a selection of students on their quest to be in the top percentile and fulfil their ambitions.

Students attempt to cope with their stressful ordeal with humour

Students attempt to cope with their stressful ordeal with humour

One of the most well-received Korean independent films at Busan Film Festival earlier this year, documentary Reach for the SKY is an engrossing exploration of the inordinate amount of pressure caused by the infamous Suneung exam as well as the cultural phenomena that has spawned in its wake. Directors Steven Dhoedt and Choi Woo-young wisely avoid taking a stance on the issue yet emphasise the burdens, profiteering and fervour with impressively subtle irony, which will likely mean little to native Koreans but will resonate strongly with audiences unfamiliar with the country’s harsh education system.

Filmed over the course of four years, Reach for the SKY follows a well-chosen selection of students at various stages in their academic careers as they attempt to pass Suneung exam, and through their experiences directors Dhoedt and Choi reveal an array of startling cultural facets with keen insight. Whether the subjects are taking or re-taking the infamous test, the co-helmers broaden the perspective to capture the unique contexts within which the students operate, and in doing so the pressures from parents, teachers and wider society are revealed to fascinating effect.

The pressures of the Suneung exam have spawned wealthy celebrity teachers

The pressures of the Suneung exam have spawned wealthy celebrity teachers

Of these, the individuals and institutions that profit from the anxieties surrounding the exam are given focus, notably the celebrity teachers and boarding schools that have arisen as a result. The directors brilliantly capture the startling quasi-pop star status of a teacher as he lectures on stage to a sold out auditorium full of eager teens before driving home in his BMW, scenes which are effectively juxtaposed with a boarding school more akin to a juvenile offender prison than an academic organisation, and religious institutions that depict the fervour of acolytes as they speak in tongues.

In each case, directors Dhoedt and Choi lace the images with a wonderfully cheeky sense of comedic irony that helps to offset the rather astonishing nature of such scenes. The instances where the wealthy celeb-teacher actually fails to speak/write English correctly particularly resonates, while the poor English signs at the boarding school, the mean parents/teachers who receive angry disapproving looks from students, the annoyed Buddhist monk who is handed a list of hundreds of students to pray for, all combine to underscore gentle and playful criticisms of the education system.

Arguably the most potent form of critique is the manner Reach for the SKY intermittently incorporates quotations from the Analects of Confucius, an ideology which still holds powerful relevance in contemporary Korean society. Through citing such Confucian texts, followed by sequences revealing how the education system has evolved in an alternative direction, the implication is clear – teens are studying not to be enlighten but to be assessed, and their suffering is very real.

Every year thousands of students sit the stress-inducing Suneung exam

Every year thousands of students sit the stress-inducing Suneung exam

Verdict:

Reach for the Sky is an impressive documentary exploring the infamous Suneung exam. Directors Steven Dhoedt and Choi Woo-young insightfully capture the stresses endured by students generated by the harsh education system and wider socio-cultural facets, often with wonderfully cheeky irony that serves to gently critique the entire phenomenon to fascinating effect.

★★★★☆

Busan International Film Festival (20회 부산국제영화제) Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews

The Priests (검은 사제들) – ★★★☆☆

The Priests (검은 사제들)

The Priests (검은 사제들)

When Catholic student Yeong-shin (Park So-dam (박소담) is involved in a hit-and-run incident, she begins to develop peculiar maladies that doctors are at a loss to explain. Upon visiting the distraught youngster, Priest Kim (Kim Yoon-seok (김윤석) becomes convinced she’s possessed and prepares to exorcise the demon within, despite the church ‘s refusal to sanction the ritual. Yet Kim cannot perform the ceremony alone, and employs the help of Deacon Choi (Kang Dong-won (강동원). Together, they may just have a chance at saving Yeong-shin’s life…or perhaps Kim really is as crazy as the allegations against him claim to be.

Yeong-shin begins to develop bizarre symptoms following her accident

Yeong-shin begins to develop bizarre symptoms following her accident

One of the surprise sleeper hits of 2015, writer/director Jang Jae-hyeon’s exorcism drama The Priests is far more fun and entertaining than it has any right to be. While religious mystery-horrors are quite a rarity in Korean cinema, Jang popularises the risky prospect by imbuing the film with an unexpected amount of wit and charisma which, alongside impressively constructed exorcism scenes, are enough to overlook the various narrative shortcomings.

Adapting his well-received 2014 short film 12th Assistant Deacon – which notably won the Best Director Prize at Jeonju International Film Festival – into feature length format was no easy feat, but director Jang succeeds much more than he fails.

The Priests is an enjoyable affair chiefly due the characterisation and resulting conflict between stoic Father Kim and lackadaisical Deacon Choi who, as polar opposites, play off each other well throughout the film in ways both comedic and entertaining. The narrative unveils predominantly through Choi’s perspective as he is asked to join Kim for the exorcism ritual, while never really quite sure of the reality of the situation. Kang Dong-won is somewhat miscast in the role as the naive Deacon but he infuses the role with a palpable likability while the approach is a good one, introducing the concept to unfamiliar Korean audiences while also addressing the cynicism such tales evoke.

Deacon Choi joins Father Kim as they prepare for the ritual

Deacon Choi joins Father Kim as they prepare for the ritual

The humour and mystery involved in preparing for the exorcism is entertaining enough to distract audiences from the fact that there are plot holes and unresolved tangents galore as well as the curious absence of an emotional core. In the original 1973 horror classic The Exorcist director William Friedkin spent much of the first act developing Regan prior to her possession in order to heighten audience empathy with her situation; in The Priests no such effort is made with Yeong-shin and as a result her ordeal is difficult to invest in despite the shock value. That said, however, Park So-dam embodies the role of the traumatised teen brilliantly and works wonders with the little material she has, flitting between innocence and raving lunacy seemingly at ease to make sequences particularly disturbing.

Much of the first half of the film, while enjoyable, is mostly filler prior to the actual exorcism itself, where The Priests ultimately unveils its unique aesthetic. Taking cues from previous films involving exorcism whilst incorporating a distinctly Korean take on the material, director Jang and the production crew are to be commended for constructing a startlingly effective sequence of macabre events as the ritual unfolds. The set design alongside impressive practical effects create scenes of supernatural horror that are thoroughly engaging, and offers one of the more unique cinematic experiences from the Korean film industry.

Father Kim dedicates himself to exorcising the demon within Yeong-shin

Father Kim dedicates himself to exorcising the demon within Yeong-shin

Verdict:

The Priests is quite a rarity in Korean cinema, with writer/director Jang Jae-hyeon’s take on exorcism subject matter far more entertaining than it has any right to be. The comedic and mysterious undertones help to mask plot holes and the lack of an emotional core, yet the drama comes into it’s own during an engaging final act and as a result is one of the more surprisingly enjoyable films of 2015.

★★★☆☆

Reviews

Assassination (암살) – ★★★☆☆

Assassination (암살)

Assassination (암살)

During the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s, independence fighters wage war against the regime. However complicating matters significantly are the native Koreans who offer support to the invaders, turning traitor for wealth and power. One such turncoat, Kang In-gook (Lee Kyeong-yeong), is selected as the next assassination target with sniper Ahn Ok-yoon (Jeon Ji-hyeon), bruiser ‘Big Gun’ (Jo Jin-woong) and explosives expert Deok-sam (Choi Deok-moon) recruited for the task by independence captain Yeom Seok-jin (Lee Jeong-jae). However unbeknownst to the trio, contract killers Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jeong-woo) and Old Man (Oh Dal-soo) have been hired to stop them before they can fulfil the mission.

Liberation fighter Yeom gathers together a team for a daring task

Liberation fighter Yeom gathers together a team for a daring task

Deserving credit for producing blockbuster fare in the Korean film industry – as well as for touching on the extremely sensitive issue of Japanese collaboration – director Choi Dong-hoon has once again crafted solid entertainment in the form of Assassination. While boasting a talented ensemble cast and and production values most other directors could only dream of, Choi’s latest still, as with prior film The Thieves, suffers from an overly-long and convoluted narrative that is tonally inconsistent. Alongside poor characterisation and lack of depth, Assassination is ultimately eye-candy cinema that is fun while it lasts but difficult to truly invest in.

Assassination begins in explosive fashion, as the fraught political period is brought to life through an adrenaline-inducing opening sequence that sees resistance fighter Yeom attempt to take out a high-profile Japanese target. It’s an engrossing and brilliantly executed introduction, with director Choi effortlessly generating thrills while setting up momentum for events to come. It also, ironically, contains much of what the film is about – glorious production values and camerawork, and talented performers wrangling with thread-bare characterisation.

The film’s reported $16 million budget is clearly visible in every frame as Assassination is truly a visual treat. The production, set and costume design are consistently impressive from beginning to end and it’s a genuine shame that the talented teams behind these areas have not been more widely celebrated for their work, for Assassination is worth watching largely for the visual finesse within.

Trio Big Gun, Ok-yoon and Deok-sam are recruited to assassinate a conspirator

Trio Big Gun, Ok-yoon and Deok-sam are recruited to assassinate a conspirator

Director Choi has always managed to attract an impressive ensemble cast featuring some of the best talent within the industry for his projects, and Assassination is no exception. The manner in which such disparate characters are weaved together is arguably more organic than Choi’s previous work, and there is great entertainment value to be had during the film’s first half as alliances are forged and events set up. Yet at the half way mark the narrative takes a turn for the worse, veering into a wealth of convoluted and contrived plot points while taking initially promising characters and reducing them to one-dimensional stereotypes.

While the film’s stars perform their roles competently, unfortunately the characterisation issues effect them greatly. Jeon Ji-hyeon is promising as an empowered captain of the indolence who defies authority, only to be later reduced to her image in the film’s second act and never really shows her range. Ha Jeong-woo does what he can in the role of Hawaii Pistol though it quickly becomes apparent that both he and sidekick Oh Dal-soo never really belong in a story of Korean independence, seemingly remnants from a comedy-western that are shoe-horned in for light relief. Lee Jeong-jae performs the role of resistance leader Yeom with confident ease and is arguably the most charismatic presence, although the actor is in real danger of becoming typecast which undermines the tension.

While consistently entertaining, perhaps the biggest issue with Assassination is that the narrative itself is simply vapid. Director Choi bravely employs the extremely sensitive topic of Koreans collaborating with their oppressors during the era, but never explores nor takes a stance on the issue. It’s only in the film’s dying moments when one such traitor is allowed to twist history into portraying himself as a patriot that the film’s message takes a disturbingly conservative tone, and as such the underutilisation of a key feature of Korean history is sadly wasted.

Team leader and sniper Ok-yoon takes aim

Team leader and sniper Ok-yoon takes aim

Verdict:

One of the big tentpole films of 2015, blockbuster Assassination is an entertaining affair. Director Choi Dong-hoon once again proves his ability to command a talented ensemble cast and enormous budget. Top marks however instead go to the production crew who’ve crafted Assassination into a visual treat, making it possible to withstand the overly-long convoluted narrative and thread-bare characterisation that so often threatens to derail the proceedings.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (20회 부산국제영화제) Reviews

Communication & Lies (소통과 거짓말) – ★☆☆☆☆

Communications & Lies (소통과 거짓말)

Communication & Lies (소통과 거짓말)

At a private academy in the city, cleaning lady Sun (Jang Sun (장선) is reprimanded by her boss for inappropriate sexual conduct with other employees. Bizarrely however, she finds the situation humorous and continues with her work, conveying a psychological instability that worries her colleagues. Also at the academy is teacher Mr. Kim (Kim Kwon-hoo (김권후), whose eccentric behaviour also baffles those around him. Unable to communicate their distresses with the world, Sun and Mr. Kim decide to take a trip together, but can they truly express themselves or simply live with lies?

After beginning in gripping fashion, director Lee Seung-won’s debut Communication & Lies enters a downward spiral through an incredibly confused narrative structure and misogyny masquerading as psychological insight. While the film does well in portraying how those suffering from psychological instability go largely ignored in contemporary Korean society, the story fails to build empathy with the protagonists by focusing primarily on their hysteria.

Communication and Lies begins with a captivating eight minute long take, as Sun is scolded by her manager for her recent conduct. It’s a brilliantly written scene, with information gently teased out through the conversation that slowly reveals the reason for Sun’s admonishment, while her truthfulness and odd reactions highlight her instability through dark humour. The manner in which the discourse unfolds is gripping, particularly for those familiar with Korean culture who expect the conversation to play out in a certain fashion, with the scene wonderfully subverting cultural norms.

Sun has difficulty with communication and lies due to psychological instability

Sun has difficulty with communication and lies due to psychological instability

Yet from such a fascinating opening the film dramatically loses momentum through a frustratingly haphazard narrative structure. The film shifts focus to introduce the less-interesting Mr. Kim and his eccentricities, while building his relationship with Sun towards their trip. Mr. Kim simply isn’t as compelling as his female counterpart, a fact which director Lee appears to be aware of hence the somewhat belated inclusion of flashbacks that dart back and forth through their timelines in a bid to generate mystery by slowly revealing the traumas that inspired their neuroses. It’s a noble but often confusing endeavour, as the story jumps to various points of the character’s lives in the past three years and attempts to address the origins of their mental illnesses, yet there isn’t significant enough depth to generate the required empathy. This is acutely the case with Mr. Lee whose tangent is rather bland, and the film would have benefited greatly from having Sun as the sole lead.

Furthermore, the exploration of Sun’s psychological instability is acutely misogynistic. As a result of personal trauma, Sun dehumanises herself with various sexual acts, yet there is no examination given as to why her illness has developed in this fashion and as such sequences that are intended as explore Sun’s tendency to sexually humiliate herself are often instead merely perverse male fantasies, with beatings, foul language, and orifice-fascination featuring at various points. The character has great potential that is unfortunately not realised throughout the film’s 103 minute running time, though actress Jang Sun performs the role capably.

In a city full of people, the plights of the mentally ill often go ignored

In a city full of people, the plights of the mentally ill often go ignored

Verdict:

Though beginning in gripping fashion, director Lee Seung-won’s Communication & Lies loses impetus through a frustratingly haphazard and oft-confusing narrative structure. Though nobly attempting to allude to the origins of neuroses and the general ignorance within contemporary Korea, the film instead conforms to a misogynistic male fantasy masquerading as psychological insight.

★☆☆☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (20회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews