Mysterious Creature: Jang Jin at the London Korean Film Festival

Director Jang Jin is sometimes referred to as “The Future of Korean Cinema” but also as a “Mysterious Creature”. Nyomi Anderson tells us more.

This year’s London Korean Film Festival featured a retrospective of the films of writer-director Jang Jin. Jang began his career in theatre before making his first film was The Happenings, which debuted at the Pusan International Film Festival in 1998. His breakout film, Guns & Talks (2001), helped launch young star Won Bin’s film career. His most recent film, Quiz King, was released in Korea in September. The retrospective featured four of Jang’s films: Guns & Talks, Good Morning President (2009), Someone Special (2004), and Murder Take One (2005). The director was present for Q&As and introductions for the films, and his appearances were a highlight of this year’s festival programme.

Jang Jin speaking at the ICA
Jang Jin (R) speaking at the ICA, along with Simon Ward (L) and Tony Rayns (C). Source: the author

Jang Jin was also on the panel at a talk entitled “What is the Future of Korean Cinema?” at the ICA on Thursday, 11 November. He modestly described himself as a “mysterious creature” in the Korean film industry who doesn’t have many hits to his name. In fact, he has had solid success and makes films with steady regularity. The talk included a screening of a short film by Jang called Someone Grateful. Commissioned by the South Korean government’s human rights committee several years ago, the film’s unique take on the notion of human rights caused a great deal of controversy.

Someone Grateful centres on a student protester and his abusive interrogator in South Korea’s tumultuous 1980s. Students were continually detained and tortured during mobilizations against the military government. Despite the subject matter, Jang’s film is a light-hearted satire. He focuses on the human rights of the policeman rather than the student, a subversive twist that was not well received by human rights organizations. The film begins with familiar sequences of intense questioning and beatings as the policeman attempts to force a confession. Instead of increased antagonism, however, the student comes to empathize with the interrogator’s status as a contract employee with poor working conditions, and the two characters develop a kinship.

Someone Grateful
Someone Grateful. Source: koreanfilm.org

I should note, to be frank, that I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Jang Jin’s films. They’re rather risk-averse, mainstream affairs that are too safe to hold my interest. That being said, I found Someone Grateful an unexpected treat. Perhaps at a succinct 25-odd minutes, Jang’s storytelling style didn’t have time to become laborious. In other words, I enjoyed it more than any of his feature-length films. The comedic timing of the climax, of sorts, was spot-on. The director’s sensitive approach certainly makes the controversy seem unwarranted, especially given his personal involvement in the student movement. According to Jang, being tortured was considered a badge of honour among detained student protesters. However, he confessed, he failed to get tortured himself.

Jang Jin
Jang Jin. Source: LKFF website

Korean cinema champion Tony Rayns, who led the talk, described Korea’s film industry as a rollercoaster ride of ecstatic successes alternating with despairing slumps. While 2010 was less bleak, 2009 was largely considered a crisis year. With layoffs galore, unstable leadership at KOFIC (the Korean Film Council), and the ongoing debate over the screen quota system, Korean cinema has certainly had its share of crises. Jang described the situation as even more dire. He doesn’t see KOFIC as a helpful organization and has come to expect little from the government during the creative process. However, Simon Ward of the Independent Cinema Office, also on the panel, spoke positively of KOFIC and its involvement in helping get Korean films distributed in the UK. Perhaps, Ward surmised, KOFIC is more effective once films are made and being marketed internationally, rather than supporting Korean filmmakers during production.

Despite the bleak picture Jang painted of the industry from the inside, early on in the discussion he mentioned that he never thought he would be talking about the future of Korean cinema in London. The fact that he did, perhaps, is an encouraging reflection of the status of Korean cinema on the world stage.

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