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.

★☆☆☆☆

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

Steel Flower (스틸 플라워) – ★★★☆☆

Steel Flower (스틸 플라워)

Steel Flower (스틸 플라워)

Unceremoniously dumped on a highway with only a suitcase of essential items, Ha-dam (Jeong Ha-dam (정하담) is forced to quickly adapt to life on the streets of Busan City. Scared, alone, and vulnerable, the homeless young woman flirts with suicide yet is determined to forge a path out of poverty, taking random service jobs to secure money and food. The locals, however, grow wise to Ha-dam’s situation and treat her abusively, though despite her trials she retains a passion for dance.

The follow-up to last year’s Wild Flowers, director Park Suk-yong’s Steel Flower displays a marked improvement by the socially-conscious writer/helmer. Raw, provocative and featuring a potent feminist message, the indie drama explores the plight of homeless young women with an intensity and verve that often makes for challenging, as well as uncomfortable, viewing.

One of the main issues with director Park’s previous effort Wild Flowers – which also premiered at the Busan Film Festival – was that after beginning in incredibly strong fashion the narrative deviated away from its fascinating trio of homeless girls towards their less interesting male counterparts. The filmmaker has clearly listened to such criticism as Steel Flower is much more focused and concise, centralised entirely on Ha-dam’s plight which allows the story to fiercely examine the abject desperation of her situation. From the moment the drama begins director Park employs kinetic handheld camerawork that infuses the film with a raw organic energy and brisk pacing, invigorated further with some incredible long takes that add palpable realism, the fact of which is often a mixture of fascination and distress as the harsh realities of life on the streets are exposed.

Despite fraught circumstances Ha-dam retains her love of dance

Despite fraught circumstances Ha-dam retains her love of dance

Steel Flower is also boasts some impressive cinematography, particularly in the underdeveloped and poverty stricken regions of Busan City. Disparity in wealth is acutely visualised through the landscapes and structures, as Ha-dam is forced to move away from the affluence of those at ground level, hiking ever higher up mountainous paths to locate a place of security amongst the economically challenged. The urban locations are also captured well as they feature an oppressive sensibility that seems to confine Ha-dam to the shadows, refusing to allow her to progress out of her homelessness and desperation.

The decision to withhold the origins of Ha-dam’s abandonment is a smart move as she symbolises the vulnerability of all young women in Korea, yet the story falters somewhat as she continues to be a mystery for the entirety of the running time. Little is revealed about her personality, or her psychological and emotional torment, save that she is trying to survive in harsh conditions, which makes it problematic when attempting to forge an emotional connection with the character.

Ha-dam’s erratic behaviour, meanwhile, is intriguing as she flits from quiet tenderness to hysterically deranged, conveying a form of mental illness which is unfortunately never really explored nor capitalised on. Her passion for dance is a key example; she is enamoured by tap dancing classes yet displays little talent for it, and as no other hints for her adoration are conveyed – save for the their symbolic purpose that she does, indeed, exist – it feels like a missed opportunity to explore her character in more depth.

While little about Ha-dam is revealed, she ultimately serves as a cipher through which the story can expose a variety of hardships endured by homeless young women and, combined with its strong feminist message, serves to generate important social debates that are sorely needed.

Pushed to breaking point, Ha-dam flirts with death

Pushed to breaking point, Ha-dam flirts with death

Verdict:

Steel Flower is director Park Suk-yong’s second film exploring the hardships of homeless young females, and is a big improvement for the socially-conscious filmmaker. Raw and provocative, the drama boasts effective kinetic camerawork infused with realism. While the mysterious nature of the central protagonist is somewhat problematic, Steel Flower is effective in raising potent social debate.

★★★☆☆

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

Twenty Again (두 번째 스물) – ★★☆☆☆

Twenty Again (두 번째 스물)

Twenty Again (두 번째 스물)

On a flight to Italy, middle-aged film director Min-gu (Kim Seung-woo (김승우) surprisingly comes face-to-face with his first love, Min-ha (Lee Tae-ran (이태란). Though she initially pretends not to recognise him, a spark is clearly rekindled between the two and when Min-ha discovers he is working at a nearby film festival in Turin she sets out to meet her lost love again. Although now in their forties the passion from their younger days is instantly rekindled, and the lovers decide to travel around Italy together to relive their ‘second twenties.’

A refreshingly original and beautifully shot romantic tale, director Park Heung-sik’s Twenty Again is an entertaining story of two 40-somethings rekindling the passion of their first true love. While somewhat contrived and clearly owing a huge debt to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Twenty Again is a welcome addition to the genre with its strong leads and appreciation of art and culture.

One of the great strengths of helmer/scribe Park Heung-sik’s Twenty Again is the manner in which he eschews the will they?/won’t they? cliches involving an impossibly attractive young couple, and instead explores the rather more complicated and mature romantic lives of those in their forties. It’s a welcome change and while contrivances are initially employed to bring the couple together, once the reunion occurs the story hits the ground running as both Min-gu and Min-ha have a palpable chemistry and are thoroughly compelling protagonists. The couple never shy away from discussing the complexities of their lives as both are married with children, yet it is particularly difficult to judge them as their Italian affair feels beautifully organic and reinvigorating, with their glances of adoration striking an incredibly sincere emotional core.

Min-gu and Min-ha rekindle their romance through a mutual appreciation of art and culture

Min-gu and Min-ha rekindle their romance through a mutual appreciation of art and culture

Min-gu and Min-ha are also noteworthy as a professional and intellectual couple. Min-ha in particular is a wonderfully refreshing romantic lead, as she exudes intelligence, strength, assured elegance, and sexual empowerment to great effect, a far cry from the weak-willed naivety so often exemplified in her contemporaries. While the characterisation doesn’t always strike the correct balance between confident and cocky, playful and mean, Min-ha is still highly charismatic and makes it plain to see how shy director Min-gu could fall so deeply for her.

As their reconciliation develops, many of the conversations involve discussions of art, culture and philosophy as they travel around various picturesque Italian cities. It occasionally becomes a bit implausible as they have a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of the arts despite having careers in wildly different fields, yet the topics are constantly engaging. Conversations regarding their relationship during their twenties resonate the most by far, especially a key scene in which the reasons behind their separation are discussed. At times however the narrative becomes akin to a series of repetitive vignettes, as the lovers sleep together then visit a gallery, have sex followed by a museum tour, and so on, with the conversations often not continuing across the course of their trip, which is something of a missed opportunity.

Director Park has undoubtedly been influenced by Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise in crafting Twenty Again, which is certainly no bad thing, yet he makes the misstep of referencing the film more than once through the course of the drama. By alluding to its source of inspiration the remarks draw the audience out of the story, instead of letting the film find its own unique voice, which it so clearly has.

Min-ha and Min-gu relish every second of their romantic 'second twenties' together

Min-ha and Min-gu relish every second of their romantic ‘second twenties’ together

Verdict:

Twenty Again is a refreshingly original romantic tale by director Park Heung-sik, as two forty-somethings rekindle a past romance within the beautifully shot locales of Italy. The mature and compelling couple are consistently charismatic, and while  the occasional shortcomings in the script detract from their journey, Twenty Again remains a passionate exploration of love.

★★☆☆☆

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

A Korean in Paris (파리의 한국남자) – ★★☆☆☆

A Korean in Paris (파리의 한국남자)

A Korean in Paris (파리의 한국남자)

Ever since the sudden disappearance of his wife Yeong-wha (Pang Ji-in (팽지인) two years ago in Paris, native Korean Sang-ho (Cho Jaehyun (조재현) has lived homeless on the streets of the capital, hoping to find and bring her home. Each day Sang-ho scours the back alleys of the Parisian underworld fearing she may now be part of the sex trade, showing Yeong-hwa’s picture to prostitutes in his quest for information. Yet despite a frustrating lack of help to find her, Sang-ho refuses to give up.

A Korean in Paris (파리의 한국남자)

A Korean in Paris (파리의 한국남자)

Slow-burning and insightful, director Jeon Soo-il’s A Korean in Paris is a gorgeously shot cross-cultural drama. Featuring keen observations of a Paris that lies beneath the tourist veneer alongside some truly stunning cinematography from Kim Sung-tai, the poetic film is a compelling mystery despite sporadically floundering from lack of impetus and sexual politics that are occasionally found wanting.

A Korean in Paris is a rare breed of drama by director Jeon Soo-il. Independent films from the peninsula often tend to focus on internal socio-cultural issues, yet director Jeon – who studied film direction as well as receiving a Masters and PhD in the French capital – has crafted a keen and insightful examination of Parisian society as told through the eyes of a middle-aged Korean man. It’s a consistently fascinating commentary as director Jeon explores the seedy underbelly beneath the city’s romantic veneer, exposing a rampant sex trade, a homelessness epidemic, and horrible racism towards poverty stricken immigrants. Such bleak subject matter is beautifully, and quite ironically, juxtaposed with the exquisite locations within the capital, captured in glorious fashion by the quality lensing of Kim Sung-tai, that serve as stunning backdrops to a city that is seemingly in decay.

Sang-ho scours the back streets of Paris every night looking for Yeong-wha

Sang-ho scours the back streets of Paris every night looking for Yeong-wha

While very much a slow-burning drama, A Korean in Paris interestingly plays out akin to a mystery as Sang-ho traverses the city looking for any traces of his wife. Through his journey the film notably articulates that many Asian immigrants in Paris find themselves working in the sex trade, as well as the circumstances they endure. As Sang-ho shuffles along the numerous streets lined with prostitutes each night the story becomes somewhat repetitive, while the potential offered by his burgeoning relationship with a Korean prostitute (Lock Mi Kwan (미콴락) is squandered before it truly begins.

Things do pick up however when the narrative employs a flashback sequence revealing the events that led up to Yeong-hwa’s disappearance, conveying eccentricities in her character that raise certain questions and implies that the situation is far from a simple ‘disappearance’ case as previously believed. While the film attempts to avoid concrete answers and let audiences interpret events for themselves, the narrative infers a particular discourse that is rather unenlightened in regards to sexual politics.

Sang-ho lives in the dark underbelly of Paris, within view of the glossy veneer

Sang-ho lives in the dark underbelly of Paris, within view of the glossy veneer

Verdict:

A Korean in Paris is a slow-burning drama that examines the seedy underbelly of the French capital beneath the romantic veneer. While director Jeon Soo-il’s story is keenly insightful and cinematographer Kim Sung-tai lensing is gorgeously composed throughout, the rather repetitive nature of the story and unenlightened sexual politics make the film equal parts perplexing yet fascinating.

★★☆☆☆

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

Ordinary People (소시민) – ★★☆☆☆

Ordinary People (소시민)

Ordinary People (소시민)

Jae-pil is about to have the worst Sunday of his life. From the moment the hapless salaryman wakes up in a grotty motel, he is beset by a host of problems – his bullying manager demands Jaepil ‘massage’ some figures or else lose his job; his estranged wife begins divorce proceedings while filing for custody of their daughter Soo-in; his nagging sister is demanding money to donate to  her church; and he has just become the prime suspect in a murder case. One thing’s for sure – this Sunday is going to be hell.

A humorously dark tale, director Kim Byung-june’s Ordinary People is an entertaining slice of ironic satire that pokes fun at the insane challenges of the everyday salaryman. Striking the tone just right during the first half, the film spirals into theatrical silliness in the second, subverting the intelligent mockery for obvious gags.

Aside from a rather oddly dramatic preface during the opening credits, Ordinary People begins in promising fashion as director Kim explores the insanity within the mundane tasks bestowed upon the middle-aged Korean office worker. Using central protagonist Jae-pil as a cypher, he piles on the absurd stresses such employees endure with an impressively dark and often subtle wit, balancing the tone well between realism and farce as Jae-pil is pushed to breaking point. The title perfectly reflects director Kim’s brand of humour – these characters and events are indeed ‘ordinary’ in the lives of many Koreans yet there is a comedic ridiculousness to it all that he works hard to emphasise.

Jae-pil is told to 'massage' some figures for his company

Jae-pil is told to ‘massage’ some figures for his company

However, just as with this year’s other darkly satirical film (and Jeonju Film Festival winner) Alice in Earnestland, Ordinary People takes an ill-advised turn at the halfway mark. Through a misunderstanding in an apparent murder case Jae-pil is considered a suspect, from which the events and characters all suddenly descend into farcical comedy the likes of which wouldn’t be out of place on a Korean ‘gag concert’ TV show. The dry and ironic humour of the first hour comes undone as the Jae-pil’s situation comes increasingly ludicrous and the acting evermore theatrical, culminating in the eye-rolling introduction of colourful chubby gangster trio the Bear Brothers. Director Kim is certainly aware as his protagonists recount how bizarre the events have become, yet it continues to escalate until the film reaches its overly long conclusion with trite melodrama.

While the introduction to the characters and their relationships are in need of tightening, both Jae-pil and his sister are great devices through which to explore the stresses of contemporary Koreans. Jae-pil is a likeable protagonist and one who the audience genuinely want to succeed despite his occasionally frustrating whiny impotence to his problems. His sister, however, is largely pushed to the margins of the story, a real missed opportunity as her role as an intelligent journalist who quit due to marriage could have provided further great ironic satire from a female perspective, as well as offered a fun counterpoint to Jae-pil’s misadventures.

The situation escalates when Jae-pil finds himself in trouble with the law

The situation escalates when Jae-pil finds himself in trouble with the law

Verdict:

Director Kim Byung-june’s Ordinary People begins in darkly satirical fashion through ironic jokes at an average salaryman’s expense, yet following such a promising opening the film missteps into absurd theatrical comedy at the halfway point before ending with trite melodrama. Yet the potential displayed in the first half means Kim’s future films are ones to watch out for.

★★☆☆☆

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

Twenty (스물) – ★★☆☆☆

Twenty (스물)

Twenty (스물)

Following their high school graduation three best friends must decide on their paths in life. Studious Kyeong-jae (Kang Ha-neul (강하늘) opts to attend a respectable university, where he quickly falls for the charms of senior Jin-joo (Min Hyo-rin (민효린); poverty-stricken artist wannabe Dong-woo (Junho (준호) decides to retake his final year, becoming close to Kyeong-jae’s sister So-hee (Lee Yoo-bi (이유비); while handsome-yet-stupid Chi-ho (Kim Woo-bin (김우빈) is aimless until meeting actress Eun-hye (Jung Joo-yeon (정주연) despite already dating So-min (Jeong So-min (정소민). The one thing they all agree upon however is they all want sex, and lots of it.

Now twenty, the horny trio are forced to choose a path

Now twenty, the horny trio are forced to choose a path

Surprisingly entertaining and often laugh-out-loud funny, Twenty is an enjoyable comedy by director Lee Byeong-hun. As a youthful sex comedy the film is an undoubtedly silly affair and has little substance, yet it has enough quips and gags to ensure that it’s an amusing viewing experience.

One of great pitfalls of youth-sex comedies is the objectification of women through the lustful gazes of cliched lustful male protagonists, and director Lee Byeong-hun wisely sidesteps such eye-rolling banality. While the three friends initially occupy stereotypical roles and take predictably alternative routes after graduation accordingly, the characterisation later becomes more fluid and develops as the narrative progresses. Furthermore, rather than have the camera fetishise their love interests to generate laughs, many of the jokes are derived from the trio’s stupidity and naivety in both love and adulthood. Indeed, the females are often far more mature and intellectually superior compared to their male counterparts, with their especially frank attitudes towards sex and masturbation offering some of the film’s best jokes. Although twenty years old, in many ways Chi-ho, Kyeong-jae and Dong-woo are still boys and as such the gags come thick and fast at their expense.

Chi-ho discovers what life is like without an allowance

Chi-ho discovers what life is like without an allowance

The narrative also eschews any coming-of-age morality from the proceedings which makes the film a little vacuous, yet director Lee manages to allude to, and poke fun at, many of the features of modern Korean life. As with his previous film Cheer Up Mr. Lee, the helmer/scribe produces jokes from the ridiculous situations that arise on film sets, though isn’t afraid to highlight the darker areas of ‘sponsors’ (aka ‘sugar daddies’). The manner in which young people seem to record everything seeming by instinct, especially in university rites of passage, is a fun dig at youth culture, while bittersweet jokes are also garnered from financial hardship.

Twenty loses its way as it enters the final act, as director Lee appears unsure of how to end his tale of boyhood silliness, which culminates in some contrived pairings and a rather random confrontation with some local gangsters. It’s all laughably farcical and slapstick, though does continue for too long and hints that some more stringent editing could have been employed, yet it’s nevertheless an entertaining and enjoyable experience, and in a time when so many productions emerging from the industry are so dark, Twenty is a refreshing change.

The trio find their friendship renewed despite odd circumstances

The trio find their friendship renewed despite odd circumstances

Verdict:

Director Lee Byeong-hun’s youth-sex comedy Twenty is a surprisingly enjoyable affair, particularly as the helmer/scribe steers away from cliches and objectification to generate laughs from the silliness and naivety of young men. It’s farcical and contains little substance, but as the gags continue to roll Twenty is a consistently fun, lighthearted, and one of the more successful Korean comedies in quite some time.

★★☆☆☆

Reviews

Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은맞고그때는틀리다) – ★★★★☆

Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은맞고그때는틀리다)

Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은맞고그때는틀리다)

Arriving in Suwon City a day earlier than scheduled, film director Chunsoo (Jung Jaeyoung (정재영) bides his time by wandering around the local landmarks. By chance, he runs into pretty artist Heejung (Kim Minhee (김민희) and persuades her to join him for a cup of coffee. As the two spend the day together conversing awkwardly over meals and drinks, Chunsoo and Heejung become closer.

Then, events play out again with Chunsoo’s more gentlemanly manner and Heejung’s greater sense of independence arousing slight variations in their burgeoning relationship.

Director Cheon-soo persuades artist Hee-jeong to have coffee

Director Chunsoo persuades artist Heejung to have coffee

Undeniably charming and beautifully told, director Hong Sangsoo‘s Right Now, Wrong Then is a genuine delight. The stirringly sensitive drama is the kind of story only the acclaimed auteur could produce, capturing the endearing awkwardness of human interaction with keen insight and is wholly deserving of its accolades – namely the Golden Leopard (Best Film) and Best Actor for Jung Jaeyoung at its premiere in Locarno International Film Festival, with more undoubtedly to follow.

It’s become almost a cliche in itself to point out director Hong’s interest in capturing the subtleties of human interaction, the awkward clumsiness of smart men over confident women, of repeating scenarios with slight adjustments in characterisation that result in rather different outcomes, but as he does it so insightfully it’s hard not to constantly acknowledge his deft skill in such areas. With Right Now, Wrong Then director Hong wonderfully succeeds in capturing the beauty of such moments with an endearing humour and grace that is captivating, conveying a palpable charm that was somewhat lacking in his prior effort Hill of Freedom.

Right Now, Wrong Then is in fact two films in one, and much of its pleasure is derived from juxtaposing both stories. In the first installment, film director Chunsoo is shy, secretive, and akin to a wannabe philanderer; in the second he is a shade more confident, honest and direct. The differences that arise through his interactions with artist Heejung, who is shy and passive in the first tale before later becoming more independent and assured, are subtle yet profound as conversations take alternate trajectories that greatly effect them both, resulting in radically different outcomes for their relationship.

Hee-jeong and Cheon-soo drink and converse as they grow closer

Heejung and Chunsoo drink and converse as they grow closer

In lesser hands such simple tales of strangers meeting would be mildly entertaining, yet actors Jung Jaeyoung and Kim Minhee fulfil the roles with astonishing nuance and depth, propelling the drama into one of the best K-films of the year. Jung, who previously worked with director Hong in Our Sunhi, excels as the sensitive Chunsoo by conveying the character’s social ineptitude wonderfully with awkward mannerisms and speech, while also managing to capture a unique sense of charisma with his forthright honesty later in the film. It’s clear why Jeong was the recipient of the Best Actor award at Locarno and he’s sure to add further trophies to his cabinet as Right Now, Wrong Then screens at more international festivals.

As Heejung, Kim Minhee is absolutely captivating. Her performance is unquestionably deserving of high praise and accolades. Her facial expressions and quirks, particularly during some of the film’s pivotal and revelatory scenes, contain so much palpable emotion that they resonate long after the credits have rolled. With Right Here, Wrong Then, and with her upcoming turn in Park Chan-wook‘s Fingersmith, Kim Minhee looks set to become one of the K-Film industry’s most sought after actresses.

The subtle differences in characterisation result in alternative outcomes

The subtle differences in characterisation result in alternative outcomes

Verdict:

Director Hong Sangsoo’s Right Now, Wrong Then is a charismatic, endearing tale of burgeoning relationships only the celebrated auteur is capable of telling. Wonderfully subtle, insightful, and humorous, the drama is a heartwarming tale of human interaction and the possibilities of tender new emotional experiences.

★★★★☆

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