Jiseul (지슬)

Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Top Ten of 2013

As 2013 draws to a close, so it becomes time to discuss the best releases from the Korean film industry from the year.

It’s been quite  year for Korean film. According to the Korean Film Council the industry crossed over the 200 million admissions mark for the first time in history, averaging just over 4 films per person; recently released drama The Attorney (변호인), based on former president Roh Moo-hyun’s early career, broke the box office record for single day admissions in December attracting over 540,000 moviegoers upon opening; Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (설국열차), the most expensive film in Korean cinema history, was released to critical and commercial acclaim; and Moon Byung-gon’s Safe (세이프) won the short film Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival, the first time the award has been bestowed upon a Korean director.

But back to the issue at hand – the top ten. ‘Best of’ lists always feel somewhat disingenuous as it’s impossible to have seen simply everything to emerge from the industry over the past 12 months. This also unfortunately applies to this particular list, particularly in regards to films released over the past month. So, in the interest of full disclosure, here are some great films that could potentially have been included in the top ten had they been seen – Moebius (뫼비우스)Hope/Wish (소원), Way Back Home (집으로 가는 길), and The Attorney.

However, without further ado, let’s press on with Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Top Ten of 2013:

Joint 1st – Jiseul (지슬)

Jiseul (지슬)

Jiseul (지슬)

While Jiseul premiered at Busan in 2012, it was officially released nationwide in 2013 and for that reason jointly takes the number 1 spot. Director O Muel’s breathtaking film about the 1948 Jeju Island ‘Uprising’ (or rather ‘Massacre’) is one of those rare films that transcends the medium into art. The stunning cinematography is exquisitely captured through the black and white tones, while the realism-inducing long takes convey the atrocities endured by the Islanders with palpable melancholy. Shockingly, Jiseul was not submitted as Korea’s entry for the Academy Awards (with the honour instead going to Juvenile Offender), a presumably political decision due to the negative manner in which the Korean military are portrayed – a genuine shame as Jiseul is one of the best Oscar contenders Korea has produced in quite some time. Nevertheless, director O Muel’s beautifully haunting tribute is an absolute must-see. (See the full review here).

Joint 1st – Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju is without a doubt the best new film of 2013. Staggering powerful, heartbreaking and courageous, the film tells the story of high schooler Gong-ju who is forced to relocate to a new school due to a secretive event in her past. Director Lee Su-jin has crafted an incredible film that wonderfully captures many of the social issues in contemporary Korea, confronting the themes of selfishness and corruption directly and in doing so evokes a maelstrom of emotional resonance. It is no stretch to say that Han Gong-ju is like a raw Lee Chang-dong film, one full of maturity and awareness yet with added indignation. Staggeringly, the film is also director Lee Su-jin’s feature-length directorial debut and, should he continue to helm films of this quality, Korea will have a new auteur in the making.

2nd – Pluto (명왕성)

Pluto (명왕성)

Pluto (명왕성)

Director Shin Su-won proves her win at Cannes for Circle Line (순환선) was no fluke with the release of the masterful Pluto. A former teacher before her venture into filmmaking, director Shin deftly employs her knowledge of the insanely-competitive Korean education system in exploring how students can become increasingly amoral in the bid for perfect grades  and an all-important university placement. What makes Pluto so special is not only the examination of corruption within the system but also the character development as Joon – wonderfully acted by Lee David – gradually succumbs to violent ambition. (See the full review here).

3rd – My Place (마이 플레이스)

My Place (마이 플레이스)

My Place (마이 플레이스)

The best kind of documentaries are the ones that serve to enlighten, yet director Park Moon-chil goes one better with My Place in that he too is on a quest for knowledge. Initially believing that his sister is somewhat irresponsible for wishing to be a single-parent, director Park attempts to understand his sibling by investigating her past, which in turn leads to startling discoveries about his entire family. Through exploring cultural and generational differences as well as revealing – and attempting to heal – family trauma, My Place is a wonderful testament to family and forces audiences to address how well they know their own relatives. (See the full review here).

4th – Snowpiercer (설국열차)

Snowpiercer (설국열차)

Snowpiercer (설국열차)

A pulse-pounding thrill-ride from start to finish, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is a momentous sci-fi epic. Based on the French comic Le Transperceneige, the film depicts a world devoid of life due to global warming with the last remnants of humanity hurtling around the world on the perpetually moving train ‘snowpiercer.’ What makes the film so fascinating is the manner in which  the class system is explored, examining the nature of revolution, the brainwashing inherent in education, as well as the potent symbolism laced throughout – particularly from Tilda Swinton’s brilliant channeling of Margaret Thatcher as the villainous Mason. Snowpiercer is also a triumph of production design, and ranks among the best science fiction films to emerge from the industry. (See the full review here).

5th – The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

Brutally intense and profoundly disturbing, The Fake is a phenomenal indictment of the fraud that exists within society. The Korean title ‘Saibi’ is specific to religion, and potent symbolism abounds; the looming threat of a flood sends the local populace into a religious fervour as they compete for the ‘limited’ places in heaven. Interestingly director Yeon Sang-ho marries such weighty material with the generic conventions of the western, and the result is extraordinary – should the audience align with the fraudulent man of God, or the truthful-yet-devilish western anti-hero? (See the full review here).

6th – New World (신세계)

New World (신세계)

New World (신세계)

Taking a cue from Coppola’s The Godfather, director Park Hoon-jeong’s gangster epic New World is among the best examples of the genre in recent memory. As a screenwriter on I Saw The Devil and The Unjust director Park has experience in weaving bloodthirsty thrillers, and his vision in constructing a tale of vengeful gangsters attempting to fill a power vacuum is brilliant. The double-crosses and Infernal Affairs-esque clashes between men on both sides of the law are made all the more powerful with the stunning cinematography and visual finesse. (See here for the full review).

7th – Cold Eyes (감시자들)

Cold Eyes (감시자들)

Cold Eyes (감시자들)

A remake of Hong Kong action-noir Eye in the Sky, Cold Eyes is a vastly different adaptation set in the shimmering metropolis of Seoul. The slick thriller is incredibly entertaining not only for the great pacing and exhilarating cat-and-mouse chase sequences, but also for the wonderful casting. Han Hyo-joo, so often relegated to being a pretty love interest, is excellent as the bold, smart and independent rookie, while Jeong Woo-seong is great as the steely and manipulative villain. (See here for the full review).

8th – The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File marks a genuine stage in evolution for director Ryoo Seung-wan. His previous films have typically been highly entertaining action-thrillers often serving to revere classic sequences of yesteryear; however with The Berlin File the high-octane set-pieces, kinetic camera movement and rapid editing combine to create his most exhilarating film to date. With an all-star cast featuring Ha Jeong-woo, Jeon Ji-hyeon, Han Seok-kyu and Ryoo Seung-beom, The Berlin File is one of 2013’s great genre films. (See here for the full review).

9th – How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

2013 was full of cliched and generic rom-coms – which made How to Use Guys with Secret Tips even more refreshing. Criminally under-seen due to a release date alongside Miracle in Cell No. 7 and New World, director Lee Won-seok’s debut is simply bursting with colour, vitality, inventiveness, and most importantly – brains. Spinning the cliches upside down, director Lee continually pokes fun at modern masculinity as well as highlighting the sexism that exists in contemporary Korea in a uniquely humourous fashion, combining to produce one of the most enjoyable and downright fun rom-coms in quite some time. (See here for the full review).

10th – Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정)

Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정)

Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정)

Premiering at the Jeonju International Film Festival, director Jung Young-heon’s Lebanon Emotion was far and away the most interesting and engaging drama to appear. Initially a potent tale of grief and despair, the film transforms into an otherworldly story of togetherness, revenge, and danger. Director Jung’s history as a cinematographer is apparent in every scene, featuring gorgeously haunting landscapes alongside some great character development and quirky humour. Bizarrely missing out on the top prize at JIFF, Lebanon Emotion was rewarded at Moscow by scooping the best director award, and he is certainly a talent to watch. (See here for the full review.)

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The 18th Busan International Film Festival

BIFF 2013: Korean Cinema Today – Vision

The 18th Busan International Film Festival

The 18th Busan International Film Festival

The Korean Cinema Today – Vision program at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) aims to highlight some of the independent film making talent emerging in 2013.

While the Panorama section explores big budget affairs (see here for the full profile), Vision is often a very exciting category due the fresh and distinctive approach new directors take, while the films themselves are often quite creative due to their low budget nature. Typically, there are a few gems to be found as talented film makers use Vision as a springboard for their careers.

For BIFF 2013, there are a number of interesting works on offer. Several directors make their respective debuts, while there are a surprising number of genre films including gangster, thriller, and comedy, present within. There are also a number of films that tackle challenging social issues such as surrogate mothers, teenage problems, and the experiences of foreign wives.

For profiles of all the films within Korean Cinema Today – Vision, please see below.

Korean Cinema Today – Vision

Dynamite Man (다이너마이트맨)

Dynamite Man (다이너마이트맨)

Dynamite Man (다이너마이트맨)

Director: Jeong Hyuk-won (정혁원)

Synopsis: Revenge thriller Dynamite Man is director Jeong’s debut film. When two brothers betray their gang, one is brutally tortured. Filled with rage the surviving brother targets those responsible – with dynamite.

Godsend (신의 선물)

Godsend (신의 선물)

Godsend (신의 선물)

Director: Moon Si-hyun (문시현)

Synopsis: Based on an idea by Kim Ki-duk, the film is a modern nativity of sorts. A young girl plans to exchange her baby with a couple, but complications arise from the men in their lives.

Guardian (보호자)

Guardian (보호자)

Guardian (보호자)

Director: Yoo Won-sang (유원상)

Synopsis: In his debut film, director Yoo tells the story of an ex-fireman whose daughter is kidnapped. For the girl to return unharmed, he must do the unthinkable and kidnap a boy for an exchange.

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Director: Lee Su-jin (이수진)

Synopsis: Student Gong-ju starts a new school, making new friends and becoming involved in after school classes. However when a group of meddling parents discover Gong-ju’s whereabouts, her troubled past is revealed.

Intruders (조난자들)

Intruders (조난자들)

Intruders (조난자들)

Director: Noh Young-seok (노영석)

Synopsis: Receiving a world premiere at Toronto, director Noh’s (Daytime Drinking) Intruders follows a screenwriter who travels into the country to complete his screenplay. Yet when mysterious strangers arrive, violent events are set in motion.

The King of Jokgu (족구왕)

The King of Jokgu (족구왕)

The King of Jokgu (족구왕)

Director: Woo Moon-gi (우문기)

Synopsis: Sports comedy The King of Jokgu tells the story of a team passionate about foot volleyball, a popular past-time in Korea. When their request for a court is rejected, the team fight to make it happen.

Mot (못)

Mot (못)

Mot (못)

Director: Seo Ho-bin (서호빈)

Synopsis: Sung-pil tragically lost his younger sister in a motorcycle accident. Years later, Sung-pil meets the man responsible forcing painful emotions to resurface.

Shuttlecock (셔틀콕)

Shuttlecock (셔틀콕)

Shuttlecock (셔틀콕)

Director: Lee Yu-bin (이유빈)

Synopsis: Following the death of their parents, a huge insurance payout is given to Eun-ju, but when she disappears half-brother Min-jae attempts to find her.

The Stone (스톤)

The Stone (스톤)

The Stone (스톤)

Director: Cho Se-rae (조세래)

Synopsis: When a mob boss losses a game of baduk (Go) to a young prodigy, the two begin to form a relationship as they continue to play each other.

Thuy (안녕, 투이)

Thuy (안녕, 투이)

Thuy (안녕, 투이)

Director: Kim Jae-han (김재한)

Synopsis: Another debut film, Thuy depicts the life of a Vietnamese girl living in the country with her in-laws. When her husband fails to return home, Thuy’s enquiries attract the wrong kind of attention.

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013
Jin-oh's wacky antics continually entertain

Over My Dead Body (시체가 돌아왔다) – ★★★☆☆

Over my Dead Body (시체가 돌아왔다)

Over My Dead Body (시체가 돌아왔다)

Korean cinema has something of a love affair with partnering a mad-cap group of disparate individuals, who are  given the unenviable task of bringing the corrupt elite to justice. The repetition of such a narrative framework is undoubtedly ideologically founded, yet the translation of the sense of ‘Han’ within the team dynamic is often hit-and-miss. For every The Host (괴물) is a Once Upon a Time (원스 어폰 어 타임); for every Take Off (국가대표) is a Sector 7 (7광구).

Writer/director Wu Seon-ho’s (우선호) foray into the arena is more comically-macabre in nature as an exploited group of individuals attempt to ransom a corpse. As such Over My Dead Body (시체가 돌아왔다)  provides a distinctly fresh approach to the concept yet never manages to fully capitialise on the premise, instead falling back on the tried-and-tested format – and cliches – of its forebearers. Luckily the addition of Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범), who is a charismatic delight throughout, singlehandedly elevates Over My Dead Body out of mediocrity.

Protesting against the unscrupulous CEO of a technology firm, engineer Baek Hyeon-cheol (Lee Beom-soo (이범수) and his mentor throw eggs and chant slogans in the belief that the specialist microchip they have developed is being sold abroad. They are indeed correct, as the CEO has been faking an illness and has implanted the microchip within himself in a bid to smuggle the technology into America for a large profit. Yet through their persistance Hyeon-cheol and his senior reveal the fraud to the country, and in retaliation the mentor is brutally inured. Swearing revenge for the crimes against her father, Han Dong-hwa (Kim Ok-bin (김옥빈) enlists the help of ever-reluctant Hyeon-cheol. However, with the shocking news of the CEO’s death the duo hatch a plan to steal the corpse and hold it to ransom – unwittingly stealing the microchip in the process. Yet when the corpse suddenly awakens to reveal conman Ahn Jin-oh (Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범), the trio must begrudgingly combine their skills in order to walk away with the money – and their lives.

Hyeon-cheol and Dong-hwa pledge to bring to corrupt to justice

Hyeon-cheol and Dong-hwa pledge to bring the corrupt to justice

Over My Dead Body begins in a fun but rather odd science-fiction fashion as Hyeon-cheol chases down a corrupt CEO who deals with advanced microchips and lasers. The premise of the film is then quickly set up, as Dong-hwa and Hyeon-cheol – who transforms from science-nerd to attractive middle-aged man in a matter of minutes – go about planning to steal the titular corpse. The duo’s theft is humorous and entertaining, as they fumble their way through security measures and unforeseen circumstances in a bid to complete their mission. The resulting getaway is also highly enjoyable, with Jin-oh’s awakening corpse routine a real highlight of the film.

It’s at this stage that Over My Dead Body seemingly runs out of ideas as a slew of underdeveloped characters are introduced that do little to continue the promising momentum of the first act. These stock characters are all stereotypical in nature, including the unintelligent gangster duo, bumbling National Intelligence Agency officers, and a host of security personal led by a nefarious kingpin. The narrative desperately attempts to juggle everyone and give them adequate relevance, but there are far too many and the story becomes bogged down as the central protagonists move from one set piece to the next. The decision to include such stereotypes also opens up a variety of cliched and predictable scenarios, some of which are humorous while others tend to fall flat, making the narrative lack compulsion with yet another case of mistaken identity and/or betrayal. By including so many narrative threads the central cast suffer from lack of development, particularly Kim Ok-bin (김옥빈) whose talents are vastly under-utilized as she exists merely as ‘the sexy punk girl/love interest.’

Luckily Over My Dead Body is consistently rejuvenated whenever Jin-oh (Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범) appears, as his mixture of whacky antics, deviousness and over-acting are highly comical and drag the narrative out of any slumps that occur. Thanks to his wise inclusion the film never sinks into blandness, and makes the narrative much more compelling to see through to its conclusion.

Joined by charismatic/psychotic con-man Jin-oh, the trio continue their quest

Joined by charismatic/psychotic con-man Jin-oh, the trio continue their quest

Lee Beom-soo is an interesting choice as science nerd Hyeon-cheol, and delivers a competent and likable performance. While he – as with his compatriots – suffers from lack of character development, Lee Beom-soo conducts himself as an intelligent ‘every-man’ well. The director’s decisions in regards to costume make it difficult to convey the character, as he strangely moves from geek to office worker to university student, a feature which is also reflected in his personality as it undergoes dramatic shifts from shy to intelligent to aggressive.

Kim Ok-bin is generally employed as a sexy love interest in playing Dong-hwa, and aside from inspiring the heist is incredibly undervalued. The actress plays the role of the strong, stubborn punk well yet there are few scenes in which her character is allowed to convey more, with her pink hair and cell phone charms the only indicators to greater depth. An effort is made to connect her with her sick father, yet such sparse time is dedicated it barely registers.

Ryoo Seung-beom is seemingly the only actor who understands the tongue-in-cheek farcical nature of the narrative, and over-acts in each scene with wonderful charisma. Yet throughout his performance he also keeps the audience guessing as to whether Jin-oh is a hyper-intelligent fraudster or genuinely mentally unstable, making him a comical and entertaining protagonist within each scene. Again, little depth is ascribed to Jin-oh yet his presence and hyperactivity circumvents criticism in this regard as the film is elevated largely due to him.

Jin-oh's wacky antics continually entertain

Jin-oh’s wacky antics continually entertain

Verdict:

Over My Dead Body offers an interesting and comically-macabre spin on the crime heist sub-genre, and often succeeds in being entertaining throughout due to the premise. Yet the film largely falls into cliche and predictability following the first act due to the reliance upon an array of stock characters and a lack of inventiveness.  However Ryoo Seung-beom’s presence consistently raises the film, and fans of the actor will not be disappointed as Over My Dead Body is an enjoyable film largely thanks to him.

★★★☆☆

Reviews

Greetings from Hanguk Yeonghwa!

Hello everyone! 안녕하세요 여러분!

Welcome to Hanguk Yeonghwa (한국 영화) – or Korean film, if you prefer.

This blog is dedicated to the cinematic endeavors of Korea, where the films are often referred to as an exciting, innovative, and challenging alternative to Hollywood.

Most Korean films that make their way to foreign shores are often labeled as ‘extreme cinema’ due to the violent and/or sexual themes contained within. As such, the majority of audiences are aware of the horrors and thrillers produced, including the likes of Oldboy (올드보이, 2003), Thirst (박쥐, 2009), and the films of Kim Ki Duk (김기덕).

This is unfair, as in addition to the crime and revenge thrillers Korea produces an incredibly large amount of melodramas, comedies, and war films exploring the relationship with their northern cousins. While these films have a slowly increasing level of awareness in Europe and North America, they are extremely widespread throughout the rest of Asia to the point where the immense popularity has been designated as ‘the Korean Wave’ or ‘Hallyu’ (한류). The films, TV dramas and celebrities have an enormous following in Japan, Thailand, The Philippines and beyond, to the point where tour dates are sold out within minutes and actors learn different languages to make appearances on national television. The Korean Wave is expanding into new territories however, thanks to the innovation of those within the entertainment industry, expats, and of course the internet. Today, Korean actors such as Lee Byeong Heon (이병헌), Rain (비/real name 정지훈), and Jeon Ji Hyeon (전지현) are appearing in Hollywood, with director Kim Ji Woon (김지운) at the helm of the upcoming Arnold Swarzenegger film ‘Last Stand’ (2013).

This blog is also riding the wave and will feature film news, festival highlights, and reviews of both past and present, familiar ad unfamiliar. Hopefully, upon reading the reviews you will be curious enough to seek out, or re-watch, some fascinating moments from an ever-changing industry.

But make no mistake, these reviews will not simply be gushing praise simply because of their country of origin. They will be objective, impartial, and compared with counterparts from other countries.

Therefore, if you are interested in Korean film then this is the place to be. There will be no idol gossip about celebrity scandals however; instead, film fans can voice their opinions about the film productions from ‘the land of the rising calm.’ So if you have a few minutes free, sit back and enjoy the posts! (^.^)

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