A review of the London Korean Year 2010

LKL tries to sum up the London Korean cultural year.

Live music

Happy Jackson
Lee Gyo-won, aka Happy Jackson of Biuret, talks to LKL

Possibly the most disappointing thing about 2010 has been the number of top-flight Korean musicians who have been passing through London but not stopping to do a sensible gig there. Biuret played at a private industry showcase before heading off to Southampton – at least stopping to give LKL an interview before departing – while both W&Whale and 3rd Line Butterfly came to play a few tracks in front of an audience of three editorial staff from Monocle Magazine before shooting off back to Seoul. One might expect a bit of weirdness from itta and Marqido, and they duly delivered in their central London event, which offered a discount on the door to Japanese cosplayers.

Thankfully there were some worthwhile artists who gave public performances at accessible events: Winterplay came to the Thames Festival and showcased their new album of laid-back jazz-pop in a pleasant gig at the KCC. Nah Youn Sun returned to London for her second appearance, supporting Swedish jazz-rock group Tonbruket at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (15 March). The Mike Hobart in the FT was bowled over by her performance, as was LKL (this time writing for LondonJazz), though even better was the main act. We are looking forward to Nah’s return to London in 2011, rumoured to be early March.

Younee with Alex Hutton
Younee with Alex Hutton at Pizza Express Soho

Multi-talented jazz-pop-classical pianist vocalist Younee also returned to London for her second tour, playing at the 100 club and the 606 club, but her standout event was a piano duo gig with Alex Hutton at Pizza Express Soho – an amazing experience of musical spontaneity from two first-rate pianists.

Baramgot's Park Suna on gayageum at the Thames Festival
Baramgot's Park Suna on gayageum at the Thames Festival (photo © Lee Hyung-wook, The East)

Also in London for their second performance were Baramgot with their leader Won Il, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Thames Festival. It’s difficult to describe their style of music, other than to say that they were LKL’s live performance of the year in 2008, and this year they tie with Younee’s Pizza Express gig for event of the year.

Film

We’ve had our fortnightly screenings at the KCC, the LKFF, and Korean film at the BFI London Film Festival. Often, though, some of the most enjoyable films come out of the blue. One such was the BBC’s screening of Kim Jong-il’s Comedy Club, a shortened version of a documentary The Red Chapel featuring a couple of Danish Korean adoptees visiting the DPRK with a comedy show. The full documentary got a public screening at the ICA with director Q&A. In a year that has seen the DPRK demanding more of our attention, this documentary was moving, embarrassing, amusing, controversial and altogether stimulating on many levels.

Another North Korea themed film (and indeed made in North Korea), appropriate for release in a World Cup year, was Centre Forward, reviewed here by Michael Rank.

Lee Jeong-beom
Lee Jeong-beom shares a joke with onlookers in Leicester Square on the first night of the LKFF (© Lee Hyung-wook)

It’s been a bumper year for visits to London by top rank film directors to talk about their films with an increasingly better informed audience. I counted at least seven directors doing Q&As this year, and I probably missed some: Jeong Ji-young (White Badge at Cambridge and the KCC), Jang Jin (brief retrospective at the LKFF), Hong Sang-soo (full retrospective at the BFI), Im Sang-soo (The Housemaid remake at the LKFF), Han Hye-jin and An Jae-hoon (Green Days at the LKFF), Kim Ji-woon (I Saw the Devil at the LKFF) and Lee Jeong-beom (Ajeossi / The Man from Nowhere at the LKFF).

Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook have also been to London in recent years, and now what we need to complete the picture is Im Kwon-taek and Lee Chang-dong. With an Im Kwon-taek retrospective at the BFI in 2011 at least one of these gaps should be filled.

Green Days
Green Days - one of the highlights of the LKFF

The LKFF seems to get more ambitious every year, and was responsible for bringing over no fewer than six directors. To a certain extent, the festival is at the mercy of the quality of the Korean film industry, and Jang Jin gave a pretty downbeat assessment of its state of health. There were some high-profile films, including Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw the Devil and Im Sang-soo’s Housemaid remake, but possibly at the time it might have seemed as if the BFI London Film Festival had the scoop, with Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry. Sadly, the scheduling of both festivals seems to be geared towards those without day jobs, which meant that I got to very few of the films. The most exciting film of the LKFF was the opener, Lee Jeong-beom’s Man from Nowhere, and the most memorable one was the gentle animation Green Days, which with luck marks a turning point in the Korean animation industry which hitherto has lived in the shadow of Japanese animation.

Jang Jin
Jang Jin

For me, the most satisfying film experience of the year was the retrospective of Jang Sun-woo’s films at the KCC, which included Tony Rayns’s documentary, The Jang Sun-woo variations. It’s always good to get a chance to see classic films which are mentioned in all the film literature but which are unavailable on subtitled DVD. Petal, Road to the Racetrack and Lovers in Woomuk-baemi were the ones I got to see, and I’m sorry I didn’t manage to see the others. And while it was a great opportunity to have all the Hong Sang-soo films presented at the BFI, Jang’s Road to the Racetrack is a pretty good summing up of Hong’s oeuvre, made a couple of years before Hong’s first feature.

Talks and seminars

SOAS provides the backbone of academic events free to the public, but gets increasing competition from the KCC and elsewhere. Possibly the highlight of the SOAS year was a study day on Joseon dynasty court painting in collaboration with the British Museum. Not to be outdone, Cambridge students put together a stimulating afternoon examining the experience of Korean adoptees, and BAKS assembled a fascinating day on the Korean War at Asia House. All three events could have benefited from more time, though probably it’s always best to leave wanting more rather than less.

Keith Pratt
Keith Pratt tells us about lodging with Lee Chae-suk in the 1980s

Three evening talks at the KCC are also worth highlighting: Andrew Salmon’s riveting talk on the battle of the Imjin, Kirsteen Kim on Korea’s protestant missionaries, and Keith Pratt’s personal recollections of the state of Korean traditional music in the 1980s. It is to be hoped that Dr Pratt can be persuaded to write up his recollections for BAKS.

Performance Arts

Breakout returned to London for an enjoyable outing at the Thames Festival, delighting crowds with the type of physical theatre which Korea does so well. But in remembering the festival in the centre of town, we should not forget the festival in Koreatown: the New Malden Arts Festival. This year saw the return of the Mokhwa Repertory Company performing Oh Tae Seok’s Romeo and Juliet and new production My Love DMZ. Both works are appropriate for a year marking the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, and the performances deserved to be much better attended.

Mokhwa Repertory Company: Romeo and Juliet
Mokhwa Repertory Company: Romeo and Juliet

Other well attended performances were the slightly bizarre patriotic musical Another Sun, and the Little Angels, who were on a world tour visiting all the 16 nations who provided combat troops to support the Republic of Korea against Kim Il-sung’s aggression 60 years ago.

Laboratory Dance Project at The Place
Laboratory Dance Project perform their signature piece, No Comment

Not to be forgotten is the performance of the Laboratory Dance Project to a packed house at The Place, London’s regular venue for contemporary dance.

Sef Townsend tells a Korean folk tale
Sef Townsend tells the Korean folk tale of the fountain of eternal youth

But, for children of all ages, the highlight of any year must be a Sef Townsend storytelling session. During the Thames Festival he held his audiences spellbound in the KCC multi-purpose space.

Visual Arts

Jihye Park
A still from a video work by Jihye Park at this year's 4482 group show

There are now too many exhibitions of contemporary Korean artists for me to keep track of, and certainly too many to review. A useful aid to take the temperature of the young Korean art scene in London is 4482 what seems to be an annual show by 40 or 50 artists at the OXO Tower. This year’s show was stronger than last year’s – enough for me to make a couple of visits. Another improved show this year was the big budget Korean Eye show at the Saatchi Gallery. With six curators it was difficult to discern a common thread, but at least with more than one work per artist it was a less hectic experience than the first attempt in 2009. Meanwhile, over at Asia House, a broader view of the Tiger in Asian Art provided much enjoyment.

Soon Yul Kang - A Long Journey
Soon Yul Kang, A Long Journey. 2009-10, 110 x 84 cm

Of the commercial galleries, the shows I shall remember are Koh Sang-woo at Sesame, Kang Soon-yul at Artspace and Bae Chan-hyo at Purdy Hicks.

Park Chan-soo with his sculpting tools
Park Chan-soo with his sculpting tools at the KCC

The KCC hosted its regular exhibitions. The most enjoyable for its vigorous reinterpretation of Buddhist art was Park Chan-soo’s Buddha Speaks with a New Voice. Park is an important figure in Buddhist art, and is holder of Intangible Cultural Property No. 108, Mokjogakjang, (목조각장, wood sculpture). Once again we are grateful to the KCC’s generous travel budget for bringing Master Park over to London for some demonstrations.

Present from the Past
Present from the Past: Postcards were made of all the works and presented to British Korean War veterans

Most significant in terms of timing and ambition though was the Present from the Past exhibition, in which 40 contemporary Korean artists donated works inspired by themes related to the Korean War. The works were subsequently auctioned in aid of British veterans of the Korean War.

Thanks as always to the organisers and sponsors of these events.

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