Korean International Film Festival Highlights

MELD’S resident film buff Hieu Chau got to preview some of the films screening at September’s Korean International Film Festival in Melbourne and Brisbane. Here’s his breakdown of what you can’t – and can – afford to miss.

Bleak Night (2011)

Appearing under the K-Mystery banner is Bleak Night, the impressive independent debut feature film by newcomer Yoon Sung-hyun. After the death of his only son, a disillusioned father tracks down his son’s two best friends in an attempt to uncover the truth about his death.

Bleak Night has a beautiful meandering quality about it that brings to mind the works of Japanese directors, Hiroshi Ishikawa and Hirokazu Koreeda. Films by those directors often have very little by the way of a story – more so with Ishikawa than Koreeda – and they are far more interested in how characters develop and interact with one another.

The meandering quality Yoon brings to Bleak Night is underpinned by both the presentation and the personalities embedded within each character. Yoon utilises a hand-held approach to tell his film – much like the aforementioned Japanese directors – as a way to bring a sense of veracity and realism to the screen.

The camera is always moving, never taking a moment to stand still and allow the audience to absorb the whole picture – a rather telling metaphor for Ki-tae, the boy who passes away in the film. All of this makes for a very low-key movie, dressed in monotonous colours which in itself suggests a bleak sense of desperation.

Special mention must be made of Lee Je-hoon, who plays Ki-tae, the troubled teenager whose death becomes the catalyst for the events that play out in the film. His performance is outstanding. It’s not easy balancing a complex character with raw anguish and emotion.

It’s said teenagers are the most insecure group of people and if they don’t deal with these insecurities in the right way, it could lead to some pretty dramatic adolescent years. At an age where opinions and inhibitions begin to take shape, the idea of friendship is all some teenagers need to be assured everything will be okay – no matter how fragile or destructive that relationship may be. Bleak Night is a fantastic effort that captures these emotions perfectly. I look forward to seeing more from writer/director Yoon Syng-hyun.

Bleak Night will screen at ACMI Cinemas on Sunday, September 9 in Melbourne.

Christmas in August (1998)

Considered an influential classic in South Korea, Christmas in August has set the precedent for romantic melodramas in the country. In fact, films like the much beloved My Sassy Girl and the underrated Failan could even credit their success to this film.

The movie revolves around a a 30-something-year-old photographer, who after learning he has not long to live, begins a relationship with a young woman, while coming to terms with his imminent death.

If there was ever an American equivalent to Christmas in August, it would probably take the form of The Notebook (or any other film adapted from Nicolas Sparks’ novels). The Notebook however is, for the most part, concerned with extraordinary ambition and moments that beg the viewer to suspend their disbelief amidst the hyperbole. But Christmas in August takes a more modest and subtle approach. It runs with a relatively simple idea but maximises its full potential over a short running time of 90 minutes.

Beyond the romantic aspect, however,  is a film that, at its core, is about a man accepting his own death and the way he deals with that. While the romantic aspect of the film certainly adds that extra layer of nuance to an already heartbreaking story, Jung-won’s personal journey is moving in itself.

And despite all this morbid talk of death, Christmas in August is actually quite hopeful and joyous. Jung-won is an immensely likable guy whose positive attitude is strengthened every time he has a moment with Darim, the love interest in the film.

It’s not hard to see why Christmas in August is considered a classic. It subverts our expectations of the melodrama genre while also providing a rich story that goes beyond the typical romantic fluff. If you’re a fan of films like My Sassy Girl or Failan this is practically essential viewing.

Christmas in August will screen at ACMI Cinemas on Sunday, September 9 in Melbourne. 

Scandal Makers (2008)

Screening this year under the K-Comedy category is Scandal Makers (also called Speed Scandal), the debut feature from Kang Hyung-chul. The light-hearted family film follows a popular radio DJ whose life is thrown into pandemonium when he discovers he’s father and grandfather to two youngsters he had no idea existed.

Despite the fact Scandal Makers has been touted as a comedy, it feels much more like a drama. That isn’t to say there isn’t any comedy involved, it’s just the latter half of the film takes a complete shift in tone that might catch you off guard.

But this isn’t a bad film – it’s enjoyable for the most part. It may have one too many musical numbers, but the admirable performances and the heart the movie carries is enough to make it halfway decent.

Of course, the elephant in the room about teenage pregnancy is never addressed – but that’s okay. As far as Scandal Makers is concerned, teenage pregnancy is an afterthought and shouldn’t have to get in the way of the story Kang has concocted for audiences. In fact it’s almost like a joke in itself within the film.

Also, I dare you to not fall in love with the protagonist’s grandson, little Wang Seok-hyeon. The child actor is a scene stealer and is, without a doubt, the most memorable and lovable character of the film.

Scandal Makers will be screening in Brisbane on Friday, September 28.

Arirang (2011)

Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk might not be as popular as his contemporaries back home, but the many festivals that have screened his films over the years is testament to his crossover appeal. The festivals have also provided him with an international stage to for him to express himself as a director.

A dishevelled-looking Kim expresses this gratitude toward the film festival circuit in his experimental documentary Arirang. Here, Kim turns the camera on himself and creates what is essentially a deeply personal video confessional.

On the set of his 2008 film Dream, Kim confesses he felt deeply responsible for the near-death of an actress during the filming of a hanging scene. He tells himself this is reason for his self-imposed exile. But as the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear there are other issues that have contributed to his departure from the world of filmmaking.

To say the film is hard to sit through is an understatement.

There are moments where it shines, particularly when Kim interviews himself with altering personas, emotionally breaking down after watching one of his most renowned films.But most of the time it’s absolutely vexing.

You find yourself asking, do we really need to see him doing mundane activities? But then again, this is a film he has made for himself. For Kim it’s a self-evaluation, a form of therapy which he uses to come to terms with his exile, his relationship with cinema and the career he’s had in it. And for whatever reason Kim wanted to make this film – whether it was to vent his frustrations or for him to learn how to make a film again – it seems to have helped him. He’s now returned to the world of film making.

Arirang weaves between fact and fiction, drama and documentary, and it can be hard to separate the two at times. And despite the baffling ending, Arirang provides a fascinating portrait of a man who is at odds with himself, even if his journey can seem tiresome and frustrating.

Arirang is unfortunately no longer screening but the DVD can be purchased here.

For more information, check out our write-up on details of the festival or KOFFIA’s official website.

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