Jiseul (지슬)

Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Top Ten of 2013

As 2013 draws to a close, so it becomes time to discuss the best releases from the Korean film industry from the year.

It’s been quite  year for Korean film. According to the Korean Film Council the industry crossed over the 200 million admissions mark for the first time in history, averaging just over 4 films per person; recently released drama The Attorney (변호인), based on former president Roh Moo-hyun’s early career, broke the box office record for single day admissions in December attracting over 540,000 moviegoers upon opening; Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (설국열차), the most expensive film in Korean cinema history, was released to critical and commercial acclaim; and Moon Byung-gon’s Safe (세이프) won the short film Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival, the first time the award has been bestowed upon a Korean director.

But back to the issue at hand – the top ten. ‘Best of’ lists always feel somewhat disingenuous as it’s impossible to have seen simply everything to emerge from the industry over the past 12 months. This also unfortunately applies to this particular list, particularly in regards to films released over the past month. So, in the interest of full disclosure, here are some great films that could potentially have been included in the top ten had they been seen – Moebius (뫼비우스)Hope/Wish (소원), Way Back Home (집으로 가는 길), and The Attorney.

However, without further ado, let’s press on with Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Top Ten of 2013:

Joint 1st – Jiseul (지슬)

Jiseul (지슬)

Jiseul (지슬)

While Jiseul premiered at Busan in 2012, it was officially released nationwide in 2013 and for that reason jointly takes the number 1 spot. Director O Muel’s breathtaking film about the 1948 Jeju Island ‘Uprising’ (or rather ‘Massacre’) is one of those rare films that transcends the medium into art. The stunning cinematography is exquisitely captured through the black and white tones, while the realism-inducing long takes convey the atrocities endured by the Islanders with palpable melancholy. Shockingly, Jiseul was not submitted as Korea’s entry for the Academy Awards (with the honour instead going to Juvenile Offender), a presumably political decision due to the negative manner in which the Korean military are portrayed – a genuine shame as Jiseul is one of the best Oscar contenders Korea has produced in quite some time. Nevertheless, director O Muel’s beautifully haunting tribute is an absolute must-see. (See the full review here).

Joint 1st – Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju is without a doubt the best new film of 2013. Staggering powerful, heartbreaking and courageous, the film tells the story of high schooler Gong-ju who is forced to relocate to a new school due to a secretive event in her past. Director Lee Su-jin has crafted an incredible film that wonderfully captures many of the social issues in contemporary Korea, confronting the themes of selfishness and corruption directly and in doing so evokes a maelstrom of emotional resonance. It is no stretch to say that Han Gong-ju is like a raw Lee Chang-dong film, one full of maturity and awareness yet with added indignation. Staggeringly, the film is also director Lee Su-jin’s feature-length directorial debut and, should he continue to helm films of this quality, Korea will have a new auteur in the making.

2nd – Pluto (명왕성)

Pluto (명왕성)

Pluto (명왕성)

Director Shin Su-won proves her win at Cannes for Circle Line (순환선) was no fluke with the release of the masterful Pluto. A former teacher before her venture into filmmaking, director Shin deftly employs her knowledge of the insanely-competitive Korean education system in exploring how students can become increasingly amoral in the bid for perfect grades  and an all-important university placement. What makes Pluto so special is not only the examination of corruption within the system but also the character development as Joon – wonderfully acted by Lee David – gradually succumbs to violent ambition. (See the full review here).

3rd – My Place (마이 플레이스)

My Place (마이 플레이스)

My Place (마이 플레이스)

The best kind of documentaries are the ones that serve to enlighten, yet director Park Moon-chil goes one better with My Place in that he too is on a quest for knowledge. Initially believing that his sister is somewhat irresponsible for wishing to be a single-parent, director Park attempts to understand his sibling by investigating her past, which in turn leads to startling discoveries about his entire family. Through exploring cultural and generational differences as well as revealing – and attempting to heal – family trauma, My Place is a wonderful testament to family and forces audiences to address how well they know their own relatives. (See the full review here).

4th – Snowpiercer (설국열차)

Snowpiercer (설국열차)

Snowpiercer (설국열차)

A pulse-pounding thrill-ride from start to finish, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is a momentous sci-fi epic. Based on the French comic Le Transperceneige, the film depicts a world devoid of life due to global warming with the last remnants of humanity hurtling around the world on the perpetually moving train ‘snowpiercer.’ What makes the film so fascinating is the manner in which  the class system is explored, examining the nature of revolution, the brainwashing inherent in education, as well as the potent symbolism laced throughout – particularly from Tilda Swinton’s brilliant channeling of Margaret Thatcher as the villainous Mason. Snowpiercer is also a triumph of production design, and ranks among the best science fiction films to emerge from the industry. (See the full review here).

5th – The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

Brutally intense and profoundly disturbing, The Fake is a phenomenal indictment of the fraud that exists within society. The Korean title ‘Saibi’ is specific to religion, and potent symbolism abounds; the looming threat of a flood sends the local populace into a religious fervour as they compete for the ‘limited’ places in heaven. Interestingly director Yeon Sang-ho marries such weighty material with the generic conventions of the western, and the result is extraordinary – should the audience align with the fraudulent man of God, or the truthful-yet-devilish western anti-hero? (See the full review here).

6th – New World (신세계)

New World (신세계)

New World (신세계)

Taking a cue from Coppola’s The Godfather, director Park Hoon-jeong’s gangster epic New World is among the best examples of the genre in recent memory. As a screenwriter on I Saw The Devil and The Unjust director Park has experience in weaving bloodthirsty thrillers, and his vision in constructing a tale of vengeful gangsters attempting to fill a power vacuum is brilliant. The double-crosses and Infernal Affairs-esque clashes between men on both sides of the law are made all the more powerful with the stunning cinematography and visual finesse. (See here for the full review).

7th – Cold Eyes (감시자들)

Cold Eyes (감시자들)

Cold Eyes (감시자들)

A remake of Hong Kong action-noir Eye in the Sky, Cold Eyes is a vastly different adaptation set in the shimmering metropolis of Seoul. The slick thriller is incredibly entertaining not only for the great pacing and exhilarating cat-and-mouse chase sequences, but also for the wonderful casting. Han Hyo-joo, so often relegated to being a pretty love interest, is excellent as the bold, smart and independent rookie, while Jeong Woo-seong is great as the steely and manipulative villain. (See here for the full review).

8th – The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File marks a genuine stage in evolution for director Ryoo Seung-wan. His previous films have typically been highly entertaining action-thrillers often serving to revere classic sequences of yesteryear; however with The Berlin File the high-octane set-pieces, kinetic camera movement and rapid editing combine to create his most exhilarating film to date. With an all-star cast featuring Ha Jeong-woo, Jeon Ji-hyeon, Han Seok-kyu and Ryoo Seung-beom, The Berlin File is one of 2013’s great genre films. (See here for the full review).

9th – How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

2013 was full of cliched and generic rom-coms – which made How to Use Guys with Secret Tips even more refreshing. Criminally under-seen due to a release date alongside Miracle in Cell No. 7 and New World, director Lee Won-seok’s debut is simply bursting with colour, vitality, inventiveness, and most importantly – brains. Spinning the cliches upside down, director Lee continually pokes fun at modern masculinity as well as highlighting the sexism that exists in contemporary Korea in a uniquely humourous fashion, combining to produce one of the most enjoyable and downright fun rom-coms in quite some time. (See here for the full review).

10th – Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정)

Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정)

Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정)

Premiering at the Jeonju International Film Festival, director Jung Young-heon’s Lebanon Emotion was far and away the most interesting and engaging drama to appear. Initially a potent tale of grief and despair, the film transforms into an otherworldly story of togetherness, revenge, and danger. Director Jung’s history as a cinematographer is apparent in every scene, featuring gorgeously haunting landscapes alongside some great character development and quirky humour. Bizarrely missing out on the top prize at JIFF, Lebanon Emotion was rewarded at Moscow by scooping the best director award, and he is certainly a talent to watch. (See here for the full review.)

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Snowpiercer plows through the snow covered landscapes

Snowpiercer (설국열차) – ★★★★☆

Snowpiercer (설국열차)

Snowpiercer (설국열차)

Director Bong Joon-ho‘s (봉준호) highly anticipated science-fiction epic Snowpiercer (설국열차) has  been in some form of development since 2004 and, nearly a decade on and sporting a $40 million price tag, finally gets a release. Currently the most expensive Korean film ever produced, featuring an international cast, and with around 80% of the dialogue in English, the film represents quite a risk for CJ Entertainment. They need not worry however, as the futuristic thriller is a darkly brilliant and enthralling experience.

Based on the French comic book series Le Transperceneige, director Bong’s adaptation is a keen and intellectual exploration of humanity and the class system set within the confines of a train. Yet it is also a violent and visceral action thriller, as tensions boil over among the last vestiges of humanity with shocking brutality. While not perfect, as the lack of character development, often predictable twists, and unrefined CGI let the film down somewhat, Snowpiercer is still a veritable thrill ride and certainly one of the best films released so far this year – by Korea or Hollywood.

The class system on the train is kept in check by sinister matriach Mason

The class system on the train is kept in check by sinister matriach Mason

In the near-future, global warming has become such an issue that the governments of the world convene and agree to release a cooling agent into the atmosphere. The experiment is a colossal failure, as the attempt plunges the world into another ice age, killing all life on the planet. The last vestiges of humanity live onboard the perpetually moving train ‘Snowpiercer’, with the passengers designated by class; the affluent live in privilege in the front carriages, while the poverty-stricken live in the rear. Angry at the unfairness and squalid living conditions, Curtis (Chris Evans) – along with protege Edgar (Jamie Bell) and mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) – lead a revolution against sinister matriarch Mason (Tilda Swinton) in order to control the engine invented by Wilford (Ed Harris). Yet to do so they will need the help of security specialist Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho (송강호) and daughter Yona (Ko Ah-seong (고아성) to unlock the gates.

Snowpiercer, arguably more than any of his prior films, reflects director Bong’s incredible visual and spatial prowess. Throwing the audience immediately into a period of revolution, director Bong conveys a world of dirt, squalor and confinement to wondrous effect. The dystopian arena is intensely claustrophobic and acutely portrayed as the camera weaves around the environment introducing the suppressed population, while the darkness removes any sense of hope. Such powerful atmospherics generate palpable tension as the corruption and hypocrisy of the class system are exposed, recalling classics such as Lang’s Metropolis (1927) as well as the contemporary economic situations in the west, which resonate deeply. Yet the real masterstroke of the clearly Marxist-inspired story lies in the journey to the engine. Each carriage door opened unveils a startling new layer of  the hierarchy that leaves the revolutionaries – and audience – dumbfounded, and each is a triumph of design. Director Bong and production designer Ondrej Nekvasil have crafted unique and spectacularly bizarre worlds within each arena, from the sugary-sweet Disnified classroom through to a hellish costume party, each a stunning visual indictment of the social elite.

Each carriage within the train is stunningly realised and reveals a new level of the society

Each carriage within the train is stunningly realised and reveals a new level of the society

In bringing the worlds within Snowpiercer to life, the ensemble cast are terrific and perfectly suited for their allotted roles. Tilda Swinton stands out as she superbly channels Margaret Thatcher-esque conservatism into the character of Mason, while Alison Pill’s fanatical school teacher is great despite short screen time. On the Korean front Song Kang-ho is highly entertaining as junkie engineer Minsu, and is given some of the best in-jokes within the film particularly regarding untranslatable Korean curse words. Ko Ah-seong fares well as Minsu’s daughter Yona, although the story involving her character isn’t really given a chance to develop. Ultimately with so many quality performers within Snowpiercer there is little room for any character save Chris Evans’ Curtis to grow, however his subplot is predictable while speeches about the past would have provided greater impetus had they been shown and not told. As several narrative tangents are left unanswered, a director’s cut of the film would be a blessing indeed.

Yet this underdevelopment is primarily due to the breakneck speed in which the film advances. The whirlwind pace of Snowpiercer is simply incredible from start to finish as the revolutionaries battle to reach the front of the train, attempting to overcome the onslaught of obstacles and hostile environments they encounter as rapidly as possible. When things do slow down it is often detrimental to characters, forcing the audience to will them on further and as such the film is constantly engaging and compelling. Occasionally to reinforce the sense of speed, the train itself is portrayed speeding through the snow covered landscapes. While such scenes are wonderful in depicting urgency and momentum as well as global warming anxieties, they also highlight some quite unrefined computer imagery which detracts from their purpose.

However the sheer pace of Snowpiercer is astounding and, alongside the visually stunning and intellectual themes featured within, the sci-fi epic is a heart-pounding experience.

Snowpiercer plows through the snow covered landscapes

Snowpiercer plows through the snow covered landscapes

Verdict:

Based on the French comic book series Le Transperceneige, director Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is an enthralling viewing experience. The science-fiction epic about the last vestiges of humanity is a brilliant exploration of the unfairness of the class system, conveyed with stunning visual and spatial prowess throughout. The all-star international cast are perfectly suited for their roles, with Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-seong also performing ably. The breakneck pace of the film results in little character development, yet when the themes, tensions and violence are so constantly riveting it is difficult to care. Simply put, Snowpiercer is a fantastic Korean sci-fi film.

★★★★☆

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