Daughter (다우더) – ★★★☆☆

Daughter (다우더)

Daughter (다우더)

When San-e (Koo Hye-seon (구혜선) discovers that she is pregnant, what should be happy news sends her into a serious emotional breakdown despite her boyfriend Jin-woo’s (Lee Hae-woo (이해우) best efforts to comfort her. San-e’s newfound pregnancy forces her to revisit the trauma of her past, of living with an extremely strict, highly religious mother (Shim Hye-jin (심혜진) who controlled every facet of her young life and who violently punished her if she disobeyed the rules. As San-e remembers the emotional and physical anguish she endured as a young girl (Hyeon Seung-min (현승민) she also attempts to reconcile her issues in the present, for the sake of her unborn child and her own sanity.

San-e's pregnancy sparks a resurgence of long-repressed psychological trauma

San-e’s pregnancy sparks a resurgence of long-repressed psychological trauma

Daughter (다우더) is a powerful and emotionally charged drama of child abuse by writer/director/actress Koo Hye-seon, one that is acutely timely given the prominence of the issue in contemporary Korean society and media. Daughter is a particularly impressive outing for director Koo who effectively juggles the non-linear narrative between San-e as she suffers horrific physical and emotion trauma as a youngster, with that of her as an adult coping with the psychological afflictions later in life, with both stories evolving with a palpable sincerity. Each area poignantly explores trauma from multiple angles, whether it be young San-e’s physical punishments for failing to be perfect on a test through to the psychological and emotional abuse she endures on a daily basis, while the ramifications of such an ordeal are more subtly conveyed through adult San-e’s fashion and demeanor. Director Koo also employs particularly effective use of colour, focus and lighting in portraying San-e’s complex psychological states that add a tragic beauty to her story, depicting a potent portrayal of a vulnerable yet strong young woman scared of motherhood.

As a youngster San-e experiences aborrent phsyical, emotional and psychological abuse from her mother

As a youngster San-e experiences aborrent phsyical, emotional and psychological abuse from her mother

Yet Daughter is also a keen examination of the complex emotions involved in having an overbearing mother. While the devoutly religious mother is controlling, abusive, and vicious – as well as clearly psychologically deranged – there is the constant sense that she is misguidedly attempting to perform her motherly duties in the best manner she can. Indeed, the film is bookended by a poem that simultaneously declares the love/hate relationship felt with mothers in that there is an appreciation for her sacrifices and an emotional need for her love, yet it is one plagued by frustration and anger. Such sensibilities are acutely Korean in nature, and are transposed on screen as adult San-e reluctantly attempts to achieve a reconciliation that she knows will never come. Such scenes however are puzzlingly fleeting, as at a rather short 84 minutes long the film would certainly have benefitted from greater exploration of this key issue.

Ultimately, such a criticism also leads to the film’s greatest flaw. While Daughter is a poignant and effective drama, the short running time focuses more on the dramatic events in young San-e’s life at the expense of more subtle, character-driven moments, and as such audiences empathise with her situation more through pity than anything else. This also applies with adult San-e, as while her character is conveyed well through the mise-en-scene key moments in her evolution as a victim of abuse and as a pregnant woman are curiously absent. With the quite brief running time of 84 minutes there is certainly more room for such character examinations and development which, if included, would have undoubtedly elevated Daughter into the upper echelons of the genre.

As time passes, young San-e begins to realise a better life awaits her

As time passes, young San-e begins to realise a better life awaits her

Verdict:

Daughter is an impressive and emotionally charged drama by writer/director/actress Koo Hye-seon. In focusing on the timely issues of child abuse through a non-linear narrative, director Koo explores the physical, psychological and emotional trauma from multiple angles with poignant sincerity, as well as examining the love/hate relationship with strict, overbearing mothers. At a brief running time of 84 minutes the film would have benefitted from more subtle, character driven moments, yet Daughter is nevertheless a powerful tribute to victims of domestic abuse.

★★★☆☆

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

Venus Talk (관능의 법칙) – ★★★☆☆

Venus Talk (관능의 법칙)

Venus Talk (관능의 법칙)

Three successful best friends explore love, life and sex in the city in Venus Talk (관능의 법칙). Glamorous TV producer Sin-hye (Uhm Jung-hwa (엄정화), dumped by her cheating boyfriend, begins a relationship with young 20-something intern Hyeon-seung (Lee Jae-yoon (이재윤). Housewife Mi-yeon (Moon So-ri (문소리) has an incredibly high libido and loves to play sexual games with her husband Jae-ho (Lee Sung-min (이성민), yet unbeknownst to her he is secretly taking viagra to keep up with her demands. Bakery store owner and single mother Hae-yong (Jo Min-soo (조민수) is dating local carpenter Seong-jae (Lee Kyeong-yeong (이경영) who is reluctant to commit to a serious relationship. The three women talk, laugh and support each other through the minefield of dating as middle-aged women, strengthening their bonds of friendship with their frank discussions of love and sex.

Hae-yeong, Mi-yeon and Sin-hye regularly have frank conversations about their love and sex life

Hae-yeong, Mi-yeon and Sin-hye regularly have funny and frank conversations about their love and sex life

Venus Talk sells itself as the Korean answer to Sex and the City, and for the opening 20~30 minutes that is very much true. The forthright manner in which sex and relationships are explored is an extremely refreshing and welcome change from the filmic roles typically ascribed to Korean women, with the comedy derived from their open discussions genuinely engaging as well as entertaining. Writer Lee Soo-ah’s (이수아) script is great in capturing the spirit of three independent and empowered women who do not function solely as love interests, but who have aspirations, responsibilities and desires, the kind of women who tend to rarely enjoy screentime in mainstream Korean cinema. Single TV producer Sin-hye is a career savvy, hard working women of particular repute, and her dilemmas regarding her relationship with a 20-something junior are consistently funny as well as exposing the ageism that exists within Korean culture. Meanwhile single mother Hae-yeong contends with dating, motherhood and running a business, and highly sexed Mi-yeon strives to introduce exciting sex games to keep the passion alive in her marriage. Often such characters are reduced to stereotypes and/or ‘contained’ by the narrative, yet in the opening 20~30 minutes of Venus Talk the women express their desires, sexual or otherwise, freely to each and without fear of judgement, with the depictions of their sexual antics both funny and endearing.

The sexual antics of the three friends are funny and endearing

The sexual antics of the three friends are funny and endearing

Unfortunately after such an invigorating opening Venus Talk, seemingly unable to continue the momentum of portraying the lives of empowered women, descends into standard K-drama tropes. After some quite funny moments of sexual liberation as Mi-yeon prepares erotic toys, Sin-hye has an affair with a young colleague, and Hae-young acts like a teenager with her lover, the narrative jettisons it all to focus on bland, tried-and-tested arcs that seek to almost ‘punish’ the women for their transgressions. Each protagonist comes close to loosing everything they hold dear typically due to their own actions. All three are blamed, harassed and scolded simply for being women who fall outside of socially acceptable roles in Korean society, which comes as a saddening surprise given the empowered opening. Mi-yeon, for example, is treated terribly by her husband and is later attacked by a criminal; yet when she reports the assault she is chastised for being a woman ‘of a certain age’ and is told, even by her friends, that she should forgive her husband. The turnaround from feminist to embracing traditional stereotypes is quite extraordinary.

Director Kwon Chil-in (권칠인) competently helms the film yet he occasionally seems to forget his target audience, notably during a quite graphic sex scene in which he focuses primarily on Uhm Jeong-hwa’s body. He has however made excellent choices with his cast, employing actresses who are not only extremely talented but who also have sexy screen personas – Uhm Jeong-hwa (Marriage Is a Crazy Thing), Moon So-ri (A Good Lawyer’s Wife), Jo Min-soo (Pieta) – with each actress performing their respective roles well. The narrative tends to focus primarily on Uhm’s character, and she conveys her frustrations as a businesswoman being victimized by gossip particularly well. Moon So-ri displays impressive comedic skills throughout the film, particularly in regards to scenes with her long-suffering husband. It is Jo Min-soo who shines the brightest in Venus Talk, displaying prowess as a strong single mother yet one who is also vulnerable and longing for love. The scenes in which she is reunited with her boyfriend following surgery are stunningly performed by Jo, and while it’s a great shame that the narrative does’t explore the tangent further, the power expressed through such a short amount of screentime is palpable.

The women are seemingly 'punished' for their transgressions

The women are seemingly ‘punished’ for their transgressions

Verdict:

Venus Talk is Korea’s attempt at crafting a Sex and the City style, and for the opening 20~30 minutes director Kwon Chil-in and screenwriter Lee Soo-ah do well in portraying three empowered and sexually liberated friends as they discuss life, love, and sex. Yet the film later takes a turn into typical K-drama fare, and worst still, seemingly attempts to ‘punish’ the the central protagonists for being modern feminists. Yet with a great cast and funny moments, Venus Talk is an enjoyable effort.

★★★☆☆

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

A Girl at My Door (도희야) – ★★★★☆

A Girl at My Door (도희야)

A Girl at My Door (도희야)

Forced to relocate in the countryside due to an undisclosed issue in the city, police officer Yeong-nam (Bae Doo-na (배두나) prepares herself for a year of exile. Despite being one of the youngest adults in the city Yeong-nam is appointed chief of police, and in getting to know her new surroundings she is quickly exposed to the middle-aged, laid back way of life, as well as the migrant workers who help keep the town alive through manual labour. Yet no sooner as she attempts to settle, Yeong-nam is confronted with horrific child abuse against her young neighbour Do-hee (Kim Sae-ron (김새론) by her father Yong-ha (Song Sae-byeok (송새벽) and grandmother (Kim Jin-goo (김진구). To protect Do-hee from further domestic abuse Yeong-nam takes the child under her care, just as her past begins to catch up with her.

Do-hee is a victim of terrible domestic abuse in the country town

A victim of terrible abuse, Do-hee is a social outcast in need of protection

A Girl at My Door (도희야) is a simply phenomenal debut by writer/director July Jung (Jeong Joo-ri (정주리). Director Jung’s film is a powerful and intelligent exploration of discrimination and violence in Korean culture with a uniquely feminist spin that is all too rare in the industry. The approach taken in exploring such social issues is reminiscent of cinema legend Lee Chang-dong‘s work, particularly Poetry, which more than likely explains his decision to take a producer credit on the film. A Girl at My Door differentiates itself from director Lee’s work however in that director Jung’s layered script not only employs a multitude of perspectives in interrogating discrimination, but also in that she keenly conveys the ironies of Korean culture, particularly in regard to pretense. Central protagonist Yeong-nam projects a strong and stoic image as the chief of police, concealing her fraught complexity in regards to her history, emotional state, and very identity. Her dependancy on soju, which she conceals in water bottles, adds potent irony to an already paradoxical situation as she hides her addiction from those around her in a bid to remain a socially acceptable image. Director Jung captures moments such as these with incredible prowess conveying them in ways both subtle and obvious, balancing her character study with a skill belying her experience.

Yet where director Jung truly excels is through the relationship that develops between Yeong-nam and abuse victim Doo-hee. This is in no small part due to the astounding performances of both Bae Doo-na and, particularly, Kim Sae-ron. Bae Doo-na is constantly captivating as the police chief as she wrestles her internal conflicts, conveying a cold stoicism when in the presence of others yet a subtle fragility when alone. Yet it is youngster Kim Sae-ron who steals the limelight with her astonishing turn as social outcast Do-hee. Her range throughout A Girl at My Door is staggeringly impressive as an abuse victim desperate for love, with her unpredictability compelling to the utmost degree. Despite having two radically different characters director Jung crafts their relationship with a natural sincerity that never fails to be engaging. From small moments at meal times to more intimate scenes as they become closer, director Jung captures Do-hee’s reverence and Yeong-nam’s responsibility-turned-devotion with palpable affection.

Yeong-nam invites Doo-hee to stay with her for a summer, where their relationship considerably develops

Yeong-nam invites Do-hee to stay with her for a summer, where their relationship considerably develops

Through the central relationship as well as Yeong-nam’s position as law enforcement, A Girl at My Door explores discrimination within Korean society through the microcosm of a small countryside town. Director Jung interrogates the issue from a variety of perspectives, chiefly the sexism, homophobia and ageism that is so openly expressed by those in society. Despite her position as chief of police Yeong-nam is still subjected to gender and age discrimination by those she protects and works with, while her status as someone from the city also adds to the prejudice received. Do-hee is subjected to abuse which is justified due to her social status as a young orphan of sorts. The narrative impressively examines how such discrimination has become normalised within culture at both societal and governmental levels, with the frustration of innocents attempting to fight against it a source of inspiration and empowerment. Racism also arises through the incorporation of migrant workers within the story, adding a further perspective on the issue as they are forced to endure manual labour. Through her sense of irony director Jung astutely conveys how contemporary society is willing to accept such prejudice as long as their quality of life is assured, and their terrible reaction when it is challenged even in the name of the law.

The stakes are raised when Do-hee's father Yong-ha is arrested for assaulting his workers

The stakes are raised when Do-hee’s father Yong-ha is arrested for assaulting his workers

Verdict:

A Girl at My Door is a phenomenal debut by director July Jung, who examines issues of discrimination in contemporary Korea through the microcosm of  small countryside town. Featuring beautiful cinematography and an intelligent, irony-laced script, A Girl at My Door also boasts two exceptional performances from Bae Doo-na and in particular from rising star Kim Sae-ron. Not to be missed.

★★★★☆

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

BIFF 2014 – Gala Presentation, Open Cinema, New Currents, and Documentary Showcase

The 19th Busan International Film Festival

The 19th Busan International Film Festival

It’s almost time for the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) to begin, and as such it’s a great time to check out the Korean productions due to be screened.

While programs such as Korean Cinema Today – Panorama/Vision and Korean Cinema Retrospective: Reminiscing the Timeless Filmmaker, Jung Jin-woo conveniently brings together films from the peninsula for fans to browse, there are also other categories within which Korean films appear, and are well worth seeking out.

Below are some of the exciting new projects from Korean filmmakers being screened at BIFF 2014, handily gathered together for your convenience.

Gala Presentation

Revivre (화장) – director Im Kwon-taek (임권택)

Revivre (화장)

Revivre (화장)

After a 4 year hiatus, film maestro Im Kwon-taek returns with Revivre, his 102nd feature film. The film received very positive responses following its premiere at Toronto, with many critics praising not only a return to form for director Im but also lauding screen legend Ahn Seong-gi for his powerful performance.

Revivre explores the life of senior salaryman (Ahn) whose wife (Kim Ho-jeong) is dying of cancer. However the arrival of a beautiful young new office worker (Kim Gyoo-ri) in his department challenges him for his affections, causing a huge strain on his personal life.

Open Cinema

Cart (카트) – director Boo Ji-young (부지영)

Cart (카트)

Cart (카트)

Cart is the second feature by director Boo Ji-young, and is a timely examination of corporate abuse and the power of protest in contemporary Korea. Featuring an incredible cast including Yeom Jeong-ah, Moon Jeong-hee, Cheon Woo-hee and Kpop star Do Kyeong-soo, Cart was also widely praised at its Toronto premiere for its unflinching take on exploitation and sexism in the Korean workplace.

Mother of two Sun-hee works alongside single mum Hae-mee as cashiers, and are friends with janitor Soon-rae and manager Dong-joon, the only only male representative for the union. When a series of lay-offs begin, the friends band together with the other workers and fight the unfair dismissals.

New Currents

We Will Be Ok (그들이 죽었다) – director Baek Jae-ho (백재호)

We Will Be Ok (그들이 죽었다)

We Will Be Ok (그들이 죽었다)

We Will Be Ok is an independent film following the lives of wannabe filmmakers as they attempt to fulfill their ambitions. It will be interesting to see how director Baek Jae-ho differentiates his film from the other recent examples that have emerged, such as Director’s CUT at JIFF, that also explore the problems of indie filmmaking.

End of Winter (철원기행) – director Kim Dae-hwan (김대환)

End of Winter (철원기행)

End of Winter (철원기행)

Director Kim Dae-hwan’s family drama explores the tensions that exist between relatives following the shock announcement that the father, who is retiring, wants to divorce his wife. Due to heavy snowfall the family must stay together for a few days, and despite all the negative feelings are forced to confront the issues that beset them.

Documentary Showcase

My Fair Wedding (마이 페어 웨딩) – director Jang Hee-seon (장희선)

My Fair Wedding (마이 페어 웨딩)

My Fair Wedding (마이 페어 웨딩)

With gay issues unfortunately still very much taboo in Korea, the wedding of two prominent CEO’s caused plenty of controversy when they tied the knot in 2013. In her third documentary director Jang follows the celebrations and conflicts, as well as the very vocal discrimination, that arise from having a gay wedding in contemporary Korea.

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨) – directors Lee Sang-ho (이상호) and Ahn Hye-ryong (안해령)

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)

Aka Diving Bell, the film explores the largely failed recovery effort involved in the Sewol tragedy. Co-directed by journalist Lee and documentary filmmaker Ahn, they approach the controversies in an interrogative manner, and are particularly brave to do so given the clamp down on information and prosecution of those who attempt to uncover the truth.

Little Pond in Main Street (거리 속 작은 연못) – director Lee Kang-gil (이강길)

Little Pond in Main Street (거리 속 작은 연못)

Little Pond in Main Street (거리 속 작은 연못)

Street vendors in Korea are almost like a national institution, they are so widespread and relied upon. In Little Pond in Main Street a group of vendors band together to create a community radio station but come into conflict with other groups,as well as the government trying to shut them down.

Parallel (우리는 썰먜를 탄다) – director Kim Kay (김경만)

Parallel (우리는 썰먜를 탄다)

Parallel (우리는 썰먜를 탄다)

In production for 3 years, Parallel explores the lives of the Korean Paralympic ice hockey team. Despite the country having very little awareness that the team even exists, the athletes continue to train, work hard, and compete against other sporting nations. The film follows their turbulent lives as they strive to live their dreams.

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