Revivre (화장) – ★★★★☆

Revivre (화장)

Revivre (화장)

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

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 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

Scenes featuring Sang-moo and his wife as her health deteriorates are strikingly poignant

Verdict:

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.

★★★★☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014

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.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews

Hill of Freedom (자유의 언덕) – ★★★☆☆

Hill of Freedom (자유의 언덕)

Hill of Freedom (자유의 언덕)

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

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

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

Mori encounters a variety of people while waiting for Kwon, often with awkwardly funny results

Verdict:

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.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews

The Target (표적) – ★★★☆☆

The Target (표적)

The Target (표적)

On a dark and rainy night, a shoot-out transpires in the back streets of Seoul. As a mysterious man is chased through the streets he is shot, and hit by a car. Taken to hospital, doctor Lee Tae-joon (Lee Jin-wook (이진욱) treats the man who police identify as ex-military man Baek Yeo-hoon (Ryoo Seung-ryong (류승룡), wanted in connection with murder. However Tae-joon’s problems are just beginning, as later that night his pregnant wife Hee-joo (Jo Yeo-jeong (조여정) is abducted, with the kidnapper demanding  Yeo-hoon in exchange for her safe return. Yet as Tae-joon attempts to hand over the fugitive, a special task force lead by Chief Song (Yoo Joon-sang (유준상) are called in, and a deadly game of cat-and-mouse begins.

Yeo-hoon is on the run, but from what and from whom are a mystery

Yeo-hoon is on the run, but from what and from whom are a mystery

The Target (표적) is a remake of critically acclaimed French thriller Point Blank (2010), which clearly must have impressed the French for the film premiered in the Midnight Screening section at the Cannes Film Festival. Quite why, however, is something of a mystery as Director Chang’s version is an extremely mediocre action film, taking the basis of the superior original and altering it to make a very competent, solid, and enjoyable action romp yet one that fades from memory with ease.

The Target begins well, setting a dark ominous tone in which the violence is located as well as for the mysteries to originate. The impressive tension continues through to the hospital scenes, where the introduction (and indeed, inclusion) of no-nonsense female detective Jeong Yeong-joo (Kim Seong-ryeong (김성령) and deputy Soo-jin (Jo Eun-ji (조은지) are a refreshingly welcome addition in a genre that is often overly-masculine, with their stern, efficient attempts to uncover Yeo-hoon’s identity and his role in the murder case one of the highlights of the thriller. Yet following a hospital breakout sequence, the tone of the film never stays consistent as director Chang attempts to juggle the abundance of characters and their respective narrative arcs, and as such the excitement begins to wane. Ironically however as the pace is generally handled well the film never becomes stale, resulting in a film that is difficult to fully invest in but entertaining nonetheless.

The situation gets complicated when Detective Jeong clashes with Chief Song

The situation gets complicated when Detective Jeong clashes with Chief Song

A similar accusation can also be aimed at the action sequences within The Target. While there are plenty of physical confrontations to enjoy, the sequences are always rudimentary and uninspired, failing to capitalise on the premise or even simply to make the film stand out from the vast number of action-thrillers that already exist. Yeo-hoon, for example, is supposedly an ex-military man with a decade of experience yet his fighting prowess rarely extends beyond that of an average man with basic training. There are fleeting moments however when director Chang is seemingly attempting to enter The Berlin File territory yet never quite manages to achieve it, and as such the action scenes are enjoyable while they last but don’t linger in the memory.

Another pivotal reason why The Target is entertaining yet tough to fully engage with is due to the large number of protagonists and supporting characters, which ultimately distracts attention away from the central story of fugitive Yeo-hoon and doctor Tae-joon. As the film continually focuses on peripheral characters and narrative tangents the main story becomes subsumed, making Yeo-hoon and Tae-joon’s uneasy alliance, as well as their quest to solve the mystery and save pregnant Hee-joo, moderately compelling and more of a backdrop to the carnage. Actors Ryu Seung-ryong and Lee Jin-wook perform their roles capably despite relatively weak character arcs, as does Jo Yeo-jeong as the damsel-in-distress, however it is Jin-goo as Tourette syndrome sufferer Sung-hoon and Kim Seong-ryeong as detective Jeong that provide the most interesting performances. Ultimately, with so many characters on screen, The Target is an amusing viewing experience, but one with little depth.

Yeo-hoon and Tae-joon must form an uneasy alliance to save pregnant Hee-joo

Yeo-hoon and Tae-joon must form an uneasy alliance to save pregnant Hee-joo

Verdict:

The Target is a remake of French thriller Point Blank by director Chang, and while he has constructed an entertaining action-thriller it’s one that fades from memory relatively easily. With competent yet uninspired action sequences, and an abundance of quality actors that serve to distract from the central story with their respective narrative arcs, The Target is an enjoyable action romp yet when that misses the mark.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨) – ★★★★☆

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)

Enormously controversial documentary The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨) premiered at the Busan International Film Festival to nervous fanfare, despite calls from politicians in the ruling Saenuri party, as well as Busan Mayor/Festival Chairman Seo Byung-soo, to have it removed.

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol is a hugely impressive and powerfully emotional film, which begins shortly after the ferry began to sink on the 16th of April, 2014. Racing to the scene of the tragedy as with most other members of the press, documentary director Ahn Hye-ryong (안해령) and journalist Lee Sang-ho (이상호) join forces to cover the event. With time running out for the mostly student passengers, and the efforts of the Coast Guard and Navy proving largely ineffectual, directors Lee and Ahn come into contact with diving expert Lee Jong-in who claims his diving bell technology will help the rescue effort. Using real footage, news reports and interviews, The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol follows the effort to use the diving bell, and the obstacles placed in their way.

Lee Jong-in (left) explains how to diving bell technology can save lives

Lee Jong-in (left) explains how the diving bell technology can save lives

With less than 6 months occurring between the Sewol tragedy and the inaugural screening of the documentary, there were concerns that the film would not be as comprehensive an account as the situation, and public outcry, demanded. Directors Lee and Ahn have brilliantly allayed such fears as The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol is an intelligent, insightful, and captivating documentary that resonates long after the credits have rolled.

Throughout the film director Lee employs a journalistic approach to the events that transpire, and the results are never less than impressive. Featuring a mixture of media including interviews and coverage of situations from the scene of the sinking itself, as well as news reports, behind the scenes footage and even text conversations, the film strives to support claims with facts and statistics that are sure to make the Coast Guard, mainstream media, and the ruling Saenuri government particularly uncomfortable. Given the delicate subject matter with which the film deals with, and the still raw position the sinking occupies in the Korean social consciousness, manipulation and bias had a strong potential to arise and overshadow the issues explored. Yet while The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol is indeed constructed from the perspective of the filmmakers, they avoid crude exaggerations and endeavor to include counter-arguments and statements from both the mainstream media and government, which often, rather ironically, feature the very embellishments the directors refrain from. In pointing out the misinformation being reported from respected news sources as well as the political statements that conflicted with actual events, the film consistently challenges and condemns the official declarations made, alluding to the collusion between the government and the media in an effort to hide their failures.

Footage of the media frenzy at the site convey the chaos and demand for answers

Footage of the media frenzy at the site convey the chaos and demand for answers

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol takes a dark turn through following the assistance offered by Lee Jong-in, the man responsible for initiating the diving bell controversy. Using roughly $150,000 of his own money, Lee Jong-in arrived at the scene of the disaster claiming to be able to help save lives with a diving bell, which allows divers to work for longer in the wreckage and potentially find survivors. As directors Lee and Ahn investigate Lee Jong-in’s claims and attempts, the obstacles placed in their way to help are documented. Excuses presented by the Coast Guard to exclude the trio are not only proven false but also insinuate incompetence, generating an intense array of emotional responses from those within the film and without. Horrifyingly, the directors convey how the increasing excuses gradually transform into threats against Lee Jong-in’s person, and begin to explore further assertions of the link between government organisations and the mainstream media as they seemingly coordinate a character assassination on the diving bell operator. As such The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol becomes an increasingly damning account of Korean institutions, not only in their failure to save the innocent and report the truth, but in demonizing those who tried to help.

Directors Lee and Ahn become increasingly close with Lee Jong-in during the course of the film, and as such they form the heart and conscious of the documentary. With the myriad of issues plaguing them from the beginning, the trio articulate their frustrations and concerns with incredible sincerity and passion as their attempts to help are constantly denied. Their attempts to save the passengers and refusal to stop trying drives the film forward with palpable energy, resulting in a documentary that is simultaneously intellectual, emotional, and courageous. While the filmmakers are consistently professional and dedicated it is obvious from the start that these men care, and care deeply, making The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol one of the most compelling Korean documentaries in recent memory.

News reports about the disaster, Lee Jong-in and the diving bell are scrutinized

News reports about the disaster, Lee Jong-in and the diving bell are scrutinized

Verdict:

Controversial documentary The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol is an intelligent, insightful, and captivating film that resonates long after the credits have rolled. Directors Lee Sang-ho and Ahn Hye-ryong have crafted a powerfully charged account about the sinking of the ferry and the diving bell controversy, employing a journalistic stance that is both intellectual and sincere. A brave piece of filmmaking, Sewol is one of the most compelling Korean documentaries in recent memory.

★★★★☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014

So Very Very (찡찡 막막) – ★★★☆☆

So Very Very (찡찡 막막)

So Very Very (찡찡 막막)

Now in his 40s, Sung-hoon (Oh Chang-kyung (오창경) still desperately fights to achieve his dream of being a film director. Yet success constantly eludes him, forcing him to take menial jobs while suffering from abject poverty as he bids to get his projects made. Such a lifestyle would not be so bad, if not for Sung-hoon’s recent marriage to younger Thai woman Pan (Cho Ha-young (조하영). As Pan diligently studies Korean and the couple strive to better communicate with each other, the economic strain soon puts their relationship in jeopardy. Fighting hopelessness and attempting to stay strong in the face of financial hardship, Pan soon becomes frustrated with Sung-hoon’s selfish ways and begins to dream of returning to Bangkok.

Sung-hoon and Pan are romantic newlyweds until economic hardships cause tension

Sung-hoon and Pan are romantic newlyweds until economic hardships cause tension

So Very Very (찡찡 막막) is an interesting perspective on interracial couples in contemporary Korea by director Park Jae-wook (박제욱). Typically, such representations involve a woman from a less economically developed nation seeking a more affluent, stable life through a union with a man from a stronger one. However, as with last years BIFF entry ThuySo Very Very reverses such portrayals and as such is an empowering film for foreign brides.

Pan is very much the heart and soul of the film as she works hard studying the Korean language and to adjust to life in the country, while her husband selfishly forces them deeper into poverty through his stubborn refusal to get a job. Problematically, director Park attempts to generate a sense of sympathy for Sung-hoon by aligning the narrative with his perspective, however it is Pan’s frustrations that push the story into new and interesting territory. Pan’s development from bored foreign housewife to empowered, independent woman is compelling and the driving force of the film.

Ironically while Pan’s growth sets So Very Very apart from other films of its ilk, the casting of Korean actress Cho Ha-young as a Thai woman is a distraction, diluting the sincerity of the relationship as well as her own journey. While Cho performs the role competently, her obviously Korean appearance becomes evermore of an issue as she interacts with genuine foreigners from her language academy, and particularly during scenes with locals filmed in Thailand.

One if the interesting features of So Very Very is the manner in which Sung-hoon and Pan communicate, through an amalgamation of Korean, English and Thai. The representation is quite unique, offering a refreshing perspective on the difficulties of communication between newlywed interracial couples. Again however casting is an issue, as for actor Oh Chang-kyung his pronunciation and intonation during the interplay between languages is natural and instinctive, whereas for Cho Ha-young she is forced to engage in a ‘Thai performance’ of sorts, that ultimately detracts from the events that transpire.

Frustrated with her selfish husband, Pan begins to dream of returning to Thailand

Frustrated with her selfish husband, Pan begins to dream of returning to Thailand

Verdict:

So Very Very is an interesting perspective on interracial marriages in contemporary Korea. Director Park Je-wook reverses the typical trend of such films by crafting an empowering journey of development for the foreign bride, rather than merely portraying her as a victim of circumstance. However the attempt to make the selfish husband as a sympathetic protagonist, as well as casting and language issues, distract from the wife’s journey, resulting in an agreeable film.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews

A Midsummer’s Fantasia (한여름의 판타지아) – ★★☆☆☆

A Midsummer's Fantasia (한여름의 판타지아)

A Midsummer’s Fantasia (한여름의 판타지아)

In Chapter One – First Love, Yoshiko, a Korean director travels to the Japanese city of Gojo. There he intends to scout for locations for his next film, and meets a young and attractive bilingual Korean woman who helps as a translator. As they and their Japanese guides wander around the city, the director takes notes and listens to the stories of the local people. In Chapter Two – Well of Sakura the story jumps to a few years prior and is seemingly inspired by a romantic story from one of the guides. A young Korean actress travels to the city of Gojo and meets a Japanese man, and as they walk around the area together they become close.

A Midsummer’s Fantasia (한여름의 판타지아) is the latest film from director Jang Kun-jae (장건재), the man behind the beautifully moving relationship drama Sleepless Night (잠 못 드는 밤). As with his previous work A Midsummer’s Fantasia seems to be based upon director Jang’s experiences which he separates into two distinct chapters. Shot entirely in black and white, Chapter One – First Love, Yoshiko captures the difficulties of working on foreign soil as the director, translator and Japanese guide walk around Gojo City together looking for suitable locations for the director’s next film. Due to the language barrier everything must be translated and repeated multiple times, and often certain meanings and details are lost amongst them. The black and white shots are very attractive, particularly when used in conjunction with location shooting as Gojo City is quite picturesque. However it is all frustratingly dull, as nothing of note actually happens. While it is interesting to see a director working on location scouting, tedium very quickly sets in, particularly as there are no characters and character development for the audience to invest in.

The director, translator and Japanese guide communicate while traversing Gojo City

The director, translator and Japanese guide communicate while traversing Gojo City

Chapter Two – Well of Sakura fares marginally better however. Perhaps inspired by a guide’s story from the first chapter, or perhaps just a mere fantasy, the film changes into colour and depicts the story of a Korean actress walking and talking around Gojo City with a local Japanese man. As is his trademark, director Jang constructs the relationship with sincerity as he captures the awkwardness of two young adults becoming closer. As they visit places related to the guide’s childhood and eat together at small quaint restaurants, it is interesting to see their relationship develop. Yet as they are so shy and reluctant to engage in more than small talk the film again quickly sinks into dull monotony. The actress in particular is so averse to discussion that she conveys a cold and unlikeable demeanor, with neither of them growing or developing during the course of their encounter. The chapter appears to be an attempt of sorts at constructing a Before Sunrise-esque narrative, yet unlike Richard Linklater’s classic the main protagonists discuss very little about life and have precious little chemistry between them, and as such it’s particularly difficult to care about their journey.

The actress and guide walk around teh city and visit a rundown countryside school

The actress and guide walk around teh city and visit a rundown countryside school

Verdict:

A Midsummer’s Fantasia is separated into two distinct chapters; of a director scouting for locations, and of a fantasy meeting between an actress and local guide in Gojo City. Director Jang Kun-jae films both episodes with his trademark sincerity in capturing the realism in relationships, while the use of film stock is effectively used. However the film is inescapably dull, as the protagonists rarely engage in anything other than small talk, making A Midsummer’s Fantasia one primarily for fans of realist cinema.

★★☆☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews