The Countdown to Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Okja’ Begins

Director Bong Joon-ho‘s Okja (옥자) is almost upon us. The highly anticipated science-fiction/drama is set to premiere In Competition at the Cannes Int. Film Festival on May 19th, before appearing on Korean cinema screens around June 28th – and across the world, thanks to Netflix.

The film tells the story of Korean youngster Mija and her best friend, the enormous hippo-esque animal Okja, who have lived peacefully in the mountains for the last 10 years. Yet when the Mirando Corporation abducts Okja to New York for their own nefarious schemes, Mija embarks on a quest to save her friend and bring her home.

Director Bong is no stranger to films of this nature, having helmed monster movie The Host and exploring the dark side of capitalism in Snowpiercer, however Okja looks set to be an altogether new animal. In recent interviews, director Bong has stated that, “Netflix guaranteed my complete freedom in terms of putting together my team and the final cut privilege, which only godlike filmmakers such as Spielberg get” (Sonia GilVariety). Such a statement is a cause for celebration, as well as – perhaps unintentionally – eluding to the difficulties director Bong had with The Weinstein Company for the final cut of Snowpiercer.

Okja has also courted controversy due to the Cannes Film Festival rules regarding theatrical distribution. French exhibitors are angry that certain films, particularly those from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, are not bound by the strict theatrical release rules that exits in France, prompting the festival to alter requirements for selected works from 2018. However at a press conference in Seoul director Bong and Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarados did not seem to mind the controversy, with director Bong stating, “I anticipate even more explosive talk about the film’s story itself,” he said, noting it could be seen as political satire, but also “my first love story – between a girl and an animal” and how we live with animals “as friends and family, and as food.” (Jean Noh; Screen Daily).

Film News

Top 10 Korean Films of 2016

Slightly later than originally intended (!), Hanguk Yeonghwa’s analysis of Korean cinema in 2016 is finally here.

2016 was quite a year for K-cinema, and a noticeable improvement over 2015 in terms of consistency and quality. This was largely due to the return of celebrated auteurs Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon and Na Hong-jin in the mainstream, while in the ever-reliable independent realm a selection of poignant and lovingly crafted films were released to much acclaim.

The release of such tentpole genre offerings meant that, ‘South Korean film industry exports increased by 82% to total $101m in 2016, according to an analysis report from the Korean Film Council (KOFIC)’ (Jean Noh; Screen Daily).

However while there were certainly events to celebrate, the K-film industry still suffered from the same criticisms that have been circulating for the past few years. Despite the increase in production values, the narratives are often formulaic and repetitive, resulting in, ‘Movie audiences have dwindled for the first time in seven years […] [o]nly one Korean film, the zombie extravaganza “Train to Busan,” managed to draw more than 10 million viewers’ (Lee Tae-hoon; The Chosun Ilbo).

From the Korean Film Council’s ‘Korean Film Report 2016’

The Korean film industry was also rocked by the news, ‘over allegations that [former] president Park Geun-hye’s office created a blacklist of artists to be denied government support’ (Jean Noh; Screen Daily), which ‘contained some of South Korea’s most beloved filmmakers, actors and writers, including the director of “Oldboy,” Park Chan-wook, and the “Snowpiercer” actor Song Kang-ho’ (Choe Sang-hun; The New York Times).

As such, 2016 has been a particularly tumultuous year for the Korean cinema industry, yet for film fans there was much to enjoy. Here are Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Top Ten Korean Films of 2016 – click on the link to begin.

Top 10 Films of 2016 – IntroNo. 10~6No. 5~2No. 1


Top 10 Korean Films of 2015

Top 10 Korean Films of 2014 – Most Memorable Moments of 2014

Top 10 Korean Films of 2013 – Most Memorable Moments of 2013

Film News

Q&A with actor turned director Nam Yeon-woo: “I Feel Alive When I’m Directing”

Actor/director Nam Yeon-woo

Actor/director Nam Yeon-woo

As the feature directorial debut of actor Nam Yeon-woo, Lost to Shame premiered at last year’s Busan International Film Festival and I honestly can say it was among my favorites in 2016 along with Our Love Story (dir. LEE Hyun-ju), The World of Us (dir. Yoon Ga-eun) and Worst Woman (dir. Kim Jong-kwan). It proved ones again (just as the rest of the above mentioned movies) that even without a gigantic budget a good film can be made – as long as you have a well written story, a good ensemble cast and a director with vision. It was a breath of fresh air among the numerous Korean blockbusters lately, which despite the millions invested in them and the starry cast, failed to engage and move me.

The strongest point of Lost to Shame is its very human story. I believe many people might identify themselves with the main character – a heterosexual young man who gets confronted with the world of the LGBT community and finds out that overcoming his prejudice is easier said than done.

Fans of Korean independent cinema know best Nam Yeon-woo from his acclaimed performance in the 2013’s movie Fatal (dir. by Lee Don-ku). This time he not only directed and produced Lost too Shame, but also wrote the script and was in the leading role. The movie already has 2 awards under its belt: the audience prize at the Seoul Pride Film Festival and the New Choice Award at the Seoul Independent Film Festival.

The story: Song-jun is an unknown actor who often has to borrow money from his brother to get by. One day Song-jun is cast as the lead in a famous play about homosexuality and has to portray a transgender. While trying to improve his acting, he enters the LGBT community. But just when he thinks he’s come to understand homosexual love, a shocking revelation shakes him.

In Lost to Shame you are not only in front of the camera as an actor but also behind it – as director. Why?

– The main reason for me also to direct is the type of roles and stories I want to experiment with. Since for now I don’t have that many scripts sent to me as an actor, I just decided to write the part I wanted to play and about a subject that’s important to me.

Entering the LGBT community unveils a new world for Song-jun

Entering the LGBT community unveils a new world for Song-jun

Did it feel different from being purely an actor in a film?

– When I am only acting, I concentrate on my role, I get ready only for that. But here there were so many things to think of, to prepare, to take care of, that sometimes I felt lost. Honestly, it was hard, very hard. Since the budget was really small, sometimes we had to shoot up to 10 scenes a day! So now when I look back, there are things that I as an actor regret for not having done better.

But in the end did you like directing a feature film?

– Yes. This feeling of seeing what you have imagined coming to reality… it’s amazing. When I direct I kind of feel alive!

How did you come up with the idea about this film?

– One night I was out with friends. The people sitting at the table next to us started discussing homosexuality. Everybody was like, “It is OK to be gay”, “I have no problem with it”, “I understand those people”… and then one person said that according to him being gay is just not right. All of a sudden the atmosphere changed.

At first I didn’t pay much attention to this conversation but then on my way home I started thinking about it. It got stuck into my head: Do people who say they understand really understand?

Since you yourself are a heterosexual man, did you research LGBT issues while getting ready for the film?

– For sure. I was worried to portray the LGBT characters in an over-the-top way or as caricatures. I wanted their portrayal to be as realistic as possible so when I finished the script I gave it to gay and transgender friends to give me feedback. They would also come while I was doing the casting and then rehearsing and shooting – they would watch for the actors not to exaggerate, to be authentic in terms of way of talking and gestures.

The actor who plays the role of a transgender even lived for one month with a transgender person.

In portraying a transgendered protagonist, Song-jun experiences revelations

None of the actors are part of the LGBT community in real life

Why didn’t you cast a transgender actor?

– For me as an actor changing myself, transitioning to somebody I am not means acting. So since I really wanted to see this kind of complete change I chose an actor who is as far from the image of a transgender person as you can think. Besides if I would have casted real LGBT people I wouldn’t have known what kind of directions to give to them as a director.

What was the reaction from the LGBT community after they saw the film?

– Even before completing the movie, when people from the LGBT community read the script, they said that it is a good story, with something new in it. Usually LGBT-themed movies talk about the love that is not meant to be, the Romeo-and-Juliet kind of love. But Lost to Shame is different from them. Do you know the director Kim Jho Gwang-soo?

Yes – he is one of the few openly gay Korean film directors and a renowned LGBT rights activist.

– Exactly. We showed the film to him and he said that as many people as possible should see it. So he even recommended it to the Seoul Pride Film Festival where we received the audience prize.

Song-jun reflects on his life-changing role

Song-jun just before taking to the stage

When you think of the film’s main character, do you share his opinion? He gets confronted with the LGBT community in unexpected ways.

– He is definitely not the same as me, that’s for sure. But honestly, before writing the script me too I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the LGBT issues – whether I understand the queer community or not. But when I started writing, I watched a lot of documentaries, met many gay and transgender people and I think I started to understand them. Or actually rather than understanding them, I got to know them.

What was the most difficult thing while shooting the movie?

– The lack of money. (He laughs but then becomes serious again:) No, really – since we didn’t have enough money we had to shoot so many scenes per day!

And one more thing bothered me: lots of friends came to help me. And while trying to help me, they would try and talk to me, give me their opinion or advice about stuff. But since I had to do like million things simultaneously, there were times when I didn’t give them the attention they deserved – I kind of ignored them while I should have answered to them regardless of whether I agreed with what they said or not. So in the evening on my way home, after wrapping up for the day, I would think “Why did I treat them like that? Why did I hurt those people who just wanted to help me?” That was the most difficult thing to me.

There is a scene in the movie where we see a theater full of people! How did you organize this?

– It was a miracle. A pure miracle. Paying extras was way over our budget so some 10 days before shooting the scene me and the crew members started calling all the people we know. We would explain to them about the movie and ask if they could come, if they could bring friends along…

The day we had to shoot the scene happened to be the coldest day in January last year. Not only this but it was also snowing AND it was a Monday. The thing is the only day we could book the theater was on Monday when it’s closed. So basically till the last minute we didn’t know how many people would come… if anybody would come at all!!!

And then I stepped out on the stage and saw the theater full with people! I cried… And all my friends who helped this to happen cried too! I am so grateful to all of them.

Song-jun takes to stage

Bringing a real audience for this scene was a pure miracle for director Nam

So what’s next for you?

– Well, I am working on another feature-length script. But in the meantime I am wondering whether or not to shoot a short film…and of course I am looking at different scripts as an actor.

At last year’s Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival I saw a film you were in a supporting role: The Cabinet of Francis. Although it was a feature it was a film made by university students. Was it hard during the shoot?

– It was, but as long as a role matches my acting style, I am open to any kind of projects. Besides the actor in the leading role was my classmate from the university and he asked me to help. So after reading the script I thought it would be interesting to act together with him in such a project. And we were shooting in Jeju-do – I really, really like it there!

Lost to Shame will screen nationwide throughout Korea in September 2017.

Furthermore, Lost to Shame will screen with a Q&A at Seoul Art Cinema on February 26th.

Directors Film News Interviews/Q&As

Interview with Kevin Lambert, director of Korea International Expat Film Festival (KIXFF)

All logos-10

We are just one week away from the start of the 2nd Korea International Expat Film Festival (KIXFF).  Festival director Kevin Lambert took some time from his busy schedule to answer questions about the festival which is going to run from next Friday, September 9th till Sunday, September 11th in Seoul. All movies will feature Korean and English subtitles.

KIXFF director Kevin Lambert

KIXFF director Kevin Lambert

Kevin, what films can the audience expect from the 2nd KIXFF?

We have 39 films, representing more than 15 different languages and more than 15 countries: USA, Great Britain, Spain, Ecuador, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Korea… However I think this year thematically the festival is a bit more exact. We were able to focus more on expat issues and really high quality low-budget films.

Last year the “I” in the KIXFF was for “indie”. This year you changed it to “international”. But still the “X” in the name remains for “expat”. Can you tell us more about your understanding about the term “expat”?

“Expat” is a noun that lots of Koreans are not familiar with. It is short for “expatriate” which means pretty much anyone who is living outside of their home country. For most foreigners this term can be a bit jaded so some of them might not necessarily relate to it. I think it is because in the West there is this concept that expat only applies only to people from 1st World countries, in better situations and it doesn’t include migrant workers, victims of war or refugees, it doesn’t include people who move for work out of necessity or who move because of marriage. But I want to emphasize we want all of these issues to be relevant and present in our expat section – whether it’s issues of Islamic identity, of traveling to study languages, whether it’s about first generation children of migrant families.

Tell us more about the expats in Korea. I know that there is a quite big community of expat filmmakers here.

Yes, there are a lot of foreigners here in Korea making film. A lot of them have been here as long as 10 years sort of slowly nurturing their careers. I remember back in 2010, when I started doing films again, I discovered a small community. Our small community grew and started making amateur films. Those amateur films would continue one after the other till eventually we were producing very high quality work. And now many of those amateurs have gone on to work professionally here and abroad.

All logos-08So basically the expat filmmakers’ community in Korea is a true incubator of talent?


Would you say that those people are still kind of isolated from the local film industry?

I think foreigners are making inroads into the Korean film community, but it happens a bit slowly. The biggest hurdle is obviously language. So filmmakers that can bridge that language gap and have talent could make great inroads. Because there is a lot of opportunity out there!

So do you think that coming to the festival would be a good opportunity for networking for those Korea-based expat filmmakers? In terms of being introduced to the local film community?

Yes, absolutely. While coming to KIXFF is not going to send you straight to the Korean industry, the connections you make locally, will allow you to grow as a filmmaker and will put you in the right position when you are ready to make inroads into the Korean film community.

Who do you expect to come this year to the festival considering your experience from 2015?

In some ways there’s going to be the regular cast of characters – mainly foreigners, but I am also expecting to see a lot of new faces: This year, as all the films will be subtitled, I believe there’s going to be a larger outreach to Korean moviegoers. I feel that we did also a really good job of including as many local filmmakers as we could and there are more filmmakers traveling in from abroad for this festival. Of course we are trying also to have representatives of the Korean film industry but still their number is small. But we are a young festival and there is plenty of room to.

Emu Art Space

Emu Art Space

Tell us more about the venues and dates.

I am really happy about the venues this year. On the 9th of September we are using EMU Art Cinema – a lovely small intimate cinema near Gwanghwamun, for our opening ceremony. Also the after-party will be downstairs in the same building. And then on the 10th and 11th we have two whole days of both indoor and outdoor screenings at the Deutsche Schule in Hannam-dong. It puts everybody in the same place – there’ll be food trucks and beer, and wine, and lots of fun so it should be a blast.

Screening schedule and online ticket booking on:

Prices: Opening Night (Ceremony, Local expat shorts screening and after party) 15,000 won at the door / 12,000 online

Regular screenings – 10,000 won at the door / 8,000 won online

All access pass – 100 000 won (for all events).

Additionally Saturday and Sunday there will be free screenings – for more information refer to the official website of the festival.

Screening venues:

EMU Art Cinema (Opening Night on September 9th) – 종로구 경희궁1가 길 7, 110-062 서울특별시 –

Deutsche Schule (All events on September 10th and 11th) – 서울특별시 용산구 독서당로 123-6

Festival News Interviews/Q&As Korean Film Festivals 2016

Bucheon Fantastic Film Festival 2016 – Hot Picks

BiFan 2016The Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan) is preparing for a spectacular 20th anniversary edition. Running for 10 days from July 21st ~31st, and under new management in the form of newly appointment festival director Choi Yongbae (producer of The Host, 26 Years, and more), BiFan’s lineup looks stronger than ever. With a host of new programs alongside the mainstay Bucheon Choice competition category, including tributes to the late David Bowie and Japanese film maestro Nakashoma Tetsuya, as well as 20 Years, 20 Favorites (popular genre films) and Best of Asia (3 recently acclaimed films from East Asian countries), BiFan 2016 looks set to be an incredible filmic extravaganza.

Amongst the score of great international titles to be screened are some quality Korean films that are sure to delight cineastes and casual cinema-goers alike. Here are Hanguk Yeonghwa’s top 5 Korean picks for BiFan 2016.

Seoul Station (서울역)

Seoul Station

Seoul Station

Closing BiFan will be director Yeon Sang-ho’s animated horror Seoul Station. The prequel to the acclaimed Train To Busan (which premiered at Cannes and is also released on July 20th in Korea), Seoul Station depicts a zombie outbreak that occurs in the Korean capital and the horrific fallout as the locals try to survive. Director Yeon previously helmed The Fake and King of Pigs, both of which contained dark social critiques of contemporary Korean culture laced throughout their respective narratives, and Seoul Station looks set to do the same with the themes of zombification and fear.

 The Wailing (곡성)

The Wailing

The Wailing

Director Na Hong-jin’s return to cinema screens has been heralded by many as the best Korean film in years and a return to form for the thriller genre. Such mighty praise is supported by the rapturous reception the film received at its premiere in Cannes as well as grossing over $48 million at the Korean box office. The film centres around the bizarre goings-on in a remote village in Gokseong, where a series of macabre events stun the local populace. This will be the first time The Wailing will play with English subtitles in Korea, and is an absolute must-see.

Inside Men (내부자들)

Inside Men

Inside Men

Gangster noir Inside Men was a surprise sleeper hit last year at the Korean box office, so much so that a 3 hour director’s cut was released around the same time to much acclaim. The film is also a welcome return to form for superstar Lee Byung-hun, who plays a criminal enforcing the will of media moguls and politicians – until he is ruthlessly betrayed and returns seeking revenge.

Karaoke Crazies (중독노래방)

Karaoke Crazies

Karaoke Crazies

Director Kim Sang-chan’s zany genre miss-mash about a karaoke bar striving for success has already been quite prolific on the international festival circuit, having premiered at SXSW before screening at Toronto, Edinburgh, and many more. Wacky, eccentric and colourful, Karaoke Crazies is one of those rare offerings that is guaranteed to have audiences talking.

Who Killed Kim Kwang-seok? (일어나, 김광석)

Who Killed Kim Kwang-seok?

Who Killed Kim Kwang-seok?

Legendary folk singer and activist Kim Kwang-seok tragically committed suicide in 1996…or did he? Director Lee Sang-ho (The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol) explores the controversies and conspiracies surrounding the great musician in his latest documentary.

Best of the Rest

Veteran (베테랑)

Veteran (베테랑)

Assassination (암살)

Assassination (암살)

Bedevilled (김복남 살인사건의 전말)

Bedevilled (김복남 살인사건의 전말)

Save the Green Planet (지구를 지켜라!)

Save the Green Planet (지구를 지켜라!)

The Chaser (추격자)

The Chaser (추격자)

Insane (날,보러와요)

Insane (날,보러와요)

Thanks to new program Best of Asia, audiences will have a chance to see recent Korean hits Veteran and Assassination, both of which featured in our Top Ten of 2015. Meanwhile 20 Years, 20 Favourites presents 3 classic Korean films in the form of Bedevilled, Save the Green Planet, and The Chaser, all of which are highly recommended. Rounding out the selection here is thriller Insane which performed well upon release earlier this year.

For more information, including screening schedules and the full line-up of titles to be screened, please head over to the official BiFan website here.

Festival News Korean Film Festivals 2016

Q&A: director Jero Yun on documentary Mrs. B. A North Korean Woman

Director Jero Yun

Director Jero Yun

The 2016 Jeonju International Film Festival had a much more inclusive attitude towards indie documentary films for its 17th edition, with the festival committee going as far as creating a special Documentary Award – alongside a 10 million won prize – for the best doc screened within the Korean Competition and Korean Cinemascape categories, respectively.

One of the films that competed for the award, and also part of the Korean Competition section, was Mrs. B. A North Korean Woman by the Busan-born yet France-graduated director Jero Yun. It took him 4 years to complete this co-production between France and South Korea, which introduces audiences to a unique woman: Mrs. B., who ran away from North Korea to China with the help of illegal traffickers. While living with her new Chinese farmer husband Mrs. B. also became a drug and human trafficker in order to earn money for her North Korean family. The film begins when she decides to travel from a small Chinese village to Seoul, presenting her fight not only for survival but also for love and happiness.

The film was screened also during this year’s Cannes Film Festival in the ACID sidebar.

Escaping from North Korea to China, Mrs. B attempts to start a new life

Escaping from North Korea to China, Mrs. B attempts to start a new life

Who is Mrs. B.?

Mrs. B. is a woman I met 3 years ago in China. Back then I was doing a research for another project of mine connected with North Korean refugees. I have been working on this topic and meeting various people for more than 5 years now. Mrs. B. who back then was smuggling North Koreans into China introduced me to a lot of them so that I can make interviews. But as time went by I started thinking of making a film about her and she slowly became the protagonist of the current movie.

When one reads the synopsis of the film one may wonder how it is possible for Mrs. B. to have 2 families at the same time – one in North Korea and one in China…

It is possible. Usually the North Korean female refugees get sold to Chinese families after they escape North Korea. For around a year they must stay with the family in order to pay back the money paid by this family to the smugglers. After paying back those women look for a way to go to South Korea. But Mrs. B.’s case was different: she stayed with her new Chinese family for 9 years while her 2 sons and husband were still in North Korea.

How did she become a smuggler?

At the beginning she wasn’t a smuggler. She was just another refugee who wanted to stay just 1 year, earn money and then go back to North Korea to take care of her family. But as time passed by she decided to stay with her Chinese family because her Chinese husband was a very kind, a very gentle man. But since she also wanted to save her North Korean family, she became a smuggler to earn more money. Several years later she managed to organize everything for them to escape to South Korea.

After marrying a Chinese farmer, Mrs. B resorts to trafficking to earn money

After marrying a Chinese farmer, Mrs. B resorts to trafficking to earn money

The movie starts with her getting ready to join them in South Korea, right?

When I met her, she was about to leave for South Korea, yes. But although she wanted to go to Seoul, she didn’t want to live with her North Korean family but with her Chinese husband. Her dream back then, 3 years ago, was to get an apartment with her Chinese husband and live close to her sons and their father but not with them. Because she felt… well, not love, but something close to real friendship and partnership for the Chinese man.

In the film there is footage of you following Mrs. B. and other North Korean refugees on the long way from China to Laos as a roundabout way to South Korea. How did you get this amazing footage?

When Mrs. B. told me that she was leaving China to get to South Korea, I realized that once she leaves, she won’t be back. And I asked her whether I can go with her. She agreed.

But that might have been dangerous…

She told me: “Don’t worry. I will be with you and I will protect you.” At that moment I didn’t have a professional camera – I only had my phone and a small camera. So the whole footage you saw during the long bus ride through China down to Laos was taken with them. Everything was improvising. Because I really didn’t know it can become a movie, I wasn’t prepared for what happened.

Mrs. B. has led a tumultuous life

Mrs. B’s tumultuous situation takes her through several countries in her quest for peace

Were you scared at some point?

Of course. There were times when we couldn’t eat or had to walk on foot for hours. Or we had to change different cars and buses. We were going from one smuggler’s area to another one’s. So we never knew how good they will take care of us.

Did the other North Korean refugees in the group know who you are?

Mrs. B. introduced me to them as a South Korean filmmaker. I didn’t want to lie to them so they knew I had a camera and what I was doing. At first they didn’t trust me and I also wasn’t taking any pictures nor videos. But since I was with Mrs. B. and we spent so much time together on this long trip, I gained their trust.

And where is Mrs. B. now?

She is still here, in South Korea. But now she doesn’t want to be neither with her North Korean husband, nor Chinese husband…

17th Jeonju International Film Festival (제17회 전주국제영화제) Directors Festival News Interviews/Q&As Korean Film Festivals 2016

 Q&A: Korean-American director Andrew Ahn on feature debut SPA Night

Director Andrew Ahn

Director Andrew Ahn

During the 2016 17th Jeonju International Film Festival, the young Korean-American director Andrew Ahn came to his parents home country for the 1st time in order to present his feature debut SPA NIGHT. The movie, included in the World Cinemascape section of the fest, was shot in LA but its dialogue is almost 70% in Korean.

It is the story of a young Korean-American boy named David who tries to cope with his parents’ expectations towards his future as well as his own struggles regarding his homosexuality. After his parents are forced to close the restaurant they have been running for years, and lead by his desire to help them financially, David gets a part-time job at a jjimjilbang (spa) in Korea town in LA. He soon discovers that the place is not only used as a traditional sauna but also as a place for gay men from different nationalities to meet each other and make love. After witnessing the love play David realizes his own homosexuality, but with his parent fixated on his future success he is at a dead-end.

Andrew, how much of the story in SPA Night relates to your personal story?

A lot. It is almost as having a different version of my life because a lot of the same fears and anxieties that David goes through in the film are the fears and anxieties I had while growing up. So despite the differences – like I am not an only child compared to David, I went to college, I think emotionally it is a very personal movie.

I cannot help myself asking you about the idea for the SPA as a place to hook-up…

So the SPA… (laughs) I was out to have drinks with some gay friends and one of them told me he had a hot hook-up with a guy in a steam room in a Korean SPA in LA. When I heard that such a family-oriented space is being used for hooking up in the gay community I freaked out but… it was also kind of sexy. That was why I really wanted to make a film about it: it felt like a really perfect meeting point of my gay and my Korean identity.

Traditionally a family space, David soon discovers a sub-culture within the spa

Traditionally a family space, David soon discovers a sub-culture within the spa

How did it feel to show SPA Night to a Korean audience for the 1st time during the Jeonju Film Festival?

It was really special in a lot of ways. The film is so much about the sacrifices that Korean emigrants make in order to have a family in a country different from Korea. And so to be in Korea, and to see the country that my parents sacrificed to have me in America is really emotional. But you know, while I have been here I kind of have seen also the other side of the story: it wasn’t just my parents who sacrificed something, it was also their family here, in Korea, who sacrificed losing their sons and daughters, their brothers and sisters to the US. And so for me showing the film here was a little bit like me telling that family or the Korean audiences in general that we are working really hard to make their sacrifice worth it too.

SPA Night went to the Screenwriters Lab of Sundance film festival and was screened there. Was the audience’s reaction in Korea different from the one in the US?

In general there were more questions in Jeonju as opposed to festivals in the States, there were also more questions about the immigrant experience. In the US the questions were much more about the individual and the growing and trying to reconcile one’s different identities.

Also when I was in Sundance all the gay press that I talked to was so interested in the cruising and the hooking up, the sexuality elements of the film. But also here in Korea the queer Korean people who have come to watch the movie were really interested in the sexuality elements as well. So I think in general it is very true that the Korean audiences are really hooked to the family story but still I think it depends person by person.

And at Sundance SPA Night was part of the US dramatic competition, right?

Yes. It was awesome: a US festival recognized as American a movie that doesn’t have white actors and with dialogue mostly not in English. And the audiences were really receptive – people came up to me telling me about how they connected to the characters even if they weren’t queer or they weren’t Korean-American.

It’s maybe because most people have had an experience where they faced their parents and told them “I don’t want to be a doctor as you want me to be”…

Yes (laughs). I think it is a very universal story – the story about finding yourself. Obviously it develops within a very specific context but that’s the cool thing about film: we are all human beings and we can sympathize with each other.

How did you find your own way?

Actually when I went to college I studied biology because… I was gonna be a doctor (laugh). I was going to be a good Korean boy and become a doctor. But in college I realized that even though I was doing well in my biology classes, it wasn’t something I was passionate about. And I didn’t want to be a dispassionate doctor. So I started taking film classes. I didn’t major in film because it was too much work but it was enough to get me a taste. After I graduated college I went to CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) for grad school. It was there that I slowly started to bind my personal development in terms of coming out as a gay man with my creative development as a filmmaker. It was fulfilling to me, I enjoyed doing that work. And so that level of satisfaction carried me all the way through today and will continue to.

The spa forces David to confront his identity

The spa forces David to confront his identity

How did your parents react when you came out?

I came out to my parents in 2011 and this is kind of the dirty little secret about my second short film (the one I did before SPA Night): I casted my own family in the film without telling them what the movie was about. And it was about a gay Korean-American man. I showed them the film to come out to them.

Seen that my filmmaking is tied to my sexuality, I think they are really happy that I found a lot of success with what I am doing so far. Personally they are very accepting of who I am but when it comes to especially Korean-American or Korean audiences, they get a little scared. But still I think they have the confidence in me that I am able to deal with any kind of resistance or criticism.

So it is a happy ending for you?

In a lot of ways – yes. In terms of my personal life and emotionally I am in a very good place. And I think it is because I am healthy with it that I am able to make these movies where I kind of look back at the darker, harder, more complicated moments. I really do hope that audiences see the movie and tell to themselves that yes, this characters are going through hard times but there’s always going be a sense of hopefulness and of looking forward to the future.

I still find it hard to believe that this is your first time in Korea after 22 years…

Yes. Now I am 30 years old and I came here for the last time when I was 8. It is totally different: the food that I remember, the landscape I remember… It is almost as if I had never been here before. And you know, I think my Korean when I was 8 years old was better than my Korean now.

So back home – in the States, you don’t speak Korean that much?

I don’t. I speak Korean with my family, with my parents but it is pretty limited like: 언제 먹어? (When are we eating) 빨리 가자 (Let’s go). A lot of my friends who are 2nd generation Korean Americans speak English to each other. They might drop a few words here and there but they are like 건배 (Cheers!). But it depends: some Korean Americans speak a lot more – we have a lot of 1.5 generation where people grew up in Korea as kids and then moved to LA when they were in their teens. And that’s what I find really fascinating about SPA Night: you see the different generations of emigrants.

How did you manage to have a completely Korean cast?

The casting was really tricky. One obstacle was just finding Korean-American actors: there are a lot of Korean people in LA and you think there would be more actors but there are not since there is not enough roles or the roles are really demeaning and kind of racist. People were giving me advice to cast a Japanese or a Chinese actor who could speak Korean with an accent. But for me that was the worst idea I had ever heard – I really wanted the movie to feel authentic and part of that authenticity is the language.

The other issue was the subject matter that we were dealing with – queer issues. I think it made some people uncomfortable. I really liked one young actor who auditioned for the role of David but he told me his mom really didn’t approve of the content of the film. She had said to him that if he’d took the part he would have to go to Korea and go into hiding.

But in the end we found the best actors for the respective part. Like Mrs Baek, the pushy church woman and the SPA manager, they are non actors – they are just friends of my parents who acted a long time ago but afterwards they’ve had families and run businesses. We were able to kind of rope them in and they were very happy to go back to acting for a little bit.

What about the actors who play David’s mother and father – they actually live in Korea, right?

Yes. Haerry Kim who plays the mother acted in a Korean American film called West 32nd. She did it when she was living in New York. I went through the cast list for that movie, saw her headshot and I thought she might be around the right age for the part. And so we tried to find her. And then Cho Youn-Ho who plays the father had acted in a short film that my producer and cinematographer had directed a few years ago. I thought he was really amazing. Fortunately he wasn’t doing a play at that time, so we were really excited to bring him over.

Would you like to make a film in Korea?

I would love to. But I think that if I make a film in Korea it would still be kind of from an outsider’s perspective. Because I am a foreigner in ways and then I am not in other ways. So it would be interesting to explore that kind of a grey area… I just need to figure out what’s the story, when can I make it and how do I find money…

For the podcast edition of this interview, head to KoreaFM here.

17th Jeonju International Film Festival (제17회 전주국제영화제) Interviews/Q&As

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


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

Jeonju Film Festival 2016 – Hot Picks

JIFF 2016

JIFF 2016

As Korea’s primary showcase for independent cinema, the Jeonju International Film Festival always has a surprise or two waiting for cineastes in the film line-up.

Running from April 28th ~ May 7th, and now in its 17th year, JIFF’s priority in debuting new filmmaking talent from the peninsula is simultaneously exciting as well as difficult to pin down emerging talent, making discoveries of potential break out stars even more thrilling to uncover.

While it’s certainly challenging to select possible highlights at such an early stage, there are a few clues and rumours that point to potentially memorable cinematic works.

Here are Hanguk Yeonghwa’s hot picks for JIFF 2016.

Spy Nation (자백) – director Choi Seungho (최승호)

Spy Nation

Spy Nation

Spy Nation is without a doubt one of the most controversial films to appear at JIFF this year. Directed by former professional journalist Choi Seungho, the documentary explores alleged corruption in the upper echelons of the Korean government and the national spy agency, accusations that the mainstream media has largely ignored. Spy Nation has the potential to cause outcry on a similar scale as the Sewol documentary at Busan Film Festival in 2014, and is a must-see for those with an interest in Korean culture and K-cinema.

Seven Years – Journalism without Journalist (7년-그들이 없는 언론) – director Kim Jinhyuk (김진혁)

Seven Years

Seven Years

JIFF’s other highly controversial documentary, Seven Years examines the situations that have led to the firing of 17 journalists since former President Lee Myung-bak’s time in office began. Director Kim Jinhyuk details their fight to expose the activities of big corporations and press censorship in Korea, as well as the future of investigative journalism in the peninsula.

Worst Woman (최악의 여자) – director Kim Jongkwan (김종관)

Worst Woman

Worst Woman

It’s always a gamble to select films from the Korean Competition as they are from first time filmmakers, however Worst Woman stands out for one reason – Han Ye-ri. Han Ye-ri is a highly talented actress as her turn in Sea Fog can attest, and her decision to star in this film as a woman in considerable trouble who befriends a sensitive author is reason enough to check it out.

A Stray Goat (눈발) – director Cho Jaemin (조재민)

Stray Goats

A Stray Goat

One of the Jeonju Project films (the other is below), A Stray Goat has already garnered attention in Korea due to Got7’s Junior (real name Park Jinyoung) starring role. Alongside Ji-woo (Cart, Fists of Legend), the duo portray youngsters who form a deep bond due to the verbal and physical abuse they suffer, in a world that shuns them into the margins of society.

Woo-Joo’s Christmas (우주의 크리스마스) – director Kim Kyunghyung (김경형)

Woo-joo's Christmas

Woo-joo’s Christmas

Director Kim Kyunghyung, known for his wit in hit films My Tutor Friend (2003) and Liar (2004) returns to the big screen with Woo-joo’s Christmas. The story follows Woo-joo and her daughter who move to a small town to open a cafe, where they experience odd coincidences with the women who already live there. As modern cinema is so dominated by male-centered stories, Woo-joo’s Christmas has the potential to be a genuinely refreshing experience.

Old Days (올드 데이즈) – director Han Sun-hee (한선희)

Old Boy

Old Boy

Another documentary makes the list, this time in the form of celebrating arguably the most internationally recognised Korean film of all time – Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy. Director Han Sun-hee compiles footage of the film’s enormous success alongside interviews with director Park, the cast, and crew, as they recount the phenomenal achievements Old Boy amassed and why the film stands the test of time. A must for Korean film fans.

Great Patrioteers (우리 손자 베스트) – director Kim Soohyun (김수현)

Great Patrioteers

Great Patrioteers

The second K-film in the Jeonju Cinema Project is by director Kim Soohyun, the talent behind queer film Life is Peachy (aka Ashamed) and So Cute. He returns with black comedy Great Patrioteers, about a wayward young ‘keyboard warrior’ and a right-wing senior citizen who form an unlikely relationship under odd circumstances.

Curtain Call (커튼콜) – director Ryu Hoon (류훈)

Curtain Call

Curtain Call

Curtain Call is another gamble for this list, as it’s a K-competition film from debut director Ryu Hoon. However the premise, in which a once aspiring director who now makes erotic plays gets a second chance to create something of artistic merit, combined with a cast of reliable and experienced Korean actors, could result in a surprisingly entertaining comedy-drama.

Kai (카이: 거울 호수의 전설) – director Lee Sung-gang (이성강)



Korean animation has been making great gains in recent years, and director Lee Sung-gang’s Kai looks set to continue the trend as the stills look absolutely gorgeous. The film follows Kai, a youngster who is tasked with saving his village from Snow Queen Hattan who has covered the area in ice. Parallels to Disney’s Frozen are likely, but the images released indicate that Kai will be a uniquely Korean offering and possibly one of the more popular outdoor screening events.

For more information, please visit the official Jeonju Film Festival website here.

17th Jeonju International Film Festival (제17회 전주국제영화제) Festival News Korean Film Festivals 2016

17th Jeonju Film Festival Unveils K-Competition Line-up

JIFF Official 2016 Poster

JIFF Official 2016 Poster

The 17th Jeonju International Film Festival is due to take place from April 28th ~ May 7th.

Now in its 17th edition, the city has become synonymous not only for the best bibimbap in Korea and delightful hanok village, but as the launchpad of Korean independent cinema.

Several K-films that debuted last year at JIFF have gone on to great success on both the festival and commercials circuits, notably Korean Film Competition Grand Prize winner Alice in Earnestland.

2016 is sure to feature further break-out productions from the industry, and while information is still currently thin on the ground JIFF recently unveiled the K-film titles in both the Korean Film Competition and Korean Short Film Competition.

Please see below for the films to be screened alongside select stills. For further information, please follow the link at the end of the article.

Korean Film Competition

1. No Preparation for Old Age (노후 대책 없다) – Director Lee Dong-woo (이동우) | 101min

Delta Boys

Delta Boys

2. Delta Boys (델타 보이즈) – Director Go Bong-su (고봉수) | 126min

3. B Mrs.B. A North Korean Woman (마담) – Director Yoon Jae-jo (윤재호) | 72min

4. Breathing Underwater (물숨) – Director Go Hee-yeong (고희영) | 91min

Our Love Story

Our Love Story

5. Our Love Story (연애담) – Director Lee Hyeon-ju (이현주) | 99min

6. With or Without You (우리 연애의 이력) – Director Jo Seong-eun (조성은) | 99min

7. A Field Day (운동회) – Director Kim Jin-tae (김진태) | 75min

Worst Woman

Worst Woman

8. Worst Woman (최악의 여자) – Director Kim Jong-gwan (김종관) | 94min

9. Curtain Call (커튼콜) – Director Ryu Hoon (류훈) | 100min

10. Press (프레스) – Director Choi Jeong-min (최정민) | 95min

Korean Short Film Competition

1) Knocking on the Door of Your Heart (가슴의 문을 두드려도) – Director Choi Yoon-tae (최윤태) | 28min

2) May Okay (날 좋은 날) – Director Jeong Tae-wan (정태완) | 10min

3) Joke (농담) – Director Jeong Ji-yeong (정지영) | 12min



4) Zoo (동물원) – Director Kim Sae-hyeon (김세현) | 21min

5) The Game of All (모두의 게임) – Director Jo Ye-seul (조예슬) | 10min

6) Body and Soul (몸과 마음) – Director Jang Eun-ju (장은주) | 11min

7) Soar (비상) – Director Hong Sang-yu (홍상유) | 10min

8) Alone in the Rain (빗속을 혼자서) – Director Kim Ga-ryeong (김가령) | 18min

9) Deer Flower (사슴꽃) – Director Kim Gang-min (김강민) | 8min

10) Silent Boy (사일런트 보이) – Director Bak Geun-yeong (박근영) | 29min

11) Cyclical Night (순환하는 밤) – Director Baek Jong-gwan (백종관) | 15min

12) See You Tomorrow (씨유투머로우) – Byeon Seung-min (변승민) | 22min

Before I Grow Up

Before I Grow Up

13) Before I Grow Up (어른이 되기 전에) – Director Lee Joon-seub (이준섭) | 25min

14) Summer Night (여름밤) – Director Lee Ji-won (이지원) | 25min

15) The Astronauts (우주비행사들) – Director Son Gyeong-soo (손경수) | 14min

16) A Landscape between Past and Future (적막의 경관) – Director Oh Min-wook (오민욱) | 20min

17) Breathless (질식) – Director Bak Joon-seok (박준석) | 14min

18) A Tent (천막) – Director Lee Ran-hee (이란희) | 30min



19) Fly (플라이) – Director Im Yeon-jeong (임연정) | 28min

20) Hamster (햄스터) – Director Kim Sae-in (김세인) | 29min

21) The Woman Who was Planted in a Pot (화분에 심어진 여자) – Director Lee Jeong-woo (이정우) | 18min

For more information, please follow the link here.

Festival News