Review roundup: Korean films at the 2019 BFI London filmfest

I was particularly looking forward to the Korean screenings in the London Film Festival this year. Both LEAFF and LKFF in prior years have been championing the talent among Korea’s female directors and the trend has now spread to the BFI programme: of this year’s BFI festival, four out of the five Korean movies were by female directors, promising some interesting roles for female actors to play. The fifth movie was a body swap comedy from director Kang Hyo-jin featuring (Jung) Jinyoung from boy band B1A4. I’m suspicious of vehicles casting K-pop singers to attract a younger demographic, but I enjoyed Kang’s earlier body-swap movie Wonderful Nightmare so was prepared to give this one a chance too.

Kim Bora and Kim Sae-byuk
L to R: House of Hummingbird assistant director, actor Kim Sae-byuk and director Kim Bora at the Odeon Tottenham Court Road on 9 October 2019

Of the four movies by female directors, two were debut features, and two were by directors with at least one previous feature to their name. And of the latter pair, both directors have had well-received London screenings of their pervious films. So, despite there being no huge movies to bring a bit of glitz to the line-up (last year, it will be remembered, we had Burning, while in 2016 we had Handmaiden, The Wailing and Bacchus Lady), 2019 looked like being a nice, well-balanced selection.

So how did it stack up? I’d have to say, pretty well. There was only one film which I felt didn’t really go anywhere, but maybe that was because I was tired that day.

House of Hummingbird

House of Hummingbird

For me, House of Hummingbird was the stand-out movie. It was included in the First Feature strand, and rightly got a special commendation from the critics. Set in 1994, the movie is a subtle portrayal of a young girl in middle school trying to make her way her way in the world. The setting of the film in the 1990s was a deliberate choice, as director Kim Bora explained in a Q&A after the first London screening. Korea had just emerged from dictatorship to democracy, and as a country was like that middle school girl: after its phase of rapid domestic growth it was now seeking international recognition through Kim Young-sam’s globalisation policy. But just as Korea had some painful setbacks (for example the Seongsu Bridge collapse which features prominently towards the end of the movie) so the young Eun-hee is beset by adversity: fickle friends, a bullying brother and more.  Park Ji-hoo delivers a strong performance in the central role, while Kim Sae-byuk is sympathetic as the only grown-up who is prepared to spend time with her. Kim Bora explained that although the film is set in Korea it has a universal applicability. It was warmly received by the audience.

Kim Bora (김보라) House of Hummingbird (벌새, 2018) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

The House of Us

The House of Us

The House of Us is a totally charming child’s eye view of growing up. Having heard nothing but good things about Yoon Ga-eun’s first feature, The World of Us, I had high hopes of this one, which were absolutely fulfilled. The child actors Kim Na-yeon, Kim Si-ah and Joo Ye-rim, seemed totally natural and, albeit through the perspective of a younger viewpoint, the film explores similar themes to Hummingbird including the impact that a troubled family life can have on the daily life of a child.

Yoon Ga-eun (윤가은)  The House of Us (우리집, 2018)  SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

Maggie

Maggie

The most unusual film in the selection was Maggie, the debut from Yi Ok-seop. Sponsored by the National Human Rights Commission (the body that funded the If You Were Me series of omnibus films), it is difficult to see what social issues were being addressed in this movie apart from a need for people to be trusted, and a passing reference to domestic violence. Nonetheless, Moon Sori as the senior doctor, Lee Joo-young as the nurse afraid that she is one half of the couple photographed having sex in the X-Ray room (though most of the rest of the hospital staff had similar fears), Koo Gyo-hwan as her boyfriend – unemployed until he gets a job filling in sinkholes that keep mysteriously appearing throughout the city – and, bizarrely, Chun Woo-hee who provides the voice of the catfish called Maggie that provides occasional commentary. A quirky, slick debut.

Yi Ok-seop (이옥섭) Maggie (메기, 2018)  SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

Heart

Heart

The most disappointing of the four films by female directors was Jeong Ga-yeong’s third movie, Heart. Billed in the introductory notes as “Fleabag meets Hong Sang-soo”, this was Hong Sang-soo without the quirky playing with timelines or Rashomon-style different perspectives. And Guinness instead of soju fuelling the long, sometimes directionless conversations. In a nice twist on the typical Hong plot, where a married male writer or film professional typically seeks to seduce an unmarred girlfriend, with Heart it’s a (single) female creative (played by Jeong herself) chasing married boyfriends. But if there was any Fleabag-style humour in the script it never came across, apart from the wince-inducing line from the central female character played by Jeong herself: as she and her ex agree to have sex together again, she asks him if it’s OK if she is thinking of her current flame when they do it. Tania Hall on Easternkicks spotted somewhat deeper meta elements at play that completely passed me by. I was probably asleep at the crucial moment. Regular readers will know that I’m not in to Hong Sang-soo, and while I was hoping that this movie would transcend the genre it never took off for me.

Jeong Ga-yeong (정가영) Heart (하트, 2019) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

The Dude in Me

The Dude in Me
Park Sung-woong as the gangster with Jung Jinyoung as the schoolboy and Ra Mi-ran as the gangster’s former lover, who now runs a noodle shop

A more in-your-face humour is evident in The Dude in Me, included in the comedy strand of the festival. This one I booked a little bit out of duty, but I ended up rather enjoying it, as did the rest of the audience. Jinyoung carries the film well as the gangster within the body of a schoolboy, and Park Sung-woong is entertaining as the timid nerd in the body of a gangster, and the whole experience is good mainstream entertainment.

Kang Hyo-jin (강효진) The Dude in Me (내안의 그놈, 2018)  SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

So not a bad collection of movies. Thanks to the programmers for the selections they made.

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