Believer (독전, Lee Hae-young, 2018)

Believer posterJohnnie To’s darkly comical tale of a weaselly meth cook with an extremely strong survival instinct and the austere policeman who can’t resist taking his bait might seem perfectly primed for a Korean remake in its innate pessimism and awkward bromance. Lee Hae-young’s Believer (독전, Dokjeon), however, merely borrows the bones of To’s Drug War while doubling down on its central conceit as reckless obsession leads to the undoing of both our heroes, each forced to confront the futility of their respective, mutually dependent quests.

Obsessed with tracking down a mysterious drug lord known only as “Mr. Lee”, narcotics cop Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong) asks a favour from an old informant only to see her murdered, leaving him only a vague clue by tracing an infinity symbol on a crumpled receipt moments before passing away. Warned off the Mr. Lee case, Won-ho finally gets a lead when an explosion at a drug lab brings scorned righthand woman Oh (Kim Sung-ryung) into his office promising to spill the beans in return for protection and immunity. Sadly, Won-ho couldn’t protect her either, but there was another unexpected survivor in the form of low level middleman Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol).

Traumatised by the death of his mother in the same explosion, Rak initially says nothing under interrogation but suddenly wakes up on learning that the lab’s dog also survived and has been rescued by the police. Unlike the “hero” of To’s film, Rak is small fry (if well connected) and is not looking at anything more than significant prison time. Rak may not be fighting for his life but he has a number of reasons for switching sides, especially once Won-ho fills him in on Mr. Lee’s backstory and long history of abrupt purges.

Despite working for the organisation, neither Oh nor Rak had ever met “Mr. Lee”. No one knows anything about them – gender, nationality, name, or location. In fact, there may not even be a Mr. Lee. Perhaps “Mr. Lee” is merely the “god” of drug dealers – an abstract idea almost given flesh but existing in a spiritual sense alone. Nevertheless, the idea of a Mr. Lee has completely captured the heart of compassionate police detective Won-ho whose all encompassing need to find him has already severely destabilised his life. After failing to protect his informant, Won-ho’s complaint against Mr. Lee is now a personal as well as professional one. Not so much out of vengeance (though there is that too), but a need to make the deaths count and his mounting losses meaningful.

Yet as another Mr. Lee contender later puts it, salvation may not be a matter of faith and if your faith has been misplaced, death may be a healing. In believing so deeply in the idea of “Mr. Lee”, Won-ho has given him form and created an idol to be worshipped through devotion. “Brian” (Cha Seung-won), a higher ranking gangster and former preacher chased out of the US for getting his congregation hooked on cocaine, has his own particular brand of faith based problems but subscribes to much the same philosophy. He may really be Mr. Lee (as may anyone), but if he isn’t he’s determined to convince himself he is in order to see himself as something more than the failed son of a chaebol dad who couldn’t hack it in the family business or in the pulpit. Brian would be happy to die as Mr. Lee rather than going on living as “himself”. Won-ho, unable to understand why kids do drugs asks his informant who explains it’s mostly because life is rubbish. Later someone says something similar to Brian, that he’d rather delude himself with the belief that he’s “someone” rather than face the emptiness.

Despite himself, and as Rak is eager to remind him, Won-ho is dependent on his informant for the pursuit of his case. Won-ho is reluctant to trust him even though Rak seems to be actively working to protect him in this extremely dangerous and largely unfamiliar world. Rak, by contrast, is aware he hasn’t won Won-ho’s faith, but assures him that’s OK because Rak trusts him. Rak does indeed seem to have the upper hand along with mysterious motivations and a fishy backstory, but Won-ho’s desperation to get close to Mr. Lee leaves him wide-open, unwilling to trust his guide but too invested to consider cutting him loose. “Belief” becomes its own drug, a transformative ritual act which gradually erodes all other needs and leaves only emptiness in their place. Won-ho can’t even remember why he started chasing Mr. Lee, but all that remains of him is the chase – a true believer suddenly bereft of a cause. Lee Hae-young takes To’s nihilistic cynicism and subverts it with a focus on the personal as both men fight self created images of their individual demons but find themselves unable to escape from their mutually assured identities.


Believer was screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

The Spy Gone North (공작, Yoon Jong-bin, 2018)

Spy gone north posterSome might say the first lesson of spying is not too ask too many questions. The hero of Yoon Jong-bin’s Spy Gone North (공작, Gongjak) may wish he’d heeded this advice as his ongoing mission to gain access to North Korea’s nuclear secrets by way of an unlikely advertising scheme sets him on a dark path towards the realisation that he might not be working for the good guys after all. In geopolitical terms, an enemy is sometimes more helpful than a friend – especially if your “enemy” is working on the same system and can be relied upon to play along when the occasion calls.

By the early ‘90s, South Korea has emerged from a lengthy period of military dictatorships into a fledgling democracy. Tensions with the North are running high as the nation has announced an intention to withdraw with from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty on grounds of national security. Fearing that the North has already successfully developed nuclear weapons, the South decides to ramp up intelligence gathering activity which is where “Black Venus” comes in. Shedding his old identity by appearing to lose himself in drink and gambling, intelligence officer Park Suk-young (Hwang Jung-min) poses as a sleazy businessman with the intention of gaining access to the North Korean elite through their external trade commission operating out of Beijing.

Improbable though it seems, Park manages to engineer a genuine friendship with the cold and austere North Korean trade official Ri Myong-un (Lee Sung-min) with whom he eventually shares unexpected common ground. Strapped for cash after the South sets them up by getting them in hock to China over a mislabelled walnut scandal, the North needs money fast, which is why they’re prepared to talk to someone as shady as Park’s cover. Park sells them an unlikely solution which runs contrary to their core philosophies in exploiting the exoticism of the forgotten North to sell capitalistic decadence in the South through selling licenses to shoot commercials on North Korean soil (which also allows him to travel about the country with a camera), but he doesn’t quite see the added value of his mission even while almost forgetting about the need to get close to the site of the supposed nuclear research facility.

While Park finds himself an “honoured guest” of the Dear Leader (Gi Ju-bong) whose presence evokes both fear and awe, he is also faced with a pressing political crisis at home as the nation prepares for an upcoming presidential collection. Despite the democratic revolution, the same party has been in power for the last 30 years and the recent swing towards the liberal opposition party has many running scared, especially as taking a softer line towards the North is a prominent manifesto pledge – alongside a reform of the security services, which is obviously distressing news for Park’s bosses. In order to maintain the sense of fear which keeps the right-wingers in power, the security services have been secretly communicating with the North and bribing them to create disturbances at politically advantageous times to manipulate the outcome of elections. Park is not exactly a liberal, but he has to admit this is not a good look and if you’re just going to parrot the “for the people” line perhaps you’re not much better than the thing you claim to hate.

Meanwhile, Park is also witness to a side of North Korea outsiders don’t generally see filled with the starving and the destitute. Loyalists all, there are those among the North Korean elite who want to see conditions improve and worry that thanks to the intense stranglehold of the ruling regime they never will. As in everything, business interests trump all. Park and Ri are fighting for the same thing, aware their fledging enterprise is a subterfuge but also that it’s a huge and dangerous first step towards a happier future. After 40 years of mutual manipulations, however, not everyone is keen on abandoning the status quo especially as the two nations have developed an intensely symbiotic relationship founded on mutual demonisation and a friendly willingness to conspire in ensuring the survival of a useful evil. Still, the strangely fraternal relationship between Park and Ri – two fiercely patriotic men from opposing sides who each identify goodness in the other becomes the heart of the film, holding out hope for empathy and compromise when most prefer enmity and chaos.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Hit the Night (밤치기, Jeong Ga-young, 2017)

Hit the Night posterFollowing her impressive, Hong Sang-soo inspired debut Bitch on the Beach, Jeong Ga-young returns with a similarly structured exploration of modern relationships though now in a suitably fuzzy colour rather than Bitch’s artful black and white. Once again, Jeong plays a meta version of herself – this time a writer/director ostensibly researching a screenplay but perhaps obfuscating her true motives even as she makes visible her innermost anxieties for her invisible audience.

Hit the Night (밤치기, bam-chi-gi) follows Ga-young (Jeong Ga-young) as she takes a young man, Jin-hyeok (Park Jong-hwan), out on the town. The pair have dinner together, but they aren’t a couple, or even really friends – Ga-young has bought Jin-hyeok’s time on the pretext of interviewing him to get background information for a screenplay she is writing. Jin-hyeok wants to be helpful and has committed to answering Ga-young’s questions as frankly as possible. Her questions are, however, extremely personal from the outset as she begins asking him about his masturbation habits almost before they’ve even sat down. As the night wears on and the drinks keep flowing, Jin-hyeok begins to smell a rat, wondering why it is Ga-young is so interested in his sex life when it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the various screenplays she outlines to him. Ga-young is indeed trying it on, her pretext of “research” a mere ruse and means towards seduction.

It has to be said that the situation is indeed creepy and Jin-hyeok has every right to be upset and offended, especially as he has repeatedly made clear to Ga-young that he has a girlfriend and is not interested in her. If Ga-young were a man taking a young woman out for dinner, plying her with drinks, asking increasingly suggestive and inappropriate questions and all on false pretences she would not be looking very good at all (much, indeed, like a classic Hong Sang-soo hero), not to mention the fact that money has already changed hands.

Nevertheless, despite his irritation Jin-hyeok decides to stay, progressing to a karaoke box rather than simply going home only to leave abruptly after palming Ga-young off on a lonely friend. Despite Jin-hyeok’s slightly underhanded machinations, there is less calculation and a clear possibility for genuine feeling between Ga-young and the other man, but she remains too fixated on her failed conquest and the idealised, unattainable fantasy romance to take a chance on an organic connection with a cheerful guy who likes movies and has his own well developed life philosophy.

Jeong’s approach is meta in the extreme – she repeatedly tells us the ongoing arc of the movie by referencing other movies while also reinforcing her intentions by foregrounding the various ideas for screenplays which Ga-young describes to Jin-hyeok. Her movie titled “Best Ending Ever” ironically has no ending while its hero aims to make a film in which all the characters speak their own fates in a conclusion that “won’t leave you hanging”, but real life is never quite so neat and there are no clean cut, narratively satisfying conclusions to be had in a “film” which is still ongoing.

Ironically enough, unlike the heroine of Bitch on the Beach, Jeong’s screenwriter makes a performance of control she never quite possesses, ceding ground to the earnest Jin-hyeok as he picks her up on her unethical practices and makes frequent attempts to reflect the inappropriate questioning back on her. Ga-young finds herself on the back foot, trying to manipulate Jin-hyeok into abandoning his principles and betraying his girlfriend even as her mask of unflappable frankness begins to slip. Yet Jin-hyeok, even if remaining steadfast in his moral goodness, finds himself captivated by Ga-young’s surprising candour while perhaps more ambivalent about her unusually predatory behaviour. With her short hair and plain, boyish clothes Ga-young adopts an aggressive, “male” persona, pursuing rather than being pursued, and using all of the same tactics that would generally be used against her only for Jin-hyeok to punch a hole through her artifice and expose the very insecurities it was designed to mask.

Not done with her meta messaging, Jeong “ends” on a Days of Being Wild inspired epilogue in which she meticulously dons her chosen persona before setting off to meet Jin-hyeok. This is a film without an ending because in its end is its beginning. Ga-young finds herself running in circles pursuing unrealistic ideals destined to end in frustrated defeat while ignoring the various “realities” which present themselves to her as she sets her sights on the “best ending ever” rather than the emotionally satisfying conclusion.


Hit the Night was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival and will also be screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival on 6th November 2018, 6.30pm at the ICA where director Jeong Ga-young will be present for a Q&A.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Jagko (짝코, AKA Pursuit of Death, Im Kwon-taek, 1980)

Jagko posterDuring the dark days of the dictatorships, the “anti-communist film” was a mainstay of the Korean film industry. Though it wasn’t exactly possible to make a pro-communist film and that therefore any and all films were at least implicitly anti-communist, the authorities had been especially keen on films which took a hardline on anything remotely leftwing. By the late ‘70s however times were changing and a more nuanced view of recent history began to become possible. Im Kwon-taek is thought to be among the first directors whose work precipitated a shift from the “anti-communist” to the “division” film in which the tragedy of the division itself takes precedence over the demonisation of the North (though such views were perhaps not as uncommon as might be assumed in films from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s before the passing of the Motion Picture Law). Jagko’s (짝코) two haunted protagonists are both flawed men betrayed by their country and changing times realising they have wasted their youth on a cat and mouse game over an outdated ideological disagreement when the conflict that defined their lives was merely a proxy war fought by two super powers on Korean soil.

Song (Choi Yoon-seok), a former policeman, is picked up by a vagrancy patrol and taken to a “rehabilitation centre”. Despite the name the centre is more like a debtors’ prison and Song is now a prisoner of poverty who will not be allowed to leave unless redeemed by a family member (of which he has none or he might not be here). Nevertheless, the men are treated well, fed three meals a day, and only asked for a couple of hours of non-strenuous work with the rest of the time marked “free”. Once Song has begun to calm down, he makes a shocking discovery. He is convinced that a man lying ill a few beds over is none other than Jagko (Kim Hee-ra) – a former North Korean partisan and the man he holds responsible for ruining his life.

Im lets us in on the stories of both men via a series of flashbacks. Though he pretends not to know him, the other man, calling himself Kim, is indeed “Jagko” though his life has been just as miserable as Song’s. Back on Mount Jiri at the end of the Korean war, Song was a respected policeman – he left school at 12 and made a name for himself catching partisans. When he catches the legendary Jagko, wanted for a series of atrocities and terrorist acts, all Song can do is boast and talk of his imminent promotion after which he will enjoy a life of comfort. Unsurprisingly, Jagko is not exactly happy for him but allows his captor to prattle on in order to buy time for his escape. It is Song’s own arrogance which permits him to do so. Claiming to need the bathroom, Jagko offers Song a gold ring hidden in his shoe which Song scoffs at, but he does loosen his cuffs to facilitate Jagko’s relief at which point he manages to headbutt him and run away. Song is accused of taking bribes and dismissed. He is humiliated and loses his status, job, and family all in one go. Fixated on Jagko, Song gives up everything to chase him in order to turn him in to his former commander and have him clear his name by confirming that he was not bribed and did not sell out his country for gold.

Almost thirty years later both men are older than their years, broken and defeated. As one of the rehabilitation centre residents puts it, they’re all about to die – what does it matter now if someone was a communist or a partisan, what good could it possibly do to drag the past up all these years later? For Song it’s almost as if there is no “past”, the last few decades have been spent in a relentless pursuit of the man who holds the key to his good name. He wants to undo the folly of his hubris by overwriting it, but time has passed and what he’s lost cannot be reclaimed. Meanwhile, Jagko is not an ideologically crazed leftist, but a lonely old man who is now in poor health and has nothing but regrets. The two men bond in their mutual suffering and work together to escape, but the world they emerge into is not that of their youth. Song was disempowered when he entered the facility – they took his arrest rope away from him, but when he tackles the weakened Jagko to the ground and tries to call two policemen on patrol over to arrest him as an “escaped communist guerrilla” the young officers of the law have no idea what he’s talking about. Those words no longer mean anything. The bemused policemen conclude the old men must be escaped mental patients before spotting the rehabilitation centre uniform and jogging off to phone someone to come and take them back.

The old men’s quarrel is exposed as ridiculous. Jagko, less angry more soulful, remarks that men like he and Song are the most pitiful souls on Earth as he watches America sit down with Russia on the TV and realises he is merely a victim of ongoing global geopolitical manoeuvring. It’s no longer a question of left and right, both men are victims of their times, neither “good” nor “bad” but flawed and human. We do not know if Jagko did the things Song says he did but he has paid a heavy price all the same. Song, by contrast, has shifted all the blame for his fate onto Jagko, believing that if he can catch him he can somehow make it all right, but of course he can’t and is trapped in a spiral of denial in refusing to accept his own responsibility for the tragedies of his life. What is to blame is the folly of war and particularly of an internecine fraternal conflict which remains unresolved and may well be unresolvable unless an attempt is made to address the past with empathy and understanding in place of enmity and rancour.


Jagko is available on blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive. The set includes subtitles in English, Japanese, and Korean with the audio commentary by Kim Dae-seung and editor of Cine21 Ju Sung-chul also subtitled in English. The audio commentaries from the DVD edition included with the Im Kwon-taek boxset, one by director Im Kwon-taek and film critic Huh Moon-yung, and the other by screenwriter Song Gil-han and film critic and director Kim Hong-joon, unfortunately do not carry over the English subtitles. The set also comes with a bi-lingual Korean/English booklet featuring an essay by film critic and professor Park Yuhee. Not currently available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel.

The Return (Malene Choi, 2018)

the returm posterIn today’s sometimes hostile political environment, the question of transnational adoption has become a hot button issue with adoptees raised abroad in sometimes difficult circumstances where paper work was never correctly filed finding themselves exiled to the land of their birth despite having no knowledge of the culture and no means to support themselves. Documentarian Malene Choi, a Korean-Danish adoptee herself, frames her first narrative feature around this very thorny issue, taking inspiration from her own experiences and from those of fellow adoptees from around the world she encountered during her own attempts to find her birth parents and unlock the secrets of her history.

The central narrative revolves around two Korean-Danish adoptees, Karoline (Karoline Sofie Lee) and Thomas (Thomas Hwan), who meet for the first time at a hostel exclusively for “returnees” traveling to Korea to find their birth parents. Karoline, nervous and conflicted, talks to some of the other guests hoping to find strength in their stories of successful reunion but the stories she gathers are generally less conclusive than she perhaps expected them to be. Choi, originally planning to make a documentary focussing on the hostel itself, often found the same things – that guests would appear and disappear after only a few weeks, returning perhaps years later either to visit their birth families or to try pressing the adoption agencies again in the hope of finding more information.

Karoline’s own visit to the adoption agency turns out to less positive than she’d envisaged. The “excessively polite” employee managing her case explains that although there is actually “quite a lot” of information attached to Karoline’s file – her mother’s full name (only without her Chinese characters to help narrow it down further), a verified date and place of birth, and a reason the adoption was sought, none of it is much use in trying to find her birth mother. Later discussing the meeting with Thomas who seems a little more experienced, Karoline begins to doubt she was told the whole story and is convinced that the adoption agency is either wilfully holding information back or is simply disinterested in helping her.

Given the various circumstances surrounding international adoption from Korea from the end of the Korean War through the pre-democratic period, the government and adoption agencies might have reasons to avoid revealing the entirety of the truth. In an interview talking about the genesis of her film, Choi mentions meeting a British researcher who described the process of adoptions in this period as akin to “human trafficking”. Children, not only infants but those old enough to have memories of Korea and of their birth families, were sometimes taken without it being fully understood that they were being adopted and sent abroad, never to be returned to their parents or relatives.

A fictionalised scene of a child reuniting with a mother tells a common yet tragic story of a young girl taken advantage of by an older boy, falling pregnant, and then being disowned by her family. Talked into signing adoption papers she tries to change her mind once the child is born, but it’s whisked away from her after only seconds and she is powerless to resist. A combination of oppressive social forces from an unforgiving conformist society which looks down on “immoral” women pregnant out of wedlock to economic impossibilities and bureaucratic concerns all conspire to remove children from their birth families without proper scrutiny or much thought for where exactly they might be going.

Though Karoline and Thomas appear to have been raised well in loving families, they have each experienced other difficulties which have left them feeling adrift, caught between two cultures an unsure where exactly they fit. Karoline’s socially conservative parents were ill equipped to support her when she experienced racial bullying from the other children. They saw her as their daughter and a Dane and therefore could not understand why others didn’t because to them she “doesn’t even look Korean” – well meaning though they might have been, their solution to her suffering was an attempt to erase her ethnicity rather than embrace it. Though Thomas’ experiences were different he too experienced typically xenophobic micro aggressions, but it was the aggressors’ constant taunts of “go back to where you came from” that most hurt him. His persecutors seemed to have such a clear idea of where he “belonged” when he himself did not.

This sense of dislocation is further brought out by Thomas and Karoline’s experiences in Korea where they find themselves supposedly “at home” yet unable to communicate as neither of them speak Korean or have the necessary cultural knowledge to easily navigate the city. It also puts them at a disadvantage in their respective quests, leaving them reliant on the kindness of the hosts at the hostel to help explain some of the information they’ve been able to find as well as interpreting for them when they need to ask further questions.

Yet for others, a return Korea has become a kind of answer in itself. Another American adoptee Thomas meets at the hostel first came to Korea for only a few days but felt an instant connection, as if he’d finally found what it was he’d been looking for. His adopted family, however, were far from happy with his desire to explore his Korean roots and made him an ultimatum (something which might explain why he had previously felt so unhappy) which convinced him to move “back” to Korea on a more permanent basis, certain it was the place he was “truly” supposed to be. The hostel becomes a kind of community base in itself, connecting Korean adoptees from across the world who have each had very different experiences but share something otherwise unique. Thomas, however, remains conflicted, unsure if the connection to his fellow adoptees is real or illusionary, created out of his own desire to find in them what he sought in himself.

Making use of her documentary background, Choi mixes the real and the fictional, blending unscripted sequences and interactions with non-actors with a fiercely hyper naturalist approach only to undercut it with the artifice of strange and unexpected cuts to remind us we are watching a construction. Rather than an attempt to undermine the idea of adoption itself transnational or otherwise, Choi’s aims to look at the complicated, often uncomfortable, ideas of identity, belonging, and family through her protagonists’ continuing struggle to find resolution. Feeling as if they’ve been robbed of their histories, Karoline and Thomas’ quest is an attempt to come to terms with the loss of something which perhaps cannot be returned, but only eased through the restoration of a severed connection.


The Return was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018 and will also be screened plus Q&A with actress Karoline Sofie Lee in London on 14th November as the closing night gala of the London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English language dialogue/subtitles)

London Korean Film Festival Announces Full Programme for 2018

LKFF2018 The ReturnThe London Korean Film Festival returns for its 13th year kicking off in London on 1st November before touring to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham, and Belfast. Opening with indie drama Microhabitat, the theme for this year’s edition is “a slice of everyday life” while the festival will also offer a selection of current hits, independent features, shorts, animation, and a few classics before bringing the London leg to a close on 14th November with Malene Choi’s The Return.

Opening

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  • Microhabitat – A young woman living hand-to-mouth decides rent is an unnecessary expense in the debut feature from Jeon Go-woon who will also be present for a Q&A. Review.

Closing

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  • The Return – A Danish Korean adoptee returns to Korea looking for her history in a semi-autobiographical fiction debut from documentarian Malene Choi. Actress Karoline Sofie Lee will be present for a Q&A.

Special Focus: A Slice of Everyday Life

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  • The Power of Kangwon Province – a woman goes on holiday and ends up spending the night with a married policeman while an adulterous professor decides to visit the same area in the second film from Hong Sang-soo.
  • Christmas in August – 1998 romantic drama from genre master Hur Jin-ho in which a photographer falls in love with a terminally ill woman.
  • This Charming Girl – an isolated young woman develops a fondness for a shy writer but struggles to overcome past trauma.
  • Grain in Ear – second feature from A Quiet Dream‘s  Zhang Lu in which a woman of Korean ethnicity in North East China makes a living illegally selling kimchee.
  • Treeless Mountain – two little girls have to learn to look after themselves when their mum leaves them with relatives to go and look for their long absent dad.
  • The Journals of Musan – Park Jung-bum’s 2011 film in which he also stars as one of two North Korean defectors trying to adjust to life in the South.
  • Bleak Night – a father investigates the death of his son.
  • Alive – Park Jung-bum directs himself in his 2014 drama about a worker in a soybean paste factory.
  • The Bacchus Lady – Youn Yuh-jung stars as an elderly prostitute in E J-yong’s exploration of life on the margins. Review
  • The Running Actress – actress Moon So-ri steps behind the camera for three connected shorts each inspired by her real life and shot through with self deprecating humour. Review.
  • The Poet and the Boy – a middle-aged, unhappily married poet (Yang Ik-june) is suddenly struck by the beauty of a handsome young man.
  • Possible Faces – a young couple take different paths after splitting up in Lee Kang-hyun’s gentle drama.
  • Mothers – a woman becomes the guardian of the illegtimate son of her late husband in the second film from Lee Dong-eun (In Between Seasons)
  • The Land of Seonghye – Seonghye falls from the corporate ladder in Jung Hyung-suk’s indie drama.

Cinema Now

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  • Heart Blackened – Jung Ji-woo remakes Fei Xing’s Silent Witness in which a wealthy CEO hires a fancy lawyer to defend his daughter who has been charged with the murder of her step-mother, a famous pop-star.
  • Love+Sling – father and son wrestlers face off when the girl next door turns down the son’s confession because she likes the dad…
  • The Princess and the Matchmaker – thematic sequel to The Face Reader starring Shim Eun-kyung as a princess who prefers the astronomer brought in to find the perfect match to anyone he suggests.
  • Seven Years of Night – thriller taking place over seven years beginning with the death of an innocent girl. Q&A chaired by Anton Bitel.
  • Little Forest – a lost young woman retreats to her country home in Yim Soon-rye’s take on the much loved Japanese manga. Review.
  • The Witness – a middle-aged salaryman witnesses a murder but selfishly keeps quiet even as the death toll rises.
  • Hotel by the River – the latest (?) from Hong Sang-soo in which a poet and his two estranged sons chat about death .

Woman’s Voices

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  • Hit the Night – Bitch on the Beach‘s Jeong Ga-young once again stars as an extremely forward screenwriter “interviewing” her crush on the pretext of research. Jeong Ga-young will be present for a Q&A moderated by Sophie Brown as well as for a director talk at Kingston University at 11.30am on 7th November.
  • For Vagina’s Sake – documentary in which director Kim Bo-ram travels around the world exploring attitudes to menstruation.
  • Grown Up – filmmaker Jang Hye-yeong chronicles the process of bringing her disabled sister home to live with her in Seoul.
  • Women’s Voices Shorts Programme

Indie Firepower

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  • Motel Cactus – a series of encounters take place at a love hotel in Seoul. Introduction by Tony Rayns.
  • Camel(s) – a middle-aged couple have a lengthy one night stand in Park Ki-yong’s indie drama. Park Ki-yong will be present for a Q&A.
  • Old Love – Park Ki-yong’s most recent film in which old lovers reconnect at Incheon airport. Park Ki-yong will be present for a Q&A.
  • Adulthood  – a 14-year-old girl’s life is turned upside-down when her long lost uncle shows up at her father’s funeral and cheats her out of her inheritance. In order to get the money back she has to pose as his daughter so he can scam a lonely pharmacist. Review.
  • Back From The Beat – an aspiring DJ’s life is disrupted when he makes an unwise remark about employment rights. Introduction by Tony Rayns.

Contemporary Classics: Lee Myung-se & The 1990s

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The subject for this year’s classic film special focus is director Lee Myung-se who began his career with Gagman back in 1988.  Lee will be present at each of the screenings for a Q&A. 

  • My Love, My Bride – Park Joong-hoon and Choi Jin-sil star as a mismatched couple in Lee’s romantic comedy.
  • First Love – an aspiring actress falls head over heels for a chain smoking writer from Seoul.
  • Their Last Love Affair – a married poet falls for a journalist who said some nice things about his work… screening with Short Can’t Live Without You

Animation

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  • The Shower – animation based on a short story by Hwang Sun-won in which a young boy becomes fascinated by a girl who plays by the stream.
  • Pororo, Dinosaur Island Adventure – Cute penguin Pororo returns for another adventure in which he travels to a tropical island to save some dinosaurs from a greedy alien and his robot minions.

Mise-en-scene Shorts

The-Monologue

Artist Video

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The London Korean Film Festival runs 1st – 14th November in London before touring the country until 25th November. Full details for all the films as well as screening times and ticketing information are available via the official website and you can keep up with all the latest news by following the festival on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

A Tiger in Winter (호랑이보다 무서운 겨울손님, Lee Kwang-kuk, 2018)

Tiger in Winter poster“Life just keeps getting harder” sighs a weary policeman charged with extracting a coherent statement from an accidental hero who only wants to talk about a tiger. Lee Kwang-kuk’s third feature, A Tiger in Winter (호랑이보다 무서운 겨울손님, Horangiboda Museoun Gyeoulsonnim), is in some ways a more conventional exercise in comparison with the time bending reflexivity of his earlier work, but the journey he takes us on is similarly circular as a melancholy young man finds himself chased out of his natural habitat and cast adrift, outside of his comfort zone too resentful to crawl back into a familiar cage but too afraid to embrace his freedom. 

On the day a tiger escapes from the zoo, Gyeong-yu (Lee Jin-wook), a failed writer, “loses” his day job and has to temporarily vacate his apartment because his girlfriend’s parents are coming to visit and she evidently hasn’t told them she is “living in sin”. Gyeong-yu offers to stay and meet them, but bristles when his girlfriend wonders if he’s ready to make a firm a commitment. He packs and leaves, planning to return in a few days’ time when the coast is clear. Decamping to a friend’s place, Gyeong-yu continues his night “job” as a designated driver which brings him into contact with an old girlfriend – Yoo-jung (Ko Hyun-jung), who is also a writer and apparently successful but suffering from an extended bout of writer’s block and has descended into a self destructive spiral of alcohol fuelled existential desperation.

After reconnecting with Gyeong-yu, Yoo-jung pulls down a book he once gave her from her well stocked bookcase – a Korean translation of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway’s hero fights his age as manifested in a powerful marlin and dreams of youth in the lions of Africa. The film’s English title, “A Tiger in Winter”, is perhaps a mild pun on “The Lion in Winter” which again tells of a once proud old man struggling to deal with his bodily decline, only Gyeong-yu is still young even if he feels himself diminished and brought low by life. Unlike the old man, he has stopped fighting and accepted his defeat. He no longer writes and flounders aimlessly, running away from the things that frighten him without aim or purpose. The loosed tiger is a manifestation of the fears Gyeong-yu refuses to fight which render him both physically and artistically impotent.

Writing, or perhaps art of any kind, becomes its own kind of vice – a dangerous addition, a need which must be sated or displaced without which the rest of life remains hollow. Unable to satisfy her need for creation, Yoo-jung has crumbled under the pressure of her own expectations and retreated into the comforting world of the permanently tipsy even whilst knowing that the alcohol itself inhibits her ability to create and forever separates her from that which would make her whole. She wants to stop, throws away her soju, but can’t move past her inability to face herself and resolve her creative doubts. Yoo-jung wants the quick fix, and like any addict, she is past caring about the harm she might do to herself and others in the pursuit of it.

Gyeong-yu, meanwhile, almost wallows in his degradation as he allows himself to be belittled by the customers who call for his services and insist on treating him like a servant. Designated driving doesn’t seem like a particularly safe arrangement for either party – many of Gyeong-yu’s customers are extremely drunk and willingly allowing a man they don’t know to drive them somewhere in their own car while they are barely conscious, while conversely many refuse to pay or accuse Gyeong-yu of damaging the car while berating him for acting in an insufficiently humble manner. Yet it’s not humiliation that knocks Gyeong-yu out of his stupor but trauma and a direct confrontation with someone else’s despair.

Tigers lurk everywhere, though when Gyeong-yu finally learns to look his in the eye it’s a very cute and non-threatening sort of tiger which perhaps makes him feel foolish for having evaded it for so long. Lee may not be playing with time in his usual fashion, but he sends Gyeong-yu retreating into the past all the same in an attempt to hide from his fears only to discover you can’t walk backwards into the future. An exploration of the destructive power of the creative urge, the soul crushing inertia of artistic block, and the continuing rootlessness of a life lived in flight, A Tiger in Winter is another beautifully poetic character drama from Lee whose world weary optimism loses nothing in its seeming simplicity.


A Tiger in Winter was screened as the final teaser for the London Korean Film Festival which will open on 1st November with Microhabitat. The full programme for this year’s event is now available on the official website – tickets on sale soon!

International trailer (English subtitles)