A look back at some of the films of 2017

by Philip Gowman on 28 December, 2017 updated 30 December, 2017

in 2017 year-end posts | Film reviews and comment

2017 film collage

A review of some of the films that screened in London during the 2017 – another busy year.

For me the undoubted highlight of the London film year was the Bae Chang-ho retrospective at the London Korean Film Festival: a chance to see a couple of his movies – including the classic Whale Hunting (1984) – which are not publicly available, and the opportunity to meet the gentleman himself. A real treat.

Bae Chang-ho collage

Bae Chang-ho (photo Paul Quinn) with the three films that screened at LKFF

Apart from Bae Chang-ho, I only managed to see around fifteen movies this year, so I’m not well-enough informed to give you the best and worst of the year. I enjoyed Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess (LKFF teaser), Huh Jung’s The Mimic (both LKFF and LEAFF) and Won Shin-yeon’s Memoir of a Murderer (BFI LFF) (the latter was probably the meatiest of the three); On the Beach at Night Alone (BFI LFF) was what you expect from a Hong Sang-soo film. What else was there?

The ones that got away

Hwang Dong-hyuk's Namhansanseong

Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Namhansanseong (The Fortress)

I missed out on several big films screening in London as a result of diary clashes or simply not having the energy. The one I’m most sorry to have missed is Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Namhansanseong (LEAFF) both for its cinematography and its meditations on harsh political realities (though some said it was too long), but I also missed out on LKFF’s Noir strand and many of its contemporary gangster and political thrillers (there seems to be rather a glut of these). I didn’t have time for many of the screenings at the KCC, which this year were grouped together into three mini-programmes curated by guest curators: a series of Korean horror (curated by Colette Balmain), a focus on migrants, and a deconstruction of Kim Hong-joon’s My Korean Cinema. Kim Hong-joon came to London again for this. He is always an entertaining speaker and I was sorry to have missed him this time.

Finally, the 2017 movie I most want to see coming to London in 2018 is the very recent 1987: When The Day Comes (from Save the Green Planet director Jang Joon-hwan), which complements A Taxi Driver (see below) as a book-end to the Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship.

The Year of the Documentary

Becoming Who I Was

Moon Chang-yong and Jeon Jin’s Becoming Who I Was

More than anything else, this year seems to have been the year of the documentary: Jung Yoon-suk’s Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno (BFI LFF and LKFF) (part indie rockumentary, part exploration of the bizarre prosecution of a joker who retweeted the messages of a North Korean propaganda channel) had a screening at two London festivals while two documentaries on the Yongsan tragedy came to the London Korean Film Festival. The organisers of alternative screenings at Birkbeck and SOAS are to be commended for bringing us politically aware documentaries on subjects such as the Sewol and the Gangjeong naval base. The most eye-opening film I saw in these venues this year was Criminal Conspiracy (Choi Seung-ho, 2017) – a no holds barred exposé of Lee Myung-bak’s assault on press freedom. Choi is now set to become president of MBC, the station which he had to leave under Lee Myung-bak during the purge on investigative journalism. Probably the most moving documentary I saw anywhere was Moon Chang-yong and Jeon Jin’s Becoming Who I Was (BFI LFF) – a beautifully shot, understated observation of a young monk who is a reincarnated sage.

Now for the highs and lows.

Pleasant surprises

Kim Dae-hwan’s The First Lap

Kim Dae-hwan’s The First Lap

Of the movies I saw, none of them were ones I would really want to watch again other than maybe Kim Dae-hwan’s The First Lap (LKFF’s closing film) – a gentle relationship movie with a lot of truths about families. Other reviewers have probably said all there is to say about this film, so I didn’t contribute my own thoughts, but it’s one of those quiet movies that lingers with you.

Jang Hoon's A Taxi Driver

Jang Hoon’s A Taxi Driver

But for me, the biggest surprise of 2017 was Jang Hoon’s A Taxi Driver (LKFF teaser). Jang is a director who hasn’t really been on my radar before. The only other film of his I’ve seen is Secret Reunion (2010) – a spy movie with agents from North and South – and it didn’t make much impression. Given the subject matter of A Taxi Driver – the Gwangju uprising – I was expecting it to be rather too worthy to be entertaining, but it was probably the new film I most enjoyed this year: a good balance of seriousness and lightness of touch, with enough grounding in reality to keep it relevant.

Disappointments

Ryu Seung-wan’s Battleship Island

Ryu Seung-wan’s Battleship Island

Bong Joon-ho’s made-for-Netflix Okja. I really can’t describe how disappointed I was with this, but I guess every director is allowed to have at least one mis-step. Ryu Seung-wan’s Battleship Island was pretty tedious, but I didn’t have high expectations of that one and in hindsight it was odd that it got a UK theatrical release. With Bong, you expect to be blown away every time with virtuoso, thought-provoking story-telling, so when you’re presented with something that is just plain irritating you feel let down.

Bong Joon-ho's Okja

Bong Joon-ho’s Okja

I took out a Netflix subscription to watch Okja, and while I have kept the subscription going because for now it seems like a cheap way to rent movies I steer clear of anything that’s badged a “Netflix Original.” It is said that because of Netflix’s generous budget Bong was able to do things he wouldn’t have been able to attempt within the normal funding model of Korean cinema. For me, if that’s what he does with unlimited cash he needs to have a strict accountant in charge of his next movie.

Coming in 2018

I’m not close enough to movie news to know what’s coming in 2018, but there’s one movie I’m going to make sure I get to see when it comes: Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, an adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami. Lee has form in adapting short stories – his Secret Sunshine (2007) was based on Yi Chong-jun’s The Abject – so I’m looking forward to this one. Here’s hoping he comes to London for the European premiere.

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