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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Film News
The 18th Busan International Film Festival

BIFF 2013: Gala Presentation, New Currents, and Open Cinema

The 18th Busan International Film Festival

The 18th Busan International Film Festival

With the 18th Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) due to commence on October the 3rd, it’s high time to profile the Korean entries that are due to be screened.

Three of the big categories at BIFF – Gala Presentation, New Currents, and Open Cinema – showcase some of the incredible mainstream and independent films to emerge from the Korean film industry this year.

Gala Presentation focuses on a select group of important films from the Asian continent, and within this category are two Korean films – Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (설국열차) and Kim Jee-woon’s The X (더 엑스).

New Currents, meanwhile, explores some of the more powerful independent features to emerge from the continent. The manner in which the films within this category delve into social and cultural issues, often through experimentation of film form, make it one of the more fascinating areas. Three Korean films – 10 Minutes (10분), Steel Cold Winter (소녀) and Pascha (파스카) – appear, and receive their world premieres at BIFF 2013.

Rounding out the three, Open Cinema selects films to be presented on the Busan Cinema Center’s impressive outdoor screen. Two big thrillers from Korea are within the category – Cold Eyes (감시자들) and The Terror Live (더 테러 라이브).

Please see below for more in-depth coverage of each film.

Gala Presentation

The class system on the train is kept in check by sinister matriach Mason

The class system on the train is kept in check by sinister matriach Mason

Snowpiercer (설국열차) – Director Bong Joon-ho (봉준호)

Bong Joon-ho’s science-fiction epic was released in Korea earlier this year, earning over nine million admissions and over $50 million at the box office. For many foreign visitors to BIFF 2013 this will be their first opportunity to see the film before it’s released in international markets, so it’s placement within the Gala Presentation category is quite deserved. Snowpiercer is also notable as (currently) the most expensive Korean film ever made, as well as having Hollywood behemoth The Weinstein Company on board producing. The film tells the story of the last survivors on Earth following a man-made ice age that covered the planet. The last remnants of humanity struggle to survive on a train called ‘Snowpiercer’ which circumnavigates the globe every year. Yet within the train an unfair class system has emerged, and a revolution begins between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ For the review of Snowpiercer, please click here.

The X (더 엑스)

The X (더 엑스)

The X (더 엑스) – Director Kim Jee-woon (김지운)

New camera technology allows for a more immersive experience

New camera technology allows for a more immersive experience

Screen X technology has been employed and experimented with in Kim Jee-woon’s latest film The X. Commissioned by cinema chain CGV, director Kim has used screen x – which allows for extra space on either side of the screen for a more immersive viewing experience – to produce this new 30 minute short action/thriller film. The X also features an all-star cast with Kang Dong-won, Shin Min-ah, and E Som in the lead roles which is guaranteed to arouse interest amongst their respective fan bases.

New Currents

10 Minutes (10분)

10 Minutes (10분)

10 Minutes (10분) – Director Lee Yong-seung (이용승)

10 Minutes is concerned with examining the notoriously harsh environment of the Korean workplace. The story follows a  young intern as he enters employment at a government facility, and is promised a full-time position that will guarantee financial stability. Yet when his boss promotes someone else into the position, the young man is forced to reevaluate his options. 10 Minutes is director Lee Yong-seung’s thesis film while at the Dankook Graduate School of Cinematic Content.

Steel Cold Winter (소녀)

Steel Cold Winter (소녀)

Steel Cold Winter (소녀) – Director Choi Jin-seong (최진성)

Steel Cold Winter is Choi Jin-seong’s first fiction film, after spending years helming successful documentaries. The film depcits the story of high schooler Yoon-soo who moves to the mountains in Gangwon Province following his friend’s suicide. Yet while he attempts to start a new life, he meets a mysterious girl called Hae-won and begins to fall in love. However Hae-won has a secret and when her father suddenly disappears, Yoon-soo’s suspicions become aroused.

Ga-eul's relationship with 17 year old Joseph is quite a scandal

Ga-eul’s relationship with 17 year old Joseph is quite a scandal

Pascha (파스카) – Director Ahn Seon-kyoung (안선경)

Director Ahn’s Pascha tells the story of a lonely 40 year old screenwriter and her 17 year old boyfriend. Their unconventional relationship, and penchant for adopting stray cats, is fine until some unexpected news forces the intervention of their families. The pressure exerted on the couple results in plenty of judgement and heartache, as they must try to find a way to stay together. Pascha could perhaps be an interesting and more feminist orientated companion piece with last year’s A Muse (은교), which explored similar themes with an older man and young girl.

Open Cinema

Rookie Yoon-jo must learn to observe and recall everything on a mission

Rookie Yoon-jo must learn to observe and recall everything on a mission

Cold Eyes (감시자들) – Directors Jo Eui-seok (조의석), Kim Byeong-seo (김병서)

A remake of Hong Kong thriller Eye in the Sky (2006), cat-and-mouse cop drama Cold Eyes performed very well upon its release over the summer. The film is a slick and high-tech thrill-ride, featuring an impressively futuristic rendition of Seoul as a government surveillance team works day and night to catch professional criminals. Cold Eyes depicts the story of talented rookie Yoon-joo (Han Hyo-joo) who joins a special division headed by Chief Hwang (Sol Kyeong-gu). Their mission is to apprehend a group of professional thieves and their mastermind ‘Shadow’ (Jeong Woo-seong). The A-list cast have all been superbly cast against the types of roles they usually portray, and the result is a highly engaging thriller.

Exploiting the opportunity to become a news anchor, Yeong-hwa begins to regret his decision

Exploiting the opportunity to become a news anchor, Yeong-hwa begins to regret his decision

The Terror Live (더 테러 라이브) – Director Kim Byeong-woo (김병우)

The Terror Live was one of the surprise hits of the summer, notably going toe-to-toe with Snowpiercer and still gaining a large proportion of the audience. The reasons are quite clear as the thriller is a well-crafted and suspense-filled, as well as striking a chord with Korean audiences due to governmental criticism within. Superstar Ha Jeong-woo plays disgraced TV anchor Yeong-hwa, who has been demoted to radio due to a scandal. When a terrorist calls the radio show threatening to blow up a bridge, his bluff is called, and shortly thereafter an explosion occurs. Set entirely within a newsroom, The Terror Live is one of the more interesting thrillers in recent memory. For the review of The Terror Live, please click here.

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013