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A look back at some of the movies in the 2021 London Korean Film Festival

Stills from four films that were among the highlights of the LKFF

One month after the close of LKFF we’re finally getting around to penning some thoughts on the movies we saw there. We’ve already commented on Im Sang-soo’s latest, which left us with very warm feelings about the festival as a whole. What about the rest of the programme?

Let’s get this out of the way first

I’ll start with my standard complaint. It’s great that the LKFF is apparently the biggest showcase for Korean movies outside of Korea, but if it’s impossible for an audience to get to all the movies then what’s the point of screening so many? Having made this complaint I acknowledge the screening conflicts (Sewing Sisters vs After #MeTooJosée vs Made on the Rooftop; Rolling v Sister J) were fewer in number than in some recent years, but why do there need to be any at all?

Jo Min-sang in Awoke
Jo Min-sang in Awoke

And let’s now get the marginal disappointments out of the way, of which there were again three. First, In Front of Your Face, which Cine21 critics voted the best film of 2021. I find it hard to believe that we were watching the same film. Hong Sangsoo’s movies, particularly his more recent ones, tread a fine line between artful minimalism and lack of substance. Similarly my reactions to them teeter between welcoming the familiarity of Hong’s tried and tested formula (as was the case with The Woman Who Ran) and suspicion that I’m being taken for a fool. With In Front of Your Face Hong pushes the minimalist boundaries just a step too far: this movie felt just plain flimsy. If the movie encourages the LKFF programmers to depart from the principle that every Korean film festival has to have at least one Hong film then its presence in the schedule this year will have been worthwhile.

Second, After Me Too, the omnibus documentary by Park So-hyun, Lee So-myi, Kangyu Ga-ram and Soram, which I chose over Sewing Sisters because the theatre was closer and because (rather like the Kim Ji Young novel) I thought it would be good for me. But three of the four mini-documentaries were so oblique and allusive in their treatment of the topic that I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to say. I suspect my lack of comprehension just reflects my insensitivity, because these topics are by their nature difficult to talk about directly, particularly for the victims.

Finally, Jung Jae-ik’s and Seo Tae-soo’s Awoke is not going to send you home with a warm, comfortable feeling. As a bleak depiction of the hardships and exploitation faced by a disabled man in Jeju Island it hits hard, and offers no hope of a resolution: this is not a feel-good movie by any stretch of the imagination. The film encapsulates the personal experiences of Jung Jae-ik and real-life incidents he heard about affecting the disabled in Jeju. There’s no sugar-coating here, and if it sensitises people to the problems faced by the disabled then the movie has done its job. While there’s not much entertainment value, there’s plenty of education.

From now on I’m going to be entirely positive.

The retrospective

Ladies of the Forest
Youn Yuh-jung in Kim Cho-hee’s early short film Ladies of the Forest.

The Youn Yuh-jung retrospective was self-recommending. She has worked regularly with two of my favourite story-tellers: Im Sang-soo and E J-yong, and three films in the retrospective came from these partnerships: Im’s A Good Lawyer’s Wife remains in my shortlist of top Korean movies of all time; his Housemaid remake is one of my guilty pleasures; and E’s poignant Bacchus Lady is one that I want to revisit after first catching it in the 2016 London film fest.

I was out still out of town for the first two nights of the festival, so I missed the remaster of Kim Ki-young’s Woman of Fire (1971) – I’m not too upset about that as I assume it will end up on the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel in due course. But the inclusion of Chang’s Canola in the schedule caused me to fish out my DVD of that movie for the first time. I often find myself agreeing with Paul Quinn’s reviews, and this is no exception: “Featuring powerhouse performances from actresses Yoon Yeo-jeong and Kim Go-eun [who made her debut with the 2009 movie Eungyo], ‘Canola’ is an unashamed tearjerker that gives a heartfelt and poignant definition of what family truly is.” (Read his full review here).

Following her Oscar win, Youn’s profile increased significantly, and KBS assembled a documentary looking back at her career, focusing on some of the earlier TV roles which many of us won’t be familiar with. For those who couldn’t get to the KCC to see the screening, the documentary is available online on the KCC’s YouTube Channel (also embedded above) and is worth a watch. Unfortunately the quirky short film by Kim Cho-hee – Ladies of the Forest – which screened alongside the documentary is not so freely available, but it’s worth a watch if you happen to find it. Another treat available on the KCC’s YouTube channel (and embedded below) is a discussion between my two favourite Korean film experts, Mark Morris and Kim Hong-joon. I could listen to either of them individually for hours, such is their wealth of knowledge and ability to communicate that knowledge in an engaging way; hearing them have an informal chat together is a real privilege.

All in all, then, a quality strand, capped by Youn’s appearance in the closing movie by Im Sang-soo, Heaven – to the Land of Happiness.

The shorts

scenes from the four short films
Clockwise from top left: Feel Good Story | Enemy’s Apple | A Perfect Red Snapper Dish | Forest

The KCC screened two sets of four shorts back-to-back. What I didn’t realise until after the event was that the selections this year represented some of the best films presented over the past 20 years of the Mise-en-scène Short Film Festival – a mini-retrospective, if you will. The four I managed to catch were all interesting and attention-grabbing. Enemy’s Apple (2007) by Lee Su-jin – who would later become better known for Han Gong-ju – was an entertaining vignette of a riot policemen and a protestor facing off against each other in a blind alley; Forest (2012) by Um Tae-hwa – who assisted Park Chan-wook with Lady Vengeance, Night Fishing and Three… Extremes – was a nice teaser involving a love triangle and an accidental death; Na Hong-jin’s A Perfect Red Snapper Dish (2005) itself could easily have been a contribution to Three… Extremes, albeit that its dark humour mollified the somewhat gruesome scenario; and finally Feel Good Story (2004) by Lee Kyoung-mi (Crush and Blush, The Truth Beneath) was a sympathetic contribution to the genre of films about the tedium of office life.

The contemporary films

Let’s move on to some of the more recent films in the schedule.

Aloners

Gong Seung-yeon in Aloners
Gong Seung-yeon in Aloners

The theme of office life was picked up again in what for me was one of the highlights of the festival: Hong Seong-eun’s debut feature Aloners. Gong Seung-yeon plays Jina, an experienced call-handler at a credit card company, used to dealing with the calls of irate or cranky customers. She is the most productive member of staff, dealing with calls efficiently, following the procedures manual to the letter. Although she is the model of politeness and deference, you suspect her job could be done by a suitably advanced AI bot.

Outside of work, she spends all her time on her own. She ignores the neighbours in her apartment block. At home, she eats ready meals in front of the TV; she has lunch on her own, often watching mokbang videos, and in transit between any location she’s watching downloads on her phone, headphones on, blocking out all possibility of human interaction. She prefers to spy on her parents via a webcam she’s secretly installed in their apartment rather than visit them in person.

As a portrait of the atomised lifestyles endured by some in Hell Joseon, this scenario recalls many other recent movies such as Microhabitat, and you wonder what it is that has caused Jina to withdraw so much from her fellow human beings. Whatever the cause, she is not a pleasant person. For example, rather than feeling pleased that her recently widowered father is finding solace in the companionship of members of his church, she finds it distasteful (as she eavesdrops on a friendly gathering via the spycam).

Fortunately for Jina, and for our need as an audience for character development and the possibility of redemption, things change. In a rather poignant scene 53′ into the movie, a trainee at the call centre diverges from the official scripts and – shock horror – engages in an empathetic dialogue with a caller. It’s not the kind of behaviour that will get her the Employee of the Month award (for that, you need to get through the maximum number of calls in the shortest amount of time) but it points to an alternative approach to life in which people become more important than procedures. It’s not a watershed moment; we don’t suddenly see a Scrooge-like transformation, but little by little we see a change in Jina and others that gives us hope that things can get better.

Book of Fish

Fisherman and exiled scholar walk on the beach in Lee Joon-ik's Book of Fish
Fisherman and exiled scholar in Lee Joon-ik’s Book of Fish

The first festival movie I saw in the theatre was Book of Fish, Lee Joon-ik’s historical biopic of Dasan Jeong Yak-yong’s elder brother, Jeong Yak-jeon. Both brothers endured long exile for their association with the Catholic faith – another brother, Yak-jong, was martyred for it – and while Dasan went into seclusion in Gangjin on the mainland, Yak-jeon spent the last years of his life on Heuksando, 100km into the Yellow Sea west of Mokpo.

The movie grapples well with the ideas that underpinned the persecution of Catholicism, with the audience learning the orthodox viewpoint through the eyes of a young fisherman and would-be Confucian scholar Chang-dae (played by Byun Yo-han). As Chang-dae’s knowledge of the Confucian Classics is improved through the tutelage of the exiled Yak-jeon, we learn through his eyes what is wrong, in Confucian terms, with the way the country is governed – and in particular the way the taxation system operates.

Yak-jeon learns similar lessons through interaction with the local islanders – for example the unintended consequence of the state’s policies aimed at conserving its pine trees (see quote from one of his texts in the image below). More importantly for the movie’s raison d’etre, he learns from Chang-dae the characteristics of the local fish, which leads to the compilation of his encyclopaedia of Korean marine life. Separately, he learns from his housekeeper and love interest (played by Lee Jung-eun, perhaps better known as the housemaid in Parasite) how good the local seafood can taste.

What impressed me was how lightly the movie bore the wealth of research that undoubtedly went into it; and its attention to detail in the use of location. For example, if the crew didn’t do some filming in Dasan’s actual place of exile, they managed to find something that looked pretty damn similar: the stairway, formed of tree roots, that leads to Dasan’s cottage features in one of the scenes, as does the view from the pavilion on the hillside. Although the film is packed with historical detail it weaves together several stories effectively and leaves you feeling as if you’ve seen something worthwhile. For me, it was a very satisfying start to my experience of the festival.

The rest

I wasn’t in town for Mogadishu – the opening film – but I heard some good things about it second-hand, on the strength of which I’ve ordered the DVD. Here are brief thoughts on the others I managed to catch.

Collectors

Still from Park Jung-bae’s movie Collectors
The grave-robbers plan their raid on Seolleung – the tomb of King Seongjong – in the heart of Gangnam, in Park Jung-bae’s movie Collectors

Another film with some historical attention to detail – though in a very different genre – was Park Jung-bae’s Collectors: a fun heist movie with some nice twists. Having served as assistant director in Silenced (2009) and Miss Granny (2014) this is Park’s debut feature at the helm, and the movie is great entertainment along the lines of Choi Dong-hoon’s Thieves (2012). It was nice to see Im Won-hee, the star of Dachimawa Lee, in the ensemble cast as the expert excavator. Of course, I had a soft spot for this movie because it recalled a happy trip to the Gangnam tombs back in 2015.

Rolling

Shim Dal-gi in Rolling
The pleasures of kimbap you’ve rolled yourself: Shim Dal-gi in Rolling

The debut feature from Kwak Min-seung, Rolling explores similar themes to Hong Seong-eun’s Aloners, and is set squarely in the middle of pandemic-ridden Seoul. Juri (Shim Dal-gi) is a bored 20-something girl who has lost all motivation, while her mother (Jung Eun-kyeong) struggles to keep her kimbap cafe open as custom dries up in the pandemic. The failing health of Juri’s grandmother provides mother with an excuse to make some changes, and she gives Juri an ultimatum: “look after the cafe while I look after grandmother, or I’m going to sell the flat you’re living in.”

Forced against her will to adopt a routine, Juri’s character embarks on a transformation similar to Jina in Aloners. As she interacts with customers and other struggling store owners she comes to realise that things aren’t that bad. In a humbler way, too, this movie echoes Yim Soon-rye’s Little Forest as the appreciation and enjoyment of food plays a larger part in the scenario. The chemistry between the lead actors as the mother-daughter relationship heals is another stand-out feature of this film. Not bad for a film that was shot in 8 days.

You can watch Darcy Paquet’s Q&A with director Kwak Min-seung on the KCC’s YouTube channel.

Climbing

CLIMBING

The LKFF usually has an animation strand, and often the feature is aimed at family viewing. Kim Hye-mi’s Climbing is much more adult fare: a dark psychological examination of a woman’s obsession with diet, physical fitness and sporting excellence while struggling with a pregnancy which she is not sure she wants. Add to that a seriously creepy mother-in-law, a slightly creepy coach and a well-endowed younger rival in the climbing team and you’ve got the makings of a rather disturbing movie that’s worth watching a second time both for the visuals and to untangle which version of the central character is the “real” one.

Josée

Still from Josée
Young-seok and Josée spend some quality time together

It wouldn’t be a proper Korean film festival without a decent romantic melodrama, and this year there were  two of them – both by Kim Jong-kwan. I didn’t manage to get to Shades of the Heart – it was fully booked. If I had, I would have struggled to get to see his Josée because the Shades screening started late and was in a different part of town. What should have been a nice relaxing double bill turned into a race against time (and a curtailed Q&A) if you wanted to see both films. As it was, Josée was a lovely piece of gradually unfolding affection between a young student (Nam Joo-hyuk) and a wheelchair-bound woman (Han Ji-min) slightly older than him. With a nice twist in the tail, and some location shooting at a famous Scottish whisky distillery to appeal to a British audience, this was a beautiful way to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon. I’m told Shades of the Heart was even better.


I’m not sure whether, after 20 months of intermittent lockdown, this year’s LKFF felt better than usual because it was like an oasis in the desert. But I think that genuinely the selection was the best we’ve had for a while.

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