London Korean Film Festival 2011 preview:
news from Mayfair, first impressions, and a salute to curatorial ambition

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 2011, 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.

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

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.

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)

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.


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