London Korean Film Festival 2011

by Clare Dean

"SHINee SHINee, SHINee boots of leather"

Pandemonium and chaos.  When I arrive at the Odeon West End for the opening night of this year’s London Korean Film Festival, the queue is already around the block.  The foyer is a mass of confusion, camera crews and big, burly security men and it appears that Kim Han-min’s new film, War of the Arrows is quite the hot ticket.  So much so, that the boisterousness gives way to blagging, pleading and queue jumping.

As is often the case with festivals, the start is delayed a little.  The audience slowly take their seats, filling screen 2.  15 minutes pass.  Suddenly a wave of shrill screaming breaks out across the cinema.  It takes me a few seconds to remember that K-Pop band, SHINee played earlier in the day – and the reason for the delays, crowds and screaming becomes clear.  Every head in the room turns, cameras are out, people are standing on their seats.  Three girls make a break for it and clamber on the stage.  I stand up too, worried that I won’t know who to look at: but  it’s obvious –  five young Korean men with extravagant hair saunter down the aisle and coolly take their seats.  The screaming continues, the burly security men look fraught.  One even has his finger to his ear piece, (just like in the movies!).

Eventually, festival advisor Tony Rayns appears on stage to calm everyone down with a video introduction from Jonathan Ross and open the festival.  Finally, we watch a film.

The 6th London Korean Film Festival screened 38 feature and short films over three weeks, predominantly in London but also in Cambridge, Sheffield and Newcastle.  This year, two contemporary strands featured: ‘North and South’, highlighting films about or influenced by the division between the two countries, and ‘The Lighter Side of Korea’, to show that there’s more to Korean cinema than the dark, violent thrillers that predominate UK releases of Korean films. Along with the contemporary films on offer, the festival also programmed a comprehensive Ryoo Seung-wan retrospective, and other archive screenings, and held a Korean Cinema Forum at the Korean Cultural Centre in The Strand.

The LKFF is a great place to watch films.  Although generalisations about audiences are just that, the people who attend are keen and enthusiastic.  They laugh loudly when something is funny, cheer the good guys and ‘tut’ the villains.  Last year, during a packed screening of The Man From Nowhere, there was a collective female gasp when heartthrob Won Bin took off his shirt, immediately followed by self-conscious laughter.

It’s a lot of fun.  This year I managed to see six films. As the opening night film, War of the Arrows was a solid choice –  a period action drama set in 17th Century Korea, it’s based on fact, although according to the director Kim Han-min, with some cinematic embellishment.

As children, brother and sister Nam-Yi and Ja-In witness the murder of their father but manage to escape and take refuge in a small village.  Their father’s dying wish is that the boy, Nam-Yi, take care of his younger sister.  He grows up to become a skilled huntsman and expert archer.  When his sister plans to marry, he decides to leave the village now that his sister will be in the care of her husband.  As he tries to make a quiet exit, he almost rund into the approaching Manchurian army who kidnap the villagers, including his sister and her husband, and head back to Manchuria.  Nam-Yi gives chase.

War of the Arrows

Hugely enjoyable, if lightweight, this is a crowd-pleasing blockbuster –  and the crowd were pleased.  At one point, there was a loud cheer when the Korean villagers managed to gain the upper hand.  During the central chase sequence the action is slick and fast, and there are some fantastic large-scale fight sequences.  The sound is also key, as the creaking of bows followed by the whistle of arrows really puts you on edge.

There’s little in the way of character development in War of the Arrows, but I had a great time and I think SHINee did too.

The following evening, Jeon Kyu-hwan’s Dance Town screened as part of the North and South strand, and was certainly a highlight for me.  The third of a trilogy of ‘town’ films, it portrays city loneliness and isolation acutely.

Happily married Jung-Nim lives comfortably with her husband in North Korea.  He travels frequently on business and returns with small luxuries such as face cream and DVDs.  Their plans to defect are brought forward unexpectedly when a neighbour reports them and Jung-Nim is forced to flee to South Korea, leaving her husband behind.  Seemingly received with open arms by immigration, she is allocated a small, basic apartment and given an allowance. She manages to find a menial job and volunteers for community work, but she becomes increasingly withdrawn and says very little.  The loneliness eventually overwhelms her and she accepts a ‘romantic’ date with a local policeman.  This disastrous encounter prompts her to try and contact her husband who is still in the North.

The film is shot in a naturalistic way, almost documentary-like, and has a heartbreaking performance from Rha Mi-ran as middle-aged Jung-Nim, struggling to adjust to her new life and missing her husband. Although it’s a film about the differences (or lack thereof) between North and South Korea, it’s not a political film in the strictest sense.  The story felt universal with feelings and social problems that could apply to any big city. I was suitably impressed and I’m already tracking down the other two films in the trilogy, Mozart Town and Animal Town.

Also in the North and South strand, I saw The Front Line, a serious war drama set during the 1953 ceasefire where both factions continue to fight over a strategic landmark that will determine the North/South border, it is the 2012 Korean submission for the Academy Award for Best Film in a Foreign Language,

South Korean Military Intelligence Officer, Kang Eun-pyo is sent to investigate a small army unit positioned at Aerok Hill.  There is growing suspicion that a mole is passing information to the North.  When he arrives he discovers an unconventional mess.  The soldiers are wearing North uniforms over the top of their own in order to keep warm.  The squad leader is a battle hardened 17 year old morphine addict and Kang’s close friend, once a weak college kid, is now tough and indifferent. Eventually he also comes across a hidden stash of gifts left for the enemy, in the knowledge that the hill will  be retaken by the North sooner or later.

This is a strikingly  un-macho war film, there are several intimate scenes between the soldiers, and the North/South bonding shows a lot of humanity in a hellish situation.  There are some well-written characters and strong performances from the ensemble cast. The film is beautifully shot, in muted grays and browns. The fighting is gritty and realistic.  The sharp crack of the sniper fire (nicknamed “two seconds” because the victim falls, then the shot is heard two seconds later) brings a feeling of dread that echoes the sound of archers’ bows in War of the Arrows.

The particulars of The Front Line  are  hard to fault, but  it does feel very familiar.  Young men, irrevocably damaged by war, follow futile orders from unseen generals.  In addition, several false endings unfavourably extend the running time.  Overall, a fascinating story, well told and obviously with a budget, but rather ordinary.

Next up, two films from ‘The Lighter Side of Korea’ strand.

I came out of the cinema with a big smile after watching Sunny –  a comic, but poignant reminisce and second feature from director Hyeong-Cheol Kang.

Wife and mother, Na-mi, dutifully visits her soap-opera obsessed mother in hospital, and by chance meets an old school friend.  Choon-hwa is seriously ill, and asks Na-mi to reunite the old school gang who have not seen each other for over 25 years.  Told partly in 1980s flashbacks, the story follows young Na-mi as the awkward small town new girl, befriended by a bunch of high school misfits (the leader, the potty-mouth, the ‘fat’ girl, the beauty queen etc).  They call their group ‘Sunny’ after the Boney M song, to which they rehearse a dance routine for a school festival.  But disaster ruins their chance to perform in public and the girls are split up for good, it seems.  Adult Na-mi tracks down her friends one by one, offering us a melancholy look at how their various lives have turned out.

Sunny

The film has a wonderful cartoonish nostalgia (the colourful clothes, the hair, the dream boyfriend), which child-like memories playing off ironically against the backdrop of political upheaval in Korea.  In one scene, rival girl groups face off, oblivious to the riots taking place around them. It’s extremely funny with clever editing and great casting.  The child actors closely resemble the adults and Sim Eun-Kyeong as young Na-mi has amazing comic timing.

Sunny was a big box office hit in Korea, and I would love to see it get some kind of UK release.  It’s like Mean Girls, only with glue sniffing and razor blades.

Also in The Lighter Side of Korea strand, I also saw Detective K: Secret of Virtuous Widow.  A period-set comedy with a modern feel, it reminded me a lot of Guy Ritchie’s recent Sherlock Holmes.

Set in 18th Century Joseon dynasty Korea, the famous detective ‘K’ has been commissioned by the King to solve a series of murders related to a possible embezzlement scandal. Managing to be equally smart and inept, K finds himself accidentally imprisoned for one of the murders, and while in prison meets dog seller Seo Pil (Watson to K’s Holmes).  The king is embarrassed by K’s arrest and demotes K to a less exciting case involving the suicide of a widow.  K and new sidekick Seo Pil set out to investigate, but inevitably, things are not what they seem.

What follows is a fast paced and humorous, with big action sequences, chases and gravity defying stunts.  At least for the first 90 minutes.  After that, the complex plot overtakes the comedy and the finale becomes a little muddled. Kim Myung-min and Oh Dal-soo are great as K and Seo Pil, respectively, giving us lots of laugh-out-loud moments.  K, an expert on both The Art of War and Confucianism, borders on mystical.  On more than one occasion, K and Seo Pil are caught by their pursuers, only for K to magically vanish leaving Seo Pil to face the consequences.

Detective K is adapted from a novel and was another big box office hit in Korea. I have since read that there might be a sequel.  Although I ultimately found the film flawed, I enjoyed the characters  so much, I will go out of my way to see the next one.

Finally, The Unjust screened as the closing night film and the end to the week-long Ryoo Seung-wan retrospective.  It’s a riveting thriller that portrays an overwhelmingly corrupt Korean justice system, where self interest takes precedence over, well, just about everything. I have a soft spot for Korean thrillers:  although the Hollywood influences are usually easy to spot, the national film industry is so strong that Korean film makers can confidently break all the rules.  The results are often uncompromising.

A spate of high profile child murders are filling the news headlines and the National Police Agency are under pressure to solve the case.  They strike a deal with Police Captain Choi Cheol-gi (Hwang Jung-min).  If he can bring in a killer to parade in front of the press, he gets a promotion. Captain Cho’s feelings of inferiority and desperation are evident.  He is an experienced cop who has been passed over for promotion more than once by academy graduates and he’s also under internal investigation for petty corruption.

Captain Cho agrees, and he and his team pick an ‘actor’, a man previously convicted of child molestation who will take the blame in return for a large payoff.  He employs a sinister associate to ‘convince’ the man and bring him in. Unfortunately for Captain Cho, prosecutor Joo-yang (also neck-deep in corruption) is assigned to the case and becomes suspicious of Cho’s rented stooge.  The two engage in a ruthless and dirty war.

This is a convoluted, but gripping plot, with a bewildering number of characters.  The action is restrained, but when it comes it’s fantastic: just what you would expect from Ryoo Seung-wan, the ‘action kid’. He also uses a distinct visual style with many shots from above, including a devastating three-way action scene involving Cho and two others.  It becomes apparent just how far this man will go to get what he wants.

During the Q&A after the film, Ryoo Seung-wan said that he asked actor Hwang Jung-min to watch Lee Marvin in Point Blank.  I think it shows. He is relentless and cold, a great moody performance.

The Unjust is a superior, mainstream thriller, with a style and intelligence above the usual Hollywood fare.  A fitting end to a great festival.

Clare Dean is on The Tweeter.

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