Jiseul (지슬)

Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Top Ten of 2013

As 2013 draws to a close, so it becomes time to discuss the best releases from the Korean film industry from the year.

It’s been quite  year for Korean film. According to the Korean Film Council the industry crossed over the 200 million admissions mark for the first time in history, averaging just over 4 films per person; recently released drama The Attorney (변호인), based on former president Roh Moo-hyun’s early career, broke the box office record for single day admissions in December attracting over 540,000 moviegoers upon opening; Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (설국열차), the most expensive film in Korean cinema history, was released to critical and commercial acclaim; and Moon Byung-gon’s Safe (세이프) won the short film Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival, the first time the award has been bestowed upon a Korean director.

But back to the issue at hand – the top ten. ‘Best of’ lists always feel somewhat disingenuous as it’s impossible to have seen simply everything to emerge from the industry over the past 12 months. This also unfortunately applies to this particular list, particularly in regards to films released over the past month. So, in the interest of full disclosure, here are some great films that could potentially have been included in the top ten had they been seen – Moebius (뫼비우스)Hope/Wish (소원), Way Back Home (집으로 가는 길), and The Attorney.

However, without further ado, let’s press on with Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Top Ten of 2013:

Joint 1st – Jiseul (지슬)

Jiseul (지슬)

Jiseul (지슬)

While Jiseul premiered at Busan in 2012, it was officially released nationwide in 2013 and for that reason jointly takes the number 1 spot. Director O Muel’s breathtaking film about the 1948 Jeju Island ‘Uprising’ (or rather ‘Massacre’) is one of those rare films that transcends the medium into art. The stunning cinematography is exquisitely captured through the black and white tones, while the realism-inducing long takes convey the atrocities endured by the Islanders with palpable melancholy. Shockingly, Jiseul was not submitted as Korea’s entry for the Academy Awards (with the honour instead going to Juvenile Offender), a presumably political decision due to the negative manner in which the Korean military are portrayed – a genuine shame as Jiseul is one of the best Oscar contenders Korea has produced in quite some time. Nevertheless, director O Muel’s beautifully haunting tribute is an absolute must-see. (See the full review here).

Joint 1st – Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju is without a doubt the best new film of 2013. Staggering powerful, heartbreaking and courageous, the film tells the story of high schooler Gong-ju who is forced to relocate to a new school due to a secretive event in her past. Director Lee Su-jin has crafted an incredible film that wonderfully captures many of the social issues in contemporary Korea, confronting the themes of selfishness and corruption directly and in doing so evokes a maelstrom of emotional resonance. It is no stretch to say that Han Gong-ju is like a raw Lee Chang-dong film, one full of maturity and awareness yet with added indignation. Staggeringly, the film is also director Lee Su-jin’s feature-length directorial debut and, should he continue to helm films of this quality, Korea will have a new auteur in the making.

2nd – Pluto (명왕성)

Pluto (명왕성)

Pluto (명왕성)

Director Shin Su-won proves her win at Cannes for Circle Line (순환선) was no fluke with the release of the masterful Pluto. A former teacher before her venture into filmmaking, director Shin deftly employs her knowledge of the insanely-competitive Korean education system in exploring how students can become increasingly amoral in the bid for perfect grades  and an all-important university placement. What makes Pluto so special is not only the examination of corruption within the system but also the character development as Joon – wonderfully acted by Lee David – gradually succumbs to violent ambition. (See the full review here).

3rd – My Place (마이 플레이스)

My Place (마이 플레이스)

My Place (마이 플레이스)

The best kind of documentaries are the ones that serve to enlighten, yet director Park Moon-chil goes one better with My Place in that he too is on a quest for knowledge. Initially believing that his sister is somewhat irresponsible for wishing to be a single-parent, director Park attempts to understand his sibling by investigating her past, which in turn leads to startling discoveries about his entire family. Through exploring cultural and generational differences as well as revealing – and attempting to heal – family trauma, My Place is a wonderful testament to family and forces audiences to address how well they know their own relatives. (See the full review here).

4th – Snowpiercer (설국열차)

Snowpiercer (설국열차)

Snowpiercer (설국열차)

A pulse-pounding thrill-ride from start to finish, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is a momentous sci-fi epic. Based on the French comic Le Transperceneige, the film depicts a world devoid of life due to global warming with the last remnants of humanity hurtling around the world on the perpetually moving train ‘snowpiercer.’ What makes the film so fascinating is the manner in which  the class system is explored, examining the nature of revolution, the brainwashing inherent in education, as well as the potent symbolism laced throughout – particularly from Tilda Swinton’s brilliant channeling of Margaret Thatcher as the villainous Mason. Snowpiercer is also a triumph of production design, and ranks among the best science fiction films to emerge from the industry. (See the full review here).

5th – The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

Brutally intense and profoundly disturbing, The Fake is a phenomenal indictment of the fraud that exists within society. The Korean title ‘Saibi’ is specific to religion, and potent symbolism abounds; the looming threat of a flood sends the local populace into a religious fervour as they compete for the ‘limited’ places in heaven. Interestingly director Yeon Sang-ho marries such weighty material with the generic conventions of the western, and the result is extraordinary – should the audience align with the fraudulent man of God, or the truthful-yet-devilish western anti-hero? (See the full review here).

6th – New World (신세계)

New World (신세계)

New World (신세계)

Taking a cue from Coppola’s The Godfather, director Park Hoon-jeong’s gangster epic New World is among the best examples of the genre in recent memory. As a screenwriter on I Saw The Devil and The Unjust director Park has experience in weaving bloodthirsty thrillers, and his vision in constructing a tale of vengeful gangsters attempting to fill a power vacuum is brilliant. The double-crosses and Infernal Affairs-esque clashes between men on both sides of the law are made all the more powerful with the stunning cinematography and visual finesse. (See here for the full review).

7th – Cold Eyes (감시자들)

Cold Eyes (감시자들)

Cold Eyes (감시자들)

A remake of Hong Kong action-noir Eye in the Sky, Cold Eyes is a vastly different adaptation set in the shimmering metropolis of Seoul. The slick thriller is incredibly entertaining not only for the great pacing and exhilarating cat-and-mouse chase sequences, but also for the wonderful casting. Han Hyo-joo, so often relegated to being a pretty love interest, is excellent as the bold, smart and independent rookie, while Jeong Woo-seong is great as the steely and manipulative villain. (See here for the full review).

8th – The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File marks a genuine stage in evolution for director Ryoo Seung-wan. His previous films have typically been highly entertaining action-thrillers often serving to revere classic sequences of yesteryear; however with The Berlin File the high-octane set-pieces, kinetic camera movement and rapid editing combine to create his most exhilarating film to date. With an all-star cast featuring Ha Jeong-woo, Jeon Ji-hyeon, Han Seok-kyu and Ryoo Seung-beom, The Berlin File is one of 2013’s great genre films. (See here for the full review).

9th – How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

2013 was full of cliched and generic rom-coms – which made How to Use Guys with Secret Tips even more refreshing. Criminally under-seen due to a release date alongside Miracle in Cell No. 7 and New World, director Lee Won-seok’s debut is simply bursting with colour, vitality, inventiveness, and most importantly – brains. Spinning the cliches upside down, director Lee continually pokes fun at modern masculinity as well as highlighting the sexism that exists in contemporary Korea in a uniquely humourous fashion, combining to produce one of the most enjoyable and downright fun rom-coms in quite some time. (See here for the full review).

10th – Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정)

Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정)

Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정)

Premiering at the Jeonju International Film Festival, director Jung Young-heon’s Lebanon Emotion was far and away the most interesting and engaging drama to appear. Initially a potent tale of grief and despair, the film transforms into an otherworldly story of togetherness, revenge, and danger. Director Jung’s history as a cinematographer is apparent in every scene, featuring gorgeously haunting landscapes alongside some great character development and quirky humour. Bizarrely missing out on the top prize at JIFF, Lebanon Emotion was rewarded at Moscow by scooping the best director award, and he is certainly a talent to watch. (See here for the full review.)

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The otherworldly landscapes are beautifully realised

Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정) – ★★★★☆

Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정)

Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정)

Receiving its world premiere at the 2013 14th Jeonju International Film Festival, Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정) quickly began to earn praise amongst audiences and critics alike. Director Jung Young-heon’s (정영헌) poignant tale of a man unable to come to terms with his mother’s death and a woman on the run is a wonderful dramatic thriller, featuring sincere and moving performances as the complex lives of the characters within become evermore intertwined. The director’s history as a cinematographer is also readily apparent throughout as the film contains some genuinely gorgeous visuals, which also serve to be deeply symbolic of the main protagonists. While a few plot holes and structural imbalances stop it from being a perfect film, with Lebanon Emotion director Jung has established himself as a Korean filmmaker to watch.

The central protagonist attempts to accept his mother's death

The central protagonist attempts to accept his mother’s death

Seeking solace at a friend’s country home, a man plans his suicide due to his inability to cope with his mother’s death. Yet while taking a stroll in the mountains he hears the scream of a woman who has stepped on a deer trap, and takes her home to nurse her back to health. As they become more acquainted the unlikely couple start to realize they share several things in common, while the kindness they experience from each other is unprecedented. Yet little do either of them know that the woman’s past is catching up to them in the form of her brutal gangster ex-boyfriend, and he is far from happy.

One of the great strengths of Lebanon Emotion are the themes that it explores through the central protagonists. The grief inhabited by the man is palpable, with his depression and insular mannerisms acutely alluding to his turmoil. His reconstruction of his mother’s death is heartbreakingly poignant, as are his breakdowns when faced with the reality of the situation. Similarly issues of survival are inherent to the woman’s struggle. Fresh out of prison and with nowhere to go, the strength and resilience that she employs are wonderfully conveyed without ever becoming cliche. The contrast between the characters is also a delightful reversal of traditional gendered roles, where the emotional/homestead and physical/drifter realms are exchanged. Such work could be so easily undermined when placing the two characters together, but luckily contrivances are rejected and in its place a complex relationship develops through the slow and natural discovery of each other’s personalities.

The arrival of the woman begins a chain of unexpected events

The arrival of the woman begins a chain of unexpected events

The otherworldly landscapes further serve as potent symbolism for the man and woman. The winter environments are stunning and drained of colour, and director Jung makes effective use of locations in regard to each character. While the lack of colour heightens the depression and emotional distress of the man, the snow covered land becomes a challenge for survival for the woman. The area surrounding the country home is a construction site, a place that initially embodies the dismantling of a life yet through the relationship that develops comes to convey the construction of one. Director Jung wisely makes use of each area, adding further surrealism with the inclusion of dream sequences that add even greater insight to not only the protagonists, but also as a comment on the meaning of life.

Yet Lebanon Emotion is not solely concerned with deep, existential issues. The inclusion of the woman’s ex-boyfriend adds incredible tension to the proceedings as he gets ever closer to discovering her location, placing her relationship with the man on a timer. The suspense and tension generated whenever the gangster is on screen is quite chilling, while the brutality that occurs is highly effective due to the threat rather than the action. The danger and impact of such violence on the lives of those involved makes the story continually compelling and engaging, and acts as an interesting debate on the nature of masculinity.

The otherworldly landscapes are beautifully realised

The otherworldly landscapes are beautifully realised

Verdict:

Lebanon Emotion is certainly one of the best films to emerge from the 2013 Jeonju International Film Festival. With an engrossing story involving the nature of grief, the challenges of survival, and the threat of external violence, the film never ceases to be compelling as two seemingly disparate people come together through suffering. Director Jung Young-heon’s keen visual sensibilities are stunningly realised through the lovely cinematography, making for an attractive and insightful film.

★★★★☆

Jeonju International Film Festival (제14회 전주국제영화제) Korean Festivals 2013 Reviews
Mr. Vertigo (축지법과 비행술)

JIFF 2013: Quick Fire Reviews 2

Quick fire reviews from the 14th Jeonju International Film Festival.

Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정)

Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정)

Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정) – 8/10

Lebanon Emotion is without a doubt one of the best films at the festival, and certainly a strong contender for best film in the Korean Film Competition category. Director Jung Young-heon (정영헌) has cemented his position as a film-making talent to watch, following his best director win for short film Hard Boiled Jesus at JIFF 2012. In Lebanon Emotion the director explores a great variety of themes throughout the drama/thriller narrative including suicide, guilt, survival, and purpose, against the backdrop of winter in the countryside. Director Jung’s prior history with cinematography is clearly apparent as the landscapes and settings are very attractive throughout. Yet what makes the film so powerful is the characterisation, and the wonderful performances given by the central cast who are continually poignant and compelling. Recommended viewing.

Mr. Vertigo (축지법과 비행술)

Mr. Vertigo (축지법과 비행술)

Mr. Vertigo (축지법과 비행술) – 5/10

Mr. Vertigo promised to be one of the more quirky offerings at the festival, yet only partially succeeds. This is wholly due to actor Oh Dal-su who performs the role of a roguish ‘air-walking’ master who takes on a new student. Oh Dal-su has played plenty of similar characters in the past and while he tries to squeeze as much out of the master as he can, there isn’t really enough material for him to do so. The main protagonist is actually his disciple, a frustrated bookish young man who seeks something new and fulfilling. Again however, director Lee Kyung-sub (이경섭) doesn’t provide much information or fully convey his anxieties, resulting in a lack of engagement. A mildly entertaining film that doesn’t capitalize on its premise.

Timing (타이밍)

Timing (타이밍)

 Timing (타이밍) – 5/10

As the title implies, Timing features some of the ironic features of life that tend to occur at the most inconvenient of moments. The narrative conveys the frustrations of a career woman recently diagnosed with cancer, and the events that transpire as a result. She explodes at her boss in a business meeting; an ex-lover appears out of concern; financial and health issues, and so forth. The film becomes quite episodic due to this approach, and as such it’s difficult to really align with the protagonist and feel the anguish she endures. The character is also not particularly likable due to her initial selfishness. However director Kim Ji-Yeon (김지연) manages to cram an awful lot of material into the 21 minute running and is quite insightful at times, although she could have benefitted much more by making it a feature.

The Woman (그 여자)

The Woman (그 여자)

The Woman (그 여자) – 5/10

With the transsexual experience vastly underrepresented in Korean cinema, The Woman had the potential to shine a light on important issues yet only partially succeeds. The narrative follows Yoon-hee as she goes about her daily life, until her older brother pays a visit to inform her of their mother’s illness. Unfortunately director Jo Mee-hye (조미혜) takes nearly all the running time just to get to this point, generally meandering as Yoon-hee delivers milk on her rounds. There is a wealth of material within the film that is just never explored – Yoon-hee’s status as an outsider, her obviously fraught relationship with her husband, the extremely strained familial history – and as such only scrapes the surface of the potential on offer. The Woman is an interesting yet superficial film, and a missed opportunity.

Echo of Dragon (용문)

Echo of Dragon (용문)

Echo of Dragon (용문) – 3/10

Fans of experimental and art house cinema will find much to love with director Lee Hyun-jung’s (이현정) Echo of Dragon, due to the highly symbolic features that run rampant throughout. For everyone else, the film is pretentious, self-indulgent and utterly absurd. The film does feature moments of beautiful cinematography although they are often sporadic, while narrative elements are started and dropped without any warning. Ironically it is a different director, Lee Sang-woo, who steals the show in his performance as a possibly mentally unhinged drifter. He provides much-needed levity and focus to the film, and is genuinely funny yet also hints at a greater depth that goes unexplored. The film is highly symbolic, but also frustratingly bizarre.

Garibong (가리봉)

Garibong (가리봉)

Garibong (가리봉) – 5/10

Director Park Ki-yong (박기용) has produced a documentary in the very literal sense of the word with Garibong, as he ‘documents’ areas within the titular district in which Chinese immigrants reside. The cinematography is superb, capturing the sense of dislocation of the area from the surrounding Seoul districts and the squalid, dilapidated buildings convey palpable depression. Often, he film evokes scenes from sci-fi classic Blade Runner. Yet despite the attractive visual prowess, the film is quite dull as there are no people or stories to follow, and therefore no opportunity to become fully engaged within the world of Garibong. The static camera is both a blessing and a curse, as while it captures the alleys and lifestyle there is always a distance between it and the residents. Ultimately the documentary is visually attractive, but lacking compulsion.

Festival News Jeonju International Film Festival (제14회 전주국제영화제) Korean Festivals 2013 Reviews