Warm After All (짐작보다 따뜻하게) – ★★☆☆☆

Warm After All (짐작보다 따뜻하게)

Warm After All (짐작보다 따뜻하게)

Dubbing actress Eun-kyeong (Lee Sun (이선) is a successful artist, yet a struggling single mother. Her teenage son Hoon (Kim Yu-bin (김유빈) shows little regard for his mother’s concerns, staying out late at PC cafes instead of coming home and eating lovingly prepared meals. Sun-kyeong’s stress about the issue becomes so fervent that insomnia arises and begins to effect her work, causing anxiety amongst her colleagues. Strangely however, ex-husband Sang-min (Im Hak-soon (임학순) has a good relationship with Hoon, and the two work together to plan a birthday surprise for Eun-kyeong. Yet when Eun-kyeong’s health takes a turn for the worst Sang-min is compelled to return, forcing them to confront the issues in their relationship.

Sensitively composed and particularly timely, director Lee Sang-min’s Warm After All is heartfelt film exploring the nature of love, tragedy and trauma. Through Eun-kyeong, an intelligent, successful and attractive career woman who seemingly has it all, director Lee interrogates the manner in which emotional and psychological anguish can manifest during the healing process without the proper support. The film is very much a gentle character study, with actress Lee Sun’s compelling performance inferring the depth of Eun-kyeong’s suffering potently as well as providing an absorbing and resonating emotional narrative core.

Ex-husband Sang-min plans a birthday surprise for Eun-kyeong with son Hoon

Ex-husband Sang-min plans a birthday surprise for Eun-kyeong with son Hoon

While the first half of Warm After All interestingly explores Eun-kyeong’s – and to a lesser extent ex-husband Sang-min’s – psychological disposition, the narrative takes an excessive amount of time to reach what is ultimately a rather predictable plot device. Wisely director Lee employs it around the halfway point and from there the film gains more traction and poignancy as the divorced couple support each other during the healing process, conveying their frailties through well-framed shots and the effective use of beautiful Jeju Island landscapes.

Yet rather than deeply explore the internal conflicts and hardships plaguing them, or the ways in which the estranged couple come to accept and deal with reality, Warm After All instead portrays Eun-kyeong and Sang-min’s path to stability somewhat romantically which is a misstep. Certain scenes, notably that of Sang-min’s preparation of a tent for Eun-kyeong while she sleeps, are tenderly crafted and moving, however in skipping over the depths of such a pivotal and central theme the overall power and emotional resonance of the narrative is significantly lessened.

Eun-kyeong struggles to cope with the issues that plague her

Eun-kyeong struggles to cope with the issues that plague her

Verdict:

Warm After All is a sensitive and timely drama about love, tragedy and anguish by director Lee Sang-min. The film depicts emotional and psychological trauma with sincerity although only manages to become truly engaging at the half way stage, yet even then struggles to explore the depths of trauma and the healing process. Warm After All is an affecting yet slight examination of love and loss.

★★☆☆☆

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16th Jeonju International Film Festival (제16회 전주국제영화제) Festival News Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews

Unconfessional (고백할 수 없는) – ★☆☆☆☆

Unconfessional (고백할 수 없는)

Unconfessional (고백할 수 없는)

Resolved to produce an artistic independent film worthy of a premiere at Cannes, famous genre director Byeong-cheon (Bae Sung-woo (배선우) prepares to interview a local teenager for the lead role. With his sullen daughter Na-rae (Han Jae-in (한재인) out on a day trip with her estranged mother, the director welcomes prospective actor Se-young (Jeong Seong-il (정성일) into his home and begins to record their conversation on camera. Yet the interview takes an unexpected turn when Byeong-cheon begins asking questions about Se-young’s connection to Na-rae, and as the two attempt to psychologically outmaneuver each other the situation escalates into dark territory.

Unconfessional is an attempt at constructing a scaled-down character-driven thriller, and is a noble effort by director Choe In-gyu (최인규). The great strength of the film lies in the location, a wonderfully labyrinthian homestead featuring multiple tiers and arenas within which director Choe wisely keeps the action confined. The narrative is also initially good at generating suspense and in keeping the motives of Beong-cheon and Se-young concealed, imparting various red herrings to deter audiences from predicting their true intentions.

Byeong-cheon's actions and motives are mysterious to say the least

Byeong-cheon’s actions and motives are mysterious to say the least

Yet following the rather intriguing opening, Unconfessional slips into a comedy-thriller of sorts through a combination of overacting, laughably silly twists and turns, and hilariously bad dialogue. Just how much director Choe intended such humourous features to be part of the film’s identity is open for debate, yet it is certainly entertaining as well as effective at lightening the darker moments of the narrative. “How dare you not know George Michael!” Byeong-cheon excessively exclaims as he violently discusses music with Se-young, before accusing the teen of using his “nasty banana” with daughter Na-rae and throwing a cup of urine in his face. Such darkly-comedic scenes – undoubtedly receiving contributions from poor subtitling – tend to replace tension with farce, yet it is consistently amusing.

Unfortunately however, as Unconfessional enters its final act the film becomes subsumed beneath the various twists, odd characterisation and the genre requirement for a final revelation. It all becomes quite nonsensical, through the bizzarity of Byeong-cheon and Se-young’s connection and the poor technical prowess displayed during their conflict, while the last-minute inclusion of Na-rae who, along with her mother, were largely written out of the script for much of the running time, combines to lead to a rather unsatisfactory conclusion.

How is Na-rae tied to both Byeong-cheon and Se-young?

How is Na-rae tied to both Byeong-cheon and Se-young?

Verdict:

Unconfessional is a noble effort by director Choe In-gyu to create a scaled-down thriller, one which is initially good at concealing character motivation. Yet the film – unintentionally or otherwise – slips into a comedy-thriller of sorts through laughable twists and turns which ultimately leads to a nonsensical and disappointing climax.

★☆☆☆☆

16th Jeonju International Film Festival (제16회 전주국제영화제) Festival News Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews

Coin Locker (코인라커) – ★☆☆☆☆

Coin Locker (코인라커)

Coin Locker (코인라커)

In a desolate, crime-ridden part of town, former boxer Sang-pil (Lee Yeong-hoon (이영훈) turns to local loan shark Jae-gon (Jeong Wook (정욱) to support his gambling habit. Yet through his appallingly bad luck and with debt spiraling out of control, Sang-pil soon finds himself on the receiving end of the gangster’s wrath. In desperate need of a quick-fix solution he turns to estranged wife Yeon (Son Yeo-eun (손여은), who also takes care of their psychologically ill son Geon-ho (건호), for help but to no avail. As Sang-pil is unable to settle the debt, however, Jae-gon comes looking for Yeon for restitution.

The former boxer gets in deep with loan sharks

The former boxer gets in deep with loan sharks

Coin Locker is a highly erratic and lackadaisical attempt at crafting a gangster-infused drama by director Kim Tae-kyung. Technically lacking, the narrative is also consistently a rather slap-dash affair as storylines and characterisation veer haphazardly, while the ‘logic’ within is often unintentionally comical.

Due to the uncoordinated nature of the script, Coin Locker never really seems to know what kind of film it wants to be and often features large plot holes. Initially it attempts to conform to crime conventions through the conflict between Sang-pil – a terrible former boxer who is seemingly unable to physically defend himself – and cravat-wearing, unthreatening local kingpin Jae-gon, before employing drama tropes as Yeon and her son go on the run, with the foolish mother continuing to frequent familiar places and impossibly confining her son within a subway coin locker, for which he would have to be a skilled contortionist to fit inside of. Add to the mix Geon-ho’s surreal subconscious scenes in which he talks to and blows bubbles with a strange older man, and the result is a mish-mash of disparate features that never successfully coalesce into a satisfactory whole.

Yeon and Geon-ho are forced on the run

Yeon and Geon-ho are forced on the run

Poor characterisation and acting work in conjunction to generate unintended farce, serving to dissolve tension as well as to withdraw audience engagement. Sang-pil is a vile low-life, not only a debt-ridden gambling addict but also a man willing to sell his family home without their acknowledgement. Yet following such behaviour, Coin Locker posits him as a heroic saviour figure during a particularly violent and misogynistic finale, a change of heart that rings especially hollow. Similarly dotting mother Yeon is content to leave her traumatised son in the care of strangers or in an impossibly small coin locker while she attempts – and fails – to to work as a ‘hostess,’ despite the knowledge that they’ll soon be departing for New Zealand anyway. Gangster Jae-gon is the only consistent character throughout the film, with actor Jeong Wook clearly taking great pleasure hamming it up during his scenes.

The film also suffers in other forms, including repetition – gangsters chase, victims run – and corporate placement – Popeye’s, Tesco Homeplus and Lotte Mart logos feature prominently. Tone is also problematic, as after adeline-pumping chase sequences scenes such as blowing bubbles on a rooftop or fun at a fairground suddenly occur. For all of the attempts to play with suture a variety of generic conventions, Coin Locker ultimately, and rather unfortunately, falls flat.

Gambling addict Sang-pil has a sudden change of heart

Gambling addict Sang-pil has a sudden change of heart

Verdict:

Coin Locker is an erratic crime-drama by director Kim Tae-kyung. Featuring a particularly uncoordinated narrative, haphazard characterisation and large plot holes, the film is consistently lacking and is often unintentionally comical. While it attempts to amalgamate various conventions they never successfully coalesce into a satisfactory whole, and as such Coin Locker ultimately falls flat.

★☆☆☆☆

16th Jeonju International Film Festival (제16회 전주국제영화제) Festival News Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews

Waiting for the Snow (눈이라도 내렸으면) – ★☆☆☆☆

Waiting for the Snow (눈이라도 내렸으면)

Waiting for the Snow (눈이라도 내렸으면)

In a rundown village, cerebral palsy sufferer Seong-gook (Kang Seong-gook (강성국) runs a small news stand in the local subway station. Largely ignored or mistreated by the various inhabitants, Seong-gook dreams of becoming a dancer and spends his evenings drinking soju and dancing in the rain. Also residing in the village is high school student Seon-woo (Yeo Hyo-rim (여효림) who, with little future prospects, joins the workforce only to quickly learn of the hardships that entails. On one particular night Seong-sook and Seon-woo cross paths, and find inspiration.

Waiting for the Snow is one of the more bizarre offerings within the Korean Film Competition at JIFF 2015, in that the film is constructed so haphazardly it is difficult to know exactly what is going on or what director Jang Hee-chul (장희철) is trying to achieve. For the majority of Waiting for the Snow‘s running time, the narrative aimlessly jumps between disparate characters and events which are confusing and often entirely superfluous, resulting in a story that is extremely difficult to engage with or invest in. Random tangents, such as Seong-gook’s friends and an attractive girl receiving perverse attention on the subway, continually enter and exit the narrative and serve merely as distractions, adding precious little to the erratic mix. The film only truly finds direction in the final act as Seong-gook and Seon-woo coincidently meet and stroll through the village together, yet their fleeting encounter leads to a rather farcical, and somewhat cringeworthy, finale that dissolves a lot of the prior chemistry.

Seon-woo finds the work place to be a challenging environment

Seon-woo finds the work place to be a challenging environment

In conjunction with the disorganised script, aside from a few scenes of attractive cinematography, Waiting for the Snow is also technically found wanting. The direction is competent yet lifeless, the editing is poor, and the soundtrack is particularly incompatible with what’s occurring onscreen. Director Jang attempts to infuse the film with whimsical, surreal moments as Seong-gook attempts to fulfil his dream of dancing, however these scenes are so at odds with the predominantly social-realist aesthetic of the film that they don’t mesh well with the rest of his vision.

With the exception of charismatic Seung-gook, who oddly disappears for much of the central act, poor casting and acting also serve as distractions throughout the film. As teenager Seon-woo, actress Yeo Hyo-rim is rather schizophrenic in that her characterisation veers from too-cool-for-school bad girl, to shy worker, to rage fuelled victim, to innocent youngster. Her clearly older age is also an issue, although it’s nothing compared to her school friends who appear middle-aged, in conjunction with some truly horrible acting. Seung-gook’s shrieking ‘ajumma’ subway friends are a further annoyance. With precious few protagonists to invest in, Waiting for the Snow is very much a laborious viewing experience.

Seung-gook dreams of becoming an elegant dancer

Seung-gook dreams of becoming an elegant dancer

Verdict:

Waiting for the Snow is a frustrating endeavour. Featuring an erratic narrative structure alongside technical issues and poor acting, director Jang Hee-chul’s film is especially difficult to engage with and invest in. The film only truly finds direction in the final act, yet it is too little too late to save audiences from what is ultimately a laborious viewing experience.

★☆☆☆☆

16th Jeonju International Film Festival (제16회 전주국제영화제) Festival News Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews

Stay With Me (울보) – ★★☆☆☆

Stay With Me (울보)

Stay With Me (울보)

Moving to a small suburban city with his father, academically gifted student E-seop (Jang Yoo-sang (장유상) begins attending the local high school where he quickly earns a reputation for his intelligence. While at school E-seop becomes entranced by fellow student Ha-yun (Ha Yoon-gyeong (하윤경) as well as her far from admirable attitude towards studying. Through the unlikely friendship that blossoms between them E-seop is introduced to local criminal Gil-su (Lee Seo-joon (이서준), and as the three disaffected, abandoned youths attempt to carve out an existence they are confronted with the dangers of society.

Stay With Me is a compelling and interesting exploration of the ways in which young people from different economic backgrounds are forsaken in contemporary society. Director Rhee Jin-woo (이진우) effectively employs three quite diverse and highly symbolic protagonists to interrogate the sense of alienation and abandonment teens are susceptible to, with the sense of melancholy permeating the narrative heightened by his impressive colour-draining visual aesthetic.

The manner in which director Rhee unifies such disparate youths is potent. Wealthy and intelligent E-seop may appear to be a model student with a bright future, yet his life is devoid of both a mother and emotional connection. His pressurising father, in conjunction with an extremely clinical and sparse homestead, expresses E-seop’s loneliness well. Meanwhile independent and strong-willed Ha-yun is also isolated through her mother’s hospitalisation and a care worker who, ironically, doesn’t particularly care. Gil-su lives alone, living on the profits of petty crime and taking leadership of other youths who have also been disowned and have nowhere to go. The unlikely trio are attracted to each other through their shared sense of desertion and unspoken depression, and director Rhee does a great job in articulating the complexity of their characters without judging them or the decisions that lead them astray.

Ha-yun's alienation is due to circumstances beyond her control

Ha-yun’s alienation is due to circumstances beyond her control

Yet while Stay With Me is an interesting exploration, it generally feels slight in its examination of youth issues as the narrative focuses primarily on the actions of the present without delving into the psychological trauma of their respective pasts. While it is clear that all the protagonists are burdened with neurosis stemming from years prior, the story doesn’t take the time to reveal or reflect on how such experiences inform their current actions or, perhaps more importantly, why audiences should engage with them. Gil-su suffers the most in this respect and as such becomes little more than a one-dimensional thug, and while E-seop fairs better his characterisation goes little beyond being a well-meaning yet overly sensitive kid with a crush.

Ironically, the most powerful and emotionally resonating story belongs to the character mostly relegated to a supporting role – Ha-yun. Just as with fellow K-competition film To Be Sixteen, the heart of Stay With Me belongs to the strong-willed female protagonist often forced to the sidelines in favour of the male counterparts. While the narrative takes an inordinate amount of time to get there, once the story shifts to hinting at Ha-yun’s abusive past the film becomes ever more compelling, although the manner in which director Rhee employs an increasing amount of violent sexual assault scenarios to allude to her history leaves a lot to be desired. Unfortunately such impetus comes too late in the running time, leading to a somewhat unsatisfying finale for the disaffected youths and audience alike.

Abandoned by parents and society, the youths often find themselves in dangerous situations

Abandoned by parents and society, the youths often find themselves in dangerous situations

Verdict:

Stay With Me is an interesting examination of how teenagers from diverse backgrounds are unified in their sense of alienation and abandonment in modern society. Director Rhee Jin-woo expresses their loneliness well, however the lack of depth applied to the central protagonists results in an examination that feels slight. Fortunately the film finds a heart through the character of Ha-yun yet it arrives too late, making Stay With Me a well-made but slender expose on a timely issue.

★★☆☆☆

16th Jeonju International Film Festival (제16회 전주국제영화제) Festival News Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews

With or Without You (춘희막이) – ★★★☆☆

With or Without You (춘희막이)

With or Without You (춘희막이)

“Up until the 1960s in Korea, if a woman could not bear a son, it was fairly common to bring in a surrogate mother. Most of the time, after the surrogates birthed a son, they returned home. But sometimes, they did not.” – preface, With or Without You

Exploring the fascinating and oft-ignored facet of surrogacy within Korean history and culture, With or Without You is a highly impressive documentary from director Park Hyuck-jee (박혁지) and is certainly one of the better discoveries in the K-Competition program. As the only documentary within the category there could arguably be a sense of pressure, yet from the moment With or Without You opens the cinematic quality of the film is clearly apparent, and continues to become increasingly compelling throughout the entirety of its running time.

Despite incredibly odd circumstances, the two are inseparable

Despite incredibly odd circumstances, the two are inseparable

The film documents the lives of elderly widows Maggi (막이) and Chun-hee (춘희) as they toil in the sweltering heat of the Korean countryside planting and harvesting crops. Their physicality is continually arresting, as their backs are quite literally bent at right angles from decades of farming and their gnarled, labourers fingers still work the soil, a stark contrast with the beautiful landscapes in which they reside. Director Park produces some absolutely exquisite cinematography during the course of the film that wonderfully captures the elegance of the rural area in conjunction with the abject poverty of the local populace, combining to create an array of conflicting emotions that is never anything less than utterly absorbing.

The real power of With or Without You lies in the complex history shared by Maggi and Chun-hee. Maggi – a wonderfully stubborn and cynical, yet kind-hearted woman – explains that in her youth she gave birth to an incredible amount of children in order to continue her husband’s family name, yet through history and circumstance, the male children all died. During that era a family would panic if there were no sons to continue the bloodline, and as such Chun-hee was literally ‘bought’ in order to provide heirs. Yet after giving birth Chun-hee stayed at Maggi’s request, and 46 years later the duo continue to take care of each other. Their history, and the details that gradually emerge over the course of the running time, are powerful insights into a seemingly forgotten cultural practice and resonate poignantly with every revelation.

Widow Maggi still harbors mixed emotions towards younger Chun-hee

Widow Maggi still harbors mixed emotions towards younger Chun-hee

Director Kim wisely depicts the great sense of friendship between the women through key scenes, yet isn’t afraid to also employ bizarre comedy of their situation to add levity. Scenes involving Maggi attempting to teach Chun-hee, who has learning difficulties, how to count money are as touching as they are humorous. When they visit a hospital for Chun-hee’s health check and Maggi describes their relationship to the doctor, his facial expression is priceless. With the inclusion of scenes involving their children, director Kim manages to touch on the potent social issue of the uninterested in caring for elderly relatives, a reality that ironically forces both ladies closer and making their interactions even more heart-warming and astute.

Yet With or Without You is not without faults. Just as with last year’s hit documentary My Love, Don’t Cross That River, the film doesn’t delve further into the incredible history of both the central protagonists and the era in which they met, which are missed opportunities, while the issues involving children would benefit from greater exploration. That said however, With or Without You is a charming and poignant documentary, and one which exposes a largely forgotten yet pivotal role women played in the continuation of Korean bloodlines.

The bond shared between Maggi and Chun-hee is as heart-warming as it is unbreakable

The bond shared between Maggi and Chun-hee is as heart-warming as it is unbreakable

Verdict:

With or Without You is a fascinating and absorbing documentary regarding the role of surrogacy in Korean history. Director Park Hyuck-jee employs exquisite cinematography in depicting the lives of elderly farmers Maggi and Chun-hee, two charismatic and resolute women whose complicated history is continually poignant. While the film occasionally misses opportunities to explore said history in further detail, With or Without You is still certainly one of the better discoveries at JIFF 2015.

★★★☆☆

16th Jeonju International Film Festival (제16회 전주국제영화제) Festival News Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews

Alice in Earnestland (성실한 나라의 앨리스) – ★★☆☆☆

Alice in Earnestland (성실한 나라의 앨리스)

Alice in Earnestland (성실한 나라의 앨리스)

Full of high hopes and ambitions for the future, Soo-nam’s (Lee Jung-hyun (이정현) expectations are rapidly shattered in quick succession after graduating high school. Armed with already-outdated skills, Soo-nam is forced to work in accounting at a factory where ironic misfortune leads to meeting her future husband, while even greater calamities that ensue take them both on downward spiral. Yet despite all odds there is a glimmer of hope. A redevelopment proposal offers the solution to all Soo-nam’s woes…but how far is she willing to go to ensure its success?

Desperate, Soo-nam takes drastic action

Desperate, Soo-nam takes drastic action

From the moment the film opens, director Ahn Gooc-jin (안국진) establishes Alice in Earnestland as a wonderfully quirky and uniquely surreal dark comedy of a desperate woman on the edge. Divided into chapters while relaying Soo-nam’s tragi-comic life via a series of flashbacks, the film is – as the Jeonju Film Festival describes it – something of “a cruel fairytale,” depicting the humorously twisted fate that befalls the optimistic heroine as she endeavours to create a life of dignity. Director Ahn initially infuses the story with enthusiastic kineticism through rapid camerawork and editing that serve to generate a lot of fun and intrigue to the tale, while Soo-min’s perseverance – and her delightfully charismatic innocence aptly conveyed by actress Lee Jung-hyun – in the face of such terrible irony is particularly endearing.

Soo-nam remains optimistic even in the face of darkly comic irony

Soo-nam remains optimistic even in the face of darkly comic irony

While at first Alice in Earnestland entertains through a quirky balance of melancholy humour and visual dynamism, the story loses its way towards the conclusion of chapter one by delving too deeply into the dark terrain with which it flirts, and as a result  struggles for the remainder of the film to achieve the comedy buoyancy that initially made it so promising. The film rapidly eschews the eccentricities that made it so appealing to become mired down in local politics and enter particularly dark territory, as the jovial tone spirals into scenes of physical assault, torture, and other forms of abuse, and while director Ahn consistently attempts to inject black comedy into the narrative to lighten the mood, the macabre events ultimately outweigh them.

The final two chapters are of merit however as the darkly morbid situations allow director Ahn to take comical jabs at pertinent issues in Korean society, particularly in regards to issues of finance, health care and redevelopment. The narrative sets up the obstacles challenging Soo-nam as people who prioritise wealth and power, and the film works well as an underdog story as she independently takes on all challenges armed with nothing but an optimistic smile and a drive to succeed. It is largely due to Soo-nam’s endearing qualities that the final act, which flounders somewhat laboriously in a redevelopment scandal, is compelling enough to keep audiences interested until the credits roll.

Redevelopment of the area sees Soo-nam's story enter darker territory

Redevelopment of the area sees Soo-nam’s story enter darker territory

Verdict:

Alice in Earnestland begins as a quirky and surreal dark comedy by director Ahn Gooc-jin, who initially infuses the film with an infectious vibrancy before the narrative tone spirals into darker, more macabre territory and spends the resulting running time struggling to capture the promising comic buoyancy of the opening. Yet actress Lee Jung-hyun’s charismatic performance as optimistic heroine Soo-nam is delightful, and is enough to keep audiences engaged until the credits roll.

★★☆☆☆

16th Jeonju International Film Festival (제16회 전주국제영화제) Festival News Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews