Archive for the ‘Korean Film Festival’ Category

Kanaval: A People’s History of Haiti in Six Chapters (2022)

Dir.: Leah Gordon, Eddie Hutton Mills; Narrated by Adescar Sanil, Madame Raymonde Bellevue, Georges Marshall, Ronald Bellevue, Lauture Joseph Joissant, Frantzo Jean; UK/Haiti 2022, 78 min.

British documentary filmmakers Leah Gordon and Eddie Hutton Mills have taken an upbeat approach in their film about Haiti, a country with a truly grim history. Told in six chapters by six narrators – Kanaval conveys the joyful exuberance of the colourful and popular carnival without diminishing the turbulent past of this island state.

The carnival in the southern city of Jacmel gets top marks from all the narrators. The wax lyrical about the origins of the costumes and demonstrations as historical replays. Port-au-Prince might be the capital, but their carnival celebrations are eclipsed by those in Jacmel.

The first chapter deals with colonisation of the island by French and Spaniards in the late 1790s, the former soon getting the upper hand. But a strong rebel movement, under the leadership of Toussaint L’Overture, fought for independence, which was achieved by the former slaves in 1804. Unfortunately, the leader had died in French captivity, and it fell to his successor, Jean-Jacques Dessaline to build an independent republic.

Creole, the language used by the former slaves, became the official lingua franca of the liberated country. But the defeated French insisted on reparations for the loss of slavery (!) insisting on USD 150,00, over USD 20 Billion in today’s money. The Haitian’s only stopped paying for their freedom in 1947. Adescar Sanil shows the re-creation of the black loin cloths worn by slaves when they met at night. And he reflects on the progress Haiti could have made, had it not been saddled with this heavy debt.

In 1915 the US invaded Haiti – for no apparent reason –  and the slave-status of the indigenous population was more or less restored. When the US troops left the island in 1934, a system of corruption and servitude remained. Haitians responded with Voodoo, and that become their soul. Far from anything portrayed in Hollywood films – where white, vulnerable women were chased by black sorcerers – the image nonetheless stuck. The re-creation of voodoo is particularly impressive, and showcases the imagination of the contemporary carnival activists.

In 1957 Haiti elected Francois Duvalier (1907-1971) as president. Called “Papa Doc” because he was a physician and helped cure an epidemic before he became president, he soon claimed to be dictator for life. On his death, he declared that his 19 year old son Jean-Claude (1951-2014) should succeed him despite his lack of experience. Jean Claude (Baby Doc) was not as keen on murder and torture as his father, he abandoned parts of the feared “Tonton Macoute”, the hated secret police. But he enjoyed life as a playboy and ironically, his lavish, televised wedding would lead to his downfall in 1986. He fled the country, claiming “the people would have toppled him in the carnival season”.

Today’s carnival activists use paint to transform them into superheroes of Hollywood films. But the street artists are also impressively athletic and their dances are spontaneous and exhilarating to watch. The joy and exuberance is infectious, and you certainly believe Frantz Jean, the last of the narrators, when he says: “without the carnival people would go mad”. AS


Gyeong-Ah’s Daughter (2021) London Korean Film Festival 2022

Dir.: Jung-eun Kim; Cast: Kim Jung-Young, Ha Yoon-Kyung, Kim Woo Kyum, Kim Woo Kyum, Lee Chae Kyung; Republic of Korea 2022, 117 min.

Family relationships are complex and the transition between childhood and adulthood can be particularly fraught in the digital age when traditional parents discover their kids are not only having sex, but sharing explicit content on the internet. A dramatic discovery sets up the frantic first half of this feature debut by Kim Jung-eun, who then unpacks the slow fragmentation of the mother/child relationship at its heart.

Gyeong-Ah (Jung-Young) is a typical example of a clingy parent whose focus, due to her difficult marriage, has always been her daughter. Yeon-Soo (Yoon-Kyung) has left home and is teaching philosophy in a secondary school where she is extremely popular relishing her newfound freedom after the leaving the gloomy parental home behind. She hardly ever sees her widowed mother Gyeong-Ah (Jung-Young) who works as a carer in a small Korean town where both women seem to have been on the receiving end of abusive relationships with men.

Out of the blue – the young teacher gets a sex tape containing explicit photos of her in the nude, filmed by her ex-boyfriend Sang-Hyum (Kyum). Their affair had ended acrimoniously and clearly Sang-Hyum is out for revenge. But when the tape goes viral her mother holds her adult daughter responsible rather than supporting her, even though she is the victim of a revenge crime.

The plot then turns on the different reactions and desired outcomes of the crime. Rather than siding with her daughter Gyeong-Ah demands financial compensation; Yeon-Soo wants her lawyer to go for the jugular with a custodial sentence for her ex.

A hectic first half gives way to a tonal shift into the more slow-burn nuanced exploration of the relationship breakdown showing the inner struggle between mother and daughter as the generational conflict plays out between two very different generations of women in Korea. AS


Return to Seoul (2022)

Wri/Dir: Davy Chou | Drama, 115′

French Cambodian director Davy Chou has made a name for himself with his unique cinematic gaze on Cambodia and its people. His graceful prize-winning feature debut Golden Slumbers reminisced on Cambodian cinema from the 1960s to the mid 1970s.

But his latest, a drama with the apt title Return to Seoul (aka All the People I’ll never be) is a sideways glance at cultural identity seen through the eyes of its main character, a twenty five year old French woman who returns to her native South Korea to track down her birth mother.

From the start you are not going to like Freddie (Ji-Min Park). Flouncing into a bar in downtown Seoul she flirts outrageously with a Korean guy who then makes romantic overtures, only to be told, point blank, that she already has boyfriend ‘back home’ in Paris. Arrogant and extremely pleased with herself, on the face of it, she then tells another lover who has selflessly accompanied her back to Seoul for one of her business meetings, later in the film, that “she could erase him from her life at any minute”.

Of course all this hides a deep emotional wound at her core: inflicted by a biological mother who first abandons her as a baby in a Seoul orphanage, and then declines to meet her when she painstakingly tracks her down via the Seoul orphanage where she was given up.

Told in a series of off-kilter episodes tracking her life from that first meeting in the bar, until her early thirties, the film is full of awkward characters that are neither appealing nor relatable, the exception being a French businessman (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) who turns from lover to employer, All the People is a brave but not always successful attempt to explore the complexities of forging ahead with meaningful personal and romantic relationships when your heart has been shattered at birth. MT


Hansan: Rising Dragon (2021 | London Korean Film Festival 2022

Dir:Kim Han-min | Cast:Park Hae-il, Byun Yo-han, Ahn Sung-ki | 129 mins | 2021 | South Korea

Hot on the heels of The Admiral: Roaring Currents, a naval warfare blockbuster that remains the most successful Korean film of all time with over 17 million admissions, South Korean director Kim Han-min returns to the legendary exploits of Joseon Era admiral Yi Sun-sin’s with a prequel story that is just as rambunctious but even more focussed than the hit that spawned it.

Set in 1592, six years before the events of The Admiral: Roaring Currents, the film depicts the lead up and Admiral Yi’s explosive exploits during the Battle of Hansan Island, when he led a small fleet against a vast Japanese armada. Park Hae-il, seems to be this year’s Korean ‘man of the moment’ – he also stars in Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave – and here takes over the mantle of the admiral from Choi Min-sik. Portraying Admiral Yi during an earlier naval campaign in his career, which also saw him heavily outnumbered by a Japanese armada, Park imbues the historical figure with a staunch and stolid solemnity and some of the most stunning naval set-pieces ever committed to film. Hansan: Rising Dragon closes this year’s edition of LONDON KOREAN FILM FESTIVAL.

LONDON KOREAN FILM FESTIVAL 2022 | Thu 17 Nov, 7:00pm , Regent St Cinema





Come Come Come Upward (1989) London Korean Film Festival 2022

Dir:Im Kwon-taek | Cast: Kang Soo-yeo, Jin Yeong-mi, Yu In-chon, Han Ji-il, Chon Moo-song | 120 mins | 1989 | South Korea

South Korean director Im Kwon-taek, now nearly ninety, is possibly best known outside  Korea for his ground-breaking documentary Mandala, (1981) arguably the finest film ever made about Buddhism as part of human society. In Come Come Come Upward a young woman makes her way to a mountain convent where she undergoes a demanding initiation programme in an environment best described as challenging – both physically and spiritually – not helped by aloofness erring on hostility from the other young nuns, and the almost draconian convent elder – yet none of this seems able to put her off. Flashbacks allow a glimpse of her motivations for leaving the world behind. However, the world, in the strange form of one broken yet determined man, pursues Soon-nyeo/sister Chung-hwa right to her refuge.


A Lonely Island in the Distant Sea (2021) London Korean Film Festival 2022

Dir: Kim Mi-young | Cast: Park Jong-hwan, Lee Yeon, Kang Kyung-hun, Park Hyun-suk
110 mins | 2021 | South Korea

Life is what happens when you’re making plans is very much the order of the day in this inspired drama from Kim Mi-young. The story follows Yuncheol (Park Jong-hwan) who, now in his forties, has failed in his marriage, and his early promise as a talented sculptor has gone off the boil. But the winds of change bring a refreshing new boost to life when his artistically gifted daughter Gina (Lee Yeon) decides to drop out of college and enter a Buddhist temple.

Yuncheol, who himself once imagined becoming a monk, is not sure what to think of his daughter’s decision, but her confidence inspires him to explore pastures green and this leads to a romantic attachment with an independent-minded history lecturer (Kang Kyung-hun). A Lonely Island just goes to prove that even when we think are stuck in the doldrums the winds of change can suddenly blow in alter this mindset triggering a different perspective on life.

A sensitive and profound drama about the dynamics of social interaction and the meaning of life that resonates more profoundly at the narrative develops. Yuncheol’s life may seem static but his close relationships help him to develop and deepen in unexpected ways.

LONDON KOREAN FILM FESTIVAL 2022 | Wed 09 Nov, 8:45pm, ICA London 

Hot in Day, Cold at Night (2021) London Korean Film festival 2022

Dir: Park Song-yeol | Cast: Park Song-yeol, Won Hyang-ra | 90 mins | South Korea

Hot in Day, Cold at Night might look from its plot summary to be a depressing tale of economic hardship, but filmmaking-screenwriting duo Park Song-yeol and Won Hyang-ra – who also star as the main couple – manage to make this uplifting and enjoyable. Although not quite a comedy, the film’s finely-calibrated blend of sardonic humour and soft-heartfed vulnerability have made this one of the year’s most talked-about Korean independent films.

Made on a shoestring – and none the worse for it – Hot in Day, Cold at Night shows how it is possible to create remarkable art out of the most basic materials providing the script is strong and based on a believable concept. However bad things get, married couple Young-tae (Park Song-yeol) and Jeong-hee (Won Hyuang-ra) promise themselves that they will never borrow from loan sharks. But with both of them out of work, scraping by on the occasional odd job, their circumstances only continue to worsen. Eventually, without telling her husband, Jeong-hee begins to contemplate the unthinkable.

Tue 08 Nov, 8:45pm, Genesis Cinema

London Korean Film Festival 2022

The London Korean Film Festival is back to celebrate its 17th year from 3 November – 17 November 2022, featuring 35+ cinema screenings in leading venues around London.

The London Korean Film Festival has grown from modest  beginnings to become one of the longest running and most respected festivals dedicated to Korean cinema in the world, featuring cult classic and the latest dramas, blockbusters and documentaries from the nation’s established filmmakers, auteurs and new talent. .

The 17th London Korean Film Festival is organised by the Korean Cultural Center UK with the support of the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports & Tourism, Korean Film Council.

Film Memories from Korea: Five of the Best

Sweet Dream (Lullaby of Death) (1936) Yang Ju-Nam

One of the few lost films from the Japanese colonial era (1910-45) that has been rediscovered in recent years tells the story of Ae-sun, the vain wife of a middle-class man who has no interest in looking after her family and is chased out by her husband, only to find out her lover is not the prosperous entrepreneur she thought he was but a poor student and criminal.

Madame Freedom (1956) Han Hyeong-Mo

Films of the 1950s confronted some of the key issues facing Korean society as it rebuilt itself again. Madame Freedom, an adaptation of the decade’s most scandalous serial novel, centred on a woman whose troubled marriage symbolises the tension between collapsing traditional values and the influence of Western capitalism, as she goes from one torrid encounter to the next. The box-office success of this film encouraged a renewed flow of investment into a film industry hit hard by the war.

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring (2003) Kim Ki-duk

A sublime, poetic, transcendental trip that explores the essence of the human condition with wit and poignancy. Sadly Kim Ki-duk died in December 2020 but his often provocative award-winning work defined Korean arthouse cinema at the turn of the 21st century, with often striking visual allure.

Thirst (2009) Park Chan-Wook

An intelligent take on Zola’s Therese Raquin this opulent and topical vampire melodrama seethes with irony in its Grand Guignol lyricism. A priest offers himself up to be infected with a virus that eventually takes over forcing him to abandon his ascetic existance. 

In Another Country (2012) Sang-soo Hong

This low budget comedy drama starring Isabelle is one of funniest Korean films I’ve ever seen and competed for the Palme d’Or in 2012. Huppert plays three different versions of a French woman who visits a small fishing village, the humour lying in the ‘lost in translation’ situational comedy in her interactions with various locals.


Songs from the North (2014) **** London Korean Film Festival 2019

Dir.: Yoo Soon-Mi; Documentary; South Korea/USA/Portugal 2014, 72 min.

Born 1962 in South Korea, Yoo Soon-Mi studied in the USA, where she now lectures at MassArt in Massachusetts. This is only one example of an attempt to understand her divided homeland, and follows her 2005 short film on the subject Dangerous Supplements that uses footage from American fighter planes bombing North Korea. This is an attempt to look for a landscape that seems to drift away. For Yoo, the film “is an incomplete index for the memory, a substitute for a vision that is yet to be born.”

This vision was finally realised in Songs from the North, that describes North Korea as  “the loneliest place one Earth, the country has no friends, no history, only myths, repeated endlessly from morning to night”. But for the filmmaker North Korea was always the elephant in the room, a country she wanted to visit for a long time “a land of evil that is scared as a mother’s womb”. During her three visits to the North, what emerges is a collage of interviews, film and TV archives. The masque of slips but only briefly surround the slipping but only briefly from the world’s most secretive nation.

Dedicated to her father Yoo Young-choon, whose comments to camera provide integrity and ballast to this intriguing essay film, Soon-mi Yoo does her best to maintain distance from her first person account that manages to offer insight into the culture and general ambience of this lonely state with, apparently, few friends. She visits Pyongyang and the surrounding area where white-gloved officials take pride in their marching displays, much as they do in mainland China. On the whole people seem relatively chipper with their lot, clearly they don’t know what they’re missing but is their ignorance bliss or simply a sinister form of brainwashing?.

Her excursions were heavily censured, often we hear her ‘handlers’ shout “no filming” or “stop”. At one point a man literally runs away from Yoo shouting “filming too long”. But Yoo stays true to her opening shot, were high-wire acrobats at the circus, one of them abruptly falling into the safety-net, destroying the illusion of a perfectly functioning display. Yoo is looking for moments when the citizens drop their mask for a moment; when even the awe-inspiring, official version of life comes to a halt: a group of bearded men in a billiard saloon, seen through the beads; a traffic cop on night duty, again indirectly captured through a bus window, restaurant employees cleaning up the place, whilst asking Yoo if it was worth filming at all.

Her father had fought as a young man in the Korean War. Afterwards, most of his friends, convinced that communism was the future, emigrated to the North, where they all perished in brutal purges. Yoo directly asks her father to camera, if he shared the political convictions of his friends. And after a pause, he is affirmative, concluding that only the love for his mother kept him back. He goes back in time, criticising the North Korean regime for its failures from a Marxist point of view: communism is built on economic success, but the regime has never come to terms with it, instead it went for personal politics, which are just the super-structure.

The official State Propaganda pieces are hilarious: huge halls, decorated in Soviet-style of the 1950ies, are filled to the brim. On stage, a North Korean version of a young pioneer exclaims the great leader (which ever Kim was in power) loves him like a father and a mother. Whilst his own mother died of shame on account of his father’ treachery to the nation, the great leader forgave him. And there he is, singing the praises of Kim, and making him forget he is an orphan: his pride in representing the leader in public is the highest honour.

Another TV production talks about Japanese soldiers losing the will to fight when resistance fighters sang the praise of the first Kim, who is credited with getting rid of the Japanese invaders. The death of Kim Il Sung was too much to bear for the country’s citizens. Hysterical collective weeping is showcased as a major attraction. Afterwards soldiers berate their wives for their lack of patriotic engagement. All this against the background of a wintry Pyongyang, dreary as it can be. All TV programmes somehow look as is they are shot from a different planet, even though the regime is credited with sending a communications satellite into space, at no point do we believe that we are in the 20th or 21st century.

Elegantly structured, the film conveys the feeling of utter solitude. The tone is melancholy, modest even, but still a corrective to our first hand knowledge, because Yoo never stops wanting to learn more about this hybrid state: she confronts it with glaring truth, but she never forgets that it is still the sibling of her, and her father’s, homeland. AS



London Korean Film Festival 2019

The London Korean Film Festival (LKFF 18th-24th November 2019) this highlights the historic milestone of 100-years of Korean cinema along with an exciting mix of UK and International premieres, guests and events across a diverse set of strands.

Korean cinema continues to prove its worth on the international stage. This year alone has seen Bong Joon-ho win the Palme D’Or with Parasite at the Cannes Film Festival and Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018) released to critical acclaim in UK cinemas, while Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016), The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2016) and Little Forest (Lim Soon-rye, 2018) have all found recent success. Now, with 2019 marking the centenary of Korean cinema, the LKFF will shine a light into the past to offer insight into the full and fascinating history of a groundbreaking national cinema that has lead up to the acclaimed hits of today.

This celebration of Korea’s cinematic history opens with classic melodrama The Seashore Village (1965) a story of a young woman, Hae-soon, living in a village heavily populated by those who have lost their husbands at sea. A vivid portrait of the hardships faced by the women of the village and their methods of coping through sisterly comradeship and an understanding of the natural world around them, the film features striking monochrome cinematography. Courtesy of veteran director Kim Soo-yong, now in his 90s, who made his film debut in 1958 with A Henpecked Husband and went on to make over 100 films in a long and distinguished career, the revered filmmaker will be present on opening night to discuss The Seashore Village, his life in film and 100 years of Korean cinema.

Continuing the festival’s championing of new independent cinema, the LKFF will hold its Closing Gala on 14th November Scattered Night (2019, above). Told through the eyes of two young children who must wait as their parents go through a disruptive divorce. Minimalist and sober in style, the film offers an intimate and heart-breaking child’s eye view of a family is disarray.

Other classics due to screen are Yun Yong-gyu’s touching melodrama A Hometown in Heart (1949) which follows an orphaned young monk as he traverses temple life while longing for the return of his mother. Moving into the 1950s. Lee Kang-cheon’s Piagol (1955) finds a group of communist fighters waging war among mountain villages under the harsh leadership of a zealous commander. With its nuanced depiction of communists the controversial film was originally banned for a perceived pro-communist message. From legendary director Shin Sang-ok (who would later be kidnapped and forced to make films for the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il) comes The Flower in Hell (1958), set against the back-drop of occupied post-war Korea. Disaster befalls the lives of prostitute Sonya as she schemes to find a new life for herself by seducing the younger brother of her hustler boyfriend Young-sik who makes money by stealing from the US military.

The Korean Film Archive has made a huge database of classic films available on its YouTube channel with English subtitles. They have put together a list of some of the most influential and important films from each decade and we have pleasure in sharing these with a credit to the organisation

The 1930s

Sweet Dream (Lullaby of Death) (미몽죽음의 자장가 | 1936 | Yang Ju-Nam)

One of the few lost films from the Japanese colonial era (1910-45) that has been rediscovered in recent years tells the story of Ae-sun, the vain wife of a middle-class man who has no interest in looking after her family and is chased out by her husband, only to find out her lover is not the prosperous entrepreneur she thought he was but a poor student and criminal.

The 1940s

Tuition (수업료 | 1940 | Choi In-Gyu)

A film based on the memoir of a fourth-grade student who received the grand prize in a writing contest sponsored by the Gyeongseong Daily. A boy, whose parents sell brass spoons on the street while his grandmother is sick in bed, struggles to find money for his tuition.

Spring of the Korean Peninsula (반도의 | 1941 | Lee Byung-Il)

A young filmmaker and his crew struggle to bring the famous Korean story of Chunghyang to the big screen. The film allows a fascinating insight into the complexities of filmmaking in Korea in the 1940s, and via posters on the studio walls indicates the wide variety of film influences, from German expressionism to Hollywood dramas, that Korean directors in this period had.

A Hometown of the Heart (마음의 고향 | 1949 | Yoon Yong-Kyu)

A touching yet subtly presented story of a boy in a Buddhist temple hoping to find his mother. One of the few surviving works from the politically turbulent period of the late 1940s, just before the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-53).


A Hometown of the Heart (1949) – Image © LKFF Website

The 1950s

Piagol (피아골 | 1955 | Lee Kang-Cheon)

This decade saw the first major attempt in cinema to confront the recent war and its ideological divisions. Piagol focuses on partisan Communist fighters based in the South who, hiding in the mountains, continued to fight on behalf of the North.

Madame Freedom (자유부인 | 1956 | Han Hyeong-Mo)

Films of the 1950s confronted some of the key issues facing Korean society as it rebuilt itself anew. Like Madame Freedom, an adaptation of the decade’s most scandalous serial novel, many centred on women who symbolised the tension between collapsing traditional values and the influence of Western capitalism. The box-office success of this film encouraged a renewed flow of investment into a film industry hit hard by the war.

The Flower in Hell (지옥화 | 1958 | Shin Sang-Ok)

Inspired by both Italian Neorealism and Hollywood genre films, The Flower In Hell paints a hard-edged portrait of a broken city where the only way to get ahead was to break the law.


The Flower in Hell (1958) – Image © LKFF Website

The 1960s

Aimless Bullet (오발탄 | 1961 | Yoo Hyeon-Mok)

Filmmakers took advantage of weakened censorship in the 1960s to introduce more pointed social criticism into their films. This certainly applies to Aimless Bullet, a searing depiction of the economic wasteland of post-war Seoul whose brooding pessimism and superlative filmmaking helped establish it as an all-time classic.

A Woman Judge (여판사 | 1962 | Hong Eun-Won)

“I will defend her to the end!” Heo Jin-suk, the titular protagonist of Hong Eun-won’s first film – and only the second Korean feature by a woman director – is defending her mother-in-law who has confessed to murder, but she could be speaking for all women’s rights.

The Seashore Village (갯마을 | 1965 | Kim Su-Yong)

Introduced at the Opening Gala of last year’s LKFF, The Seashore Village follows the story of a beautiful fishing village home to a community of widows who have lost their loved ones at sea. This was one of the earliest successful munye (literary adaptation) films, a genre which would come to define much of South Korean cinema during the 1960s.


The Seashore Village (1965) – Image © LKFF Website

The 1970s

Woman of Fire (화녀 | 1971 | Kim Ki-Young)

Woman of Fire (recommended by film critic Anton Bitel) sees Kim Ki-Young remake his stunning classic The Housemaid (1960) with an energy and passion that would come to define Korean cinema of the 1970s. Focusing on the role women play within the home, the film follows a composer and his wife, whose lives are thrown into turmoil by the introduction of a new housemaid.

Hometown of Stars (별들의 고향 | 1974 | Lee Jang-Ho)

Lee Jang-ho’s sensational debut introduced his sardonic experimental style and focus on socially relevant cinema, through the story of a woman who turns to alcoholism after suffering a torrent of emotional and physical abuse from men.

The March of Fools (바보들의 행진 | 1975 | Ha Gil-Jong)

Ha Gil-jong’s penultimate film starts off as a bawdy comedy, as two drunk students try to get laid with varying degrees of success. Slowly the tone becomes melancholy as they consider their destinies in a repressive society where they feel out of place.


Ticket (1986) – Image © LKFF Website

The 1980s

People of the Slum (꼬방동네 사람들 | 1982 | Bae Chang-Ho)

A shantytown south of Seoul has collected poor people and misfits from all over the country into its twisting alleyways. Myeong-suk is known as ‘black glove’: she wears that glove on a hand severely burnt while saving her baby boy from a horrible injury. For his debut film Bae planted a love triangle inside a Korean neo-realist setting where poverty pokes sharp elbows into the basic decency of ordinary people. The film’s success launched him into a career as the most popular director of the 1980s.

Ticket (티켓 | 1986 | Im Kwon-Taek)

Min Ji-sok (Kim Ji-mee) is the no-nonsense owner of a cafe in the tough port town of Sokcho. Her ‘girls’ serve more than tea or coffee, if a male customer purchases the right ticket. Against the background of the women’s sorrows and moments of happiness, we learn the story of how Ji-sok herself ended up in dead-end Sokcho.

The Age of Success (성공시대 | 1988 | Jang Seon-Woo)

A year after the release of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) with its sardonic credo of “greed is good”, director Jang Seon-Woo unveiled what looks three decades on like the Korean response – a vivid, madcap comedy of corporate intrigue and naked self-advancement.


North Korean Partisan in South Korea (1990) – Image © LKFF Website

The 1990s

North Korean Partisan in South Korea (남부군 | 1990 | Chung Ji-Young)

Director Chung Ji-Young captures a previously rarely seen aspect of the Korean War, focusing on the North Korean side of the conflict. Based on the experiences of real-life war correspondent Lee Tae, the film illuminates the struggles of the men and women, soldiers and civilians fighting for survival in the conflict – portrayed as inherently human, whichever side they’re on.

Seopyonje (서편제 | 1993 | Im Kwon-Taek)

This musical drama tells the story of a family of pansori (traditional Korean opera) singers trying to make a living in the modern world. It broke box office records to become the first Korean film to draw audiences of over one million and helped revive popular interest in traditional Korean culture.

A Single Spark (아름다운 청년 전태일 | 1995 | Park Kwang-Su)

This seminal protest drama by Korean New Wave filmmaker Park Kwang-Su offers two narratives: the true story of young textile factory worker and activist Jeon Tae-il, who famously set himself ablaze in 1970, and the partly fictionalized efforts of another activist, who five years later tries to commit Jeon’s tale to the page while evading capture. The film was co-written by none other than the future Korean cinema masters Lee Chang-dong and Hur Jin-ho.

This is just a selection of what’s on offer at this year from 1 -24 NOVEMBER for the full programme visit the website.

The Seashore Village (1965) **** London Korean Film Festival 2019

Dir.: Kim Soo-yong; Cast: Shin Young-kyun, Ko Eun-ah-I Hwang Jung-soon; South Korea 1965, 91 min.

The Seashore Village was the thirty-forth film of prolific director Kim Soo-yong, who made 109 features between 1958 and 1999. Now in his nineties the director still travels the world to present his films giving Seashore a feisty send off to the delighted audience at a lively Q&A in Regents Park Cinema (and bemoaning the absence of his two main actors) where his film opened the London Korean Film-Festival 2019.

Based on the novel by fellow director Bae Chang-ho and Executive produced by Ho Heyon-chan of Last Autumn fame, Seashore Village is a mournful melodrama about doomed love, but also a celebration of female solidarity amid hostile working conditions which makes today’s gig economy look like a walk in the park. 

On a remote island, beautiful young pearl fisher Hae-soon (Ko Eun-ah-I) has just got married. But her husband is to become one of many victims of the ocean that both gives and takes away the villagers lives. And when he does not return from a fishing trip, Hae-soon joins the fate of many of the island’s women, widowhood. Sadly custom prevents them from marrying again so she must live with her mother-in-law Hwang Jung-soon. 

Many of them have resigned themselves to a lonely life, others have chosen lesbian relationships. But Hae is too beautiful to sink into oblivion and is soon getting unwelcome attention from the local men. One is Sang-soo (Shin Yong-kyun), a rootless coalminer, who lives near the village. Hae is annoyed by Sang-soo, but eventually succumbs to his persistence. But he cannot keep their affair secret, and when he starts boasting about his luck, the couple have to leave the village, with the help of Hwang Jung-soon, Hae’s mother in law. But their relationship is doomed to fail. Everywhere the go, men just cannot keep their hands off the beautiful young woman in the dark and brutal depiction of the male in Korean society

Resplendent in black and white The Seashore Village has a strong documentary character yet retains its poetic sensibilities, the widescreen images of DoP Chun-Jo myong reminding us very much of Visconti’s La Terra Trema and Flaherty’s cult classic Man of Aran. AS



Treeless Mountain (2008) *** London Korean Film Festival 2018


Dir.: So-yong Kim; Cast: Hee Yeon Kim, Songhe Kim, Lee Soo Ah, Mi-hyang Kim, Boon Tak Park; USA/South Korea 2008, 89 min.

Two young children are passed around like parcels in So-yong Kim’s touching but unsentimental study of child development and sisterly love.

This thoughtful study of childhood trauma relies largely on its delicate visuals and great subtlety to explore the little girls’ world with a charming lightness of touch.

In Seoul, six-year old Jin (Yeon Kim) and her younger sister Bin (Songhe Kim) live with their mother (Lee Soo Ah) in reduced circumstances. Their father is no longer on the scene, forcing their mother to take them to the country where they will live with their great-aunt (Mi-hyang Kim), who just happens to be an alcoholic. Eventually, they are dumped on their elderly grandparents who run a farm.

The story revolves around their changing relation dynamic. At first, Jin is the strong one, bolstered by her school life and feeling of superiority. But when her mother decides to leave, Jin starts wetting the bed – a clear sign of insecurity. Not surprisingly, Bin is less affected by the new surroundings in her aunt’s house, and while Jin continues to wet the bed, their aunt mistakenly blaming her little sister for it.

Bin soon becomes the practical one, catching grasshoppers and roasting them to sell. She also finds a good way of filling their mother’s pink piggy bank with the coins for her speedy return. But Jin becomes introverted, desperate to see her mother, who never appears despite her promise. And so the kids wait in vain on the treeless mountain, before Jin declares “Mummy has told a big lie.”

Bin soon loses all enthusiasm, whilst Jin perks up, once again asserting her authority as the older girl. On the farm, their caring grandmother (Boon Tak Park), takes over the motherly role the kids desperately need, offering them the patience they will need to develop into secure teenagers.

This sensitive hommage to Bresson’s Mouchette and Jacques Dillon’s Ponette, Treeless Mountain lets Anne Misewa’s exquisite camerawork do the talking, concentrating on the intricate expressions of childhood joy and dismay. A moving exploration of childhood that makes a lasting impression. AS

London Korean FILM FESTIVAL 2018 | 



For Vagina’s Sake (2017) London Korean Film Festival 2018 ***

Dir: Kim Bo-ram | S. Korean Doc | 73′

FOR VAGINA’S SAKE takes a coyly humorous approach to a bodily function that happens to half the world’s population. A woman will lose over 10 litres of blood during her reproductive years. And while in North East Asia menstruation is still often seen as an embarrassing occurrence, Dutch women treat periods much more pragmatically according to this worthwhile but rather scatty South Korean documentary debut from Kim Bo-ram.

Boram has certainly done her research and uncovered a wealth of information about this vital bodily function, uncovering startling facts from the Dark Ages and followed it through with up to date political developments. It’s a shame then that her film is hamstrung by its choppy editing, flipping backwards and forward and flitting around like a butterfly on heat, it eventually becomes exasperating in the final scenes. It’s also focused almost entirely on women in their twenties and early thirties in Holland and South Korea.

A dinner discussion in Holland reveals that young Dutch woman go for basic applicator-free protection, while in South Korea some are still scared to insert a tampon (afraid that it may get lost) in a country where periods are still taboo and anatomical ignorance is frankly shocking. We then meet an 80 year old Korean woman whose first period came after she marred at 18, and who then went on to produce five or six daughters. In those days sanitary towels consisted of natural cotton balls wrapped in cotton material. Tied with strings round the woman’s waste they often fell down, causing horrific embarrassment. And this humiliation and fear connected with staining a public seat or losing a pad in the street is still a woman’s worst nightmare today.

There follows a potted historical and religious background which verges on the macabre (if not downright misogynistic). We learn than ancient Japan women were thrown into communal pits of menstrual blood and allowed to drown, whereas in China those who gave birth would apparently go to Hell (?). Menstrual blood was considered a puny female attempt at producing sperm.

The second part of the documentary focuses on politics developments and taxes that apply to feminine hygiene products, with a discussion on the contemporary developments in sustainable protection (material pads, sea-foam, and an overlong diatribe about the menstrual cup and its advantages.


For Vagina’s Sake uses a mixture of interviews and delicately-drawn animations to put its information across and is both subjective and observational. Graphic images dovetail with lighter more frivolous hand-draughted visuals. Fast-paced and fluffy and rather than serious and analytical – the film becomes more inspirational and empowering for its contributors as it presses on. Certainly a worthwhile film to show to teenagers and students from all nationalities who may be suffering in silence, rather than learning about a shared and very natural female experience. MT


Microhabitat (2017) **** London Korean Film Festival 2018

Dir.: Jeon Go-woon; Cast: Esom, Ahn jae-hong, Choi Deok-moon, Kang Jin-ah, Kim kuk-hee, Kim Jae-hwa, Lee Sung wook; South Korea 2017, 104 min.

Jeon Go-woon’s spirited road movie sees a city girl determined to keep her independence while her friends cow-tow to tradition in contemporary Seoul. The original title ‘Little Princess’ better describes this thoughtful story of materialism versus spiritualism.

Miso (a brilliant Lee Som) may be getting on a bit, but can’t afford to heat her tiny studio flat, on her salary as a housemaid. When the rent goes up together with the price of cigarettes, she makes a dramatic decision: to move out and indulge in her favourite brand of whisky, and to keep on smoking. But what price freedom? Her boyfriend Hans-sol (jae-hong) lives in a male-only dormitory, so she can’t go there – they even have to give up having sex. Schlepping around with her belongings, like a bag lady, Miso asks her former band members for help. First off is ambitious office worker Moon-yeong (Jin-ah). She is curt and unapologetic: “I am too irritable to lie with someone”. Next is former vocalist Roki-i (Deok-moon), who now lives with his old-fashioned parents. His mother is keen on the idea. Clearly Miso is the just the right match for her son: “she can clean, and that’s all a woman needs to do”. Roki-i’s certainly keen on Miso. But she can’t deal with being hemmed in with his family, so once again it’s time to move on. The next port of call is her girlfriend Hyeon-jeong (Kuk-hee) whose husband tells his wife “to shut up and cook”. And so it goes on.

Go-woon’s refreshing debut is very much a riff on the traditional versus the modern way of South Korean life. It contemplates the difficulties and isolation of the spiritual way of life, in contrast to the more easier and socially acceptable option of materialism. Freedom may be more nourishing for the soul, but is tough on the body: It’s all very well following your heart in your twenties, but the process becomes tougher as the years go by, and when old age looms around the corner. Esom’s former band-members had their flings with music in their twenties, but they have given up on an inner life, swapping it for opportunism – with different degrees of success.

DoP Tae-soo Kim’s images of Seoul are just breathtaking: the city glitters at night, but during daytime it looks rather drab –  just like Miso’s former friends. Shot in fifteen days, with a rather loose script – Go-woon wanted to convey the humour and absurdity during of the shoot. Microhabitat is a little gem: fast moving yet imbued with gentle insight. This intimate picture of a woman’s determination to follow her dreams at all costs is full of humour and irony. AS




The Return (2018) | **** London Korean Film Festival

Dir: Malene Choi | Writer: Sissel Dalsgaard Thomsen | With Thomas Hwan, Karoline Sofie Lee | Doc | Denmark | 85′

Two Danish-Korean adoptees return for the first time to the country of their birth in search of their origins, in this refreshingly thoughtful and quietly devastating arthouse documentary debut from Malene Choi. Based on her own experiences THE RETURN is a stunningly photographed and touchingly resonant meditation on destiny and identity, nature and nurture. Muted visuals and Philip Nicolai Flindt’s subtle sound design lend a dreamlike quality of mystery and alienation to this contemplative study of two young people uprooted from Denmark, the country that has become their home and where they have grown up, and returned to their original their birth lands. Despite this yearned for homecoming, they somehow feel disorientated and thrown into confusion in the search for their biological parents. Both internalise their feelings into discrete expressions of loss, anxiety and sadness. So locked away is their private grief, that they often admit to feeling nothing, but the trauma clearly lives within them, hidden deep in their souls.

Thomas’s story is particularly harrowing as it emerges during the emotionally-charged first meeting with his birth mother that he was actually conceived after a one night stand. Clearly he is devastated, but remains dignified in front of his mother, suppressing the trauma that slowly seeps out in dramatic physical expressions during a trip around Seoul  – together with Karoline, where they both let off steam by going boating together and enjoy cocktails. For her part Karoline is less emotionally buttoned up but equally traumatised, especially during a meeting with a hospital adviser who tries to help but simply lacks the necessary resources to further the Korean girl’s inquiries. Clearly she is angry, but also disappointed.

Without resorting to sentimentality or even attempting to create a falsely romantic narrative arc, Choi paints a realistic and utterly convincing portrait of two people who cannot go forward until they have gone back – with satisfaction and closure. MT


London Korean Film Festival 2018

Launching its 13th edition, the London Korean Film Festival (LKFF2018) is back with a full programme of films and special events at various arthouse cinemas in the London area. 
Korea is regularly in the world news cycle of late due to some tense international political machinations. This year’s festival moves from this global outlook to an intimate view of the day-to-day lives and struggles of ordinary people. The Regent Street cinema will play host to this year’s Gala Premiere 1 November with Microhabitat Jeon Go-woon’s award-winning drama that follows the trials and tribulations of a female city worker in Seoul. There will also be a chance to see The Return that premiered at Rotterdam Film Festival 2018, and Hong Sang-soo’s Locarno 2018 Best Actor winner Hotel By the River. 
Celebrating its 13th Anniversary LKFF runs from 1- 14 November in London before taking highlights around the country with its annual UK Tour, the festival will feature an in-depth Special Focus entitled A Slice of Everyday Life, along with an exciting mix of UK and International premieres, guests and events across a diverse set of strands; Cinema Now, Women’s Voices, Indie Firepower, Contemporary Classics, Artists Video, Animation and Shorts.


Claire’s Camera (2017) *** | London Korean Film Festival

Dir: Hong Sang-so | Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Shahira Fahmy, Kim Min-hee, Jun-yeong Jeong | Drama | Sth Korea | 69min

There are similarities between Hong Sang-soo’s latest seaside drama Claire’s Camera and his Korean set comedy In Another Country. But not only does this latest lack the mordant humour of his 2012 outing it also drifts along aimlessly, the tangible chemistry between its central characters played by gracefully Isabelle Huppert and Kim Min-Hee almost making up for its unengaging narrative, posing as improvisation, yet often stretching our impatience to the maximum.

Set in an around Cannes, this whimsical whisp of a story almost brushes off the blatant marital infidelity that is quite blatantly its central premise. Sales agent Manhee (Kim Min-hee) is fired by her female boss for sleeping with the director So (Jung Jinyoung) she is representing at the festival. Her boss refuses to give her a chance to explain and it soon emerges that she is in a relationship with So, and is clearly jealous of the young Manhee.

Meanwhile, Huppert is delicately caught in the crossfire as a dilettante in the Riviera there to enjoy the festival ambiance. The results are a mildly amusing play on jealousy, social awkwardness and the more subtle aspects of the female ego in matters of love. MT


1987: When the Day Comes (2017) Korean Film Festival

Dir: Jung Joon-hwan | Political Thriller | South Korea |

With an impressive ensemble cast and polemic real-life story, director Jang Joon-hwan’s powerful portrayal of the events that led to Korea’s historic June Democratic Uprising was as much a hit with audiences as it was with critics when it stormed the box-office at the start of this year.

In 1980s South Korea, the military regime of President Chun Doo-hwan pushes the masses to breaking point with its widespread corruption and oppression. In 1987, a series of events will be set in motion through which the heroic actions of ordinary people from all walks of life result in nationwide protests, altering the course of the nation’s history forever.

When a student protester dies under police interrogation, the order is given to quickly cremate the body, effectively burying the evidence. Unfortunately for Director Park (Kim Yoon-seok, The Fortress), the head of the Anti-Communism Investigations Bureau in Seoul desperately trying to cover up the crime, Prosecutor Choi (Ha Jung-woo, Assassination) is not playing ball. Suspecting foul play, Choi refuses the request and insists on an autopsy. When it’s discovered torture was the likely cause, the race is on to bring the crime to light. Prison guard Han (Yoo Hai-jin, Confidential Assignment) his niece Yeon-hee (Kim Tae-ri, The Handmaiden) and idealistic student Han-yeol (Gang Dong-won, A Violent Prosecutor) are just some of the ordinary people who put their lives on the line to uncover the truth.

Highly regarded director Jang Joon-hwan (Save the Green Planet, 2003) has made his most ambitious film to-date with this fast-paced, tightly plotted political thriller based on the shocking true events of 1987 Korea. Like last year’s A Taxi Driver, 1987: When the Day Comes gives the blockbuster treatment to a turbulent period, resulting in an exciting thrill-ride of a film that never loses sight of the human drama at its core. Korean Film Festival Review

HEADLINING UK KOREAN FILM FESTIVAL 2018 | Teaser Screenings | Monday 18 June  | Picturehouse Central

Shoplifters (2018)**** | Cannes Film Festival | Winner Palme d’Or (2018)

Writer/Dir: Hirokazu Koreeda | Cast: Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Sosuke Ikematsu | Drama |121′

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s portrait of parenting, After the Storm, has much in common with this perceptive and often ambiguous satire about a family of small-time crooks and the misguided theft they commit for compassionate reasons, with devastating consequences. SHOPLIFTERS is a worthwhile addition to the auteur’s preoccupations with family life and father and motherhood – both real and imagined, and is possibly his best work so far.

In Tokyo, part-time workers Osamu (Lily Franky) and his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) complement their meagre income with a sideline in shoplifting. Aided and abetted by son Shota (Kairi Jyo), they often swipe groceries from the local store near the flat they share with fellow grifter Noboyu (Sakura Andô), teenager Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) and grandma Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), who turns the most lucrative tricks of the lot.

One day they take pity on an abused and timid teenager called Juri (Miyu Sasaki), offering her board and lodging in their already cramped home. This simple act of kindness is the catalyst for change in the family dynamic unleashing previously hidden motivations that range from short-sightedness to self-aggrandisement, and even narcissistic pride.

A tonal shift from upbeat bonhomie to gloomy sadness takes place in the film’s third segment when the family anticipate their emotional loss and start to fear the backlash of their rash altruism, and its damning formal retribution. Koreeda and his cast bring out  tremendous pathos in this well-meaning family, and while we feel for them as do-gooders, – in the true sense of the word – they are crucially also law-breakers. And this is the J B Priestleyan crux of this clever and beautifully crafted caper reflecting the subtle nuances of Japanese society. MT


The First Lap (2017) | London Korean Film Festival 2017

Dir: Kim Dae-wan

Kim Dae-hwan follows End of Winter with a slim and slowing-moving domestic character-driven piece that had its international premiere in the Filmmaker of the Present competition in Locarno 2017.

Ji-young and Su-hyeon have been dating for several years in a relationship characterised by its visceral closeness rather than sexual passion. When accidentally falls pregnant the couple visit their respective parents who urge them to do the respectable thing and provide a stable home for their baby.

THE FIRST LAP feels contemplative and freewheeling as it explores the fluid dynamic between its protagonists, observations them dispassionately with scant dialogue against a background of political turmoil – such as last winter’s candlelight protests that led to the impeachment of Park Geun-hye.

Performances and strong and subtle with Kim Sae-byeok (The Day After) convincingly natural as Ji-young, surpassing her feelings of panic at her sudden change of circumstances. For his part, Cho Hyun-chul, makes for a more playful character as Su-hyeon in a coupling that feels more like a friendship than a romantic union. Well-crafted but unremarkable, THE FIRST LAP is a realistic look at a millennial love. MT


A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) | Bluray

Dir: Kim Jee-woon | Cast: Moon Geun-young, Im Soo-jung, Kim Cap-su, Yum Jung-ah | Horror | South Korea | 115′ |

A Tale of Two Sisters is a loose adaptation of a Korean fairy tale called “Janghwa Hongryeon” – meaning Rose Flower, Red Lotus. The film’s association with the colour red is displayed early on when the sister Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young) picks some poppies growing outside the parent’s country home. This blood symbolism, related to a split psychology, gradually becomes more apparent.

A teenage girl Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) assisted by a nurse, is brought shuffling into a room of an asylum to be interviewed by a doctor. Su-mi has thick black hair almost covering her face and recalling the menacing woman of the first Ring film. She’s asked if she remembers her family and what happened on the day she was admitted to the instituition.

There’s a rapid dissolve to her former slightly younger self, and her sister Sun-yeon (Moon Geun-young) arriving at their parent’s country home. This is where we meet their kind but ineffectual father (Kim Kap-soo) and his second wife (Yum Jung-ah). The stepmother’s cold and threatening behaviour proves the oddest in a house where many oddly disturbing things happen. Into an atmosphere of fear and distrust appears the ghost of the real dead mother, a caged bird that’s killed, the visiting sister-in law, who disturbed by the stepmother’s manic storytelling, has an epileptic seizure, strange noises and a murder that perhaps never happened. The sisters become trapped in a house where it becomes difficult to know who’s really the tormented and who’s doing the tormenting.

A Tale of Two Sisters is a psychological thriller/horror film with nods towards the ghost story. Discovering the secret of the family’s unease proves to be a compelling pleasure. Everything’s strongly directed, technically brilliant, very well acted and beautifully photographed. Yet in spite of its emotional power A Tale of Two Sisters is ironically somehow flawed by the plausible mad state of Su-mi. Though it’s never explicitly stated, she suffers from a disassociate identity disorder – a condition creating a perception of things through two different identities.

The film’s psychological underpinning is never fully ‘explained’ by any doctor character. Mystery is a great strength of A Tale of Two Sisters. Combine this with dramatic visuals of commanding beauty (swirls of dark brown lighting, potent reds and a patterned set design of dining room, bedrooms and kitchen are incisively edited to genuine horror film shocks).

However the family’s disturbing behaviour is perhaps revealed by a tendency to over-elaborate on plot detail. There are too many storyline incidents. Ghostly appearances (who really is inside that bloodied bag?) and suspicious behaviour all round is excessively displayed (though never gratuitously so) in the last third of A Tale of Two Sisters. Even after a second viewing and consulting an online plot description, I felt A Tale of Two Sisters couldn’t avoid the charge of artistic error, leading to narrative confusion: mainly because of an unreliable narrator perspective.

Through the prism of Sun-Mi’s madness we begin to get a misleading account of events. It’s not merely a case of the right / wrong actor viewpoint but writer / director Kim Jee-woon’s mistaken choice of viewpoint. A bit too many things happen – is the epilepsy scene really necessary and maybe the ghost of the mother shouldn’t have been repeated with such intensity? The films terrific style works against the story of the fate of the film’s protagonist, so that things begin to falter and stumble, causing us to loose sympathy with sister Su-mi’s anxious state of mind: almost but not quite. For the film has a rich sensual texture prompted by strong and gripping compositions. Perhaps this tension between being a horror-thriller and ghost story isn’t fully resolved. A tendency to let its audience experience too much “disassociation” gradually flaws A Tale of Two Sisters.

Yet putting that criticism to one side, this production stands head and shoulders over many contemporary horror films. For when frightening it equals the best parts of the Ring film trilogy. Not quite a classic horror: but intelligent and good enough for me. Alan Price©2017


The Merciless (2017)

Dir: Byun Sung-hyun | Cast: Him Si-wan, Sul Kyung-gu | Crime Thriller | South Korea | 117′

Byun Sung-hyun’s The Merciless looks absolutely stunning as it opens on the waterfront where a man is celebrating his release from prison with his gangland mentor as a series of revelations about their ambitious past slowly unfurls in this dramatic and stylish thriller that often feels a bit too clever for its own good.

Jo Hyun-su (Yim Si-wan) is the young criminal and Han Jae-ho (Sul Kyung-gu) his aspirational father figure in this noirish South Korean exploration of like-minded friendship between felons. As long as you don’t thing too much it slips down as easily as a lychee cocktail.

Although this sounds like a contradiction in terms, the two have high hopes of rising to the top the criminal underworld. Hyun-su sons proves himself to the older Jae-ho (Sol Kyung-gu)  by saving his life in a knife attack and this loyalty leads to them working together once they are back in the real world. But when push come to shove their motives are very different. Jae-ho is desperate for a chance to kill his boss, Chairman Ko (Lee Kyoung-young) who was behind the attempted prison hit. Meanwhile, Hyun-su is tasked with taking down a enterprise linked to the Russian mafia, in an operation led by the masterful Chief Cheon (Jeon Hye-jin) who is bent on putting Ko and his associates in the klink.

This is a colourful and tonally cohesive genre thriller which have echoes of Infernal Affairs. Visually it’s lushly and vibrant but narratively there are drawbacks. Performance-wise too there is much to enjoy and the rapport between the leads crackles with charismatic, especially in regard to Yim Si-wan (a Korean pop singer who also goes by the name of Siwan). And although the film is more style over content, it’s a good-looking piece of filmmaking that slightly outstays its welcome at nearly two hours. MT


Dong-ju : The Portrait of a Poet (2015) | London Korean Film Festival 2016

Dir: Lee Joon-ik | Writer: Shin Yeon-sik | Cast: Kang Ha-neuf, Park Yung-min | Drama | 113min | Korea

Much of Korea’s historical cinema harks back to the Colonial era as blockbuster director Lee Joon-ik teams up here with arthouse auteur Shin Yeon-sik (The Russian Novel) for a stylish black and white indie biopic of Yun Dong-ju, an early 20th century poet (sensitively played by Kang Ha-neuf) whose voice conveyed the sentiment of an entire generation in Korea when the country was under Japanese rule.

Lee’s delicately romantic and often humorous treatment is underpinned by Shin’s potent script that successfully evokes the artistic subject matter, exploring Yun’s lyrical poems that led to his imprisonment by the Japanese authorities who tortured and emotionally abused him, along with his friend and resistance activist Mong-kyu, during the Second World War.

The tone is light but serious in a narrative that explores the young mens’ burgeoning creative talents and the difficult relationship with their traditional parents – who try to force them into more solid professional careers – as they hone their craft in preparation for university. Deeply affected by Japanese Imperialism, the education system comes under pressure as Japan’s try to submerge Korean heritage and force its own culture on the country through the educational establishments.

Young ‘matinee idol’ stars Kang Ha-neul and Park Jung-min are well cast and supported by more established performers. This is a film that will possibly have more appeal to young audiences than the more diehard arthouse connoisseurs but offers thoughtful insight into an interlude of Korea’s creative past. MT


The Last Princess | London Korean Film Festival 2016

Dir: Hur Jin-ho | Biopic Drama | 127min | South Korea

Hur Jin-ho gives full rein to romantic melodrama in his sumptuous retelling of the unhappy life in exile of Princess Yi Deok-hye, who was the last member of Korea’s Joseon Royal Dynasty. Based on Kwon Bi-young’s novel of the same title, it chronicles her life from a tiny child in the Changdeok palace in Seoul, until her capture by the Japanese authorities who transported her to Japan where she lived a cloistered existence until the last years of her life in her beloved country. Interwoven into the period narrative is a strand that takes place in 1960s Seoul that offers romantic and historical resonance to the central story that deals with the princess’s tragic life.

Son Ye-jin is leads with a performance of regal dignity tinged with discrete emotional interludes in this illuminating study that exposes not only the cruelty of the Japanese but also the treachery of the  Koreans who betrayed their own people by kowtowing to Japanese imperialism, many ending up in positions of power after the Japanese annexation ended in 1945.

This is a more sombre offering than Park Chan-wook’s recent drama The Handmaiden although it deals with another historical interlude in the history of the Korean occupation. Hur, Lee Han-eol, and Seo Yoo-min begin their narrative a decade into Japanese occupation with King Gojong (Baek Yun-sik) still acting as the leader of his country and doting on his youngest child Deok-hye. Her confidence in her father’s love instills an unshakeable self-belief in the little princess who is seen in floods of tears in a touching scene where he father is dies after drinking a poisoned persimmon cocktail.  Later she defies the Japanese authorities  by refusing to wear a kimono and asserting her authority with graceful detachment as an inspiration leader for her people, although in private she is miserable and desperate to return home. In Toyko she is reunited with Kim Jang-han (Park Hae-il), to whom she was betrothed in childhood, and who is now high up in the Imperial Japanese Army and working alongside Deok-hye’s nephew Prince Yi Woo (Go Soo) for the underground resistance movement. He hatches several plans to get her and her brother Crown Prince Yi Eun (Park Soo-young), to safety in Shanghai but the wicked Japanese Chief of Staff always manages to rumble them. This no-win stalemate for Deok-hye climaxes in a torrid night in a hut with Jang-han followed by a momentous meltdown on a white sandy beach where, once again, an escape plot is foiled by the arch-villian, arriving on the boat she thought would take her to freedom. Although the THE LAST PRINCESS is a well-crafted historical drama that feels like a Hollywood epic with its rousing orchestral score and grippingly eventful storyline. MT


London Korean Film Festival 2016 | 3-27 November 2016

Yourself copyThe LONDON KOREAN FILM FESTIVAL  (LKFF) celebrates its 11th year running with an extended run from 3 – 27 November at accessible state of the art venues around London.

Opening with the UK Premiere of female director Lee Kyoung-mi’s The Truth Beneath at Picturehouse Central, in keeping with this year’s edition which has a ‘Special Focus on Women’. Hong Sang-soo’s San Sebastian Best Director winner Yourself and Yours, (left) is one of the titles worth seeing.  So often called the “Woody Allen of Korean cinema”, his films are full of dry wit and probing characterisations. His 18th feature is the closing gala at Regent Street Cinema on 27 November.

The Focus on Women strand will screen 11 key works. Worth looking out for will be a rare screening of Nam-ok Park’s 1955 drama The Widow (Mimangin), (image below) the first film to be directed by a Korean woman. The festival also explores Korea’s New Wave before presenting UK premieres of the latest Korean outings: Jin-ho Hur’s The Last Princess (2016) a biographical drama set during the Korean struggle for Independence under Japanese rule. Two documentary features join the programme in the shape of Wind on the Moon, a charming documentary that explores the life of a mother and her deaf mute child and Keeping the Vision Alive (2001), Yim Soon-rye’s study that explores the journey of Korea’s women filmmakers.

unknownYoung-joo Byun’s tense mystery thriller Helpless (Hoa-cha) (2012) and for those that like their cinema dark and vengeful there is Woo Min-hun’s Inside Men (2016) featuring Korean star turn Lee Byung-hun as a wronged political henchman; the European premiere of Asura: City of Madness, Kim Sung-soo’s impressively over-the-top and violent gangster thriller, where a shady gets caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. And flying the flag for the country’s animated talent is Seoul Station (2016) a prequel to the breakout zombie hit of the summer Train to Busan. MT



The Widow (1955) | Mimangin | London Korean Film Festival 2016

imagesDir: Nam-ok Park | Writer: Bo-ra Lee |Cast: Min-ja Lee, Seong-ju Lee, Tak-kyun Lee, Ai-shim Na, Dong-hu Shin, Yeong-suk Park

90min | Drama | Korea

Nam-ok Park was a Korean athlete who turned her talents to film journalism and eventually to filmmaking. Her feature debut and only film is a tenderly told domestic drama that doesn’t idolise maternal love in its exploration of the realities of postwar life from a female perspective in 1950s Korea. Unfortunately, the final scenes of the film have been lost and so actual outcome remains an eternal enigma.

Young war widow and refugee Shin (Lee Min-ja) has been left to fend for herself and her young daughter Ju (Lee Seong-ju). The financial help she gets from a dutiful married friend of her husband, Lee Seong-jin (Shin Dong-hun), is misinterpreted by his jealous and controlling wife (Park Yeong-suk), who suspects the two of having an affair, intuitively sensing his strong feelings for Shin.

Sensitively-crafted and photographed in the leafy suburbs of Seoul, the film provides insight into the social politics of the day, showing how women were forced to rely on manipulative behaviour due to their lowly status in comparison to men. Rich women, such a Mrs Lee, were able to take lovers to entertain them while their husbands were busily running empires., and Mrs Lee pays a young man called Taek (Lee Taek-kyun), to take her out and about and one day while the two are frolicking on the beach, Taek saves little Ju from drowning in the sea.

Shin meanwhile, is more impressed by Taek’s masculinity than Mr Lee’s romantic gestures and cleverly uses his money to set a business, tempting Taek to move with her and be a business partner, while paying a neighbour to looks after Ju. But the plan falls through when Taek’s former girlfriend suddenly turns up, not having died in the war after all, and Taek is also forced to make a choice between his past love and his future prosperity. There’s nothing new about the message here: that honest women and men will always follow their heart, while weaker souls have to resort to scheming and subterfuge. MT



The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008) | LKFF 2015

Directed by Kim Jee-Woon

Cast: Kang-ho Song, Byung-hun Lee, Woo-Sung Jung

South Korea | 139mins | Action Adventure Comedy

Kim Jee-Woon put all his experience into this rip-roaring ‘Oriental Western’ set in the 1940s Manchurian desert where lawlessness rules and many ethnic groups clash, three Korean men fatefully meet on a train.

Part tribute to Sergio Leone’s wide-angled masterpieces and part historical tribute to the Korean struggle for independence from Japan, it features brilliant set pieces, action scenes, comedy and great performances from Korea’s top acting talent-  it was also one of the most expensive movies in South Korean cinema history. The action unfurls in the vast plains of the East but should we call it an “Eastern”? It’s a style that has really caught on since 2008 and embodies the wacky humour and verve of the Korean spirit combined with Jee-Woon’s masterful technical expertise. The sheer dynamism of this film will blow you away – ridiculous fun!  Meredith Taylor ©


Sunset on the Sarbin River (1967) | LKFF 2015

Director: Chung Chang Wha

Cast: Shin Young-Kyun, Kim Hye-Jung, Nam Goong Won, Yoon Il-Bong

12omin  Action Drama  Korea

Filmed in black and white, this ambitious if overlong pro-Korean anti-imperialist action drama blends humour, romance and brutality in the melancholy story of an earnest Korean student, his name japanised as Musumoto, who feels compelled to join the Japanese Imperial Army and do his bit for the War. Doing rather well, he is promoted to officer in charge and transferred to Burma where his platoon is visited by the famous  “teishintai” or ‘comfort’ women. On the way to the front the troops are betrayed to the guerillas of the new independence army by a solitary single mother with whom Musumoto reluctantly falls in love. But when her child is accidently killed during manoeuvres by troops under his command, her guerilla husband swears revenge on the hapless officer who, despite his valiant efforts, remains the miserable and thwarted Korean hero of the piece. Chung Chang Wha crafts an intelligent, emotional and perceptively humorous tribute to Korea’s fierce national pride at being subjected to Japanese Imperialism during the Second World War. MT


Ode to My Father (2014) | Gukjesijang | LKFF 2015 2 -14 November

Dir.: J K Joun | Cast: Jeong-min Hwang, Yunjin Kim | South Korea 2014, 126 min.

A full-blooded epic, ODE TO MY FATHER spans over fifty years of Korean history. Full of overwhelming images from the chaos of the war; the danger of the mining, to the brutal war in Vietnam: all this is more enough for one film. Unfortunately, J K Joun too often drifts off into sentimentality, the action is tragic enough to impress without going over the top. Impressive performances and Byung-woo Lee’s powerful score save the drama offering a fascinating a overview of 20th Century Korean history from the personal perspective of one man.

We first meet our hero Yoon duk, as a boy in 1950 in North Korea, fleeing with his family from the Chinese army. An American warship takes some of the refugees, but during the chaotic scrambles to get on the ship, Yoon looses his sister Maksoon. His father tries to find the little girl, but is never seen again. The grown-up Yoon (Hwang) will mourn the loss of his sister for the rest of his life: he cannot overcome his guilt. The family settles in Busan, where they work for Yoon’s aunt Kkotbun in her grocery shop, which Yoon will inherit one day.

In West Germany in the Sixties, he works in a mine near Duisburg, just escaping an accident with his life, he falls in love with the South Korean nurse Youngj (Kim). The two marry and have children, but Yoon again goes abroad to fight against the Vietcong in the Vietnam War. A TV-show tries to re-unite families who lost each other during the turbulent Korean history, and Maksoon, who has been adopted by American parents, sees her family again, just before her mother dies. Yoon, who stubbornly does not want to sell his shop (which is being demolished to make space for a modern shopping centre), finally agrees to sell – for the first time in his adult life, he accepts defeat. AS



Memories of Murder (2003) | Salinui Chueok | LKFF 2015 | 2-14 November

KCCUK-KFF-Press_backdrops copyDir.: Bong Joon-ho; Cast: Song Kang-ho, Kim sang-gyeong); | Crime Drama | South Korea 2003 | 132 min.

Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer) constructs a terrifying drama around the unsolved mystery of South Korea’s first serial killer who raped and murdered ten women between 1986 and 1991 in Gyeong-gi, a provincial town south of Seoul. The victims were between thirteen and seventy-one years old; the murders remains unsolved.

Local cop Park (Kang-ho) tries to pin the murder on the local half-wit Baek, but when the more sophisticated officer Seo (Kim) arrives from Seoul, he finds another favourite suspect: a factory worker. Whilst the DNA data is sent to the United States, it is now Seo who snaps: he wants to kill the worker, and Park has great difficulty in stopping him. The two cops have learned to hate each other, and the hunt for the murderer is secondary to each of them: they simply want to be right. But the DNA results do not give any proof and the case remains unsolved. Park is seen at the end of the film looking into a small tunnel, where the second victim had been found. The only real ‘witness’ is a little girl who asks him what he is looking for. It emerges that she has seen another man a few weeks ago, looking into the same tunnel. Park, who is now a business man, tries in vain to get any identification from the girl: “he looked normal” is her answer.

MEMORIES OF MURDER is an absurdist variation of a cop movie. Far from being interested in solving the case, Park and Seo fight with each other, their brutality illustrating how the fine line between their own violent intent and that of the  man they are chasing. Park’s family life shows him to be a domestic tyrant and Seo, who tries to be sophisticated, is nothing but an insecure and fragile man. Original and haunting. AS


Cold Eyes (2014) | UK Korean Film Festival

Dir.: Cho Ui-seok, Kim Byung-seo

Cast: Han Hyo-joo, Jung Woo-sung, Sol Kyung-gu; South Korea 2014, 118 min.

As we all know, remakes rarely match the original outing, but Cho and Kim have succeeded in re-planting one of Hong Kong’s most original crime thrillers EYE IN THE SKY from 2007 to a seedy Seoul with their COLD EYES, the original title translating simply into The Surveillants.

COLD EYES is the story of hunters and their prey. All three main protagonists are introduced in a long and rather enigmatic opening sequence set in a high-speed tube train: Tom-boy Ha Yoon-joo (Han) is muttering to herself, her fingers moving seemingly on their own will, whilst she constantly survives (and memorises) the goings-on in the carriage. Middle-aged Hwang (Sol) casts a detached eye on the proceedings: people dropping newspapers, bumping into each other, exchanging looks. Of all the people caught on camera one figure stands out: the grim-faced, soulless James (Jung) who tries to slip into the background, avoiding eye contact. The following scene, in a restaurant, at least solves the identity of two of the trio: Ha is a young police cadet, trying to qualify for Hwang’s prestigious surveillance unit. Needless to say, she passes with flying colours, even though Hwang makes sure that she can see her limits. It’s clear that boss and apprentice have much in common: in their different ways they are obsessed with surveillance work to the point of being slightly insane, having lost contact with the real world.

The unfolding narrative concentrates on the hunt for a gang of criminals led by James, who turns out to be a sadistic killer. After a bank robbery the surveillance unit follows one the participants caught on CCTV: an overweight man, given the code name “hippo” by Hwang, who has also given all his team members animal names; Ha being “Piglet”, somehow not as grand as her own proposed “Reindeer”, eventually proves her self in the impressive denouement.

There are hand-to-hand combat scenes, car chases and long, technical explicit surveillance scenes. The directors show a seemingly endless knowledge of this field. But neither this aspect, nor the fast-forward mode of the action sequences explain the fascination of the film: Ha is dominating the proceedings subtly, a brilliant mixture of vulnerability as well as mental and physical toughness. Like Hwang, she lives in a world of her own, when she is chasing her prey with a viciousness belying her frail but lean exterior. Her eyes seem to have a much more quality than the countless lenses we see in action.

COLD EYES is a playful exercise in over-kill, carried by Ha’s personality. The Seoul settings are changing constantly between the high-tech world of the city and the seediness of the districts – leaving the viewer in no doubt, how these seemingly so different environments rely on each other. Camera work is very innovative, particularly in scenes set at great height; it also gives every member of the team and James their own POV. Whilst the narrative hardly offers any surprises, Ha and the virtuosic photography make COLD EYES a superior action thriller.


Manshin (2013) | UK Korean Film Festival


Dir.: Park Chan-Kyong

Cast: Kim Geum-hwa, Moon So-Ri, Ryoo Hyon-Kyong, Kim Sae-Ron, South Korea 2013, 104 min.

When principal photography on MANSHIN was finished, the production run out of money and the film could only be finished after an extensive funding drive. The result is overwhelming and absorbing, even though one has to suspend belief in rationality and modern life for the entire length of film.

The central character of MANSHIN is Kim Geum-hwa, 83, the national Shaman of South Korea: her life story is performed by three different actresses covering the different phases of her life. Whether or not you can engage with her initiation and exorcism rituals performed on land and often on ships, these magnificent ceremonies with their piercing music are astonishing and unlike anything seen before. As far as the overall concept goes, it becomes clear that Kim is an evangelist  who, with the help of her many spirit guides, brings her followers into contact with friends and family members who have passed over to the other side. This collective approach to a spiritual otherworld is much more humanistic than that of the more mainstream religious concepts which rely on a single, more or less wrathful higher being who has to be obeyed at any price. One could say that Kim and her followers have taken a holistic and artistic approach to spiritual well-being.

Kim is now a respected figure throughtout the World but this wasn’t always the case. Even as a child, Kim was ostracized by the people in her village after she predicted the early death of the father of one of her friends. Later on, she was persecuted by various military dictatorships in South Korea, who tried to repress her rituals. The images, some of them in monochrome, are an extremely striking portrait of a very violent society.

Warching these traditional Korean spiritual rituals and listening to Kim requires a certain suspension of disbelief, of buying into this mystical world and learning to accept the spirit medium’s life on its own terms – but for this we also require a different concept of time. If MANSHIN teaches something, it is this concept of interlocking time levels, acted out in rituals that take over our entire being and existence;  becomimg a way of life. AS


Kundo: Age of the Rampant (2014) | UK Korean Film Festival

Dir.: Yoo Jong-bin; Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Lee Sung-min, Kang Dong-wan

South Korea 2014, 137 min.

Honouring its full title KUNDO: THE AGE OF THE RAMPANT, the film was equally rampant at the South-Korean box office, before being replaced a few weeks later by an even more brutal seafaring movie as the best-selling South Korean movie of all times.

Set in 1862 in the last days of the Josean era, KUNDO uses this corrupt period as an background for an all out “Eastern”, a genre not long ago known as Kung-Fu, but elevated into the opposite of a “Western” to gain serious attention: some critics will draw parallels to Leone, Kurosawa and Morricone, but KUNDO is an unadulterated excuse to show off the fighting skills of all concerned. And as brilliant as these skills turn out to be, KUNDO is in the end just a martial art show-off with swords, guns and meat cleavers.

Warming-up very slowly and introducing too many characters, whose fate is never resolved, KUNDO finally boils down to a duel between two very different outsiders: Dochi (Ha), a cleaver swinging ex-butcher from the lower classes, who has to become a bandit to support his family, and Jo-Joon (Kang), a would be nobleman, who feels cheated out of his rights. The baby-faced villain somehow has our sympathy, since he was the original heir to his father’s title and fortune, but the birth of a half-brother meant that Jo-Joon was a disqualified to inherit the family title because his mother was a mere courtesan. Jo-Joon plans to murder the whole clan, including a pregnant woman. Entrance Dochi, who is too soft-hearted for such a heinous crime and declines to act, only for Jo-Joon to have his whole family murdered. The rest of the film builds up to the show-down between the two and their armies in a bamboo forest.

Yoo pulls every trick in the book, including a woman warrior, who slaughters hordes of men with her baby on the back. Camera work is brilliant, not only the fighting scenes, but the landscape panoramas are impressive. The subtitles are often hilariously funny, taking away any hope of seriousness for foreign audiences. Overall KUNDO is an outstanding choreographed martial ballet, which would have made more or less the same impression without the pretence of a narrative – light years away from anything a Kurosawa or Leone achieved. AS




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