A wide variety of genres was presented to the London audience this year, from the return of the romantic melodrama (Be With You) to big budget fantasy (Along with the Gods). We also saw #MeToo beginning to have an impact, not just in the themes of movies such as Land of Seonghye and Testimony but also in casting decisions – to the extent that, for example, Along with the Gods II had scenes re-shot with less controversial actors.
The year started with Park Chan-wook’s Handmaiden winning the BAFTA for best foreign language picture, and finished with Lee Chang-dong’s Burning making it to the shortlist for best foreign language Oscar. So, other than those, what have been the movies that caught our attention?
Well, thanks in particular to the London Korean Film Festival’s “teaser” screenings we got to see some pretty good movies during the course of the year. First was the reboot of the romantic melodrama, and Lee Jang-hoon’s Be With You was a weepie gem. June brought Jang Joon-hwan’s 1987 – When the Day Comes which for me did the impossible by even exceeding Taxi Driver’s success in dramatising the political events of the 1980s. The low budget horror movie Gonjiam – Haunted Asylum (dir Jeong Beom-sik) was a complete change of tone in August, while the final teaser in September gave us Lee Kwang-guk’s Tiger in Winter, a happy reminder of one of the highlights of the festival in 2015.
The London East Asia Film Festival also had a teaser screening this year, and they didn’t do it by halves: a double bill of both Along with the Gods movies (dir Kim Yong-hwa) – including a UK premiere for the second one. I preferred the follow-up, but both were quite fun.
LEAFF’s main festival opened with Kim Tae-kyun’s Dark Figure of Crime, an entertaining thriller, and continued with Kim Ki-duk’s latest (Human, Space, Time and Human), Lee Joon-ik’s Sunset in my Home Town, and Lee Ji-won’s Miss Baek, among others. Unfortunately, scheduling clashes and unfriendly screening times meant that I missed all of LEAFF’s Korean movies apart from the opener. I managed to catch Sunset in my Home Town on the plane, but in such an environment movies are never at their best.
LKFF’s programme, which at first very superficial glance looked somewhat lacking in big crowdpleasers, was on deeper reflection the most satisfying I can remember in recent years and I’m sorry that I missed most of it. The opener, for me, was one of the films of the year – Jeon Go-woon’s Microhabitat, looking at the life of those who are “just about managing” – asking whether one should give up one’s identity in order to afford the trappings of success. And the following two movies, Moon Sori’s Running Actress and Choo Chang-min’s Seven Years of Night, were equally satisfying. Running Actress was entertaining for the same reasons that E J-yong’s Behind the Camera and Actresses are enjoyable: seeing your favourite movie characters in an unfamiliar role, with their lives and the movie industry in general being gently pilloried (koreanfilm.org review here). And Seven Years of Night was entertaining in its own right and for the thoughtful Q&A afterwards with novelist Jeong You-jeong (Hangul Celluloid review here, and let’s get the novel translated soon, please).
Again scheduling clashes, unfriendly screening times and locations, and my annual Korea trip, meant that I missed most of the rest of the festival, but an evening of feature and short films made by and with women was well worth it: Lee Dong-eun’s Mothers (dmovies.org review), which examined the various ways in what that role can be performed, and the triple bill of shorts – Oh Suyeon’s Blind Alley (about a relationship between two teenage girls), Choi Cho-ah’s Playground (in which we discover the background of a rather disconcerting nursery school teacher) and Woo Gyeng-hee’s Testimony (addressing workplace harassment and the courage to speak up) – all of which would warrant a second watch. Later in the festival, Jung Hyung-suk’s Land of Seonghye (Hangul Celluloid review) brought together Microhabitat’s theme of struggling to get by in a world of escalating cost of living with the #MeToo issues explored by Testimony, while still managing to end optimistically. Quite a feat.
There was much else in the festival I would have liked to see, but I’m glad that Bella was able to get to Malene Choi’s The Return and comment on it from the perspective of an adoptee who has this year made her own personal return to the town of her birth.
The BFI London Film Festival had the biggest catch of the year: Lee Chang-dong’s long-awaited sixth feature. Lee was in town for a screen talk about his career, which can be viewed here. I’m in two minds about Burning (Modern Korean Cinema review). While I don’t always expect to be grabbed by a film the first time I watch it, I usually am by Lee’s work. As I sat immersed in the visuals and soundtrack in the Cineworld Leicester Square I was clearly enjoying the experience, but at the end I wasn’t sure what I had just seen, and I still don’t, though I’ll definitely take the opportunity to give it another chance on its UK release in February. Clearly I’d be delighted if it beat the other movies on the Oscar shortlist, and then I’d encourage those for whom Burning is their first encounter with Lee to try Oasis or Secret Sunshine.
The LFF had a couple of other gems in its line-up. I couldn’t get to Last Child (Shin Dong-seok), whose write-up looked promising. Lee Hae-young’s Believer has been generally well-received, but I found it a touch on the long side and too much like a Johnny To movie – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but not what I’m looking for in a Korean film.
So, the two gems were:
- Yim Soon-rye’s Little Forest: scenery, food, romance, Kim Taeri, Moon Sori – what’s not to like? (Hangul Celluloid review) And
- Yoon Jong-bin’s Spy Gone North, based on a true story and historically well-informed. And with a cameo appearance from Lee Hyori again this movie was hard to fault as entertainment (Modern Korean Cinema review).
Putting aside Burning, as others have clearly decided that it is South Korea’s movie of the year (and maybe I shall too when I see it again), which have been my own films of the year?
From a not very scientific shortlist of 1987, Running Actress, Microhabitat, Little Forest, Spy Gone North and Mothers, it’s probably Microhabitat that I’d want to watch again (Modern Korean Cinema review). I almost went to the Seochon whisky bar featured in the movie when I was in Seoul in November, but when we rang them they said there was a line of seventeen people queuing outside all waiting for their shot of Glendfiddich, so we headed to Insadong instead.
And from Pierce Conran’s list the one I hope turns up as a teaser for the 2019 London Korean Film Festival first is Swing Kids. But I suspect there will be some equally enticing new movies in 2019.