The UK’s 11th annual celebration of Korean cinema begins in London tonight. Spank The Monkey presents a preview.
As someone who’s written here in the past about the importance of keeping Asian cinema in UK cinemas, it was gratifying to see the Korean zombies-on-a-train thriller Train To Busan getting a small theatrical run for Halloween last weekend. The only problem is, UK audiences tend to think of Korean cinema as just violent genre offerings and nothing else, and Busan won’t do much to change that reputation. For a decade now, the London Korean Film Festival has been attempting to redress the balance, providing a welcome cross-genre showcase for the country’s movies. It’s a big programme this year, so I’ve just randomly grabbed a preview copy of one film in each festival strand to give you a feeling of what’s available.
If Galas are your favourite part of a film festival, and you’re reading this on the day of publication (3 November), then you might still be able to get tickets for tonight’s festival opener, Lee Kyoung-mi’s The Truth Beneath. On the first day of a politician’s electoral campaign, his wild child daughter goes missing. He takes the somewhat cold decision to keep campaigning regardless: meanwhile, his wife becomes obsessed with tracking down their child using any means available. As she delves into her daughter’s past, she inevitably discovers things that she really shouldn’t. Co-written by Park Chan-wook – and if you didn’t know that at the start, you’ll have worked it out by the end – this is a brilliantly paced melodrama which turns up the heat so gradually that you never spot the point at which the story goes completely off the rails. Son Ye-jin’s performance as the politician’s wife is the key to it all: her gradual disintegration is perfectly calibrated throughout the film. If you can’t make it in time for that one, there’s always the closing gala on 17 November, the presumably more cerebral Yourself And Yours by Hong Sang-soo.
In a festival like this one, inevitably the main focus is on current popular movies, and the Hits from 2015-2016 strand gives you plenty of examples of those. As an example, take Jo Sung-hee’s The Phantom Detective. Based on the old folk tales of the adventurer Hong Gil-dong, here he’s re-imagined as a modern-day private detective (played by Lee Je-hoon) who’s become obsessed with tracking down Kim Byeong-Duk (Park Geun-hyung), the man who killed his mother. Hong finally finds out where Kim lives, only to discover that someone else has already kidnapped him. Moreover, he now has to continue the investigation with Kim’s two abandoned granddaughters following him around, and they’re fantastically annoying. Jo gives the film a very stylised comic-book look, full of over-emphatic colours and obvious CGI scenery: they play a big part in helping distract the viewer from thinking too hard about the darker and dafter elements of the story. Lee Je-hoon’s charismatic performance in the lead role is a big help, too. (Also showing in the Hits strand is Seoul Station, an animated prequel to the aforementioned Train To Busan.)
Commercial cinema is all well and good, but as in most other countries it’s the independent section where some of the more pioneering work is being done. The Indie Firepower strand has several features worth checking out – including the charmingly artisanal 3D of A Fish, which played at the 2012 London Film Festival – but one of the best films here is a sub-40 minute short. Lee Kwang-huk’s Soju And Ice Cream is a segment from the long-running If You Were Me series of human rights-related portmanteaux. It tells the story of an insurance saleswoman and the various people she has to deal with in a single afternoon, most notably the old lady who appears to live entirely on the diet described in the title. Like Lee’s earlier feature, the criminally underrated Romance Joe, this is an organically odd piece rather than a series of random quirks masquerading as a story – you’re always kept slightly uncertain as to where it’s going, but in a good way.
Other strands in the festival present themed collections of older Korean movies. As titles go The Lives Of Korean Women Through The Eyes Of Women Directors doesn’t require any further explanation. At first glance, the most fascinating film of the ten selected would seem to be The Widow – directed by Park Nam-ok in 1955, it’s the first ever Korean film directed by a woman. It’s really here for historical interest more than anything else: it’s certainly not here for narrative interest, as the penultimate reel is missing sound and the final reel is just missing, period. What’s left is an entertainingly melodramatic tale of a glamorous young widow who’s not just fooling around with the married friend of her late husband, but also with the lover of the same friend’s wife. It’s filmed in what the LKFF programme euphemistically calls a ‘primitive’ style, with random cutaways, weird narrative ellipses, and a surreal use of background music (one ocean-based romantic montage is played out to the tune of I’ve Been Working On The Railroad). Thankfully, it’s not completely representative of Korean female-directed cinema, and the strand also includes films like festival favourite Take Care Of My Cat, featuring an early role for Korea’s best-loved actress Bae Doo-na (the clue’s in the name).
Switching over to Koreans in front of the camera, Actor Focus: Baek Yoon-sik has a collection of films featuring one of the country’s best-loved leading men. If he’s known for anything in the UK, it’s for his role as the baddie in Tartan Video cult favourite Save The Green Planet!, which I described in 2003 as being “so far off the wall it’s practically a chimney”. It’s included in this strand, as is the more recent Inside Men, one of a number of political thrillers in this festival based around dodgy dealings during an election cycle. The festival’s actually showing Inside Men: The Original, a director’s cut version which gives you 180 minutes of corruption rather than the standard 110. From the little of the film I’ve seen, Lee Byung-hun’s performance as the enemy of Baek’s character is equally impressive: his opening monologue, describing to a reporter how he’s like Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, is a great bit of movie-star showboating.
Also in the archive section of the programme is Classics Revisited – Lee Jang-ho Retrospective, gathering three films from the writer/director’s long-running career. Good Windy Days was made in 1980, but has the feel of the sort of films Britain cinema was making in the 1960s when it rediscovered the working class. It follows three lads trying to make a living in the big city: holding down low-grade service industry jobs, getting patronised by snotty rich girls, and starting to realise that the world isn’t fair. (The lead one has a stutter, just in case we aren’t empathising enough with him.) It has a few rough edges, notably an undertone throughout that women are the real problem, as well as a lurch into melodrama to give this agreeably plotless ramble some sort of an ending. But its energy makes it a fascinating snapshot of the period.
For the kids, there are a couple of Animation films that don’t feature train-using zombies. The quest narrative of Kai will keep the older anime fans happy, while the toddlers might prefer something with rounder CGI edges and an eye-wrecking colour palette. That would be The Tayo Movie: Mission Ace, an extended spinoff from a popular telly animation, slightly hamstrung here by a cheesy American dub. It starts off gently enough as a simple tale of a toy car lost in a world which is the final resting place of abandoned playthings, and his owner trying to rescue him with the aid of our hero Tayo, who, by the way, is a bus. Within a mere half hour, though, the whole thing has escalated into an astonishing melee of toy-on-toy violence, with shooting and explosions galore. If there’s another piece of children’s entertainment where an anthropomorphised bus cheerfully delivers the line “we could disable her by aiming at her knees,” then please send details to me at the usual address.
Here’s one of the best things about the LKFF: it’s a proper film festival that doesn’t just include feature-length narrative cinema, but also other types of films such as Documentary. Ko Yee-hung’s Breathing Underwater follows the life of Udo Island’s haenyeo, or ‘women of the sea’. It’s a volcanic region where farming the land is virtually impossible, which means that in order to survive they have to rely on the sea. Ko doesn’t really explain why this is a purely female job, but it is: every day, dozens of middle-aged and older women put on wetsuits (but no breathing apparatus) and raid the ocean floor. Filmed over seven years, but structured round the changing of the seasons in just one, we get to see the haenyeo at work in a series of lovingly shot underwater sequences. But we also learn about the rigid social structure of the group (your lung capacity effectively defines your status), the dangers of underwater work when you’re paid for what you can carry to the surface, and how the role of the haenyeo is slowly dying out. It’s a fascinating portrait of a culture you probably weren’t even aware of until the start of this paragraph.
And if this is a festival that includes a documentary strand, then it should have an Artist Video strand too. The only film here available for preview is Im Go-eun’s Episode 4: Because The Outside World Has Changed…, an odd eight-minute obscurity musing on the history and architecture of the Amsterdam Filmmuseum. Along the way, it touches on how the invention of film has had an impact on the way our memories work. It’s shot in a mixture of disruptive styles, with frequent dropouts in both image and sound: when you watch these happening on an online screener copy, it’s hard to avoid the assumption that it’s just Vimeo playing up again, so maybe this will perform better in a theatrical setting.
Finally, we have a couple of programmes of shorts. Whenever you encounter short films in a festival, they’re either labours of love made out of a compulsion to produce images, or they’re calling cards made out of a compulsion to break into the movie industry. Kim Geon’s graduation film Keep Going is very obviously the latter, but can be excused because it’s so brilliantly done. It’s set in a dystopian future where robots have risen up against humans: the good news is that this time we’re winning, and there are just a few straggler robots left. One of those is Margo, who’s become attached to a young human girl in more ways than one. This is unfortunate, because they’re being chased by hundreds of heavily-armed people who don’t have time to listen to their backstory. What ensues is one reel of carefully-paced exposition followed by one reel of non-stop carnage, filmed with an abundance of energy and technical flash that makes Kim Geon a name to look out for in the future.
All of these films – and many more – will be shown between 3 and 17 November in a variety of London venues (including the Odeon Kingston, in the capital’s own K-town). After that, selected highlights from the programme will tour the UK between 18 and 27 November, visiting cinemas in Sheffield, Manchester, Nottingham, Glasgow and Belfast.
Visit koreanfilm.co.uk for the full schedule, and prepare to discover a whole side of Korean cinema you’ve never seen before.