Wild Flowers (들꽃) – ★★☆☆☆

Wild Flowers (들꽃)

Wild Flowers (들꽃)

Running away from danger, homeless teenagers Soo-hyang (조수향) and Eun-soo (관은수) encounter a man beating a screaming girl in an abandoned underpass. Furious, the duo rush to the rescue and attack the man, knocking him unconscious and saving youngster Ha-dam (정하담) from harm. The three teens band together and decide to look out for each other as they attempt to survive on the streets of Seoul. However, on their first night together the friends are tricked by a woman’s charity and are abducted by pimps.

Soo-hyang and Ha-dam meet in troubled circumstances

Soo-hyang and Ha-dam meet in troubled circumstances

Wild Flowers (들꽃) begins in exemplary, captivating fashion as director Park Seok-young (박석영) brilliantly captures the dangers of living on the streets with powerful, raw intensity. From the moment the film opens the audience are thrust into the perilous excitement of Soo-hyang and Eun-soo’s lives, as the duo seemingly run for their very lives only to find themselves confronted with further danger. Typically Korean independent films begin slowly and build towards a central theme, yet in adopting an alternative strategy Wild Flowers begins dynamically and is all the stronger for it. The handheld camera adds a potently raw quality that heightens the sense of danger and unpleasantness of young vulnerable girls living homeless in Seoul, particularly when violence and intimidation enter their lives. Yet even in the quiet moments the filming style conveys a tense realism, as when the trio are driven to a motel to begin working as prostitutes, making the waiting in itself an unbearable ordeal.

Eun-soo, as well as her friends, are beaten and forced to dye their hair

Eun-soo, as well as her friends, are beaten and forced to dye their hair

Yet following such an impressive opening Wild Flowers quickly begins to lose momentum. Thankfully the narrative isn’t concerned with depicting scenes of teenage sexual exploitation as the girls are able to escape before the ordeal begins, due to thug Tae-sung’s affections for Soo-hyang. Instead, the film simply follows the trio as they forge a home for themselves in a dilapidated part of Seoul, foraging and stealing. While initially interesting, the story just flounders aimlessly as little of note actually occurs, and is somewhat of a wasted opportunity to explore not only key issues that afflict young female runaways but also as a character study of young women, making the running time of 110 minutes quite unjustifiable.

A further key issue with Wild Flowers is that director Park doesn’t seem to appreciate how compelling and poignant his central protagonists are, as he constantly strives to include tertiary male antagonists into the narrative to the detriment of all involved. By forcefully interjecting tangents involving pimp ‘Uncle’ and his morally conflicted junior Tae-sung – as well as a kindly deaf mute who helps the girls with cash – into the film, the main impetus of the girls attempting to survive and break out of poverty becomes further diluted, with the distraction also resulting in a lack of character and relationship development involving Soo-hyang, Eun-soo and Ha-dam.

Tertiary male characters, such as Tae-sung, add little to the narrative

Tertiary male characters, such as Tae-sung, add little to the narrative

Verdict:

Wild Flowers begins in intense fashion as director Park Seok-young effectively conveys the dangerous ordeals faced by homeless teenage girls in Seoul. Yet after such a grand opening the film rapidly loses momentum as the narrative simply flounders, further enhanced by the unnecessary inclusion of male antagonists that serve as a distraction from the far more compelling central female characters.

★★☆☆☆

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Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews
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 brohers are in search of Eun-joo but the question remains - why did she run?

Shuttlecock (셔틀콕) – ★★★☆☆

Shuttlecock (셔틀콕)

Shuttlecock (셔틀콕)

When their parents die in a tragic accident, Eun-joo (Gong Ye-ji (공예지) and her half brother Min-jae (Lee Ju-seung (이주승) are given an enormous life insurance settlement. Perhaps unsurprisingly as young adults, they quickly burn through the money as they live luxuriously and purchase without considering the consequences. When Eun-joo abruptly disappears with the remainder of the money, Min-jae makes it his mission to track her down and reclaim what’s his. With a lead on her whereabouts Min-jae sets off from Seoul to the south coast, not realising that step-brother Eun-ho (Kim Tae-yong (김태용) has stowed away on the back seat.

Angry and frustrated, Min-jae has strong motivation to track his sister

Angry and frustrated, Min-jae has strong motivation to track his sister

Shuttlecock (셔틀콕) is an interesting amalgamation of genres, combining the road movie with a coming-of-age social drama. The film is an impressive debut by director Lee Yu-bin (이유빈), who uses the conventions to keenly explore issues of parental responsibility, and its importance in defining and shaping youth during their formative years. Min-jae, for example, is initially a despicable character as he lies and cheats his way to get what he wants, a wayward youth without guidance or direction. His attitude is particularly awful in regards to his stowaway half-brother Eun-ho whom he treats terribly, poking fun at his bed-wetting and abandoning the young boy in the countryside. Yet as they travel together through Korea their bond is strengthened, not as brothers but as makeshift father and son and figures. Their relationship develops naturally and sincerely, with their evolution easily the highlight of the film.

Min-jae and Eun-ho set off from Seoul to Namhae in search of their missing sister

Min-jae and Eun-ho set off from Seoul to Namhae in search of their missing sister

Min-jae’s characterisation however is one of the central flaws of the film, as he is so deeply unlikeable that it is difficult to care about the journey he is on, not to mention whether he can succeed in finding his wayward sister. In order for him to change and grow Min-jae of course must begin as reprehensible, but he is so detestable he’s very difficult to empathise with. While Eun-joo’s motives for abandoning her brothers are elusive, Min-jae is so mean that it’s entirely feasible she did the right thing. In order for Min-jae to become a responsible adult, director Lee constructs some subtle and nuanced moments that delve into his psychology. Unfortunately however there are simply not enough events such as these, ironically even with an overly long running time of around 108 minutes, and the story often meanders whether in a city or on the road.

As well as notions of family, Shuttlecock also presents an interesting debate in regards to the younger generation’s attitude towards money, sex and responsibility, key issues in contemporary Korean culture. The siblings genuinely act like they are invulnerable upon receiving the payout, and have little concern for consequences, something the siblings must ultimately acknowledge when they are finally reunited. As such ‘shuttlecock’ is a wonderfully metaphorical title that conveys their constant up and down trajectory, adding a poetic sensibility to their tumultuous lives.

The brohers are in search of Eun-joo but the question remains - why did she run?

The brothers are in search of Eun-joo but the question remains – why did she run?

Verdict:

Shuttlecock is an interesting examination of contemporary Korean youth, their attitude towards money, and how they are shaped during their formative years by (lack of) parental guidance. The film is an impressive debut by director Lee Yu-bin, who competently employs the conventions of the road movie combined with a coming-of-age social drama in which to explore her characters. However, with a deeply unlikeable central protagonist, and an often meandering story within the overly long running time, Shuttlecock is an intriguing drama that depicts social issues rather than exploring them thoroughly.

★★★☆☆

 

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

Guardian (보호자) – ★★☆☆☆

Guardian (보호자)

Guardian (보호자)

An ex-firefighter and his family live a quiet and content life as florists, arranging flowers and delivering them around the local area. However one night after a delivery his daughter fails to return home, causing the family great concern. Their awful fear is realised when a stranger calls, informing them that he has abducted the girl and, if they want to see her alive and well again, the father must follow his instructions to the letter – including the kidnap of a young boy.

In a sea of over-crowded thrillers, Guardian (보호자) is a refreshing take on the genre. While each thriller attempts, and often fails, to use a particular ‘twist’ in order to make it stick in audience memory, Guardian‘s hook of pushing a father to the extreme of kidnap is an interesting premise indeed. Director Yoo Won-sang (유원상) does well for his directorial debut, and certainly shows potential for the future as he competently helms the story. Director Yoo does especially well in constructing the opening of the film, conveying the family as a loving and bickering group who play and curse yet still enjoy each other’s company. Such scenes are genuinely heart-warming and humourous, however in the quest to rapidly get to the daughter’s abduction the film runs into problems.

The ex-firefighter's daughter is kidnapped after delivering flowers for the family business

The ex-firefighter’s daughter is kidnapped after delivering flowers for the family business

Guardian is so concerned with getting to the kidnap as soon as possible that not enough time is spent developing the characterisaton within the family for it to have the requisite horror it should have. Such an issue could easily be overlooked with the construction of tension as the father follows the kidnapper’s instructions, but this is also highly problematic and often dull as initially all the ex-firefighter does is simply drive to different locations for no reason. Again, director Yoo seems more concerned with getting to the premise itself than the journey there, which is a real missed opportunity to generate suspense and character insight. As such, when the father is faced with abducting a child or risk losing his daughter, the scenes are interesting rather than poignant, although the director does add some nice flourishes.

With such an interesting premise Guardian doesn’t need to add some of the typical contrivances that afflict Korean thrillers, yet unfortunately they are present particularly in the later stages of the film. Twists and turns are always enjoyable but the story tips its hand too early, while the lack of sufficient clues, red herrings, and general characterisation means that they never achieve the impact their potential suggests. The tone of the film, chiefly due to the music, is also to blame as the soundtrack is often wildly inappropriate for the scenes in which they feature. Despite this however, the loose ends are weaved together for an interesting, though far from powerful, finale.

The father is pushed to breaking point in the attempt to be reunited with his daughter

The father is pushed to breaking point in the attempt to be reunited with his daughter

Verdict:

Guardian has an interesting premise, as a father is tasked with kidnapping a boy in exchange for his own abducted daughter. Director Yoo Won-sang displays potential throughout his directorial debut, competently helming the thriller with some nice flourishes. However the story is quite underdeveloped throughout, with a lack of tension and suspense equating to scenes that never fulfill their true potential. As such Guardian is an interesting, rather than exciting, thriller.

★★☆☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013
Thuy (안녕, 투이)

Thuy (안녕, 투이) – ★★★☆☆

Thuy (안녕, 투이)

Thuy (안녕, 투이)

Living in the remote countryside, Vietnamese bride Thuy diligently takes care of her ailing in-laws. As her mother-in-law suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, Thuy’s daily chores become evermore burdensome, particularly as her husband has been absent for an unusually long time. Despite the loneliness Thuy fills her spare time with studying Korean language and attending the local church, living a quiet but content existence. Yet when her husband is found dead in suspicious circumstances, Thuy soon discovers the realities of being a Vietnamese woman in the Korean countryside.

Thuy (안녕, 투이)

Thuy becomes suspicious when her husband fails to return home

Thuy (안녕, 투이) is an impressive debut by director Kim Jae-han (김재한), both in exploring the issues South-East Asian wives face in Korea and as a visually striking film. Indeed, director Kim and director of photography Kim Sung-tai are to be congratulated for capturing the ethereal beauty of the Korean countryside, as Thuy features some truly gorgeous cinematography involving the natural landscapes of the area. Combined with the washed out tone that permeates exterior scenes throughout the film, the village becomes a palpably foreboding location, one conveyed as forgotten by time and the rest of Korean society. As such Thuy’s isolation and loneliness within the environment are further emphasised, with her plucky attempts to stay positive crafting a naive yet likeable central protagonist.

Thuy stays positive despite the hardships as a foreign wife in the country

Thuy stays positive despite the hardships as a foreign wife in the country

Thuy’s characterisation as a curious, bold and humble young Vietnamese woman is one of the great strengths of the film, and director Kim wisely uses her as a conduit for examining the life of a foreign bride in the countryside. As tradition dictates, Thuy often acts akin to a maid in taking care of her in-laws and diligently studies Korea language at the local church with other foreign wives, something their spouses dislike in case they get any ‘ideas.’ Thuy also witnesses domestic violence – with the victim, rather than the aggressor, locked in jail – as well as the prostitution ring foreign woman can fall into in the city. As such Thuy is quite an insightful film, with the subtlety applied to the societal pressures and prejudice she endures adding further potency.

Where Thuy fails however is in the later attempts to turn an insightful drama into a thriller, and the story suffers greatly for it. Thuy’s inability to accept her husband’s death is wonderful in revealing the tenacity of her character, with her enquiries also revealing a great deal of the prejudice she must endure as an immigrant. However when the story veers away from her into exploring the local police force and neighbourhood watch ‘militia’, something which increasingly occurs as the film progresses, the power and insight begins to wane as it becomes typical genre fare, complete with contrivances that serve to undermine Thuy’s journey.

Thuy displays great resolve following the death of her husband

Thuy displays great resolve following the death of her husband

Verdict:

Thuy is an insightful film the explores the issues South-East Asian wives endure in the Korean countryside. Featuring some quite striking cinematography of the ethereal country landscapes, as well as subtlety in examining social issues and prejudice, Thuy is an impressive debut by director Kim Jae-han. However, the attempt to turn the interesting drama into a typical and contrived thriller greatly undermines Thuy’s journey which is quite a shame, as for the most part the film is a potent and welcome addition in depicting concerns faced by female immigrants.

★★★☆☆

 

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