It was a very pleasing selection of Korean films at the BFI London Film Festival this year. And for the first time that I can remember, I managed to get to all of them. Here are the verdicts.
암살, Dir Choi Dong-hoon, 2015.
With a fantastic ensemble cast, including Jeon Ji-hyun as the crack-shot loyal independence fighter, Ha Jung-woo as the freelance hired gun with a sense of responsibility and Lee Jung-jae in sparkling form as the traitorous double agent, this was entertainment on a grand scale. At 139 minutes long, the film never outstays its welcome, with luscious visuals, strong attention to detail and plenty of plot twists to maintain interest. The action scenes are great fun. Choi Dong-hoon joked at the Q&A after the screening that, because much of the scenery was constructed especially for the film and had to be taken apart afterwards, the incentive was to maximise the damage during the shoot in order to minimise the subsequent dismantling work. Much of the film was shot in Shanghai, on the same set as that used for Ang Lee’s period piece Lust, Caution, though also a lot was built specially for the film, including the interior of the Mitsukoshi Department Store in Seoul where the final action scenes take place.
With The Thieves behind him, another massively entertaining film with a strong ensemble cast, it seems that Choi had little problem pulling together The Assassination, though it was a story he had been planning for 9 years. According to Choi, he signed up the lead actors and only then started to write the script. The story fairly races along, and you really do not mind the unlikely coincidence that connects the assassin to one of her targets. Films like this need some surprises.
The movie does not pretend to be much more than it is on the surface, which is a crowd-pleasing romp with patriotic overtones. A perfect film to headline the Korean representation in the London Film Festival, and an opportune one to be released 70 years after Korea regained its freedom from the colonial oppressor.
Right Now, Wrong Then
지금은맞고그때는틀리다, Dir Hong Sang-soo, 2015.
What can one say? It’s another Hong Sang-soo film. Longer than most (at a minute over two hours, maybe it’s even the longest), it covers the same ground (a film director has a lot of awkward conversations over many bottles of soju with a woman he fails to seduce, and there is more than one possible version of the same scenario) but somehow this time the minutes seem to pass more quickly. Maybe because it’s set in Suwon, with some nice scenes in the Hwaseong Haenggung; maybe because Jeong Jae-yeong and Kim Min-hee seem to make those awkward moments seem just natural; maybe because of a hilarious moment when Director Ham gatecrashes an informal party after rather too much soju; but also because Hong Sang-soo seems to be making fun of himself more than before: from the irritable, ranting response to the asinine question from the moderator at the Q&A after the screening of his film (one day I want to see that happen in real life), to the almost empty theatre where the screening takes place. Think of it as two almost identical films back-to-back; or concede that it’s a playful essay on how small differences in circumstance or nuance can have a material affect on the way a relationship unfolds. Whichever way you look at it, I really rather enjoyed this one.
마돈나, Dir Shin Su-won, 2015.
Madonna is an impressive third film from Shin Su-won (Pluto) that asks us to imagine what would happen if, after a chaebol boss has had a stroke and is being kept alive on life support, it is in the interests of the family and the hospital to keep him alive for as long as possible at all costs, even though everyone knows he will never recover. The scenario does not require a great leap of imagination as Lee Kun-hee is now in his second year in hospital, though this film really stress-tests the potential issues to the full.
How, for example, to source the organs needed to keep the grandee alive, when the unofficial organ supply route from China gets problematic? Enter a convenient unconscious, unglamorous girl who unfortunately also happens to be pregnant.
The film in its quiet, tense, narrative (literally quiet: there are moments of black silence that you can cut with a knife) tries to piece together the life story of this unwitting organ donor as a hospital nurse with a conscience tries to find the father of the donor’s unborn baby. An early fact we find out about the victim is that her nickname is Madonna – one of many that she has been given throughout her marginalised life, and the only one that is not an insult.
The film asks questions about medical ethics, life and death, sexual exploitation in the workplace, love and the lack of it, beauty and the lack of it, in a satisfying story in which both Kwon So-hyeon as the unfortunate Madonna and Seo Young-hee as the enigmatic nurse cum investigator with her own tragic history are mesmerising. The cinematography is good-looking too.
If there are moments when you have to suspend your disbelief at the willingness of people to provide confidential information such as CCTV footage to an amateur sleuth with no official standing, other films require you to gloss over similar implausibilities. And if similarly you wonder how someone who has taken the Hippocratic oath is prepared to break it in order to worship at the foot of Mammon, you nevertheless are forced to get nervous about what might happen if we didn’t have a National Health Service.
My Love, Don’t Cross That River
님아, 그 강을 건너지 마오, Dir Jin Mo-young, 2014,
A beautiful documentary about an aged couple living in rural Gangwondo – a film about love, family and death which avoids sentimentality and is wonderfully poetic.