Gyeongju (경주) – ★★★☆☆

Gyeongju (경주)

Gyeongju (경주)

When his childhood friend tragically dies, Professor Choi Hyeon (Park Hae-il (박해일), having spent the past several years working at Beijing University, returns to Korea for the funeral. Hyeon however seems less concerned with reconnecting with old friends than he is rediscovering his roots, and to that end he visits Gyeongju, the former capital of the ancient Silla kingdom full of historical landmarks. Rather than sightseeing, Hyeon is strangely motivated to find an old pornographic painting he and his friends encountered on a trip there years prior. Upon locating the teahouse Hyeon is greeted by the new owner Yoon-hee (Sin Min-ah (신민아) and the two form an intriguing relationship.

Hyeon locates the teahouse from his past, and meets owner Yoon-hee

Hyeon locates the teahouse from his past, and meets owner Yoon-hee

Gyeongju is a poetic, meditative exploration of history and relationships by director Zhang Lu (장률). That may come as a surprise considering the film has been marketed as something of a romantic-drama (see the trailer below), yet director Lu’s film is far removed from typical genre fare as from the moment it begins it is clear he has crafted an artistically conscious, rather than commercially minded, examination of relationships. The approach subtly inhabits every sentence and every frame as Hyeon attempts to explore and understand his complex connection with history, and how the relationships of his past inform his present. As the story is so introspective director Lu relies heavily on visual aesthetics, skillfully composing highly attractive shots of Hyeon, particularly in relation to his surroundings and with other people, to convey a wealth of powerful yet understated meaning. Many of the shots within Gyeongju certainly wouldn’t look out of place in a filmmaking textbook such is the director’s prowess, notably in the manner in which he employs space and distance. The meticulously constructed, elegant shots at Yoon-hee’s Arisol Teahouse, for example, are emblematic of his penetrating insight into the psychological state of the characters within.

The composition and framing within the teahouse subtly reveals a wealth of meaning

The composition and framing within the teahouse subtly reveals a wealth of meaning

As Hyeon walks around the old capital contemplating the landmarks and the people he encounters, it becomes increasingly clear that the film is also highly concerned with the notion of identity and belonging. As a Korean living in China and married with a Chinese woman, Hyeon lost his connections with not only his friends but also his country, history, and sense of identity. As such Gyeongju serves not only as a place for quiet contemplation but also an arena in which he attempts to trace his roots, which proves increasingly difficult the longer Hyeon stays there. His troubled psychological state finds a companion in Yoon-hee, who is also unsure of her place in the world. Their connection is not so much romantic as it is motivated by a desire to belong, and as the two are surrounded by history and death (in the form of tombs), the film puts forth interesting debates about the nature of relationships.

At 2 hours and 20 minutes however, to say that Gyeongju is overly long is quite an understatement. As the film is so introspective Gyeongju is an incredibly slow-paced affair, and while for the first hour the story is compelling enough for it not to be an issue, when the film begins to meander viewing becomes somewhat laborious. Primarily this occurs during the scenes at night, when Hyeon and Yoon-hee develop their relationship further which feels not only contrived but also unnecessarily long, despite great performances from Park Hae-il and Shin Min-ah. Bizarrely, after 2 hours of controlled and moderated pacing, Gyeongju suddenly becomes in a big hurry to end, which results in an unsatisfying finale to an otherwise deep and insightful film.

Hyeon contemplates his identity and existence in Korea's picturesque former capital

Hyeon contemplates his identity and existence in Korea’s picturesque former capital

Verdict:

Gyeongju is a poetic, introspective exploration of history, identity and relationships by director Zhang Lu. The film is very much artistically focused rather than commercially orientated, and as such it benefits from wonderfully composed shots and framing devices, as well as a controlled meditative pace, that subtly convey a wealth of meaning over exposition. Yet at 2 hours and 20 minutes Gyeongju is also incredibly overly long and feels particularly laborious after the halfway mark, while the artistic sensibilities won’t be for everyone.

★★★☆☆

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Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews
Sun-woo's arrogance leads to his downfall

A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생) – ★★★★★

A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생)

A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생)

Contemporary action heroes are markedly different from their forebearers. Fragments of the stoic hard-boiled masculinity of the noir 1930s, the rebellious ‘anti-hero’ escapades of the ’60s, and the hyper-masculinity of the ’80s amongst others still exist yet are characterised by more psychologically flawed and vulnerable protagonists. The psychosis of the contemporary action hero is propagated further by his/her unfettered arrogance which often serves to be the source of their appeal; they may be murderous unhinged individuals, but they conduct violence with such swagger and confidence that popularity is undoubtedly assured. The most recent incarnation of James Bond, played by Daniel Craig, is a prime example of such characterisation and differs incredibly from previous actors rendition of the spy. Such traits are of fundamental significance in Kim Ji-woon’s (김지운) A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생), an amazingly stylised action noir thriller that boasts an incredible performance from leading man Lee Byeong-Heon (이병헌).

Kim Sun-woo (Lee Byeong-Heon) is an enforcer for ruthless gangster and hotel owner Mr. Kang (Kim Young-cheol (김영철). Sun-woo is the epitome of diligence and loyalty, protecting his boss’ interests above all else including beating lower-tier gangsters that visit the establishment to cause trouble. Before a business trip to Shanghai, Mr. Kang orders Sun-woo to watch his young girlfriend Hee-soo (Sin Min-ah (신민아) for fear she is meeting another, younger, man. If Sun-woo confirms his suspicions, he must ‘take care’ of the situation. Yet when Sun-woo meets Hee-soo he is captivated by her, and cannot fulfill his obligations when her affair is discovered. Enraged, Mr. Kang orders his men to punish Sun-woo, setting in motion a series of events that tests both men to their limits.

Sun-woo is an arrogant, lethal enforcer for Mr. Kang

Sun-woo is an arrogant, lethal enforcer for Mr. Kang

As expected from auteur  Kim Ji-woon, A Bittersweet Life is technically fantastic with wonderful framing and composition, and superb use of mise-en-scene. The writer/director combines a multitude of different generic features seamlessly. The elegant gangster inspired ‘La Dolce Vita’ restaurant is exquisitely constructed, with a title that becomes a recurring subliminal pun throughout the film. The ultra-violent action sequences are brutal and shocking in their presentation, often accompanied by noir-esque shadows and suspense. The inclusion of romantic motifs are subtle yet moving as close up shots of minor mannerisms effect Sun-woo, that ultimately lead to his downfall. Sun-woo’s loneliness is consistently emphasised by framing devices that convey his isolation, as do the angled shots that portray the trajectory of his devolution down the gangster hierarchy. Kim Ji-woon’s renowned use of colour is on full display, from the bright white corridors that lead to the deep red and black interior of ‘La Dolce Vita’ to the continued use of bright lights surrounding love-interest Hee-soo. This subtly ties into Sun-woo’s almost obsessive compulsive disorder for switching lamps on and off several times before sleeping, as Hee-soo is constantly surrounded by light and has a penchant for lamps of all varieties.

Sun-woo escorts Hee-soo, whose subtle charms impair his judgment

Sun-woo escorts Hee-soo, whose subtle charms impair his judgment

Sun-woo is an incredibly arrogant and prideful protagonist, wonderfully portrayed by Lee Byeong-Heon. The intensity and conflict from his previous roles serves him well as Sun-woo’s narrative journey takes him from the upper echelons of the gang to crawling on his knees. And yet Sun-woo still refuses to acknowledge his feelings or to apologise, just as Mr. Kang refuses to change his stance to spare his dignity. They are mirrors of each other not just in personality and career but also in their affection for Hee-soo, and it’s ultimately that jealousy that destroys them all including the organisation. The final images of Sun-woo shadow boxing with his own reflection in ‘La Dolce Vita’ are tragically revealing, as his narcissistic spirit is forever locked in an internal love/hate battle with himself and his organisation. The other actors all convey great performances, although they are somewhat underdeveloped. Sin Min-ah conveys innocence and naivety as Hee-soo, and immeasurable sadness when her affair is brought to light. Kim Young-cheol is wonderfully sadistic as Mr. Kang and the mirror of Sun-woo, conveying real internal conflict when giving orders against his protege. As jealous second lieutenant Mun-suk, Kim Roi-ha is delightfully vindictive despite his limited character.

Sun-woo's arrogance leads to his downfall

Sun-woo’s arrogance leads to his downfall

Verdict:

A Bittersweet Life is an incredibly stylised action/gangster/noir thriller that is head-and-shoulders above other recent examples of the genre. As always, director Kim Ji-woon doesn’t disappoint, employing a variety of generic motifs to wonderful effect that keeps the film moving at a brisk pace without detracting from lead character Sun-woo’s development. Lee Byeong-Heon gives a wonderful performance as the flawed anti-hero, and despite his violent tendencies and arrogance is one of the most compelling action protagonists in recent memory. A Bittersweet Life is a premier example of the innovation of Korean cinema, and a more than worthy addition to the genre.

★★★★★

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