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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Udine Far East Film Festival Day IX Report

Ongoing reports on the 14th Udine International Film Festival which Modern Korean Cinema will be covering onsite.

And so Udine comes to a close it's been a great week and I just got back in a moment ago.  Here are my thoughts on the last day's films and tomorrow I will recap the whole week.

The Divine Bow
(South Korea, 1979)

Im Kwon-taek’s second film of the retrospective was also the third island drama in the programme.  After the motherhood themes of Kim Ki-young’s Iodo (1977) and the changing roles of women examined in Kim Soo-young’s Splendid Outing (1978), Im’s The Divine Bow also featured a female protagonist but this time the focal point was shamanism.

Shamanism is frequently represented in Korean cinema but for the most part it is an element rather than a major theme, aside from Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-ok’s incendiary Night Fishing (2011).  Generally speaking it features prominently in K-horrors, like Possessed (2009) and Ghastly (2011) and is almost always presented in a negative light.  Im, as he moved towards a more reflective style of filmmaking in the mid-70s, became interested in Korean culture and history and particularly in shamanism, which, unlike other religions of the peninsula, has much older roots in the country.

Im’s exploration of the rituals and traditions of the belief structure is almost reverential.  Rather than make a positive or negative commentary on it, he opts to explore it and leave us to draw our own conclusions.  The best scenes of the film, led and brought to life by the great Yun Jeong-hee (Poetry, 2010), are the hypnotic ritualistic dances.  The film is also impressive in its mise-en-scene, especially with its resplendent location shooting.  All told The Divine Bow is a great early Im feature which hints at some of his greatness of later years.

(South Korea, 1975)

Flame, from Yu Hyun-mok, is one of the more well-known films in the ‘Darkest Decade’ retrospective and I’ve had it on the long finger for some time.  Just like Rainy Days (1979), screened earlier this week, the film is set in a village in the past and appears to be an anti-communist film.  However one doesn’t have to search too far for Yu’s real intention, which has more to do with intolerance and hypocrisy in his own country rather than the one North of the border.

The film begins with an unknown and injured man with a rifle, running away from something.  The sequence is edited in slow motion and complemented with an effective score.  It is also quite disorienting and this is exacerbated when the narrative begins to unfold in flashback, via a number of unidentified snippets which we are left to decipher.  This does pose a practical problem as it is a little difficult to piece together the plot and to recognize the characters within it but it is also deliberate and serves its purpose.

Yu employs this experimental structure to highlight the confusion of the period.  Koreans underwent constant change during the colonial period and this only got worse during the Korean war.  Following that, the country, though recently autonomous, became authoritarian under its new military rulers and then switched in the 60s to an even worse dictator.  The period that the film chronicles goes no further than the Korean war but Yu seems to be commenting on a broader historiographical context which also includes recent and present times.

Questions of family, loyalty and duty are explored, just as they were in Rainy Days, and make this another fascinating work.  When I get to Korea I will be trying very hard to get my hands on the out-of-print Korean Film Archive’s Yu Hyun-mok’s DVD boxset to further my discovery of this great filmmaker.  Another wonderful retrospective film, I’m just sad that it was the last one...

Romancing in Thin Air
(Hong Kong, 2011)

There have been a lot of films about filmmaking on the festival circuit this year and the format has yielded many great works.  Sadly, Johnny To’s latest does not sit well alongside this crowd.  Romancing in Thin Air is a romance, which is nothing new for the prolific director, but for his occidental fans who are primarily know him through his action and gangster films like The Mission (1999), Election (2005), and Exiled (2006), this will not be required viewing. 

It isn’t a bad film and just like the rest of To’s oeuvre, it features strong mise-en-scene.  It even throws in some clever postmodern elements, like the film within a film, which enhance the romantic aspect and raises a few interesting questions regarding our relationship with the medium.  With all of its intertextual elements, I’m not sure that it’s really trying to say anything but the joy is the hint of something grander.  It doesn’t make grandiloquent statements like Amir Naderi’s grandiose Cut (2011), which I had the chance to see at last month’s Fribourg International Film Festival, nor does it mine the catharsis of creativity like The Woodsman and the Rain (2011), but it does titillate nonetheless.  I guess I’m just a sucker for movies that shine a light on their construction.

The film follows a Hong Kong actor who exiles himself to an out of the way resort in the Yunnan province where he meets a no-nonsense woman who seems indifferent to his status and charm, though is secretly one of his biggest fans.

Romancing in Thin Air is certainly not the greatest in To’s body of work but a charming and thoughtful effort nonetheless, though I imagine many people will not have time for it.

Dangerously Excited
(South Korea, 2012)

This is the only Korean film playing that has yet to be released in theaters (it opens in July), so it was nice to get the jump for once and not be influenced by any sort of critical consensus.  Dangerously Excited is a charming little film about a civil worker who excels at his job.  Through a series of events he winds up host to a young indie band which he then becomes the bassist for.

Yoon Jae-moon takes the lead in this film and though he is recognizable from a host of major recent Korean films (The Good, the Bad and the Weird, 2008; Mother, 2009), this is the first time I’ve seen him take the lead in a film.  He’s a natural fit as the straightlaced office worker who treasures the order in his life and his performance never veers into caricature.

I will write a full review of Dangerously Excited for MKC soon but it’s safe to say that it is a very enjoyable film if somewhat slight and not altogether memorable.

(South Korea, 2012)

Unbowed, after its release earlier this year during the lunar day holiday, met with much the same reaction as last year’s Silenced.  They were both incendiary courtroom dramas based on real events that became big commercial and critical hits while also serving to open up long overdue national dialogues about Korea’s justice system and its rampant cronyism.  In fact in the space of few months there were three high profile Korean courtroom dramas that connected with audiences, the other being The Client (2011), itself a strong feature which also alluded to problems in the country’s legal system but was mainly a generic (and fictional) piece.

Chung Ji-young hadn’t made a feature film in 14 years and he’s not quite in step with the industry standards of today but it’s just as well as his effective but unobtrusive style leaves the film in the hands of its strongest elements: its excellent cast and brilliant script.

Ahn Sung-ki is perfect for this role, there’s really no other word for it.  He is absolutely convincing as a fiercely intelligent and pragmatic man driven to the edge,  his standoffs with the cold judge (Moon Sung-kun, equally formidable) are intense and cathartic.

I will also be reviewing this film properly in the coming days but if you get a chance to see it, Unbowed is a must and already 2012’s best Korean film (admittedly I’ve only seen two!)

The Woman in the Septic Tank
(Philippines, 2011)

My final film of the festival was a bit of a wild card but I was excited for it as I had been told that it was yet another film about filmmaking.  The Woman in the Septic Tank is an outright comedy that takes aim squarely at that which has been dubbed ‘poverty porn’, a type of film that is typical produced in a developing nation and which appeals to film festival goers by depicting harrowing despair.  The Udine Far East Film Festival does their utmost to steer away from this kind of film and even says so in its trailer, so it’s only fitting that this film, which in a sense reaffirms the festival’s aims was the penultimate film of the week.

A couple of young filmmakers in Manila are looking to make a brilliant art film that will go straight to Cannes and the narrative begins with a few scenes of the film.  They are slow, depressing and boring but also hilarious as they exaggerates all the worst elements of these types of films.  However most people in the audience didn’t seem to understand that it was joke until we cut to the fresh-faced filmmakers in the car heading to a coffeeshop to order soy mocafrappucinos or gold knows what else.

The star of their film is going to be Eugene Domingo and she uproariously sends herself up in a great cameo and also various performances within the film’s film.  During one scene the director and producer argue about who should play the lead, a mother of seven in a Manila slum who sells a child to a Caucasian pedophile.  Aside from Eugene they also consider Cherry Pie, for me this was hilarious and also eye-opening as she was in Fable of the Fish (2011), which I saw last month at the Fribourg International Film Festival, essentially the same role in the exact kind of film that this one seeks to ridicule.  I need to find out which one was made first!

Though not on the level of some other movies about the industry that I’ve seen so far this year, The Woman in the Septic Tank is outrageous and extremely refreshing, especially if you’re familiar with the festival circuit.

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