Scenes that require depth have the greatest impact in Screen X

The X (더 엑스) – N/A

The X (더 엑스)

The X (더 엑스)

Commissioned by film production powerhouse CJ CGV, short film The X (더 엑스) has been specifically created with the purpose of experimenting with Screen X technology. By utilising the space either side of the screen, Screen X intends for films to be a more immersive experience for audiences.

In order to fully explore the possibilities offered by the technology, famed director Kim Jee-woon (김지운) has been brought on board to helm the short film, while stars Kang Dong-won, Shin Min-ah, and E Som fill the roles within the spy thriller. The story itself is intended as a tongue-in-cheek parody of the spy sub-genre, and in all honesty is rather inconsequential. Ultimately The X is intended as an experiment, and as such it deifies review. Instead, it is more apt to discuss the pros and cons of Screen X technology, as director Kim and his team only somewhat succeed  in exploiting the extra space they have been afforded.

New camera technology allows for a more immersive experience

New camera technology allows for a more immersive experience

The Good

Screen X is indeed an immersive experience when employed correctly. One of the earliest scenes features Kang Dong-won in a room filled with light reflected from a ’70s disco ball, and when the screen expands to envelop the audience it does truly feel like being within the film itself. There are two or three shots such as this within The X, and in each case the film looked quite stunning as the extra depth generated genuinely creates a feeling of immersion within the events on screen.

By director Kim’s own admission during a press conference at BIFF 2013, there was only one particular sequence he focused on within the film, and it shows. The car chase sequence is short but thrilling, as motorcycles and cars weave through all three of the screens and into adjacent areas, with the action flowing well throughout. Director Kim’s incredible vision for action is fully on display during these scenes, and as villains are mown down in hails of bullets their bodies and motorcycles fly from one screen to the next. The manner in which such devices are executed allows the audience to follow the carnage naturally, before moving back to the action on the central screen. While short, it’s an impressive sequence that utilises the technology well.

Action scenes tend to stay centrally located, rather than exploit the extra space

Action scenes tend to stay centrally located, rather than exploit the extra space

The Bad

The chief issue with The X is that director Kim hasn’t adjusted his directing skills in order to fully exploit what Screen X technology provides. The story and action are continually centrally located, and when the side screens suddenly appear it is extremely jarring and pulls the audience from the film easily. Throughout The X this is a key problem, as rather than gradually guide the audience from one screen to another, the impromptu flash of a new screen unexpectedly appearing is quite frustrating and distracting. Moreover what often appears on the peripheral screens is of little importance anyway. When Agent Fingers (E Som) uses her computer, for example, images of her PC screen appear on the outer cinema screens – extremely odd considering she is looking it in the central area. As such, several members of the audience complained they didn’t know where to look, or what action to follow.

Another issue with Screen X is actually within the cinema itself. Unless a cinema is equipped with the two additional (angled) side screens, the film must be projected onto the walls of the room. This may seem a minor quibble, however in attempting to follow a story from one area of the room to another the 90 degree angles of the cinema walls made the transitions awkward and interrupted the flow. This also begs further questions as to whether cinema chains will want to refit screens to provide such an experience or, perhaps more importantly, if other directors will wish to use the medium in the first place to justify such expenditure.

Currently Screen X is an interesting concept, although at this early stage is somewhat gimmicky. However the same was said of 3D and 4DX once upon a time, and it will be interesting to see whether industry professionals decide to take the technology a step further and make it a permanent feature of the cinema-going experience.

Scenes that require depth have the greatest impact in Screen X

Scenes that require depth have the greatest impact in Screen X

Verdict:

The X is ultimately a technological experiment rather than a short film. Commissioned by CJ CGV and directed by auteur Kim Ji-woon, the production is intended as a showcase for Screen X technology which employs two additional, peripheral screens. Aside from an impressive car chase and one of two key shots, director Kim and his team generally fail to exploit the potential offered by Screen X making it feel somewhat gimmicky, although time will tell if the industry adopts what’s on offer.

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Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013
The hostility between Yu-jeong and Yeon-su evolves into fondness

Maundy Thursday (AKA Our Happy Time (우리들의 행복한 시간) – ★★★★☆

Maundy Thursday (AKA Our Happy Time (우리들의 행복한 시간)

Maundy Thursday (AKA Our Happy Time (우리들의 행복한 시간)

Typically in the romance genre, the manner in which love begins is through trite happenstance – an accidental injury; a misunderstanding; a hot tub time machine. Not so in Maundy Thursday (AKA Our Happy Time (우리들의 행복한 시간), which buckles all conventions in the development of love. 

The romantic drama features a rebellious suicide survivor who, with regular visits to jail at the behest of her Catholic nun aunt, becomes enamored with a death row inmate. Far removed from traditional representations of romance, Maundy Thursday is a riveting cinematic delight, a highly character-driven film that exemplifies the importance of sharing sadness as well as happiness in the creation of love.

Moon Yu-jeong (Lee Na-young (이나영) is a suicide survivor, presenting a particular problem for her devoutly Catholic family and overbearing, selfish mother. Yu-jeong’s aunt, a Catholic nun, persuades her niece to join her on her weekly volunteer work at a prison, attempting to give hope and salvation to the prisoners. Reluctantly agreeing, Yu-jeong and her aunt meet rapist and murderer Jung Yeon-soo (Kang Dong-won (강동원). Initially incredibly hostile towards each other, the pair gradually reveal more about their tortured pasts, their hopes, their fears, and become irrevocably changed through the love that blossoms between them.

After her latest suicide attempt, Yu-jeong is sickened by the selfishness of her family

After her latest suicide attempt, Yu-jeong is sickened by the selfishness of her family

Maundy Thursday is a highly compelling and poignant romantic drama that embraces the darker and more tragic aspects of society in its depiction of love. Such a philosophy is ultimately what makes the film so unique and enthralling, as screenwriters Jang Min-seok (장민석) and Park Eun-yeong (박은영) never shy from exploring how character evolves through the unfair machinations of society, which director Song Hae-seong (송해성) wonderfully conveys. Working class Yeon-su has been abandoned by his mother and delved into a life of crime that has led to his incarceration; Yu-jeong is from a privileged upper-middle class background yet the overbearing Catholicism and rigid lifestyle has left her scarred. Technically two such protagonists should never become intertwined yet the narrative is so organic and flows so well that their meetings – which occur every Thursday – and the development of their relationship are natural and believable. Scenes in which the duo share their emotional pain, eloquently told through dialogue and flashbacks, are simultaneously heartbreaking and endearing revealing not only the suffering endured by people of all walks of life but how such turmoil can bring them together once shared. Acknowledging personal trauma, confronting it, and sharing it with someone special are the driving forces within Maundy Thursday, and the affection and love that blossoms from such pain are masterfully conveyed and deeply poignant.

A social group that does not express such qualities within Maundy Thursday are members of the Catholic faith. The film wonderfully explores how the concept of religion can be taken and abused by a practicing individual with horrifying results. With the exception of the kind Catholic priests and nuns within the prison, Catholicism is represented through Yu-jeong’s family, primarily her abhorrent mother. Director Song Hae-seong (송해성) masterfully portrays the eccentric and arrogant nature of the Catholic family, with expensive ornaments adorning the rigidly structured family home, the repressed clothing style of turtle-necks and high collars, and the snobbery and ignorance in spite of family trauma. The decor within the family home are an amalgamation of reds, oranges and yellows conveying the genuine ‘hell’ that exists there, while the pale-faced black-clothed mother, who is equal parts scary and manipulative, functions as the devil. Yet only Yu-jeong perceives the hypocrisy of her family, chastised for stating truths to people more concerned with rhetoric and status. Yu-jeong’s loneliness and rebellious nature are emphasized to such a degree that it is impossible not to empathize with the character, making her relationship with inmate Yeon-su all the more touching.

The hosility between Yu-jeong and Yeon-su evolves into fondness

The hostility between Yu-jeong and Yeon-su evolves into fondness

Lee Na-young is absolutely captivating in her performance as Yu-jeong. The actress masterfully conveys the tumultuous emotional well deep within the character, from her agitated moments of familial defiance and indifference to criticism through to more challenging maternal confrontations and expressions of past anguish. Lee Na-young’s performance is by far the most captivating, compelling and poignant aspect of Maundy Thursday and as such the film is ultimately her story.

Kang Dong-won takes more of a supportive role in his performance as Yeon-su, yet he also conveys a staggering emotional range. His ill-mannered behaviour and resolute desire to die are highly engaging, yet the occurrence of more dramatic scenes such as confronting the mother of his victim and his subsequent breakdown create incredible empathy with the killer. The fashion in which Yeon-su evolves from a man without hope to finding happiness is wonderfully portrayed by the highly skilled actor.

Despite himself, Yeon-su discovers happiness due to Yu-jeong

Despite himself, Yeon-su discovers happiness due to Yu-jeong

Verdict:

The focus on societal and religious discourses, and the love that can develop through sharing personal trauma, make Maundy Thursday a unique and incredibly compelling romantic drama. The performances by the central couple are wonderful and the manner in which they develop feelings of romance are organic and highly convincing. Maundy Thursday is an excellent portrayal of alternative romance, and a poignant reminder of the value of sharing pain and happiness within a relationship.

★★★★☆

Reviews
Han-gyoo briefly meets Ji-won during a botched counter-terrorist strike

Secret Reunion (의형제) – ★★★★☆

Secret Reunion (의형제)

Secret Reunion (의형제)

The representation of an unspoken bond between the people of North and South Korea has widely existed in contemporary Korean cinema, emphasising the lack of difference between the two and the futility of fighting on ideological grounds. Arguably originating in Kang Je-gyu‘s Shiri (1999), which introduced a softer stance on communism and featuring common ground and relationships, the film was followed by other high profile additions including JSA (2000) and Welcome to Dongmakol (2005), and even television dramas such as Iris (2009).

Director Jang Hoon’s (장훈) second feature, and his first since breaking away from mentor Kim Ki-duk, addresses the concept in a different manner. Secret Reunion (의형제) – also known as ‘Brothers’ and ‘Blood Brothers’ – rejects the oft-utilised theme of war in exploring the notion of Korean brotherhood and instead focuses on more domestic notions of family and kinship. The result is a highly compelling and engaging thriller featuring great direction and wonderful performances, making Secret Reunion one of the best examples of the concept in recent years.

Lee Han-gyoo (Song Kang-ho (송강호) is the team leader of a specialist task force within the National Intelligence Service (NIS). His mission is to capture or kill the North Korean terrorist known only as ‘Shadow’ (Jeon Gook-hwan (전국환), yet the extremist is incredibly elusive. Working on a tip-off, Han-gyoo prepares his team for Shadow’s next strike against a North Korean defector, refusing to call in back-up in a bid to receive credit. Yet unbeknownst to Han-gyoo, Shadow employs the help of young and talented protege Song Ji-won (Kang Dong-won (강동원) for the execution. As the NIS move in to capture Shadow the mission goes horribly awry resulting in the deaths of several officers, with Shadow and Ji-won escaping incarceration. Several years later Han-gyoo, dismissed from the NIS for his conduct, coincidently meets Ji-won at a mining plant. Considered a traitor by the North, Ji-won has also been deserted. In a bid to redeem themselves, the men form a business partnership in order to steal information from each other and regain their honour.

Han-gyoo briefly meets Ji-won during a botched counter-terrorist strike

Han-gyoo briefly meets Ji-won during a botched counter-terrorist strike

Secret Reunion was the second highest grossing film of 2010 and it’s clear to see why. The script by Jang Min-seok (장민석) is highly character driven, featuring both central protagonists as flawed human beings striving to better themselves and define their existences. The writer skillfully combines an array of genre motifs from espionage-orientated action to domestic comedy whilst never feeling contrived, and as such the relationship that develops between Han-gyoo and Ji-won is organic and engaging. Director Jang Hoon capitalises on such a solid foundation with highly impressive visual flair, combining fast-paced adrenaline-fueled camera movement during action sequences, wonderful cinematography, and a keen sense of comedy. Both the script and direction consistently represent Han-gyoo and Ji-won as men with similar ideals, with ideological differences that do arise more generational than cultural.

The character development and relationship between Ji-won and Han-gyoo is where Secret Reunion shines. Han-gyoo’s arrogant and ambitious traits as an NIS agent are similar to Ji-won’s single-minded determination in assassinating a defector; yet when both protagonists are stripped of their roles they find common ground through notions of family and compassion. Divorced Han-gyoo psychologically and financially copes with the departure of his family by locating and reunifying runaway foreign wives with their Korean husbands, despite the brutality with which they were treated. While such a narrative thread conveys Han-gyoo’s torment over losing his family, it also explores an increasing problem in Korean society as men from the countryside marry – often through brokers – Vietnamese, Thai, Filipino and women from other developing countries, often abusing them upon arrival. As such, Secret Reunion conveys that focusing on older concerns of North/South relations overshadows more pressing current social and humanitarian issues, also expressed through the old age of Northern terrorist Shadow in comparison to the young women forced to flee. Ji-won exemplifies such a stance as his communist ideology is portrayed not so much as archaic nationalistic fervour but as equal rights for all, coping with the loss of his family by respecting the women he tracks down as he would his own wife.

Ji-won and Han-gyoo accidently meet several years later

Ji-won and Han-gyoo accidently meet several years later

In their roles as Han-gyoo and Ji-won, actors Song Kang-ho and Kang Dong-won prove why they are among the top talent in the industry. Both perform their roles highly convincingly and are compelling throughout. The range of genres within Secret Reunion also allows the actors to stretch their performances in different territories, from the tense action sequences to their comedic living arrangements, from sharing personal history to violent confrontations. The chemistry between them is a joy to watch, with the generational difference between them also conveying a ‘passing-of-the-torch’ of sorts from one talent to the other.

If there is criticism to be bestowed upon the film, it would be that there are not enough scenes that heighten the tension between them and dramatic moments in which personal history is expressed. The co-habitation between Han-gyoo and Ji-won is wonderfully comedic and conveys their brotherly similarities, yet opportunities are missed in which tension and paranoia could be embellished, as well as subtle mannerisms or anecdotes conveying the character’s philosophy and experiences to unite them closer. As such their business and living arrangements are enjoyable yet lose the immediacy of scenes prior.

In order to steal secrets, Han-gyoo and Ji-won co-habit

In order to steal secrets, Han-gyoo and Ji-won co-habit

Verdict:

Secret Reunion is an engaging and compelling film about the unspoken kinship between people of North and South Korea. With the highly competent script by Jang Min-seok, wonderful cast and the visual flair of director Jang Hoon, the film features an array of genres including suspense-filled action and comedic domestic sequences, as well as providing interesting social discourses regarding the abuse suffered by foreign wives. While additional scenes expressing further depth to the relationship between Han-gyoo and Ji-won would have been welcomed, Secret Reunion is incredibly enjoyable and adds a unique perspective on the bond shared between the people of the divided peninsula.

★★★★☆

Reviews
The masked swordsman displays incredible grace and skill

Duelist (형사) – ★★★★☆

Duelist (형사)

Duelist (형사)

Well before the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, martial arts epics set in ancient Asia were incredibly popular. However it was Ang Lee’s classic tale of love and sword-play that thrust the sub-genre into Western cinemas with unprecedented popularity, resulting in even more entering production. Of these, Yimou Zhang’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) are noted as perhaps the most critically acclaimed with the Chinese auteur’s keen sense of colour and balletic style proving a winning formula for audiences.

Lee Myeong-Se’s (이명세) Duelist (형사) is one of Korea’s forays into the martial arts epic, and as with most of the auteur’s films it will instantly polarize audiences between those with preconceived mainstream expectations, and those with more art-house sensibilities. Those who fall into the latter category will highly enjoy the exquisite mise-en-scene, abundance of visual metaphors and cinematic playfulness for which the director is renowned.

Set during the Joseon Dynasty, Duelist features Nam-soon (Ha Ji-won (하지원) and Detective Ahn (Ahn Seong-gi (안성기), officers working undercover trying to discover the source of a counterfeiting scandal that is disrupting the country by devaluing the monetary system. The duo track down a gang suspected of circulating fake coins to a market place, and a chaotic battle ensues. Yet before Nam-soon and Detective Ahn can apprehend the criminals, a performing masked swordsman enters the fray and murders all the suspects in an unbelievable display of grace and speed that shocks them all. Spilling a cartful of fraudulent coins to cover his escape, the swordsman flees yet is pursued by Namsoon who engages her target in battle wielding knives, proving herself to be equally as adept by cutting off a portion of his mask. Calling him Sad Eyes (Kang Dong-won (강동원), Nam-soon and Detective Ahn must track him down and halt the counterfeit operation before the hyperinflation destroys the country and the monarchy.

The masked swordsman displays incredible grace and skill

The masked swordsman displays incredible grace and skill

Duelist is an absolutely stunning film, featuring sumptuous visuals and incredible cinematography. The locations are rendered with striking attention to detail, with wonderfully vibrant colours conveying the passion in the markets while shadows consume the back alleys with a noirish aesthetic. As has become expected of director Lee Myeong-Se (이명세), the highly articulate and almost playful artistic style extends to both the narrative and the technical proficiency and in doing so Sad Eyes and Nam-soon are constructed in terms of their opposing gender, offering a radically different stance on traditional action film conventions. Sad Eyes is feminised through his long hair, elegance and grace. His sword-play is mostly captured in slow-motion to convey his fluidity and finesse, while his calm demeanor adds a feminine charm that is simultaneously meek yet confident. Sad Eyes is also without a name, existing purely as image and a prize to be sought after, tamed, and dominated, attributes traditionally enforced upon female roles. As such, Sad Eyes becomes more beautiful than handsome, while his counterpart Nam-soon becomes more handsome than beautiful with her incredibly boisterous and hot-tempered characterisation. She curses, starts fights, and conveys mannerisms akin to a lower-class ruffian, even stalking Sad Eyes in an overt masculine fashion. The ambiguity of gender is enthralling with the role reversal offering an alternative perspective on traditional action and romantic narratives.

Such romantic sentiments are expressed through their martial arts displays, as the fighting is more a highly choreographed dance than a duel to the death. Their styles match perfectly together, flowing and moving as if one, expressing the passion, anger, frustration and longing contained within them knowing that as officer and criminal their relationship can never be. The fighting styles also express their characterisation as Nam-soon’s passionate masculine fervour is contrasted with Sad Eyes’ restrained elegance, moving in and out of shadow, through regular and slow motions, and in the most beautifully poignant scene under gently falling snow.

The lovers' displays of martial arts convey their longing

The lover’s displays of martial arts convey their longing

In addition to employing technical techniques to portray the artifice of cinema, Lee Myeong-se also emphasizes performance in this regard. Ha Ji-won’s tendency to over-act is superbly exploited in Duelist as her exaggerated mannerisms highlight the performance of masculinity, and the hypocrisy in the social acceptance of it for one gender and not the other. Her acting is also amusing particularly when she is forced to adopt a traditional feminine role through wearing hanbok and pouring tea for aristocratic men, the degradation and artifice of which she clearly loathes. Ahn Seong-gi is also required to over-act, yet his performance often alludes to mocking traditional authoritative patriarchal roles of the father figure and law-giver. His mannerisms are quite comical, usually reserved for sidekicks and jesters, undermining his position as authoritarian while simultaneously crafting Detective Ahn as kind and likable.

As he functions primarily as image, Kang Dong-won gives a highly restrained performance allowing his mannerisms, eyes, and the mise-en-scene to convey his characterisation. He does so with incredible skill, conveying a feminine beauty and elegance that are impossible to miss. His eyes are indeed sad, especially when his identity and passivity are expressed, whereby he emerges comparable to a socially suppressed princess with an undesired fate.

The cinematography and mise-en-scene are stunningly rendered

The cinematography and mise-en-scene are stunningly rendered

Verdict:

For cineastes with an appreciation of the aesthetics of cinema, Duelist is an incredible treat with its sumptuous visualization of the Joseon Dynasty era and the gendered role reversal of the leading protagonists. Rather than produce standardized mainstream fare, director Lee Myeong-se has crafted an elegant alternative perspective of martial arts action, making Duelist one of the most impressive contributions to the sub-genre and an outstanding addition to his exemplary filmography.

★★★★☆

Reviews
Dr. Daniel Martin, director Lee Myeong-se, and the very talented translator

London-Korean Film Night, Jan 2012 – ‘Duelist’ (형사) and Q+A with director Lee Myeong-se (이명세)

On Thursday the 26th of January, the Korean Culture Centre in London held the first of twelve planned Q+A film nights with legendary Korean directors.

A month dedicated to director Lee Myeong-se (이명세)

A month dedicated to director Lee Myeong-se (이명세)

For January’s edition the director in question was Lee Myeong-se (이명세) in conjunction with his 2005 film ‘Duelist’ (형사). Presiding over the event was Dr. Daniel Martin who introduced both the film and the director, giving the history and context to Lee Myeong-se’s (이명세) illustrious career and auteuristic sensibilities.

The film was very well-received by the audience, and during the following Q+A Lee Myeong-se (이명세) was in good humour throughout and very entertaining.

Dr. Daniel Martin began the Q+A with some questions about Lee Myeong-se’s (이명세) career, and particularly the actors that he has worked with. The director replied that he wanted to work with Ahn Seong-gi (안성기) as the actor had a very strong image as a good man in Korean cinema, and that his roles were limited due to typecasting. Director Lee wanted to change that and play with such preconceptions and cast him in Nowhere to Hide. In addition, Director Lee also cast his own mentor in a comedic role, as he had always had ambitions to be an actor; yet his mentor later revealed the role reversal, where Director Lee had to give instruction, had made him rather uncomfortable. In regards to using younger actors, Director Lee said he was impressed with Ha Ji-won’s (하지원) TV drama work and Kang Dong-won (강동원) had acted well in a prior film and had the ‘look’ he wanted.

For his next project, Director Lee stated he is planning an action film titled ‘Mr. K’ and jokingly claimed that it will surpass the James Bond films.

Dr. Daniel Martin, director Lee Myeong-se, and the very talented translator

Dr. Daniel Martin, director Lee Myeong-se, and the very talented translator

When asked about why he is concerned with the artificiality of cinema rather than attempting to achieve realism, Director Lee answered that he didn’t watch films when he was young which he is now grateful for as he wasn’t exposed to the conventions of cinema. Instead he is inspired by poetry and other creative works in discovering ‘what makes a film’.

In regards to the wide variety of music from other cultures and eras within ‘Duelist’ (형사), Lee Myeong-se (이명세) replied that if he likes music and it fits with his vision within a film, then he will use it regardless of faithfulness to an era.

Quizzed about his own martial arts prowess, Director Lee explained that he, like all Korean men who have undertaken military service, is a black belt in Taekwondo. However if he were to give a display, it would be highly comedic.

Following this, the director very kindly gave autographs and pictures to those who attended – including me!

Me with director Lee Myeong-se!

Me with director Lee Myeong-se!

Next month, the Korean Cultural Centre will be dedicated to director E J-yong with the Q+A to be held on February the 23rd alongside the screening of his 2009 film Actresses (여배우들).

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