The entry into the psychedelic classroom is a surrealist nightmare

Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Most Memorable Moments of 2013

Beware – spoilers ahead!

One of the great things about being a fan of Korean cinema is that the industry is continually inventive. Whether in mainstream or independent film, Korean filmmakers constantly generate shocks and thrills aplenty, featuring some truly memorable moments that resonate long after the final credits have rolled.

As the title of this feature implies, 2013 was no exception. Shocking scenes frequently appeared throughout a variety of genres, and here are Hanguk Yeonghwa’s most memorable – disturbing, shocking, or just plain awesome – moments of the year.

Final warning – spoilers ahead!

Azooma (공정사회) – Dental Revenge

Disillusioned with patriarchal institutions, the ajumma prepares for her own brand of justice

Disillusioned with patriarchal institutions, the ajumma prepares for her own brand of justice

There have been a number of films in recent years that have explored the serious crime – and soft punishment – of pedophilia in Korean society. Few however can attest to providing such violent revenge as indie thriller Azooma.  Rejected by police as well as the child’s playboy father, the ‘ajumma’ (azooma) enlists the help of local gangsters to abduct the criminal and tie the pervert into a dentist chair. Employing her skills as a dental nurse, the ajumma exacts her bloody and brutal – and incredibly cathartic – vengeance by drilling the teeth to the bone without anesthetic. Even better however is that the surgery belongs to the child’s absent father, allowing mother and daughter to walk away and learn to heal.

Han Gong-ju (한공주) – The Internet Video

Gong-ju's trauma apears on the internet for all to see

Gong-ju’s trauma apears on the internet for all to see

Heartbreaking and tragic, director Lee Su-jin’s break-out film centers on high school student Gong-ju who conceals an extremely traumatic event in her past. While hints continually suggest that she was sexually assaulted, the truth is even worse – she was gang raped by dozens of her peers. The depiction of the event is truly haunting. However, as the film reaches its climax, Gong-ju’s unaware friends finally learn the truth about her suffering as a video of the assault appears on the internet. Unable to move or speak, Gong-ju’s best friend can do nothing but watch in horror.

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서) – Dr. Swalski

Colourful Dr. Swalski provides the tips Bo-na needs to move ahead, to great comedic effect

Colourful Dr. Swalski provides the tips Bo-na needs to move ahead, to great comedic effect

One of the most vibrant and enjoyable rom-coms in recent years, How to Use Guys with Secret Tips is brilliantly original largely due to one character – the mysterious Dr. Swalski. In his audacious 1970s apparel, the doctor brilliantly gives advice on how to manipulate men to naive assistant director Choi Bo-na with superb comic timing, even appearing within her life when things don’t quite work out the way they should. With wonderful tongue-in-cheek wit, Dr. Swalski is a fantastic creation from the mind of director Lee Won-seok.

Intruders (조난자들) – The North Korean Spy

Suspicions rise but the culprit comes out of left field

Suspicions rise but the culprit comes out of left field

Director Noh Young-seok’s (노영석) film about a screenwriter seeking solitude in the mountains is a quirky story, with the slow build of suspense brilliantly executed as the murdered bodies begin piling up and suspicions rise. When the survivors find a hidden basement full of victims tensions reach fever-pitch – until a short North Korean spy jumps out of a closet. Simultaneously hilarious and shocking, the spy displays director Noh’s dark-comic sensibilities and adds a surprising element in an otherwise straightforward thriller.

New World (신세계) – Battle Royale

Jeong Cheong viciously battles his way through assassins

Jeong Cheong viciously battles his way through assassins

Through gangster epic New World, Chinese-Korean wiseguy Jeong Cheong – superbly portrayed by actor Hwang Jeong-min – is little more than a loser, a joker more interested in fake goods than in cementing his position within the crime syndicate. That is, until a rival seeks to take him out of the running permanently. Surrounded by assassins, Jeong Cheong displays stunning ferocity as he battles for his life pummeling his adversaries into submission, culminating in a brutal knife fight in an elevator. And in the end, only one man is left standing.

Pascha (파스카) – The Abortion

Ga-eul must learn to endure the pain of loss

Ga-eul must learn to endure the pain of loss

Busan Film Festival winner Pascha depicts the relationship between 40-something screenwriter Ga-eul and her 17 year old lover. The slow-moving indie drama presents their struggles to stay together, particularly after the news that Ga-eul is pregnant. Forced to have abortion by her family, the deeply depressed screenwriter undergoes the procedure. Yet as she leaves, something compels her to turn back and demand to see the remains. The controversial scene has divided critics, but the haunting image resonates long after the credits.

Snowpiercer (설국열차) – The Classroom

The entry into the psychedelic classroom is a surrealist nightmare

The entry into the psychedelic classroom is a surrealist nightmare

Director Bong Joon-ho’s epic sci-fi has several noteworthy moments, including the shattering of an iced-arm and discussing how babies taste, but the entry into the disturbingly bizarre school is so surreal it tops them all. After battling through dark and grimy carriages in an extremely bloody and violent revolution, the next door opens to reveal a disneyfied classroom on acid full of psychotic fervour. Alison Pill is phenomenal as the fanatical teacher, while the brainwashed students religiously chant the train driver’s name as if he is a deity. With exceptional work by production designer Ondrej Nekvasil, the classroom is a disturbing reminder of the power of bias education on impressionable minds.

The Terror Live (더 테러 라이브) – The General 

The general's hat is all that remains as Yoon becomes frantic

The general’s hat is all that remains as Yoon becomes frantic

Newsroom drama The Terror Live was a big hit in Korea due to the open and frank exploration of corruption within the social elite, and the exploitation of workers. As reporter Yoon Yeong-hwa (expertly performed by Ha Jeong-woo) converses with the terrorist who destroyed a bridge live on air, a military general comes to the studio and joins the debate. The general rapidly makes the situation worse, goading the terrorist with lies and defamation building unbearable tension until a bomb in the general’s earpiece explodes splattering blood everywhere.  A shocking moment, yet also a victory for exploited workers.

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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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How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

PiFan 2013: Quick Fire Reviews 1

Quick-fire reviews from the second day of the 17th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival:

F*ck for Forest

F*ck for Forest

F*ck for Forest – 7/10 

 Polish documentary F*ck for Forest, by director Michal Marczak, is a fascinating exploration of a group attempting to help the world through sex and pornography. Disillusioned by the trappings of contemporary society and rejected by their families, the individuals live together in a commune of sorts as they take naked photos and make pornographic material to sell on the internet. Yet this money is not for personal gain; indeed, the group look for food in trash and accept clothes from charity organizations. Rather, they intend to save the planet. The film explores their lives with great insight, capturing the fragile psychology amid the unfaltering determination to save the Earth, and is constantly compelling. Yet as the film becomes more extreme – a man licks blood and semen from his hand – and the attitude of the general population is slowly introduced, F*ck for Forest becomes something of a tragic comedy as the group have dedication but precious little direction or awareness. The documentary is a great exploration of the attitudes towards sex and nudity in modern society, but also of the white saviour complex as the group travel to Peru in order to ‘save’ them for a hilarious yet pitiable conclusion. A thoroughly engaging, tragically-comic documentary.

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서) – 8/10

Director Lee Won-suk’s romantic comedy is a real gem and one of the most fun and exhilarating takes on the genre in a quite some time. The film itself isn’t particularly original in a narrative sense, but it’s the endlessly endearing stylization that is captivating throughout. Director Lee is superb in conveying the incredibly frustrating Korean workplace, poking fun at situations and quirky characters with real skill. But his masterstroke is in creating the cheesy retro world of the video which bestows advice on the heroine, wonderfully realised through the mise-en-scene from the glittery clothes through the silly infomercial style performances. Director Lee also manages to blend both worlds together for hilariously charming results, which manages the difficult feat of simultaneously being genuinely funny as well as conveying the difficulties of being a working women in contemporary Korea. While the ending ties up all the loose ends in a rather generic fashion, How to Use Guys with Secret Tips is one of the most enjoyable, charismatic rom-coms to emerge from Korea in recent years and is thoroughly recommended.

Drug War

Drug War

Drug War – 8/10

Iconic director Johnnie To’s Drug War is an exemplary action thriller. Moving to mainland China and away from his usual Hong Kong/Macau cityscapes, director To constructs the dark and violent world of drug smuggling with deft skill. What is particularly impressive throughout is the amalgamation of gritty urban realism, kinetic action and comedy, combined with themes of brotherhood. There is no room for romance in this very masculine world, as both cops and smugglers have unparalleled determination and refuse to give up even when faced with certain defeat. The film moves along at a rocketing pace while the stylized action sequences – including an incredible shoot-out in front of a school – leave audiences breathless. Due to this there is little time given to characterisation of the leads, but when action is this good it’s hard to fault. Another great film by the visionary director.

The Bluff (허풍)

The Bluff (허풍)

The Bluff (허풍) – 1/10

In theory, a film featuring men bluffing about sexual experiences with their friends could be an insightful piece on the fragile and almost pitiable egos of modern men. In practice, The Bluff is nothing more than dressed up, misogynistic soft-core porn. The early stories display some promise as the tubby and unattractive middle-aged men find themselves the ‘victims’ of con-artists, but they quickly dissolve into showing such men having sex with extremely attractive women that they could never hope to get outside of celluloid. Yet from there the film becomes even more misogynistic as one man calls a virgin ghost to be his sexual plaything, only to have sex with her in an animalistic and abusive fashion. Finally, the last tale involves a man having sex with an alien, who can change her face to anyone he chooses. It’s quite clear that (mostly female) porn stars are used within The Bluff due to their performances and obvious enhancements, which would be fine if the film wasn’t pretending to be something more. How it is within the ‘World Fantastic Cinema’ category at the festival is something of a mystery, as The Bluff is simply soft-core porn for men undergoing a mid-life crisis. Avoid.

Festival News Korean Festivals 2013 Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (제17회 부천국제판타스틱영화제)
The 17th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival

PiFan 2013: World Fantastic Cinema

The 17th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival

The 17th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival

The wonderfully titled ‘World Fantastic Cinema’ section in the upcoming Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan) features a truly eclectic range of films from a host of countries. With horrors, thrillers, dramas, romance and comedies on offer, there is certainly something for everyone in the line-up.

There are seven feature films from Korea within the category, including some mainstream releases as well as a focus on new talent, all of which are profiled below.

Alternatively, if you wish to see the features on the opening/closing films or the Puchon Choice categories, please click on the link(s) to be taken to the relevant page.

The Bluff (허풍)

The Bluff (허풍)

The Bluff (허풍)

Director: Gong Ja-gwan (공자관)

Synopsis: When four friends gather for a reunion, the small talk eventually gives way to more sexual topics of conversation. A game of bluffs begins, as the friends attempt to get to know each other more deeply than ever before.

Go, Stop, Murder (고스톱 살인)

Go, Stop, Murder (고스톱 살인)

Go, Stop, Murder (고스톱 살인)

Director: Kim Joon-kwon (김준권)

Synopsis: Popular game ‘go, stop’ becomes horririfc in this thriller, as a group of players in the countryside start to die one-by-one. Yet when a substitute player is brought in, he begins to think that the game itself is the source of the problem.

Horror Stories 2 (무서운 이야기2)

Horror Stories 2 (무서운 이야기2)

Horror Stories 2 (무서운 이야기2)

Directors: Jeong Beom-sik (정범식), Kim Hwi (김휘), Kim Seong-ho (김성호), Min Gyu-dong (민규동)

Synopsis: The first Horror Stories film opened PiFan 2012, so it’s perhaps only fitting that the sequel features in the line-up as well. Horror Stories 2 follows in the same footsteps as its predecessor, as three short scary tales are framed within another fourth. The Cliff involves two friends who find trouble in a mountain; Pain of Death features horrors set in the countryside; and Escape is concerned with a teacher who must deal with the consequences of some bad advice. See below for the trailer.

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

Director: Lee Won-seok (이원석)

Synopsis: Released back in February this year, director Lee’s How to Use Guys with Secret Tips garnered some impressive reviews from both Korean and foreign critics alike. In a case of extremely bad timing however, the film failed to set the box office alight as it went toe-to-toe with The Berlin File and Miracle in Room No. 7. The film follows unlucky-in-love Bo-na, a Tv commercial assistant director, who discovers a tape featuring instructions on how to seduce and manipulate men. But can she find true love? See below for the trailer.

Oldmen Never Die (죽지않아)

Oldmen Never Die (죽지않아)

Oldmen Never Die (죽지않아)

Director: Hwang Cheol-min (황철민)

Synopsis: In order to inherit his grandfather’s fortune, Ji-hun became a farmer to impress the old man with his labor skills and determination. Yet bizarrely the old man simply refuses to die, while the arrival of a challenger threatens Ji-hun’s plans.

Southern Superhero Showdown (촌능력전쟁)

Southern Superhero Showdown (촌능력전쟁)

Southern Superhero Showdown (촌능력전쟁)

Director: Ryu Hoon (류훈)

Synopsis: The brilliantly titled Southern Superhero Showdown features an unemployed young man named Ho-bang, who accidently discovers a strange village where everyone has superpowers. The paradox however is that the village is seemingly inescapable.

The Truth (진실)

The Truth (진실)

The Truth (진실)

Director: Seo Seung-man (서승만)

Synopsis: This 93 minute fiction blurs the lines between performance and reality through a story featuring stage actors. When weapons are brandished and characters die on stage, what really is going on?

For the full line-up of films in the PiFan World Fantastic Cinema category, please head over to the PiFan site by clicking on this link.

Festival News Korean Festivals 2013 Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (제17회 부천국제판타스틱영화제)