Jeonju Int. Film Festival 2015 – Hot Picks

The 16th Jeonju Int. Film Festival

The 16th Jeonju Int. Film Festival

The 16th Jeonju International Film Festival, which will run from April 30th through to May 9th, has unveiled the full lineup of Korean and foreign films to be screened.

In terms of Korean cinema, in addition to the already previously announced Korean Competition and Korean Competition for Shorts that features new and emerging talent, films from the peninsula will feature within Korean Cinemascape and Korean Cinemascape for Shorts, as well as in other select programs.

With so many independent productions from which to choose, selecting quality films can be somewhat of a daunting task. As such, here are Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Hot Picks for the upcoming festival.

Jeonju Digital Project 2015

Samnye (삼례) – Director Lee Hyun-jung (이현정)

Samnye

Samnye

Director Lee’s previous JIFF film, Echo of Dragon, appeared in the 2013 Korean Competition and proved her art-house sensibilities. Samnye tells the story of a struggling screenwriter, who meets a charming yet strange girl. Art cinema fans should definitely take a look.

Snow Paths (설행 눈길을 걷다) – Director Kim Hee-jung (김희정)

Snow Paths

Snow Paths

Described by JIFF Head Programmer KIM Young-jin as, “undervalued in the Korean film industry,” director Kim (Grape Candy) returns with Snow Paths, a film exploring the life of an alcoholic seeking solace in the mountains who befriends a nun.

Korea Cinemascape

Black Stone (블랙스톤) – Director Roh Gyeong-tae (노경태)

Black Stone

Black Stone

Black Stone premiered at Rotterdam earlier this year. A Korean/French co-production, the film depicts highly controversial issues in contemporary Korea, involving inter-racial families and abuses within the Korean military.

Death in Desert (붉은 낙타) – Director No Zin-soo (노진수)

Death In Desert

Death In Desert

Director No has been busy recently with Total Messed Family (JIFF 2013), The Suffered (JIFF 2014), and The Maidroid (Yubari Fantastic Festival 2015). With Death in Desert, he explores an obsessive relationship between a couple who just can’t let go of each other.

Made in China (메이드 인 차이나) – Director Kim Dong-hoo (김동후)

Made In China

Made In China

There’s been plenty of buzz around the Kim Ki-duk produced Made in China, which premiered at Tokyo in 2014. Featuring stars Park Ki-woong and Han Chae-ah, the story involves a Chinese eel farmer and a cold-hearted Korean food inspector.

Speed (스피드) – Director Lee Sang-woo (이상우)

Speed

Speed

Director Lee is notorious for tackling controversial subject matter within his films, as exemplified by Mother is a Whore, Barbie, and Fire in Hell. Following short film Exit at JIFF 2013, he returns with Speed, a tale of four friends whose lives are intertwined.

Trap (덫, 치명적인 유혹) – Director Bong Man-dae (봉만대)

Trap

Trap

Director Bong’s Han River premiered at Busan 2014 to praise for exploring suicide with dark comedy. With Trap, a miserable screenwriter travels to an inn to finish a script, yet falls for the charms of a seductive teenage girl with increasingly dark ambitions.

Korea Cinemascape for Shorts

The Running Actress (여배우는 오늘도) – Director Moon So-ri (문소리)

The Running Actress

The Running Actress

Legendary actress Moon So-ri steps behind the camera for The Running Actress, a 24 minute short film. In it, Moon plays a woman trying to balance domestic life and hardships while attempting to forge a career on screen.

Outdoor Screening

Like a French Movie (프랑스 영화처럼) – Director Shin Yeon-shik (신연식)

Like a French Movie

Like a French Movie

Director Shin has a rare ability to helm films both mainstream (Rough Play) and artistic (The Avian Kind, The Russian Novel). In Like a French Movie, which seems to be one of the director’s artistic endeavours, the protagonists all embody the traits of characters within a French film.

For more information of the films playing at Jeonju International Film Festival, please follow the link here.

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

Hill of Freedom (자유의 언덕) – ★★★☆☆

Hill of Freedom (자유의 언덕)

Hill of Freedom (자유의 언덕)

When sickly language teacher Kwon (Seo Young-hwa (서영화) returns from a trip to the mountains to cure her ailments, she is surprised to discover a hand-written letter by Japanese ex-boyfriend Mori (Ryo Kase) waiting for her. Settling in the local coffee shop, Kwon begins to read the passionate account of how Mori has travelled to Korea in order to find and be with her, and his encounters with pretty barista Yeong-seon (Moon So-ri (문소리) as well as his friendly guest house owners (Yoon Yeo-jeong (윤여정) and Kim Ee-seong (김의성).

Mori begins his quest to find ex-girlfriend Kwon

Mori begins his quest to find ex-girlfriend Kwon

Hill of Freedom (자유의 언덕) is director Hong Sang-soo’s (홍상수) 16th feature and as with much of his recent output the film has proved a hit on the festival circuit, screening at Venice, Toronto, Vancouver, Busan, and London, respectively. The film is also a notable return to a male-orientated narrative following a highly successful run of female-centered films (Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Our Sunhi).

Fans of director Hong will find much to enjoy in Hill of Freedom, as his trademark sense of humour, focus on naturalised locations and mise-en-scene, as well as his often whimsical and charming filmmaking techniques, are all present and correct. The manner in which the narrative unfolds is one of the film’s highlights as Kwon, having received Mori’s letter, drops the pages in a stairwell and in her haste to collect them puts them back together in the incorrect order as well as – crucially – leaving a page behind. When Kwon later reads the letter and Mori’s story transpires, the events are presented in a non-linear manner, as with the pages themselves. The concept is quite endearing, particularly with Mori’s quest to find and declare his affections to Kwon presented through an emotional gamut of highs and lows rather than a progressive state, adding an interesting and unpredictable spin to the story as well as to the genre as a whole.

Mori befriends attractive barista Yeong-seon

Mori befriends attractive barista Yeong-seon

Yet Hill of Freedom is not without issues. Director Hong has made awkward encounters amongst his protagonists part of his modus operandi as an auteur, and the results are often alluring character moments that reveal a great deal about the psychological status at hand. In Hill of Freedom however such confrontations are often either cringeworthy viewing experiences or unintentionally comedic – and occasionally, both at the same time. Chiefly this is due to the dialogue which is mostly in the English language, and despite the wealth of acting talent on display it is a feature that no-one seems to be particularly comfortable with, except veteran actress Yoon Yeo-jeong who provides the best performance within the film as the kind guest house owner. While the awkward use of English may very well be an attempt to convey the naturally clumsy chance meetings between people through language, it is often quite over-exaggerated to the point where tension and development are diffused.

English is also a problem simply as dialogue. It is impressive that director Hong can write a script in a different language, yet the discussions that occur are delightfully naive, particularly during the scenes in which Mori discusses politics, is drunk and/or attempting to philosophically discuss time as a concept. As such the conversations that develop and evolve lack the sincerity of director Hong’s earlier films, and as a result Hill of Freedom is an enjoyable yet flawed addition to his filmography.

Mori encounters a variety of people while waiting for Kwon, often with awkwardly funny results

Mori encounters a variety of people while waiting for Kwon, often with awkwardly funny results

Verdict:

Hill of Freedom is return to male-centered narratives for writer/director Hong Sang-soo, which follows Mori on a quest to find ex-girlfriend Kwon and declare his love. All the staple features of director Hong’s films are apparent throughout the film and there is much to be enjoyed through the charming narrative style and camera techniques. However, chiefly due to the mostly English script, the dialogue is often naive while the delivery is uncomfortable for most of the actors involved. Hill of Freedom is an enjoyable yet flawed addition to director Hong’s body of work.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews

Venus Talk (관능의 법칙) – ★★★☆☆

Venus Talk (관능의 법칙)

Venus Talk (관능의 법칙)

Three successful best friends explore love, life and sex in the city in Venus Talk (관능의 법칙). Glamorous TV producer Sin-hye (Uhm Jung-hwa (엄정화), dumped by her cheating boyfriend, begins a relationship with young 20-something intern Hyeon-seung (Lee Jae-yoon (이재윤). Housewife Mi-yeon (Moon So-ri (문소리) has an incredibly high libido and loves to play sexual games with her husband Jae-ho (Lee Sung-min (이성민), yet unbeknownst to her he is secretly taking viagra to keep up with her demands. Bakery store owner and single mother Hae-yong (Jo Min-soo (조민수) is dating local carpenter Seong-jae (Lee Kyeong-yeong (이경영) who is reluctant to commit to a serious relationship. The three women talk, laugh and support each other through the minefield of dating as middle-aged women, strengthening their bonds of friendship with their frank discussions of love and sex.

Hae-yeong, Mi-yeon and Sin-hye regularly have frank conversations about their love and sex life

Hae-yeong, Mi-yeon and Sin-hye regularly have funny and frank conversations about their love and sex life

Venus Talk sells itself as the Korean answer to Sex and the City, and for the opening 20~30 minutes that is very much true. The forthright manner in which sex and relationships are explored is an extremely refreshing and welcome change from the filmic roles typically ascribed to Korean women, with the comedy derived from their open discussions genuinely engaging as well as entertaining. Writer Lee Soo-ah’s (이수아) script is great in capturing the spirit of three independent and empowered women who do not function solely as love interests, but who have aspirations, responsibilities and desires, the kind of women who tend to rarely enjoy screentime in mainstream Korean cinema. Single TV producer Sin-hye is a career savvy, hard working women of particular repute, and her dilemmas regarding her relationship with a 20-something junior are consistently funny as well as exposing the ageism that exists within Korean culture. Meanwhile single mother Hae-yeong contends with dating, motherhood and running a business, and highly sexed Mi-yeon strives to introduce exciting sex games to keep the passion alive in her marriage. Often such characters are reduced to stereotypes and/or ‘contained’ by the narrative, yet in the opening 20~30 minutes of Venus Talk the women express their desires, sexual or otherwise, freely to each and without fear of judgement, with the depictions of their sexual antics both funny and endearing.

The sexual antics of the three friends are funny and endearing

The sexual antics of the three friends are funny and endearing

Unfortunately after such an invigorating opening Venus Talk, seemingly unable to continue the momentum of portraying the lives of empowered women, descends into standard K-drama tropes. After some quite funny moments of sexual liberation as Mi-yeon prepares erotic toys, Sin-hye has an affair with a young colleague, and Hae-young acts like a teenager with her lover, the narrative jettisons it all to focus on bland, tried-and-tested arcs that seek to almost ‘punish’ the women for their transgressions. Each protagonist comes close to loosing everything they hold dear typically due to their own actions. All three are blamed, harassed and scolded simply for being women who fall outside of socially acceptable roles in Korean society, which comes as a saddening surprise given the empowered opening. Mi-yeon, for example, is treated terribly by her husband and is later attacked by a criminal; yet when she reports the assault she is chastised for being a woman ‘of a certain age’ and is told, even by her friends, that she should forgive her husband. The turnaround from feminist to embracing traditional stereotypes is quite extraordinary.

Director Kwon Chil-in (권칠인) competently helms the film yet he occasionally seems to forget his target audience, notably during a quite graphic sex scene in which he focuses primarily on Uhm Jeong-hwa’s body. He has however made excellent choices with his cast, employing actresses who are not only extremely talented but who also have sexy screen personas – Uhm Jeong-hwa (Marriage Is a Crazy Thing), Moon So-ri (A Good Lawyer’s Wife), Jo Min-soo (Pieta) – with each actress performing their respective roles well. The narrative tends to focus primarily on Uhm’s character, and she conveys her frustrations as a businesswoman being victimized by gossip particularly well. Moon So-ri displays impressive comedic skills throughout the film, particularly in regards to scenes with her long-suffering husband. It is Jo Min-soo who shines the brightest in Venus Talk, displaying prowess as a strong single mother yet one who is also vulnerable and longing for love. The scenes in which she is reunited with her boyfriend following surgery are stunningly performed by Jo, and while it’s a great shame that the narrative does’t explore the tangent further, the power expressed through such a short amount of screentime is palpable.

The women are seemingly 'punished' for their transgressions

The women are seemingly ‘punished’ for their transgressions

Verdict:

Venus Talk is Korea’s attempt at crafting a Sex and the City style, and for the opening 20~30 minutes director Kwon Chil-in and screenwriter Lee Soo-ah do well in portraying three empowered and sexually liberated friends as they discuss life, love, and sex. Yet the film later takes a turn into typical K-drama fare, and worst still, seemingly attempts to ‘punish’ the the central protagonists for being modern feminists. Yet with a great cast and funny moments, Venus Talk is an enjoyable effort.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews
Young Kim Geum-hwa is visited by a plethora of gods on her path

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신) – ★★★★☆

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신)

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신)

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신) had the distinction of being the opening film for the 2013 DMZ Documentary Film Festival, and deservedly so. Director Park Chan-kyong’s (박찬경) film not only provides an autobiographical account of renowned shaman – and intangible cultural asset – Kim Keum-hwa, but also explores her life and times in conjunction with an incredibly tumultuous period of (recent) Korean history.

The result is a fascinating look at key components of Korean history and culture through the endurance of Kim Keum-hwa and her dedication to traditional shamanism. By delving into her past and reenacting key moments, issues ranging from the evolving state of feminism, the relationship between North and South Koreas, and the Park Chung-hee era all combine into a  portrait of a woman and a country who have held on to tradition despite the odds.

Kim Geum-hwa endured an awful childhood in North Korea before embracing shamanism

Kim Keum-hwa endured an awful childhood in North Korea before embracing shamanism

Director Park Chan-kyong has previously expressed his interest in shamanism through his excellent short film Night Fishing, yet with Manshin he examines the cultural form in a much more profound fashion. One of the great strengths of the film lies in not only exploring but reenacting Kim Keum-hwa’s life. Talented actresses Kim Sae-ron, Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong and Moon So-ri all depict the shaman at different stages of her development and portray the various trials she was forced to endure with sincerity and depth. These scenes, combined with Kim Keum-hwa’s interviews and quotes from her published work, make the autobiography a palpable and moving account of a woman who has endured much throughout her life. Her marriage at 14 years old in North Korea is a harrowing story of violence and fear, while her embrace of shamanism and emigration to the south years later is one of hope and sorrow; the persecution Kim experienced in her middle-ages despite her dedication to Korean culture adds even further tragedy. Each stage of Kim Keum-hwa’s life would be enough for a novel or film in itself, yet her perseverance through so many challenging events is constantly admirable, while the poignant performances of the three lead actresses, in conjunction with Kim’s interviews via voice-over, add incredible weight to the story.

Brilliantly, in depicting Kim Keum-hwa’s life Manshin also reveals Korea’s astonishing recent history. Director Park seamlessly aligns Kim’s efforts to remain alive and strong with that of the country and culture itself, as the shaman attempts to avoid the Japanese occupation in North Korea, her departure to the south following the outbreak of civil war, and dictator Park Chung-hee’s desire to erase anything considered old or antiquated in his quest to modernise the country. Director Park emphasises Kim’s struggles as national ones, trials dedicated to the preservation of cultural materials and practices despite the odds. As such the film never takes a stance on whether shamanism is real or otherwise, instead focusing on cultural value and national identity, as well as Kim’s empowering status as an intangible cultural asset.

Young Kim Geum-hwa is visited by a plethora of gods on her path

Young Kim Keum-hwa is visited by a plethora of gods on her path

Manshin is also a very attractive documentary. Director Park Chan-kyong certainly has a keen eye for composition, with shots throughout the reenactments of the shaman’s life often akin to paintings. Furthermore symbolism is also skillfully woven within such scenes, from the connotations of finding a shoe through to the appearance of the gods themselves, that add an understated beauty and mysticism. The use of light and colour are consistently appealing and capture the vibrancy of Korean shamanism with confidence, as well as conveying the different stages of Kim’s life, her emotions, and her otherworldly abilities. The animated sequences, which serve to explain philosophies behind shamanism, are exquisite and beautifully convey the uniqueness of Korean culture, and are a genuine delight whenever they appear.

However, Manshin is an extremely ambitious documentary, so much so that the overall film suffers for it. In attempting to contain so much about Kim Keum-hwa’s life, shamanism and Korean history, the film becomes a somewhat superficial exploration, exploring key moments yet tending to gloss over further details as well as occurrences in the intervals between. Manshin often loses focus due to this, and the structure of the film generally is rather loose requiring audiences to ‘stick with it’ for certain periods before getting back on track.

Despite such criticisms, Manshin is a very rewarding documentary, and one that serves to enlighten and entertain in a myriad of ways.

Kim Geum-hwa is persecuted by Protestants during the Park Chung-hee regime

Kim Keum-hwa is persecuted by Protestants during the Park Chung-hee regime

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신) is a very enlightening documentary about Kim Keum-hwa, Korea’s premiere shaman. Director Park Chan-kyong beautifully captures, and reenacts with three of the country’s top actresses, the key events of her life from Kim’s youth in North Korea through to her contemporary life in the south. Masterfully, director Park also depicts Kim’s life as a shaman in conjunction with the development of Korea itself and the preservation of cultural identity. While the structure is uneven and the story tends to lose focus, Manshin is a rewarding and illuminating experience.

★★★★☆

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Original director Lee Myeong-se and the cast of The Spy:Mr. K

Action/comedy ‘The Spy’ (스파이) gets a trailer

Original director Lee Myeong-se and the cast of The Spy:Mr. K

Original director Lee Myeong-se and the cast of The Spy/Mr. K

Superstars Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구) and Moon So-ri (문소리) are again teaming up for the big screen, this time with Daniel Henney (다니엘 헤니) for an action/comedy tentatively titled The Spy: Undercover Operation (스파이/협상종결자). 

The film – initially called Mr. K – has been in development for quite some time and has been surrounded in controversy, chiefly due to the very public disagreements between original director Lee Myeong-se (이명세) and the production team, whose visions for the blockbuster apparently differed wildly. Director Lee, whose credits include M (엠) and Duelist (형사), is an excellent filmmaker and one of the few genuine auteurs working within the Korean film industry today, however it was always something of an odd choice to have such an artistically-minded person at the helm of a big summer film. With director Lee’s departure, new director Lee Seung-joon (이승준), who was the assistant director on action film Quick (퀵) was brought on board, and now finally a trailer has arrived.

The Spy: Undercover Operation sees top Korean spy Kim Cheol-su (Seol Kyeong-gu) on a mission to solve a terrorist attack that occurs in Seoul, with the investigation taking him to Thailand. Yet being the best has meant neglecting his flight attendant wife Young-hee (Moon So-ri), putting a strain on the relationship. However while undercover in Bangkok, Cheol-su spots his wife with handsome rival Ryan (Daniel Henney) and begins to go against orders to discover what his wife is up to.

It’s quite a departure for the Seol/Moon team-up that brought audiences powerhouse performances in Oasis (오아시스) and Peppermint Candy (박하사탕). Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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The relationship that develops between Jong-du and Gong-ju is beautifully poignant

Oasis (오아시스) – ★★★★★

Oasis (오아시스)

Oasis (오아시스)

Oasis (오아시스), the third film by auteur Lee Chang-dong (이창동), is an absolute masterpiece. Director Lee has built his career on exploring and critiquing Korean culture through artistic frameworks, and with Oasis he deftly examines the challenging subject matter of the plights endured by the mentally ill and disabled. In depicting the burgeoning romance between mildly mentally ill Hong Jong-du and cerebral palsy sufferer Han Gong-ju, director Lee also highlights the intolerance and hypocrisy of society and the resulting impact on their lives. The power of the film is such that it won several notable awards upon release – particularly at the Venice Film Festival – for the novelist-turned-director, as well as for the exceptional performances by lead actors Moon So-ri (문소리) and Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구).

During the middle of winter, mentally ill Hong Jong-du (Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구) is released from serving a two and half year prison sentence for a hit-and-run that resulted in a man’s death. Returning to society in his summer clothes, Jong-du discovers that his family has moved without letting him know though rejoins them again through another brush with the law. Attempting to fit in with society once more, Jong-du feels compelled to visit the family of the man who was killed and discovers his daughter, Han Gong-ju (Moon So-ri (문소리), who suffers with cerebral palsy. Immediately fascinated by her, Jong-du visits Gong-ju when she is alone and frightens her, yet as time passes the two form an incredible bond despite the pressure from family and society.

Jong-du is released from prison to find his family have moved without notifying him

Jong-du is released from prison to find his family have moved without notifying him

Oasis is an exceptionally poignant film. Director Lee employs a social-realist aesthetic in exploring the difficulties of the disabled, adding compelling realism to the trials they are forced to endure. The notion of family is notable in this regard and the film pulls no punches in articulating the selfish ambitions, hypocrisy and ignorance exhibited by the relatives. Such discourses begin immediately as Jong-du, who has the mental ability of a child, cannot find his family once released from prison and only reunites with them when he once again gets in trouble. The intolerance displayed by the family is indeed shocking throughout as they attempt to force Jong-du to become part of society despite his obvious limitations, reprimanding him with astonishing lack of compassion when he inevitably fails. Gong-ju is abused in a similar fashion as she is routinely exploited by her family when required but discarded almost immediately after. Director Lee portrays the suffering of the lead protagonists with incredible potency, never judging any of the characters or events with cinematic techniques but simply allowing the actors to convey the respective personalities, to which audiences can ascribe their own opinions. This lack of manipulation is executed superbly and deftly sidesteps the all-too-easy pitfalls of melodramatic conventions, and as such the palpable emotional weight within Oasis is the result of some of the finest acting in contemporary cinema.

It is impossible to discuss Oasis without referring to the simply exquisite performances conducted by Moon So-ri and Seol Kyeong-gu. Moon So-ri in particular is exceptional as cerebral palsy suffering Gong-ju, contorting her body and facial features with astounding skill to convey the protagonist with absolute sincerity. Gong-ju’s frustrations at her inability to move and speak freely are genuinely moving, yet it is her development from lonely wallflower to confident young woman that is a joy to behold. The love and companionship nurtured between her and Jong-du grows subtly and naturally, with the evolving happiness and dignity on display a constant source of compulsion. Within this development Seol Kyeong-gu is momentous as Jong-du, conveying the character’s mannerisms – including a constant cold – and infectious child-like behaviour with real skill. Director Lee continues his deconstruction of Korean masculinity through Jong-du, who initially loses control of his faculties and attempts – and fails – to rape Gong-ju, yet learns that compassion is more important than such base desires. It is a notion lost on the other male antagonists, who continue to view women as little more than commodities.

The relationship that develops between Jong-du and Gong-ju is beautifully poignant

The relationship that develops between Jong-du and Gong-ju is beautifully poignant

In addition to family, Oasis examines the society inhabited by Jong-du and Gong-ju, highlighting the terms of difference and exclusion in which it operates. Wherever the couple visit, and whatever events they attempt to partake in, they are shunned, rejected, and forced to the margins. Yet rather than focus on the negativity such incidents incur director Lee instead portrays how such marginalization brings the couple closer together as kindred spirits, reinforcing their spiritual connection through their mutual suffering.

Given the social-realist aesthetic it is surprising that the director occasionally injects fantasy sequences within the narrative, but far from detracting from the development they serve to enrich it. The moments in which Gong-ju’s deepest desires achieve fruition are tender and sweet, allowing her to express freely what her taut frame otherwise doesn’t allow. Within this realm lies the true potency of the film’s title, at once expressing Gong-ju’s fear of the darkness encroaching on her life but simultaneously providing a secret space for her and Jong-du to truly express their devotion without judgement. Such scenes are moving, artistic, and beautiful in their construction, capturing the depth of their understated love in the most compelling and sincere fashion.

The 'oasis', the dream in which they can live a life free from the ignorance of others

The ‘oasis’, the dream in which they can live a life free from the ignorance of others

Verdict:

Oasis is an exceptional masterpiece. The social-realist aesthetic applied in depicting the burgeoning relationship between the lead couple is executed magnificently by auteur Lee Chang-dong, who deftly sidesteps melodrama in conveying the development of love between mentally ill and cerebral palsy individuals. Moon So-ri and Seol Kyeong-gu are simply exquisite in the lead roles and are utterly captivating throughout, articulating acute sincerity ad poignancy within their respective performances. Oasis is an absolute must-see film.

★★★★★

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Kim Yeong-ho climbs atop the rail tracks, ready for death

Peppermint Candy (박하사탕) – ★★★★★

Peppermint Candy (박하사탕)

Peppermint Candy (박하사탕)

Peppermint Candy (박하사탕) is an exceptional piece of cinema. Opening the Busan International Film Festival in 1999, it must have been uncomfortably ironic for the audience that such a prestigious Asian festival would feature such a poetically raw dissemination of Korean culture. Directed by auteur Lee Chang-dong (이창동), the film critically examines a twenty year period of Korean history, revisiting pivotal moments through the main protagonist while also psychoanalytically deconstructing his – and by extension, Korean -masculinity. Peppermint Candy is a simply breathtaking exploration of how a person’s life is forged through culture and trauma and, featuring a staggering performance from Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구), is one of great examples of the vibrant socio-cultural power of Korean filmmaking.

In 1999, a man named Kim Yeong-ho (Seol Kyeong-gu) emerges by a riverside where a group of middle aged people are having a picnic. Interestingly, members of the group recognise Yeong-ho and invite him to join them but his erratic behaviour proves too much to bear. Leaving the picnic, Yeong-ho climbs onto train tracks with the intention of suicide, yet just before the train collides he screams, “I want to go back!” Suddenly Yeong-ho begins to revisit key moments from his life – and Korean history – that forged him into the person he has become, including meeting his estranged wife Yang Hong-ja (Kim Yeo-jin (김여진), his career as a police officer, and his first love Yoon Soon-im (Moon So-ri (문소리).

Kim Yeong-ho climbs atop the rail tracks, ready for death

Kim Yeong-ho climbs atop the rail tracks, ready for death

Director Lee Chang-dong has crafted an incredible journey through exploring the life of Yeong-ho, conveying his personal development as inherently tied to the development of Korea over a twenty year period. Initially, Yeong-ho is supremely dislikable and downright weird as he crashes the riverside picnic, behaving terribly towards people who are simply attempting to welcome him. Yet from the moment Yeon-ho steps onto the train tracks, it becomes clear there is a depth to his madness. Over the course of Peppermint Candy director Lee Chang-dong peels back layer upon layer of Yeong-ho’s psychosis in a highly poetic, subtle and symbolic manner, examining how a person’s innocence is twisted by culture and forces beyond control. The train track, for example, is much more than a place for suicide as it comes to represent his path of destiny. As the train moves back in time to revisit Yeong-ho’s past it becomes his timeline, stopping at pivotal moments until the symbolic sound of the train horn conveys that it is time to move on. As such the train and track are ethereal, spiritual beings within Peppermint Candy and are beautifully poignant narrative devices.

 As the train gently takes the audience deeper into Yeong-ho’s history, a great deal of empathy is aroused as his very character is stripped bare. From the initial quick judgement that Yeong-ho is an odd fool, each turning point in his life delicately alters the rash perception to the point where genuine sympathy is evoked from his personal tragedies. When his business suffers as a result of the Asian financial crisis, when his marriage begins to fall apart, when he loses his first love; all have penetrating emotional and psychological impact on Yeong-ho, and it is utterly enthralling to behold the events that molded him into his suicidal state. Director Lee Chang-dong also masterfully ties Yeong-ho’s increasingly fractured state as inherently Korean. As well as the aforementioned financial crisis, Yeong-ho’s career in the police force during the infamous brutality of the 1980s is portrayed, in addition to his role in the 1981 Gwangju Uprising (or rather, massacre).

Yeong-ho revisits his military past, in which he took part in the Gwangju massacre

Yeong-ho revisits his military past, in which he took part in the Gwangju massacre

In each instance, the director examines not only the manner in which Korean people were brutally oppressed during the era but also how men such as Yeong-ho, who is an analogy of all Korean men during this period, were fundamentally changed into abhorrent examples of humanity. Issues such as violence and patriarchal order are interrogated in compelling fashion and conveyed not as features of masculinity, but as cultural constructs that warp the innocence of young males.

Yeong-ho’s journey into the past is also enthralling due to the phenomenal performance of Seol Kyeong-gu. Throughout the entirety of Peppermint Candy the actor is superb in articulating the emotional and psychological state of Yeong-ho with incredible sincerity. From his unhinged suicidal behaviour through to his bitter and violent 30s, from his attempts to rebuild his life following military service through to his innocence as as student, Seol Kyeong-gu is simply amazing. His performance is keenly heartfelt at every stage of Yeong-ho’s life, so much so that his journey of self-discovery lingers long after the film has come to an end. His victories at the Grand Bell Awards and Blue Dragon Awards in 2000 attest to his prowess, and are completely deserved.

Yeong-ho and his first love Soon-im share a tender moment

Yeong-ho and his first love Soon-im share a tender moment

Verdict:

Peppermint Candy is undoubtedly one of the modern classics of Korean cinema, and is an exceptional entry by director Lee Chang-dong. The story is equal parts poetic and subtle as well as raw and compelling, as the emotional and psychological layers of main protagonist Yeong-ho are gradually peeled away. In doing so the director intricately examines the notions of contemporary Korean masculinity, yet it is made even more enthralling through the link with defining moments in Korean history. As such, Peppermint Candy is a journey both personal and national, and coupled with the phenomenal performance of Seol Kyeong-gu, is an absolute must-see.

★★★★★

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