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The big, the small, and the predictable: K-film at the 52nd BFI London Film Festival

Is it a reflection on the current state of the Korean film industry that the films to be shown at the 52nd BFI London Film Festival don’t really surprise me? In previous years the organisers have managed to select films which are out of the ordinary, maybe one or two that I hadn’t heard of. This year? Well, I’m not complaining because we have the biggest Korean film of the year, an art-house stalwart and a mainstream horror flick. But let’s hope the Korean Film Festival at the Barbican in November fills in a few gaps.

The Good
The Good
The Bad
The Bad

The big one? The Good the Bad and the Weird, of course. Packed with stars (Song Kang-Ho, Lee Byung-Hun, Jung Woo-Sung), directed by one of Korea’s most stylish directors (Kim Ji-woon), it’s been Korea’s film of the year. With such a pedigree it’s tempting to go in to the film with unrealistically high expectations, in which case you might be disappointed. (Q at thought it “hobbled a bit” in his review in ohmynews). But as with all Kim Ji-woon’s films, you’ll be fine in expecting top-notch cinematography. Tony Rayns provides the following commentary on the BFI site:

We’re in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in the 1930s, and the MacGuffin is a treasure map. Everyone wants it: Chang-Yi, leader of a bandit gang, who’s hired to seize it from a train across the plains; his nemesis, the bounty-hunter Do-Weon; and the accident-prone train robber Tae-Gu, who seems to have a charmed life; not to mention the Japanese army, émigré Korean freedom-fighters and assorted Chinese bandits. But MacGuffin it is, because the meat of Kim Jee-Woon’s tribute to Sergio Leone is in the virtually non-stop action – and in the shifting balance of power between the three main characters, played by Korea’s top male stars.

Kim has been exploring different genres since he launched his career a decade ago (he’s done black comedy, social comedy-drama, psycho-horror and a gangster movie) and he’s loaded this extravaganza with everything he loves about Italian Westerns, from three-way duels to opium dens. It’s a measure of his smarts that all three ‘heroes’ are capable of goodness, badness and weirdness interchangeably. It’s been the hit of the year in Korea, and here’s betting you’ll find it a blast too.

The Weird
The Weird

The Good the Bad and the Weird screens at the following times:

  • Thu 30 October 2008 12:45 ODEON WEST END 2
  • Thu 30 October 2008 20:45 ODEON WEST END 2

The small? Hong Sang Soo is never going to have a huge following in the UK, but there will always be a few who appreciate his understated, thoughtful style. Tony Rayns again:

The first film Hong Sang-Soo has shot substantially outside Korea, Night and Day turns less on tricks and traps of structure than his other movies but finds just as much humour in patterns of repetition and variation. It’s presented as a kind of diary. Middle-aged painter Kim Sung-Nam fetches up in Paris, paranoid that he was about to be arrested for smoking dope in Korea. Unable to speak French, he lodges in a fairly seedy hostel for Korean émigrés in the 14th arrondissement and wanders aimlessly around the city, periodically calling his wife back in Seoul.

On the rebound from a disconcerting encounter with a needy ex-girlfriend (now unhappily married and eager to pick up where they left off), he runs into a Korean art-student and her alluring flatmate and finds himself falling in love… Eric Rohmer’s name has been bandied about as a point of reference, but this is actually pure Hong Sang-Soo: a very amusing deconstruction of male pride, male inadequacy and the male capacity for projecting hapless fantasies on to more or less innocent women. Not a reinvention, then, but a thoroughgoing refreshment of Hong’s characteristic themes.

Night and Day
Night and Day

Night and Day screens at the following times:

  • Tue 28 October 2008 20:30 NFT2
  • Wed 29 October 2008 13:00 NFT2

The slightly predictable? Hansel and Gretel, which looks like your standard Tale of Two Sisters-style atmospheric ghost story.

Lee Eun-Soo, a callow young man with an oddly feminine name, is driving along a forest road and on the phone to his pregnant girlfriend when he swerves to avoid roadkill and crashes. Dazed, he’s rescued by a mysteriously serene girl who brings him to the “House of Happy Children” in the heart of the forest. He’s made very welcome for the night by the owners (an adult couple and their three children), and is only mildly disconcerted that his cellphone doesn’t connect and that the housephone is out of order.

Next day, though, when he tries to find his way back to his car, he finds himself trapped in a heavily wooded version of the Bermuda Triangle … Second-time director Yim Phil-Sung (he’s a friend of Bong Joon-Ho and played a small role in The Host) delivers a grown-up re-reading of fairy tales to rival Angela Carter’s, complete with childish tantrums that have demonic consequences. There are several horror-movie shocks, but the film’s great strength is Yim’s ability to render conceptual mysteries in sinister, dream-like images. Sudden snowfall has never been creepier.

Hansel and Gretel
Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel screens at the following times (which reinforce in my mind that the BFI London Film Festival is designed for film followers not in regular employment):

  • Fri 24 October 2008 14:00 NFT1
  • Sat 25 October 2008 23:30 ODEON WEST END 1


Thanks to Raku for mentioning Bong Joon-ho’s contribution to an omnibus film, Tokyo, screening at anti-social times (midnight on Saturday 18 or lunchtime on Tuesday 21)


(automatically generated) Read LKL’s review of this event here.

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