Horror omnibus films are consistently prevalent in Korean cinema, particularly arising at film festivals where directors – who are typically between projects – use the medium to showcase and experiment with their respective aesthetics through the short story form.
Last year’s horror anthology MAD SAD BAD opened the 2014 Jeonju Int. Film Festival and featured three talented directors experimenting with 3D technology for addition frights. Horror Stories kicked off the 2012 Bucheon Int. Fantastic Film Festival, depicting three tales encapsulated within a larger framework, while sequel Horror Stories 2 appeared at BiFan the following year.
Yet while the format allows directors to experiment with their craft, it also inevitably results in comparisons regarding which tale is more effective, an unfortunate byproduct director Oh In-cheon smartly circumvents by helming all four stories within 12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter 1.
1st Night – Driver
Following his well-received feature debut Mourning Grave, director Oh’s 12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter 1 articulates four tales of woe in the dark recesses of Korea after dark which, while competently helmed, disappointingly lack flair and creativity. While disorientating scenes of the urban nightlife are effective, the omnibus seems to be more akin to a practice run for future endeavours as director Oh experiments with pacing and generating suspense, with actual scares in very short supply. That said, it’s interesting how horror is derived from commonplace features of life in the peninsula.
In 1st Night – Driver, a young socialite calls for a driving service to take her home and begs the driver to kill her, promising to bestow all her wealth as a reward. For foreign audiences the notion of this industry will undoubtedly be initially difficult to digest, yet once accepted as commonplace in Korea the tale becomes an intriguing one. Tension is generated well as the driver struggles with the morality of the situation, yet the climax is a letdown.
2nd Night – PM 11:55 sees a female office worker return to her apartment, unknowingly followed by a hooded figure. Tasked with completing a translation assignment before midnight, the woman achieves her goal with five minutes to spare. Yet as she unwinds, the hooded figure begins consistently ringing her door bell and refuses to leave, with the woman unable to contact the outside world for help. PM 11:55 sets up a sense of panic well, clearly inspired by real circumstances. However director Oh seems unsure how to end the story, which comes to an unsatisfying, abrupt end.
2nd Night 11:55
The next tale, 3rd Night – atmosFEAR (or literally Sounds of a Man) is the most impressive in terms of generating an increasingly heightened aura of suspense. An audio technician requires ambient sound for his latest project, and uses his equipment to record the sounds that occur at night. After capturing conversations of couples arguing, he traverses a countryside area for natural ambience. Yet upon hearing a girl’s scream, he follows his recording equipment to investigate the source. While the camerawork and props are employed to created palpable tension, the finale is easily the most disappointing of all the short stories.
Finally, 4th Night – Secret Night tells the tale of junior office worker Yeong-min who attempts to steal company secrets. This segment is the most narratively driven and complete tale within the film, exploring the fraught dynamic between senior and junior company staff in Korea alongside issues of blackmail. Yet while Secret Night is the most structured tale, it’s also the most bland and laborious due to the overly long running time and drawn out story.
4th Night – Secret Night
Depicting four tales of nightly horror, omnibus 12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter 1 is a competent yet uninspiring addition to director Oh In-cheon’s filmography. The anthology serves more akin to a practice run for future endeavours rather than an inventive take on the genre. While suspense is generated well throughout each story disappointment quickly follows, and is a mediocre effort by a usually solid director.
Please note – the opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the people articulating them. What follows has been transcribed from the translation given by the BIFF translator at the event.
Translator: “the festival people are tense because the mayor threatened to cut off funding if the festival shows this film, and of course the people who made this documentary are also tense because there might be ultra-conservative people who would come and try to mess up this conference.”
The directors come on to the stage to applause.
The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)
Moderator: “How do you feel about your film being screened here at the Busan Film Festival?”
Director Lee: “There was a lot of controversy over this case, so I will answer frankly and honestly to any questions you might have. Because of the time constraints, I was not able to make the film as ‘complete’ as I had wanted. It’s only God who can take us back to April 16th, the day of the tragedy, but the least we can do is to go back and investigate and find the facts surrounding the incident. I hope that as many people as possible can get to see this film, and I hope that this interest in this film will translate to continued interest in the Sewol tragedy.”
Question: “I’d like to ask, when did you start planning this film? There are some cuts of news footage, so when you were covering this incident, was that when you started planning this film? Or maybe after the uproar had died down? Is that when you started planning this film?”
Director Lee: “Simply put, just like all of you, I was there at Paengmok Harbor and it was there that I realised that the truth was sinking with the ferry and with the children. Most of the mainstream media, whatever they were reporting, was not true, they were lies. And behind the scenes were the power, those in power who wanted to cover up their mistakes, cover their ass. So for three or four days it was a very critical time when the truth was in danger of being covered up forever, so that’s why we kept as much footage as possible, and we tried to film everything. We concentrated back then on the diving bell because we thought the diving bell would be critical in revealing the lies that the government was telling through the coast guard. And there was this sense of urgency because it seemed that people were starting to forget, trying to put the tragedy behind them already, when nothing had been found and discovered. So that’s why we wanted to make this film, in order to keep the memory alive. And we wanted to get it screened at the Busan International Film Festival where there would be a lot of global attention as well, so we were pressed for time, so we were running up against a very tight deadline in making this film.”
Lee Jong-in (left) is at the center of the diving bell controversy
Question: “You’re here not as a journalist, but as a director. If you have anything that you were not able to say through this film, would you like to share that with us? And Mr Lee Jong-in, the owner of the diving bell, was there a message that he wants to convey? As a member of the audience and as a Korean citizen, I would like to send my encouragement and support for all the people who made this film possible.”
Director Lee: “I’d like to answer both questions. Mr Lee Jong-in, CEO of the diving technology, he did not have a lot of deep thoughts, he was of the same heart and mind as the rest of the citizens. He didn’t make any calculations, he just rushed to the scene because he thought that he could help, because he did have the technology, and he had technology and equipment that the coast guard and the navy did not have and so he offered his help. But during the time when the film was being made, he realised that he was up against something that he could not overcome. And he knew that once the film was made he would be at the center of another controversy yet again, so there were people who asked him to lie low, but he cooperated with the film making because he wanted the truth to be uncovered. I’m a little nervous, so I forgot the other question. Oh yes, as a journalist. I’ve been working as a journalist for 20 years. I was there on the scene as a journalist but as a filmmaker, what disheartened me the most, what broke my heart the most, was leaving out footage that I thought was appropriate for the film. For example, Lee Jong-in was kicked out after the first attempt, and then the journalists found out that the coast guard and the rescue team from the government had attempted to put in a diving bell, their own diving bell, which was a fake diving bell. And that was not in the film. And as you know, there was a lot of online manipulation of public opinion during the presidential elections, and that kind of public opinion manipulation went on during and surrounding the Sewol tragedy, and I was unable to touch on that during the film. So I found that quite regretful. And what really broke my heart was that this diving bell, that was cutting edge technology, there was huge potential for it to save lives, and it had been in operation for 2 hours, compared to the few minutes of the other divers, but then we were threatened, there was even a murder attempt on us, and they were cubing the press. And so I found [not including] that most regretful. We even have legal charges being pressed against us right now.”
There were chaotic scenes at the BIFF premiere
Question: “There’s controversy over whether this film will eventually be shown or not, so I’m quite taken aback by this press attention. I think it’s this press attention and media attention that gathered so many people here today. And personally I think there are a lot of people in Korea who are starting to forget, they’re trying to erase this whole tragedy from their memories, and so I’m worried about that because we’ve not achieved anything and there’s 10 people who are still missing, and the families of these missing people as well as those who have passed away, they’re all still grieving and in great suffering. Do you have a message for the Korean public?”
Director Lee: “I believed in fair journalism, and that’s why I was working as a reporter for a television station, but I got kicked out, I was dismissed, but I want to continue to try to pursue the truth now this time through film, and I’d like to thank all of you for coming. As you know there was a New York Times article today that after the Sewol tragedy, right afterwards the public was one, they were united in praying for the safe rescue, but then they’ve become divided these days. The bereaved families, they’re getting stoned in public on the streets. I hope that we can go back to, at least mentally and emotionally, to right after the incident and become one again in pursuing the truth. And I hope that through this film [I] will contribute in whatever way to protecting this film as well as protecting the bereaved families.”
Question: “As a college student I really wanted to check out this film and one of the messages is that there was some force, some hidden forces, that were interfering with the diving bell rescue operation. Who do you think would be the people behind it?”
Director Lee claims unanswered questions still remain regarding the rescue efforts
Director Lee: “I will give it to you simply. Since April 16th, what I wanted to know was, why did the children have to die? Why weren’t they rescued? Why didn’t the state protect these children? And as you saw through this diving bell fiasco, survivors who were 30-40 meters underwater, if you just drag them up out of the water, they will die anyway. As you saw in the film, if you go down 75 meters and you dive for a few minutes you still have to decompress for about 30 minutes. So these kids, they were in the ship, and they were trapped inside for a few days, so they have to come up above the water very very slowly, or else they’ll die anyway. But not having such measures at hand, and not coming up with a concrete plan for rescuing them is murder. It’s just murder. The coast guard, not even once, they have never been trained for underwater rescue at all. All they did was float around and circle around the capsized [ship]. And then there was the navy, who were trained. They attempted to go into the scene and start rescue work twice, but they were refused. So it would be the coast guard, the navy and everyone else. Who controls the coast guard as well as the navy? Who has the power? It’s just the president. The president is the only one who can control everyone, or give commands to everyone who was involved in the rescue.”
A young man protests in regard to the special Sewol law outside of the screening
Question: “It was very difficult for me to get a ticket to come to see this film and I was shocked. I was not there at the scene, and the only thing I got was the media reports about the diving bell, so I myself thought that it was a failure. And now that I’ve seen this film, I’m truly shocked. And [there’s] so much unfairness. Lee Jong-in is also a victim and I think that everyone in Korea should see this film and I was in tears most of the time. [Audience member begins crying] There’s a limit to how many people can see this film here at the festival, we only have journalists and film festival goers, so I’m lucky that I was able to be one of the few to see this film, and I hope this film will be shown to the wider public in the future. There are people here, and also a lot of journalists so I hope that we will all work together to get this film shown to many people. So my question is, do you think that would be a possibility? Will you be making that effort to get this film shown to more people? And if you have the citizen’s support, the public’s support, I’m sure that this will be released in theaters so that more people can get to see it, more people from the ordinary public. Are you making that effort? Do you have such plans?”
Director Lee: “Well thank you for being moved to tears, first of all. I think getting this shown in public, public screenings for this film will be very very difficult, it will be tough. Facing the uncomfortable truth, in a theater like this, in a public setting like this, this may be the last chance. But we are making that attempt to get this released in theaters and we are working with a deadline of the end of October, so we are making such efforts. I hope that you will all work together to protect this film.”
Question by Oscar-nominated director Joshua Oppenheimer (Act of Killing, The Look of Silence): “We see in your film this incredibly incompetent…or [rather] a rescue effort that’s undertaken in bad faith. And I guess I have two questions. First of all, is it merely incompetence or do you believe that there’s something more going on? And secondly, can you talk a little bit about why the media in Korea, and I don’t think Korea’s alone in this, but why do the feel the media and the mainstream media is so…appears to be so uncritical, so they are placed [into a] terrible stenographers function?”
Footage of the media frenzy at the site convey the chaos and demand for answers
Director Lee: “There was the Indonesian version of The Killing Fields recently where there were ordinary and innocent citizens killed [referring to director Oppenheimer’s work] and I’d like to thank you [director Oppenheimer] for deliberately coming to watch this film. Ineptitude or incompetence is the government’s excuse, it’s their main excuse. And yes the government right now is so incompetent that they want to get rid of their incompetent officials, but then they don’t have substitutes, because everyone else is also incompetent. When such a huge tragedy happened, the government did not have in place a system to deal with this tragedy. It means that the state was absent in this case. If the coast guard was incompetent, then they should be taken away and should be replaced by someone more competent, but such decisions, such common sense decisions were not made. It shows how lacking the government is right now in communication skills, and this lack of communication skills has led to this tragedy, led to expanding this tragedy, and I hope that this film will contribute to revealing the incompetence of the government. And the media, the Korean media in this case, they were not just serving the state, but the current government. The media has a say in the government, they are part of the government, and have a stake in the current government. That is why the media are the people who are the most afraid of the president being criticized, because this will reflect on them as well, because they are on the same side. That is why they sent out garbage instead of the truth and this is proof that they are stake holders in this current government. They are not just stenographers, they are stake holders in this government.”
Question: “On the internet I heard yesterday that some members of the grieving families were opposed to this film being shown and of course the Busan city government is saying that they don’t want this film to be screened. So have any of the bereaved families watched this film? And if so, what was their response? And what are your values as a journalist? You must have some value system that you adhere to as a journalist, but in the process of reporting [the incident] the journalists in action went overboard in interviewing students who had just come up, just been rescued.”
Scenes outside of cinema also drew attention
Director Lee: “I think I’m the journalist who was most critised after the tragedy, because on the scene I was an actor in this whole incident, not just a journalist [with an] objective point of view. Didn’t the president say, before she was president, she critised the then president Roh Moo-hyun saying that if you can’t rescue just one person from Iraq, then you don’t deserve to be called a government. But now that she is in office, there were more than three hundred passengers, young passengers, on board the ship and they were left there, trapped there, for days, and not a single one of them was rescued. And in this kind of situation, objectivity is not the value that I should be pursuing, in this kind of case. For example, I clung to the diving bell in trying to attach it to the weight, so yes I was intervening, I was in the scene, but I would continue to do that even if I were to do it again. And the bereaved families, unfortunately they are not diving experts. What I’m saying when I say that the state was absent on the scene, is that there was no control tower. There were many demands made by the grieving families, of course, and it’s only natural. But then the rescue work, and the pursuit of truth right now, it’s all being led by the bereaved families despite their lack of expertise, and the state is not helping them out at all. And the few who were rescued, were rescued by civilian fishermen who just happened to be passing by. And of course it’s only natural that the families don’t have any knowledge about rescue work. And as you saw they hated the journalists, they hated the press, they had to lean on the press and whatever pieces of information that the press gave them, they would cling onto that. In that kind of situation, where was the state in marshaling this confusion?”
The controversial diving bell technology still divides public opinion
Question: “I see this film as kind of a defense for Mr. Lee Jong-in. So in this whole tragedy, what position does this diving bell have? And do you really think that the rescue attempt using diving bell technology was not a failure?”
Director Lee: “Thank you for those short questions. We are all sinners because we were not able to rescue a single person. I came here dressed in black. And the completeness of the film, I don’t have any pride in the quality of the film itself, but it’s the only film that has come out now that deals head on with the Sewol tragedy, and I hope that there will be many more films to follow that can shed more light and maintain interest in this incident.”
Moderator: “Unfortunately we don’t have enough time [for more questions]. Actually I spent a sleepless night, last night. I’ve been with the festival for about 10 years now, working as a moderator whenever the festival has come, and I’ve never stepped on to the red carpet myself. Whenever I moderate for these GVs in the Wide Angle [category] I get to meet so many faces, dark faces and gloomy faces of Korean society from hospices, from women workers in the labour movement, and environment[al] issues. Documentaries are a means of holding on to things we should not forget in order for society to progress. So I hope that these kinds of documentaries will continue to be made in the future, for the benefit of Korean society.”
When internal affairs unexpectedly show up at the precinct and begin to investigate, corrupt detective Go Geun-soo (Lee Seon-gyoon (이선균) is forced to make excuses at his late mother’s funeral and race back to prevent his guilt from being unearthed. Driving fast and stressed from his predicament, Go accidently hits and kills a passerby. Secretly disposing of the body and cunningly destroying evidence of his involvement, Go believes he’s in the clear…until he receives an anonymous phone call from a witness (Jo Jin-woong (조진웅) threatening to reveal his sordid crime. Unless Go complies with the demands his world will be over, beginning a frantic game of suspense as they battle to emerge victorious and unscathed.
Already under investigation, detective Go accidently kills a pedestrian and must hide his involvement
From the moment it begins, A Hard Day is an exciting, captivating, and down right thrilling cinematic joyride. Writer/director Kim Seong-hoon (김성훈) has crafted an enthralling and suspense fuelled tale that constantly keeps the audience guessing, through the incorporation of a variety of inspired set-pieces that takes staples of the genre yet reinvents them enough to keep them fresh and appealing. Whether it be the initial hit-and-run incident, the disposal of the body, car chases or physical combat, director Kim builds tension brilliantly to consistently excite and entertain. Alongside editor Kim Chang-ju, who sutures the scenes to incredible effect, the duo have combined to create some of the most gratifying and well made action-thriller sequences in recent memory. Yet despite all the conflict and terrifying situations that arise, the film is never morbid due to the dark ironic humour laced throughout that adds genuine laugh-out-loud moments to the proceedings, a real rarity that serves to both inspire and rejuvenate a genre that has, of late, become quite stagnant. As such the 2 hour and 30 minute running time simply flies by, making A Hard Day one of the most entertaining filmic experiences of the year, and well deserving of its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
Detective Go confronts his nemesis to surprising results
Central to the enjoyment of A Hard Day are the wonderfully charismatic performances of Lee Seon-gyoon and Jo Jin-woong. Lee is great as corrupt detective Go, effectively conveying the anti-hero as selfish and unethical but also quite likable and ultimately sympathetic given the fraught circumstances that arise. Lee has an ‘everyman’ quality that he employs effortlessly throughout the film that generates an acute connection with the audience, so much so that it’s entirely possible to forgive Go for his dishonesty and actually root for him as the underdog victim. Jo, meanwhile, appears to absolutely relish the opportunity portraying the villainous blackmailer, to the point where despite his supporting actor status, he threatens to steal the film every time he appears on screen. He is a hulking pillar of evil, yet his comic timing and delivery are so comically entertaining that he’s impossible to dislike, adding a wonderfully fresh dimension to the relationship between the antagonists that is consistently fascinating to watch unfold.
The situation reaches breaking point as the two clash
A Hard Day is one of the most exciting and entertaining action-thrillers of the year. Director Kim Seong-hoon has crafted a thoroughly engaging, suspenseful and darkly humourous tale of corruption that consistently feels fresh through the reinvention of genre traits. Featuring highly charismatic performances from leads Lee Seon-gyoon and Jo Jin-woong, A Hard Day is a thrilling cinematic joyride from start to finish.
Upon release, summer blockbuster KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대) broke the record for opening day admissions and helped to breath new life into what was a flagging year for Korean cinema…until it was soundly beaten a week later by maritime epic The Admiral: Roaring Currents.
It’s particularly ironic that both tentpole films achieved such a feat, given that they contain such strikingly oppositional philosophies and content. While The Admiral focused on generating hyper-nationalism to achieve success, KUNDO opted for an anti-establishment sensibility, as a group of Robin Hood-esque outlaws band together to fight against the tyrannical Prince.
Curiously, while the ideological leanings of each film differ, both suffer from a similar set of issues. KUNDO, while boasting impressive production values, competent directing and an array of popular stars, ultimately feels rushed and unfinished due to the poorly structured and conceived narrative.
A band of outlaws band together to fight against the vicious prince Jo
Centuries ago, Korea was a land in turmoil. With starvation and death commonplace, corruption in society was rampant, particularly amongst the ruling classes. In the face of so much injustice a group of working class heroes band together to rob from the rich and give to the poor, attempting to appease the suffering of the people. Yet in a nearby city, a greater villainy is brewing. Born to a nobleman and courtesan, Prince Jo (Kang Dong-won (강동원) seeks to usurp his father and reign over the land. Only one challenge to his rule remains – his sister-in-law and her son, the rightful heir. Butcher Dochi (Ha Jeong-woo (하정우) is hired to kill the pair, yet when he cannot, he is viciously betrayed and punished. Furious, Dochi finds a place with the band of thieves and begin their revenge as they plan to halt the Prince’s machinations.
From the moment KUNDO opens, it’s clear that the production values are some of the highest in recent memory and are particularly outstanding. Director Yoon Jong-bin (윤종빈) and his team have noticeably worked hard to put striking visual detail in every shot, from the incredible costumes of the cast through to the great variety of landscapes and arenas in which the action takes place. The attention to detail generates a sense of sincerity and wonder, and is in itself an phenomenal achievement. In regards to each member of the cast, their histories and occupations are wonderfully captured in their costumes whether it be a Buddhist monk, a butcher, or a wealthy prince and significantly contributes to the power of the film, an acute attention to detail that earned designer Jo Sang-gyeong the award for Best Costume Design at the 51st Daejong Film Awards.
The prodction values in KUNDO are outstanding
Yet where KUNDO falters is in the narrative structure, which is consistently haphazard. The story jumps between time lines and characters to confusing effect, and to compensate a random and quite sporadic voice-over attempts to help allay by filling in back stories and histories yet serves to provide only a further sense of disorganization. The poor structure is impossible to miss and insinuates even to the casual cinema-goer that several more drafts of the screenplay were needed before cameras started rolling.
Screenwriter Jeon Cheol-bin is further hampered by an overly – and insanely – large cast which is a huge challenge for any scribe to make each character relevant. While Jeon has clearly worked hard to do so, the sheer amount of protagonists weighs down the film due to the attempt at giving everyone screen time, resulting in a story that lacks conviction or indeed compulsion, and one that is particularly hard to invest in.
Such issues also afflict the actors. As KUNDO focuses primarily on Prince Jo-yoon and butcher Dochi, Kang Dong-won and Ha Jeong-woo have the greater chances to shine. Ha Jeong-woo in particular seems to be having a great time as the butcher-turned-criminal with his cocky and self-assured performance certainly the most enjoyable aspect of the film. Kang Dong-won – in his first film role since completing mandatory military service – also appears to relish portraying the villainous prince. Yet for them and the rest of the enormous supporting cast, the lack of screen time results in highly capable actors providing competent performances, making KUNDO an entertaining but not especially compelling viewing experience.
The villainous prince battles against the uprising
KUNDO: Age of the Rampant is a record-breaking tentpole film of 2014 by director Yoon Jong-bin. Boasting hugely impressive production and costume design as well as a host of capable actors including Ha Jeong-woo and Kang Dong-won, KUNDO is ultimately let down by a haphazard narrative structure, an insane amount of supporting characters, and a story that is hard to invest in. As a result KUNDO is an enjoyable, though unchallenging, viewing experience.
Awaiting (민우씨 오는 날) – or rather, The Day Min-woo Arrives – is part of an omnibus entitled Beautiful 2014, a series of films that explores moments of beauty helmed by some of the most talented filmmakers throughout Asia. Director Kang Je-gyu (강제규), famous for his action/war films including Taegukgi and My Way, is a surprising choice to step up to the microphone for intimate drama Awaiting, yet he has proven himself more than worthy as Awaiting is a beautifully touching and quite lovely short film.
Yoon-hee (Moon Chae-won (문채원) lives alone in Seoul, waiting for her husband Min-woo (Ko Soo (고수) to return home. Every day she is awoken by a phone conversation from Sarah in America, and fills her day with cleaning, shopping, trips to the community center, and making food. Yet Yoon-hee’s memory is slowly beginning to fade, and of late she has taken to writing notes to help get through the day. One day, two people arrive at her home and inform Yoon-hee of some interesting news regarding Min-woo’s whereabouts.
Yoon-hee and Min-woo are a loving couple
Awaiting is a wonderfully moving and distinctly Korean examination on the nature of love and loss. Director Kang Je-gyu has impressively evolved during the four years since his last film, wisely moving away from the sweeping epic sensibilities of his prior films to focus on the intimate nature of the story. Yet his indelible vision is still clearly present throughout as he explores the division of the peninsula from a refreshing perspective, while his stunning visual sensibilities and unique sense of melodrama remain in tact, accompanied by a tender musical score.
The drama is also a deviation for director Kang in that Awaiting is female-centered, and he expresses Yoon-hee’s story with a quiet sensitivity. Moon Chae-won provides a restrained yet poignant performance as the lonely woman waiting for her husband’s return, an while she isn’t especially challenged in the role the actress is quite charismatic and endearing. Yoon-hee’s emotional story is a heartbreaking tale, and one which is elegantly, compassionately, told.
Yoon-hee waits for her husband Min-woo to return
Awaiting is a beautifully moving and quite lovely short film by director Kang Je-gyu, who has impressively altered his epic sensibilities to portray the touching story of a woman waiting for her husband’s return. Compassionate, intimate and distinctly Korean, Awaiting is a poignant and endearing tale of love and loss.
Following the retirement ceremony for the father (Moon Chang-gil (문창길) from his teaching position, he and his family gather together for a meal at a Chinese restaurant. In the presence of his two sons (Kim Min-hyeok (김민혁) (Hur Jaewon (허재원) and daughter-in-law (Lee Sang-hee (이상희), and amid frustrating quarreling, the father shockingly announces that he wishes to divorce from his wife (Lee Yeong-ran (이영란). Stunned, the family struggle with the situation and find comfort in the fact they will soon be traveling back home. Yet as the snowfall becomes heavier and the buses are cancelled, the family members are forced to stay in a small country abode and must confront the issues they have with one another.
The family are in good, yet quarelsome spirits until the father’s shock announcement
Upon its premiere at the 2014 Busan International Film Festival, End of Winter (철원기행) won the prestigious New Currents Award along with Iranian film 13, an accolade that celebrates new Asian film makers of vision. Director Kim Dae-hwan (김대환) certainly has impressive technical prowess as the film’s great strength lies within the composition of the mise-en-scene and cinematography, constructing a dogme 95-esque realism that lends a great deal of sincerity to the proceedings. The manner in which the family members interact with each other similarly evokes such sensibilities, as they are a group of people bound by blood yet who don’t particularly know or understand one another. The awkward conversations and tensions that arise, as well as the issues that each person is hiding yet which gradually come to light, are interesting to watch unfold and are given weight by director Kim’s cinematic realism, as events slowly transpire to reveal the complicated relationships between each person.
That said, End of Winter is an especially slow-moving drama. The protagonists within the film often refuse to speak or give clear answers during conversations which is a huge source of frustration, stunting plot progression as well as character and relationship development, making the viewing experience quite laborious. While it is clear that each character has an interesting motivation and a desire to express it, the withholding of such dilemmas results in a stifling and repetitive story, and one that would certainly be more engaging were more confrontations allowed to occur in addition to the subtleties and allusions to greater issues. Ultimately, Korean audiences are more likely to appreciate and engage with the film more given the nature of the drama, yet even they may find End of Winter somewhat of a chore given their propensity for more typically entertaining generic fare.
In a rare moment, two protagonists engage each other in open conversation
End of Winter is a technically impressive film by director Kim Dae-hwan, whose prowess in regards to mise-en-scene and cinematography evokes potent realism and sincerity. Yet the focus on such cinematic realism, while interesting, results in a family drama that is quite a laborious viewing experience due to the particularly slow pacing of the narrative and the highly restricted dialogue and confrontations.
With only 3 months more service until she becomes a regular employee, supermarket cashier Seon-hee (Yeom Jeong-ah (염정아) works diligently for the position that will enable her to provide greater stability for her family. Despite the difficulties of raising wayward teenage son Tae-yeong (Do Kyeong-soo (도경수) and a young daughter (Kim Soo-an (김수안) alone, Seon-hee strives to make ends meet for them all. Yet when the supermarket officials decide to layoff all the workers in favor of cheaper labor, the mostly female staff – many of whom have worked with the company for years – are outraged. Led by fellow cashier Hye-mi (Moon Jeong-hee (문정희) and cleaner Soon-rye (Kim Yeong-ae (김영애), the women begin to unionize and issue demands for reinstatement. However when their efforts are ultimately ignored, the women decide that more drastic strike action is necessary for their voices to be heard.
Seon-hee witnesses abuse at work, yet her desire for job stability keeps her silent
Based on a true story, director Boo Ji-young’s (부지영) Cart (카트) premiered to high acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival, as well as later back home in native Korea at Busan. The drama is an incredibly impressive exploration of the issues plaguing the temporary workforce in contemporary Korea. From the very moment Cart begins director Boo effectively portrays the grueling monotony of menial labor, employing a brilliantly washed out colour palette in conjunction with fluid camerawork that depicts workers performing machine-like tasks under the watchful eyes of aggressive management, evoking the same sensibilities as Charlie Chaplin’s classic Modern Times. Rather than individuals, the workers are consistently framed as cogs in a machine hurriedly operating the factory-esque supermarket whilst robotically repeating phrases such as, “We love you, customer!” Director Boo wonderfully juxtaposes such hard work and empty slogans with the awful humiliations dealt by the customers and executives, while the workers themselves tolerate such human rights abuses simply in order to keep their jobs.
The contrast between such scenes and the representation of the characters personal lives offer a powerful, provocative glimpse at class and gender warfare as well as social injustice in modern Korea. As the vast majority of the workers are underprivileged women, the film depicts the daily struggles of the female workforce as they endure abusive employment in order to desperately stave off poverty, emphasising an array of feminist issues with potent insight. Director Boo has crafted an empowering social rights drama, one which is a true rarity in both current Korean and international cinema. The range of characters within the film, each with their own dilemmas, poignantly capture the challenges facing modern women in society. While Seon-hee and Hye-mi struggle to raise their children alone, Soon-rye exposes the plight of the elderly, while the inclusion of married protagonists as well as disaffected graduate Mi-jin (Cheon Woo-hee (천우희) convey the breadth and scale of discourses effecting contemporary women. Cart is a truly refreshing alternative to male-centered narratives, one that unequivocally portrays working class women as heroines in their own right.
The mostly female workers keep in good spirits as they demand reinstatement
The power of Cart lies in the conflict between the mostly female workers and the male executives, as the unfair dismissals result in unionization, and the ignorance of which in turn spurs strike action. Director Boo structures the escalation of hostilities between both sides with skill, as the workers who stage peaceful protests with colourful clothes and slogans are confronted by the dark bullying tactics of the company. In so blatantly portraying the corruption and underhand manner of the corporation, director Boo has produced a challenging and provocative film that will undoubtedly ruffle feathers amongst the conservative upper classes, who are depicted offering bribes, employing gangsters, and hurting innocents in the bid to continue profits and to save face. Yet director Boo also implicates government agencies in the scandal, particularly the police force and their unnecessary brutality, as the women peacefully demonstrate against injustice, making Cart not only an insightful film but a courageous one too.
Cart does however suffer from a case of over ambition as too many protagonists feature, which ultimately makes it difficult to invest in all of the narrative threads that arise. All the characters certainly add a perspective on the discourses through the film, yet as there are so many tangents it’s difficult to invest in every one. Screen time is mostly ascribed to Seon-hee and her family, and an impressive contrast is made between her and her difficult son Tae-yeong, implying the conditioning of the populace as automatons as one that begins from a young age. However Tae-young’s story line, in which he becomes attached to prospective girlfriend Soo-kyeong (Ji Woo (지우), is a little trite and appears to be a device to attract teenage audiences. Scenes such as these, and others that feature the quite cheesy musical score, sometimes threaten to put Cart in TV drama territory, yet director Boo never lets the story stagnate and consistently keeps the drama moving apace.
As tensions escalate, Seon-hee and Hye-mi fight back against their affluent male abusers
Cart is moving, provocative glimpse at class and gender warfare as well as social injustice in modern Korea. In depicting the unfair working conditions and the incredibly strong women attempting to stave off poverty, director Boo Ji-young has crafted an empowering social rights drama, one that examines the status of human rights and feminist issues with insight and sincerity. A powerful film, Cart is a real rarity in both contemporary Korean and international cinema.
As the vice-president of a leading cosmetics company, Oh Sang-moo (Ahn Seong-gi (안성기) is every bit the diligent leader, working hard to ensure the brand is a success. Yet when his wife (Kim Ho-jeong (김호정) is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour, Sang-moo dutifully divides his time between taking care of her and fulfilling his role at work, attending the company during the day and sleeping at the hospital at night. Tired and stressed from the routine, Sang-moo’s attentions are suddenly diverted when Choo Eun-joo (Kim Gyu-ri (김규리), a young and beautiful new manager, joins the office. While Sang-moo strives to adhere to his responsibilities his mind begins to drift towards Eun-joo, creating a torrent of conflicting emotions that only seem to become more and more difficult to control.
Sang-moo works hard to fulfill his duties as both a husband and vice-president, yet the toll is great
As his 102nd film, Revivre is director Im Kwon-taek’s finest, most accomplished work in years. Rarely do films manage to capture such fraught emotional complexity as contained within Revivre, conveyed with a subtle, elegant grace that wonderfully displays director Im’s wisdom and prowess. Similarly, Ahn Seong-gi provides a towering performance as the emotionally conflicted VP, whose tempered, poignant portrayal is captivating throughout. In lesser hands Song Yoon-hee’s script would be a standard drama, yet through director Im and Ahn’s collaboration the story delicately unfolds in a classic, dignified fashion that only they, with their combined life and filmic experiences, could possibly accomplish.
Revivre is at once both an incredibly complex and wonderfully simple tale. The story of a middle-aged man whose gaze is diverted by a younger attractive woman is nothing new in cinema, yet the drama is infused with a startling array of poignant nuances that allude to the great psychological and emotional anxieties Sang-moo experiences. Moments that feature Sang-moo’s inability to urinate due to stress, and the emotionless manner in which he takes care of his sick wife, articulate a keen gravitas and so much more than dialogue could possibly hope to achieve. Director Im, celebrated for his reverential portrayal of Korean culture onscreen, further adds weight to the material by introducing such traditional features as traditional Buddhist funeral rites and saunas to make Revivre a truly Korean production that explores the issues from a truly Korean perspective.
The arrival of beautiful new manager Choo Eun-joo rekindles a spark in Sang-moo
The relationship between Sang-moo and attractive new arrival Eun-joo is superbly paced and developed throughout the course of the film. The manner in which she is introduced into Sang-moo’s life, quite literally bursting into it, is a wonderful metaphor that sparks his interest in her and the possibility of a new life away from the stresses of his current one. Sang-moo’s affections for Eun-joo are captured with sincerity, from stolen glances at the office through to the palpable chemistry contained in their direct interactions. Much of the development occurs within Sang-moo’s imagination as he fantasizes about chance encounters that serve to add sweet romantic connotations to his infatuation, while scenes in which he behaves foolishly just in order to see Eun-joo are constructed with genuine care and affection. As Eun-joo, Kim Gyu-ri is perfectly cast. Her natural elegance and stunning beauty are entirely believable as distractions for Sang-moo, even as he desperately tries to be a good, dutiful man, while Kim’s performance as an independent career woman is also impressive.
While Revivre is a powerful emotional drama for much of the running time, the film begins to lose its way as it attempts to come to a close. After featuring some incredibly powerful and nuanced scenes throughout the film as well as poignantly subtle character development, due to the quite ambiguous finale Revivre ends on a symbolic yet somewhat unsatisfying note. Director Im, however, wisely adds an epilogue of sorts to construct the end as coming full circle through traditional Korean Buddhist culture, conveying the inherent beauty in life, death and cultural forms as a means in which to appreciate the nature of existence.
Scenes featuring Sang-moo and his wife as her health deteriorates are strikingly poignant
Revivre is director Im Kwon-taek’s finest, most accomplished work in years. His 102nd film, Revivre beautifully captures fraught emotional and psychological complexities with subtle elegance and grace, as a vice-president with a sick wife begins to fall for the charms of a new and quite beautiful manager. As the VP, Ahn Seung-gi provides his best performance in years and his collaboration with director Im produces a powerful film that only they, with their combined experiences, could have possibly achieved.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.