Sistar performed some of their hits and dance routines to an adoring crowd

The 17th Busan International Film Festival

BIFF 2012 at Haeundae (해운대) Beach

BIFF 2012 at Haeundae (해운대) Beach

While most film festivals promote themselves as bigger and better every year, the 17th installment of the Busan International Film Festival is certainly living up to the hype. With the first non-Korean hosting the opening ceremony in the form of Chinese actress Tang Wei, with the festival spread out across 10 days (as opposed to 9 in 2011), and with 132 world and international premieres, BIFF 2012 has done an incredible job in cementing itself as one of the key film festivals throughout Asia. The popularity of this years installment is acutely visible, as online tickets sold out rapidly whilst the 20% allocation at the event disappeared by mid-morning.

There were a lot of events to be had during the opening weekend of BIFF 2012. While Haeundae Beach was the host for several interviews and performances, the screenings themselves also often sported Q & A sessions with directors, producers and/or the stars themselves to an unprecedented degree in BIFF’s history. It was also common to walk into or past coffee shops and see film-makers meeting and conversing, creating a very relaxed atmosphere with their approachable demeanor.

On Friday the 5th, a private party was held for those that work within the film industry as well as journalists, while the cast of Kim Ki-duk‘s latest feature, the incredibly successful Pieta (피에타), were also in attendance.

Actress Jo Yeo-jeong co-hosts the Lotte Red Secret Party

Actress Jo Yeo-jeong co-hosts the Lotte Red Secret Party

Saturday the 6th saw two events take place. The Lotte Night Party – Red Secret was hosted by The Servant (방자전) actress Jo Yeo-Jeong and gave awards to those who had contributed significantly over the past year. Among those receiving awards were notable screenwriters and actors, including host Jo Yeo-Jeong and A Muse (은교) actress Kim Go-eun (김고은). Also in attendance were actor/director Yoo Ji-tae (유지태) and his wife, as well as Ahn Seong-gi (안성기), and former BIFF director Kim Dong-ho (김동호). Yet the most memorable event at the Red Secret party was the arrival of now-global-megastar Psy, who performed several of his hits as well as the groundbreaking Gangnam Style to a rapturous crowd.

Psy performs for the emphatic crowd

Psy performs for the emphatic crowd

The second party of the night was held by CJ Entertainment, and the style was markedly different.

Sistar performed some of their hits and dance routines to an adoring crowd

Sistar performed some of their hits and dance routines to an adoring crowd

In terms of performers parody group The Wonderboys were amazing fun as well as providing some great music to warm up the crowd for the main act – Kpop superstars Sistar. The quartet sang some of their most famous hits accompanied by their signature dance moves that had the crowd chanting their names. In attendance were a variety of people involved in the film industry including REALies president Kim Ho-seong and renowned editor Lee Sang-min. There were also a whole host of film and television stars, including the cast of period drama-comedy Masquerade (광해, 왕이 된 남자) – Lee Byeong-heon (이병헌), Ryoo Seung-ryong (류승룡) and Jang Gwang (장광) – as well as TV star Kim Min-jong (김민종) and As One (코리아 ) actor Lee Jong-suk (이종석).

Actress Go A-ra was a delight

Actress Go A-ra was a delight

However a genuine highlight of the night was actress Go Ah-ra (고아라) (star of Pacemaker (페이스메이커) and Papa (파파)), who was incredibly kind, courteous and humble, giving genuine insight into the differences in working in the Korean film and television industries.

Sunday night saw the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) event, which saw fellow The Good, The Bad, The Weird (좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈) actors Song Kang-ho (송강호) and Jeong Woo-seong (정우성) attending, in addition to a myriad of other stars and members of the film industry.

And so ended the first weekend of the 2012 Busan International Film Festival. With the incredible selection of films, variety of events in which the public could have access to members of the film industry, and unprecedented popularity, it is difficult to imagine how BIFF will grow and improve in with future installments but one thing is for certain – the BIFF team will undoubtedly find a way.

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King Gwang-hae becomes increasingly paranoid as attempts against his life are made

Masquerade (광해, 왕이 된 남자) – ★★★★☆

Masquerade (광해, 왕이 된 남자)

Masquerade (광해, 왕이 된 남자)

Mark Twain’s seminal novel The Prince and the Pauper has long endured arguably for the manner in which it exposed the gulf between the upper and lower economic classes. The trials and tribulations that Prince Edward and Tom Canty undertake allow Twain to explore the vast lifestyle differences amongst the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, with each protagonist utilising their prior experiences to emphasise the hardships, and the unfairness, of both existences. In doing so the story has resonated with audiences of all socio-economic backgrounds, and in the contemporary financial climate, is perhaps even more relevant than ever.

With Masquerade, screenwriter Hwang Jo-yoon has adapted Twain’s novel to Joseon dynasty Korea, with the case of mistaken identity transferred between King Gwang-hae and a lowly comic actor. With a well-structured and highly entertaining script, incredibly competent directing from Choo Chang-min, and an enthralling set of performances from Lee Byeong-heon, Masquerade is without doubt one of the best films of the year and a testament to the quality of the period dramas Korea can produce.

King Gwang-hae (Lee Byeong-Heon (이병헌) is deeply unpopular in court, and as spies and threats surround him, becomes increasingly paranoid. Under a veil of secrecy, the King instructs his most loyal subjects to find a suitable surrogate who can impersonate him during the night should any assassination attempts be made against him. By chance, one such subject exists – a comic performer (Lee Byeong-Heon) who routinely mocks the King during his performances. Yet while the ruse works well initially, the King suddenly becomes critically ill and taken to a remote location to recover. Thus it falls to the actor, as well as the loyal Chief Advisor (Ryoo Seung-yong (류승룡) and Chief Eunuch (Jang Gwang (장광) to fool the members of the court until the true King can regain his health and return to secure his kingdom. However as time passes, the actor becomes increasingly aware of the unfairness and corruption inherent in the ruling elite and begins to introduce changes of his own.

King Gwang-hae becomes increasingly paranoid as attempts against his life are made

King Gwang-hae becomes increasingly paranoid as attempts against his life are made

The aesthetics and cinematography within Masquerade are stunningly sumptuous, and are wonderfully realised by director Choo Chang-min. Indeed, the film opens with a montage emphasizing the extreme prestige of the royal lifestyle and the flamboyant colours inherent within, composed to convey the luxurious – and arrogant – nature of the ruling elite. The world of the Joseon dynasty is also recreated with incredible attention to detail ranging from the elegant clothing to crockery to the king’s lavish homestead, producing an enthrallingly convincing arena in which the exchanges and sedition take place. In setting up such narrative events screenwriter Hwang Jo-yoon borrows the catalyst from The King and the Clown as the King’s double receives unwanted attention through his critical portrayal of the King. There the similarities end however as once the King and the actor exchange places the discord in the court is explored through thoroughly different means, as the actor routinely, and naturally, comes face-to-face with issues that plague the kingdom yet have been ignored by the monarch. Surprisingly Masquerade also features an array of comical moments amongst the drama as the actor bumbles his way through the customs and etiquette of his new environment. Many of the jokes are crude and based on bodily humour, yet rather than a criticism this is actually an intriguing method of exploring the differences between the social classes and allows the audience to gain greater empathy with the actor who seemingly cannot perform the simplest of tasks without an entourage. In forging a greater alignment with the unwitting counterpart and his more middle/lower economic sensibilities, the various discussions on taxation, crime and punishment, and slavery achieve more prominent emotional resonance making the actor’s growing confidence and the enforcement of his own rulings to save the Joseon people – despite the awareness of his it could bring his demise – a source of great nationalistic inspiration and strength.

Instrumental in such a portrayal is the excellent performance from Lee Byeong-heon. He conveys the arrogance, stoicism and ruthlessness of King Gwang-hae incredibly well and stands in stark contrast to his astoundingly portrayal as the foolhardy yet well-meaning doppelganger actor. Lee Byeong-heon’s comic timing is impressive as he conveys the humorous moments within the narrative with deft skill and, with convincing clumsiness, faltering through all manner of routines that never fail to inspire laughter. Yet where Lee Byeong-heon’s performance really shines is through the evolution of the actor from an unwitting clown to a man of dignity and stature, the progression of which is wonderfully subtle and well-paced and never feeling in the least bit contrived. The manner in which the protagonist evolves is great, and the internal conflict that appears over his face when making decisions that will effect the court and the denizens of the entire kingdom, in the knowledge it will result in his eventual execution, is remarkable to behold. If there is criticism to laid, however, it’s in the protagonist’s relationship with the Queen, although this is no fault of either Lee Byeong-heon nor Han Hyo-joo (한효주). The Queen merely exists to provide the counterpart with a beautiful damsel in distress to save, and the Queen’s function in the narrative doesn’t extend beyond the stereotypical role. That said, the exchanges that occur between the Queen and the actor do not detract from the narrative and are enjoyable and well-performed.

The King and the imposter come face-to-face

The King and the impostor come face-to-face

As previously mentioned, Lee Byeong-heon is phenomenal in his dual roles as both the King and the impostor, and it would be difficult to imagine that he will not be honoured with – at the very least – an acting award nomination for his incredible performance.

Yet Lee Byeong-heon is also surrounded by an eclectic group of established actors who also conduct their roles with incredible skill.

Ryoo Seung-yong is simply wonderful as the stoically loyal Chief Advisor. The actor coveys the Chief Advisor’s commitment to the kingdom with the utmost competency and sincerity, yet is also adept in comic timing as his exchanges with the King’s counterpart are consistently laugh-out-loud moments that also simultaneously serve to highlight the change in attitude towards each other. As with other features of the narrative, the subtle manner in which their relationship alters is highly entertaining as the Advisor initially admonishes the clown for his foolishness only to come to admire his tenacity alongside the audience, and Ryoo Seung-yong does an incredible job of conveying the evolution.

Similarly the Chief Eunuch, played by Jang Gwang, also expresses the change in attitude yet also serves the role of ‘the helper’ in enlightening the King’s counterpart on the issues facing the kingdom. As the more maternal of the two advisors, Jang Gwang is excellent as the subservient member of the court and brings an understated emotional core to the film, particularly in the early stages.

As the Queen, Han Hyo-joo is competent throughout. Unfortunately for her the role is generally underdeveloped and stereotypical of a beautiful woman in need of saving, yet she performs with grace and dignity.

Also worthy of mention is the loyal Captain, performed by Kim In-kwon. Initially a somewhat overshadowed character, the Captain takes a prominent position in the final act with Kim In-kwon more than adequately portraying the loyalty of a devoted man with emotion and heart.

The long suffering Queen begins to notice the differences in the new 'King'

The long suffering Queen begins to notice the differences in the new ‘King’

Verdict:

Masquerade is a wonderfully realized and incredibly entertaining film, one that uses the basis of The Prince and the Pauper and rapidly makes it into a uniquely Korean period production. Alongside the very well-written, well-paced script is visually stunning direction and, while it somewhat lacks in scale, it conveys the colourful regal elegance with striking skill. Yet it is Lee Byeong-heon who gives the film heart with his exceptional dual performances that serve to emphasis the gulf between the classes in society and the injustices that, no-matter the era, plague the ruling elite. Masquerade is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year and is highly, highly recommended.

★★★★☆

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Teacher In-ho attempts to communicate through sign and art

Silenced (The Crucible) (도가니) – ★★★☆☆

Silenced (The Crucible) (도가니)

Silenced (The Crucible) (도가니)

It is incredibly rare for a film to have such potency that the national fervor generated changes law. Silenced (The Crucible) (도가니), based on the true story of the sexual abuses of hearing impaired children in 2000, sparked outrage upon release not only for the subject matter but also for the extremely lenient punishments dealt to the offenders, as well as the corruption seemingly inherent within the judiciary system.

While critics bemoaned the public furor as hypocrisy, due to the indifference displayed to the television programme and book produced years prior on the subject, politicians were keen to introduce legislation which was shockingly absent to protect children from sexual predators – and raise their own political profile in the process.

As such, Silenced is an incredibly powerful film conveying an array of social discourses. Helmed by highly competent director Hwang Dong-hyeok (황동혁), Silenced is a tense and gripping drama during the discovery of the abuses and impending trial, yet loses momentum in the inevitable court hearing.

Art teacher and sign language practitioner Kang In-ho (Gong Yoo (공유) endures several hardships in life. His wife has died; his daughter is very sick; and finding employment is extremely difficult. Through the recommendation of his professor, In-ho is accepted as a teacher at Inhwa school for the hearing impaired in Gwangju. Yet upon arrival in the foggy village, he is involved in a car accident with social worker Seo Yoo-jin (Jeong Yu-mi (정유미), exchanging insurance details. Settling in at the school, In-ho finds the behaviour of the students strange; they are quiet and nervous, often sporting bruises and cuts, and are reluctant to communicate. Worse still, he hears screams at night and witnesses the beatings and water torture used against the students. Learning of the sexual abuses In-ho casts aside his career and gathers the abused children, working together with Yoo-jin to launch a legal campaign against the injustice caused by the perpetrators – including the headmaster.

Teacher In-ho attempts to communicate through sign and art

Teacher In-ho attempts to communicate through sign and art

Due to the subject nature of the film, Silenced cannot help but be an incredibly emotive viewing experience. Director Hwang Dong-hyeok deserves credit for employing a variety of methods in conveying the horror of child abuse, from the cries of deaf children echoing in darkened corridors, long takes of appalling physical violence, to Kubrickian-esque shots of stairwells  that descend into horror. The use of sign language is also well utilised as the children are forced to reenact events rather than speak of them, adding a chilling dimension to the abuse. Hwang Dong-hyeok is keenly aware of the necessity to shock, and his decision to depict controversial scenes including a teacher washing young boys in a bath and the headmaster undressing himself and young girls against their will, add a level of repulsion that is difficult to describe. While certain critics have questioned the extent to which such scenes should exist, there is no denying the shocking reconstruction of events forces audiences from apathy and indifference. The suspense and tension are wonderfully created within the school, almost making the building a sinister character in itself.

Yet Silenced tends to stall outside of the environment, with the impending court case and the hearing itself competent but relatively low-key. This generally due to focusing on protagonists other than the children, and in doing so the narrative loses traction and immediacy. However such tangents do allow for additional social commentary, focusing on the corruption of virtually every professional involved in the case as a microcosm for the Korean justice system. Christians are also held accountable within the film for vehemently supporting the child abusers and bribing officials, as well as spitting at and intimidating those pressing charges. Silenced reasserts itself when focusing on the testimonies of the children, who bravely give evidence against the perpetrators despite the pressure against them. In doing so the film finds its emotional core, making the final decision bestowed by the presiding judge all the more heartfelt.

In-ho and social worker Yoo-jin document the abuse for television

In-ho and social worker Yoo-jin document the abuse for television

As the heart and soul of Silenced, child actors Kim Hyeon-soo (김현수), Jeong In-seo (정인서) and Baek Seung-hwan (백승환) as protagonists Kim Yeon-doo (김연두), Jin Yoo-ri (진유리) and Jeon Min-soo (전민수) respectively, are exceptional. Their performances are incredibly powerful and compelling, all three utterly convincing as victims of abuse desperate for justice and affection. Kim Hyeon-soo is wonderful as Yeon-doo, particularly during the court room scenes as she describes her abuse and outsmarts the adults in the room. Jeong In-seo is also compelling as Yoo-ri, the youngest victim, ably shifting between acute nervousness when describing the assaults and moments of sheer joy when shown affection. As the only male victim, Baek Seung-hwan is shockingly convincing as Min-soo, displaying an intensity in his performance that belies his age. Whether suffering various abuses, recapturing his childhood or breaking down through stress, Baek Seung-hwan conveys gripping poignacy and emotional distress.

The same cannot be applied to lead actor Gong Yoo as teacher In-ho. His performance is generally bland and stoic even in the face of horrific scenes of violence, more of a phantom than a troubled man confronted with child abuse. In fairness to the actor, the character is rather underdeveloped with select few scenes informing his history or relationships, resulting in a lack of empathy. The few occasions in which In-ho’s character is conveyed is usually through beratement by his mother, more of an annoyance than informative. Absence of development is also applicable to social worker Yoo-jin, played by Jeong Yu-mi. Initially quite unlikeable, Yoo-jin becomes much more compelling than her male counterpart due to the range of emotions conveyed through Jeong Yu-mi’s performance. As devices through which the abused children seek justice the central roles of In-ho and Yoo-jin require substantiality as they function as the conduits for the audience. Yet as it stands, they fall rather flat.

Yeon-do and the other children face grueling questions in court

Yeon-do and the other children face grueling questions in court

Verdict:

Silenced is an incredibly powerful film that expresses the horrors of child abuse and conveys the corruption of members of Korean society with skill. The resulting public outrage is wholly understandable as the stark brutality of the events are performed with exceptional child actors and the injustice against such innocence is impossible to remain detached from. While the film loses momentum and its emotional core when outside the school and away from the victims, Silenced  is a challenging film and – even if merely to have an opinion – required viewing.

★★★☆☆

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