Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말) – ★★★★☆

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Life is good for single mother Hyeon-sook (Kim Hee-ae (김희애) and her two teenage daughters Man-ji (Ko Ah-seong (고아성) and Cheon-ji (Kim Hyang-ki (김향기). Despite the financial hardships of living in a single parent household, the three are like any other typical family. That is, until the day Cheon-ji commits suicide. Devastated by the loss, Hyeon-sook and Man-ji move to a new home and attempt to start afresh. Yet as Man-ji begins to think more and more about her younger sister’s death, as well as the lack of a suicide note, she becomes driven to find the cause behind Cheon-ji’s suffering. As she  questions those close to Cheon-ji, including best friends Hwa-yeon (Kim Yoo-jeong (김유정) and Mi-ran (Yoo Yeon-mi (유연미), Man-ji starts to unravel the elegant lies involved and begins to understand that she may not have known her younger sister as well as she previously thought.

The family are devastated from Cheon-ji (center) commits suicide

The family are devastated from Cheon-ji (center) commits suicide

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말) – or directly translated as ‘Elegant Lies’ – is a powerfully compelling and tender family drama by director Lee Han (이한) and screenwriter Lee Sook-yeon (이숙연). It is a well-documented fact that the suicide rate in Korea is the highest amongst the countries in the OECD – and in particular it’s the leading cause of death amid the younger generations – yet while several films have explored the issue from the perspective of those suffering from depression, Thread of Lies approaches the topic quite differently. By exploring the situation from the view of a family struggling to come to terms with loss, the film effectively captures not only the trauma and guilt generated by losing a loved one to suicide but notably how it’s possible to live with someone and not truly know who they are. Director Lee beautifully conveys the complexity of emotions and relationships in the aftermath of loss with acute sincerity, while also subtly intertwining a critique on the notion of pretense in Korean society. Falsity is presented through a heartbreaking scene in which Cheon-ji arrives late to a birthday party and is bullied on kakao messenger service, within her view and by people claiming to be her friends, and is superbly contrasted with a scene depicting her mother being forced to practice customer service and etiquette at a supermarket. Thread of Lies examines the various ways in which people in contemporary Korea are forced to subsume their true emotions for socially acceptable ones, yet director Lee also superbly manages to balance such weighty material with tasteful light-hearted comedy, infusing the story with positivity and hope as well as tender poignancy .

Cheon-ji is bullied by her entire class, yet keeps her suffering to herself

Outcast Cheon-ji is bullied by her entire class, yet keeps her suffering to herself

Thread of Lies is in many ways an examination of guilt, and the lies told in order to assuage it. Older sister Man-ji is cool to the point of arrogant, yet in her quest to discover Cheon-ji’s motivations she uncovers a web of depression, pain, and half-truths that fundamentally change her, and as such her development into a more mature and aware young woman is a deeply affecting journey. The conversations Man-ji has with Cheon-ji’s classmates Hwa-yeon and Mi-ran are incredibly illuminating, as the young girls reveal a history of bullying and psychological abuse yet desperately remove any notion of their role in the lead up to the suicide. Their interactions are brilliantly contrasted with the truth via flashback scenes depicting the events as they occurred, revealing the full impact of wrongdoing on the young and sensitive Cheon-ji. Director Lee effectively employs such moments to reveal that blame lies not with one singular person, but with a large number of people who are all culpable in the build-up to suicide as they thoughtlessly mistreat those around them. As such, Thread of Lies is a socially-conscious, poignant and sincere examination of a timely issue, and is an exemplary piece of filmmaking.

Man-ji and her mother learn to cope with the loss after discovering the truth

Man-ji and her mother learn to cope with the loss after discovering the truth

Verdict:

Thread of Lies is a powerful and compelling family drama that deals with the aftermath of suicide. Director Lee Han captures the complex emotional and relationship issues within Lee Sook-yeon’s script with sincerity and tenderness, as Man-ji attempts to understand her younger sister’s death. Featuring an exemplary examination of the guilt and lies associated with suicide, and cultural existence of pretense within contemporary Korean society, Thread of Lies is a fascinating and empowering exploration of a timely issue.

★★★★☆

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Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews
Snowpiercer plows through the snow covered landscapes

Snowpiercer (설국열차) – ★★★★☆

Snowpiercer (설국열차)

Snowpiercer (설국열차)

Director Bong Joon-ho‘s (봉준호) highly anticipated science-fiction epic Snowpiercer (설국열차) has  been in some form of development since 2004 and, nearly a decade on and sporting a $40 million price tag, finally gets a release. Currently the most expensive Korean film ever produced, featuring an international cast, and with around 80% of the dialogue in English, the film represents quite a risk for CJ Entertainment. They need not worry however, as the futuristic thriller is a darkly brilliant and enthralling experience.

Based on the French comic book series Le Transperceneige, director Bong’s adaptation is a keen and intellectual exploration of humanity and the class system set within the confines of a train. Yet it is also a violent and visceral action thriller, as tensions boil over among the last vestiges of humanity with shocking brutality. While not perfect, as the lack of character development, often predictable twists, and unrefined CGI let the film down somewhat, Snowpiercer is still a veritable thrill ride and certainly one of the best films released so far this year – by Korea or Hollywood.

The class system on the train is kept in check by sinister matriach Mason

The class system on the train is kept in check by sinister matriach Mason

In the near-future, global warming has become such an issue that the governments of the world convene and agree to release a cooling agent into the atmosphere. The experiment is a colossal failure, as the attempt plunges the world into another ice age, killing all life on the planet. The last vestiges of humanity live onboard the perpetually moving train ‘Snowpiercer’, with the passengers designated by class; the affluent live in privilege in the front carriages, while the poverty-stricken live in the rear. Angry at the unfairness and squalid living conditions, Curtis (Chris Evans) – along with protege Edgar (Jamie Bell) and mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) – lead a revolution against sinister matriarch Mason (Tilda Swinton) in order to control the engine invented by Wilford (Ed Harris). Yet to do so they will need the help of security specialist Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho (송강호) and daughter Yona (Ko Ah-seong (고아성) to unlock the gates.

Snowpiercer, arguably more than any of his prior films, reflects director Bong’s incredible visual and spatial prowess. Throwing the audience immediately into a period of revolution, director Bong conveys a world of dirt, squalor and confinement to wondrous effect. The dystopian arena is intensely claustrophobic and acutely portrayed as the camera weaves around the environment introducing the suppressed population, while the darkness removes any sense of hope. Such powerful atmospherics generate palpable tension as the corruption and hypocrisy of the class system are exposed, recalling classics such as Lang’s Metropolis (1927) as well as the contemporary economic situations in the west, which resonate deeply. Yet the real masterstroke of the clearly Marxist-inspired story lies in the journey to the engine. Each carriage door opened unveils a startling new layer of  the hierarchy that leaves the revolutionaries – and audience – dumbfounded, and each is a triumph of design. Director Bong and production designer Ondrej Nekvasil have crafted unique and spectacularly bizarre worlds within each arena, from the sugary-sweet Disnified classroom through to a hellish costume party, each a stunning visual indictment of the social elite.

Each carriage within the train is stunningly realised and reveals a new level of the society

Each carriage within the train is stunningly realised and reveals a new level of the society

In bringing the worlds within Snowpiercer to life, the ensemble cast are terrific and perfectly suited for their allotted roles. Tilda Swinton stands out as she superbly channels Margaret Thatcher-esque conservatism into the character of Mason, while Alison Pill’s fanatical school teacher is great despite short screen time. On the Korean front Song Kang-ho is highly entertaining as junkie engineer Minsu, and is given some of the best in-jokes within the film particularly regarding untranslatable Korean curse words. Ko Ah-seong fares well as Minsu’s daughter Yona, although the story involving her character isn’t really given a chance to develop. Ultimately with so many quality performers within Snowpiercer there is little room for any character save Chris Evans’ Curtis to grow, however his subplot is predictable while speeches about the past would have provided greater impetus had they been shown and not told. As several narrative tangents are left unanswered, a director’s cut of the film would be a blessing indeed.

Yet this underdevelopment is primarily due to the breakneck speed in which the film advances. The whirlwind pace of Snowpiercer is simply incredible from start to finish as the revolutionaries battle to reach the front of the train, attempting to overcome the onslaught of obstacles and hostile environments they encounter as rapidly as possible. When things do slow down it is often detrimental to characters, forcing the audience to will them on further and as such the film is constantly engaging and compelling. Occasionally to reinforce the sense of speed, the train itself is portrayed speeding through the snow covered landscapes. While such scenes are wonderful in depicting urgency and momentum as well as global warming anxieties, they also highlight some quite unrefined computer imagery which detracts from their purpose.

However the sheer pace of Snowpiercer is astounding and, alongside the visually stunning and intellectual themes featured within, the sci-fi epic is a heart-pounding experience.

Snowpiercer plows through the snow covered landscapes

Snowpiercer plows through the snow covered landscapes

Verdict:

Based on the French comic book series Le Transperceneige, director Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is an enthralling viewing experience. The science-fiction epic about the last vestiges of humanity is a brilliant exploration of the unfairness of the class system, conveyed with stunning visual and spatial prowess throughout. The all-star international cast are perfectly suited for their roles, with Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-seong also performing ably. The breakneck pace of the film results in little character development, yet when the themes, tensions and violence are so constantly riveting it is difficult to care. Simply put, Snowpiercer is a fantastic Korean sci-fi film.

★★★★☆

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Hyeon-seo is taken to the monster's lair

The Host (괴물) – ★★★★★

The Host (괴물)

The Host (괴물)

The introduction of Godzilla in 1954 was a masterstroke. The monster directly tapped into the fears and anxieties of the Japanese populace following the American atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the potential ramifications of the nuclear fallout. The popularity of the iconic character was instant, while the enduring legacy of Godzilla has remained due to the still underlying apprehension surrounding nuclear technology.

Ironically, a similar fate was to occur with neighbouring South Korea. In 2000, the American military dumped 20 gallons of formaldehyde into drains which flowed directly into the Han River, the source of drinking water for the entire population of Seoul. The enormity of the public outcry was such that the U.S. military gave it’s first public apology since the Korean War, yet it did little to assuage public opinion. Enter The Host (괴물), a film that – similar to Godzilla – uses the true story as a basis for a narrative which introduces a monster into the midst of Seoul, amalgamating the fears, angers and anxieties of the society into the monstrous beast. ‘괴물’ is translated as ‘monster’, the source of the horror. However, far more interesting (and multi-layered) is the English title ‘The Host’. ‘The Host’ refers to the Han River which harbours the monster, but is also symbolic of Korea for ‘hosting’ the U.S. military (arguably another source of ‘horror’ due to creating the monster and perceived imperialism). The multi-layered title is reflected within the narrative, and it is such complexity that makes The Host one of the best science-fiction films of all time.

The 'average' Seoulite family

The ‘average’ Seoulite family

The Host depicts the dysfunctional Park family, who are more a collection of individuals due to their differing personalities and interests. The slacker of the family, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho (송강호) works at a convenience store with his diligent father Hee-bong (Byeon Hee-bong (변희봉) on the banks of the Han River. Living with them is Gang-du’s daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong (고아성) a middle school student who dislikes her father’s laid-back attitude. One day whilst serving customers, a mutated amphibious fish monster emerges from the river wreaking havoc. Gang-du and an American soldier bravely try to stop the monster from eating people, but during the struggle the soldier is gravely injured as the monster tries to consume him. Wounded by Gang-du, the monster runs back to the safety of the Han River and snatches the unaware Hyun-seo on the way. With Hyun-seo believed dead, the Gang-du is joined by his salaryman brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il (박해일) and archer sister Nam-joo (Bae Doona (배두나) in mourning. However, the American soldier is reported in the media as having a new strain of disease due to contact with the monster, and the military immediately incarcerate and quarantine the entire Park family against their will. That night, Gang-du receives a phone call from Hyeon-seo who is trapped in the monster’s sewer lair, and as the military refuse to help, the Park family resolve to escape their imprisonment and find Hyeon-seo before it’s too late.

Gang-du and Hyeon-seo run from the monster

Gang-du and Hyeon-seo run from the monster

Director Bong Joon-ho (봉준호),  who also co-wrote the film with Ha Joon-won (하준원), Joo-byeol (주별) and Baek Cheol-hyeon (백철현), has crafted a magnificent and multi-layered film that examines an incredible array of socio-cultural anxieties within Korean society. The Park family are a microcosm for the disparate identities and labour forces within Korea. Grandfather Hee-bong represents the hard-working older generation; Gang-du exemplifies the manual labour force; Nam-il constitutes the university-students-turned-office workers; Nam-ju represents women in Korea, hesitant to display their power and talent; and Hyeon-seo embodies the innocence of the younger generations. As such the family unit is allegorical of Korea itself, emphasising that for the family/Korea to succeed in killing the monster and saving their daughter/youth, they must forgo their differences, come together and work as one. The ‘monster’ the family must defeat is somewhat ambiguous. The mutated animal is the most obvious example, yet the media is equally as monstrous in inspiring panic throughout the citizens of Seoul, reports which are ultimately lies. Behind those lies are the American government and military who use the panic to their advantage, expanding American influence/imperialism and releasing ‘Agent Yellow’ (a not-so-subtle reference to toxic Agent Orange) into the atmosphere, which does little except to add further poison to the atmosphere. Korean society is also interrogated by depicting bribery and the traitorous actions of office workers due to their escalating debt. Director Bong Joon-ho (봉준호) continually references the multitudinous ‘monsters’ the family confront through a variety of representational devices, serving to add astonishing political and socio-cultural depth within the narrative.

Hyeon-seo is taken to the monster's lair

Hyeon-seo is taken to the monster’s lair

The blending, and subversion, of genres is seamless. Most science-fiction films tend to refrain from fully revealing their antagonist until the final acts, surrounded by darkness to both convey suspense and hide the limitations of CGI. Not so in The Host, which has one of the most staggering introduction sequences ever constructed for a monster, all during the bright daylight hours. The rampage is truly astounding, and Bong Joon-ho employs a variety of techniques in capturing the the monster’s behaviour and the panic of the crowd. The actors are, as one would expect from such highly talented individuals, perfect in capturing the essence of their respective protagonists, conveying powerful performances that virtually command attention and empathy. With so many narrative devices included, it’s astonishing how each protagonist also manages to evolve throughout the film, leading to a socialist-esque finale in which they all overcome their flaws to fight as one with the proletariat landing the final blow.

Gang-du squares off against the monster

Gang-du squares off against the monster

Verdict:

The Host is an incredible film, and highlights the sheer talent and innovation of all involved. While it is unashamedly mainstream, the film never falls into cliche or parody as is often the case in the genre. Instead, The Host employs layers upon layers of political and socio-cultural subtext that adds phenomenal depth to an already highly entertaining premise, and cannot be recommended highly enough.

★★★★★

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