Tensions build as Tae-sik and Won-joon clash in the bid for superiority

Top Star (톱스타) – ★★☆☆☆

Top Star (톱스타)

Top Star (톱스타)

Actor-turned-director Park Joong-hoon (박중훈) has crafted a highly polished and glitzy directorial debut with Top Star (톱스타).

The heavyweight actor – who has hit films including Haeundae (해운대)Radio Star (라디오 스타) and Nowhere To Hide (인정사정 볼 것 없다) in his back catalogue – has clearly exercised his connections within the industry as Top Star features an assortment of high profile names from Korean cinema.

Unfortunately however, while there is enjoyment to be had in watching the beautiful faces, lavish lifestyles and celebrity scandals, there is precious little substance beneath the glamour. Director Park has clearly aimed his debut at a broad audience and in doing so he has produced a competent, though unremarkable, film about the nature of stardom.

Diligent manager Tae-sik helps superstar Won-joon at every turn

Diligent manager Tae-sik helps superstar Won-joon at every turn

Superstar Won-joon (Kim Min-joon (김민준) has it all – good looks, a career in film and television, an expensive lifestyle, and a beautiful girlfriend named Mi-na (So I-hyeon (소이현). Yet behind all the glitz and glamour, Won-joon is taken care of by an agency, particularly by diligent manager Tae-sik (Eom Tae-woong (엄태웅). Tae-sik’s adoration of Won-joon leads him to help cover up scandals and, in helping in one case of some magnitude, Tae-sik suffers great personal distress. Stunned by his selflessness, Won-joon grants Tae-sik a sizeable role in his latest television series and is happy to see his ambitions of becoming an actor finally materialize. Yet in discovering fame, Tae-sik begins to change, leading him into a rivalry with Won-joon.

One of the great benefits of having a veteran actor step behind the camera for Top Star is that the portrayal of the world of celebrity is convincing. The conversations and behind-the-glamour events clearly come from a person of experience, from discussions in limousines and public-relations meetings to relaxation at home portrayed with insight. Director Park does well in balancing the realms of stardom and downtime, conveying the former as merely attractive but shallow superficiality and working to build character in the latter. It generally works well, although the script routinely employs cliches and contrivances that have been utilised better before, as in 200 Pounds Beauty (미녀는 괴로워). Foregrounded, however, is the rivalry that develops between Tae-sik and Won-joon that occurs in both worlds, which is also where the more interesting events transpire.

Tensions build as Tae-sik and Won-joon clash in the bid for superiority

Tensions build as Tae-sik and Won-joon clash in the bid for superiority

The initial friendship between Tae-sik and Won-joon is articulated well, as the manager idolises his talent by helping to cover up scandals with no questions asked. Yet the story does become somewhat absurd as Tae-sik suffers a great personal burden in order to provide an alibi for one particular scandal, one that stretches believability almost too far. As Top Star is clearly marketed towards family audiences, director Park omits psychological exploration of Tae-sik’s adoration, yet while it is arguably ‘dark’ material it is depth that is sorely required as the film is so concerned with his unstable personality. Still, sequences in which Won-joon advises Tae-sik on the merits of acting are enjoyable and humourous as their camaraderie deepens on the set of their TV show. Yet just as the story begins to get interesting the film jumps years into the future, bypassing all the fascinating moments that have transpired to trouble their relationship and instead placing audiences in the distressed middle period.

As such Top Star loses all momentum, and the film is forced to reestablish itself once more by reintroducing characters and their new situations. It’s an event from which the story never fully recovers and as the film once more sets up events and attempts to take a belated darker tone, they lack the potency they would otherwise have contained. Additionally the (again belated) inclusion of melodrama amongst all the protagonists is horribly cliched and detracts from the viewing experience. One of the major benefits of Top Star‘s second half however is the greater screen time afforded to actress So I-hyeon as TV producer Mi-na. The role is wafer thin and one-dimensional with So I-hyeon very much required to be just a pretty face, although the actress stretches the material as much as she can and is quite charismatic. Yet undermining everything is the manner in which the story wraps up, as it is far too neat and with little – if any – ramifications despite all the wrongdoing. Top Star is great in representing the glitz and glamour of the movie business but, try as it might to explore the nature of celebrity, the film crucially lacks any depth to do so.

Tae-sik's longing for Mi-na and Won-joon's life in general clouds his judgement

Tae-sik’s longing for Mi-na and Won-joon’s life in general clouds his judgement

Top Star (톱스타) is a highly polished and glamourous directorial debut from veteran actor Park Joong-hoon (박중훈). The film attempts to explore the nature of celebrity as a talent manager turned actor desperately works to retain his fame, even creating a rivalry with his idol. As director Park aims Top Star squarely at family audiences however, he doesn’t delve into the psychology of his protagonists resulting in a film that is wonderfully glitzy, but lacking in any real depth.

★★☆☆☆

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Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013 Reviews
The 18th Busan International Film Festival

BIFF 2013: Korean Cinema Today – Panorama

The 18th Busan International Film Festival

The 18th Busan International Film Festival

For exciting new Korean films, the Korean Cinema Today program at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) highlights some of the best and latest productions emerging from the industry.

Korean Cinema Today is separated into two sub-categories – Panorama and Vision. While Vision explores the latest independent films and exciting new filmmaking talent, Panorama showcases some of the big domestic and internationally acclaimed films, as well as more high profile world premieres.

The 14 films in Panorama 2013 contains some of the biggest names working in the industry today. For arthouse fans, Kim Ki-duk’s highly controversial Moebius, as well as two Hong Sang-soo films – Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and Our Sunhi – make appearances. Two directorial debuts are included in the form of superstar Ha Jeong-woo’s Fasten Your Seatbelt, and veteran actor Park Joong-hoon’s Top Star. King of Pigs director Yeon Sang-ho’s latest animation The Fake is featured. There are also exciting new projects that involve crowdfunding, human rights issues, and the debut of K-pop idol Lee Joon from MBLAQ in a lead role.

For the lowdown on all the films within the sub-category, please see below.

Korean Cinema Today – Panorama

Abbi (애비)

Abbi (Twisted Daddy) (애비)

Abbi (Twisted Daddy) (애비)

Director: Jang Hyun-soo (장현수)

Synopsis: Abbi – or rather, Twisted Daddy – is a drama about a father whose dedication to his son becomes out of hand. Working hard to ensure his son can study law and become successful, the aging father risks everything.

Another Family (또 하나의 가족)

Another Family (또 하나의 가족)

Another Family (또 하나의 가족)

Director: Kim Tae-yun (김태윤)

Synopsis: Crowdfunding was sourced to produce this real life legal drama about a woman who contracts leukemia while working at a Samsung factory. The film follows the family’s efforts overcome the disease as well as the corporation responsible.

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

Director: Ryoo Seung-wan (류승완)

Synopsis: The Berlin File was a big hit upon release earlier his year. With an all-star cast including Ha Jeong-woo and Jeon Ji-hyeon, the action-thriller showcased director Ryoo’s style like never before. For the full review, please click here.

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

Director: Yeon Sang-ho (연상호)

Synopsis: Following on from his hugely successful film King of Pigs, director Yeon Sang-ho employs his biting cultural critique stylisation to explore corrupted religious officials who are holding a small town to ransom.

Fasten Your Seatbelt (롤러코스터)

Fasten Your Seatbelt (롤러코스터)

Fasten Your Seatbelt (롤러코스터)

Director: Ha Jeong-woo (하정우)

Synopsis: Fasten Your Seatbelt – or ‘Rollercoaster‘ in Korean – marks superstar Ha Jeong-woo’s directorial debut. The comedy sees mismatched characters collide when their plane encounters a typhoon.

God's Eye View (시선)

God’s Eye View (시선)

God’s Eye View (시선)

Director: Lee Jang-ho (이장호)

Synopsis: Lee Jang-ho was a prominent director during the 1970s and ’80s, and after an 18 year hiatus has re-entered filmmaking with God’s Eye View. The film explores a group of missionaries whose faith wanes after abduction by Islamic rebels.

Genome Hazard (무명인)

Genome Hazard (무명인)

Genome Hazard (무명인)

Director: Kim Sung-su (김성수)

Synopsis: A co-production between Korea and Japan, sci-fi Genome Hazard depicts a man seemingly losing his sanity following the apparent death of his wife. Director Kim previously worked with Park Chan-wook and Son Il-gon.

If You Were Me 6 (어떤 시선)

If You Were Me 6 (어떤 시선)

If You Were Me 6 (어떤 시선)

Directors: Min Yong-keun (민용근), Lee Sang-cheol (이상철), Shin A-ga (신아가), Park Jung-bum (박정범)

Synopsis: Produced by the National Human Rights Commission, this omnibus film represents radically different stories about people living on the fringes of society, and the hardships they endure.

Moebius (뫼비우스)

Moebius (뫼비우스)

Moebius (뫼비우스)

Director: Kim Ki-duk (김기덕)

Synopsis: Moebius was marred by controversy before it was released.  Kim Ki-duk’s psychosexual thriller examines a family torn apart by adultery, penis dismemberment, and incest.

My Boy (마이보이)

My Boy (마이보이)

My Boy (마이보이)

Director: Jeon Kyu-hwan (전규환)

Synopsis: Town trilogy and The Weight director Jeon Kyu-hwan explores the life of an impulse disorder patient and his long-suffering family in My Boy. cultural attitudes towards mental health and the medical system are examined.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (누구의 딸도 아닌 해원)

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (누구의 딸도 아닌 해원)

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (누구의 딸도 아닌 해원)

Director: Hong Sang-soo (홍상수)

Synopsis: University student Haewon feels lonely following her mother’s departure for Canada, and contacts married lover – and professor – Seong-joon. A story of a young woman’s quest for identity.

Our Sunhi (우리 순희)

Our Sunhi (우리 순희)

Our Sunhi (우리 순희)

Director: Hong Sang-soo (홍상수)

Synopsis: Sunhi is a film student who, wishing to continue her studies in America, seeks a recommendation letter from her professor. Yet in doing so, she unwittingly allows 3 different men attempt to advise her over her future.

Rough Play (배우는 배우다)

Rough Play (배우는 배우다)

Rough Play (배우는 배우다)

Director: Shin Yeon-shick (신연식)

Synopsis: A sequel of sorts to Rough Cut, Rough Play is concerned with a rising film star who becomes involved with gangsters, leading to a downward spiral. Based on an idea by Kim Ki-duk, the film features K-pop idol Lee Joon from MBLAQ in the lead role.

Top Star (톱스타)

Top Star (톱스타)

Top Star (톱스타)

Director: Park Joong-hoon (박중훈)

Synopsis: Veteran actor Park Joong-hoon makes his debut with Top Star, a film about a talent manager who suddenly becomes a superstar. Yet as his popularity increase, so does his arrogance and determination to stay at the top.

 

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013
Pil-yong's interest in hanji leads to a world he never knew existed

Hanji (달빛 길어올리기) – ★★★☆☆

Hanji (달빛 길어올리기)

Hanji (달빛 길어올리기)

Director Im Kwon-taek (임권택) continues his love affair with Korean culture in Hanji (달빛 길어올리기), a film about the traditional art of paper-making. While such a premise may initially make audiences baulk, the auteur’s love and admiration of the tradition shines through every scene, crafting a poetic narrative about a cultural trait on the brink of extinction.

Hanji tells the story of Pil-yong (Park Joong-hoon (박중훈), a civil servant appointed to a committee charged with the restoration of the only surviving record of the Jeonju Annals. Knowing little of the practice, Pil-yong researches the art with diligence and becomes increasingly passionate about the project. His dedication is in part due to guilt as his actions caused his wife Hyo-kyeong (Ye Ji-won (예지원) to suffer a stroke three years prior, while he had also belittled her former occupation as a paper-maker and never understood the sorrow of her inability to find her hometown. Yet just the project begins, the government withdraws funding and the restoration is placed in jeopardy. Reluctantly teaming with documentary filmmaker Ji-won (Kang Soo-yeon (강수연), Pil-yong battles to save the hanji industry and restore the Jeonju Annuls while proving his worth as a husband.

Pil-yong's interest in hanji leads to a world he never knew existed

Pil-yong’s interest in hanji leads to a world he never knew existed

Hanji is very wisely positioned from Pil-yong’s perspective, a man ignorant of the history and cultural importance of the tradition which allows the audience to learn about the craft through his research and discussions with expert paper-makers on the practice. However this also leads the film to convey documentary-esque sensibilities, a feature of which director Im Kwon-taek is keenly aware and subverts through his ironic inclusion of a documentary team following the restoration project. While their addition does somewhat diffuse the educational dimension, Hanji often straddles the line between film and documentary and occasionally conveys a mild ‘preachy’ tone which is initially interesting, but becomes tiresome in the later stages. However it is Pil-yong’s desire to prove himself, discover his wife’s passion and locate her hometown that compels the narrative forward during such moments, as his responsibility for Ji-won’s illness – and desire to cure her – drives him deeper into the history of hanji, Jeonju, and Korea itself.

The heart of Hanji is the relationship between Pil-yong and Ji-won, which is allegorical of Korean history by reenacting the story of hanji through the trials of a failing marriage. As a descendant of the most famous hanji artist in Korea, Ji-won is hanji personified, while her husband symbolises an artist/author. When Pil-yong’s affair with another woman years prior is discovered, Ji-won suffers a stroke and becomes immobile and depressed, barely able to speak. This reflects the abandonment of hanji by artists, who opted to use paper less difficult to manufacture as it required less work and was more comfortable – a description Pil-yong applies to his infidelity. Yet through his journey, Pil-yong discovers that hanji – like his wife – may well require hard work but the quality of it lasts for at least a thousand years, and doesn’t deteriorate as with lesser equivalents. As a renowned professor describes, hanji is ‘honest’ paper as it reveals the skill of the artist whereas other paper conceals it, leaving a record of which that lasts beyond the grave. In fighting to restore the hanji industry and the Jeonju Annuls at great personal sacrifice, Pil-yong learns the value of identity, culture, history, and marriage.

Ji-won's search for her hometown is allegorical of searching for Korean identity and history

Ji-won’s search for her hometown is symbolic of searching for Korean identity and tradition

In terms of performance, Kang Soo-yeon shines as long-suffering Ji-won, conveying an incredible physical presence through her illness. Her depression and inability to communicate are also highly impressive, particularly her evolution as she struggles to gain greater strength. Park Joong-hoon is competent as Pil-yong, conveying his fascination with hanji and his frustration with the lack of support well. In fairness, there are few scenes that actually challenge the actor as Pil-yong is generally the focal point for Im Kwon-taek’s journey through the history of the craft. That said, the marital dispute and Ji-won’s illness notwithstanding, there is an absence of chemistry between the two central protagonists that is acutely apparent, and while Ji-won’s physical evolution is conveyed the same does not apply to their relationship which is devoid of affection. As such, Pil-yong’s obsession with the history of hanji and restoring his wife’s health is conveyed more as acknowledging his responsibility than reinforcing love between them.

Im Kwon-taek does attempt to rectify this through his masterfully poetic final scenes, in which he emphasizes the importance of Buddhist philosophy and nature, particularly the moon, as integral to the hanji crafting process. It is incredibly romantic as Korea itself is is conveyed as the missing piece of the production puzzle, one that when fully appreciated allows artists to create, the sick to heal, and estranged partners to reunite.

The secrets of hanji lies with Buddhist monks and nature

The secrets of hanji lie with Buddhist monks and nature

Verdict:

Hanji is a film based on a genuine love of Korean culture and tradition by auteur Im Kwon-taek. While at times the film can convey a rather educational, documentary tone the film emphasizes the importance of remembering and supporting cultural traditions as they are inherently tied to notions of identity. Hanji is poetic and philosophical, conveying that diligence and perseverance are highly rewarding experiences and serves as a love letter to a dying cultural tradition.

★★★☆☆

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