Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Udine Far East Film Festival Day V Report

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

Yesterday was very much a Korea-centric day.  It began with a 5:30am wakeup so that I could log onto Skype for an interview at 6:00am with someone in Korea, but this had nothing to do with Udine.  After writing my Day IV Report I went to the festival centre to take in the second double bill of the 1970s Korean film retrospective.  Following that I had the chance to see one of last year’s biggest Korean hits, one I’d been aching to see.

The evening’s panel was on the ‘Darkest Decade’ retrospective and featured curator Darcy Paquet and noted Korean film director and scholar (currently professor at K’Arts) Kim Hong-joon.  The talk began with a short video by Kim where he discusses March of Fools, a 1975 Kil Ha-chong (director of the previous day’s Pollen) film that was unfortunately not available for the FEFF.  The talk was fascinating and both panelists drew on their extensive knowledge of Korean cinema and shared some choice anecdotes. I only wish it could have gone on longer!

I didn’t catch the next Korean film screening as I had already seen (and reviewed) it so I took my leave to go back to the hotel early since the last three nights had yielded less than 15 hours of sleep.

No retrospective films today but I’m hoping to catch Dangerously Excited (South Korea, 2012), which screened before I arrived, in the press library.  I'm also looking forward to the The Woodsman and the Rain (Japan, 2011).

Rainy Days
(South Korea, 1979)

First up was Rainy Days (aka Rainy Season) which is one of the last films that Yoo Hyun-mok ever made.  Yoo is rightly famous for directing Obaltan (aka Aimless Bullet, 1961), which, along with The Housemaid (1960), is considered one of the defining works of Korean cinema.  Rainy Days may not have the visceral impact of his previous classic, but then again Obaltan was made during a brief transition period in the early 60s during which censorship was very lax.  This film is borne out of different circumstances and a careful examination of it reveals how a clever director like Yoo is able to bend the limitations of studio filmmaking, in a heavily censored era, to his advantage.

The film is set in a small rural community during the Korean war and while ostensibly an anti-communist film I couldn’t help but think that he was also making a statement about the society and political atmosphere in contemporaneous Korea.  Fear of recrimination is a large part of the film but perhaps even more so is hypocrisy, which has actually been an overarching theme in all the films that have so far been screened in the retrospective. 

The film if beautifully made and these works continue to surprise me with the high degree of sophistication with regards to their film technique.  Another great film from Yoo Hyun-mok and I hope to see it again soon, as I must admit that I was a little (very) tired during the screening after my late night finish and early morning start!

Night Journey
(South Korea, 1977)

The first thing that struck me about Kim Soo-young’s Night Journey was its star Yun Jeong-hie, who picked up numerous international accolades for her exceptional performance in Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (2010).  She made an enormous amount of films in the late 60s and 70s but of course precious few are available now.  I may even have been slightly uncomfortable seeing the woman who played the sweet grandmother in Poetry in such a lascivious role.

Kim’s film is a brief and focussed affair which examines the role of the independent, city-dwelling woman in Korean society circa the 1970s.  She plays a bank clerk having an affair with her supervisor but she is left sexually unsatisfied and even the hope of getting a husband out of the ongoing encounters is dashed as he finds the institution of marriage ‘lame’.

Hypocrisy rears its ugly head again as women are given the short shrift in Kim’s film as their changing role in society is ill-accepted by its patriarchs.  She may work in a bank but there is never a question that she could ever rise up to management.  She is referred to as an 'old maid' at work and thus is under pressure to get married because at this point in time, Korea offers no other recourse for a woman approaching middle age.

I loved how Kim’s film was short and to the point, it managed to say a lot in 76 minutes and I’m still going over it in my mind.

(South Korea, 2011)

Punch was Korea’s third most successful film last year which was a bit of a surprise but after seeing it, it quickly becomes clear why this film raked in so much cash: it’s a winner.  An exceptionally well-crafted studio fell-good hit, Punch has a lot going in its favor but its anchor is Kim Yun-seok, the formidable star of Tazza: The High Rollers (2006), The Chaser (2008), Running Turtle (2009), TheYellow Sea (2010) and this summer’s hotly anticipated The Thieves (2012).  Kim is a joy to watch on screen, he’s known for very intense roles but for me the common element that binds all his roles together is just how funny he is.  He’s extremely droll and his droopy eyes are able to convey such a range of emotion and I honestly don’t know how he does it.

Everyone had a great time with this and the whole theater was in stitches throughout most of the film.  Kim certainly plays his part but the supporting cast is also superb.  Anyone who had a chance to see Moby Dick (2011) earlier this week will have recognized Kim Sang-ho, the stout little actor with the bald head and frizzy hair who brightens up even the worst film, and he has been in some atrocious ones, such as last year’s woeful Champ.

Punch is a coming of age story about a resourceful but reserved young man who has grown up without a mother and in a poor and unconventional setting.  His teacher (played by Kim) lives next door and constantly harangues him, though it is obvious that he is affectionate towards him.  Themes of multi-culturalism, religion and acceptance abound in the narrative and while the going is often light and frothy, the subtext is clear and very well integrated.  This kind of a film, which inevitably takes detours into sentimentalism, is of the sort which often gets into trouble with suffocating melodrama and disingenuousness but director Lee Han has a firm command of the material and his film has a lot heart and it does pack a but of a punch.  Highly recommended for all-comers.

Penny Pinchers
(South Korea, 2011)

Previous MKC Review

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).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Korean Cinema News (04/19-04/25, 2012)

I was away at the 14th Udine Far East Film Festival when this update was meant to go out but I don't think I missed very much save the big Cannes lineup announcement which featured two hotly anticipated Korean films in the main competition.


Showbox, Huayi Brothers Join Forces for Mr. Go 3D
Korea’s Showbox/Mediaplex has entered into an investment and distribution partnership with Chinese studio Huayi Brothers for its upcoming sports action drama Mr. Go 3D.  Huayi Brothers has agreed to invest $5m into the film, which is guaranteed a 5,000-screen release across China in summer 2013 and wide releases in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. More than half of China’s 10,000 screens are 3D-equipped.  (Screen Daily, April 19, 2012)

Two Korean Movies Invited to Compete at Cannes
Hong Sang-soo's In Another Country and Im Sang-soo's The Taste of Money have been invited to the 65th Cannes Film Festival next month.  This marks the fourth time that two Korean films have been selected for the official competition of arguably the world's most prestigious film festival in the same year. (The Chosun Ilbo, April 20, 2012)

Jeonju Film Festival Puts Indie Films Before Global Blockbusters
Jeonju, a city best known for its bibimbap (mixed vegetables and rice), will be abuzz for a different reason starting Thursday, with indie film fans, directors and stars visiting for the 13th Jeonju International Film Festival.  Steadily growing in scale and recognition alongside bigger rivals including the Busan International Film Festival, online tickets for more than 70 screenings have already sold out, though some can still be purchased at the event.  (Joong Ang Daily, April 20, 2012)

King of Pigs Animation Invited to Cannes
Yeun Sang-ho's animated feature film The King of Pigs has been invited to Cannes next month to feature at a special screening of the festival's Directors' Fortnight.  Other Korean films previously presented in the section include Peppermint Candy (1999) by Lee Chang-dong, The President's Last Bang (2005) by Im Sang-soo and The Host (2006) by Bong Joon-ho.  (The Chosun Ilbo, April 25, 2012)

Korean Film Council Establishes Animation Export Fund
The Korean Film Council (KOFIC) devotes sizable time to sponsoring the filming and production of movies in South Korea, as well as the promotion of completed films once they hit the international festival circuit.  For the Korean animation business, however, it's a story of equal interest but far lesser success.  (Animation Insider, April 25, 2012)


Hyeong-Cheol Kang, Director of Sunny
On the second day of the 14th Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy, CUEAFS member Antoniya Petkova had the distinct pleasure of talking with renowned South Korean director Hyeong-Cheol Kang and producer Han-na Lee, both in town to promote the opening night screening film of their latest effort Sunny (2011). (Cine-Vue, April 24, 2012)


Battleship Stays Afloat With Another First Place Finish
(Modern Korean Cinema, April 23, 2012)

Korean Cinema News is a weekly feature which provides wide-ranging news coverage on Korean cinema, including but not limited to: features; festival news; interviews; industry news; trailers; posters; and box office. It appears every Wednesday morning (GMT+1) on Modern Korean Cinema. For other weekly features, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update and the Weekly Review Round-upReviews and features on Korean film also appear regularly on the site. 

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Udine Far East Film Festival Day IV Report

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

As I made my way across the Swiss-Italian border early yesterday morning I was informed by the ticket inspector on my train of an unfortunate detail concerning the Italian rail system.  He spoke German and Italian but no French or English so he kept it simple: “STRIKE! NO CONNECTION!” he bellowed with emphatic hand gestures for further clarification.  As it turned out there were some trains running it but it was luck of the draw.  I would wait for a train only to learn a minute or two before it was meant to arrive that it was cancelled.  As a result I slowly made my way across the Italian peninsula, with lengthy stops in Milan, Venice and Trieste before finally arriving in Udine at 11pm, I had begun my day at 4:30am.

Nevertheless I was thrilled to arrive and terribly excited for my first pair of films, both from the 1970s “Darkest Decade of Korean Cinema” retrospective:

(South Korea, 1972)

My very first Korean film from the 1970s was the debut of Ha Kil-jong, who would only produce a small body of work before his untimely death in 1979 at the tender age of 37.  Pollen certainly was a dark film and, though the production of the feature was not always of the highest standard, it was an infectious and sometimes delirious film all the same.  It’s also very difficult to categorize, it was a domestic melodrama to be sure but it was also a sort of psychedelic, horror erotica as well.  Regardless of its classification, it was a fascinating film from a filmmaker who was evidently a keen cinephile, as it draws on a vast array of world cinema influences, including the works of Pasolini, Antonioni and Bergman.

Min-ja is a young girl who lives with her sister whose her husband brings home his protégé one day.  Thus begins a tempestuous affair that, unsurprisingly, leads to disastrous consequences.

There is a great deal of repression and hypocrisy on display in the film and much of what unfolds is affected with a biting and mordant wit.  The house where most of action unfolds is someone called the Blue House, an obvious reference to the building that house Korea’s head of state.  In fact much of the film is informed by the contemporaneous political situation, as I imagine much of the retrospective will be.  The 1970s was very much dark decade for Korea, under the brutal and oppressive authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee.

One of my favorite sequences was a party that takes place in the house.  There is an intense and yet downbeat energy that abounds as the well to do guests seem bent of their own gratification.  They are in a trance, stuck to each other but vacantly staring off in silence as they amble to a pulsating and psychedelic funereal march.  The editing is both languid and frantic as it, along with the piercing cinematography, highlight this macabre dance of the dead.

(South Korea, 1977)

Kim Ki-young is one of the most well known names of classic Korean cinema, having directed the seminal ‘Golden Age’ melodrama The Housemaid (1960), which was later remade by Im Sang-soo in 2010.  While he was an important presence in the Korean film industry in the 1960s, he was not so well regarded in the 70s, though he was no less productive.  Iodo, from the second half of the decade, is an extraordinary film though admittedly a difficult one that would have had trouble finding an audience at the time of its release.

An intense island melodrama, the film incorporates numerous themes into a densely structured but well though out narrative.  Two films almost immediately came to mind as I watched it:  the classic Shinto Kanedo film Naked Island (1960) and one of Korea’s best efforts from 2010, Bedevilled.

Compared to the morning’s Pollen, Kim’s film is a much more polished affair where he puts his experience to good use.  The impressive mise-en-scene is at the same time austere and vigorous.  His film grips you with its impressive and rugged vistas and gets under your skin with its potent undercurrent of paranoia.

Another film that comes to mind is The Wicker Man (1973), here instead of paganism, we are privy to an almost cultish vein of shamanism.  Kim’s film’s uses the rural site as a place of horror.  A locale that cannot be escaped and draws people back.  The motif is a wellspring of thematic material as Iodo not only covers shamanism but rural society, childbirth and motherhood, gender roles and even environmental issues.  What’s amazing is that despite the wealth of topics explored, none feel rushed and, instead, all come together to form an invigorating and often horrifying cohesive whole.

I can’t wait to see Kim’s other retrospective film A Woman Chasing a Killer Butterfly (1978) not to mention his work The Insect Woman (1972) which has been languishing in my in pile for far too long.  This and Pollen were a terrific double punch and I’m dying to see what the rest of the week has to offer.

(Japan, 2011)

Tetsu Maeda’s Sukiyaki was a wonderful and whimsical work that was exceptionally successful in inspiring a reaction from our most important organ.  I speak of course, of our stomachs.  I think that I and the rest of the audience were salivating throughout the film’s entire running time, I know that Fabien Schneider (, who I saw it with, was afflicted with an intense craving for ramen afterwards.

The story is a cute one, if such a word is appropriate in the setting, that focusses on inmates sharing a cell who take their meals very seriously and are about to embark on their annual tradition of recounting their favorite meals in a bid to get some extra helpings during their upcoming New Year’s feast.  The only difference this year is that there is a new cellmate who, at first, refuses the join the proceedings, opting instead to wile away his time sulking in a corner.

The camaraderie of the prisoners is a real joy and in no small part due to the tremendously engaging cast.  They each got their shot at the spotlight when they recount their stories, which mostly tie in with the causes of their incarcerations.  Realism is squarely thrown out the door early and this is a wise decision as on the one hand it makes the film more fun but also makes it accepts that the film depicts a prison that you would want to go to.

Make no mistake though the star of this film is the food, the element that is often not given its proper dues in cinema.  The last Japanese film to make my stomach grumble was Koreeda’s wonderful Still Walking (2008) and many other Asian films have made my stomach ache, such as Taiwan’s Eat Man Drink Woman (1994) and Korea’s Le Grand Chef (2007).

The only worries for me were that at the end of the day it didn’t seem to say a great deal and the precisely structured narrative was almost too episodic.  Those petty grievances aside though, I highly recommend Sukiyaki though implore you not to watch it on an empty stomach!

I really enjoyed my first day at the FEFF where I got to see some great films and take part in a panel on music in film with Korea’s Kang Cheol-heyong (Sunny, 2011) and Koo Ja-hong (Dangerously Excited, 2012) and Taiwan’ Giddens (You Are the Apple of My Eyes, 2011).  I was also thrilled to meet many wonderful people, including Darcy Paquet (the curator of the 1970s retrospective), who is something of an idol for me.  Lastly, I was also interviewed by Antoniya Petkova for CUEAFS!

Greatly looking forward to what today has to offer.

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).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Penny Pinchers (티끌모아 로맨스, Ti-kkeul-mo-a Ro-maen-seu) 2011

Korea’s breathless transformation from an outlying nation into one of the world’s leading economies is nothing short of astonishing.  These days the country is a technology leader and is quickly becoming one of the world’s foremost purveyors of entertainment.  By and large the changes have been good for the country as its citizens have become more prosperous and the standard of living has rising dramatically.  However, there is always a price to pay for progress and one of the offshoots of Korea’s good fortune has been a certain shift in values.  Brand fetishization can be seen as a natural and perhaps necessary ill following the collective increase in disposable income.  Whereas thirty years ago the general Korean public may not have been aware of foreign luxury goods, now they’re omnipresent across the land.

Penny Pinchers is a lighthearted romcom which acts like an antidote to the recent raft of consumerist films that have come out of Korea, such as Little Black Dress (2011).  It’s a quirky film which takes a different approach to the genre compared with Korea’s recent offerings.  Thriftiness is the name of the game and the bulk of the narrative is given other to the sometimes difficult process of survival that many directionless 20-somethings are forced to endure.

Ji-woong is an unemployed 26-year-old who is about to lose his apartment and seems hopelessly lost as he attempts to navigate adulthood in modern day Seoul.  His next door neighbour is Hong-shil, a remarkably clever and frugal girl who goes to great lengths to 'pinch pennies'.  After taking advantange of Ji-woong’s late rent payments, which get him kicked out of his lodgings, she takes pity on him and brings him on as a sort of apprentice in thriftiness.

The film starts off as a comedy and the romantic element of it doesn’t really get going at first as it will take a long time for the pair to realize they like each other, though we surmise it much earlier on.  There’s also not too much in the way of a plot as we mainly witness the various little schemes and tricks they employ in order to save money.  The vague goal is for Ji-woong to have enough money for a new apartment and as we learn later on, Hong-shil's path will be a melodramatic one at the end of which she must reconcile the death of her mother. 

Hong-shil is thrifty (to put it mildly) and her sort-of-foil is an airheaded golddigger, whom Ji-woong chases after, trying to fool her into thinking he’s a prosperous young man.  This minor protagonist is far less characterized than the lead but I wonder whether she is intended as a reflection of the shifting values in modern Korea.  Is the director lamenting it?  If so, why do men get off so easily?

If this is a commentary on the commodification of modern Korean’s interests and desires perhaps the two female characters act as signposts of two different generational paradigms.  On the one hand the lead represents a generation that can’t let go of the past while the floozy is an airhead blithely unaware of anything that falls outside of her instant and selfish gratification, though she does get her comeuppance in the end.  She’s even ready and willing for sex on a first date (ostensiby a reward for designer shoes), a rare thing in Korean cinema, also most likely a slur on her character.

The great charm of Penny Pinchers is its easygoing nature and while it sometimes begins to explore bigger issues it is never less than a well-paced and enjoyable film.  A lot of the film’s affableness can be credited to the film’s endearing leads.  I was  not familiar with Han Ye-seul and Song Joong-ki before the film as they have primarily plied their trade in Kdramas but their humour, charisma and charm really make this one of the best romantic comedies of the last few years.  What’s more, while the film does predictably wind down on a melodramatic note, their warmth as performers shines through and guides us serenely through to the film’s climax.

Korean romcoms frequently suffer with their conclusions which often ring false and malign any good groundwork that has been made earlier on but Penny Pinchers deftly handles the combination of pathos, humour and romance that concludes the narrative.  It left me wanting more, in a good way, and I came away very satisified.  Kim Jeong-hwan, a first time writer/director with ample experience in the industry, proves a light touch behind the lens.  A must for romcom fans but also a great standalone film for those who wouldn’t normally seek out such fare.


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).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Korean Box Office Update (04/20/04/22, 2012)

Battleship Stays Afloat With Another First Place Finish

Title Release Date Market Share Weekend Total Screens
1 Battleship (us) 4/11/12 34.50% 516,874 1,948,608 624
2 The Scent 4/11/12 20.20% 296,923 846,007 396
3 Architecture 101 3/22/12 17.80% 268,730 3,316,655 439
4 Untouchable (fr) 3/22/12 6.00% 89,231 1,635,275 227
5 The Hunger Games (us) 4/5/12 3.40% 52,276 584,818 253
6 Over My Dead Body 3/29/12 3.30% 50,470 962,436 235
7 Titanic (us) 2/20/98 4.60% 43,375 336,272 144
8 Beauty and the Beast (us) 7/4/92 3.60% 39,949 140,555 173
9 The Ides of March (us) 4/19/12 2.10% 29,679 35,146 93
10 Heartbreaker (fr) 4/19/12 1.70% 25,198 30,263 175

A Hollywood blockbuster continues to lord over the Korean marketplace and it will likely switch with another next weekend when The Avengers rolls around but the news isn't all bad for local fare.  Even with no new openers the market share was still decent at 42%, this was a little under last year's 47% but then again a lot more tickets were sold this year as admissions were at 1.5 million versus 1.2 for 2011's similar frame.

Battleship dipped a little but remained strong with 516,874 for a first place finish.  It has already amassed nearly two million admissions but will suffer greatly at the hands of The Avengers, which opens next weekend.

The Scent, which had a mediocre start saw its fortunes reversed over the weekend as it increased 20% for a 296,923 frame, still nothing major but an encouraging sign nonetheless.

Architecture 101 had a slight uptick, even as it dropped onew spot and is now well over the three million mark after adding 268,730 admissions over the three days.

Untouchable was steady with another 89,231 tickets sold as it continues to impress with its remarkable run.

The Hunger Games continues to disappoint after its 52,276 frame, it's only over the half million mark at this point and will not make it to the next milestone.

Over My Dead Body had a slight drop and is now very close to the one million point after selling an additional 50,470 tickets.  While not a stellar result, passing the milestone would certainly save it some face.

Re-releases Titanic and Beauty and the Beast also saw small drops for 43,375 and 39,949 respectively but they won't be around much longer.

The Ides of March had a soft 29,679 opening while Heartbreaker also opened but with a slighter smaller 25,198 admissions despite a higher theatre count.  Still though, it's not everyday that you see two French films in the Korean top 10!

Next week the focus will be shifting to The Avengers, which is almost guaranteed to lure over a million viewers during its opening.  A Muse will also debut but may have a tough time as a result, despite some good buzz.


The Korean Box Office Update is a weekly feature which provides detailed analysis of film box office sales over the Friday to Sunday period in Korea. It appears every Sunday evening or Monday morning (GMT+1) on Modern Korean Cinema. For other weekly features, take a look at Korean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-upReviews and features on Korean film also appear regularly on the site. 

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Front Line (고지전, Gojijeon) 2011

Before getting into a discussion about Jang Hoon’s much-ballyhooed new feature The Front Line, I feel that I should mention that over the years I have had a troubled relationship with war films.  I have seen all kinds, from different eras, different countries, detailing different fights, and espousing all sorts of different points of view.  On a cold Sunday afternoon, there isn’t a whole lot that can beat a repeat viewing of seminal classics like David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1956), John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963), or Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953).  Those are actually all POW (Prisoner of War) films but there is a great wealth of others that I can always return to, including: Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition trilogy (1959-1961), Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plain (1959), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) or HBO’s 10-part mini-series Band of Brothers (2001).

When the elements fall into place, a good war film is one of the most engaging types of entertainment across any medium but that correct balance is a difficult thing to achieve.  War films differ from other genres as they are naturally rooted in spectacle, feature little to no romance or indeed female protagonists, and must frequently sacrifice characters on the battlefield.  What’s more, rather than following a personal trajectory, the main thrust of the narrative is often consumed by a story far greater than the leads that we are to bond with on screen.

More and more I find myself apprehensive when I hear about a new war film since I don’t think they make them as well as they used to.  Regarding past conflicts like WWII and Vietnam, it feels like most of the great films have already been made.  The immediacy has past and while revisionism and objectivism can motivate new and interesting views on these military operations, for the most part, the ‘epic’ feel of these past films is a rare achievement in today’s cinematic landscape.

Before watching The Front Line, my expectations were mixed.  On the one hand it is Jang Hoon’s third film and his previous two, Secret Reunion (2010) and especially Rough Cut (2008), have been great films.  On the other, it is a war film and, as I have outlined, my relationship with these is problematic.  More troubling still was the mixed reaction it received from many critics and cinephiles whose opinion I trust, although it also received significant industry recognition, including Best Film accolades at the Daejong Film Awards and the Critics’ Choice Awards, which somewhat offset my reservations.

In 1953 during the Korean war, lengthy negotiations are underway for a ceasefire, while the fight rages on for the Aerok Hill, the possession of which switches endlessly between the North and the South.  After a company commander of the South Korea army is found dead as a result of friendly fire, Kang Eun-pyo (Shin Ha-kyun) is sent to the front line to investigate.  He meets a friend there, Kim Soo-hyeok (Ko Soo), who he assumed had died but has in fact turned into a seasoned soldier.  The whole company is battle-hardened and due to significant casualties the officers are youths who have long since lost their innocence.  Alligator company continues to wage war for a small hill as the peace talks drag on, with no end in sight.

There is a steadily growing canon of Korean War films (to be clear I mean those made by Koreans) which include Taegukgi (2004), Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005), and 71: Into the Fire (2010).  As it happens, these are all great films but they are also heavily focused on the relationship between North and South Korea, though less explicitly in the case of 71.  Such a thematic strand is inevitable but it is also unique.  It serves to separate Korean war films from other military oeuvres.  The Front Line deals with this issue head-on from a stance that seeks to call to mind the futility of war, the archetypal theme of the war film.  While it addresses this theme effectively it can’t be said to be too original, I preferred Taegukgi’s unsubtle but apt metaphor of brothers being torn apart which paralleled the much larger proceedings surrounding them, one, by the way, which is rehashed in here in the relationship between Eun-pyo and Soo-hyeok

Park Sang-yeon’s script is grandiloquent in its exploration of this theme, brimming with pithy aphorisms such as “The whole world is telling us to fight, but this fog is telling us not to” and “Do you know why you're losing? Because you don't know why you're fighting”.  We are so accustomed to anti-war messages that when heavy-handed interjections such as these come along they tend to come off as trite.  War films are a worthwhile form of entertainment but they need to have more to express than this oft-mined topic.  The problem is that The Front Line feels like a chamber piece where this one motif reverberates off of everything, drubbing you with its ethical superiority.

Furthermore, the single location used for the bulk of the film, despite numerous styles and visual tricks used to render it more interesting, reinforce this feeling of it being a chamber piece.  The film feels small, though perhaps deliberatly so as Jang aims for a claustrophobic atmosphere in the battlefield and frequently breaks rules of spacial mapping which serve to disorient us.  Despite this, the battles scenes are often impressive, a number of great tracking shots and large, magnificent canvasses are extremely effective.  

The Front Line is well made and features some stunning production design as well as some strong cinematography, I particularly liked the heavy Dutch tilts of some of the shots.  By and large though, it feels like a missed opportunity.  Jang exhibits a sure hand as a filmmaker but his big style can't overcome a disappointing script, especially as it segues into a mawkish and protracted finale after giving us a false climax.  The film is well worth a watch though, for some strong performances, especially from Shin Ha-kyun and Lee Je-hoon, and some very convincing set pieces.

The Cine-Asia release of The Front Line is out on DVD/Blu-ray February 27 in the UK.


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).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Moby Dick (모비딕, Mo-bi-dik) 2011

Conspiracy theory thriller

I am quite a fan of conspiracy thrillers, indeed I believe that the genre has produced some of the most fascinating, engaging and thoroughly cinematic films of our times. Whilst its roots go back much further, I am reminded of the New Hollywood cinema of the 1970s, the point at which it was probably at its most popular. Anyone who has seen the little film that Francis Ford Coppola managed to wedge in between making the behemoths that were parts I and II of The Godfather, has probably never forgotten The Conversation (1973), and its profound atmosphere of paranoia. Another of the most enduring successes of that decade was All the President’s Men (1976). Granted, it had quite a story to start off with but it was also one of the most well-crafted and exciting films to come out in that period. Lately, conspiracy has featured frequently in films but it is no longer the sole focus of the vast majority of narratives. Although there are still some fantastic examples, such as the sadly cancelled AMC series Rubicon (2010) and one of this year’s best films (if not the best at this point), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), the conspiracy theory genre has steadily lost its allure.

In Korean cinema, conspiracy plays a similar role as it does in other international cinemas, namely as a narrative device to create conflict, inject tension and allow for twists and reveals. Almost always, there is one recurring element at the heart of these conspiracies, Korean cinema’s trump card, the ever-present and threatening North Korea. Moby Dick isn’t particularly different from other Korean films featuring these tropes, the main difference is that here it is the narrative’s principal focus. As one would expect this is both to its advantage and to its detriment.

It seems that it is the mission of Chungmoro (Korea’s Hollywood) to create at least one Korean version of every style of film ever made. Moby Dick is the country’s first press-centric conspiracy theory thriller and to give one other example, one of this week’s Korean platform releases is The Client (2011), Korea’s first courtroom drama. Don’t get me wrong, I am quite happy to see the industry stretch its wings into every conceivable narrative dimension, lest it get stale for perpetually depicting melodramas or violent thrillers of the ‘Asia extreme’ variety. The negative side is that things often miss the mark, but the tradeoff is that we expect a lot from Korean films, especially how they reinvent genre.

Balam Bridge

Following a mysterious explosion on Balam bridge in 1994, journalist Lee Bang-woo (Hwang Jong-min) is approached by Yoon Hyuk, someone he used to know from his hometown, who claims that things aren’t as they seem. Lee enlists the help of fellow reporters Son Jin-ki (Kim Sang-ho) and Sung Hyo-kwan (Kim Min-hee) to unwrap a deep conspiracy.

Moby Dick alas is fairly straightforward and this poses two problems: as a conspiracy thriller it may be effective and hit more or less the right notes but it is also simplistic, when conspiracy, along with film noir, are the only genres where things shouldn’t be too easy to follow; the other problem, although this may be more aptly classified as a disappointment given my expectations, was that it did not reinvent the genre in any way and pretty much played out like you would expect a well-made Hollywood thriller to.

Problems like these could easily derail a film but I am pleased to report that the film’s other qualities are indeed its redeeming ones. Technically the film is quite impressive, or perhaps par for the course by excellent Korean standards. I especially liked the muted colors and the emphasis on lines and angles in the framing of the shots across the city. Since the film is set in 1994, shortly after South Korea became properly democratized but also not long before 1997’s devastating IMF crisis, this style works in its favour. Despite new civil liberties afforded civilians and a relaxation in censorship towards media in general, there is an air of reticence that pervades the diegetic world of the film. Though set only 17 years ago, it nearly feels like a period film, this is a testament both to the nation’s progress in that timeframe and to the skill of the mise-en-scene.

Lee Bang-woo in the Press room

The cast, headed by Hwang Jong-min, is very strong and perhaps the main cause for recommendation. Hwang is typically excellent as a brash and cocky reporter who has been down on his luck for a few years. Kim Sang-ho, who seems to be in at least every second Korean film these days, plays the affable buddy reporter with an effortless charm. The rest of the cast, rounded out by Ku Jin and Kim Min-hie, is all uniformly impressive.

I can’t say too much about the director, Park In-je, as the film, like so many in Korea these days, came from a first-time cineaste. I’m not quite sure why so many Korean directors seem to only get one credit. On the one hand it could be construed as democratic as many get a chance to helm a feature although I daresay that it is a shame so few talented individuals get the opportunity to develop their craft. I digress, this is a discussion for another day. Sadly I don’t know who wrote this film, after a quick search the information did not readily pop up online, but I do think that while the conspiracy theory element of the plot wasn’t as convoluted and far-reaching as I would have liked it to be, the script was nevertheless a solid genre effort that thankfully did not veer into sentimental melodrama.

Moby Dick is another strong genre offering from Korea that kept me engaged from start to finish. Though I was disappointed by the functional but straightforward conspiracy element, this didn’t prevent me from enjoying myself thoroughly.


Kim Sang-ho, Kim Min-hee and Hwang Jong-min

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).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Site Updates During Udine Far East Film Festival

I'll be heading off to Udine early tomorrow morning and just like last month's FIFF, I plan to post daily updates of the films I see at the festival.  I can't wait to get there and meet the many people that, until now, I've only had the opportunity to converse with online.

It's going to be a very busy week with screenings kicking off at 9am and running until 2am (though I may have to miss a few midnight screenings if I want to maintain my sanity).  As such I just wanted to let everyone know that MKC's weekly updates will go on an exceptional hiatus but I will double down when return in nine days.

I hope you enjoy MKC's FEFF coverage and as always thank you for visiting the site!


Disney, Nostalgia, and Politics in Sunny (써니, Sseo-ni) 2011

First day at school – a Disney moment

Delve into any well-balanced childhood and you’re sure to find a candy store: our ephemeral youth’s source of confectionary delights and perpetual euphoria.  During my childhood I had a particularly aggressive sweet tooth and the easiest way to motivate my obedience or to inspire my eternal adoration was to drag me into a store full of sweets. I grew older and these gave way to popcorn as I found myself gazing up at the silver screen, the candy store of my adulthood.  Between these two worlds lies a transition and at the forefront of it, an enduring symbol that came both before and will likely remain long after.  I speak of Disney, the dream factory that is also the world’s most powerful media conglomerate.  It is a kaleidoscopic candy store that titillates our senses beyond our sweet-craving taste buds.  It is also calculating, cloying, and devious but I seek not to denigrate its brilliant success, merely to point out what makes it so infectious: formula.

Just like the chemicals that bind together to delight our youthful, undeveloped palates in the candy store, the Walt Disney Company applies a rigid, time-tested formula to all of its products.  The formula has many permutations and its application is effectuated, for film and animation, through themes, morals, and standards, but also by way of a carefully constructed mise-en-scene.  When done right, as it often is by Disney and even more frequently by its subsidiary Pixar, the result is clear: a good film that is guaranteed a solid ROI.

'Sunny' reconnects in the present

Recently, Koreans were bowled over by the extraordinary success of Sunny, a seemingly small production, as it laid local blockbusters to waste throughout the long summer doldrums, at least until War of the Arrows came along to save some face for the industry.  First off I would like to contest the fact that Sunny was an unexpected sleeper hit.  The media certainly portrayed it as such, and the people behind the film were happy to go along with that story, as an underdog’s success is always more palatable to the viewer.  I believe that Sunny, in the revered tradition of the great Mouse house, relied on an intricate formula designed to hit all the right buttons.  I’m certain that the filmmakers knew that they had a hit on their hands, if not quite aware of the heights that it would soar to.

When handled poorly, formula can sound the death bells for a film but when done right, both the filmmakers and the spectators reap the rewards.  A recent New Yorker profile of Andrew Stanton, the director of Finding Nemo (2003), Wall-E (2008), and the upcoming John Carter (2012), revealed the inner workings of the world’s most successful and consistent animation production house.  Pixar films, as it turns out, are always a work in progress, early drafts and cuts are put forward to the Braintrust, an in-house think tank that collaboratively repairs any perceived problems.  As Stanton said, “We're in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everyone's tying their best to do their best – and the films still suck for three of the four years it takes to make them.”


Sunny begins in the present and focusses on the comfortable life of mother and wife Na-mi.  She visits her mother in hospital and recognizes a cancer-stricken occupant of an adjacent private room, an old high school friend whom she hasn’t seen in 25 years.  They were close and part of a band of seven friends called ‘Sunny’.  Saddened by her friend’s illness but reinvigorated with nostalgia she goes home and listens to one of her favorite songs from the 1980s.  Soon after, she drives by her old school and witnesses a hoard of uniformed children making their way up the cobbled path leading towards the gate.  She injects herself into the crowd and with the help of some dizzying camerawork, clever editing, a Disney-esque theme song, and an across the board costume change, she is transported back to the 1980s, the scene of her youth.  Today is the young Na-mi’s first day in a new school.

I don’t know what the developmental process was for Sunny but it is something I would be very keen to find out a little more about.  The exquisite craft in its making seems effortless, which almost always means that a huge amount of effort was expended to get it to that point.  During the first transition to the past, on the path to the school, I was immediately reminded of Disney, and that impression sunk as I delved deeper into the narrative.  Sunny was awarded, among other notable prizes, Best Editing at last month’s 31st Daejong Film Awards (the Korean equivalent to the Oscars).  Now that I have seen it, I can see that there was really no competition in that category.  Rarely is any film, let alone a Korean one, so well edited.  The look, feel, and especially the nostalgia of the film reminds me of one of my personal favorites, the criminally overlooked French Canadian coming of age film C.R.A.Z.Y. (2003).  Particularly the magnificent moment in the scene where the young Na-mi follows the boy she likes to a café bar, when he comes up from behind and puts his headphones on her, instantly flooding the soundtrack with an engrossing song.  The nostalgia effect is crucial to Sunny’s success, but far-be-it from only appealing to adults who came of age in the 1980s, the radiating, bombastic, and positively addictive soundtrack is, just like C.R.A.Z.Y., one of the chief elements which makes it nigh on impossible to resist.


The flashback sequences, which take up a little more than half of the film’s running time, are, like our merry band of youthful protagonists, sunny.  In fact, they are positively sundrenched.  Considering how much it rains Korea, this seems like an element that has been exaggerated to more effectively transport the audience, collectively, back to their youth, or at least the parts we like to remember.  Of course memory is very deceptive and we do frequently remember things differently from the way they actually happened.  Colours are also exaggerated in the film, for instance the predominant ones in the present are monochromatic: from the black and white of the school uniforms; the clean sunlit living room of Na-mi’s home; the caustic white of the hospital’s rooms and corridors; and the general lack of colour in the wintry surroundings.  In the past, the colour palate is explosive: the bold primaries of the un-uniformed children; the many different Nike bags; the make-up; the accessories; and the verdant colours of spring.

The 1980s, just like much of the 20th century, were a difficult time for Korea.  A few years earlier, one autocratic president (Park Chung-hee) was assassinated and replaced with another (Chun Doo-hwan) and then the decade got off to an awful start with the infamous Gwangju massacre.  It was only near the end of the decade that signs of a more liberated Korea began to emerge.  Sunny’s protagonists seem to live in a bubble: they are more concerned with their Nike handbags than with the political turmoil of the period.  They are young and perhaps they do not understand what is going on but the film prominently features indications of troubled times: Na-mi’s brother is a political activist and is at odds with his parents; platoons of soldiers entertain themselves in alleys as others go about their business.  In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, ‘Sunny’ goes head to head with a rival gang alongside student activists battling it out with riot police.  Their behavior references the jop’ok (gang) culture which pervades the flashbacks of the film.  Their leader Choon-hwa (Kang So-ra) is reminiscent of both Jang Dong-gun in Friend (2001) and Kwon Sang-woo in Once Upon a Time in High School (2004).  While the popularity of gang culture in the 1980s may well have had something to do with the social ills of the time, I wondered how 'Sunny' could be so disconnected with what was happening around them.  Is it apathy, ignorance, or escapism?  In any case, for some of the characters, things don’t end up so sunny, so perhaps this signifies that, ultimately, no one in Korea was immune to the troubles of the time.

Rival girl gangs against the backdrop
of political turmoil

The film features a lot of protagonists and twice as many actors to portray them in both the past and the present, naturally a lot of the success of the film relies on how well they inhabit their roles and how they interact with one another.  Thankfully, the cast is fit for the task and uniformly wonderful, they make Sunny a joy to watch.  Particularly impressive is Shim Eun-kyeong as the young Na-mi, while very eccentric, her performance shows off her great comic timing and her endearing naivety.  While only 16, she has already built up an impressive resume, including: Possessed (2009), The Quiz Show Scandal (2010), and Romantic Heaven (2011).

As previously mentioned, the editing in Sunny is masterful.  It is also well complemented by spirited cinematography, great costumes, and strong production design.  All of these elements come together under the direction of Kang Hyeong-cheol, who expertly bring to life his own sensational script.  Kang previously made the enormously successful Scandal Makers (2008) but he has outdone himself this time around by deftly applying a formula of friendship, music, memory, social commentary, and a little Disney Magic, to what will easily be one of the finest films of 2011.


The young protagonists of Sunny

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).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.