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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Fest Preview: New York Korean Film Festival 2012


(by Peter Gutiérrez)

It’s probably a testament to the output and quality of the Korean film industry that here in New York we’re gearing up for NYKFF 2012 a scant five months after the similar Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today series, also a project of The Korea Society.

With this tenth edition of the fest, the programmers have, as in years past, done a terrific job of showing off Korea’s startling range of populist cinema.  The lineup itself may not be vast, with only seven titles screening over three days, but the accessible mix of genres and styles makes the event perfect for both newbies and veteran fans who want to catch some rare big-screen presentations of several recent hits.  Here’s a quick rundown of all that lies in store…


Sunny


Forget about the "chick flick" vibe as reflected in the poster, title, and maybe any plot summary you've read of this film – or maybe don't forget about it but instead allow any preconceived notions about the themes and tone of your typical chick flick simply to melt away.  Yes, the maudlin, cancer-patient set-up is not promising, but fortunately most of the runtime is devoted to extended flashbacks of a very winning group of young actresses... and mostly they're just involved in a series of engaging confrontations with a rival pack of school girls.  One of these occurs against a backdrop of a full-scale political riot, and soon becomes exhilarating in the way that only the best set pieces can.  Consistently humorous, Sunny is pure, unaffected fun; so good and so refreshing that it made me recall why I love Korean cinema in the first place.


The Servant


At first it may seem a bit odd to showcase a 2010 film that’s been readily available to North American audiences via Netflix Instant since last year, but such an opinion would ignore the chief reason to see Kim Dae-woo’s grand romance: its overwhelming, practically swoon-inducing, visual beauty.  Indeed, the combined efforts of art direction, cinematography, and costume design to achieve unforgettably vivid images projected in a larger-than-life format should provide sufficient motivation to travel to Brooklyn – or anywhere else.  For better or worse, though, its sheer gorgeousness may be The Servant’s main virtue despite its many moments of disarming comedy and a few effective shocks.  Retelling “The Tale of Chunhyang” with a mix of period intrigue and modern-day bluntness, especially when it comes to matters sexual, certainly increases the potential audience for such a film but the uneasy meshing of tones and sensibilities didn’t always work for me.  More importantly, the film only partly strikes the air of high tragedy it’s aiming for – although it could be that I’m judging it a bit unfairly by comparing it to similar Korean films of the past decade: in my experience Hollywood romances are seldom this ambitious and thoughtful.


Moss



With a delicious air of slow-building menace and mystery, punctuated with sudden jolts of violence, Moss consistently delivers in the chills-and-thrills department.  Ultimately, however, its climax (after two and half hours) lacks the majestic, perhaps mind-bending, revelations we’ve been expecting, whether spiritual in nature per the film’s themes or simply on the order of a deeply satisfying plot twist.  Still, there are ample pleasures to be had here.  Jeong Jae-young memorably plays the same character in both a young, abrasive, and corrupt version and as an older, still corrupt, but vastly smoother incarnation that recalls John Huston in Chinatown (1974)… except Huston wasn’t acting 30 years beyond his actual age.  All in all, though, I much prefer the following film, made by pretty much the same creative team, in terms of providing a rewarding cinematic experience.


GLove


I'm not big on feel-good movies, to put it mildly, and sports flicks have an annoying tendency to be formulaic, but this one really stands out from the crowd.  Jeong Jae-young, one of my favorite Korean actors, nails the lead role as a disgraced ballplayer but to his credit does not overshadow the fine supporting cast.  Kudos to director Kang Woo-suk for pulling this off as well as all the tonal shifts that a dramedy of this type demands – that Kang is at the same time showing off his own impressive versatility after the dark, usually urban films that have earned him so much box office success probably goes without saying.  Rhymes with: the 2011 Oscar-nominated American documentary Undefeated.


Hindsight


I’m rounding my assessment up from a fail to a mere disappointment simply because, for my money, Song Kang-ho is one of the world's great stars and carries several scenes just by waiting a beat and then smiling.  To a certain degree one can overlook the empty glossiness of production and equally shallow sentimentalism – those often come with the territory if one is expecting a multi-genre, popcorn-fueled blockbuster.  In other words, I would have been very happy with another Secret Reunion (2010).  Of course it's fine that here we have a romantic subtext instead of bromantic one, but what's not fine is how undercooked it is and how anemic the action scenes are on top of that.  As an example of how neither angle works, I submit this image: an undeniably cute and appealing Shin Se-kyung takes aim with a high-powered rifle but then director Lee Hyun-seung has her gently bite her lower lip in hesitation.  If you feel this sort of thing adds extra dimension to female characters or more heft to dramatic tension, knock yourself out, but I found Hindsight hard to take seriously after this point.  The same was true following two scenes in which the leads separately endure the kind of physical assault that would land the rest of us in traction but from which they bounce back so quickly that it's as if the characters themselves had stunt doubles.


Quick


Quick is a film that doesn't take itself very seriously and all the ingredients are there for a heady summer cocktail of speed, flash and pyrotechnics but at the end of the day it's just too much.  The story is cluttered and there are too many ingredients thrown in to please any and all comers, such as k-pop, gangsters, biker gangs, youth violence, washboard abs, scantily clad women, inefficient police, romance and of course melodrama.  However, one you thing you can almost always count on with Korean films is strong production values and true to form director Jo Beom-goo's team is no slouch in the SFX department. At the end of the day this comedy-action film has a little something for everyone but perhaps not enough for anyone.  (Pierce Conran)


Late Autumn


A second remake of the classic Lee Man-hui film of 1966, following one from 1981, and not to be confused with Yasujiro Ozu's 1960 film of the same name, Late Autumn is the third feature from the excellent Kim Tae-yong, who previously helmed Memento Mori (1999) and Family Ties (2006).  The film stars Chinese beauty Tang Wei as an imprisoned woman on a three-day furlough to attend her mother's funeral in Seattle and Korean heartthrob Hyun Bin as a man on the run.  The film kicked off a long series of international film festival engagements in Toronto and has subsequently been featured at Busan, Berlin, Jeonju, London, Hong Kong, and many more.  It has also been awarded several times, most notably by the same jury that gave its top prize to Poetry at the Fribourg International Film Festival last March.  (Pierce Conran)


Peter Gutiérrez writes for Twitch and School Library Journal, and can be counted on for too-frequent film and pop culture updates on Twitter via @Peter_Gutierrez.


Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

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2 comments:

  1. "Korea’s startling range of *populist* cinema"... What does it mean, "populist"? It's not "popular", is it?

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    1. Populist can mean designed with the people's interests in mind (but doesn't have to work or be successful) whereas popular means embraced by the masses (but doesn't have to be crafted with them in mind). The terms intersect but they're not quite the same, hope this answers your question!

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