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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Jiseul (지슬)

Jiseul (지슬) – ★★★★★

Jiseul (지슬)

Jiseul (지슬)

Director O Muel’s (오멸) Jiseul (지슬) quickly became known as one of the most interesting and exemplary screenings upon its debut at the 2012 Busan International Film Festival. The monochrome film depicts the little-known events of the 1948 Jeju Island Uprising – or rather, massacre – in which the Korean military brutally suppressed and killed up to a fifth of the entire population. For fifty years after, even mentioning what transpired was a crime punishable by torture and incarceration. Yet with his fourth feature director O Muel, a Jeju Islander himself, presents the atrocities that were committed with stark and uncompromising realism, simultaneously portraying the horrifying events alongside the indomitable spirit of the Jeju villagers. While Jiseul suffers due to lack of context and scope, the film is poignant and harrowing in its account of the tragedy, with the five awards won at BIFF, and an invitation to the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and International Film Festival Rotterdam, testament to its raw cinematic power.

Jiseul (지슬)

Jiseul (지슬)

Throughout Jiseul director O Meul employs stunning directorial flair in capturing the range of experiences brought about by the Uprising. Of particular note are the astonishing long takes that are utterly absorbing, drawing the audience into such awful events as exploring a homestead following a raid, and an all-out assault on a village. In addition to the monochrome colours, such long takes are highly effective in conveying stark, chilling realism and as such are powerfully emotive. It’s impossible not to feel horror as farmers and the elderly are mercilessly stabbed and brutalized during such sequences. The incredible cinematography by Yang Jung-Hoon also adds potency as the snow covered landscapes and farming villages are attractive yet foreboding, and the tension as these arenas are traversed is often palpable.

The residents of the town seek shelter and safety in a cave

The residents of the town seek shelter and safety in a cave

Yet the heart of Jiseul is undoubtedly the assortment of colourful characters that populate the film, particularly the Islanders who flee to the safety of the caves. O Muel displays his talents as a scriptwriter with their dialogue as the Islanders laugh, bicker, and discuss the farming lifestyle amongst themselves, all of which are highly amusing. While there are too many figures to delve into serious character development, the conversations are unfailing in creating empathy with their plight. Initially, due to the lack of context, it seems as if the Islanders are running from a threat that doesn’t exist. Yet as the narrative progresses, and the terrible physical and sexual assaults perpetrated by the soldiers are portrayed, the threat becomes ever more real. In Korean cinema such atrocities are most commonly aligned with an external threat – typically Japanese imperial forces – and O Muel deserves credit for challenging this ideological form and locating the threat internally. The director also wisely moves beyond mere stereotypes of evil in depicting factions of soldiers breaking away from the main Korean army, holding true to historical accounts.

It is in this historical regard that Jiseul suffers the most, as anyone unfamiliar with the Jeju Uprising will find precious little context given. Aside from a few sentences that bookend the film, it is difficult to achieve a sense of appreciation as to why the events are occurring, and what led to this point. Hints are occasionally given as to the wider conflict ongoing around the island, yet as there is little sense of scale it is difficult to determine. Yet in place of scale, Jiseul contains potent symbolism through the use of iconography and other facets of the mise-en-scene that not only convey the tragic loss of life, but also the attempts to conceal the truth. As such the power of the film lies in its intimate, raw visual aesthetics and makes Jiseul one of the most intriguing, and important, Korean films of 2012.

The monochrome palette and symbolism are highly effective

The monochrome palette and symbolism are highly effective

Verdict:

Jiseul is a powerful and harrowing account of the 1948 Jeju Uprising, with director O Muel’s monochrome palette and intense visual style adding incredible potency and realism to the true-life events. Accompanied by some wonderful cinematography by Yang Jung-Hoon, director O Muel deserves credit for challenging dominant ideology by not only attempting to create awareness of the massacre, but also for locating the source of horror internally with the Korean military. While the film suffers from lack of context for those ignorant of the Uprising, Jiseul is an exemplary independent production and one of the most important releases of 2012.

★★★★★

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