Korean Film Biz Podcast – Upcoming Korean Films of 2015

Korean Cinema Today

Korean Cinema Today

Continuing on from our discussion of the Korean independent film industry, the fine people at Kobiz and I turned our attention to more commercial fare by deliberating over the upcoming Korean films of 2015.

To listen to our conversation, where we discuss the assortment of big names making their return to the silver screen and the challenge represented by Hollywood’s big blockbusters, please see below.

Advertisements
Film News

Korean Film Biz Podcast – The Korean Independent Scene

Korean Cinema Today

Korean Cinema Today

For the March 2015 edition of Korean Cinema Today’s podcast series, I was very fortunate to be invited for a discussion about the Korean independent film industry by the lovely people over at KoBiz.

To listen to our conversation, in which we debate the strengths and frustrations within the indie scene  as well as exciting new talent that has recently emerged, please see below.

Film News
A priest telling lies or a devil telling the truth - The Fake examines the nature of religion

The Fake (사이비) – ★★★★☆

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비) is a brutal and intense viewing experience, with the shocking and visceral manner in which depicts a community under siege quite brilliantly executed. Director Yeon Sang-ho (연상호) has taken the dark themes he explored so wonderfully in King of Pigs (돼지의 왕) and expanded them into a wider sociological framework, and the result is a darkly explosive and constantly compelling social commentary.

A small village deep in the countryside is under threat from the construction of a new reservoir, which will submerge the whole community. With few options, the villagers turn to the newly formed church and its young priest for salvation, with their faith strengthened ever further by witnessing ‘miracles’. As their religious fervour becomes increasingly fanatical, a violent and abusive man returns to the village and, horrified by what he sees, attempts to reveal the machinations behind the church’s intent. Yet who should the country-folk believe – a man of God, or the devil himself?

The Fake adopts many of the conventions from the western genre as a lone ‘anti-hero’ returns from the wilderness to a corrupt civilisation. Director Yeon takes such motifs and intelligently plays with them in deconstructing Korean society, religion, and morality in ways both overt and nuanced, balancing them all incredibly well. Such a penetrating examination is conducted through the outsider character, who is far more devil than saint as he steals, drinks and beats women for his own selfish gain. Yet his status as an outsider also grants him the freedom of perception. With the threat of the reservoir – a wonderfully symbolic biblical flood – approaching, a con man and his young sidekick priest all too easily manipulate the villagers into doing their bidding by appealing to their base fears and desires. As the outsider attempts to reveal the scam and help them, the story explores just how illogical and frightening society can become when an ideology built on false promises is introduced and adhered to.

Religious fervour becomes increasingly fanatical as perceived threats loom on the horizon

Religious fervour becomes increasingly fanatical as perceived threats loom on the horizon

The examples of fanaticism that increase throughout the film are wholly believable, as the country-folk are continually duped by false miracles and promises set up by the clergy and his financial backer. As sick people refuse medicine in favour of ‘holy water’, women become prostitutes, as well as villagers selling property in order to donate to the church, The Fake is exemplary in depicting not only the seemingly inherent corruption within religious institutions but also the sheer ignorance of society as a whole, especially when under threat. There are no conventional ‘good’ characters to be found within the world of The Fake and as such the atmosphere generated is deeply intense and disturbing, and as the community continues to descend further into a moral abyss the film is consistently riveting.

It is also wonderfully ironic that the ‘saviour’ of the village is akin to the devil personified. At times even wielding a forked weapon and using fire, the outsider is an appalling brute who destroys everyone in his path and is routinely expelled from the community as the spawn of satan. His evil ways while speaking the truth are counter-balanced with the priest who behaves saintly while telling lies, and their interactions and conflicts are intelligent as well as explosive. The violence that occurs due to their personal war is ferociously bloodthirsty, with the fluidity of the animation a remarkable evolution for director Yeon. Indeed, with the exception of one rather ‘blocky’ church dancing scene, The Fake sports impressive visuals throughout whilst retaining director Yeon’s distinct style, with his use of colour and shadow adding tremendous weight to the intensity of the story.

A priest telling lies or a devil telling the truth - The Fake examines the nature of religion

A priest telling lies or a devil telling the truth – The Fake examines the nature of religion

Verdict:

The Fake, director Yeon Sang-ho’s second film, is a brutal, dark, and intense viewing experience that examines a rural community manipulated by a religious institution. Employing genre conventions from the western, director Yeon intelligently explores Korean social issues through the increasing conflict between con artists, duped villagers and evil men. The Fake is a genuine evolution of style for the director, and is a continually riveting and explosive social commentary on the nature of morality.

★★★★☆

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013 Reviews
Min-su and the mob boss form a relationship through the gentleman's game of baduk

The Stone (스톤) – ★★☆☆☆

The Stone (스톤)

The Stone (스톤)

Despite his young age, Min-su (Jo Dong-in (조동인) is an extremely intelligent and talented baduk (Go) player. To make ends meet and with few prospects, Min-su uses his skills to hustle other players, forming friendships with small-time crooks as well as making several enemies in the criminal underworld. Yet when a local mob boss (Kim Roe-ha (김뢰하) unwittingly challenges Min-su to a duel and loses with significant embarrassment, the gangster hires Min-su as his baduk teacher and the two become close, changing them both irrevocably.

The gentlemen's game of baduk turns violent in the criminal underworld

The gentlemen’s game of baduk turns violent in the criminal underworld

First and foremost, The Stone (스톤) is a palpable love letter to the game of baduk, often referred to as ‘Go.’ Director Cho Se-rae (조세래) uses the game as a form in which to emphasise a person’s personality through their technique, as well as to express the evolving relationships between players.  Baduk is continually conveyed as something of a gentleman’s game, requiring a cool demeanor and keen intellect to truly master. As such the unlikely bond that forms between hustler Min-su and the gang boss is quite believable, as they converse about increasingly personal stories during their friendly matches. Their tournaments also allow them to gain insight into each other’s lives. The gangster recognises his own tormented youth in Min-su, while Min-su dislikes the path the boss has chosen yet sees it before himself, and as their bond increases they attempt to guide each other while playing.

Min-su and the mob boss form a relationship through the gentleman's game of baduk

Min-su and the mob boss form a relationship through the gentleman’s game of baduk

However at nearly two hours in length The Stone is far too long, as the story continually expands to add further menial sub-plots that are quite unnecessary. It is also acutely ironic that with such an excessive running time that the character development is also quite minimal. Despite the fact that Min-su and the gangster are the central protagonists, surprisingly little depth is ascribed to either. Hints are alluded to, such as Min-su’s unrepentant mother who suffers from a gambling addiction, yet there are precious few moments that help to define the characters in any detail, nor give any reason why the audience should care about them. As such the film becomes a series of vignettes about baduk in the criminal underworld, rather than a character-driven study.

Luckily Park Won-sang (박원상) is on hand to provide a wonderfully charismatic and humourous performance as the mob’s second-in-command. The actor has risen to prominence in recent years following his roles in Unbowed (부러진 화살) and National Security (남영동 1985), and as a foolish gangster who constantly oversteps his bounds he brings a sense of genuine enjoyment to The Stone. Whenever Park Won-sang appears on screen he overshadows everyone with his performance, yet he is no mere comedic foil as he infuses the character with a deep such of integrity and loyalty, as well as danger, that makes him extremely likable. It is often due to his appearances within the vignette-style storytelling that The Stone becomes an entertaining film.

The mob boss uses baduk as respite from his violent world

The mob boss uses baduk as respite from his violent world

Verdict:

The Stone is an interesting drama about the game of baduk (Go). Conveyed as a gentleman’s game, director Cho Se-rae uses it as a way for characters to develop relationships, as well as a window into the gambling habits of the criminal underworld. Yet the overly long running time and lack of character development, in conjunction with the vignette-style storytelling, stops the film from being a deep and compelling exploration. Actor Park Won-sang makes the film entertaining whenever he appears, yet even with his significant performance The Stone is a rather standard affair.

★★☆☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013 Reviews
Godsend (신의 선물)

Godsend (신의 선물) – ★★★☆☆

Godsend (신의 선물)

Godsend (신의 선물)

When teenager So-young belatedly discovers she is pregnant, her attempt to get an abortion is dismissed by a doctor as too dangerous. Overhearing their conversation however is middle-aged Seung-yeon who, after several years of trying and failing to become pregnant, offers So-young a deal – the baby for an expensive foreign car. As the two women head into the country for the final months of So-young’s pregnancy, they form a close relationship, supporting each other through the unusual circumstances. Yet they are beset by problems from Seung-yeon’s selfish husband, and a group of three hunters with a penchant for rape. All the while, a secretive gardener watches the events unfold.

Godsend (신의 선물)

The women bond over simple chores

As the title implies, Godsend is intended as something of a contemporary nativity story, expressed through the unique visions of Kim Ki-duk – here on writing and producing duties – and protege director Moon Si-hyun (문시현). Kim Ki-duk’s methodology of employing amoral, misogynistic characters to explore social problems is quite apparent throughout the film, yet Godsend is also lighter than most projects he is involved with, presumably due to director Moon. Indeed, the portrayal and character development ascribed to unlikely duo So-young and Seung-yeon is quite charming, arguably even empowering, in the early stages of the film as the twosome attempt to complete their unorthodox deal without the aid of men. Bonding scenes, which include driving lessons and growing vegetables, are sweet natured and sincere. That is, before the inclusion of men. The male characters within Godsend are appalling beasts, and the threat of rape is constantly present throughout the film which often makes for uncomfortable viewing.

Seung-yeon is constantly abused by her selfish husband

Seung-yeon is constantly abused by her selfish husband

While early sex scenes between Seung-yeon and her husband convey an impersonal and unloving relationship very well, the theme of ‘sex as duty’ and his later consistent attempts to rape his own wife despite her proclamations to stop emphasise the intense misogyny laced within the story. This is further compounded by the three hillbilly hunters who lay sexual siege to the women, while So-young’s ex simply wants to receive a share of the money. In each predicament Seung-yeon and So-young are routinely blamed and ‘punished’ for stepping outside of traditional patriarchal ‘boundaries’, often to shocking – and infuriating – effect. While Kim Ki-duk certainly has his flaws, his depictions of misogyny are usually quite insightful on both character-driven and cultural levels. Such depth is not contained within Godsend, and as such the later attempts to change such morally vacuous males into upstanding gentlemen rings ridiculously hollow.

Yet Godsend is very engaging whenever the story returns to the developing sisterhood between Seung-yeon and So-young. Critics often lament Kim Ki-duk’s characters for taking huge and arguably illogical leaps within his narratives, and director Moon Si-hyun overcomes such concerns through non-linear editing.  Initially the film jumps from So-young’s disgust at the proposed exchange to her journey with Seung-yeon into the countryside, yet director Moon fills in the gaps with flashbacks which works wonderfully in terms of character development, with their burgeoning relationship easily the heart and soul of the film.

As a modern nativity however, Godsend falls flat. While the first half of the film sets up events well, the second half provides an overabundance of sexist sub-plots that detract from the journey the women undertake. The constant misogyny and threat of rape constructs a perverse nativity as opposed to an exploration of contemporary pregnancy and childbirth issues. Thankfully the religious themes are not overt however, while the developing relationship between So-young and Seung-yeon makes Godsend an interesting and oft-compelling drama.

Seung-yeon's husband listens to 'gift of God' in So-young's tummy

Seung-yeon’s husband listens to the ‘gift of God’ in So-young’s tummy

Verdict:

Godsend is a compelling attempt at a contemporary nativity story of sorts, based on a screenplay by Kim Ki-duk and directed by one of his proteges, Moon Si-hyun. Exploring the issues of pregnancy and surrogacy, the film shines when depicting the burgeoning relationship between the two central female protagonists as they bond during their unorthodox deal. However the inclusion of atrocious male characters, who perpetuate a constant threat of rape, often makes for uncomfortable viewing.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013 Reviews
The 18th Busan International Film Festival

BIFF 2013: The 18th Busan International Film Festival

The 18th Busan International Film Festival

The 18th Busan International Film Festival

Preparations are well underway for the 18th Busan International Film Festival  (BIFF), which is due to take place from the 3rd to the 12th of October.

BIFF 2013 will feature a staggering 300 films from 70 countries, with 136 of those world and/or international premieres.

Amongst returning categories including ‘Gala Presentation‘, ‘New Currents‘, ‘Korean Cinema Today‘, and so forth, are a number of special programs for cineastes.

Fly High, Run Far: The Making of Korean Master Im Kwon-taek‘ is an incredible retrospective for the filmmaking giant. Director Im has helmed an unbelievable 101 films during his career, and to celebrate his contribution to the film industry BIFF 2013 will screen a whopping 71 of his films as well as conduct a hand-printing ceremony in his honour. To accommodate so many films, and in an unprecedented move, the retrospective will begin 10 days early as well as feature a host of guest speakers ranging from film professionals to academics at the screenings.

Meanwhile ‘Park Chul-soo Special Commemoration: Eternal Movie Youth‘ is a celebration of the films of director Park who tragically died earlier this year. Five of the director’s films are due to be screened, including the world premiere of Green Chair 2013 – Love Conceptually (녹색의자2013-러브 컨셉츄얼리), the posthumous release of his last production.

Additionally, ‘Rogues, Rebels and Romantics: A Season of Irish Cinema‘ is a recognition of the filmic output from the Emerald Isle, which also sees director Jim Sheridan get the hand-printing treatment alongside the screening of two of his most famous films. A little closer to home, ‘The Unknown New Wave of Central Asian Cinema‘ champions eight forgotten masterpieces from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Please see below for the serene BIFF 2013 trailer.

BIFF 2013 will also open the festival with Bhutanese drama Vara: A Blessing by director/Buddhist monk Khyentse Norbu – the first film hailing from outside of Korea or China to do so in the festival’s history. BIFF 2013 will close with Korean film The Dinner (만찬) by director Kim Dong-hyun (김동현), his third film and his latest since 2005’s A Shark (상어).

Opening Film

Vara: A Blessing (Bhutan)

Vara: A Blessing

Vara: A Blessing

Vara: A Blessing is director/Buddhist monk Khyentse Norbu’s third film, adapted from the Indian short story ‘Rakta Aar Kanna’ (Blood and Tears) by Sunil Gangopadhyay. The film interprets the Indian dance Bharatanatyam through a forbidden love between a young couple. Featuring Buddhist themes of truth-seeking and the path to enlightenment, Vara depicts the story of Lila, a young woman learning the traditional dance from her mother, who falls in love with poor sculptor Shyam. While Shyam worships Lila as a goddess and she in turn imagines him as Lord Krishna, their relationship becomes extremely problematic when Subha, the village leader, objects to their union.

Closing Film

The Dinner (만찬) (Korea)

The Dinner (만찬)

The Dinner (만찬)

Director Kim Dong-hyun explores the modern Korean family in his latest film. Each member of the family struggles with various burdens involving work and family, yet financial concerns are the chief cause of stress for them all. Despite such hardships, the elderly father wishes to treat his wife with a meal of hamburgers for her birthday, something she has never tried before. Yet as the day wears on it becomes increasingly apparent that none of their three children have either remembered nor planned anything for their mother’s special day, as they are so caught up in their own circumstances. When even greater tragedy threatens them, they must learn to cope with their burdens as a family.

For more information from the official BIFF 2013 website, please click here.

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