End of Winter (철원기행) – ★★☆☆☆

End of Winter (철원기행)

End of Winter (철원기행)

Following the retirement ceremony for the father (Moon Chang-gil (문창길) from his teaching position, he and his family gather together for a meal at a Chinese restaurant. In the presence of his two sons (Kim Min-hyeok (김민혁) (Hur Jaewon (허재원) and daughter-in-law (Lee Sang-hee (이상희), and amid frustrating quarreling, the father shockingly announces that he wishes to divorce from his wife (Lee Yeong-ran (이영란). Stunned, the family struggle with the situation and find comfort in the fact they will soon be traveling back home. Yet as the snowfall becomes heavier and the buses are cancelled, the family members are forced to stay in a small country abode and must confront the issues they have with one another.

The family are in good, yet quarelsome spirits until the father's shock announcement

The family are in good, yet quarelsome spirits until the father’s shock announcement

Upon its premiere at the 2014 Busan International Film Festival, End of Winter (철원기행) won the prestigious New Currents Award along with Iranian film 13, an accolade that celebrates new Asian film makers of vision. Director Kim Dae-hwan (김대환) certainly has impressive technical prowess as the film’s great strength lies within the composition of the mise-en-scene and cinematography, constructing a dogme 95-esque realism that lends a great deal of sincerity to the proceedings. The manner in which the family members interact with each other similarly evokes such sensibilities, as they are a group of people bound by blood yet who don’t particularly know or understand one another. The awkward conversations and tensions that arise, as well as the issues that each person is hiding yet which gradually come to light, are interesting to watch unfold and are given weight by director Kim’s cinematic realism, as events slowly transpire to reveal the complicated relationships between each person.

That said, End of Winter is an especially slow-moving drama. The protagonists within the film often refuse to speak or give clear answers during conversations which is a huge source of frustration, stunting plot progression as well as character and relationship development, making the viewing experience quite laborious. While it is clear that each character has an interesting motivation and a desire to express it, the withholding of such dilemmas results in a stifling and repetitive story, and one that would certainly be more engaging were more confrontations allowed to occur in addition to the subtleties and allusions to greater issues. Ultimately, Korean audiences are more likely to appreciate and engage with the film more given the nature of the drama, yet even they may find End of Winter somewhat of a chore given their propensity for more typically entertaining generic fare.

In a rare moment, two protagonists engage each other in open conversation

In a rare moment, two protagonists engage each other in open conversation

Verdict:

End of Winter is a technically impressive film by director Kim Dae-hwan, whose prowess in regards to mise-en-scene and cinematography evokes potent realism and sincerity. Yet the focus on such cinematic realism, while interesting, results in a family drama that is quite a laborious viewing experience due to the particularly slow pacing of the narrative and the highly restricted dialogue and confrontations.

★★☆☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014
Gong-ju's trauma apears on the internet for all to see

Han Gong-ju (한공주) – ★★★★★

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주) is undoubtedly the best Korean film of 2013. Bold, unflinching, insightful and powerful, director Lee Su-jin (이수진) has crafted an exceptional film about serious social issues that exist within contemporary Korea. What makes the film such an exemplary piece of cinema is the manner in which such issues are conveyed. Through the experiences of traumatised teenage protagonist Gong-ju, her world opens to reveal a broad array of socio-cultural problems ranging from absentee parents to corrupt institutions, from high school bullying to mid-life crises, as she simultaneously attempts to reconcile with her own tragic past. Employing an impassioned sense of social injustice in conjunction with a skillfully balanced narrative structure, director Lee Su-jin evokes the spirit of a raw Lee Chang-dong which is mighty praise indeed.

Gong-ju attempts to start her life over, yet keeps everyone at a distance

Gong-ju attempts to start her life over, yet keeps everyone at a distance

For reasons unknown, high school student Gong-ju is sent to a new school far from her hometown. The extremely quiet yet polite student is constantly treated as a burden by teachers, parents, as well as her new carer – her teacher’s lonely single mother. As Gong-ju attempts to rebuild her life in new surroundings by learning to swim and taking on a part-time job, new friends emerge and discover her beautifully melancholy singing ability. Yet in revealing her talent, Gong-ju’s horrifying past catches up to her with disastrous results.

Treated as little more than a burden, Gong-ju attempts to start her life anew

Treated as little more than a burden, Gong-ju attempts to start her life anew

Han Gong-ju is a rare gem and a stunning debut feature from director Lee, whose previous shorts Papa (2004) and Enemy’s Apple (2007) were both award recipients. The social issues that are explored throughout the film are not new in neither mainstream nor independent Korean cinema, but nonetheless are incredibly powerful and emotive due to the strength of the central protagonist alongside a gripping flashback structure. As the heart of the film, Gong-ju is a very complex character; melancholy yet passionate, distant yet likable, her tragic story is one of shocking trauma and inspirational strength. Indeed, it is Gong-ju’s courage that forces confrontation with further injustices – including a runaway mother and corrupt authority figures – that serve to make her an increasingly endearing and admirable young woman. Director Lee wisely employs editing to accentuate audience empathy, gradually revealing tidbits of information into Gong-ju’s elusive past until neither she, nor the audience, can hide from the truth any longer. In doing so director Lee not only conveys his skill as a storyteller, but also potently exposes the contentious role of parents in crime and punishment.

As Gong-ju, actress Cheon Woo-hee (천우희) gives an incredible performance. The role itself is subtle and nuanced, and she delivers wonderfully. Simultaneously innocent yet worldly-wise, Cheon Woo-hee conveys the agony of the troubled teenager mixed with a sense of hope and inner-strength that is staggering to behold. In lesser hands Gong-ju would be either cold and unlikable or overly pitiable, yet Cheon balances both realms effortlessly.

Gong-ju attempts to let people into her world, with disastrous results

Gong-ju attempts to let people into her world, with disastrous results

Verdict:

Undoubtedly the best Korean film of 2013, Han Gong-ju is a rare gem of independent cinema. Director Lee Su-jin has crafted an extraordinary tale of a girl struggling to reconcile with a traumatic past, who courageously confronts further social injustices in her attempt to do so. Beautifully performed by Cheon Woo-hee, the actress balances the inner strength and turmoil of the character to produce one of the most emotive and powerful cinematic experiences of the year. Bold, insightful and heart-wrenching, Han Gong-ju is the must-see film of the year.

★★★★★

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Reviews