Hans Zimmer Revealed:
Live at the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith (10 October performance)

South-African singer Lebo M. joins composer Hans Zimmer onstage for a rendition of The Lion King

The eightieth birthday of the legendary Hollywood film composer John Williams in 2012 gave several major symphony orchestras in this country, among them the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) and the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), license to programme special concerts dedicated to his music. The big theme pieces of his repertoire—Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial—in mood bright, lively and romantic compositions, guaranteed high audience turnouts for both the RPO (John Williams: 80th birthday tribute to the world’s leading film composer, Royal Albert Hall 2012, 2014) and LSO (Music for the big screen: the best of John Williams, Barbican Hall 2012) events; and indeed these works have formed internationally the backbone of the many other Williams sets performed live in recent years—cf. concerts in Chicago (2008), Cleveland (2012), Massachusetts (2012), San Pedro (2012), Hong Kong (2012) and Deauville (2012). Meanwhile, the BBC Concert Orchestra and LSO recently developed successful programmes showcasing the work of Danny Elfman (Danny Elfman’s music from the films of Tim Burton, Royal Albert Hall 2013) and Patrick Doyle (LSO on film: celebrating the music of Patrick Doyle, Barbican Hall 2013), with the former—a world premiere here, which included personal contributions from Elfman as well as actress Helena Bonham Carter—returning in December, this time with the London Concert Orchestra. However, these high-profile events warranted, disappointingly, only brief guest appearances from their star composers—the few exceptions being the performance live of Clint Mansell with his band for an audience at a far smaller venue (Clint Mansell film music from the Grammy and Golden Globe-nominated British composer, Barbican Hall 2014) and the debut of David Arnold (David Arnold: live in concert, Royal Festival Hall 2014).

Composer Hans Zimmer, violin soloist Ann Marie Simpson-Calhoun,
guitarist Guthrie Govan

The difference with Zimmer and director Peter Asher’s approach is that, wonderfully, they required their soloists to be active performers, and indeed some of the most appealing music cues were choreographed to highlight their endless contributions, as each made a grand display of a violin, guitar or cello

Hans Zimmer Revealed (Hammersmith Apollo, October 10-11 2014) promotes change in this sort of commercial programming, redressing the balance by positively rattling the cage. Though, structurally, the programming here conformed to the traditional model (a repertoire of familiar music cues written for middle-budget films and commercial blockbusters, each given their own introduction by an announcer), the event was tailored to attract a larger number of attendees by altering performance location, presentation and musical style. Promoter Harvey Goldsmith’s foreword in the concert programme leans heavily on this distinction: “There are a number of touring concerts with orchestras playing film music with the movie projected … Tonight, Hans will be presenting his music, his way” (my emphasis). Thus rather than having a concert host present works in an ‘appropriate’ fashion (Tommy Pearson’s commentary for the John Williams: 80th birthday tribute in 2012 is a fine example of the extent to which modern orchestras still don’t know how to present different works for younger audiences), here Zimmer introduced the pieces himself, combining personal anecdotes about his early professional work (director Barry Levinson doorstepped Zimmer at his London-based studio Lillie Yard one evening to discuss his forthcoming production Rain Man) with stories about the modern entertainment industry (Zimmer approached singer/musician Lisa Gerrard to collaborate on Gladiator, but was turned down initially because the artist had just completed work on another Russell Crowe film, The Insider). In an interesting artistic shift which also enhanced the individuality of the event, Zimmer assumed a confessional tone (in a, seemingly, spontaneous outpouring similar to the popular dramatic monologues of Bruce Springsteen) in the middle of one set. In this case, the voice was still that of Zimmer the artist, Zimmer the composer, but the intimate tone of his to-audience storytelling reflected the sensitivity and importance of his subject (the death of film star Heath Ledger in 2008; the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012–“this is not just a career, it’s a life, it’s the life we live together and we become this family”).

Another factor to consider in this non-traditional approach is the incorporation (and promotion) of so many soloists from Zimmer’s studio Remote Control Productions. This, broadly speaking, is not an unorthodox practice. Additional ensembles play vital roles in traditional programming, and the appearances of guest soloists will necessitate at least two major solo cues, typically, to justify their artistic fees (for instance, violinist Carmine Lauri performing ‘Remembrances,’ ‘Jewish Town’ and ‘Main Theme’ from Schindler’s List (1993) for the LSO’s Music for the big screen: the best of John Williams). The difference with Zimmer and director Peter Asher’s approach is that, wonderfully, they required their soloists to be active performers, and indeed some of the most appealing music cues were choreographed to highlight their endless contributions, as each made a grand display of a violin, guitar or cello. Of the many artists highlighted by Zimmer, five were absolutely unforgettable: Ann Marie Simpson-Calhoun was a contributing writer on Sherlock Holmes (2009) and its sequel A Game of Shadows (2011), in addition to her role as featured violin soloist on other Zimmer-recordings for Man of Steel (2013), 12 Years a Slave (2013) and The Lone Ranger (2013); her onstage sparring partner Aleksey Igudesman was, likewise, a featured violinist on Sherlock Holmes, with recording credits on non-Zimmer films, such as The Road to El Dorado (2000) and Spanglish (2004); Richard Harvey’s relationship with Zimmer (in his capacity as woodwinds musician) extends back to The Lion King (1994) and includes recordings for Kingdom of Heaven (2005), The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008); Czarina Russell began work for Zimmer as score co-ordinator on Pirates of the Caribbean – Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and is credited as a studio manager on over fifty other feature films; she was most recently the female vocalist on Zimmer’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014); and Nick Glennie-Smith, a long-time collaborator and prolific composer/conductor, has worked on almost all of Zimmer’s soundtracks, from The Rock (1996, composer) and Crimson Tide (1995, additional music), through Gladiator (2000, additional music) and Hannibal (2001, additional music), to Man of Steel (2013, conductor) and Transformers – Age of Extinction (2014, conductor). Much of the focus here went on the two violinists Simpson and Igudesman (unsurprisingly, given Simpson’s proven flair for performance and Igudesman’s ‘other’ career as one half of the comedy duo Igudesman & Joo)—their ‘scene’-stealing moments, as each artist played across and spurred on the other (often taking centre-stage in order to do so), bolstered the rousing, celebratory mood of Zimmer’s major anthems. In addition, one of the most refreshing aspects of Hans Zimmer Revealed was its technical production. The lighting design (produced by industry expert Marc Brickman) was characterised by striking colours, selective blackouts (which threw controlled sections of the stage into darkness) and intense strobe lighting—techniques befitting of a modern rock concert as opposed to the traditional theatrical lighting of a Barbican or Albert Hall event.

Composer Hans Zimmer and soloist Ann Marie Simpson-Calhoun performing 'Discombobulate' from Sherlock Holmes

For me personally, the highpoints of past events have involved old familiar friends: music cues that have been with us for years (if not for most of our lifetime, via different formats and media), which when performed for us live have us positively levitating in our seats, the entire piece singing within us

The evening began with a selection of music cues which successfully established Zimmer, his band, the orchestra and then chorus in a sleek introduction—a lively ensemble piece (‘Driving’) from Driving Miss Daisy (1989) featuring Zimmer on piano, the upbeat deliberately untidy Holmes theme (‘Discombobulate’) from Sherlock Holmes (with Zimmer on banjo), a strings-based fast-tempo piece (‘Zoosters Breakout’) from Madagascar (2005) that unveiled the full symphony just beyond the band, and an impressive display of the Crouch End Festival Chorus for the towering Crimson Tide (1995) piece ‘Roll Tide’. This segued into the flamboyant midsection of Act One—an extended rendition of the main theme (‘160 BPM’) from Angels and Demons (2009) with drum solo by percussionist Satnam Ramgotra, a suite of themes from Gladiator featuring mezzo-soprano Miriam Blennerhassett (‘The Wheat’, ‘The Battle’, ‘Honour Him’, ‘Now We Are Free’), and the slow-building anthem ‘Chevaliers de Sangreal’ from The Da Vinci Code (2006). The ensemble was perhaps at its best in a special rendition of ‘Circle of Life’ from The Lion King, which brought together Czarina Russell (as vocalist) with the wonderful South-African singer Lebo M (Lebohang Morake). In the final piece before the intermission, Zimmer highlighted Tristan Schulze on the cello for a turbulent, at times bittersweet, set from the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels Dead Man’s Chest (‘Jack Sparrow’) and At World’s End (‘Up Is Down’).

For Act Two, ostensibly the freer session of the evening allowing for some experimentation, Zimmer took care to include more of his guest musicians and Remote Control Productions artists in the frame. Opening the first set: the always delightful ‘You Are So Cool’ from True Romance (1993), foregrounding percussionists Frank Ricotti and Gary Kettle; an otherworldly piece from Rain Man (1988) in which synthesisers and steel drums mix with pan pipes; and a show-piece (again) for Russell in the form of Green Card (1990), a grandiose work which embellished the melodies and oriental tones of the original cue ‘Instinct’. The midsection combined two show-off set pieces: ‘What Are You Going To Do When You Are Not Saving The World?’ from Man Of Steel, and ‘Journey To The Line’ from The Thin Red Line (1998). In the final set, violinist Igudesman delivered a simultaneously impressive and hair-raising performance as the schizophrenic voice of ‘My Enemy’ from this year’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (on the subsequent evening of the 11th, Pharrell Williams performed his Oscar-nominated ‘Happy’ from Despicable Me 2 (2013), and relieved Igudesman as vocalist on ‘My Enemy’); and lastly, Zimmer’s rampaging Dark Knight suite included The Dark Knight’s (2008) ‘Why So Serious?’, which drew melodies briefly from ‘Like A Dog Chasing Cars’ and ‘Introduce A Little Anarchy’, and from The Dark Knight Rises (2012) the music cue ‘Gotham’s Reckoning’, in which Zimmer himself led the memorable chanting effect (an aspect of the soundtrack much publicised prior to release)—this successfully brought the ensemble to a point where they could introduce ‘Aurora’, Zimmer’s “heartfelt tribute to the victims and families” of the Colorado shootings noted above (and see, ‘Hans Zimmer composes song for Aurora shooting victims’, Hollywood Reporter, Tina Daunt, 2012). An encore then turned us to the project for which Zimmer is perhaps most revered and sadly reviled: Inception (2010). The suite combined ‘Dream Is Collapsing’, the energetic ‘Mombasa’ and the comparatively subtle ‘Time.’

Hans Zimmer receives a standing ovation at the close of his concert, Hans Zimmer Revealed

A kind of non-traditional film concert then—combining modern compositions with ‘new’ renditions of mid-1990s classic scores—Hans Zimmer Revealed delivered on at least two fronts: it showcased the talents of Remote Control artists, particularly Ann Marie Simpson-Calhoun and Aleksey Igudesman, giving them ample space to thrill and entertain audiences with their dynamic performances; secondly, it gave Zimmer a forum to present his own compositions in a knockabout way that sits, if not arrogantly, then uneasily alongside the other conservative programmes of film music still lined up for the remainder of the year. The musical selection, though broadly predictable, was also very well received. For me personally, the highpoints of past events have involved old familiar friends: music cues that have been with us for years (if not for most of our lifetime, via different formats and media), which when performed for us live in a room of thousands or a few hundred have us positively levitating in our seats, the entire piece singing within us. With Hans Zimmer Revealed I felt very much a reversal of this tendency, the cues which I consider to be ‘old friends’ passing me by, leaving little or no impression: Gladiator failed, perhaps unsurprisingly, to match the sheer strength and stomp of the Philharmonia Film Orchestra’s performance of Gladiator Live earlier this year (Royal Albert Hall, 2014), which did itself feature a star appearance by an impeccable Lisa Gerrard; similarly, ‘Journey to the Line’ from The Thin Red Line, for some a standout piece that evening, failed to move me as once it certainly did in my teens, its repetitive nature and simplicity a bit underwhelming to me now. Suffice to say, the more pulse-racing, bass-pounding tunes which Zimmer assembled for his recent collaborations with Christopher Nolan, and to an extent Gore Verbinski, electrified the crowd and impressed the most. Dark Knight I enjoyed immensely, as well as cues I hadn’t previously heard, such as Green Card and Madagascar; and with both Richard Harvey and Lebo M onstage together, you can imagine how utterly uplifting the ensemble’s rendition of The Lion King turned out to be. The sense of fun that was persistent throughout this performance, for me returned again in ‘What Are You Going To Do When You Are Not Saving The World?’, the slow-build crescendo from Man Of Steel—and so much took me by surprise with this piece: the emphatic violin work of Simpson particularly (but Igudesman also) sits with me still as a lasting image, the wild drum rhythm of Ramgotra, the slick guitar riff played by Johnny Marr (who has worked with Zimmer on the soundtracks for Inception and The Amazing Spider-Man 2), and Zimmer himself at the keyboard. And though ‘My Enemy’ erupted with a force and mania that coloured pretty much everything that followed it (some soundtrack fans have complained that it had no place in the repertoire at all), it nonetheless served a purpose in reflecting the tastes of Zimmer as a programmer of unconventional music (Goldsmith: “his music, his way”).

I confess to loving the sheer volume of sound here—this was the one performance in over a dozen now that I’ve attended in which causing myself actual hearing loss might well have been on the cards throughout the course of the evening! Add to this an impressive line-up of soloists and some very well rehearsed set-pieces, and Zimmer’s ambitious debut (“his first public concert”) registers more strongly than any film concert that has preceded it. Many people have reservations about Zimmer’s material, the influence he has on the contemporary Hollywood film industry which is seen as disproportionate compared to other star composers, and the impact of his methodology on the conventions of classical film scoring—I, for one, entered the Hammersmith Apollo expecting to be beaten over the head, and left believing I’d experienced something quite phenomenal.

Images: by me.

16 October, 2014


Unstable States: Park Kwang-su, The Year of the 12 Directors

There is not much doubt that Park Kwang-su, the former deputy director of the Busan International Film Festival—now fifty-seven years old, and a Dean in the National University of Arts’ Department of Filmmaking—is one of the most important filmmakers to ever be invited to the Korean movie scene in London. His earliest films were instrumental in charging mainstream cinema with a sense of political purpose and ideological critique at a time when the creative industries were still under heavy scrutiny from the state. Chilsu and Mansu (Chil-su hwa Man-su, 1988), Park’s debut feature raised basic questions concerning political reform under two of Korea’s major dictatorships; A Single Spark (Aleumda-un cheongnyeon Jeon Tae-il, 1995), released three years after the election of the South’s first civilian president, brought Park wider attention in the mainstream for dramatising the self-immolation of Jeon Tae-il, a workers’ rights activist who fought for social transformation and better working conditions in the seventies, and who is probably still a household name given that national boycotts concerning labour matters still persist. His other films—Black Republic (Guedeuldo ulicheoleom, 1990), Berlin Report (Beleulin lipoteu, 1991), To the Starry Island (Geu seom-e gago sipda, 1993) and The Uprising (I Jaesu-ui nan, 1998)—continued in a similar vein, underscoring the impact of state-sanctioned violence on student protestors and isolating aspects of the nation’s history to critique its forward momentum. Park regards the socio-political scene with the same analytical eye today, but he is taking on other assignments, other films: Meet Mr. Daddy (Shiny Day, Nunbushin Nal-ae, 2007), which played here this evening, in the third event of ‘The Year Of The 12 Directors’ series, was full of kiddies and footballs and terminal illness, and left not one dry face in the room.

One of the most startling aspects of the Korean movie scene in London is that almost every event arranged by the Korean Cultural Centre is handled like a terrific press opportunity. Today, you can expect to find Cultural Centre staff scrambling up the aisles on both sides of the theatre, documenting the occasion with still cameras for use in some e-brochure few of us will probably ever see, and a girl taping the event far up at the front of the room with two Camcorders will whirl around midway through a session to record the faces of those stable enough to grab the microphone and speak publicly. None of this seems unusual to the organisers, whose good-natured terrier-like enthusiasm is also a characteristic of the movie scene, but it is enough to muddle and confuse the brain of the unsuspecting Englishman. And since there’s not a lot of room in the Apollo Piccadilly and West End Odeons for this level of attention, or for that matter the equipment, the show can rattle the nerves of anybody with anything approaching a red carpet phobia.

For his part, Park had been doing this all day, meeting filmgoers and students at the National Film and Television School, giving interviews on the Strand, then giving more across town in Piccadilly, and now introducing himself for a post-film Q & A and ceremonial round of hand-shaking. He was a paragon of decency, answering in a soft-spoken manner that settled everyone; from time to time he joked with the interpreter about adding something more in her notebook after saying his piece and their friendly interaction lightened the tone. At the meet-and-greet session later, he regarded the whole act of autographing and posing with fans for photographs as both an amusement and mystery, as if not quite believing that for each and every person here at least one film of his had left its mark. Our host, Dr. Mark Morris, a heavyweight in East Asian film studies and lecturer at Cambridge, explained that Park’s films matched political criticism with artistic integrity, and that no other Korean filmmaker, besides perhaps Im Kwon-taek, had been more influential in steering the course and development of the Korean New Wave.

The first comments from the director were cool and short. “In contrast to my previous films, which I always prepared and had the ideas for, Meet Mr. Daddy was the investor’s idea . . .” “I don’t know exactly where my ideas come from, but I would choose the story I most wanted to tell people and then go right on ahead and tell it.”

Things got rolling when the subject of censorship under the two major regimes—President Park Chung-hee in the seventies and Chun Doo-hwan in the eighties—was raised. “Indeed, censorship was a very serious issue in the beginning, and I was careful with my films. If we had rubbish on the street in one scene then it would be edited out, or I would otherwise have to substitute scenes in order to get a film distributed.” These cuts would have been imposed by the Public Performance Ethics Committee (PPEC), a government board which screened each and every film produced by a company expecting a licensed commercial release and reviewing it carefully in its pre- and post-production phases to make sure everything was acceptable for the state; when Park submitted his second feature film, Black Republic, in 1990 the PPEC deleted a flashback sequence on the grounds that it depicted, and in all likelihood would have “encouraged,” antigovernment activity. “Nowadays in Korea,” he continued, “it’s hardly an issue anymore, but back then I had to release Chilsu and Mansu on the opening day of the Olympics ceremony, when no one was really paying attention, just to get it shown.”

Park was writing honestly about the basic issues of the day; he had no desire to whip the people into an agitated frenzy, as some might suppose he did, and whatever progressive ideas or questions he teased in his films were not necessarily isolated from the everyday realities and artistic considerations of filmmaking

This was a critical period in South Korean history and Chilsu and Mansu a vital product of that time. The Summer Olympics of 1988 was a massive propaganda show intended exclusively for party political purposes. With President Chun Doo-hwan at the helm throughout most of the eighties, any form of legitimate opposition or political protest against the military regime was forbidden and violently repressed. Television, film, radio and print were tightly controlled and used to plug the red scare message with news of impending doom coming from the North. But when Chun went down in 1987, the disputed 17 December election went to his hand-picked successor Roh Tae-woo. The Olympics went ahead as Chun had planned but according to David Black and Shona Bezanson “the combination of widespread internal dissent” and massive international scrutiny at this time “had a signal effect on the pace and peacefulness” of the transition towards democracy. A paper for the John Hopkins University which considered the legacy of the Seoul Olympics said that, on the subject of activism, the Chun government had successfully “constrained radical action” by giving the public (“students and the middle class”) a stake in the Olympic preparations. A more comprehensive study by James Larson and Park Heung-soo found that although the Summer Olympics could not be separated from the Chun government in the mass consciousness, the ideological message nevertheless filtered through, via President Roh, that the eyes of the world were watching and a concerted effort should be made to “work for the Olympics out of national pride.”

Screaming at the bastards of Seoul: billboard painters Man-su (Ahn Sung-ki) and Chil-su (Park Joon-hoon) in Park Kwang-su’s Chilsu and Mansu (1988)

It was in this context that Park’s screen version of Chil-su hwa Man-su, which was deeply aligned with the play directed by Kim Sok-man for the Yonu Theatre Company in 1986, became so valuable. The film and play were almost seen as failures by radicals deeply committed to the removal of military influence from all aspects of Korean public life—they pushed, instead, for hard art, plays and films that could beat the crackdown and disseminate their message more widely. But above ground, both Kim’s play and Park’s screen version expressed criticism of the major regimes in unprecedented ways, thus earning a definite place in the history of the cultural movement. Eugène Van Erven, in his 1988 discussion of resistance theatre, explains the political significance of the play, but above all he points to the value of improving the aesthetics of the theatre movement and migrating “underground” ideas to nervous popular audiences. For his part, Park Kwang-su successfully brought some of these ideas to the cinematic mainstream and to this day he is remembered for it.

Looking back he says that he was simply writing and filming honestly about the basic issues of the day; he had no desire to whip the people into an agitated frenzy, as some might suppose he did, and whatever progressive ideas or questions he teased and prodded in his film were not necessarily isolated from the everyday realities and artistic considerations of filmmaking.

“Every night I would go home, work on the script, then come back and devise the next scene. The first half of the film was very haphazard and I just told the actors to say whatever so we could get it done. But in the second half we had to make do . . . [In retrospect] I think that part of the film is quite weak.”

Kim Gi-young (Moon Sung-keun) and Young-sook (Shim Hye-jin) in Black Republic (1990)

“Back then hardly anyone made serious or political films; today many directors are tackling these issues, anyone can do it”

Ha Sun-young (Ye Ji-won) with daughter Joon (Seo Sin-ae) in Meet Mr. Daddy (2007)

On this matter, Park includes the film’s most iconic scene: two downtrodden sign-painters, having completed a giant billboard in the city featuring a tanned blonde in a bikini, suffer a meltdown and release their pent-up frustrations on the general public below. “In the 1980s, it was illegal for foreign men and women to be models in Korea. Of course, for the last scene in Chilsu and Mansu we had to use an advertisement with a foreign female model on it. Well, the police came and ordered us to pull it down immediately. So I rushed to shoot coverage of all the scenes with the billboard in shot, and then later filmed everything in the other direction.”

With his most on-the-edge work now behind him, a few in the audience wondered if the director was on extended sabbatical from filmmaking to prioritise study . . . or would he change his mind some day soon and take on the domestic political arena again: go strong with a batch of films about the conservatives, the American problem, anything. To this, Park said that his hands were tied until the summer break, and though he would be putting together some action later this year he was keen to avoid the political merry-go-round and go straight with a different demographic.

“In the past I focussed a lot on the pure arts and theatre, which spoke to a minority audience of educated people. I moved into film in order to communicate with a larger, more-everyday audience, but it transpired that the intellectual viewers picked up on my films again, partially due to my methodology. So the driving question for me remains: how best to communicate with the audience? Back then there was hardly anyone making serious or political films, but today many directors are tackling these issues, anyone can do it . . . It’s time for me to think about what kind of film I should make, and my desire is to communicate with a more popular audience. That’s not to say that I will avoid making films with social and political issues in the future—but hopefully I can produce something that will satisfy that driving question.”

What interested me about his quote there was the emphasis on personal expression. Park has spoken before about needing to steer away from certain audiences, and since he is no longer pushed by the ideological issues of the day, or by a sense of duty to lift the restrictions on cinematic expression, he sounds more relaxed and optimistic about the market for film. It was the closest we would come that evening to a personal reflection on whatever it was that he had in mind next. On that score, there is no shortage of bad motion pictures in South Korea today; a good lot of them are destined for the waste-bin and serve no real purpose other than to sustain the domestic market share and hold it in its current shape. What keeps our interest and hope alive, at least those of us in the West who still see in Korean exports a spirit and conviction that may not necessarily be present or firing satisfactorily enough for our tastes in other national cinemas, are the growing number of socially-conscious filmmakers who occasionally take the harder line and produce something of sublime quality, something political, sensual, a thing that moves us, a thing at best intimate, imaginative and delightful.

This article was originally published by New Korean Cinema.
9 April, 2012


Part I

Interview with Kim Han-min, director of War of the Arrows:
“It’s technically very difficult getting a tiger into a film”

“It was the one military practice, the one token of martial skill, which ever held its own among a people who for thousands of years have preferred silks, pictures, poems and music, the stately crane in the paddy fields and the knarled [sic] pine on the mountainside.”
—Historian J. L. Boots on Korean archery, from Korean Weapons
and Armour Transactions of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic
, December 1934
Having made it through to the semi-finals of the national championships, successful young target shooter Park Nam-joo is ready to blow her chances in a playoff against Olympic Gold medallist Yun Ok-hee. She can see the counter on the red timing clock ticking over fast, but her breathing is all wrong, and the only thing that concerns her now is holding position to regain her rhythm. But she buckles and breaks stance. No mistaking that reaction. At full draw again, arrow tethered and ready for release, the counter hits zero and she’s left staring in disbelief at the target . . . “She failed!” croak the announcers; and then a blizzard of criticisms pinpointing her rotten sense of timing in shootoffs. The tournament’s over for Park Nam-joo. Returning to her family, tear-stricken and breathing heavily, she presents her runners-up medal to a photograph of her missing thirteen year-old niece, a bright young thing who within minutes of Nam-joo’s defeat had been whisked off by a shambling mutant fish-beast from the Han river and presumably drowned en route to the banks lining the far side. Sobbing, pained, exhausted, the Park family unite behind Nam-joo in filial piety. “It’s bronze,” her brother says to the photograph, wiping aside his tears. “Bronze!” And then the weeping grandfather: “Your aunt brought you a . . .” his voice breaking, bone in his throat, “. . . a bronze medal.” Then follow hysterics and misery like you have never seen.

You wonder if they’ve not simply gone bonkers over Nam-joo’s terminal underachievement. If it is widely known that archery is practically Korea’s national sport, it is also known that Korean coaches try not to do anything halfway . . . Passing on to your missing thirteen year-old niece the news that her bright and talented aunt Nam-joo has returned from the national championships a bronze medallist is about as pale and meaningless a piece of information as telling your ancestors there is a new Barbara Streisand album in the works. And if the reality is indeed very different, then many in the West can be forgiven for assuming that a bronze in Korean archery is someone’s idea of a bad joke. One reason why this sequence from Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (Goemul, 2006) is so cutting is that it embraces precisely this heritage and uses it to frame the Park family’s inadequacies. This opening line from a New York Times article about the Beijing Summer Olympics of 2008 gets right to the heart of it: “The South Korean women started Sunday by smashing the world record and then got what they really came to the Olympics to get, what they always come to get: the archery team gold.”

What they always come to get.

Park Hae-il, as master archer Nam-Yi, readies an arrow using a three finger under case grip in War of the Arrows

There is no reason why I should have spent time after my interview with director Kim Han-min thinking of this scene specifically. Set in the middle of the seventeenth century, when Chosŏn Korea was invaded by the Manchu for the second time in ten years, Kim’s propulsive, whiz-bang historical/action drama War of the Arrows has nothing to do with the national championships or target shooting in modern Korea. It instead condenses a savage and traumatic historical event into a punchy and poignant return-of-the-hero tale. But in its last few moments our conversation switched to the broader subject of Korean archery as tradition, and it is precisely because there was not enough time to get seriously into the thing that I left with this perspective.

With War of the Arrows imagery everywhere and PR staff politely hustling, Kim has the confidence of a man who has turned a full-bore, 100-day long, multi-million dollar production into the year’s biggest attraction at the multiplex

Kim has said he considers the bow and arrow to be the vital element of his film. It is a pitch I hear first hand in interview—“I wanted to make a historical drama which introduced and focused on the arrow and the bow”—and again later at the press screening where he fields questions from the audience. I had planned originally to de-emphasise this aspect of the film for our discussion, feeling that if War of the Arrows should be viewed as anything then it shouldn’t be as, primarily, a “bow and arrow movie” (especially in light of the marketing push). But then Kim observes, with some pride, that like thousands of other children in South Korea he was taught archery in his junior years (archery is taught at elementary school, high-school and college level by designated coaches who spend between three and six months running drills); that the sound of an arrow striking its target left an indelible impression on him—and with that he cuts right through the one-dimensional note of the marketing message and has my attention.

This exciting contemporary form, he says, is directly rooted in a long and excellent tradition which extends back to Chosŏn Korea. His assertion that “the arrow and bow is one of the [few] iconic symbols that hasn’t been severed from history,” in fact, pinpoints the thinking behind, among others, Yun Ok-hee’s own public attempts to promote the historical legacy of Korean archery. Yun, whose F.I.T.A. world ranking has floated consistently between first and third place since 2006, argues that the achievements of Korean archers in Olympic and world championships is evidence of this legacy: “Our sensitive fingertips handed down from our ancestors and our spiritual strength and willingness to fight to the very end are our secrets.” Set in this context, then, Kim’s film might even be viewed as a tribute.

Director Kim Han-min at the London Korean Cultural Centre (photo I London)

We’re holding the interview in the library corner of the Korean Cultural Centre at a time when the film’s total ticket sales are 450,000 shy of Sunny (Sseoni, 2011), the friendships-and-terminal-illness tale from writer-director Kang Hyung-chul which has mushroomed beyond anything we might have expected and currently holds the top spot for biggest domestic draw of the year. Within the month, War of the Arrows will pass the 7.4 million admissions mark, moving it safely out of the commercial blockbusters zone but still short of the sort of numbers racked up by the disaster phenomenon Haeundae (aka., Tidal Wave, 2009) and the 2008 sleeper comedy Scandal Makers (aka., Speed Scandal, Gwasokseukaendeul). But the train doesn’t stop there. At this point, Kim and his sales team are skilfully carving out an international platform for the film that will take it from London to the States, where it’s set to play in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Dallas; to Canada where it’s confirmed in Toronto and Vancouver; and then back here for the festival stint where it opens the London Korean Film Festival in November.

Not for nothing does Kim want to understand how well the film—its nationalist themes and archetypes—plays with an international audience. It’s an instinct which shines later at the festival press launch where he charms the audience ... but I wonder how far any of this goes in serving his contention that War of the Arrows is “a deep and meaningful film”

Which is nice for Kim, and good for K.O.F.I.C., the state-supported organisation responsible for promoting Korean films abroad and supplying the majority of us in the west with information . . . But all of this has an effect on the realities of interviewing. With War of the Arrows imagery everywhere and PR staff politely hustling, Kim has the confidence and edge of a man who has turned a full-bore, 100-day long, multi-million dollar production into possibly the year’s single biggest attraction at the Korean multiplex. “The amount of pressure was immense,” admits the director. “I started filming in February this year and had to finish on June 9 for an August 10 release date.” While principal photography is usually shorter for Korean films—obviously this part of the production process was very much influenced by the unique aesthetic and technical demands, as well as economic factors, of the historical film; by contrast, typical productions can be turned around in well under twelve weeks—there is no question at all that War of the Arrows’ post-production period was alarmingly short, even with the benefits of Korea’s growing post-production services and industry. “It was an incredibly short period of time, it required very clear and succinct communication with a lot of different people. I received help from specialist members of staff and liaised with the special effects departments very closely. The pressure was huge, but I was very lucky to have met such good crew members this year—sometimes they came up with better ideas than me so this made things easier!”

A Korea Times piece on War of the Arrows, published in August (‘Arrows aims for new horizons’), gives the impression that the film’s production budget was low; this is true of historical films produced in the globalised Hollywood system but not in the current Korean industry where lavish budgets on the scale of I Saw the Devil (Angmareul Boatda, 2010) are exceptionally rare. In 2010, the average production budget, excluding prints and advertising, was KW 1.42 billion (US$1.2 million); by contrast, Kim’s film, earmarked from the start as a big-budget historical production, cost KW 9 billion (US$8.5 million). I quote this information to Kim, primarily because it is worth getting confirmation on production budgets at every unusual opportunity but also because I want to test The Korea Times’ contention that a US$8-9 million budget should be restrictive at all in the current Korean film industry. Kim laughs. “There was nothing I couldn’t do with that money. If it was a bit more I could maybe have looked after the staff a bit better . . .”

Moon Chae-won as Ja-in, sister to Na-mi, on the day of her wedding

Kim seems to prefer writing and directing his own projects. Though he has worked with other screenwriters—on his short-film debut Sympathy (Yeonmin, 1998) and then again on his second feature, the occasionally daffy blackmail thriller Handphone (Haendeupon, 2009), written by Kim Mi-hyun—his self-authored output has performed more respectably at the box office and garnered local festival awards. To date he has written and directed the short films Sunflower Blues (1999) and Three Hungry Brothers (Galchiguidam, 2003), his feature debut Paradise Murdered, aka. Paradise 1986 (Geukrakdo Salinsageon, 2007), which made the top best selling films list in the year of its release, and of course War of the Arrows. “My first priority and main job is directing. It is a bit unfortunate that I can’t find a like-minded writer, I just end up doing the job myself . . . Strangely, the films where I’ve had another writer onboard, like Handphone, were not the ones that were commercially successful. I’ve been mulling that point over recently, to see what that’s about.”

Park Sol-mi as teacher Jang Gwi-nam—a role that earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the 2007 Blue Dragon Film Awards—in Kim Han-min’s debut feature
Paradise Murdered (Geukradko Salinsageon, 2007)

Jeong Yi-gyu (Park Yong-woo) pesters entertainment agency rep
Oh Seung-min (Eom Tae-woong) in Handphone (Haendeupon, 2009)

Paradise Murdered and Handphone were received as “serious” thriller mysteries, attracting a more sophisticated audience than your typical adolescent, though on reflection both films surprise with their dark comic register. Consider one early sequence in Paradise Murdered. The surviving residents on Geukrak Island have all assembled in an empty schoolroom to discuss the recent murders of two locals and the unexplained disappearance of a third, Deok-su. En passant, Kim for no apparent reason inserts a gaggle of vignettes which would not look out of place in a Daffy Duck cartoon: an elasticised killer in wetsuit, white gloves and a snorkel tossing a bright red body-bag into the ocean; in the next, the same man seen from overhead, this time tunnelling out a six-foot burial plot for the tied-up, not-yet-dead corpse itching for freedom nearby; and the punchline has a pair of (apparently) conjoined rocks sprouting from the blue sea, a spiralling arrow pointing down towards them and the accompanying caption: “Deok-su’s ass.” Gamely overturning the dramatic pace and structure of the schoolroom scene in this manner, Kim flits schizophrenically between, on the one hand, suspenseful half-sinister debate and, on the other, the tempestuous exertions of an anonymous killer with all the wit and grace of a Chuck Jones villain. On the subject of Paradise Murdered, I ask about this scene and if, given that the entire film must bear his stamp as a writer-director, he feels that any of this madcap zaniness channels his personal idiosyncrasies. After hearing the translation, he belts out the sort of laugh which is probably heard at the far end of the building and maybe in reception too. Settling back with a broad, mischievous grin, he replies simply: “Most definitely yes.” But as he is prone to do on the publicity circuit he launches immediately into a direct question of his own, pointing to a scene in his new film—in which our dazed hero Nam-Yi (Park Hae-il), having engaged his prospective brother-in-law (Kim Mu-yeol) in a drunken, sprawling tavern fight, is compelled to yield, and then vomits all over his opponent’s face—and asking if it does roughly the same trick.

Moments earlier Kim asked another pointed question, this time about the different weapon systems used in his film by the Ch’ing and Chosŏn dynasty armies, and the subtle variations within these systems. He evidently enjoys asking the questions. More than being civil or reserved in interview, Kim seems genuinely interested in finding out what you have to say to him in this short, sharp time slot; not for nothing does he want to understand how well the film—its nationalist themes and archetypes—plays with an international audience: this is, lest we forget, the most well-publicised Korean blockbuster of the year. It’s an instinct which shines later at the festival press launch, where he implores a hundred journalists, embassy staff, hotel and theatre personnel, event organisers and excitable young film geeks to bring any film-specific questions right up to him in person once the grim, for being so formal, business of the onstage Q & A is over. To this end, he succeeds in charming the audience, speaking with a humility and confidence that engages us all, but I wonder how far any of this goes in serving his contention that War of the Arrows is “a deep and meaningful film.”

1 November, 2011

Part II


Part II

Interview with Kim Han-min, director of War of the Arrows:
“It’s technically very difficult getting a tiger into a film”

Park Hae-il as the master archer Nam-Yi in War of the Arrows

Though little of this makes it into the final film, it is worth recalling the devastating impact of the Japanese invasions in the late sixteenth century. Intended to bring about the destabilisation of Ming China, this bitter war exposed the complacency of Chosŏn Korea, shocking the military leadership from its general malaise and arousing the ire of the elite classes (Confucianists and bureaucrats all) who demanded absolute immediate reform. Little changed, however, and the first Manchu invasion of 1627 exposed these weaknesses again. The second Manchu invasion of 1636-7 forced the Chosŏn state into a humiliating capitulation. It culminated finally in the establishment of tributary relations with the Ch’ing, thus ensuring Korean submission to China until remarkably well into the nineteenth century. Kim’s film draws on the almighty upheaval of this second invasion, and its interest, born of necessity, is in the spectacle not the story. In creating a resistance tale which turns on the promise of reunion between a brother (Nam-Yi) and sister (Ja-In, played by Moon Chae-won) separated by invasion, Kim shifts the narrative focus away from the Chosŏn state, its political structures and the collateral damage of war.

Despite this stripped-back, clipped-wing approach, his film touches on two key issues which make up for its curious love affair with the bow and arrow; both invite us to sympathise with its lead characters’ suffering on a personal as well as a political level. First, Ja-In and her fiancé are forced to make an impossible choice that damages irreparably their bond to the Korean nation-state. Second, the story of Nam-Yi, who is hell-bent on rescuing his sister from Prince Dorgon of the Ch’ing, negotiates the tension between ethnic difference and national identity.

Kim speaks earnestly of his need to take a step back from the project in order to deliver a commercial film, but his concern for stating this point in interview is revealing when set against his obvious enthusiasm for both the historical period and the tactics of short- and long-range archery

Kim smiles when I broach the subject and he takes a moment. “Historically, Korea has frequently been invaded by the surrounding countries. At that point of suffering—where the people are oppressed and repressed—emerges a very determined spirit, a noble spirit. I wanted to create a simple story and drama, yet a powerful drama to convey this.” It is in this tension, this struggle between the oppressor and oppressed, the invader and prisoner-of-war, that War of the Arrows catches its most potent theme. The question that haunts Ja-In and other prisoners as they reach the Manchurian border—“Can we ever go back?”—reflects their deep-seated anxieties about the symbolic significance of crossing from one nation to the other. Here, border lines and identity are open questions. In one scene, as several hundred prisoners-of-war crawl along a hillside in the northern provinces, a high point-of-view shot shows the beauty of the wild and unprotected land they leave behind; treasures, as well as traditions, they are forced to abandon. In the film's closing stages the returning survivors, bloodied and exhausted, cross back into Korea not as heroes (who freed prisoners from servitude and almost certainly death), but as traitors, unprepared (and perhaps unfit) to die for their country. A coda claims there were no formal cases of repatriation.

Kim also stresses that many of his actors speak note-perfect Manchu, the official dynastic language, now endangered, of the Ch’ing which was seriously under threat as early as the eighteenth century. According to articles in China Daily, The New York Times and from Reuters a few dozen of the 10 million Manchu living in the north-eastern provinces and in Beijing today can speak the language fluently; Jin Yanshan, a delegate from Liaoning, explains it without any frills: “In my home village, the old people still use the odd word of Manchu, like for mother or father. That’s it. There is no environment for it.” Kim’s efforts to recover the language from the precious few primary schools and villages where it is still practised in north-east China lends some credibility to the claim that he is as much concerned with history and tradition as he is with arrows, gorge-jumping and Mexican stand-offs. Although little is made of the intercultural connection between Nam-Yi and his Manchurian arch rival, Jyu Shin-Ta (Ryoo Seung-yong), the merging of the two languages, Korean and Manchu, heightens the familial bond between the multilingual Nam-Yi and his sister (described as the “best archer in the Chosŏn dynasty” and “the beauty of the region” respectively in the English press book) with powerful reverberations. The film may verge towards generic convention here, but it draws attention to the demographic mixing of ethnic and social identities by expunging Nam-Yi and Ja-In’s “mysterious” mother from the narrative altogether. The subtext is as loud as the impact of one of Jyu Shin-Ta’s arrows.

Director Kim Han-min at the London Korean Cultural Centre (photo I London)

Production company Dasepo Club and investment management firm DCG Plus voiced concerns early on in production about the tiger sequence and tried holding Kim back from shooting it altogether

But in fulfilling the demand to make plot, genre and characterisation more transparent for new audiences, Kim admits to taking a step back and reducing to a minimum the things that originally interested him: this includes of course some of the nuances of traditional ground archery. Adds Kim on this point: “Unfortunately it slowed the rhythm of the film, so this element, this focus, had to be more succinct and simplified.” In its theatrical form, these matters are subordinate to the key melodramatic thrust of the film which deepens our understanding of Nam-Yi as an outsider: the film emphasises the unavoidable fact that, as the descendant of a national traitor, Nam-Yi too is considered with suspicion and contempt; also emphasised is a sense of personal failure on Nam-Yi’s part—his mission to rescue Ja-In from the Manchurian Prince becomes a sort of hysterical antidote, as well as an opportunity to both honour the memory of his father and fulfil his duty as Ja-In’s protector. Though Kim speaks earnestly about turning in a schematic, well-paced melodrama (with far greater narrative redundancy than either of his previous features), his concern for stating this point the right way is revealing when set against his obvious enthusiasm for both the historical period (a huge cinematic subject in its own right) and for the tactics of short- and long-range archery.

Manchurian warrior Jyu Shin-Ta (Ryoo Seung-ryong) and his elite troop
of trained assassins, the Niru, stalk Nam-Yi in the wild

On the day of her wedding, Ja-In (Moon Chae-won) is kidnapped
and held captive by the Niru of Ch’ing

On a technical level also, Kim has good reason to feel dissatisfied with a key digital effects sequence. As the elite Niru troop led by Jyu Shin-Ta pursue our hero up a rocky mountainside and into a box canyon with seemingly nowhere to go, a wild tiger repels their attack, tearing ruthlessly into their number and permitting Nam-Yi’s escape. Though it is regrettable that the digital effects team, working to a tight post-production schedule, produced such a hollow series of rendered images in the finished film, the apparently risk-averse Dasepo Club and DCG Plus (production and investment management companies respectively) voiced concerns early on in production about the entire sequence, and tried holding Kim back from shooting it altogether. “That was a very contentious issue,” he admits. “It was technically very difficult because the funding companies and investors were against it. But for me as the director, the thought of not having the tiger appearing in this picture, on the mountain top, was just ridiculous.” Indeed, the whole set-piece allows Kim to extend thematic connections of importance to his commentary on traditional virtue and morality. As elsewhere in East Asia, most obviously China, the tiger is a symbol of virtue and righteousness; in Korean folk belief specifically, the tiger has supernatural attributes connecting it to the Mountain Spirit; and in rituals, paintings and other art objects, it is portrayed as a mountain god, a sacred guardian, to which the oppressed, needy and diseased do turn. In the film, the scene’s sting-in-the-tail ending succeeds in unnerving Jyu Shin-Ta and the surviving men in his troop: the tiger’s attack on the Niro suggests that their ghoulish fate is just. So the scene is of importance not for its computer-generated, Gladiator-style spectacle, but because of what the tiger is shown doing. “Some of our national characteristics are strongly associated with the symbol of the tiger,” says Kim. “It’s an animal the Korean people have a lot of national respect for. So I was very persistent and stubborn about it, that’s why [this sequence] was included.”

Nam-Yi engages the Niru in a game of cat and mouse in War of the Arrows

For a moment I observe the standee board to Kim’s left, a stylised publicity shot of the star, Park Hae-il, brandishing a bow and arrow which he aims in our direction. It reminds me of a delicately handled training sequence in which the self-taught Nam-Yi walks beyond the long-range target at which his sister had earlier been aiming to reveal, directly concealed behind it, the target at which he has actually been firing, festooned with dozens and dozens of practice arrows. Nam-Yi has quietly perfected the skill of bending arrows through the air around rocks, trees and, but of course, enemies. It is a bone fide crowd-pleaser, tricksy, sped-up and fun. “Don’t you think arrows are more interesting than guns and knives?” Kim asks, shortly before wrapping. They can be, I say; I can’t speak for bow and arrow films, but in the world of guns at least there is a tangible difference between the strategic sniper fire of a film like Enemy at the Gates (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 2001, USA/Ger./UK/Ire.) and the power-worshipping, meatheaded realities of a Stallone movie. Critics may suggest that War of the Arrows sits somewhere between the two in action terms, straddling the divide, but to its credit the film succeeds in creating a sense of entrapment that forces Nam-Yi to retaliate tactically; and at the height of the hero’s exhilarating revenge attacks on the Niro there’s no denying the thrill of watching a single CG-assisted arrow nailing an assailant cleanly behind his hostage . . . So this idea that we can bend an arrow through the air and take out someone without them even knowing, is it possible? “I’m not going to tell you!” he says, and suddenly out comes that proud, freewheeling laugh again. “You will have to try it yourself.”

First place on the Honour Roll: director Kim Han-min. Warm thanks also to a jumble of people in the Korean Cultural Centre and the London Korean Film Festival Centre, including Paul Koren, and for her patience, Elizabeth from Margaret London. For doing her utmost to interpret my questions, big thanks and high praise to An Ji-yoon, resident translator at the LKFF. And thanking also Louise at Showbox for her help. This article was originally published by New Korean Cinema.

1 November, 2011

Part I


Festival news from Mayfair,
first impressions & a salute to curatorial ambition

Han Ji-min as Han Gaek-joo / Lee Ah-yeong in Kim Seok-yoon’s Detective K (2011)

A warm September evening at the May Fair hotel. This is, apparently, a good place to stay if you need to know who and what is hip now in the fashion world, but more appropriately for us it is traditionally London W1’s luxury rest stop for overseas filmmakers in festival season. Around one hundred finely managed people have assembled for the press launch of the London Korean Film Festival, the majority of us loitering in a windowless waiting room as others drift into the theatre from the suites or the bar above. Director Kim Han-min is in the green room, here to publicise his new film War Of The Arrows (hitherto Arrow: The Ultimate Weapon), which in addition to screening for us tonight is scheduled to open the festival formally in the first week of November; an image of its main protagonist, a sensational archer turned Chosun Dynasty-hero played by Park Hae-il, appears on standee boards everywhere. The auditorium is similar in size to the Curzon Mayfair, the seating all Ferrari leather trim with big armrests you can settle a laptop on, and the film we’re told is projected digitally through a contraption known as the Barco 2K, a system now several years old but custom built for the purposes of private suites with crazy 8-15 metre screens. Our mediator is Sight & Sound magazine’s Roger Clarke and he’ll be chairing the Q & A session later on he says. But we are not quite ready for Arrows, which is our main business of the evening, so before Kim’s introduction and the warm hello which we always give Ambassador Choo Kyu Ho, whose seat in front of me I briefly stole earlier, the lights are dimmed for our first look at the 2011 festival trailer. A sort of cinephiliac montage and distillation of the playbill, it begins modestly then whips into a merry-go-round of arrows, round kicks, charging soldiers, Han Ji-min’s glowing cleavage, and a baton fight between schoolgirls which goes effortlessly awry, the bespectacled perpetrator having a bang-up time thwacking her friend on the head while all around them anti-government demonstrations kick off. On the evidence presented here, Kang Hyung-chul’s Sunny looks set to steal the show this November.

Consistently one of the most hospitable as well as representative showcases for any foreign cinema in the U.K., the L.K.F.F. (now in its sixth year) matches the current might of domestic genre cinema with offbeat projects more commonly associated with the arthouse. Familiarity with the festival isn’t necessary, but regulars will recognise the format: the big-screen opening gala, onstage Q & A session with prominent filmmakers, themed programmes presenting the latest film trends, the director retrospective, animation day, the continuation of the Mise-en-scène Short Film Festival, and the obligatorily high-profile closing gala. Such a formula has served the festival well for years, but in light of the ongoing work at the Barbican, traditionally the festival’s quieter docile home, its complexion has changed. In 2010 the festival began mining a new seam in central London, playing to the weird carnival madnesses of Leicester Square on opening night, then invoking an older artistic heritage in the switch to the I.C.A. building located on the Mall. In particular the Apollo on Lower Regent Street—Piccadilly’s luxury digital cinema which uses new 4K CineAlta projection systems—galvanised the director’s retrospective and focused a multicoloured laserbeam on the whole show . . . The difference between a venue like the Apollo and the Barbican is roughly the same as the difference between spending a night in the middle of Berkeley Square and Jubilee Gardens. And as many of us will this year be redirected into Haymarket for a round of new films, Korean cinema will once again be under the spotlights where I feel it belongs: far from the perimeter, digging the sounds and nightlife of a vibrant city. It was a good time to move the L.K.F.F. 2010-1 into the mouth of the West End.

The difference between a venue like the Apollo and the Barbican is roughly the same as the difference between spending a night in the middle of Berkeley Square and Jubilee Gardens. And as many of us will this year be redirected into Haymarket for a round of new films, Korean cinema is once again under the spotlights where it belongs

Go Soo-hee, Hong Jin-hee, Yoo Ho-jeong and Lee Yeon-kyeong in Sunny (2011)

Seong Dong-il and Ryoo Seung-beom in Jo Jin-mo’s Suicide Forecast (2011)

In true Hollywood style, the big budget period piece (and second highest grossing domestic film in Korea) War of the Arrows opens the festival with a red-carpet screening and an onstage Q & A with its affable director Kim Han-min

Park Hae-il as master archer Nam-Yi in War of the Arrows (2011)

Though it isn’t finalised, the early playbill has enough meat on it to seal our interest. By now you may know that War Of The Arrows (Choijongbyeonggi Hwal, 2011), a proud action film of slick economy from the director of Paradise Murdered (Geukrakdo Salinsageon, 2006) and Handphone (2009), is the second highest grossing domestic film in Korea. In true Hollywood style, this big budget period piece opens the festival with a red-carpet screening and an onstage Q & A with its affable director. Although it’s not directly tied to the separate existence of the two Koreas (its hook is, rather, the second Manchu invasion of Korea in 1636), Kim wants international audiences to keep in mind the tensions between the D.P.R.K. and the South, particularly the strong resilience and spirit of modern South Koreans in the face of increasing militant action from the North. It’s a theme that readies us for one of the most engaging film strands on the bill in some years.

‘North & South,’ the dominant strand of 2011, brings together a selection of interesting cinematic responses to the phenomena of defection and border-crossing. The best of these deal with the harsh difficulties faced by North Korean settlers of cultural integration. In Park Jung-bum’s Journals of Musan (Musan ilgy, 2010) a North Korean settler toils under miserable conditions in a shantytown around Seoul while struggling to remake himself as a deserving citizen-subject. Jeon Kyu-hwan’s Dance Town (Danseu taun, 2010), a tale about a former professional table-tennis player’s successful defection (the third and final instalment in a trilogy based on urban alienation), brings to the fore the concept of gendered modernity and questions the stock representation of North Korean women purely and singularly as victims. In Poongsan (2011), director Juhn Jai-hong relates the current state of the modern nation’s ideological war with the North through the story of a high-priority defector and the Southern trafficker-cum-action hero commissioned to smuggle her out safely. And in Jang Hoon’s civil war film The Front Line (Gojijeon, 2011), which was selected by K.O.F.I.C. this year to be the official Korean entry for the 84th Academy Awards (and I imagine unwisely), the boundaries of ethnicity and nationality are once again overturned as North and South Korean forces fighting mercilessly over the same piece of land begin to lose their personal identities.

This year’s light comedy strand leads with the biggest domestic success of 2011, and possibly the darling of the festival, Sunny (Sseoni, 2011). Directed by Kang Hyung-chul, whose bright family-values comedy Scandal Makers (Gwasokseukaendeul, 2008) was a major crowd-pleaser two years ago, the film delves into the lives of seven middle-aged women who all attended the same girls high school in the eighties and there formed a gang nicknamed “Sunny.” The bonhomie is enhanced by Kim Sok-yun’s Detective K: Secret of Virtuous Widow (Joseon myungtamjung: Gakshituku ggotui biil, 2010), a daffy adventure romp and whodunit fusing Joseon dynasty conspiracy with rattle-brained slapstick; and there is dark comedy in Jo Jin-mo’s Suicide Forecast (Soosanghan Gogaekdeul, 2011), the picaresque tale of an insurance consultant who sells life policies to suicidal clients in the hope of finally nailing Employee of the Month.

Choi Min-sik as Kang Tae-shik and Ryoo Seung-beom as Yu Sang-hwan in Ryoo Seung-wan’s boxing drama Crying Fist (2004)

Ryoo Seung-wan—the first of two festival attendees returning to film after unexpected sabbaticals—is the subject of this year’s extended retrospective. The director of contemporary crime-action films, one boxing drama and a few unfortunate commercial misfires, Ryoo was obliged to make some interesting though stark choices following the poor revenues from the theatrical run of Dachimawa Lee (Aginiyeo Jioghaeng Geubhaengyeolchareul Tara, 2008). Frank in interview, as well as being refreshingly thoughtful about funding obstacles, the business and South Korea’s identity, Ryoo should lend an engaging personal touch to the retrospective as it’s confirmed he’ll be in attendance (like Jang Jin in 2010) for many of his film screenings. Our starting point appears to be No Blood No Tears (Pido Nunmuldo Eobshi, 2002), the first of Ryoo’s films to be backed by a studio though not the first in the director’s filmography. It’s about violence, opportunism and degradation in modern Korea: two downwardly mobile girls (a former safecracker-now-taxi-driver and an aspiring singer) steal a bag of money in a calculated move to escape their abusive relationships and dreary lives. Ryoo followed Arahan (Arahan jangpung daejakjeon, 2004), a mad melding of the superhero and martial arts genres, and Hey, Man! (2005), his second digital omnibus contribution, with Crying Fist (Joo-meok-ee oon-da, 2004). A less excitable film than its predecessors, Crying Fist unites Ryoo’s brother and long-time collaborator Seung-bum with fanboy favourite Choi Min-sik as two ruined men on a mission to become amateur boxing champions (with Choi fighting to win back his Rookie of the Year title after a fifteen year absence from the sport). The film was based on the true stories of Japanese businessman Hareruya Akira (see “Week in the Life: Hi, I’m Akira and I’ll be your human punchbag today,” The Independent, 1999) and “Korea’s Tyson” Seo-chol. Continuing the organised crime theme, Ryoo’s spin-kicking martial arts film The City Of Violence (Jjakpae, 2006) follows a detective and a reformed gangster (former high school buddies both, with Ryoo taking the role of the latter) from yo-yoing street fight to the guarded compound of their latest enemy, where the boys take on an entire fortressful of uniformed baddies and in the process hack the restaurant to sawdust. In 2008, Ryoo stepped away from his milieu of cops, felons and martial arts masters to reimagine his spy pastiche, Dachimawa Lee, originally conceived as a 35-minute omnibus short film and released digitally in 2000 (it was downloaded 1.5 million times). Drawing on the iconography of domestic 1970s spy films and Manchurian “Westerns” as well as Stateside TV like the Mission Impossible series, Lee (2008) is a bonkers retro parody about a legendary agent and his luckless helper-damsels fighting Japanese imperialists to retrieve a stolen Golden Buddha statuette.

Director Ryoo Seung-wan as Seok-hwan in his The City of Violence (2006)

Kong Hyo-jin as Keum Yeon-ja in Dachimawa Lee (2008)

Ryoo’s newest film, The Unjust (Budanggeorae, 2010), completes the retrospective. A twisting, looping puzzler which plays to Korean cynicism as well as paranoia about institutional corruption, The Unjust follows cutthroat policemen, businessmen and public prosecutors who plot against each other conspiratorially for personal gain then fight it out until the messy end.

Without question the most eagerly anticipated overseas visitor at the festival is self-taught filmmaker Kim Ki-duk. A filmmaker of great cultural and political significance today, Kim has overcome commercial changes in his home market by moving increasingly towards totally independent production. His new micro-budget film Arirang (2011), which closes the festival on the 17th November, is a beguiling self-portrait in which the possibly unfathomable director interacts with his more determinate self, Kim-as-private-personality if you can believe. Paying homage along the way to the international festivals which have given Kim so much vital critical acclaim, it uses the filmmaker’s wounded ego as well as personal memories—specifically of an oft-cited on-set accident which almost claimed the life of an actress working on Dream (Bi Mong, 2008)—as the springboard to track a somewhat fantasmatic recovery from what may or may not have been a nervous breakdown. There is no question, Kim Ki-duk’s presence at the festival is big news. And it’s precisely this quality of access to the most engaging filmmakers operating in Korea today that makes the still relatively youthful London Korean Film Festival a welcome and memorable cinematic showcase.

23 September, 2011

This article was originally published by New Korean Cinema.