Madonna (마돈나) – ★★★☆☆

Madonna (마돈나)

Madonna (마돈나)

With debts mounting and depression looming, single thirty-something Hae-rim (Seo Yeong-hee (서영희) takes employment as a nurse on an exclusive VIP ward at a large hospital. Stunned by the difference in care the social-elite command, Hae-rim nevertheless works hard to provide treatment for her patient – an elderly and particularly wealthy mogul, whose son and heir Sang-woo (Kim Yeong-min (김영민) endeavours to keep alive whatever the cost. Following the tycoon’s latest heart transplant rejection time has seemingly run out, until the arrival of a comatose Jane Doe signals another possibility of prolonging his life. Yet upon Hae-rim’s discovery that the potential donor is pregnant, Sang-woo charges her with discovering the patient’s identity and obtaining permission from her next of kin, and in digging deeper into the life of Mi-na (Kwon So-hyeon (권소현) – nicknamed ‘Madonna’ – Hae-rim unearths some truly disturbing revelations.

Hae-rim is charged with locating Mi-na's next of kin

Hae-rim is charged with locating Mi-na’s next of kin

Featuring an equally impassioned sense of social injustice that made her prior film Pluto such a festival hit, writer/director Shin Su-won’s Madonna is a potent and unrelenting exploration of class inequality and misogyny in contemporary Korean society, one that potently generates debate on a great number of issues. The noir-esque drama also represents a clear technical evolution for Shin, as her collaboration with Yun Ji-woon’s on camera duties and Lee Shin-hye’s production design has yielded a noticeable level of visual finesse. Yet ultimately Madonna falls prey to overambition as the narrative attempts to include such a vast array of societal ills that the viewing experience becomes a punishing test of endurance, while structural imbalances in the final act tend to drain emotional resonance from the story. That said, Madonna is certainly one of the best Korean releases in the first half of 2015, and its premiere at Cannes was utterly deserved.

Director Shin displays incredible insight in regards to the culture of bullying within Korean culture, which she expresses through examining the rather vicious class system and associated sense of privilege, as well as the seemingly ingrained sexism and abuse that patriarchy knowingly perpetuates. The VIP wing beautifully captures such philosophies through portraying the excesses afforded to the rich clientele, with rooms adorned as if royalty were visiting yet are wonderfully cast in shadow to imply the secretive, macabre nature of the ward. The sense of entitlement expressed through the occupants articulate the amoral stance of the wealthy, with scenes featuring the chastisement of doctors akin to torture, the sexually predatory nature aimed at nurses, and one particularly effective confrontation, a discussion regarding obtaining organs via the Chinese black market. The hospital, as with the school in Pluto, is a location in which human rights abuses occur not only undisturbed, but are accepted.

As such, Hae-rim’s task in tracking Mi-na’s relatives becomes not merely an investigative case, but one that comes to embody an acute sense of social justice – for her, her unborn baby, and underprivileged women in general.

Hae-rim's investigation reveals a dark underbelly of abuse and misogyny

Hae-rim’s investigation reveals a dark underbelly of abuse and misogyny

With the advent of Hae-rim’s mission, the narrative switches from the tightly controlled and well paced clinic-centric drama to a non-linear one that examines the issues Hae-rim currently endures, alongside flashbacks that unveil the experiences that led to Mi-na’s hospitalisation. Initially the noir-esque device works wonderfully as it allows director Shin to explore an even greater array of societal abuse, victimisation and psychological trauma. As Hae-rim goes beyond her remit she discovers the horrifying tale of her ‘Madonna’ – of a woman abused at every level of society by those around her, with the cruelty she endures generating a more religious appropriation for her namesake as opposed to the pop idol.

Yet as the flashbacks detailing Mi-na’s past become increasingly longer, Hae-rim’s journey succumbs to a supporting role, and as a result the intrigue and tension initially constructed regarding the hospital and her position within it ultimately dissipates, as does the invest in her character. The different timelines also fail to generate an emotional connection between the two women given their very different trajectories. Director Shin seems to become aware of this and, quite jarringly, inserts a traumatic scene to create the required empathy yet due to the unbalanced structure of the final act, it doesn’t quite work as effectively as it could.

The consistent depiction of abuse towards Mi-na also becomes problematic as the film becomes akin to a gruelling test of endurance. The atrocities committed become ever more horrifying – and in one particular confrontation needlessly graphic – that lack the emotional and contextual gravitas as with, say, Han Gong-ju, resulting in provoking the debate of ‘just how far is too far’ in the depiction of sexual violence instead of the intended discourse of sexual assault on marginalised women.

In the role of Mi-na/Madonna however, newbie actress Kwon So-hyeon is terrific. She wholeheartedly commits to the role with impressive verve and courage with a performance that is likely to cement her as a presence in Korean indie cinema for years to come. Seo Yeong-hee meanwhile, who previously portrayed female abuse and cathartic revenge to stunning effect in Bedevilled, performs highly capably in what is ultimately an emotionally limited role. Her presence, while cold, is charismatic and her return as a powerful female lead is welcome indeed.

Mi-na's traumatic history of abuse is revealed through potent flashbacks

Mi-na’s traumatic history of abuse is revealed through potent flashbacks

Verdict:

Madonna is an impassioned story of social injustice and sexist abuse in contemporary Korean society by writer/director Shin Su-won. Displaying an evolved visual finesse and featuring a potent exploration of the cruel class system, the noir-esque drama is an unflinching take on societal ills. The film ultimately becomes a gruelling test of endurance and lacking in emotional resonance due to final act structural imbalances, yet despite this Madonna is certainly one of the best Korean films of 2015 so far.

★★★☆☆

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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
Circle Line (순환선)

Modern Family (가족 시네마) – ★★★☆☆

Modern Family (가족시네마 )

Modern Family (가족시네마 )

Modern Family (가족 시네마) is a collection of four short films that explores the different forms of trauma that can occur for contemporary families. Each story is a very interesting and well-crafted vision of the issues facing the family unit, with each respective director’s style shining through in the quest to articulate the emotional complexities of the situation.

The short films deal with a surprising array of topics including unemployment, the loss of a child, parental responsibility and women’s rights in the workplace. What is wonderful about each entry is the sincerity in which the issue is explored. Often subtle and understated, Modern Family is an insightful film about the complexities of family and the attempts to survive in contemporary society.

Yet ironically, as each short film is so interesting, they all feel as if they end too soon. All four directors have chosen potent topics to explore, and the short time limit means that each respective story feels cut short. The depth each director has applied in examining familial issues is powerful yet seems to only scratch the surface of the situation. It is a testament to the director’s skill that each entry causes a desire for more information, but it is a desire that, for the most part, goes unfulfilled.

In the interest of fairness, each short film is reviewed individually, before a final summary.

Circle Line (순환선)

Circle Line (순환선)

Circle Line (순환선) – ★★★★☆

Director Shin Su-won’s (신수원) Circle Line is the most prestigious entry within Modern Family, having won the Canal+ prize at Cannes in 2012. The award is thoroughly deserved, as director Shin employs some wonderful artistic shots and symbolism in exploring the life of a middle-aged man who has recently been made unemployed. To make matters worse, his wife is soon to give birth to their second child. Depressed and ashamed, the man simply travels on the subway circle line all day, searching for jobs on his laptop and observing the assortment of characters that come and go. Director Shin articulates the man’s frustrations superbly through the mise-en-scene and the minor, but highly symbolic, confrontations that arise. Jeong In-gi (정인기) is also terrific as the redundant father-to-be, providing a restrained performance that suddenly explodes when tensions become too much to bear. Circle Line is as much a commentary on contemporary masculinity, economy, and society as it is about family, and it’s the subtle manner in which each area is dealt with that makes the film so compelling.

Star-shaped Stain (별 모양의 얼룩)

Star-shaped Stain (별 모양의 얼룩)

Star-shaped Stain (별 모양의 얼룩) –  ★★★☆☆

Star-shaped Stain is arguably the most poignant film in the omnibus, as director Hong Ji-young (홍지영) examinations a couple whose daughter died through tragic circumstances. Initially the couple seem to be coping extremely well with the loss, however with the anniversary of the youngster’s death the barriers that they have built to cope with the trauma gradually wear down. Director Hong does a great job of gently peeling back the layers of the protagonists, particularly of the mother (Kim Ji-young, 김지영) who feels such a tremendous sense of guilt that she continuously revisits the events of her final encounter with her daughter. The real tragedy comes in the form of the hope that her daughter is alive, as the once composed woman begins to unravel which is genuinely heartbreaking to witness. The moving film is unfortunately cut short just as it starts to become seriously compelling, as the protagonists are pushed into highly emotional and psychological territory but then abruptly ends. This is a real shame as there is a lot more potential to be explored, but which never materializes due to the limitations of the running time.

E.D.571

E.D.571

E.D.571 –  ★★★☆☆

Director Lee Soo-yeon’s (이수연) entry is the only one which adds a more science-fiction sensibility to the exploration of family by setting the story in the year 2030. A workaholic career woman (Seon Woo-seon, 선우선) leads a rather lonely life, living purely to work. Yet it is thrown into disarray when a young girl (Ji Woo, 지우) appears on her doorstep claiming to be her biological daughter, the result of selling an unfertilized egg in order to pay for tuition years prior. The film is a commentary on parental responsibility with the media full of reports about criminal youths and gangs, but with the arrival of the biological daughter it becomes clear that such actions are the results of awful parenting and neglect. However E.D. 571 doesn’t really explore the issue with the depth required for it to be insightful, with mentions of certain situations but lacking the psychological and emotional depth for them to carry any weight. Part of the reason is the decision to shoot the entire confrontation in the woman’s home in the form of a battle of wits which, while certainly interesting, doesn’t really get to the heart of the issues being referenced.

In Good Company (인 굿 컴퍼니 )

In Good Company (인 굿 컴퍼니 )

In Good Company (인 굿 컴퍼니) –  ★★★☆☆

In Good Company is an excellent examination of the misogyny and unfairness women are forced to endure in contemporary Korea. Director Kim Seong-ho (김성호) also wisely shoots his film in the form of a documentary adding a greater sense of realism, while adding dramatic ‘reconstructions’ of the events that occurred as a pregnant worker is forced to resign in order to save a company providing maternity pay. Interestingly, rather than centering the argument around exploitative patriarchy through the male boss – performed ably by Lee Myeong-haeng (이명행) – the narrative emphasises the work ethic within Korean culture, and the lack of female solidarity, as the source of the problem. This is where In Good Company really shines, as the women who should know better and support each other actually perpetuate the misogyny, which is a highly refreshing take on the subject. While the film explores the issues well, it is ultimately let down in the quest to tie up all the narrative loose ends through a contrived finale which undermines what came before.

Verdict:

Modern Family is an insightful collection of 4 short films concerned with trauma in the contemporary family unit. Each director – Shin Su-won, Hong Ji-young, Lee Soo-yeon and Kim Seong-ho – have each produced work that exemplifies their unique styles as well as exploring quite diverse areas, and the omnibus is consistently compelling throughout. The time limitations do have a negative impact on the storytelling however, as just as the narrative begins to push their protagonists in dramatic directions the film is cut short, or the rush to tie everything up leads to contrivances. Despite this, Modern Family is a thought-provoking drama, and a great showcase of directing talent.

 ★★★☆☆

International Women's Film Festival in Seoul (서울국제여성영화제) Reviews
The 15th International Women's Film Festival in Seoul

WFFIS 2013: The 15th International Women’s Film Festival in Seoul – New Currents

The 15th International Women's Film Festival in Seoul

The 15th International Women’s Film Festival in Seoul

The 15th installment of the International Women’s Film Festival in Seoul (WFFIS) is due to commence from May the 24th to the 30th, in the trendy Sinchon district of the capital. With the catchphrase, “see the world through women’s eyes!”, the festival celebrates the achievements of female filmmakers throughout the world by screening an eclectic selection of films that focus on women’s issues.

The festival will launch with American director Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa, a film that explores the early days of feminism in 1960s London through the experiences of two teenage girls. From there, films from around the world will be shown that will promote and explore a variety of discourses.

For the full list of films you can visit the official website here, but for an in-depth look specifically at the Korean films in the festival – as well as the official WFFIS trailer – please see below.

New Currents Category

Grape Candy (청포도 사탕: 17년 전의 약속)

Grape Candy (청포도 사탕: 17년 전의 약속)

Grape Candy (청포도 사탕: 17년 전의 약속)

Director: Kim Hee-jung (김희정)

Synopsis: Released in 2012, director Kim Hee-jung’s independent drama Grape Candy explores the life of Sun-joo who is busy making preparations for her upcoming wedding. When her fiance is involved in an accident, she bumps into estranged middle school friend So-ra at the hospital and discovers the two are due to embark on a business trip together. Filled with jealousy, Sun-joo joins the trip but in doing so suppressed memories from the past begin to surface. See below for the trailer:

Love Games (연애놀이)

Love Games (연애놀이)

Love Games (연애놀이)

Director: Joung Yu-mi (정유미)

Synopsis: This animated 16 minute short film portrays the different kinds of games that couples play to bring them closer together, from mundane picnic events to more exciting endeavours.

Modern Family (가족시네마 )

Modern Family (가족시네마 )

Modern Family (가족시네마 )

Directors: Shin Su-won (신수원), Lee Soo-yeon (이수연), Kim Seong-ho (김성호), Hong Ji-young (홍지영)

Synopsis: Omnibus film Modern Family is comprised of 4 shorts that examine the family unit. In Circle Line, director Shin Su-won depicts the life of an unemployed middle-aged man. Director Lee Soo-yeon depicts the possible future of motherhood in E.D.571, involving a woman in 2030 who sold her eggs to repay student loans. In Good Company is about pregnant women in the workplace by director Kim Seong-ho. Finally director Hong Ji-young explores family trauma in Star-shaped Stain.

Circle Line (순환선)

Circle Line (순환선)

E.D.571

E.D.571

In Good Company (인 굿 컴퍼니 )

In Good Company (인 굿 컴퍼니 )

Star-shaped Stain (별 모양의 얼룩)

Star-shaped Stain (별 모양의 얼룩)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Father's Emails (아버지의 이메일)

My Father’s Emails (아버지의 이메일)

 My Father’s Emails (아버지의 이메일)

Director: Hong Jae-hee (홍재희)

Synopsis: My Father’s Emails is an autobiographical documentary based on the life of director Hong’s father, who wrote an email detailing his experiences through periods of Korean history.

Nora Noh (노라노)

Nora Noh (노라노)

Nora Noh (노라노)

Director: Kim Sung-hee (김성희)

Synopsis: Fashion designer Nora Noh is the subject of this documentary. Her importance in the world of fashion as the first person in Korea to hold a fashion show, as well as her other contributions, are explored and profiled.

Pluto (명왕성)

Pluto (명왕성)

Pluto (명왕성)

Director: Shin Su-won (신수원)

Synopsis: Festival favourite Pluto has garnered a lot of positive critical response since its premiere at the Busan Film Festival in 2012. The film explores the incredible pressure and bullying that transpires in Korean high schools, as well as the power wielded – and abused – by elite students. While several films have tackled the challenging subject matter, Pluto‘s originality and powerful resonance has led to invitations to international festivals including Hong Kong and Berlin. See the trailer below:

Tour of Duty (거미의 땅)

Tour of Duty (거미의 땅)

Tour of Duty (거미의 땅)

Director: Kim Dong-ryung (김동령), Park Kyoung-tae (박경태)

Synopsis: Documentary Tour of Duty examines a dilapidated camp town that once hosted the US military. Directors Kim and Park follow 3 women, and reveal their secrets and memories.

You Were So Precious (너무 소중했던, 당신)

You Were So Precious (너무 소중했던, 당신)

You Were So Precious (너무 소중했던, 당신)

Director: Baek Mi-young (백미영)

Synopsis: This animated co-production with France portrays an underground world where forgotten things dwell. When a child monk decides to return one to its owner, events are set in motion.

Festival News International Women's Film Festival in Seoul (서울국제여성영화제) Korean Festivals 2013