A Hard Day (끝까지 간다) – ★★★★☆

A Hard Day (끝까지 간다)

A Hard Day (끝까지 간다)

When internal affairs unexpectedly show up at the precinct and begin to investigate, corrupt detective Go Geun-soo (Lee Seon-gyoon (이선균) is forced to make excuses at his late mother’s funeral and race back to prevent his guilt from being unearthed. Driving fast and stressed from his predicament, Go accidently hits and kills a passerby. Secretly disposing of the body and cunningly destroying evidence of his involvement, Go believes he’s in the clear…until he receives an anonymous phone call from a witness (Jo Jin-woong (조진웅) threatening to reveal his sordid crime. Unless Go complies with the demands his world will be over, beginning a frantic game of suspense as they battle to emerge victorious and unscathed.

Already under investigation, detective Go accidently kills a pedestrian and must hide his involvement

Already under investigation, detective Go accidently kills a pedestrian and must hide his involvement

From the moment it begins, A Hard Day is an exciting, captivating, and down right thrilling cinematic joyride. Writer/director Kim Seong-hoon (김성훈) has crafted an enthralling and suspense fuelled tale that constantly keeps the audience guessing, through the incorporation of a variety of inspired set-pieces that takes staples of the genre yet reinvents them enough to keep them fresh and appealing. Whether it be the initial hit-and-run incident, the disposal of the body, car chases or physical combat, director Kim builds tension brilliantly to consistently excite and entertain. Alongside editor Kim Chang-ju, who sutures the scenes to incredible effect, the duo have combined to create some of the most gratifying and well made action-thriller sequences in recent memory. Yet despite all the conflict and terrifying situations that arise, the film is never morbid due to the dark ironic humour laced throughout that adds genuine laugh-out-loud moments to the proceedings, a real rarity that serves to both inspire and rejuvenate a genre that has, of late, become quite stagnant. As such the 2 hour and 30 minute running time simply flies by, making A Hard Day one of the most entertaining filmic experiences of the year, and well deserving of its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

Detective Go confronts his nemesis to surprising results

Detective Go confronts his nemesis to surprising results

Central to the enjoyment of A Hard Day are the wonderfully charismatic performances of Lee Seon-gyoon and Jo Jin-woong. Lee is great as corrupt detective Go, effectively conveying the anti-hero as selfish and unethical but also quite likable and ultimately sympathetic given the fraught circumstances that arise. Lee has an ‘everyman’ quality that he employs effortlessly throughout the film that generates an acute connection with the audience, so much so that it’s entirely possible to forgive Go for his dishonesty and actually root for him as the underdog victim. Jo, meanwhile, appears to absolutely relish the opportunity portraying the villainous blackmailer, to the point where despite his supporting actor status, he threatens to steal the film every time he appears on screen. He is a hulking pillar of evil, yet his comic timing and delivery are so comically entertaining that he’s impossible to dislike, adding a wonderfully fresh dimension to the relationship between the antagonists that is consistently fascinating to watch unfold.

The situation reaches breaking point as the two clash

The situation reaches breaking point as the two clash

Verdict:

A Hard Day is one of the most exciting and entertaining action-thrillers of the year. Director Kim Seong-hoon has crafted a thoroughly engaging, suspenseful and darkly humourous tale of corruption that consistently feels fresh through the reinvention of genre traits. Featuring highly charismatic performances from leads Lee Seon-gyoon and Jo Jin-woong, A Hard Day is a thrilling cinematic joyride from start to finish.

★★★★☆

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

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대) – ★★★☆☆

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대)

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대)

Upon release, summer blockbuster KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대) broke the record for opening day admissions and helped to breath new life into what was a flagging year for Korean cinema…until it was soundly beaten a week later by maritime epic The Admiral: Roaring Currents.

It’s particularly ironic that both tentpole films achieved such a feat, given that they contain such strikingly oppositional philosophies and content. While The Admiral focused on generating hyper-nationalism to achieve success, KUNDO opted for an anti-establishment sensibility, as a group of Robin Hood-esque outlaws band together to fight against the tyrannical Prince.

Curiously, while the ideological leanings of each film differ, both suffer from a similar set of issues. KUNDO, while boasting impressive production values, competent directing and an array of popular stars, ultimately feels rushed and unfinished due to the poorly structured and conceived narrative.

A band of outlaws band together to fight against the vicious prince Jo

A band of outlaws band together to fight against the vicious prince Jo

Centuries ago, Korea was a land in turmoil. With starvation and death commonplace, corruption in society was rampant, particularly amongst the ruling classes. In the face of so much injustice a group of working class heroes band together to rob from the rich and give to the poor, attempting to appease the suffering of the people.  Yet in a nearby city, a greater villainy is brewing. Born to a nobleman and courtesan, Prince Jo (Kang Dong-won (강동원) seeks to usurp his father and reign over the land. Only one challenge to his rule remains – his sister-in-law and her son, the rightful heir. Butcher Dochi (Ha Jeong-woo (하정우) is hired to kill the pair, yet when he cannot, he is viciously betrayed and punished. Furious, Dochi finds a place with the band of thieves and begin their revenge as they plan to halt the Prince’s machinations.

From the moment KUNDO opens, it’s clear that the production values are some of the highest in recent memory and are particularly outstanding. Director Yoon Jong-bin (윤종빈) and his team have noticeably worked hard to put striking visual detail in every shot, from the incredible costumes of the cast through to the great variety of landscapes and arenas in which the action takes place. The attention to detail generates a sense of sincerity and wonder, and is in itself an phenomenal achievement. In regards to each member of the cast, their histories and occupations are wonderfully captured in their costumes whether it be a Buddhist monk, a butcher, or a wealthy prince and significantly contributes to the power of the film, an acute attention to detail that earned designer Jo Sang-gyeong the award for Best Costume Design at the 51st Daejong Film Awards.

The prodction values in KUNDO are outstanding

The prodction values in KUNDO are outstanding

Yet where KUNDO falters is in the narrative structure, which is consistently haphazard. The story jumps between time lines and characters to confusing effect, and to compensate a random and quite sporadic voice-over attempts to help allay by filling in back stories and histories yet serves to provide only a further sense of disorganization. The poor structure is impossible to miss and insinuates even to the casual cinema-goer that several more drafts of the screenplay were needed before cameras started rolling.

Screenwriter Jeon Cheol-bin is further hampered by an overly – and insanely – large cast which is a huge challenge for any scribe to make each character relevant. While Jeon has clearly worked hard to do so, the sheer amount of protagonists weighs down the film due to the attempt at giving everyone screen time, resulting in a story that lacks conviction or indeed compulsion, and one that is particularly hard to invest in.

Such issues also afflict the actors. As KUNDO focuses primarily on Prince Jo-yoon and butcher Dochi, Kang Dong-won and Ha Jeong-woo have the greater chances to shine. Ha Jeong-woo in particular seems to be having a great time as the butcher-turned-criminal with his cocky and self-assured performance certainly the most enjoyable aspect of the film. Kang Dong-won – in his first film role since completing mandatory military service – also appears to relish portraying the villainous prince. Yet for them and the rest of the enormous supporting cast, the lack of screen time results in highly capable actors providing competent performances, making KUNDO an entertaining but not especially compelling viewing experience.

The villainous prince battles against the uprising

The villainous prince battles against the uprising

Verdict:

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant is a record-breaking tentpole film of 2014 by director Yoon Jong-bin. Boasting hugely impressive production and costume design as well as a host of capable actors including Ha Jeong-woo and Kang Dong-won, KUNDO is ultimately let down by a haphazard narrative structure, an insane amount of supporting characters, and a story that is hard to invest in. As a result KUNDO is an enjoyable, though unchallenging, viewing experience.

★★★☆☆

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

Awaiting (민우씨 오는 날) – ★★★☆☆

Awaiting (민우씨 오는 날)

Awaiting (민우씨 오는 날)

Awaiting (민우씨 오는 날) – or rather, The Day Min-woo Arrives – is part of an omnibus entitled Beautiful 2014, a series of films that explores moments of beauty helmed by some of the most talented filmmakers throughout Asia. Director Kang Je-gyu (강제규), famous for his action/war films including Taegukgi and My Way, is a surprising choice to step up to the microphone for intimate drama Awaiting, yet he has proven himself more than worthy as Awaiting is a beautifully touching and quite lovely short film.

Yoon-hee (Moon Chae-won (문채원) lives alone in Seoul, waiting for her husband Min-woo (Ko Soo (고수) to return home. Every day she is awoken by a phone conversation from Sarah in America, and fills her day with cleaning, shopping, trips to the community center, and making food. Yet Yoon-hee’s memory is slowly beginning to fade, and of late she has taken to writing notes to help get through the day. One day, two people arrive at her home and inform Yoon-hee of some interesting news regarding Min-woo’s whereabouts.

Yeon-hee and Min-woo are a loving couple

Yoon-hee and Min-woo are a loving couple

Awaiting is a wonderfully moving and distinctly Korean examination on the nature of love and loss. Director Kang Je-gyu has impressively evolved during the four years since his last film, wisely moving away from the sweeping epic sensibilities of his prior films to focus on the intimate nature of the story. Yet his indelible vision is still clearly present throughout as he explores the division of the peninsula from a refreshing perspective, while his stunning visual sensibilities and unique sense of melodrama remain in tact, accompanied by a tender musical score.

The drama is also a deviation for director Kang in that Awaiting is female-centered, and he expresses Yoon-hee’s story with a quiet sensitivity. Moon Chae-won provides a restrained yet poignant performance as the lonely woman waiting for her husband’s return, an while she isn’t especially challenged in the role  the actress is quite charismatic and endearing. Yoon-hee’s emotional story is a heartbreaking tale, and one which is elegantly, compassionately, told.

Awaiting 1

Yoon-hee waits for her husband Min-woo to return

Verdict:

Awaiting is a beautifully moving and quite lovely short film by director Kang Je-gyu, who has impressively altered his epic sensibilities to portray the touching story of a woman waiting for her husband’s return. Compassionate, intimate and distinctly Korean, Awaiting is a poignant and endearing tale of love and loss.

★★★☆☆

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

End of Winter (철원기행) – ★★☆☆☆

End of Winter (철원기행)

End of Winter (철원기행)

Following the retirement ceremony for the father (Moon Chang-gil (문창길) from his teaching position, he and his family gather together for a meal at a Chinese restaurant. In the presence of his two sons (Kim Min-hyeok (김민혁) (Hur Jaewon (허재원) and daughter-in-law (Lee Sang-hee (이상희), and amid frustrating quarreling, the father shockingly announces that he wishes to divorce from his wife (Lee Yeong-ran (이영란). Stunned, the family struggle with the situation and find comfort in the fact they will soon be traveling back home. Yet as the snowfall becomes heavier and the buses are cancelled, the family members are forced to stay in a small country abode and must confront the issues they have with one another.

The family are in good, yet quarelsome spirits until the father's shock announcement

The family are in good, yet quarelsome spirits until the father’s shock announcement

Upon its premiere at the 2014 Busan International Film Festival, End of Winter (철원기행) won the prestigious New Currents Award along with Iranian film 13, an accolade that celebrates new Asian film makers of vision. Director Kim Dae-hwan (김대환) certainly has impressive technical prowess as the film’s great strength lies within the composition of the mise-en-scene and cinematography, constructing a dogme 95-esque realism that lends a great deal of sincerity to the proceedings. The manner in which the family members interact with each other similarly evokes such sensibilities, as they are a group of people bound by blood yet who don’t particularly know or understand one another. The awkward conversations and tensions that arise, as well as the issues that each person is hiding yet which gradually come to light, are interesting to watch unfold and are given weight by director Kim’s cinematic realism, as events slowly transpire to reveal the complicated relationships between each person.

That said, End of Winter is an especially slow-moving drama. The protagonists within the film often refuse to speak or give clear answers during conversations which is a huge source of frustration, stunting plot progression as well as character and relationship development, making the viewing experience quite laborious. While it is clear that each character has an interesting motivation and a desire to express it, the withholding of such dilemmas results in a stifling and repetitive story, and one that would certainly be more engaging were more confrontations allowed to occur in addition to the subtleties and allusions to greater issues. Ultimately, Korean audiences are more likely to appreciate and engage with the film more given the nature of the drama, yet even they may find End of Winter somewhat of a chore given their propensity for more typically entertaining generic fare.

In a rare moment, two protagonists engage each other in open conversation

In a rare moment, two protagonists engage each other in open conversation

Verdict:

End of Winter is a technically impressive film by director Kim Dae-hwan, whose prowess in regards to mise-en-scene and cinematography evokes potent realism and sincerity. Yet the focus on such cinematic realism, while interesting, results in a family drama that is quite a laborious viewing experience due to the particularly slow pacing of the narrative and the highly restricted dialogue and confrontations.

★★☆☆☆

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

Cart (카트) – ★★★★☆

Cart (카트)

Cart (카트)

With only 3 months more service until she becomes a regular employee, supermarket cashier Seon-hee (Yeom Jeong-ah (염정아) works diligently for the position that will enable her to provide greater stability for her family. Despite the difficulties of raising wayward teenage son Tae-yeong (Do Kyeong-soo (도경수) and a young daughter (Kim Soo-an (김수안) alone, Seon-hee strives to make ends meet for them all. Yet when the supermarket officials decide to layoff all the workers in favor of cheaper labor, the mostly female staff – many of whom have worked with the company for years – are outraged. Led by fellow cashier Hye-mi (Moon Jeong-hee (문정희) and cleaner Soon-rye (Kim Yeong-ae (김영애), the women begin to unionize and issue demands for reinstatement. However when their efforts are ultimately ignored, the women decide that more drastic strike action is necessary for their voices to be heard.

Seon-hee witnesses abuse at work, yet her desire for job stability keeps her silent

Seon-hee witnesses abuse at work, yet her desire for job stability keeps her silent

Based on a true story, director Boo Ji-young’s (부지영) Cart (카트) premiered to high acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival, as well as later back home in native Korea at Busan. The drama is an incredibly impressive exploration of the issues plaguing the temporary workforce in contemporary Korea. From the very moment Cart begins director Boo effectively portrays the grueling monotony of menial labor, employing a brilliantly washed out colour palette in conjunction with fluid camerawork that depicts workers performing machine-like tasks under the watchful eyes of aggressive management, evoking the same sensibilities as Charlie Chaplin’s classic Modern Times. Rather than individuals, the workers are consistently framed as cogs in a machine hurriedly operating the factory-esque supermarket whilst robotically repeating phrases such as, “We love you, customer!” Director Boo wonderfully juxtaposes such hard work and empty slogans with the awful humiliations dealt by the customers and executives, while the workers themselves tolerate such human rights abuses simply in order to keep their jobs.

The contrast between such scenes and the representation of the characters personal lives offer a powerful, provocative glimpse at class and gender warfare as well as social injustice in modern Korea. As the vast majority of the workers are underprivileged women, the film depicts the daily struggles of the female workforce as they endure abusive employment in order to desperately stave off poverty, emphasising an array of feminist issues with potent insight. Director Boo has crafted an empowering social rights drama, one which is a true rarity in both current Korean and international cinema. The range of characters within the film, each with their own dilemmas, poignantly capture the challenges facing modern women in society. While Seon-hee and Hye-mi struggle to raise their children alone, Soon-rye exposes the plight of the elderly, while the inclusion of married protagonists as well as disaffected graduate Mi-jin (Cheon Woo-hee (천우희) convey the breadth and scale of discourses effecting contemporary women. Cart is a truly refreshing alternative to male-centered narratives, one that unequivocally portrays working class women as heroines in their own right.

The mostly female workers keep in good spirits as they demand reinstatement

The mostly female workers keep in good spirits as they demand reinstatement

The power of Cart lies in the conflict between the mostly female workers and the male executives, as the unfair dismissals result in unionization, and the ignorance of which in turn spurs strike action. Director Boo structures the escalation of hostilities between both sides with skill, as the workers who stage peaceful protests with colourful clothes and slogans are confronted by the dark bullying tactics of the company. In so blatantly portraying the corruption and underhand manner of the corporation, director Boo has produced a challenging and provocative film that will undoubtedly ruffle feathers amongst the conservative upper classes, who are depicted offering bribes, employing gangsters, and hurting innocents in the bid to continue profits and to save face. Yet director Boo also implicates government agencies in the scandal, particularly the police force and their unnecessary brutality, as the women peacefully demonstrate against injustice, making Cart not only an insightful film but a courageous one too.

Cart does however suffer from a case of over ambition as too many protagonists feature, which ultimately makes it difficult to invest in all of the narrative threads that arise. All the characters certainly add a perspective on the discourses through the film, yet as there are so many tangents it’s difficult to invest in every one. Screen time is mostly ascribed to Seon-hee and her family, and an impressive contrast is made between her and her difficult son Tae-yeong, implying the conditioning of the populace as automatons as one that begins from a young age. However Tae-young’s story line, in which he becomes attached to prospective girlfriend Soo-kyeong (Ji Woo (지우), is a little trite and appears to be a device to attract teenage audiences. Scenes such as these, and others that feature the quite cheesy musical score, sometimes threaten to put Cart in TV drama territory, yet director Boo never lets the story stagnate and consistently keeps the drama moving apace.

As tensions escalate, Seon-hee and Hye-mi fight back against their affluent male abusers

As tensions escalate, Seon-hee and Hye-mi fight back against their affluent male abusers

Verdict:

Cart is moving, provocative glimpse at class and gender warfare as well as social injustice in modern Korea. In depicting the unfair working conditions and the incredibly strong women attempting to stave off poverty, director Boo Ji-young has crafted an empowering social rights drama, one that examines the status of human rights and feminist issues with insight and sincerity. A powerful film, Cart is a real rarity in both contemporary Korean and international cinema.

★★★★☆

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

Revivre (화장) – ★★★★☆

Revivre (화장)

Revivre (화장)

As the vice-president of a leading cosmetics company, Oh Sang-moo (Ahn Seong-gi (안성기) is every bit the diligent leader, working hard to ensure the brand is a success. Yet when his wife (Kim Ho-jeong (김호정) is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour, Sang-moo dutifully divides his time between taking care of her and fulfilling his role at work, attending the company during the day and sleeping at the hospital at night. Tired and stressed from the routine, Sang-moo’s attentions are suddenly diverted when Choo Eun-joo (Kim Gyu-ri (김규리), a young and beautiful new manager, joins the office. While Sang-moo strives to adhere to his responsibilities his mind begins to drift towards Eun-joo, creating a torrent of conflicting emotions that only seem to become more and more difficult to control.

Sang-moo works hard to fulfill his duties as both a husband and vice-president, yet the toll is great

Sang-moo works hard to fulfill his duties as both a husband and vice-president, yet the toll is great

As his 102nd film, Revivre is director Im Kwon-taek’s finest, most accomplished work in years. Rarely do films manage to capture such fraught emotional complexity as contained within Revivre, conveyed with a subtle, elegant grace that wonderfully displays director Im’s wisdom and prowess. Similarly, Ahn Seong-gi provides a towering performance as the emotionally conflicted VP, whose tempered, poignant portrayal is captivating throughout. In lesser hands Song Yoon-hee’s script would be a standard drama, yet through director Im and Ahn’s collaboration the story delicately unfolds in a classic, dignified fashion that only they, with their combined life and filmic experiences, could possibly accomplish.

Revivre is at once both an incredibly complex and wonderfully simple tale. The story of a middle-aged man whose gaze is diverted by a younger attractive woman is nothing new in cinema, yet the drama is infused with a startling array of poignant nuances that allude to the great psychological and emotional anxieties Sang-moo experiences. Moments that feature Sang-moo’s inability to urinate due to stress, and the emotionless manner in which he takes care of his sick wife, articulate a keen gravitas and so much more than dialogue could possibly hope to achieve. Director Im, celebrated for his reverential portrayal of Korean culture onscreen, further adds weight to the material by introducing such traditional features as traditional Buddhist funeral rites and saunas to make Revivre a truly Korean production that explores the issues from a truly Korean perspective.

The arrival of beautiful new manager Choo Eun-joo rekindles a spark in Sang-moo

The arrival of beautiful new manager Choo Eun-joo rekindles a spark in Sang-moo

The relationship between Sang-moo and attractive new arrival Eun-joo is superbly paced and developed throughout the course of the film. The manner in which she is introduced into Sang-moo’s life, quite literally bursting into it, is a wonderful metaphor that sparks his interest in her and the possibility of a new life away from the stresses of his current one. Sang-moo’s affections for Eun-joo are captured with sincerity, from stolen glances at the office through to the palpable chemistry contained in their direct interactions. Much of the development occurs within Sang-moo’s imagination as he fantasizes about chance encounters that serve to add sweet romantic connotations to his infatuation, while scenes in which he behaves foolishly just in order to see Eun-joo are constructed with genuine care and affection. As Eun-joo, Kim Gyu-ri is perfectly cast. Her natural elegance and stunning beauty are entirely believable as distractions for Sang-moo, even as he desperately tries to be a good, dutiful man, while Kim’s performance as an independent career woman is also impressive.

While Revivre is a powerful emotional drama for much of the running time, the film begins to lose its way  as it attempts to come to a close. After featuring some incredibly powerful and nuanced scenes throughout the film as well as poignantly subtle character development, due to the quite ambiguous finale Revivre ends on a symbolic yet somewhat unsatisfying note. Director Im, however, wisely adds an epilogue of sorts to construct the end as coming full circle through traditional Korean Buddhist culture, conveying the inherent beauty in life, death and cultural forms as a means in which to appreciate the nature of existence.

Scenes featuring Sang-moo and his wife as her health deteriorates are strikingly poignant

Scenes featuring Sang-moo and his wife as her health deteriorates are strikingly poignant

Verdict:

Revivre is director Im Kwon-taek’s finest, most accomplished work in years. His 102nd film, Revivre beautifully captures fraught emotional and psychological complexities with subtle elegance and grace, as a vice-president with a sick wife begins to fall for the charms of a new and quite beautiful manager. As the VP, Ahn Seung-gi provides his best performance in years and his collaboration with director Im produces a powerful film that only they, with their combined experiences, could have possibly achieved.

★★★★☆

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

Gyeongju (경주) – ★★★☆☆

Gyeongju (경주)

Gyeongju (경주)

When his childhood friend tragically dies, Professor Choi Hyeon (Park Hae-il (박해일), having spent the past several years working at Beijing University, returns to Korea for the funeral. Hyeon however seems less concerned with reconnecting with old friends than he is rediscovering his roots, and to that end he visits Gyeongju, the former capital of the ancient Silla kingdom full of historical landmarks. Rather than sightseeing, Hyeon is strangely motivated to find an old pornographic painting he and his friends encountered on a trip there years prior. Upon locating the teahouse Hyeon is greeted by the new owner Yoon-hee (Sin Min-ah (신민아) and the two form an intriguing relationship.

Hyeon locates the teahouse from his past, and meets owner Yoon-hee

Hyeon locates the teahouse from his past, and meets owner Yoon-hee

Gyeongju is a poetic, meditative exploration of history and relationships by director Zhang Lu (장률). That may come as a surprise considering the film has been marketed as something of a romantic-drama (see the trailer below), yet director Lu’s film is far removed from typical genre fare as from the moment it begins it is clear he has crafted an artistically conscious, rather than commercially minded, examination of relationships. The approach subtly inhabits every sentence and every frame as Hyeon attempts to explore and understand his complex connection with history, and how the relationships of his past inform his present. As the story is so introspective director Lu relies heavily on visual aesthetics, skillfully composing highly attractive shots of Hyeon, particularly in relation to his surroundings and with other people, to convey a wealth of powerful yet understated meaning. Many of the shots within Gyeongju certainly wouldn’t look out of place in a filmmaking textbook such is the director’s prowess, notably in the manner in which he employs space and distance. The meticulously constructed, elegant shots at Yoon-hee’s Arisol Teahouse, for example, are emblematic of his penetrating insight into the psychological state of the characters within.

The composition and framing within the teahouse subtly reveals a wealth of meaning

The composition and framing within the teahouse subtly reveals a wealth of meaning

As Hyeon walks around the old capital contemplating the landmarks and the people he encounters, it becomes increasingly clear that the film is also highly concerned with the notion of identity and belonging. As a Korean living in China and married with a Chinese woman, Hyeon lost his connections with not only his friends but also his country, history, and sense of identity. As such Gyeongju serves not only as a place for quiet contemplation but also an arena in which he attempts to trace his roots, which proves increasingly difficult the longer Hyeon stays there. His troubled psychological state finds a companion in Yoon-hee, who is also unsure of her place in the world. Their connection is not so much romantic as it is motivated by a desire to belong, and as the two are surrounded by history and death (in the form of tombs), the film puts forth interesting debates about the nature of relationships.

At 2 hours and 20 minutes however, to say that Gyeongju is overly long is quite an understatement. As the film is so introspective Gyeongju is an incredibly slow-paced affair, and while for the first hour the story is compelling enough for it not to be an issue, when the film begins to meander viewing becomes somewhat laborious. Primarily this occurs during the scenes at night, when Hyeon and Yoon-hee develop their relationship further which feels not only contrived but also unnecessarily long, despite great performances from Park Hae-il and Shin Min-ah. Bizarrely, after 2 hours of controlled and moderated pacing, Gyeongju suddenly becomes in a big hurry to end, which results in an unsatisfying finale to an otherwise deep and insightful film.

Hyeon contemplates his identity and existence in Korea's picturesque former capital

Hyeon contemplates his identity and existence in Korea’s picturesque former capital

Verdict:

Gyeongju is a poetic, introspective exploration of history, identity and relationships by director Zhang Lu. The film is very much artistically focused rather than commercially orientated, and as such it benefits from wonderfully composed shots and framing devices, as well as a controlled meditative pace, that subtly convey a wealth of meaning over exposition. Yet at 2 hours and 20 minutes Gyeongju is also incredibly overly long and feels particularly laborious after the halfway mark, while the artistic sensibilities won’t be for everyone.

★★★☆☆

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