London Korean Film Festival 2014 – various screenings
in London, then nationwide 6th – 21st November
There is something distinct, unique and wonderfully gutsy about Asian cinema. Visually and emotionally distinct from Western movie styles, the dramatic elements - though largely lacking in complete coherence are nonetheless delivered with a sense of confidence and conviction. Korean film in particular pushes boundaries and brings us morally contentious product wrapped in a unique style, delivered with aplomb. They are the stuff of dinner room chat and the hard core actioners should be the stuff of water cooler moments throughout the office space of a tired old London. The city need revenge film and hard core action with martial arts aplenty to counteract the many aspects of unsavoury London, Korean cinema is a more than adequate tension release function. As critic Dr Anton Bitel noted, Korean cinema got a place on the map during the noughties with the creation of Asian Extreme, the sub-genre label of Tartan – the distribution label. In terms of movies Oldboy and A Man from Nowhere were the films that really go folks talking on the cult and indie circuits - creatures not without their flaws but sufficiently different to have us hankering for more of the same.
Tired looking directors note the funding crisis in Korea claiming it to be worse than the UK and the US in getting the finance to make the films. There is room then for potential film funders to look to Korea as market: the films are about as progressive as they get and have a massive potential audience to tap into…
For ten years, Korean cinema has been ticking the boxes that are yearning for something a bit different, but the output of this year in London showed that though brave and brilliant, there are some areas where the stronger films of Korea can mature. With one or two notable exceptions the distribution of these forgivably flawed but magnificent films is a gamble due to the escalating costs of this provision in the UK. Shame, the fan base is here, alive and kicking for Korean kick ass gold. The ROI calculations would be equitable if the populace of lad mags, slacker audiences, action followers, Shortlist readers and the conversion rate of some of the websites reaching this audience were put into a mathematic risk assessment. Why no-one is doing this is God's own mystery. For those not yet in the know of this number crunching methodology - it is Filmonomics, look to the series on this subject, for free on YouTube and save yourself the bother of signing up for one of the smatterings of courses now emerging in this needed mode of analysis.
Notable though, the eclectic nature of the festival itself and it is as presented a la London Film Festival: this extension of the city's fest which creams the festivals of the rest of the world suffers from having a sense of pride for presenting the world's best but not an ego big enough to have the UK as place for WORLD premieres of bold and unusual film. The audience for the festival were natural stakeholders - the London population of Koreans, but this should not have been the case with the hard core actioners needing considerable guy love - the women's melodramas that could and should appeal to the late middle class spending power could and should be advertised and delivered accordingly, ibid indie and GLBT. It is a shame - if not sin that the unique and powerful nature of these films is not shared by the audience that would love them. Hopefully, by the time the storytellers in Korea work on their dramatic structure and narratives to the point of creating perfect and powerful output other nations are simply not capable of creating, the marketing machines associated with festivals will have honed the skill of niche marketing applied widely.
Some of the screenings here are either European and/or UK premieres which Terracotta has been making a characteristic of its continuum for years: we would like to see more of an emphasis on the capacity of London to draw premieres - from everywhere, not just US mainstream to prove that we can. Note the fact that a lot of these rarely seen gems were shown vis a vis Interstellar in the West End in the opposing Odeon to equally packed houses full of Koreans and interested westerners. Come on, we have to look to these films as guidance in so many areas and there is more than sufficient here to go on:
Look to the following sites and entities for the great and good in Asian:
Terracotta Third Window Films
Both of these are festivals and distribution labels with a very decent London presence. The festivals are amazing, run by hard core professionals with probably the most discernment and attention to detail in knowing what their audience would want and love. Check them out, like, today…
www.finecut.co.kr - is Korean's own site to promote and sell its own titles. The films covered here, search for them and get them at the sources covered here.
www.koreanfilm.or.kr - is where to go for Korean film news and information
The Films as shown in London 6 - 15 November (the festival goes on tour for dates to the 21st thereafter)
Common themes: Great Food & Hard Core Human Endurance
There was only one of the great bunch of films on offer that was not a difficult watch - the family melodrama The Dinner (Dir: Kim Dong-hyun 125mins) It centres on the relationship between two brothers - for once not competing but different and supportive. This could have been better delivered with two different POVs in parallel lives perspectives, though the film as it is still delivers and holds the attention of the viewer. The film can and does seem very slow at times but the interrelating stories are not. Two events bring the relationship to bear before us which is why the mode of delivery seemed at times misplaced. The domestic arrangement of a young child - probably one of the cutest children ever to appear on screen was the focus of attention initially and his personality and the dependence thereof was demonstrated largely by the telephone conversations this kid had with his aunt. It was very easy for the viewer to root for this kid and whether he is on screen or not - he is central to the shenanigans. The well-being of the child was measured by the actions and subsequent moods of the main players. The frustrations of the proper placement of the child at the centre of a parental dispute correctly cornerstones the dichotomy between parental right and duty of care put into practice. Making paternalism and not maternalism the core sense of responsibility is a great and righteous move - though this should not have been necessarily been urged by the female protagonists - aunt and gran. The other scenario was an accident that threatens the moral and right structure of the family. One of the brothers acts as a kind of cabbie and a collar goes wrong. The tensions are correctly underplayed with the positive aspects of the family life being put across. What we are left with at the end is a concept of risk and the prospects of the ideal of family life - if fought for, undermined. The film has won credits at both the Busan International Film Festival and at the Shanghai International Film Festival.
Poetry (Dir: Lee Changdong 139mins) - is a stunning piece which would appeal to the middle aged audience or those in search of a challenging inner story to chew over. The character at the centre of the story is a woman aged sixty six going through a fair amount of challenge. Mija (played magnificently by Yun Junghee) is an eccentric and this is a bit of a diversion from the more serious aspects of her life: she is diagnosed with Alzheimer's which manifests itself initially with a loss of word facility emphasized by her need for poetry. Joining a class to deal with an inner yearning, this woman is encouraged to see all that is beautiful and express it - though on the one side of her is a wayward teenage grandson and on the other is a stroke victim she cares for with a penchant for chatting her up whilst she bathes him. Like a lot of Korean film there is a morally hard core element to what a human being has to deal with and here Mija is faced with the fact that her grandson has committed a hideous act which she is bearing some responsibility for. There is an element of doubt as to the cause of a lot of the diversions in Mija's character, as to whether this is the onset of a serious mental illness or kooky eccentricity, or maybe denial - though the need to reproach her grandson whilst he sleeps and the fact that she can only write a poem when all seems to have been put right in her external world is testament to her morality. This is put across very subtly and the performance of the main character is truly as inspiring as the character's need to be inspired. Even a boring bus journey with no point and ambition fulfilled at the journey's end is an engaging trip for the viewer. It is a refreshing change to see a woman of this age carrying a film and all credit to the director for giving us such a good story.
Obsessed (Dir: Kim Dae-woo 132mins) is a woman's film par excellence. This level of attention by a handsome and dashing soldier with a stellar war hero record is the stuff of dreams and it is served to us deftly and with cinematic grace. It has all the forbidden and lusty elements of The English Patient but without the incredulous story potholes. Colonel Kim Jin-pyong is in love with a subordinate's wife - and it is but isn't sufficiently reciprocated towards a happy result. Thankfully this affair is not put over in montage or a series of shots but in a lot of meaningful stares, gestures and meetings between the two lovers, and we feel their love and pain. This film is so, so beautifully shot with a lot of truth in its depiction of woman's inhumanity to woman (here it is reminiscent of House of Mirth) a lot of gossip is about for the female lead to endure as she is not as much a society princess as her looks would have one believe. The one flaw with this healthy, wealthy tale of ill-advised love is the fact that there is one epilogue too many. After a shocking conclusion to this affair there is another years later - it is like being kicked in the stomach, then in the kidneys for good measure. However, for a war weepie, there is none better for the girls in this our year of tributes aimed mostly at guys: the girl antidote to Fury.
Manshin (Dir Park Chan-kyong 104mins) is a docudrama with elements of biopic, fly on the wall and interview footage of a very iconoclastic woman, Kim Keum-hwa, a cultural asset and National Treasure. During the Q & A with the director, Park Chan-kyong revealed that he did not believe this a worthy subject when he was young, but changed his mind as he got older. The reasoning was never given but undoubtedly when the belief over time erodes that the individual is in control - then it does leave room for superstition and the possibility of forces at play elsewhere. This could have been given a bit more attention as the film suffers for not having attention given to shamanism and what it provides the believer. What we are given is a rich mix that the subject matter affords. It is a trip into mysticism and its followers, an anthropological case study and a surprisingly engaging watch. The woman herself has known her fair share of trouble - shamanism was a bit frowned upon during the Korean War and throughout the 1970s, where there was a national impetus to stop superstition - the connectivity between war, death and shamanism was believed on a level which is incredulous. Amazing that the fact of gender is not covered, the imagery of shaman usually male orientated. Kim does not appear to have suffered within her own community at all for being so prominent; in fact her followers of both genders appear to be unshakably loyal helping her escape from authorities on one occasion and this was, inevitably dramatically reconstructed. The most interesting of the actual footage is the rites the 'guts' - the one for long life, the gut on the boat asking for a good fish supply was interspersed with images of a good catch which gives the impression that the director wants us to believe in the virtues of the rites. The Ten Kings Rite asks God to take care of dead men's souls and a wonderfully eccentric performance sees Kim carrying this out among a mass of anthill graves. As a documentary account of an unusual, brave and unique character - Manshin is informative and insightful - but needs to go a little deeper into the belief system itself to be a complete coherent piece sufficient to be intellectually satisfying. The use of the mix of form is however, as wonderful and as unique as the subject. Given the intent on showing the distance or relationship between private and outward attitudes toward shamanism, the film could and should go a bit further in delving into the basis for 500 years of belief.
One indie feature was a LGBT crossover - Night Flight which was so rich a piece of work to deserve to be a drama serial a la Queer as Folk. King of Jokgu (Dir Woo Moon-gi 104mins) has elements of Clerks, and other such copycat slacker features set in High Schools as well as traces of the eternal bitter sweet Bill Forsythe comedy Gregory's Girl. There is even a bit of 'Grease' in King of Jokgu. The list of barking mad characters to choose from is endless from the President of the University to the overweight girl who loves the geeky guy who also becomes part of the jokgu team. The main protagonist is Man-seob, who was at one time a force to be reckoned with at this particular sport which is a weird football and volleyball hybrid done in military school. No-one bothers with this sport anymore, in fact the term 'jokgu' is the same as 'jerk-off' and with the same resonance and respect. Man-seob has a diversion in his drama partner, the impossibly cute Anna, who by turns has a thing going for the soccer player. Here is the most heart-warming of the story threads in the portraying of an ordinary geeky guy boxing above his weight in romantic aspiration winning over with charm and humour. Man-seob's name card is given to Anna and her character along with the audience shriek with delight at the self-deprecating pictures in dworky poses (the Asians do dworky better than the Americans) - which offer some stark comparison to the pin-up pics of Anna who id the official model of the University. It is like being in love with the prom queen whilst covered in spots. The nasty nature of Man-soeb's chosen sport is given added credulity during a warm up where he spits in his hand, wipes his shoe, then his hair in preparation for the match.
All of this is done to secure the reinstallation of a games pitch, which doesn't just transpire, but starts off an Olympiad with the egos of the school populace at stake. The differing departments of the school are pitching against each other: Civil Engineering vs Fashion Design the most unlikely though the maths team calculate the relative trajectories and equations before commencing play. The dormitory chief who has been a prophet of doom for the previous hour or so, encouraging all who come his way to do the civil service exam and forget love and sporty diversion, succumbs to the human needs that a triumphant jokgu match has brought out in not just him, but the cameo snarling spiteful girl with braces who has been acting as chorus all the way through the film. This was one of the highlights of the festival and it should, with due word of mouth, become a cult classic - it is on a par with the best of slacker output and with oodles of charm. Prince Charles Cinema in London should put this on once a month at least under a 'Cult Asian' umbrella.
Neighbours (Dir: Son tae-gyum 91mins) Is one of the films that by the time the audience has seen it at LKFF, has won accolades at various prestigious fests the world over. A story writing competition is the connective tissue between the component parts of this drama, though unlike a lot of stories in a portmanteau, there is no incident - or person that brings it all home. Unlike say Amorres Perros, which has both incident and the love of dogs as common denominator, the stories are disconnected due to the random picking of the entries to a contest. They are 'neighbour' stories - all a shade depressing with one in particular - that of an illegal immigrant working and living in a restaurant to get her son's operation paid for in China. A young boy writes 'bastard' on the wall of the restaurant and one of the first jobs of the immigrant worker is to clean this off. A friendship strikes up between them though this is challenged when our heroine falls foul of a gang after her savings. The kids in a folk band with one of them mysteriously wearing an eye patch is a joyous story with the singing and homosexuality providing the light and dark of the story.
Neighbours though lacks coherence - it doesn't jolly along with the common threads seen interspersed in the dramatic overarch as it should: all portmanteaus should travel like 'Tales from the Crypt' where there is an overall theme or moral. The fact that these guys are neighbours just doesn't come over as strongly as it should and if it did there would have to be an underlying meaning to it other than simply depicting struggle and the fact that this exists - overlooked on our doorsteps. The two going through the stories should have learned something from the revelations in the mini dramas presented to them but this is not apparent.
Night Flight (Dir: Leesong Hee-it 144mins) Is a very rich and hard drama that left most of the audience in London crying. The hard hitting violence, both emotional and physical in this film is difficult at times to stomach, but the effect and result is largely worth the difficult journey. The brutal nature of life in a Korean school is brought to us in a very realistic mix of performances from adult and teenage perspectives. The drama centres essentially around the lives of three friends: one of them is the token geek with an appalling hair style (Henry V basin cut), glasses and spots and he is duly and predictably bullied. As is the norm with a lot of kids a revelation which he believes will bring him kudos, respect and act as attention deflector. This film has a lot of elements reminiscent of Larry Clarke and Herminone Korrine: Kids is similar in depicting brutal realities of just how repulsive teenagers can be and often are, Ken Park is as daring in the honest sexual mores of youngsters. It is about time this level of skill and dexterity is applied to the lives of kids suffering gender identity problems, but at a school where we should all feel safe and have the common thread of progression and learning: Boys Don't Cry even at its most daring and potent doesn't push the boundaries as does Night Flight and some of the damage felt by the characters is often externalised and made beautiful with camera work focusing on the environment and something visually arresting. Night Flight is not for the squeamish, the ending is dynamite - the relationship between the male leads - Gi-woong and Yong-ju has come to a revelatory conclusion - the suffering these two have endured is given back in the same environment it was given out to them. 'A Gay Was Here' is defiantly sprayed on walls to show solidarity. Not to be missed and an absolute essential part of any self-respecting LGBT collection with a lot of Indie crossover. There was enough in it to be a drama set in a school a la Queer as Folk. Maybe this is something for the writers/director to look into to.
A Girl at My Door (July Jung 119mins) is a LGBT feature though it doesn't present itself as such for the first act of the film concerning itself with the fate of a young girl, seeming therefore more like a family melodrama. The central character, (though the screen is undoubtedly shared by the older and younger of the female leads) is a lonely cop with a particularly backward male back up and she looks kindly on the equally lonely bestraggled girl that appears at her door on a regular basis. The girl's father is a drunk - the grandmother on her father's side a mad eccentric who rides about dangerously on a rickety motorised trike well beyond its sell by date. It is a parallel lives story with the isolation and loneliness in these two mirroring that of the other though this is never talked about or recognised. The cop prefers to see the need and affection that this girl has for the older and stronger woman to do with personifying an empowerment not yet apparent in this girl's life.
As the best feature at this year's listings - it had been the official choice at numerous notable festivals, including Cannes and Toronto, it was noted in London also, though not yet the choice of directors to hold a world premiere. The young girl 'Dohee', played by Kim Sae Ron (A Man from Nowhere), an amazing actress, already capable of staggering performances, is being abused by all family members, including grandmother - who appears to chide her for replicating the look and behaviours of a never talked about mother. It seems at first that the policewoman Young-nam (Bae Doona) is acting out of duty, or perhaps maternalism, but the motives of this woman are completely misrepresented when the reason for her being there comes to light. It is the case that both of the female protagonists have been victims, and are both highly sympathetic: Young-nam shares some of the characteristics of Jane Tennison from Prime Suspect (especially in Prime Suspect 7 where Jane dangerously near adopts a damaged child) who comes home to an empty house and drinks - she disguises the fact by emptying rice wine into water bottles. Though, unlike Tennison, never appears drunk and is always controlled. Contrast this with the disposition of the girl's father who is consistently drunk, abusive, racist and vile.
There is an underlying theme of the need for a bit of 'girl power' in the world and how this is misinterpreted by a lot of men who see strength in a woman as overtly 'lesbian' even if the woman is no-where near butch in their characteristics. The knowingness and maturity of the girl is a shade unnerving - especially during one sequence, but this is calmed in the viewer by a sense that this girl needs the sanctity of her new best friend, no matter what the cost. A Girl at My Door is on general release next year but is already being talked about as a festival darling - this ensures its status before it hits the mainstream journals. A winner to look forward to seeing hitting our screens in a big way.
Man on High Heels (Dir: Jang jin 125mins) The opening sequences to this movie are an even mix of Kill Bill, Jason Bourne and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It is high jinks, high octane violence and unbelievably implausible - love it. This is another of the great and good GLBT movies at this year's festival with a twisted tale delivered with much style and gloss. Some of the set pieces possibly too glamorous for the darkness of the story (it looks often like an Argento), as there is a lot of genuine melodrama and almost tangible pathos in our central character, Detective Yoon which would suit sometimes a depressing urbanity to compliment. Our main man and he is every minute a man, an action man at that, is played right down to his painted fingernail s by Cha Seung-won. He is a woman - or wants to be, but lord knows why when he is such a credible action hero is never really played out. This dichotomy, being a man very well yet wanting to be a woman is a cracking idea as central premise and wonder among wonders what Hollywood would do with this if given a stabbing chance. It has all the makings of a cult classic as well as a GLBT favourite with just about everything one would want in a satisfying marginal. Best to pick this up quick before everyone starts wanting it. What is so, so lovely about this gem is that the violence is very crisp, unforgiving and raw yet the confused duck serving up the blood fests is damaged, confused, hurt and really would like nothing better than to put a bit of slap on and walk around in high heels. The sensitivity is equal to the hard edge the film undoubtedly has: at one point our man pulls a bottom jaw off the face of an assailant This should be seen as a double bill with Glen or Glenda - the great and good Ed Wood cross dressing exploitation flick from the fifties. It would seem like the cool side of the pillow in comparison. At times it is almost a weepie, and certainly is for the main character Detective Yoon, who has discovered that he has a bit of a thing for a fellow detective and the feelings are reciprocated, Yoon after all as his other self is, pretty.
The sense of inner turmoil and occasional self-loathing that comes with this level of gender identity crisis is sensitively underdone and this could have been so exploited if not done properly, descending into over the top high camp. As it is, this is one of the best GBLT action films of all time and needs if not begs for a widespread marginal theatre release, like The Room but without the plastic spoons.
A Man in Love (Dir: Han Dong-wook 120mins) Is a love story come actioner - an unusual gift to give to women in particular with a handsome and engaging main male lead. Han Tae-il (Hwang Jung-min) is effective as both action man and man in love portraying a difficult emotional balance believably and sensitively. By the end, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Acting as a hired help for a loan shark, he falls instantly in love with a customer (well a customer's daughter, her father is in a coma upon their meeting in a hospital). There are a few films that deal with this subject matter - a gangster - finding love and being both a fish out of water and someone on the other side of the tracks, the best by far being Grosse Point Blanke, with others namely Godfather III and Gangster No 1 - the wonderful and constantly overlooked British gangster film. A Man in Love is on a par with the aforementioned, in fact in some ways it is better. It certainly ticks all the emotional boxes. He takes over her interest payments to the boss and negotiates on her behalf. The story of these two, Ju Ho-jeong (Han Hye-jin) is the fraught, then equally in love female lead, slips into non-linear and switches from the onset of the romance to a time spent in prison by our hero. The inevitable unhappiness felt by Ju Ho at what her man does and is has as solution a business venture - buying a chicken shop (which comes up as ambition a few times this festival). After an initial rejection of him at not succumbing to a life of legitimacy, her gradual acceptance of him is centred mostly on the consumption of good food, and at him farting just before he tells her he loves her, which is more charming than it sounds. The stark realisation of her loneliness is brought home by the fact she is alone at her father's wake, something that our man in love changes by inviting folk randomly to be with them. The scene proves of the upmost importance later in the film. Regardless of the anti-plot structure, the plot is never lost on the part of the viewer and the film remains consistently engaging.
The romance is hard, brittle and involves a lot of fighting, both with her and within the framework of this guy's life as a gangster. The supporting characters, his brother - who runs a barber's shop, his sister-in-law and especially his niece play excellent legitimate foils against their corrupt but good sibling. He has style inflicted upon him in the wake of his new found love, which is ultimately doomed not by his lifestyle and career choice, but by a tumour of the brain which is found and untreated in prison securing an early release. Although there are some very demanding fight sequences, the bloodiest scenes are of this man's frequent and frightening nose bleeds. The onset of illness and the challenge that it brings to the couple is the heart of this love story with meat on its bones and it never descends into deliberate weepy, but carries the story forward with genuine emotional weight in the character's portrayals of emotional and physical pain. Not the usual star crossed lover nonsense: a raid during a gambling sequence is the action centre piece which is utterly brilliant, grandstanding and wild - followed not long after with tender and heart-wrenching moments between the main characters coming to terms with loss. An exceptional movie with very little wrong with it and one men and women will enjoy equally, in spite of what the title suggests.
The Target (Dir: Chang 98mins) Was an Official Choice at Cannes Film Festival. It is a very decent cop come conspiracy theory thriller that yields some good things but has one or two plot flaws. The opening credits suggest forensics as the backdrop vocational canvas - presented after a man on the run cold opening. The film won and Official Selection plaudit in Cannes and admittedly it is a stylish number with some solid action sequences necessary for genre. The film follows in the tradition of other stellar pieces of the same ilk, Three Days Later, and A History of Violence, but in spite of its strengths, lacks the sophistication of either. The trouble with The Target is that it tries just too hard and could have benefitted greatly from one less sub plot - and those left, sharpened. The story is really grandiose as opposed to tight which is exactly what a thriller should be. It has great characters and action but as story, punches above its weight. It starts with a shooting that has been witnessed by a by-stander (who just so happened to be a skilled action hero)and hospital staff involved in the clean-up get embroiled in a conspiracy to the point of the surgeon Tae-jun getting his missus, Yeo-hoon, kidnapped. To add to the tension, she is pregnant, but this helps in providing the emotional wellie for yet another sub plot later on. So then we have an Ordinary Joe surgeon and a not so Ordinary Joe wrong man in the wrong place dealing with a ticking clock of 36 hours to find attempted murderers, get missus surgeon, before she pops one out, and solve the whole drama mystery, hopefully exposing the baddies responsible. The man originally shot, incidentally, is an important industrialist - isn't this just always the case.
Like a lot of political thrillers - a big building figures in the equation. The big stuff takes place there. Nothing small happens in this film, nothing underplayed or subtle. Incidentally, this film was adapted from a French drama: the French just so happen to be brilliant at cop stuff, where the detectives are always world weary, clever and determined. It would be interesting to see the original.
Add to this though yet another sub plot of the main hero - Yeo-hoon, played with conviction and style by Ryu Seung-ryong having a brother who is a shade retarded and rather roughly treated by the baddies in charge, but not before he has had the time to do a bit of bonding with Yeo-hoon, the ridiculous implication being that pregnant women are just bound to be more sympathetic to a retard than most due to absolute proof of sensitive maternalism.
We have another sub plot of a lipstick lesbian cop relationship which paves the way for some emotional revenge type involvement of a lady detective after her lover, the main honcho is shot - and the evidence of the killing is on a pen that has now found its place in the evidence room - no-one bothered to check its contents before leaving it there, which is of course normal in police procedure.
It is one of those 'chain reaction' stories where there is a lot of knee jerk action to the point of forgetting who did what and why. There is a lot of underlying attention given to the importance of bonding and family love which is driven home at the closure of the film in a confusing and ridiculous epilogue. The locations are fantastic, which includes a disused fairground (there aren't that many of those - but a neat idea), and a cement plant, which has taken over the scrap metal yard and snooker hall as natural place for manly violence to kick off. The Foley is a little overdone with each hit to the flesh sounding like a butcher weighing a big cleaver down on an oxen, though some of the fight tactics are very unusual and well-conceived - the Fu Manchu baddie has his head kicked through a massage table which is utterly gratifying for those who like to see the bad guys cop for it.
The film owes a lot to Internal Affairs, Le Cop, The French Connection - numerous CSI and Jane Tennison, the character in Prime Suspect, who will be the model for policewomen for quite some time. The escape sequences are finely shot and it is very apparent a lot of love has gone into this drama. It is bloody, raw and full of rage - but logical conclusion it has none, in the end it suffers from having too many cooks and not enough logic and plodding attention to detail.
Hywai: A Monster Boy (Dir Jang Joon-hwan 126mins) This - the best of the action film on offer at this year's festival was seen at 1pm in a Saturday afternoon in a packed out theatre in London's West End. As such, it felt like a very old school cinema experience. A young boy is raised by five gangsters after he is taken from his natural parents during a kidnap. There is a lot of alluding, albeit quiet to Stockholm Syndrome, the psychological effect of being conditioned by torturers/kidnappers as the intensity of the relationships is confused with the application of love and care. So, then the film uses imagery to manifest some deep rooted fears in this boy and a CGI multi-tendricled monster is brought in when our boy Hywai is feeling a shade emotionally challenged - though the line between whether this image is representative of the need to reach the initial good in him or to realise the bad is a wee bit skewed. The lead baddie, played by this writers favourite K-Actor Kim Yun-seok (Suk, is great as the part caring, part menacing) is also lead 'Dad' - the application of bad love in this scenario is everything and anything from sniper skills to sexual technique.
The non-linear format takes us from 1998-2012 and we learn bits from the story piecemeal, often in flashback during periods of great mental torment felt by the main hero Hywai (Yeo Jin-goo) who was fifteen at the time of shooting. The image of a tiny child being left in a box, often sick with bonsai trees put on tip of him is at times nasty and hard to stomach, but so is a lot of the film. It is as much a test of endurance for the audience as it is for the characters.
The five criminal surrogate Dads are 'The Day Breakers' - a particularly ruthless gang of robbers, though the members at times can't make up their minds if this kid on their hands should leave the fold and go on to art school in the UK - fine choice, or be like them. In any effect, it is clear that Hywai is different and his chief Dad is caught between telling him that the monster will go away if he becomes 100% like them and joins the life he has been conditioned to and being urged to set him free. There is this as moral dilemma which is a constant theme and thread in the actions and choices of the hero, who wavers. This seems a bit manipulative - but is acceptable as we have seen it before. Of course Vito Corleone wanted Michael initially to go to college and become a senator (with a Mafioso as Dad), but Michael was needed more than most in the family to put things to right - the mindset and brain of the morally righteous is considerably more potentially useful than the damaged criminal. The 'Monster' in the story appears at various times, during flashbacks of being locked in a basement, suggesting that this is the result of the conditioning felt between a child ripped from his parents - to criminal protégé. There are a fair few non-criminal minds that wouldn't mind the training Hywai goes through and it is not dissimilar to militaristic conditioning, though the comparison is never made, the sense of glamour and enjoyable privilege of this alternative life is there. It may be the case that a child conditioned to a life of crime could see monsters because he is confused as to which side of the moral spectrum he wants his life to follow, or because the monster is a manifestation of fear, but here we have some underlying arguments of nature vs nurture which could have been a bit better explored. It has been occasionally noted by sociologists that an end to this ongoing human debate (also aired fully in the excellent We Need to Talk About Kevin), is via the deliberate separation of twins at birth and the equally deliberate application of a criminal life - which would be morally abhorrent and not open to real life application, though the idea of being taken away at birth for a life of observation is brilliantly perceived and delivered in The Truman Show. Some stories have come closer still to this theoretical event, 'Hywai' being one of them - but watching it, even as wonderful as it is - the torment would be more pointed and could be a shade cruller with a bit of 'Prince & The Pauper' or 'Man in the Iron Mask.' Korean cinema more so than any other could do this, it has the courage and the daring in its storytelling to push the as yet unconducted human experiment into our cinemas. As it is the main character I this story is trying to fight the good and the bad but without the proverbial angels and devils on shoulders. The turning point for our anti-hero is when Hywai is asked to commit murder, whereupon the monster disappears but his inner demons start to surface. His monster is gone, because he has become one himself.
This he assuages with the attempted salvation of his true mother: though the fact of his father and the hand Hywai has in his end is not looked into that much and this is a shame. But by the time we get to this section of the story - we are really ready to have this boy get rid of all demons, no-matter whether real life or imaginary and get to art school in Britain and have his girlfriend. Noteworthy is the presence of a love interest as representative of a normal functioning life noting the hitherto absence of it. Criminal training and love are not mutually exclusive - note Leon, and The Man from Nowhere.
The action is relentless with the attendant car chases, shoot outs and of course, high octane bloodletting usually associated with alpha male Asian cinema. The image of the male stag beetle is used often in either drawing, or in real life and the reason why is never clear although note it is a protected species and worth a lot of money in capture. This entomological fact may or may nt have been lost on the writer.
Hywai, is essentially a rites of passage film but heavily Manga influenced. The dialogue is especially akin to short phrase bubble speak to accompany action. There is a lot of emotion on screen but what is there lacks resonance, the language use does not carry out its function as is the norm of moving character or story forward. The ending is satisfying enough but it all does feel a bit comic book, but boy is it satisfying. The main lead and his father just utterly compelling to watch, both of them spiralling into madness at different levels of excess inflicted upon each other, both wounded, both angry. This is an actioner with heart, brains a good story with a very good ending - for more of the same, see Save the Green Planet, made by the same director.
Haemoo (Dir: Shim Sung-bo 111mins) By the time this good-but-not-that-great film hit our screens in London, it had already won claim to fame at a few notable festivals: Vancouver, Stockholm, and Toronto but the hows and whys of it are deeply unfathomable. There are some top end screaming inappropriate moments that should just not have been there and were a genuine eyebrow raiser for the audience.
There is a vast difference between what this film is and what it should have been. One of the big things it has in its favour is the star of the piece - Kim Yun-seok, a highly watchable and charismatic actor who brings a great deal of weight to a difficult central performance. His is the role everything hinges on - the nasty spiral into vast moral decay, from simply starting out as a cash shortage, to ending as a kind of self-imposed Jonah is a classic deterioration plot in the mould of Treasure of the Sierra Madre or A Simple Plan. The performance of the main lead at the end is simply a cinematic treat, worthy of a place in all sea dog stories - like they used to write back in the day. He is the power in the film, him that is, and the sea. The sea has to have a hand in the fates of the men in all watery stories set there, Jaws, The Perfect Storm, The Cruel Sea, Master and Commander, A Night to Remember rightly depict the sea as an unconquering element with a will of its own. The mysticism surrounding the sea or its place as 'mother' in mythology is missing from this piece and the story would have been a lot richer for a bit of good old fashioned superstition. It is at heart a morality tale and just does everything other than sit up and beg for a ghost or moody retribution bigger than the one posed. Sex also features as a powerful potency, something the captain sees as a great distraction - it is his belief that women bring bad luck to a journey. However - his aversion to the fairer sex is noted when he walks in on his crew member and his wife early in the story - erm, getting it on. He is only mildly perturbed, consumed by worry as to the escalating costs of keeping his vessel afloat, his crew wages with a dwindling catch to throw at all the component needs.
Enter a moral dimension and proposed solution in the form of an offer to bag some riches if he takes the cargo of immigrants escaping to a better world. He is offered a gold watch as indicator of what is to come. So to keep everything going he has become a human trafficker. The signs of things to come are foreshadowed early: the sea policeman and his beady eye and the weather warnings of impending fog and difficulties. The wasted act of rescuing one of his crew members from being mangled, should have been thrown into the story later and for a while this writer was wondering where this was going to appear again. Korea has been eluded to a few times in the festival output as a place of refuge and financial gain, with New York, London and Paris being the usual haunts for immigrant activity. The explanation for this is missing in all the films that carry this as thread and Korean directors should tell us something they know and we don't. The journey looks as perilous as the transatlantic crossings carried out by the millions of Irish during the potato famine: details of the 'from and to' would have been nice and given us a socio-economic dimension. We know there is a China to Korea geography to the crossing but not a sense of what is being left and what is being hoped for which is clear in immigrant stories with the aforementioned as destinations. The central scene in the film is that of the immigrants crossing from one boat to the other in the worst conditions imaginable and the fear, dread and sense of danger is well put over. What isn't as clear are the backstories of the cargo sufficient to give the audience lives to root for. Often, all too often, immigrants are folk that are considered less than human by the populace of a country looked upon as 'mother' by the travelling hopeful. The audience could have been shown what a mistake this is as well as showing the immigrant how impossible the idealism may be in the chance taken. The differences in the realities of the struggling crew and the desperate immigrants is not compared or contrasted but a highly unfeasible love story is conduit for the moral core of the film, when this, in reality would not happen. The far more feasible quick shag between one of the immigrants and crew, so that the immigrant can stay below in the engine room which is where a lot of the other kind of action takes place, ticks the reality box nicely.
A nosey water policeman means that the immigrants must move from above to below decks (the fish hatch) a place reviled for its smell. A complaining traveller suggests the treatment at the hands of boat captain and chief decision maker Kang is worse than the other traffickers they have dealt with. His fate is the crux of sea change in the attitudes towards the captain who is now showing his slip a bit, his darker side. This is the preamble for what happens to the immigrants, which divides the crew, though once there is the discovery of a woman on board they all turn into sex crazed barking mad lunatics that haven't had any for years - if ever. So then, the boat is now filled with potential rapists and a mad captain on a down slide with one girl terrified out of her wits. In a mad moment she has a bit of boat sex with the crew member protecting her, directly after he murders one of the other crew members. Ridiculously they get stuck in just after throwing this freshly carved cadaver out of the way, then equally as ridiculously, there is a shot of a shot of steam omitting from a pipe in the engine room just to show us how the sex went.
The camera work is good with both indoor sequences providing enough tensions and cabin fever the story demands and the outdoor portraying cold and peril: the creeping sea fog loans a sense of atmosphere to the film, but no-where near as much as there is in The Fog. In fact The Thing, another Carpenter film should have been on the director's watch and reference list before going about making this. While watching Haemoo, the spirits of the dead rising out of the sea fog to take the captain is an image that comes about through pure wishful thinking and film literacy entrenched in horror, spooky sea tales and cabin fever stories. It may move and shake some as it is - but a ghostlier version would have made it the allegorical immigrant horror story to deal with collective self-righteous hatred we all know is out there somewhere and everywhere.
K-Focus - Director Kim Ki-duk (for those without the fantastic LKFF brochure there was a feature in it on this director which is not replicated here but there are reviews of the films of his on show):
One on One 122mins/Moebius 89mins
If there were to be a cult feature double bill chosen from all on the K-List the two films presented from this director would be those of choice. This is not to say that these films don't have their flaws. Both are revenge films, and are stylish enough with sufficient production values to not look as cheap as their 1970s/1980s predecessors but with the guts to be part of their ideals towards social responsibility. The acting is dubious, the propositions and scenarios hilarious but the ideas and values are relevant at a time when revenge films seem to have died, albeit with a couple of notable mainstream genre exceptions: (Harry Brown in the UK and The Brave One in the US).
What is in these films exist in the ether today, but no-one attends whilst always noticing. One on One and Moebius ask questions about collateral damage on a small, domestic and larger scale. One on One even goes so far as to ask Who am I? at the end prodding us to think about our complicity in doing nothing in the nastiness we see or to reprehend ourselves for what we inflict. What propositions this question is the initial deed of a seemingly senseless killing of a young girl. The images are shocking: she is utterly defenceless hoisted up off the ground by numerous men dressed in military gear and her face covered completely in duct tape until she suffocates, though in reality she would have wet/defecated herself and this we are spared. Cue the revenge militia that seek the perpetrators of this crime and start the process of elimination. This is like The Exterminator, Kill Bill, I Spit on Your Grave and countless others and nearer exploitation in style and context than modern revenge flicks. It is the presence of a group that make it so unique and the questions they pose to the deeds when they are considering the prospect that their leader is going mad/a bit too far and the meaning in the deeds lost. Here the film owes a lot to A Short Film about Killing which looks at the moral dichotomy in using death as punishment for perpetrating a death (strangulation is punished with hanging), or A Clockwork Orange where the main character is saturated with violent images to turn his violence mechanism off. The first death/torture is by far the best: we are unaware of what is going on and find ourselves pitying all the tortured until it is clear why they are being tortured: the men who perpetrated the initial crime are forced to confess to it and sign off the confession with a bloodied handprint. There is never any retribution on the part of the killers of the young girl: in fact the survivors of the tortures are more than a little miffed, like Oldboy, and unlike the survivor in Saw II - IV (Amanda) who joins the moral crusade to ignite gratitude for life in the disenfranchised.
The change of outfits and torture set ups are quite entertaining and are quite a long way from the increasingly elaborate constructions used in the Saw and Hostel franchise. Here the methods are more guerrilla, more one on one, and more as it would be in a renegade DIY world. The guys doing this are not rich psychos but blue collar, with one occasionally reluctant female.
Interestingly, it is the members of the gang that create this vigilante militia that turn against their master, claiming that it is no fun anymore - the project has gone too far. Besides, they have run out of guys to hurt, the last on their list being a general, who is absolutely unrepentant, then, aggressive - he doesn't last long, unsurprisingly. Just as unsurprising is the revenge of the revenge victim, touching on the subject of the ever present need to get one's own back if hurt or damaged in some way, the prospect of turning the other cheek just not an option. The film says as much about the uselessness of revenge as it does about the injustice it letting violence against the innocent slide unpunished. The Brave One, though, deals with this better by giving us a longer shot of the uselessness of the crime, the need to eliminate evil and of the damage that violence leaves in its wake. The revenge in TBO is about filling the emotional void as well as dispelling the personal anger and the moral complexities are thoroughly explored. In contrast, with One on One, the feeling all the way through is that there is an economic factor underlying the play between the characters: the identity of the victim, when revealed makes sense of the actions of the main character rather than the idea that all of it is an 'us against them' statement.
When all the calculations of the film are in, the characters that have made up the initial dreadful deed have been presented to us they only add up to a sum of their parts. The guys in Reservoir Dogs were randomly thrown together: you do not a sense that the torture victims all went to university together, they are massively different in status, age and other characteristics. The lack of commonality is a problem as is the ending, but this is still a film to add to the revenge film collection that does something in harking back to the style and statements of its exploitation forefathers.
Moebius - like Amer - the Dario Argento homage film is without dialogue and is not for the squeamish. There are only three characters and surprisingly this is enough. The film, be warned is as mad as a bag of frogs but simply superb. No one is named - there is just a man, a woman and a son. There are couple of other characters but are mere bystanders to the central drama. They live together in an apartment and the film opens with the apparent event of the man in the triumvirate having an affair. Cut now to the scorned wife who responds to him and this infidelity by trying to cut off his manhood. She does not succeed, so goes about the business of trying the same on her son - this time managing it, then eats his penis whilst her husband tries to choke it out of her mouth. It is by this time working its way around her teeth, after she swallows, then tries to throw up the penis/bolus. There is no police involvement, arrest of this woman and the stitch up in the hospital is less than two minutes. Apparently it has been known for castrated men to bleed to death, but this is not offered as a possibility. The desperate and confused guy/Dad tries to get the penis out of his wife's mouth rather than tend to his son and this goes to show just how important having a todger is. The audience in London by now was in uproar, there was absolutely no level of disgust aimed at Moebius, just hilarity, which is good. One guy claimed it was the best film he had ever seen - he wasn't joking.
It doesn't get any better than this. The story has an extra dimension introduced with the girl in a local shop who is the focus of a gang rape, this is after she has an encounter with our boy showing him her breasts for no apparent reason, thus establishing their relationship. During the rape - the penis-less boy simulates the sex and the girl see this sympathetic deed sufficient to be his new best friend and deal with his lack of ability to have an orgasm in rather weird and creative ways. One notable characteristic is that she shows her crotch when being pushed over, with legs overhead, in just the same way as the boy's mother does - and the pair of them have exactly the same breasts and choice and make of ample bottom coverage white panties. The boy's father looks up the prospect of an organ transplant for him, absolutely torn apart with guilt that his son is Johnson less and not him. So, he offers to go Johnson less himself, as you do because a penis, like a kidney is OK if you get rid of one. He repents the guilt at being the cause of all this mess by offering and going through this self-imposed sacrifice. When the transplant is complete in a very, very funny segment, the boy is watching porn, with the surgeon and father watching him watching the porn, all of them watching his new cock.
Meanwhile the Mum has gone away, disappearing into the night, not to be seen until the third act.
Moebius is a delight. It is very, very funny whether or not it wants to be is beside the point, and everyone should have a copy because it is just so 'out there.' The feeling that you want to destroy your man's manhood because he thinks someone is prettier or more doable than you is not too far from the inert rage that is felt at this level of betrayal. Taking the rage a step further and aiming it at the rest of mankind is also not unthinkable - these feelings are there and it isn't feminism, its bruised ego. We all know men are entitled to this but not women. We are all given these feelings but it is only the male who is entitled to demonstrate them. There are certainly elements of Medea in this tragedy drama and a fair slice of Lady Macbeth in our main female lead Lee Un-woo and the emotional resonance in the piece is seen, felt and noted. Children come into this world because the desire for our spouse/partner creates them. This play curiously suggests that - like Oedipus, the boy unfazed by the attentions of a girl his own age, can try out his Dad's penis on his Mum, giving credence to the notion that it has a mind of its own.
There are more influences here than Greek Tragedy: there is a bit of Lars Von Triers in the mix, especially Anti-Christ and the 'getting it on' whist enduring physical pain is in all S&M based activity, put to cinema most effectively in Cronenberg's Crash. Thankfully, unlike Crash, Moebius will have a life and reputation which extends beyond censorship. As a moot point, during the screening in London, two audience members walked out - always a good sign that a controversial film is doing its job.
Moebius is available on the Terracotta label.
What is both incredulous and amusing though is the simulated orgasms found through the practice of rubbing areas in the body until bloody and sore, or the idea that penetrating a wound and vigorously aggravating it will bring about a form of ejaculation.
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