I Saw You (너를 봤어)

MAD SAD BAD (신촌좀비만화) – ★★★☆☆

MAD SAD BAD (신촌좀비만화)

MAD SAD BAD (신촌좀비만화)

Omnibus film MAD SAD BAD (신촌좀비만화) has the notable distinction of featuring not only three of Korea’s top name directors in the form of Ryoo Seung-wan (류승완), Han Ji-seung (한지승) and Kim Tae-yong (김태용), but also for serving as the opening film for the 15th Jeonju International Film Festival. The collective work is quite a landmark for an opening film due to the use of 3D, which is, in part, used to emphasis the new vision and production role of KAFA+ (The Korean Academy of Film Arts).

The three segments are each designed to explore human relationships through a connection to a form of popular culture. Director Ryoo Seung-wan helms the first short titled Ghost (유령), about a boy who is addicted to his cell phone; director Han Ji-seung is responsible for I Saw You (너를 봤어), which is concerned with a futuristic zombie apocalypse; and finally director Kim Tae-yong explores the life of a young girl with an autistic brother in Picnic (피크닉).

In the interest of fairness, each short within the omnibus has been reviewed individually, in the order in which they appear onscreen.

Ghost (유령)

Ghost (유령)

Ghost (유령) –  ★★★☆☆

Ghost depicts teenager Seung-ho (Lee David (이다윗) who is more concerned with the digital world of chat rooms, sms, and computer games rather than reality. When Woo-bi (Son Soo-hyeon (손수현), a girl from his chatroom, claims she is in danger from an abusive boyfriend, Seung-ho teams with Bi-jen (Park Jeong-min (박정민) to help her.

Based on a true story, Ghost is quite a departure from director Ryoo Seung-wan’s typically action-orientated projects, and he ably handles the focus on low-key personal drama. Scenes featuring Seung-ho’s bedroom are expertly filmed and wonderfully convey his fractured relationship with reality, while the social pressures from his school and father are competently expressed. However the tension that a film such as Ghost requires is curiously absent, particularly when Seung-ho and Bi-jen attempt to help Woo-bi. The use of 3D is also quite unnecessary  as the drama rarely features it effectively.

Luckily the ever-reliable Lee David holds everything together well, with his likeable ‘everyman’ charm again forcing audiences to empathise with his plight. That said, the actor is never pushed into new territory and as such his performance doesn’t contain the intensity of his prior work, yet Lee David does what he can with the material on offer. It’s Park Jeong-min, however, who gives a wonderful performance as the socially inept Bi-jen. Complete with thick-rimmed glasses, protruding jaw and nervous ticks, Park’s characterisation is a radical departure from his previous roles conveying angst and social-dislocation with aplomb.

I Saw You (너를 봤어)

I Saw You (너를 봤어)

I Saw You (너를 봤어) – ★★☆☆☆

In the not-too-distant future, zombies have emerged causing catastrophe in their wake. Yet the arrival of a cure for the affliction has allowed the undead to rejoin society. Factory manager Yeo-wool (Park Ki-woong (박기웅) presides over zombie laborers, pushing them to work harder and harder. When a zombie named Si-wa (Nam Gyoo-ri (남규리) attempts to communicate with him, Yeo-wool begins to understand their connection.

Director Han Ji-seung’s I Saw You is certainly the weakest within the omnibus. Poorly scripted, badly acted, and featuring precious little depth, the superficial rom-com-zom is a hollow experience. Director Han’s ambition is clearly bigger than his budget, yet instead of scaling down the film into a more focused piece he has constructed a poor imitation of a large production, one where the narrative veers wildly resulting in a lack of interest in the central couple. There is an attempt to emphasise the importance of memory as with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, yet it becomes lost amongst the various narrative tangents and oddities.

Bizarrely, I Saw You also fails to use the 3D technology effectively. This is the one production within the omnibus where the genre lends itself to fun 3D antics, however the potential isn’t capitalised on, resulting in a rather bland offering.

Picnic (피크닉)

Picnic (피크닉)

Picnic (피크닉) – ★★★★☆

Su-min (Kim Su-an (김수안) lives a humble life with her seamstress mother (Park Mi-hyeon (박미현) and autistic younger brother. Despite her young age Su-min is often forced to take responsibility for her sibling, and her only respite is to lose herself with the ages of a romantic comic book.

Picnic is a beautifully told, wonderfully charming story of youth and innocence, and is undoubtedly the most accomplished segment with the entirety of MAD SAD BAD. Screenwriter Min Ye-ji has constructed a poignant, sensitive and compelling story regarding those who live on the fringes of society, one which is elegantly depicted by director Kim Tae-yong. Director Kim ‘s uncanny ability to deeply understand and convey his characters motivations is once again apparent as he portrays a frustrated, overburdened young girl with an acute sense of subtly and artistry. Director Kim is also the only director in the omnibus to employ 3D effectively. Picnic features some truly sumptuous cinematography which the 3D technology vibrantly brings to life, particularly scenes of nature as with a pier at sunset and a mysterious forest.

The compulsion of the film rests on young actress Kim Su-an’s shoulders, and she delivers wonderfully. Her performance is continually captivating and displays a quality that belies her youth, proving that her prior films, including Berlinale winner Sprout, were no fluke. Kim’s charismatic performance conveys an adult sense of responsibility and independence alongside a youthful innocence and vitality, generating a deep sense of empathy and that never fails to entertain.

★★★☆☆

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Festival News Jeonju International Film Festival (제15회 전주국제영화제) Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews
Pluto (명왕성)

Pluto (명왕성) – ★★★★☆

Pluto (명왕성)

Pluto (명왕성)

The Korean education system is infamous for it’s grueling and oppressive culture, and the stress imposed on youngsters has often been the subject of film. Typically such themes appear in the form of teenage horrors, such as the successful Whispering Corridors series, whereby the pressures of constant examinations and competition from other students prove too much to bear for their very souls.

With Pluto (명왕성), director Shin Su-won (신수원) takes a dramatic-thriller approach to the topic and the result is fantastic. Employing the technical prowess and artistic sensibilities that earned her the Canal Plus prize for her short Circle Line (순환선) at Cannes, director Shin deftly explores the weighty subject matter with skill. Even more impressive is that Pluto manages to straddle both the independent aesthetic realm as well as more mainstream territory, a remarkable achievement given that it’s only her second feature film. While some critics have lamented the inclusion of more generic features, it is a wise move on director Shin’s part as it solidifies her name through the industry as a talent to watch.

At a highly prestigious high school that produces some of the most elite students in Korea, top student Yun-jin (Seong Joon (성준) is found murdered in a nearby forest. Immediately suspected is frosty roommate Joon (David Lee (이다윗), yet with a sound alibi his release is assured. Yet Joon knows much more about the circumstances surrounding Yun-jin’s death than he reveals, and gathers the most elite student group at school together to discover the killer.

The elite students run the school, forging a secret society

The elite students run the school, forging a secret society

Pluto begins with all the hallmarks of a highly competent independent thriller, as Yun-jin is stalked in the woods until he meets his untimely demise in suitably shocking fashion. Yet from such humble beginnings director Shin skillfully intertwines such low-budget aesthetics with thriller conventions, as prime suspect Joon is immediately questioned by detectives; however his intelligence proves too great for the officers to cope with, and with zero evidence, he is released. Both realms are consolidated incredibly well through the use of the non-linear narrative as Joon – sporting rebellious blue hair – in the present holds suspects captive as time counts down, while flashbacks to Joon’s admission to the school convey the character driven foundations.

The method is wonderfully effective in articulating the intense pressures enforced on students, whilst simultaneously providing each member of the school motive for Yun-jin’s murder. Director Shin approaches the topic with keen insight – perhaps unsurprising given her history as a teacher – as she emphasises how parental wealth, greedy tutors, and corrupt school officials are all accountable in the creation of highly intelligent yet morally questionable youths. And their actions are certainly unconscionable, as awful acts of cruelty are performed within the elite secret society of top tier students, ranging from sexual assault, bullying, bludgeoning animals and vandalism that ultimately result in suicide and murder.

Acts of vandalism are overlooked by officials in the bid to produce the best candidates

Acts of vandalism are overlooked by officials in the bid to produce the best candidates

Yet as ‘evil’ as their deeds are, director Shin fully develops each elite student as a victim in their own right. The lack of parental guidance and the encouraged desire to win at any cost pushes them into psychological instability. Their wildly spinning moral compass is, director Shin conveys, the result of a fundamentally corrupt education and class system that is doomed to repeat itself. The narrative wonderfully explores what happens when someone dares to challenge such a system through Joon, as he attempts to breach a social and educational class supposedly beyond his reach. Joon’s creativity and alternative perspective on life is brilliantly realised through his discussion on Pluto’s demotion, a theory that superbly encapsulates the very essence of the story – the belief that the sun/exam results are the center of the universe/life is not only flawed but wholly arrogant.

Lee David (이다윗) is highly competent in his performance as Joon. The novice actor does well in conveying an initially hopeful and interesting young man whose jealousy and desire leads him on a darker path. As his originality and creativity are quashed for the sake of exam results, the transformation into amorality is wholly believable.

Yet despite so many positive accomplishments, the final act was lamented by some critics for its use of generic conventions. This is an understandable criticism although one that is somewhat nitpicking. What director Shin has achieved with Pluto is remarkable, as she has taken a film with a keen social message and made it mainstream; a two-for-one in promoting debate on a serious Korean issue as well as solidifying her reputation as director of talent.

The intense stress and competition becomes to much to bear for Joon

The intense stress and competition becomes to much to bear for Joon

Verdict:

Pluto is an excellent exploration of the intense Korean education system, and the highly intelligent yet morally questionable youth that it creates. It’s a stunning feature film from director Shin Su-won, whose keen eye for symbolism and character study is articulated throughout. One of the great strengths of the film is the manner in which director Shin combines both the independent aesthetic with the mainstream thriller, simultaneously promoting debate on an important social issue as well as cementing herself as a quality director. Thoroughly recommended.

★★★★☆

International Women's Film Festival in Seoul (서울국제여성영화제) Reviews
Mi-ja searches for the inspiration to write her first poem

Poetry (시) – ★★★★★

Poetry (시)

Poetry (시)

The search for inspiration is one that all artists must undertake. Often the inspiration comes from a source of beauty or passion, yet in the ever-developing world such notions can become subsumed beneath the financially-driven cynical lifestyles that people seemingly strive to achieve. This quandary is a frustration for Yang Mi-ja (Yoon Jung-hee (윤정희) as she struggles to find illumination for her poetry class. As a grandmother searching for beauty, Yoon Jung-hee gives an astonishing critically acclaimed performance that earned the Best Actress award at The 2010 Daejong Film Awards and  The  37th Annual Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Her performance, as well as the wonderfully understated script and direction by auteur Lee Chang-dong, makes Poetry (시) one of the most delicately – even ‘poetically’ – constructed, character driven pieces of realist cinema of the year, and is an incredible achievement.

Poetry tells the story of Yang Mi-ja (Yoon Jung-hee (윤정희), a grandmother who scrapes by working as a part-time care worker and claiming social benefits. Mi-ja has a slightly eccentric and cheerful disposition, and has the ‘veins of a poet’ according to her daughter. Seeing an advert for a poetry class at her local cultural center, Mi-ja jumps at the chance to express herself through the art form. However, despite all her attempts, she is unable to begin writing. This is compounded further as Mi-ja visits the hospital and discovers she has Alzheimer’s disease. With dementia setting in, she finds that writing becomes even more frustrating as simple words begin to elude her. Furthermore, Mi-ja is the guardian of her grandson Jong Wook (Lee David (이다윗), who has little tolerance and even less respect for her. Upon discovering that Wook has been involved in a serious crime, Mi-ja must endeavour to resolve the conflicts within her life and unveil an inspirational beauty in order to write her first poem.

Mi-ja searches for the inspiration to write her first poem

Mi-ja searches for the inspiration to write her first poem

Poetry begins (and ends) with the gentle flowing of water, which is a perfect allegory of how the narrative is presented. The gentle ‘flow’ of the narrative is expertly conveyed by director Lee Chang-dong, who never emphasizes plot points but merely allows them to subtly enter the life of his central protagonist, such as when the body of a young girl is slowly and delicately washed ashore to become a defining event. The decision to use hand-held techniques, while adding to the realism, is also similar in nature to the movement of the water and on occasion appears voyeuristic, as if the camera itself is the spirit of the young girl watching Mi-ja. Through Mi-ja, Lee Chang-dong explores a variety of societal and cultural issues that enter her world, though never in a confrontational manner and all while she strives to find inspirational beauty. For example, at Mi-ja’s poetry class the students share their experiences of a moment of happiness. Each tale is simultaneously sorrowful and poignant, such as finding love in an extra-marital affair, highlighting the differences between social expectation and reality. For Mi-ja, her diagnosis as an Alzheimer’s patient is blunt and borders on rude, while it’s entirely possible the appointment was forgotten shortly after leaving the hospital. Mi-ja’s part-time job as a carer is also illuminating in portraying the plight of the disabled and lonely. But by far the most pressing concern for Lee Chang-dong is the nature of crime and punishment expressed through Mi-ja’s grandson.

Mi-ja's grandson Wook displays little remorse for his crime

Mi-ja’s grandson Wook displays little remorse for his crime

Wook – and his friends – have committed a crime, and as with the other events in Poetry, there is no revelation in regards to this new information. Instead, the father’s of all involved invite Mi-ja to meet for lunch in order to discuss a settlement so that charges are never filed against their children. Again, director Lee Chang-dong subtly enters this event within the narrative, but the nature of the crime is so serious, that the objective way in which the conversation transpires and lack of any emotional display emphasises the abhorrent and selfish nature of all involved. The notion of such settlement is common practice in Korean culture, and Lee Chang-dong expresses his disgust for it through Mi-ja as she silently stands and exits the room. Compounding the act further is that the young criminals have no remorse. Everyone continues as if nothing has happened. Mi-ja however is weighed down by the issue, internalizing her frustrations while continuing on her quest to understand beauty in a world she sees precious little of.

Mi-ja must understand the 'essence' of her subject

Mi-ja must understand the ‘essence’ of her subject

Yoon Jung-hee is truly wonderful as Mi-ja. She conveys the subtle elegance of a woman striving to achieve something noteworthy in her life, but being coerced into events beyond her control that halt her from doing so. Jung-hee’s strength, eccentricity, resilience and ambition are poignantly conveyed by the veteran actress who fully deserves her accolades. Mi-ja is a woman of modest means, yet is inspirational to those around her in attempting to articulate beauty within a poem. Her decisions that lead to the discovery of her subject are incredibly poignant, and her understanding of the beauty within inspires her to write a heart-wrenchingly beautiful and eloquent poem that lingers long after it has been recited.

Mi-ja is a courageous and resilient woman

Mi-ja is a courageous and resilient woman

Verdict:

Poetry is an incredible film. The script, the direction, and the acting come together perfectly to create a wonderfully subtle and elegant narrative about a woman on a search of discovery, yet the understated social commentary that is interwoven organically within it elevates the film even higher. Poetry is, without doubt, a must-see film.

★★★★★

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