Because of an extended national vacation of ten days in early October due to the unusual convergence of various holidays (most notably Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving), this year’s Busan film festival was delayed by a week into the middle of the month. This was a minor disruption compared to the previous year, when the festival was nearly cancelled due to a political conflict between the city and the festival organisers, relating to the screening of an anti-government documentary in 2014.1 Much has changed in the past year, most notably the impeachment of right-wing President Park Geun-hye, whose government the documentary had targeted, and the election of the left-liberal party headed by Moon Jae-in.2 While the contentious political atmosphere has not entirely dissipated, as evidenced by the student protest groups still demanding an apology from the local city government, this year’s festival was an attempt to return to normalcy, despite the untimely death of one of the festival’s driving forces, deputy director Kim Ji-seok, a much beloved figure within the community.3 Although the festival had a strong selection of international entries, including some of the best this year has to offer, such as Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner The Square and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, I have decided to focus my report on the Korean films. As always, Busan works as a showcase for Korean cinema, debuting many new works while also offering audiences a recap of the year’s major critical successes. The result was a solid collection of works, no true masterpieces but with a median level of quality that was encouraging. There was also a strong note of melancholy going through many of the better films, with an inordinate number set during the winter months as a way of emphasising this sombre tone.

student protests

One of my favourite films this year indeed has winter in the very title, Lee Gwang-kuk’s Ho-rang-e-bo-da Mu-seo-un (A Tiger in Winter), his third feature, following Romance Joe (2011) and Kkum-bo-da Hae-mong (A Matter of Interpretation), and to my mind easily his finest to date. Lee is a former assistant to Hong Sang-soo, and his films certainly show Hong’s influence, but A Tiger in Winter is his first success in taking that influence and creating something distinct. In its melancholic tone, the Korean film it reminded me of most was Zhang Lu’s Gyeongju (2014), another text informed by Hong’s style and approach but which creates an emotional resonance Hong does not often attempt. A Tiger in Winter stars Lee Jin-uk as Gyeong-yu, a failed former writer who is unceremoniously dumped by his live-in girlfriend and wonders aimlessly through Seoul, essentially homeless. He crashes with a friend, continues his job as a proxy driver (a service where drunk people have someone else drive themselves and their car home, an indicator of Korea’s heavy drinking culture), and eventually reconnects, through his job, with his former lover, Yu-jeong, who is played by Go Hyun-jeong, one of Korean cinema’s best performers (and a veteran of Hong’s films). Yu-jeong has succeeded as a novelist where Gyeong-yu has not, but she is suffering from writer’s block and unable to finish her latest assignment. She is also clearly suffering from a drinking problem. Unlike Lee’s earlier work, which is more playful in nature and experimental in form, the narrative here is more straightforward, with a long take, realist style that perfectly suits the material. Even the central metaphor, in which a tiger has escaped from a local zoo, is treated in an understated manner, and the wintery tone is allowed to dominate. Like many of the films at this year’s festival, this melancholy is not simply romantic, but is informed by the social environment, in which money and work are scarce and in which those few with financial power mistreat those beneath. This impacts not only the relationships between strangers within the social space, but between intimate connections as well.

A Tiger in Winter

A Tiger in Winter

Given the quality of the film and the fact that Lee Gwang-kuk is a rising name on the Korean art cinema scene, it is surprising that A Tiger in Winter was not chosen as this year’s opening selection. This is especially the case given the choice that was made, Shin Su-won’s Glass Garden, perhaps the worst film I saw at the festival. This is Shin’s fourth feature, following Re-in-bo-u (Passerby #3, 2010), Myeong-wang-song (Pluto, 2012), and Madonna (2015), and the selection of Glass Garden to open the festival was clearly based on Shin’s growing reputation. In particular, Shin has been seen as a fierce social critic who challenges the inequities and injustices of Korean society. Madonna was held up as one of the best Korean films of 2015, an opinion with which I fiercely disagree, seeing the film as manipulative and simplistic.4 Glass Garden, however, has not been receiving nearly as many positive notices. It is a more ambitious movie, with a story that begins with Shin’s more usual melodramatic style and characteristics but then goes into far stranger territory. Unfortunately, this more surreal turn does not manage to be as shocking as intended or to carry the thematic complexity desired. The story centres on the character of Jae-yeon (played by Moon Geun-young), a lab technician working on research into trees and their ability to extend human life. Following a betrayal by her professor and her colleague, she retreats to her home in the forest. She is followed by a failing writer (Kim Tae-hun), who starts using her story to write a successful online serial. Intriguingly, Glass Garden shares themes with A Tiger in Winter, especially in terms of writing and plagiarism, and given Shin’s reputation as a social critic, one would expect her to have found a welcoming environment in this year’s festival. Glass Garden, however, never manages any depth in its characterisations, and its self-consciously slow and arty style is dull instead of profound. In short, it is bad art cinema, which is among the least watchable type of film.

Glass Garden

Glass Garden

The other major contender for my favourite Korean film of the festival is So-gong-nyeo (Microhabitat), the feature debut of Jeon Go-woon, the co-founder of the collective Gwanghwamun Cinema, a production company formed by a group of young filmmakers and which previously produced Kim Tae-gon’s Myeon-hoe (Sunshine Boys, 2013), Woo Moon-gi’s Jok-gu-wang (The King of Jokgu, 2014), and Lee Yo-sup’s Beom-joe-ui Yeo-wang (The Queen of Crime, 2016). The idea of the collective is actually a part of the structure of the story, as the lead character Miso (Lee Som), a 31 year-old housemaid struggling to make ends meet, decides to abandon her apartment because of the rising costs of whiskey and cigarettes, which she refuses to give up. As a result, she spends a short time living with each of her former band mates from her youth, who have all moved forward into the “adult” world of Korean society, as her boyfriend (played by rising star Ahn Jae-hong) tries to make enough money for the two of them to live together. Miso’s experiences with each former group member allows for a brief glimpse into the lives of the Korean middle class, and it becomes clear that although Miso has no money and is unable to fully support herself, she is the happiest of the entire group. Whereas most films would treat Miso and her choice of cigarettes and alcohol over an apartment as immature, Microhabitat asks the more radical question of how happy she would be if she chose the conventional lives of her former friends. The film feels like a more optimistic take on Agnès Varda’s Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond, 1985), with an ambiguous rather than despairing conclusion. Microhabitat contains my favourite scene of the year, as Miso and her boyfriend say goodbye because he has accepted a job abroad. Filmed in one long take, the acting and the timing of the characters and their actions is perfect, creating one of the most emotional moments in recent movies. Jeon is certainly a talent to watch, and one hopes she can continue to get her films made going forward.

Microhabitat

Microhabitat

Along with A Tiger in Winter and Microhabitat, I saw three other films within the Korean Cinema Today: Vision section, which the festival program defines as: “A carefully selected lineup of Korean independent feature films from throughout this year and a glimpse into the future of Korean cinema.”5 The best of this group was Choi Yong-seok’s He-i-neun (Counting the Stars at Night), a quiet and low-key study of a man named Seok (Heo Joon-seok), who returns to Korea from Vietnam with his new wife and his young stepson. Eventually, he has to confront his haunted past, particularly his fraught relationship with his brother. A rather familiar but still affecting story of a man trying to reintegrate into society after exile, well-acted and well-directed throughout. The narrative framing flashback is the most confounding aspect, since it is difficult to determine if writer-director Choi wants the tale to be a mystery. If so, it is obviously a failure, since anyone familiar with these types of stories can accurately predict the solution. However, it could also be seen as deliberate, drawing attention away from narrative puzzle solving and more towards the emotional tension and repression that the viewer knows will eventually break. Another solid if minor work would be Kim Joong-hyun’s second feature, E-wol (February), made six years after his debut feature Ga-si (Choked) played at Busan in 2011. The story follows the life of Min-gyeong (a fantastic performance from newcomer Jo Min-kyoung), a woman in poor economic circumstances struggling to complete her education as a public servant. In desperation, she reaches out to an old friend and roommate who had attempted suicide and whom she had betrayed, and after the fallout from that broken relationship, begins staying with her sometime lover and his young son, eventually rejecting the motherly role thrust upon her. As can be seen from the description, the story is rather fragmented and rambling and could use greater form and focus, but the lead character and the film’s attitude towards her are truly unique. She is both a victim of circumstances and, at the same time, a rather morally objectionable person who nevertheless maintains a degree of sympathy. Her last confrontation with her suicidal friend is both painful and strangely exhilarating in its honesty. The least successful of the three is Hitchhike (A Haunting Hitchhike), the debut feature of Jeong Hee-jae, centering on Jeong-ae, a teenage girl with a dying father who goes searching for her mother. On the journey, she finds the possible birth father of a friend and, because of her need for familial connection, becomes attached to the man and his family. It is not a terrible film and shows some potential, but never manages to draw the viewer into the story and identify with the character and her emotional journey. At 110 minutes, it could have used some editing and a tighter concentration of action.

February

February

The other three Korean world premieres I saw amongst the fictional features were all in the Korean Cinema Today: Panorama section, which represents a kind of annual summary of Korean films in the last calendar year. All three were made by veteran directors who have never made a major impact outside of Korea and, thus, were unable to debut their films at a more prestigious festival abroad. The best of this group, and another of my favourites of the festival, was Park Ki-yong’s Jae-hoe (Old Love), a kind of spiritual sequel to director Park’s most well-known previous work, Nakta(deul) (Camel(s), 2002). Both begin at an airport and concern the relationship between a middle-age couple, and have a similar slow pace and long take shooting style. Camel(s), however, was an extraordinarily minimalist work, concentrating on the banality of the pair of adulterous lovers and never expanding greatly from their carnal relationship. Old Love is more sombre precisely because the audience gets to know the characters more deeply. A man and woman who were former lovers (and fellow actors) meet accidently at the Incheon airport and briefly rekindle their romance, while also being haunted by the impeding death of their former co-actor, a man who never gave up his passion for art. There is no wasted energy here, a lean tale told with sympathy but not sentimentality, made by a master filmmaker who deserves wider recognition.

Old Love

Old Love

The other two films were rather unsuccessful as dramas if still holding a certain curiosity. Pang Eun-jin’s Method concerns a Method actor (Park Sung-woong) and his erotic, quasi-sadomasochistic relationship with a younger pop idol star (Oh Seung-hoon) with whom he is starring in a play. The two actors initially clash because of their different ages and backgrounds, but eventually grow closer through working together and start to overlap with the characters they are playing. This material has been handled far better in many other works, and is something of an art cinema cliché by this point. Method holds interest mostly for its central gay relationship. Homosexuality in Korea is still more controversial than in most Western countries (the most recent presidential election featuring rhetoric from the major conservative candidate that has not been seen in national American politics since the 1980s), and in many ways the depiction of homosexuality is rather dated.6 The film it actually reminded me of, maybe because of Method’s epigraphical Al Pacino quote (“I always tell the truth, even when I lie”) is William Friedkin’s 1980 film Cruising, in which Pacino plays an undercover cop who enters the gay leather bar subculture to try to capture a serial killer and gradually starts to lose his heterosexual identity and even, perhaps, his sanity. Like Method, it was interested in how performance can impact identity, but was also seen as homophobic, was widely protested at the time, and remains controversial amongst queer critics.7 Method also seems to see homosexuality as a problem or a danger, which is still rather common amongst the few Korean films that do tackle homosexuality in their plots. Jeon Soo-il’s America Town likewise felt like a throwback to an earlier era, in this case the Korean New Wave films of the 1990s. This is not surprising given that Jeon began his career at this time, making his feature debut in 1997 at the second Busan festival with Nae-an-e U-neun Ba-lam (Wind Echoing in My Being). Jeon, a Busan local, has had a long career, with ten features having played at the festival, third only to established international auteurs Kim Ki-duk and Hong Sang-soo, but has remained known only domestically. America Town gives an indication of why this has been the case, as it is a very old-fashioned and quite crude social drama based on true events from the 1980s, detailing the plight of sex workers at the United States military base in Gunsan. Jeon has a fine sense of setting and place, and the overall message, especially in the conclusion, is quite daring, confronting Korea’s collaboration with the American government and linking this back to the comfort women of the Japanese occupation, a connection no mainstream Korean film would be willing to make, as this year’s truly awful popular success I Can Speak (Kim Hyun-seok, 2017) attests.8 However, the characters in America Town are very broadly drawn and the story overly didactic, lessening its overall impact.

Rounding out the Korean premieres were two fine documentaries by established female directors: Jeong Jae-eun’s A-pa-teu Saeng-tae-gye (Ecology in Concrete) and Kim So-young’s Goodbye My Love NK (Goodbye My Love North Korea). Documentaries remain the area of Korean cinema where women have made the largest advances, as progress in fiction films remains slow. For example, of the 27 films in the Korean Cinema Today section this year, six were directed by women, an improvement over earlier festivals but still far from acceptable. Jeong Jae-eun began her career with the fiction film Go-yang-i-rul Bu-tak-hae (Take Care of My Cat, 2001), one of the best reviewed films of the decade and a major breakthrough for female directors, but has in recent years turned toward more non-fiction work, although she did also have a fiction film in this year’s festival, Butterfly Sleep. Ecology in Concrete continues her interest in architecture, following her previous films Mal-ha-neun Geon-chuk (Talking Architect, 2012) and City: Hall (2013), detailing how the city housing of modern Seoul was planned (or, as the case may be, unplanned) and constructed beginning in the 1960s. Featuring extensive interviews with city planners, architects, and everyday citizens and residents, Jeong effectively shows why the city now looks as it does, although it may be difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with Seoul. Scholar-filmmaker Kim So-young has been a long-time professor at the Korean National University of Art (where Jeong Jae-eun and many other filmmakers have studied) as well as a documentarian of Korean history, particularly women’s history. In Goodbye My Love North Korea, she turns her attention to a truly fascinating yet little known tale of eight North Koreans who studied at the Moscow Film School in the 1950s and then remained in the Soviet Union in exile, opposed to the idolisation of then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. The approach to the material is quite conventional, but with a story this interesting and a researcher as strong as Kim in control, the result is still compelling and provides a valuable contribution to cinematic and cultural knowledge.

Ecology in Concrete

Ecology in Concrete

In addition to these 11 screenings, I also saw four non-premiere Korean films that were on the schedule. I had already watched Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, a kinetic and exciting crowd-pleaser that was somewhat overshadowed here due to the controversy over its theatrical screenings.9 Hong Sang-soo’s Geu-hu (The Day After) played with subtitles earlier in the year in Seoul, as is now customary with Hong’s work (but still rather rare for Korean films generally). This third collaboration between Hong and lead actress/lover Kim Min-hee is another fine, complex narrative, if not quite the same level of achievement as their other movie released this year, Bam-ui Hae-byeon-e-seo Hon-ja (On the Beach at Night Alone), a near masterpiece marred only by one ill-conceived sequence. Much lesser known was Lee Soo-youn’s psychological thriller Hae-bing (Bluebeard), a strong genre piece that covers familiar ground but with enough style and genuine twists to make worthy of a mild recommendation. Most of all, I was excited to finally have the opportunity to see one of the biggest box office draws of the year, Jang Hoon’s Taek-si-un-jeon-sa (A Taxi Driver), probably the most discussed movie domestically this past year. Starring the great Song Kang-ho alongside German actor Thomas Kretschmann, it covers the true story of the events of May 1980, now known in Korea as the Gwangju Massacre, in which a German journalist hires a Seoul cab driver to bring him to Gwangju (a roughly four-hour drive south) to attempt to document the protests. For years, news of the event, in which the military dictatorship opened fire and killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of democratic activists (or, as conservatives would claim, Communist agitators from North Korea) was censored in the media, and it was not unlike the mid-‘90s that mainstream film and television dramas would regularly represent the event, most notably Jang Sun-woo’s A Petal (1996).  Since then, it has become a leftist touchstone, and it is hardly accidental that A Taxi Driver become the biggest hit of the year in the wake of the conservative government’s downfall. The movie itself is quite effective and stirring, with Song terrific as usual playing his typical Everyman who ends up in the middle of historical events. However, even though he is the lead and thus the main hero, it is very much a working class collective, made up of fellow taxi drivers and students, as can be seen most clearly in the main action set piece. There is not much of reality left by the conclusion, but as a mainstream popular entertainment about Korean history, it is about as progressive as we are likely to get given the increased blockbuster nature of the Korean film industry.

A Taxi Driver

A Taxi Driver

This raises the question of the future of many of the films discussed here. Most (but by no guarantee all) will get at least a small arthouse release, given the space that has been opened up by the success of the domestic industry. But given the downbeat tone of so many of even the better works here, it seems unlikely any will command a great deal of even critical attention domestically. In some ways, I feel this year’s lineup works best as a collective, a capturing, perhaps somewhat accidently, of a certain mood within the country, coming after a decade of conservative rule in which life for those on the margins grew increasingly bleak. And this is ultimately why an independent cinema is valuable, for giving voice to the vast numbers of citizens who are often excluded by the mainstream media. It is also hopeful that, even if none of the films seems destined for great success, the sheer quantity of quality films dealing with these less than glamorous aspects of social life will end up having an influence going forward.

Busan International Film Festival
12-21 October 2017
Festival website: http://www.biff.kr/structure/eng/

Endnotes

  1. For a detailing of these events, see Marc Raymond, “The Festival That Almost Wasn’t: The 21st Busan International Film Festival”, Senses of Cinema no. 81, December 2016.
  2. For a good overview of the election and its lead-up, see J. Weston Phippen, “Moon Jae In Wins South Korea’s Presidential Election”, The Atlantic, 9 May, 2017.
  3. Lee Hyo-won, “Busan Festival Deputy Director Kim Ji-seok Dies at 57”, The Hollywood Reporter, 18 May, 2017.
  4. For example, both Pierce Conran and Jason Bechervaise choose Madonna as their third best Korean film of 2015. See Pierce Conran, “The Top Korean Films of 2015”, Modern Korean Cinema, 22 December, 2015; Jason Bechervaise, “Top 10 Korean Films of 2015”, The Korea Times, 25 December, 2015.
  5. 22nd Busan International Film Festival Catalogue, Busan International Film Festival, Busan, 2017, p. 107.
  6. Eom Da-sol and Park Ji-soo, “Homosexuality = AIDS? Conservative Candidate Blasted for ‘Hate Speech’ Against Homosexuals”, The Korea Times, 26 April, 2017.
  7. For example, queer theorist David Greven argues Cruising is far more complex than the initial protests over the film made it appear. See David Greven, Psycho-sexual: Male Desire in Hitchcock, De Palma, Scorsese, and Friedkin, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2013, pp. 183-206.
  8. I Can Speak was also the recipient of many Blue Dragon Awards, roughly Korea’s equivalent to the Academy Awards. Korea’s middlebrow, like Hollywood’s, is capable of celebrating some very bad films for purely ideological reasons.
  9. Sonia Kil, “Netflix’s ‘Okja’ Shut Out of Hundreds More Screens in South Korea”, Variety, 7 June, 2017.