Twenty (스물, Lee Byeong-heon, 2015)

Twenty Movie PosterReview of Lee Byeong-heon’s Twenty (스물, Seumool) up at UK Anime Network. I really felt so old watching this film.


The age at which you become “an adult” varies according to your culture but in Korea, as in Japan, at 20 you become fully grown up with all the rights and responsibilities that carries. The three guys at the centre of the Korean film Twenty are just walking through this magic doorway which marks the end of their childhoods and the beginning of their adult lives. The road has forked for them and they have to decide which path to take. However, they’ll have to take their minds off the opposite sex long enough to make a decision.

To state the obvious, Twenty is aimed at a very specific audience and is likely to please a certain group of people very well whilst leaving others a little lost and bemused. It stars a collection of popular and very good looking younger Korean actors and actresses and is largely about what it’s like to be on the cusp of adulthood in contemporary Korea. What it’s not is a hard hitting drama. The target audience for this movie is people who are in their teens or early twenties, so they know what it is to be young, now. They just want to laugh along or sympathise with others in a similar position.

We meet the three guys, Chi-ho (popular rich kid), Dong-woo (put upon poor boy), and Gyung-Jae (doing OK middle class guy) towards the end of their high school years. The boys became friends after falling for the same girl who eventually picked Chi-ho but being boys they had a fist fight about it and are now bonded for their rest of their lives. In many ways they’re quite different, Chi-ho is rich, good looking and only interested in girls whereas Dong-woo comes from quite an impoverished background which means he’ll find it difficult to pursue his studies past high school because he needs to be supporting his mother and siblings. Gyung-Jae is almost the protagonist and is a typical middle class boy who’ll go to college and probably do alright for himself. He’s also a typical “nice guy” with a selection of fairly ordinary romantic issues (bar one interesting aspect which is raised but never followed up on) but being pretty level headed he’ll almost certainly get over it.

At twenty they have the whole of their lives ahead of them – or they kind of do given the fairly restrictive nature of Korean society. Chi-ho just thinks about sex. His parents are rich so he just lives in a perpetual adolescence where he hasn’t applied for university but hasn’t decided on a job either. He watches lots of movies and mopes but honestly he’s just a bit lost and afraid to admit it. Dong-woo wants to be a manga artist and decides to repeat the last year of high school whilst continuing to work all the other hours to support his family all the while feeling guilty about trying to pursue his dream rather than accepting the offer of a steady office job at his uncle’s company. Gyung-Jae actually has it pretty easy as his problems are just the normal sort of romantic growing pains everybody goes through and realising that makes them a little easier for him.

The film is not really a serious examination of the problems young people face. Even the eventual looming of military service is treated in quite a matter of fact way. Twenty is more of a celebration of being young and that it’s OK to be a bit lost and stupid when you’ve just left school. It gets surprisingly crude given that it’s aimed at a comparatively conservative Korean audience but generally gets away with it thanks to its cheeky tone. Undoubtedly hilarious in places (the “fist fight” finale in a Chinese restaurant being a late highlight) Twenty is a film that will play best to those around the same age as its protagonists in real terms and truthfully doesn’t offer so much for those who are already little older but it is nevertheless very funny and likely to entertain Korean idol fans of any age.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.

 

A Matter of Interpretation (꿈보다 해몽, Lee Kwang-kuk, 2015)

matterofinterpretation_keyartFirst published on UK Anime Network – review of Lee Kwang-kuk’s A Matter of Interpretation (꿈보다 해몽, Ggumboda Haemong).


Romance Joe director Lee Kwung-kuk returns to the director’s chair with a another meta take on modern Korean life only this time he’s interested in the nature of dreams vs reality. A Matter of Interpretation is, ironically, a little closer to Lee’s mentor Hong Sang-soo thanks to its repeated dream motifs but always stands at a slightly more abstracted angle than the comparatively more realistic Hong. Building on the promise of Romance Joe, A Matter of Interpretation further marks Lee out as a talent to watch in modern Korean cinema.

The film begins with a group of performers nervously waiting in a rather circus-like theatre before eventually deciding to cancel the performance because no tickets have been sold. Yeon-shin, the star actress, storms out and goes for a smoke in a nearby park. Her boyfriend eventually finds her and they talk about the film project Yeon-shin has just been bumped from in favour of a young pop idol. They break up and we time jump to the same bench some point later as Yeon-shin talks to a policeman who, it turns out, can also interpret dreams. Yeon-Shin has had a dream about attempting to commit suicide in an abandoned car only to find a man (who now has the face of Seo, the policeman) tied up in the car’s boot.

The car itself ends up becoming a recurrent theme in the film, appearing in the dreams of multiple people and eventually in reality (maybe?). The policeman (who frequently pulls out a pocket watch and seems to be late for a very important date) interprets Yeon-shin’s dream as being about regret over rashly ending her relationship with her boyfriend and a mixture of guilt and worry that he quit his theatre job soon after and she hasn’t heard from him since. There are other repeated motifs such as the date 7th February circled on a calendar and, like Romance Joe, a pre-occupation with suicide but A Matter of Interpretation proves an apt title for a film that’s so bound up with playful symbolism.

Also like Romance Joe, A Matter of Interpretation owes a lot to Lee’s mentor Hong Sang-soo. Like Hong, Lee has opted for a concentration of static camera shots with his subjects centrally framed like a conventional landscape photograph albeit with the occasional creeping zoom. However, where Hong can be deliberately repetitious, Lee’s repeated motifs take on a different kind of playfulness – deliberately disorientating us with his mix of dream and reality to the point where we can’t really be sure which of the two is the “real” world. He’s also ported over his love of Alice in Wonderland (or this time Through the Looking Glass) which adds another surrealistic layer of whimsy to the film.

Ultimately, A Matter of Interpretation builds on the promise of Romance Joe to create something that feels much more well thought out as well as much more affecting than Joe’s rather distant atmosphere. Much of this is thanks to Shin Dong-mi’s engaging performance (even more so than her winning turn as the “coffee waitress” prostitute in Romance Joe) as the aging actress Yeon-shin who’s coming to regret some of her previous life choices and wondering how things might have been different. Whimsical is probably the best way to describe the film. It isn’t trying to be deep or profound so much as playfully thoughtful though its complex, interconnecting narrative symbolism is certainly likely to spur post viewing debate. Less contrived and undoubtedly more fun than Romance Joe, A Matter of Interpretation marks a definite step up for director Lee Kwang-kuk and hints at even more meta tales of playful absurdity to come from this promising director.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.

Romance Joe (로맨스 조, Lee Kwang-kuk, 2011)

romance-joeReview of Lee Kwang-kuk’s Romance Joe (로맨스 조) up at UK Anime Network. First saw this at the LFF a couple of years ago but now it’s back alongside Lee’s latest film A Matter of Interpretation at the London Korean Film Festival.


Lee Kwang-kuk’s meta romantic comedy drama first got a London outing at the BFI film festival back in 2012 but now makes a welcome return visit as part of the 2015 Korean film festival in a strand dedicated to its director. Playing alongside a short film, Hard to Say, which was completed by Lee in-between Romance Joe and his new film A Matter of Interpretation, the film brings Lee’s meta concerns to the fore and offers plenty of Alice in Wonderland inspired absurdity to its otherwise straightforward plot elements.

Romance Joe is a film with many levels. On the first layer, we have an elderly couple arriving in Seoul to look for their son who came to the city to be a director 18 years ago but he’s not been in contact recently so they’re worried. His friend greets them and tells them their son had been feeling depressed lately over the suicide of a well known actress. He then starts to tell them about an idea for a screenplay he’s had about a director with writer’s block who checks into a motel where he’s told another set of stories by a prostitute who delivers coffee as a cover. From here the stories radiate out like cracks in a broken mirror though we never quite get the answers we’ve been looking for.

Lee has worked extensively with Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo and his shadow looms large over the film. From the cutesy title cards to the static camera with occasional creeping zooms and often unbearably awkward situations, there is certainly a lot of Hong in Lee’s film. However, where Hong takes the same situation and replays it with a different outcome, Lee gives you a set of intersecting stories which spring forth from each other. Lee’s interests are more surreal and metaphysical than Hong’s which are, ostensibly, more naturalistic in feeling than Lee’s almost hyperreal world.

In contrast to Hong’s social comedies, Lee also digs a little darker into the Korean psyche and reveals a strange preoccupation with suicide and abandoned children. The furthest point back in the film deals with the lonely mid forest suicide attempt of a teenage schoolgirl who’s become a figure of fun thanks to a loud mouth “boyfriend”. Her rescuer may (or may not be) the man we later come to know as Romance Joe. Though the two eventually bond, the story is not an altogether happy one as they’re rushed into fairly adult decisions which neither of them is really ready for.

Later, a young boy who may (or may not) be the child of the high school girl arrives at the “cafe” from which the prostitute operates looking for his mother who apparently last wrote to him from that address sometime ago and has since disappeared. Later, the prostitute receives a call from her own son safely in the country being cared for by grandparents while his mother earns the money in the city.

In many ways it’s a series of sad yet inevitable stories leaping out from inside each other each more heart rending than the last, though somehow it never becomes as affecting as you’d like it to be. Romance Joe feels like a deliberate experiment in form or at least a dedication to pushing conventional narrative structures into new and exciting places but it does so in a way that’s self consciously about form rather than content so that it never quite takes hold. It wants to discuss time and memories and stories but ends up mostly talking about itself and, in truth, a little lengthily, still Romance Joe does at least manage to offer an intriguing, beautifully filmed and often enjoyable surrealist tale that will have your mind in knots long after you see it.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.

 

The Piper (손님, Kim Gwang-tae, 2015)

PiperPosterReview of Kim Gwang-tae’s The Piper (손님, Sonnim) up at UK Anime Network. I really liked this one!


The piper must be paid. So goes the old saying, and with good reason – one should always honour one’s promises but even so there are those should not be crossed. So the denizens at the centre of the mysterious hidden village in the debut feature from Korean director Kim Gwang-tae come to discover as they’re repaid for some not quite unforgotten sins when a travelling piper and his invalid son come calling.

Kim Woo-ryong is a travelling piper with a crippled leg journeying to Seoul with his young son after hearing that there is an American doctor there who may be able to treat the boy’s TB if only they can reach the city in time. After walking through the countryside they eventually come across a village which isn’t marked on any map and beg shelter from the village chieftain there. Life in the village seems like a scene from the middle ages, everyone is wearing traditional clothing and there’s something more than a “stranger in town” vibe about the way they look at Woo-ryong and his son Young-nam. The chieftain allows the pair to stay but warns them they can reveal nothing of the outside world to the village’s inhabitants and especially not that the Korean war is already “over” and has been for some time. Later Woo-ryong and Young-nam wander into a village dispute and in a fit of over helpfulness Young-nam exclaims he’s sure his dad can fix the problem (though he doesn’t know what it is). Woo-ryong jumps to the conclusion it must be about the rats which plague the town and offers to take care of them. The chieftain offers him the price of a cow if he can rid the town of vermin, but one gets the impression there’s more than one kind of rodent lurking in this strange, isolated place.

If you know the classic children’s fable, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, you likely know the outcome won’t be a pleasant one though the events of the The Piper turn a little bloodier and even more supernatural than in the Brothers Grimm  fairytale. The story starts out pleasant enough as Woo-ryong and Young-nam start to make friends in the village – Woo-ryong playing his pipe and Young-nam enjoying spending some time with the other children. However, from their very first entrance you can tell there is something very wrong in this community. There’s not just suspicion or curiosity in the way the villagers stare at the strangers, there’s fear too. Woo-ryong is a middle aged man with a lame leg, and Young-nam is a weedy 10 year old boy with a lung disease. They are no threat to anyone, what do these people have to fear?

The chieftain himself is obviously quite a sinister fellow. He charms Woo-ryong but lies to him when asked for guidance about the journey on to Seoul and seems to instil nothing but fear in the eyes of the other inhabitants. Woo-ryong strikes up a tentative romance with the village’s reluctant shaman which further raises the chieftain’s concerns – perhaps, he thinks, he doesn’t need to pay this piper after all. As might be expected, there’s a dark past at play here. Everyone is so terrified of the war, which they still believe is going on, and the things they’ve already done to survive that they’re prepared to go along with whatever their leader says to maintain their peaceful village life. Mob mentality at its worst, even those who were growing closer to the pair of strangers are quick to turn on them in a paranoid frenzy.

Like the original story, the moral is that you reap what you sew and if you don’t keep your promises, you deserve everything that’s coming to you. These are people who have lived in difficult times and done cruel things to survive. The rats which plague the town take on an almost supernatural air and have apparently developed a taste for human flesh. They become a kind of metaphor, a haunting presence which refuses to allow the villagers to forget the crimes they’ve committed and reminds them that their present safety was bought with innocent blood. A perfectly pitched fairytale with an all pervading sense of dread and foreboding, The Piper is an impressive effort from first time director Kim Gwang-tae and marks him out as a promising new voice in the world of Korean cinema.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.

 

Miss Granny (수상한 그녀, Hwang Dong-hyeok, 2014)

131212-001_1401140436597Review of Hwang Dong-hyeok’s age swap comedy Miss Granny (수상한 그녀, Soosanghan Geunyeo) up at UK Anime Network.


Miss Granny is something of a departure for Korean director Hwang Dong-hyeok whose previous two films have both explored fairly weighty subjects firstly in The Father which, based on a true story, features an American adoptee looking for his father only to find him languishing on death row, and more recently in Silenced (also known as The Crucible) which depicted the harrowing, and again true, events that occurred at the Gwangju Inhwa School for the Deaf in which pupils were routinely abused by teachers and staff. So far as we know, Miss Granny is not based on a true story and is a more mainstream comedy in which a “difficult” old lady suddenly finds herself transformed into her 20 year old self.

At the beginning of the film, Oh Mal-soon is a bad tempered 74 year old woman who terrorises everyone around her into submission including her middle aged daughter-in-law who eventually lands up in the hospital with a heart condition that may in part have been brought on by Mal-soon’s constant criticism. Mal-soon’s son faces an impossible choice, ship his mother off to a home and give his wife some peace or risk losing either his marriage or his wife by keeping his mother around. Heartbroken at the thought her son maybe about to abandon her, Mal-soon wanders around the city before deciding to enter a mysterious portrait photographers and dolling herself up for a “funeral photo”. However, when she emerges she’s mysteriously transformed into a lithe and pretty 20 year old! Suddenly young again with potentially a whole life in front of her, what sort of choices will Mal-soon make this time around?

Much of the comedy of Miss Granny centres around the young Mal-soon, renamed Oh Doo-ri after her favourite actress, Audrey Hepburn, speaking and acting as if she really really were a 74 year old woman with all of the freedoms (and the invisibilities) that age grants you. Snapping away in her thick rural dialect and handing out unsolicited advice in the way only a nosy old woman can, Doo-ri is a very strange, and perhaps a slightly frightening, young woman. Undoubtedly, as we find out, Mal-soon has had a difficult life – starting out as an upperclass woman before becoming a young, penniless single mother dependent on the kindness of others and doing everything in her power to ensure that her son will grow up a fine man. Life has made her hard and in turn she makes things hard for all around her.

As a young woman she’s initially much the same yet comes to understand something of who she was and who she is. In her younger days she dreamed of being a singer and even as an old woman was well known for her fine voice. After unexpectedly jumping up to sing at a senior’s event in order to best another old lady rival, she’s “discovered” by a producer who’s tired of all the soulless idol stars who walk across his stage. Doo-ri is exactly what he’s been looking for, a young and pretty face with a voice that’s full of a lifetime’s heartbreak. Here is the real coup of the film – the younger actress, Shim Eun-kyung, reinterprets these classic pop songs from 40 years ago beautifully with exactly the right levels of pain and regret perfectly matching the montage flashbacks to Mal-soon’s youth. Becoming young again, experiencing everything again as if for the first time – opportunity, romance, friendship, Mal-soon finally begins to soften as if some of the harsh years of her original young life had been smoothed away.

Of course, nothing lasts forever and Mal-soon eventually has to make a choice between her newly returned youth and something else precious to her. She comes to understand that however hard it was she’d do it the same all over again because the same things would always have been the most important to her. Though it’s far from original and drags a little in the middle, Miss Granny still proves a warm and funny tale that walks the difficult line between serious and funny with ease and throws in a pretty catchy soundtrack to boot.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.

Also here is one of the musical sequences in the film – I think this is a famous song from the ’70s (?) called White Butterfly. ‘Tis quite beautiful (mild spoilers for the film as it includes a montage of Mal-soon’s youth in the ’60s).

 

The Shameless (무뢰한, Oh Seung-uk, 2015)

fullsizephoto602641Review of Oh Seung-uk’s The Shameless (무뢰한, Moorwehan) up at UK Anime Network. I read some lukewarm reviews but I actually really liked this one (though I’m a sucker for B-movie noirs and my tolerance for melodrama is sky high)!


Director Oh Seung-uk maybe best known as the screenwriter behind such varied and well respected efforts as Green Fish (directed by Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong), Christmas in August and H, but way back in 2001 he made a minor splash at Cannes with his existential gangster piece, Kilimanjaro. The Shameless sees him one again turn to the shady world of underground crime though this time what he’s interested in is a romantic melodrama laced with deadly film noir morality.

Recently divorced police detective Jung Jae-gon has been handed what seems like a fairly straightforward murder. They already know who the killer is and the motive behind the crime, all that remains is to track the guy down. Luckily they also know that Park, a gangland thug, has a regular girlfriend, Kim Hye-kyung, who works at a seedy downtown bar. Through tailing her they’ll find their man. This is where things get sticky. Said girlfriend is the former lover of the head of another crime syndicate who’d now like to use Park’s current predicament to exact some revenge on the drifter who’s stolen his girl. Roping in a disgraced ex-cop, the gang offer Jae-gon a significant amount of money to cripple Park during his arrest and take him out of the picture for good. Jae-gon is conflicted. The way he sees it, the day you can’t tell which side you’re really on is the day you need to hand back your badge, but Jae-gon’s in need of money, this guy used to be his friend and then, there’s the girl…

Right here you have all the essential elements of your classic film noir. Basically good, if imperfect, detective receives an offer he can’t refuse and ultimately accepts it against his better judgement in part because of a femme fatale that he just can’t get out of his mind even if the more rational part of his brain knows this is something that is never going to happen. Before you know it, Jae-gon has researched Park’s history and adopted the persona of a former cellmate before taking an undercover job at Hye-kyung’s bar and attempting to become close to her in the hope that she’ll eventually lead them to Park’s whereabouts. Of course, he starts falling for her too and though she remains doggedly committed to Park, something in her begins to warm to him in return. This is a situation which can never end well and its classic B-movie style inevitability only adds to the eventual pathos of its deliberately downbeat ending.

The film is called The Shameless for a reason – nobody looks good in this shady world of corrupt cops and vicious gangsters who will stop at nothing to get what they want. The fact that you can barely tell who is on which side is a good indicator of the levels to which this world of chaos has become warped. Even the police are literally “shameless” stooping so far as to indulge in an interrogation technique which is, in fact, a sexual assault. At least the gangsters are abiding by their own rules.

The picture has a slick, stylish aesthetic which is perfectly in keeping with its morally grey, film noir inspired mood. It’s full of existential angst and the ennui of modern, aimless life. As usual for this kind of film, Hye-kyung repeatedly gets the short end of the stick – used and abused by faithless men, so massively in debt it’s almost impossible she’ll be able to extricate herself from the seedy world of hostess bars and petty gangsters before its too late. She’s only one victim of the pervasive sexism that defines this harsh world. Clinging desperately to Park, Hye-kyung’s one and only escape route is to hope one of these feckless men is the one who can take her away from this place.

Needless to say this isn’t one of those films where everyone gets what they want and walks off into the sunset of eternal happiness, but perhaps it isn’t as apocalyptic as the original premise might promise. That is actually something of a problem as the slightly softer ending undercuts the film’s emotional resonance and ultimately leaves one feeling a little less than satisfied. Still, even if The Shameless fails to hit its mark at the very end, Oh has still crafted a stylish and beautifully photographed neo-noir romance that stays true to its classic B-movie roots whilst also embracing the best of the modern crime movie.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.

 

Ode to My Father (국제시장, JK Yoon, 2014)

ode_to_my_father_stillReview of JK Yoon’s Ode to My Father (국제시장, Gukjeshijang) – first published by UK Anime Network.


Of late, we’ve seen a lot of films attempt to trace the history of a nation through the story of one man and his family which ultimately becomes a metaphor for the that of the land itself. Many of these have come from China which shares something of the turbulent history that has affected the Korean peninsula over the last hundred years. In Ode to My Father, director JK Youn has tried to pay tribute both to his own father and to all the fathers of modern Korea who underwent great difficulties and suffered immensely in the hope of building a better, happier, future for their own children.

Mostly we view events from the point of view of Duk-soo – an old man at the beginning of the film who has made a success of himself and is surrounded by a large, loving family though seems to retain a kind of unresolved sadness. When we travel back with him, he’s just a small boy fleeing his homeland with his parents and siblings. As the oldest, he’s put in charge of his sister only to have her cruelly snatched away from him during the final escape. This event colours the rest of Duk-soo’s life as he carries with him both the tremendous guilt of having failed to protect his sister and of losing his father has he went back to look for her. The remaining family members gather together at the small imported goods shop belonging to an aunt which becomes another motif of the film.

Growing into manhood, Duk-soo is now the man of the house with both his siblings and his mother to provide for. Making countless sacrifices which see him abandoning his own dreams and travelling abroad to seek better paid work – first in the coalmines of West Germany and later the warzone of Vietnam, Duk-soo puts his family before himself every single time. Working tirelessly, Duk-soo grows up but inside he’s forever the little boy on a boat watching his father drift away him and desperately hoping he’ll some day miraculously turn up at the shop with a smile and an improbable story.

This is a story of painful separations and the shockwaves they send through the rest of one’s life and of all the lives throughout history. Having fled the Chinese and the communists in the North, Duk-soo and his family are excited about the prospect of being able to go home at the “end” of the war. However, this is a war which is still not technically over, merely suspended by a truce, and Duk-soo will never see his hometown again. Eventually, during the ‘80s, 30 years since Duk-soo was separated from his father and sister, a nationwide campaign is held to try and re-unite family members forced apart by the traumatic events of the 1950s. Entire squares in the city are covered with people desperately looking for each other wearing signs with their relatives’ names and point of last sighting, clothing etc all in the hope of finally finding each other again. Needless to say, some of these people are luckier than others and there are tears of both joy and sadness.

Still, all in all, Duk-soo and South Korea made a success of themselves even if there’s a resulting ache from the great wound which has split the nation in two. Much of the story is universal – a father’s love for his family, but Ode to My Father will obviously speak loudest to Koreans who can identify more strongly with the historical context. Yoon has also injected some humorous incidents involving real life Korean historical celebrities which may mystify international viewers even if they’re sign posted well enough that one gets the gist of it anyway.

Unabashedly sentimental and oftentimes overblown, Ode to My Father nevertheless succeeds in tugging at the heartstrings in all the intended ways. A paean to the post war generation and all that they endured in building the modern Korea that their children could live in without fear or hunger, Ode to My Father is in the end far too sugary but also, it has to be said, affecting.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.