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A look back at LEAFF and LKFF 2023

We didn’t get around to writing any detailed reviews of the films that screened at the two big festivals in the autumn of 2023, so it’s time to try to pull some thoughts together before the memories fade entirely, jostled sideways by new ones. There were some sparkly new films which were fun to watch but maybe won’t linger long in one’s thoughts, and then there were some mid and lower budget films which are likely to be keepers. But the two I most want to watch again are from more than twenty years ago.

Maybe my impressions of the festivals would have been different if I’d been able to get to more of the films. Some of the diary difficulties were of my own making, but many were not. It is a persistent gripe of mine that the LKFF’s scheduling is designed so that even the most ardent fan can get to fewer than 70% of the movies, and I find myself thinking fondly back to the early years of the festival, including the editions that pre-date the existence of the Korean Cultural Centre. In those early days the screenings were in one single central London cinema conveniently located within a couple of minutes’ walk of a tube station; and the screenings were scheduled back-to-back rather than in parallel so that if you were truly dedicated (and packed some sandwiches) you could get to see everything. Nowadays you are often faced with a choice between an enticing film in an inconvenient location and a less appealing film in a central venue.

The festival season of late October and early November is always a busy time of year on the cultural front (with the K-music festival and, perish the thought, plenty of non-Korea-related events filling the diary). It seems to have become an accepted fact among the programmers that you can either be a follower of Korean music or Korean film, but not both. But this year there was additional competition for our calendars from various kimchi-related events, the long-planned Kingston exhibition celebrating 140 years of UK-Korea diplomatic relations, and various officially sponsored events that marked the run-up to President Yoon’s state visit and appeared in the diary at relatively short notice.

In the light of these diary dilemmas we didn’t get to nearly as many festival screenings as we would have liked, so we’re firmly in favour of spreading screenings throughout the year. The KCC hasn’t yet returned to its regular rhythm of in-house screenings or of festival “teaser” screenings; and the ad-hoc seasons presented in collaboration with external curators, if I remember right, seem to get booked up quite quickly. Is it time for the KCC to resurrect the occasional screening at a commercial cinema outside of festival season?

Grumbling over. On to the movies we did get to see.

Chung Ji-young with festival director Jeon Hye-jung at LEAFF
Chung Ji-young with festival director Jeon Hye-jung at LEAFF (phto credit: LEAFF)

LEAFF’s schedule featured an eight-movie deep-dive into the career of Chung Ji-young, who is celebrating forty years of film-making and was given a lifetime achievement award by the festival. The festival opened with his latest film, The Boys: this well-executed movie, based on a true story, features Sol Kyung-gu as a lone detective trying to rectify a long-standing miscarriage of justice caused by police and prosecutorial malpractice. Chung’s movies have often campaigned on themes of social justice (his National Security, also screening at the festival, is a grueling indictment of an out-of-control KCIA under Chun Doo-hwan) which he says has earned him the title of Public Enemy No 1. Was it my imagination, or did the lackadaisical prosecutor in The Boys, who prioritises a conviction over justice, look a little bit like the current President, himself a former prosecutor? Chung was on Park Geun-hye’s notorious blacklist (who wasn’t?) and if that list has been maintained anywhere, he’s likely to be on it still.

Less controversial, there was a welcome opportunity to see a restoration of Chung’s 1994 movie Life and Death of the Hollywood Kid. which is well worth a second watch to enjoy some of the period detail and to unpick its underlying message which seems not only to warn against the dominance of Hollywood films but more broadly critique the character for whom the make-believe world of movies blurs with reality.

Still from Killing Romance
Lee Sun-kyun as Jonathan in Killing Romance

Other than this, LEAFF had a strong line-up of films I wanted to see but couldn’t: Korea’s Oscar entry Concrete Utopia (dir Um Tae-hwa), Ha Myung-mi’s adaptation of Seo Sujin’s novel Her Hobby; Hwang Jun’s documentary about the Saemangeum tidal flats Sura: A Love Song, and more. One I did manage to get to see was huge fun: Lee Won-suk’s Killing Romance – enjoyably bonkers both visually and plotwise.

Hur Jin-ho
Hur Jin-ho at LKFF (photo credit LKFF)

LKFF’s opening movie had several things in common with LEAFF’s: a veteran director, Sol Kyung-gu as lead actor, and neither film had yet screened in Korean theatres. LKFF’s opener was Hur Jin-ho’s  A Normal Family – a powerful family drama examining the tension between morality and self-interest, and well worth a watch. Sol Kyung-gu is paired with Jang Dong-gun as two brothers with moral compasses that initially point in different directions – but are not necessarily fixed. On reviewing Hur’s film credit I think I have some catching up to do. I have not seen any of his movies since One Fine Spring Day, which also screened at the festival.

Elsewhere in the schedule, Lee Hae-young’s colonial era thriller Phantom was slick and good-looking as was the closing movie, Kim Seong-sik’s debut feature, Dr. Cheon And The Lost Talisman, a supernatural Indiana Jones style caper. My diary managed to find room for two programmes of shorts, Hong Sangsoo’s Walk Up and Shim Hye-jung’s adaptation of Ha Seong-nam’s Flowers of Mold. It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I nodded off during Walk Up.

Two smiling Korean schoolgirls on a summer day
Kim Da-mi and Jeon Sonee in Soulmate

My favourite new movie of the festival was Min Yong-keun’s Soulmate, a delicate story of love, friendship and jealousy. Definitely one to watch again. There’s a great discussion of the movie over on Reddit, which centres on trying to resolve some of the narrative questions raised by the film, but watch the movie before tackling that thread as it contains spoilers and you may want to come to your own conclusions first.

A man and a woman sit togather in a bamboo forest
Lee Young-ae and Yoo Ji-tae in One Fine Spring Day

But actually probably my favourite (re)discovery of both festivals was one from a while ago: LKFF also featured one of Hur Jin-ho’s early movies, One Fine Spring Day (2001). It was good to see it on the big screen around 20 years after I originally caught it on DVD, and I now want to see it a third time soon. 20 years ago I thought it was a nicely-shot romance with a couple of good-looking actors; now I discover additional layers. Eun-soo, the leading lady played by Lee Young-ae, is a woman who takes control by starting the relationship and then by finishing it when things peter out. Talking to a Korean journalist and cultural critic after the screening, I was told how surprising the movie had been when it was first released in 2001, overturning the assumptions that it should always be the man who makes the first move. Director Hur told us that the dialogue scene where Eun-soo invites Sang-woo into her apartment for the first time was largely improvised. It would have been good to have had the chance to ask him whether it was in fact Lee Young-ae who decided that the way for her character to get Sang-woo into her apartment was to ask him if he would like some ramen – a phrase which apparently for a while became the Korean equivalent of inviting someone to view one’s etchings. Eun-soo is, in her own quiet way, an independent woman who is sassy without having the brash qualities of the girl in Kwak Jae-yong’s international hit that also came out in 2001. She has her own career as a radio presenter, but more telling is the colour of the car she drives at the end of the movie: not white, not grey or black like 99.9% of cars on the road in Korea, but a bright green that coordinates nicely with her wardrobe.

A girl in a green skirt leans against a green car
Eun-soo’s car in One Fine Spring Day

So, thank you LEAFF and LKFF for bringing us films of the past as well as the present. We’re looking forward now to what you can bring to us in 2024.

The London East Asia Film Festival was 18 – 29 October 2023. The London Korean Film Festival was 2 – 16 November 2023.


One thought on “A look back at LEAFF and LKFF 2023

  1. Soulmate was my favorite from this year, close to Phantom, however for me this year was slightly under my expectations. Also,I miss the openings at Regent Park.

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