Since there are a number of films I have reviewed, I have kept the reviews short and concise - I have limited each review to just a few short paragraphs.
SUNNY 써니 (Director's cut)
Director: Kang Hyeong-cheol (강형철)
Starring: Yoo Ho-Jeong (유호정), Sim Eun-kyeong (심은경) & Kang So-ra (강소라)
Running Time: 135 min
Na-mi is a typical middle-class housewife with a teenage daughter and brusque husband. While visiting her mother in hospital, she is reunited with her high school friend, Chun-hwa. The two happily reminisce about the good old days. Na-mi was a transfer student and Chun-hwa welcomed the new girl into her clique. The clique was called ‘Sunny’ comprising of 7 girls who always hung out together. Chun-hwa who is now terminally ill, asks Na-mi to get together the old members of ‘Sunny’ for the last time before she dies. And, hence begins an ordinary housewife’s journey – and a great deal of trouble – to track down her high school classmates. Source: KOFIC
For those of you that don't know, this was a sleeper hit which generated over 7 million admissions to become one of the most successful films of the year. It's an interesting film as it tackles the 80s through nostalgia - note, that films such as Memories of Murder and Peppermint Candy look at this period in a negative, but ambivalent light. It doesn't, however, tackle the complexities of this period, which I look at in an essay, but it is nevertheless an interesting film, which will lift your mood regardless of how you feel, and from speaking to friends, it appears to be particularly enjoyable for those who lived through the turbulent 80s.
Sunny Cast and Director at GV at BIFF
The director's cut has a few addition scenes - noteworthy is a scene where the Na-mi's brother is taken to court over lost wages, which is an interesting scene because in his younger years he was a campaigner for democracy and left-wing ideology, and yet later on, he becomes an advocate for capitalism and its darker side. It's also interesting that the staff he didn't pay for Southeast Asian immigrants, which is becoming more reflective in Korean cinema.
With a thumping soundtrack, iconic cinematography - his films tend to utilize indoor locations with an emphasis to focus on the more developed side of Korea - and solid performances, this is a compelling film, that's certainly worth seeing. Given that this is the director's second consecutive hit - his feature debut Speedy Scandal was another sleeper hit - he's likely to be around for sometime to come.
* * * *
POONGSAN / 풍산개
Director: Juhn Jai-hong (전재홍)
Starring: Yoon Kye-san (윤계상), Kim Gyoo-ro (김규리) & Kim Jong-soo (김종수)
Running Time: 121 min
Poongsan, a young man with the eyes of an innocent child, crosses over North and South Korea to deliver the pain and longings of separated families. Even though this can cause him get shot, he takes the risk without any fear. Source: KOFIC
One day, by a secret request by South Korean government agents he sneaks into North to bring over In-oak, the lover of a high-ranking North Korean defector. On their way to South Korea, they fall for each other while experiencing life-and-death situations together several times. However upon their arrival, they’re welcomed by agents who capture and torture Poongsan while In-oak gets disappointed with her old lover who has changed so much over the past years… Source: KOFIC
For me this was one of the more interesting films in Busan, perhaps not all for the right reasons, but it's nonetheless very thought provoking, and leaves you with a somewhat perplexed impression. It's not directed by Kim Ki-duk, but in many ways, it feels like it was - he wrote the script for the film. So when the protagonist is practically mute - a typical feature of Kim's films - I wasn't surprised. Yet at the same time, the film is full of pulsating sequences, which is not characteristic of Kim Ki-duk, but the film's themes and impressions - it's representation of women and isolation - are in abundance, so it's quite a bizarre mix. So does it work?
Some of the cast and director from Poongsan
Well, yes, and no. Being married to a Korean who loathes Kim Ki-duk and his films, I have become sympathetic to Koreans' lack of appreciation for him, but I always find his films food for thought even though they are fundamentally problematic. The main female lead - wonderfully played by Kim Gyoo-li is subjected to sexual and physical violence from a North Korean defector who sells secrets in exchange for protection, but he is many years older than she is, so the scenes where they are together are uncomfortable, and provocative to say the least.
But the divide between North and South Korea - which is the film's central theme - is the film's strength. The film is relentless in its pace - not a trait of Kim's films - as it switches between the North and South. Reality and fiction do become blurred, but the relationship and friction between the two countries is tangible to see. Like so many other Korean films that explore this divide - Shiri & JSA for example - there is a desire for a reunification, but this is a distant reality.
Overall, while the film is very uneven in places - especially in terms of pacing - it's an interesting watch, and I am curious to watch the director's (Jeon Jae-hoon) next film, and whether he will move away from the cinematic world of Kim Ki-duk, or whether he decides to embrace it.
* * * *
ALWAYS / 오직 그대만
Director: Song Il-gon (송일곤)
Starring: So Ji-sub (소지섭), Han Hyo-joo (한효주) & Kang Shin-il (강신일)
Running Time: 108 min
Chul-min leads a hard life delivering the water by day and working at the parking lot by night. His life seems nothing but ordinary, however, he hides his dark past that he used to hit the people for living. One day a strange blind woman called Jung-hwa visits him at the parking lot, who changes his life completely. Looking at cheerful and bright Jung-hwa, Chul-min slowly opens his mind. Jung-hwa also lets him enter her lonely world. To lead a better life with the new love, Chul-min re-starts boxing dreaming of the future as a MMA fighter. But always the good time ends soon. As Chul-min finds out that Jung-hwa might lose her eyesight forever if she doesn’t receive the transplant operation soon and he himself is responsible for the accident, which took Jung-hwa’s eyesight and her parents away five years ago, he falls into despair. Burdened with the complex feelings mixed with guilt towards Jung-hwa and affection to her, Chul-min decides to play in the gambling fight abroad, which is the chance to collect the huge amount of money at once. He leaves her all at once without a trace or any note. Source: KOFIC
As some of you will know this film opened the festival and given that the film has a reputable director at the helm - Song Il-gon is known for his film, Spider Forest together with a decent cast with So Ji-sub and Han Hyo-joo taking the leads, there was a certain amount of expectations riding on this film, but after it premiered at the film festival, there was a feeling that it was largely disappointing, and I tend to concur with this sentiment.
But after returning to Seoul, I realized that how you rate this film will largely depend on your gender, though this has a lot to do with So Ji-sub who is comparable with Leonardo Dicaprio in terms of his popularity amongst females. Nevertheless, as someone who loves Korean cinema, and perhaps less partial than most to melodramas, I was unsurprisingly underwhelmed with this movie. The audience seemed to be captivated, but I do wonder how many Korean melodramas they had seen, or perhaps I have just become immune to the sentimental touch of Korean melodramas. So, to me, this was yet another Korean melodrama that ticked all the boxes, but leaves no room to bring something new to the genre, other than some gorgeous cinematography. This, however, was not enough to keep me engaged, but if you after a movie that will leave you in tears, then perhaps this is your thing.
THE HOST (3D) 괴물
Director: Bong Joon-ho (봉준호)
Starring: Song Kang-ho (송강호), Byeon Hee-bong (변희봉) & Park Hae-il (박해일)
Gang-du is a dim-witted man working at his father’s tiny snack bar near the Han River. One day, Gang-du’s one and only daughter Hyun-seo comes back from school irritated. She is angry with her uncle, Nam-il, who visited her school as her guardian shamelessly drunk. Ignoring her father’s excuses for Nam-il, Hyun-seo is soon engrossed in her aunt Nam-joo’s archery tournament on TV. Meanwhile, outside of the snack bar, an unidentified object hanging onto a bridge fascinates people. In an instant, the object reveals itself as a terrifying creature turning the riverbank into a gruesome sea of blood… Amid the chaos, the creature right before Gang-du’s eyes helplessly snatches Hyun-seo up. These unforeseen circumstances render the government powerless to act. But receiving a call of help from Hyun-seo, the once-ordinary citizen Gang-du and his family are thrust into a battle with the monster to rescue their beloved Hyun-seo. Source: KOFIC
I am not going to review the film here as you can see my review of the film here, but I just would like to say a few things about its conversion to 3D. Before watching the film, to say I was curious is a little bit of an understatement. Given the popularity of 3D in the post-Avatar era, and the varying quality of the films that have been converted/shot in 3D since then, I was somewhat ambivalent at the thought of a classic film such as The Host being converted into 3D. But like I say in my festival report, I have been pleasantly surprised at the quality of 3D films at Busan. While I am not an expert on the medium, and any comments here are based merely on my observations and what I heard in Busan regarding 3D conversion, the impression The Host (3D), together with the other 3D movies that were screened in Busan, The Fish (3D) and Persimmon gave me was of surprise. Not only was the quality of the 3D conversion generally excellent, it surpassed most Hollywood films I have seen.
Bong Joon-ho is joined by Park Hae-il, Choi Young-bae (CEO of Chungeorahm film), 3D Director, Kim Moon-ki & BIFF Honorary Director Kim Dong-ho (Far left)
When I read the BIFF guide and the festival programmers' thoughts on the conversion, which stated that the 3D version exposed both the strengths and weakness of the format, it left me extremely curious. I think I agree with this notion - on the one hand, the 3D was inconsistent and there were scenes where the sense of space had been warped, but on the other, it complimented the visual effects, even to the extent when in the original cut they looked superficial, in the 3D format, however, they looked more authentic. All scenes, to me at least, that involved the creature appeared with greater clarity. According to the 3D director Kim Moon-ki, they converted it at a frame at a time, and while this was a time consuming, and a very expensive option, it appears to have worked. Bong Joon-ho had nothing to do with the conversion and asked that all questions relating to the 3D version to be directed to the 3D director, but he said he was very happy with the result. He also stated that he is not considering making his new film Snow Piercer into 3D since he feels, given the size and scale of the film, there is already a lot to contend with, and making it in 3D might be a stretch too far - and I think I would agree with him on that.
A lot of discussion at the press conference was regarding whether they were looking at a worldwide release of the film. They (Bong Joon-ho, the 3D director and the CEO of Chungeorahm films) stated that they were hoping to release the film theatrically through some kind of distribution channels - I assume - but were waiting to see how well the film was received in Busan. It's having its North American Premiere at the Busan West Film Festival in California next week where Bong will present the film.
* * * * * (film)
* * * * (3D Transfer)
A REASON TO LIVE / 오늘
Director: Lee Jeong-hyang (이정향)
Starring: Song Hye-gyo (송혜교), Song Chang-ee (송창의) & Nam Ji-hyeon (남지현)
Da-hae who lost her fiancé by a hit and run accident, forgave the criminal who was 15 year old boy as her principle base on catholic belief and signs a petition for him. One year after, Da-hae is making a documentary to abolish death penalty requested by Catholic Church. The time goes on, she starts to look back her pain having an interview to victims who live with the forgiveness. Source: KOFIC
Another a film where expectations were riding high was this film - It's Lee Jeong-hyang's first film in nine years. She last made a film back in 2002 where she directed the delightful The Way Home. This film also stars Song Hye-gyo, a familiar name to almost every Korean, who has not appeared in a Korean film since 2008 (Hwangjin-yi).
Reviews have been mixed, but I for one liked this film in more ways than one. Its theme - forgiveness and grief - has a lot in common with Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine, which is a very difficult watch, but nevertheless, a superb piece of cinema, even if I don't necessarily agree with Lee's premise. A Reason to Live is far more accessible than Lee's film - it's not so heavy, and perhaps more thinly layered, but it provides a refreshing perspective on the issue of grief and forgiveness. Inevitably the issue of religion comes up, and like Lee Chang-dong, Lee Jeong-hyang struggles to find respite or a solution in Christianity, but A Reason to Live as the English titles suggests, provides a more optimistic angle, even if they both fail to find any solution.
Song Hye-gyo gives a very convincing performance, though I don't think she is quite on par with Jeon Do-yeon. Perhaps most striking about this film is the cinematography and score - some have criticized these - but for me, and others I think, they complement each other, and the cinematography itself is one of the film's strongest attributes.
* * * *
AMEN / 아멘
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Starring: Kim Ye-na (김예나)
Running Time: 72 min
A woman goes to France in search for a man who she lost contact with, only to find that he has moved on to Venice. On her way to Venice, she faces a horrible incident in the train, which makes her painfully question herself about life and relationships. And when she makes a frightening conclusion, the question becomes the share of the audiences. Source: KOFIC
Unsurprisingly, Kim Ki'duk's latest attracted a lot of interest in Busan, but it was disappointing to not to actually catch a glimpse of the elusive man himself. He recently pull out of the London Korean Film Festival, and given that he only did one interview in Cannes, I wasn't surprised when I didn't see him at the Guest Visit. I was surprised, however, to see the director of Poongsan (Jeon Jae-hoon), who came along to introduce the film with the film's main actress, Kim Ye-na. He came along on Kim Ki-duk's behalf who was reported to be out of the country. Given his elusive nature, I'm not sure if I will ever get a chance to hear him talk about his films, but perhaps he just feels more comfortable communicating through his films.
Kim Ye-na is joined by the director of Poongsan, Jeon Jae-hoon
As for the film itself, it's a bizarre film to say the least, and like all of Kim Ki-duk films, reaction has been mixed. It's a fictional film with a documentary edge to it, and it was made with very little budget, and appeared to be shot on a handheld DV camera. It's an interesting story - again, not a lot of dialogue, and while it starts off as a compelling feature, it turns increasingly twisted. Again, the issues he confronts - the representation of women and sexuality - is at the heart of the film, and this representation, without giving too much away, is problematic to say the least.
The film is relatively short - it's around 72 minutes long - and while the first 50 minutes feel like Kim Ki-duk is perhaps back to his form, the last twenty minutes or so are a stretch too far, and this is perhaps where he will lose his audience as he goes into his own world. It's an interesting film, but ultimately, a disappointing one.
* * *
HINDSIGHT / 푸른 소금
Director: Lee Hyeon-seung (이현승)
Starring: Song Kang-ho (송강호), Sin Se-kyeong (신세경) & Cheon Jeon-myeon (천정명)
Running Time: 122 min
Retired mob boss Du-heon enrolls in a cooking class with the hopes of making a fresh start as a restaurant owner. In the class he meets a quirky girl, Se-bin, and finds himself drawn to her. Despite his determination to wipe the slate clean, Du-heon is summoned back into the criminal fold by his old colleagues. Source: KOFIC
Starring Song Kang-ho, it was a bit of a surprise when it underperformed in the Korean box office, not even making a million admissions. Reviews haven't been that strong either, so it begs the question, what went wrong, or on the other hand, is it case that this film is simply not appreciated?
Director Lee Hyeon-seung at BIFF GV
Well, in short, it's certainly not the latter, but it's not a terrible film, and it's not a film that will attract scathing criticism. Instead, it's a film that fails to make an impact or distinctive impression - you'll hear the words, "it's okay, so-so..." With so many action-packed films to have come out of South Korea over the last decade and as they continue to raise the bar, it's difficult for 'average' films to make a mark. While the film does have some well-made set-pieces and it's well acted, and the cinematography consists of an interesting complexion of blue, green and purple tones, there is nothing here to really shout about. The plot, again, explores the world of criminality and anyone familiar with Korean gangster films will know that a film that follows a subject trying to escape the world of gangs and enter the world of work ends in pretty much the same way, all be it, in a slightly different manner.
Song Kang-ho is as always excellent, although this is not a particularly new role for him - his character in the Show Must Go On wasn't too dissimilar. Song, though must like working with director Lee Hyun-seok as he has signed up to his new film, Night Mist, which is currently in pre-production.
* * *
A FISH(3D) / 물고기
Director: Park Hong-min (박홍민)
Starring: Kim Sun-bin (김선빈) & Lee Jang-hoon (이장훈)
Running Time: 105 min
A professor of logic and metaphysic named Jeon hyuk got news from a detective agency that they found his wife in Jindo. He is on his way to find her, leaving his lecture and everything else behind. The man from the detective agency said that his wife is turning into a possessed shaman in Kasa Island, which is incomprehensible to him. In this miserable situation, he decided to get her back and on the way strange accidents started to occur. At some point, he realizes he is dead and his wife is doing a shaman ritual to rid his dead body of its soul. Meanwhile, two men are fishing in the sea. They were having a ridiculous conversation and found a talking fish. Source: KOFIC
This was the most perplexing film I saw in Busan, and in some ways the most frustrating. The film explores Shamanism, and for someone unfamiliar with this form of spirituality, understanding the film's themes and plot holes was always going to be a big challenge. I can't imagine many walked out afterwards knowing what the film's main premise was, but perhaps those more well versed in Shamanism were able to take more from it than I could. In the guest visit afterwards, the director did say that the intention was to make it ambiguous, but it seemed like the film was in a different world, but it demands more viewings, and I am anxious to see it again before too long.
Cast and director from A Fish (3D) at the GV
The 3D conversion was fascinating, and the film almost leaped onto the audiences' laps, and given the film's very low budget, this was a remarkable achievement. In places, particularly at the beginning, to some, it maybe too much, but applying the realm of 3D to spirituality is an interesting concept.
This film is not for anyone, and it's unlikely to find a large audience outside the festival circuit, but for the director, Park Hong-min, it's a promising debut, if only a very confusing one.
* * *
PERSIMMON (3D) 감
Director: Choo Sang-rok (추상록)
Starring: Oh Kwang-rok (오광록), Yang Jin-woo (양진우) & Kim Gin-koo (김긴구)
Running Time: 80 min
Another ambitious low-budget 3-D drama distinctive from [A Fish], Persimmon spent the budget of $350,000. The project had started as a cable TV movie that aired last year under the title [Restroom]. The TV movie went through a complete makeover from title, editing to sound design in 3D. The new 3D film is set in a confined space of a public restroom in a rural town,
6 characters such as a physics professor, an insurance salesperson, a bum, a monk and a homeless man etc mysteriously get locked up in the restroom together. Needless to say they are symbolic of human types. They turn out to have contributed one way or another to the mysterious death of a girl. Observing their stories is an intense experience. 3D effects work better than ever expected. Source: Busan Film Festival Programme
This was the biggest surprise for me at the festival. Again with a remarkably low-budget together with a Saw-esque plot line, I expected very little, but it's actually a very well-made clever feature. Being locked in a public toilet unable to get out and then realizing that something quite sinister is happening may sound unoriginal, but it left me engaged for the entire duration, and given that the film rarely moves away from this one room, the tension it builds up in one room is remarkable. This is partly attributed to the quality of acting on offer, but it has a solid script that's not too flawed; neither does it demand a great deal of imagination. To a certain extent it is removed from reality, but the director, makes the sensible decision to maintain a sense of tangibility about it.
Cast and director from Persimmon (3D) at the GV
The film was actually made for TV and then converted into 3D by the same 3D director as The Host (3D), Kim Moon-ki and the results are similar in comparison. The 3D conversion is well-executed and consistent, and compliments the film's strong visuals.
The film is made up of grainy visuals, which takes a little getting used to, but works very well and the lighting must have been especially difficult to master, especially in terms of consistency, but the fact that this is essentially a TV movie makes it all the more surprising that it exceeded my expectations.
It stars Oh Kwang-rok, who has starred in a number of films including Park Chan-wook's Night Fishing. He's tremendous in this film, and it was good to see him watch the film behind me, as he was no doubt anxious to see it in 3D. The cast as a whole are brilliant, and there is a sense that they all give their all despite the budget restraints.
* * * * *
COME RAIN COME SHINE / 사랑한다, 사랑하지 않는다
Director: Lee Yoon-ki (이윤기)
Starring: Im Soo-jeong (임수정) & Hyeon Bin (현빈)
On the day of separation, a couple still play hide and seek with their true feelings. While driving to the airport one day, a young woman tells her husband that she wants to leave him for another man. The husband does not ask her why. On the day she is to move out, a massive storm strikes seemingly stranding her and forcing them to spend another day together. A lot can happen in one day, as their soon to be new reality sinks in. Source: KOFIC
Following the critical success of Lee Yoon-gi's previous features, including the excellent My Dear Enemy, this film was expected to add another impressive feature to Lee's filmography, but reviews have been lukewarm for the most part, but nevertheless, I was hoping that Lee's latest feature would not disappoint me. Needless to say, it didn't meet my expectations, and while I accept its limitations - it was shot in just 3 weeks - the film never really comes together, and just becomes a bit of a soap opera where the two leads come to realize that their relationship has come to an end.
Director Lee Yoon-ki at the GV
What worked so well in My Dear Enemy wasn't so much the script, though it did of course play a part, but it was the chemistry between Ha Jung-woo and Jeon Do-yeon and the characters they played. In Come Rain Come Shine, however, both Hyun-bin and Im Soo-jung lack the spark that I was looking so hard for. Hyun-bin's character, Ji-seok is likable, but lacks the charisma of Ha Jung-woo's Byeong-woon. And likewise, Im Soo-jung, while a good actress, she is not Jeon Do-yeon, who is able to bring so much to a role regardless of what character she is playing.
Like so many films at BIFF this year, it's beautifully shot - his approach is somewhat minimalist, which is difficult not to admire, not least because the elegance he brings to a film without interfering too much through angle changes and editing is inspiring. Yet, this fails to make the film a largely rewarding experience; instead, you are left wondering, how and when the film will end.