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.


Seven Psychopaths – LFF 2012

I won’t lie – I almost didn’t go to this screening as I’d seen a lot of ‘worst film I’ve even seen’ comments coming in from various festivals and then from the LFF press screening and I wasn’t sure I was definitely going to be able to make it. However being a huge fan of McDonagh’s stage work (I count the original production of The Pillowman at the RNT one of the theatre going highlights of my life) there was no way I was never going to see this film. Although I wasn’t as enamoured with In Bruges as many people were – mostly because I missed the sense of anarchy from his stage productions – I’d been looking forward to his next film for some time. Seven Psychopaths plays out almost like a big screen version of Lieutenant of Inishmore only it’s a missing dog rather than a cat and psycho crook rather than a guy who was thrown out of the IRA for ‘being too mad’ with a whole load of metatextual commentary  going on. Oh and bloody violence, lots of that, alongside totally absurd, jet black humour – yep, that’s a McDonagh script!

Marty (Farrell) has some problems. The first of which being that he’s way behind on a screenplay he’s supposed to have delivered already – in fact he hasn’t even started it, well he has the title ‘Seven Psychopaths’. Only he’s only come up with the one – a Buddhist psychopath but he can’t work out how all the homicidal mania and enlightenment go together. Besides which he really wants to write a film that’s not all guns and violence, one that’s about peace and love and humanity. His second problem is drink, which is possibly part of the cause of his first problem. His third problem is a incredibly poor choice in friends – i.e. an out of work actor, Billy Bickle (Rockwell), who makes his money through a dog kidnapping scam and thinks a really great way to help with the psycho problem is to take out an ad asking for the biggest psychos around to call Marty’s own number and offer their stories for the film. One day however Billy and his friend Hans (Walken) are going to mess with the wrong guy’s dog and drag Marty into a whole world of psychopathic violence and general existential despair.

Yes, like its filmic counterpart the Seven Psychopaths that we are watching is a film about humanity and friendship and art that ended up having lots of guns and violence and blood in it anyway. There’s a great moment near the beginning where Billy and Marty are discussing the screenplay problem whilst sitting in a virtually empty cinema watching Takeshi Kitano’s Violent Cop and Marty insists he doesn’t want the film to be all about guys with guns in their hands. The violence is inevitable though as the two tussle over how the film’s going to end – in a hail of bullets or with a fireside heart to heart.

You might think so far so nineties Tarantino with its long stretches of stylised dialogue and classic/cult film references but it’s much less alienating than Tarantino’s approach and somehow manages to be both reflexive yet unpretentious. It’s much all less obvious and if it’s winking at you it’s doing it without looking you in the eye and certainly without waiting for you to wink back. The absurdity of the piece feels totally natural and effortlessly constructed so that all the crazy goings on just seem to roll together with a feeling of ‘of course, it must be so’.

Seven Psychopaths is a totally insane thrill ride of a movie – the sort of film where you feel like jumping up with arms stretched out to the sky and shouting YES! as soon as it’s finished. It’s a fair assumption that a lot of people won’t like this film, it strikes a very specific tone that you either go with or don’t and even those who admired In Bruges might find themselves lost in this film’s comparative lack of control. However, Seven Psychopaths is a hilariously funny black comedy that’s also very smart in its criticism both of itself and of cinema in general. Destined to become a cult classic this is one film too much to miss!