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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With a killer on the loose, the inhabitants must do whatever it takes to survive

Intruders (조난자들) – ★★★☆☆

Intruders (조난자들)

Intruders (조난자들)

Suspense-filled and gorgeously picturesque, quirky thriller Intruders (조난자들) is director Noh Young-seok’s (노영석) second feature film following his critically acclaimed Daytime Drinking (낮술).

Appearing within the ‘Korean Cinema Today – Vision’ category at BIFF 2013 following a world premiere at Toronto, Intruders has been likened to Pekinpah’s Straw Dogs due to the similar themes of disquieting locals and a house under siege.

While it never reaches those heights, director Noh’s film is indeed a refreshing change of pace. The foreboding dark alleys of Seoul have been replaced with stunning winter landscapes, while the isolation and bizarre behaviour of everyone involved provides a vastly different form of thriller. However, with its uneven pacing and unsatisfactory third act, Intruders never quite manages to fulfill its potential and as such is an entertaining rather than genre redefining entry.

Screenwriter Sang-jin inspects his cabin the wintry countryside

Screenwriter Sang-jin inspects his cabin in the wintry countryside

In order to complete his screenplay undisturbed, writer Sang-jin (Jun Suk-ho (전석호) journeys into the remote countryside to stay at his boss’ cabin alone. Surrounded by snow-covered mountains and with the nearest town 30 minutes away, Sang-jin is certain he will finish his work before the deadline. Yet on the way he reluctantly befriends odd ex-con Hak-soo (Oh Tae-kyung (오태경) who is determined to form a relationship, while the arrival of young ski enthusiasts at the adjacent cabin complicate his plans further. More disturbing however are the hunters who stalk the surrounding area, creating a deep sense of unease. When Sang-jin discovers one of the young skiers has been murdered, a shocking chain of events are set in motion.

First and foremost, Intruders is an extremely attractive film. Director Noh frames each scene to make the most out the stunning country landscapes and the blanket white snow that engulfs it, and as such the film is consistently visually impressive. Locations also wonderfully evolve according to the context in which Sang-jin finds himself, as beautiful scenes suddenly become uncomfortable when awkward situations arise. It is remarkable how the isolated cabin changes from being a romanticised place of work to a source of terror, yet director Noh’s framing techniques and pacing succeed in slowly building a sense of foreboding that completely changes the atmosphere within the film. This is in no small part due to the quirky and downright weird characters that are introduced throughout the story, with the suspense and tension generated by their actions reaching palpable levels.

The arrival of local law enforcement only serves to complicate matters further

The arrival of local law enforcement only serves to complicate matters further

The assortment of characters within Intruders makes the film equal parts scary and darkly comic, as their unpredictable behaviour is constantly fascinating to watch unfold. Oh Tae-kyung is great as odd ex-con Hak-soo, genuinely leaving the audience wondering about his motivations through his ability to switch from overly-friendly to threatening in a heartbeat. Also within the mix are young and crude male skiers, a cop with a twisted sense of justice, and rugged hillbilly hunters whose disheveled appearance – coupled with their random gun shots in the wilderness – place everyone ill at ease. Only one character, that of the bitchy lone female skier, tends to ruin the story as she is so one-dimensional it’s continually frustrating. Her constant complaints and moans are initially amusing, but as the only woman in the script director Noh really should have elaborated her role further. Luckily however actor Jun Suk-ho is brilliant to watch as everyman Sang-jin. His reactions to the bizarre happenings and weird people around him are always compelling and entertaining, leading the audience through the minefield of weirdness as well as providing the story with central focus.

Yet for all the suspense and enjoyment, Intruders doesn’t quite manage to elevate itself into the realms it should. Director Noh has done remarkably well in constructing the premise but all too often he lingers on moments for too long rather than move to the next event. This is wonderful in terms of creating tension, yet these and earlier scenes could (or perhaps should) have been trimmed in editing to allow later events time to advance. Furthermore while plenty of clues and red herrings are subtly laced within the story, certain features really come out of left field that are simultaneously laughable and shocking. All these issues culminate in a finale that is quite underwhelming and lacking in satisfaction, a shame as for the most part Intruders is a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable film.

With a killer on the loose, the inhabitants must do whatever it takes to survive

With a killer on the loose, the inhabitants must do whatever it takes to survive

Verdict:

Intruders is a wonderfully quirky tale of a screenwriter who ventures into the countryside yet gets more than he bargained for with the odd locals. Director Noh Young-seok’s second film is beautifully picturesque and consistently laced with dark humour throughout, with the bizarre situations the writer finds himself in compelling and entertaining. While the film never manages to capitalise on the great premise, for the most part Intruders is a fun, engaging and refreshing thriller.

★★★☆☆

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