The latest edition of the Busan International Film Festival featured the usual lineup: a number of films getting their Asian or Korean premieres after having debuted at more prestigious festivals (Cannes, Venice, Toronto); many world premieres from other Asian countries, mostly from younger or less established directors; a large selection of Korean movies, mixing many premieres with the most critically acclaimed and financially successful films from the calendar year thus far; a large documentary contingent, with a competition section; and two retrospectives, one on the Korean auteur Lee Jang-ho, and one on Filipino cinema. Busan remains one of the top cinematic attractions in Asia, with a World Cinema section including top auteurs and critically acclaimed selections from the year in cinema: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (The Coen Brothers), Climax (Gaspar Noé), Dogman (Mateo Garrone), Everybody Knows (Asghar Farhadi), The Fall of the American Empire (Denys Arcand), First Man (Damien Chazelle), High Life (Claire Denis), The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard), Loro (Paolo Sorrentino), Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas), Our Time (Carlos Reygadas), Roma (Alfonso Cuarón), The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard) and The Wild Pear Tree (Nuri Bilge Ceylan). I saw a couple of these films, from Denis and Ceylan, and they were both among the best of the festival, if not at the top end of each director’s work. However, since these films have been and will be covered by other reports and critics, I will focus my report on the Korean films at the festival, in the hopes of giving a state of the national cinema overview of the current moment.

The biggest takeaway from this year’s festival is the large number of films about women, often from the point of view of female filmmakers. This may be connected to the increased activism around the #metoo movement, which is having an influence on Korean society and politics, resulting in mass protest and calls for reform.1 This has also reached the film industry, with prominent auteur Kim Ki-duk (and several others) accused of sexual assault and forced out of the festival spotlight.2 Given this environment, it would make sense for the festival to try to begin to counter the overall gender imbalance in the industry by concentrating on more female directors and female-centred narratives, and the numbers show this to be the case. The “Korean Cinema Today” program is split into a “Panorama” section, consisting of “a comprehensive introduction to various styles and genres of Korean films this year”,3 and a “Vision” section of “independent feature films from throughout the year, and a glimpse into the future of Korean cinema.”4 The gender breakdown of Panorama, which features fewer premieres and more auteur films and commercially successful releases from earlier in the year, was basically unchanged, with 3 of the 17 films directed or co-directed by women, compared with 3 of 16 in 2017 and 2 of 17 in 2016. But Vision showed a real change, with half of the 10 films with a female director, compared with 3 of 11 in 2017 and 2 of 11 in 2016. Also, in the main competition section of Busan, “New Currents”, which has a mix of Korean and international films, the 5 Korean films from 2016-2017 were all directed by men; this year, 2 of the 3 were female. This gender split between the independent premieres versus the establishment cinema can be seen thematically as well.

Ho-heub (Clean Up, Kwon Man-ki)

The New Currents section featured three strong Korean entries, all centring around a female lead: Kwon Man-ki’s Ho-heub (Clean Up), Kim Bora’s Beol-sae (House of Hummingbird), and Park Young-ju’s Sun-hee-wa Seul-ki (Second Life). The Jury Award went to Clean Up, and while I would have voted for House of Hummingbird, it was still a fine choice and an impressive debut feature from Kwon. The story revolves around Jung-joo, a depressed woman whose son has died years earlier. Although she attends church services to try to assuage her unknown demons, it fails to work, and she often turns to alcohol instead. She works for a cleaning company, and when they hire a young ex-convict with ties to her secret past, she is forced to confront her guilt directly. The film plays on many of the tropes common in Korean independent dramas (man returning to society from prison, the kidnapping of a child), and as a result often feels familiar or even cliched, especially in its use of coincidence. Despite this, there is a strong emotional core that makes the characters and their situations feel authentic. Yoon Ji-hye’s lead performance is crucial, as this character has to navigate through a wide variety of emotions taking place in two different time periods in her life. She is not simply a victim, nor especially sympathetic in her actions, but Yoon portrays her pain vividly, and makes some rather implausible sequences transcend their limitations. Another strength is the portrayal of the work place environment, which could be seen as a simple and obvious metaphor of cleaning up the sins of the past. Smartly, Kwon focuses on the quotidian nature of the job, and the lived-in relationships that these working-class characters share. As much as anything, Clean Up is about class, of the difficulty of acting morally in impossible situations, which gives its concluding scenes real power.

Both House of Hummingbird and Second Life are even more female-centric in their stories and perspective, coming from two women making their feature debuts with tales about adolescence. House of Hummingbird is the far more ambitious work, in part because of its different pedigree. Director Kim Bora graduated with an MFA from Columbia University, and received funding support from the Seoul International Women’s Film Festival as well as post-production support from Sundance. This enables Kim to mount this rather complex tale of the 14 year-old Eun-hee, who is growing up in a difficult family situation while searching for love and understanding through various friendships and relationships. Kim chooses to set the movie in 1994, for reasons that eventually become apparent (and which have particular social and political resonance for South Korea), and is able to convincingly portray this time period without it dominating the story and characters. When major historical events do occur and interact with the character’s life, it is handled in a low-key manner and does not feel like crude allegory. At 135 minutes in length, House of Hummingbird allows itself time to understand its lead character even as she struggles to understand herself. She has romantic relationships with both a boy and then a girl, but her sexuality does not end up being a defining aspect of her identity. Like most adolescents, she is created by her entire social environment, from her physically abusive brother, uncaring father and depressed mother to her touching connection with one female teacher. Of all the debuts at this year’s festival, this is the most likely to find some modest international festival and domestic arthouse success.

Sun-hee-wa Seul-ki (Second Life, Park Young-ju)

In contrast to House of Hummingbird’s scope, Second Life is roughly half the length (70 minutes) and director Park Young-ju is still completing her studies at the Korean National University of Art (KNUA), which produces many independent Korean films. Thus, this similar story of the struggles of a teenage girl is very slight and contained, and for this reason is more directly emotional if necessarily more straightforward. The plot involves the character of Sunhee, a social outcast who is neglected by her divorcing parents. After she is rejected by her peer group, her attempt at revenge leads to unexpected tragedy, and she flees the city and seems to attempt suicide in a lake. When she is saved and taken to an orphanage, she decides to create a new identity, changing her name to Seul-ki. This aspect, if taken literally, may appear unrealistic or contrived, but it works well on a thematic level. As the English title Second Life suggests, her Seul-ki identity is a way to escape from a dystopian reality to a utopian fantasy, and can be interpreted as pure wish fulfillment, even perhaps as a dying girl’s dream. As such, it is touching that her dreams are so modest: a supportive family environment and a school life where she is able to make friends and find academic success. While it is definitely sentimental, Second Life is also bleak in presenting the reality that has to be escaped, with clear parallels to how so many young people make similar voyages into more ideal virtual worlds online. And the conclusion suggests these escapes are only temporary and have to be constantly recreated and reimagined.

Our Body (Han Ka-ram)

The female focus was so great this year that the festival decided to give the “Best Actor and Best Actress” awards to two female performers, instead of the usual gender split, with both Choi Hee-seo of Our Body (directed by Han Ka-ram) and Lee Ju-yeong of Maggie (directed by Yi Ok-seop) deserving winners. Both films were also feature debuts from women, with a strong emphasis on relationships between women. The better of the two is Our Body, another indie drama about the difficulty of young people in their 20s to find a satisfying life in modern South Korea. The lead character Ja-young, after years struggling to pass the civil service exams, eventually decides to give up. After encountering an attractive woman (Hyun-joo) jogging past her one evening, she decides to take up running herself and strikes up a friendship with the woman. At the same time, she begins part-time work at the company of an old school friend and has to negotiate their office politics. The best aspect of the film is these various female relationships, which are quite intricate and difficult to comprehend. There seems to be a sexual attraction towards Hyun-joo, but this character remains defined primarily through Ja-young’s subjectivity. As the title suggests, the emphasis on “our” body is one of female sexuality more broadly, with the lead character’s journey one of bodily self-discovery, a point emphasised by the opening and closing scenes. Because of this thematic thread, the individual characters, even the lead, are rather undefined, which makes the film have a certain distance and abstraction. But it is nevertheless a promising debut. Maggie (which is translated to “catfish” in Korean) was much rewarded, picking up not only the Actress prize but also the CGV Arthouse Award, the KBS Independent Film Award, and the Citizen Critics Award. It features fine performances from both the lead as well as the great Moon So-ri in a supporting role, as well as vibrant cinematography, but the storytelling is far too fractured and precious to be recommended, feeling like an overly quirky indie comedy from the 1990s. That said, the visuals are striking enough to show director Yi’s potential moving forward.

Gye-jeol-gwa Gye-jeol Sa-i (Between the Seasons, Kim Jun-sik)

Rounding out my screenings of Korean premieres were Kim Jun-sik’s Gye-jeol-gwa Gye-jeol Sa-i (Between the Seasons), Kim Yuri’s Young-ha-eui Ba-ram (Sub-zero Wind), Kelvin Kyungkun Park’s Gundae (Army), Myoung So-hee’s Bang-mun (The Strangers) and Shin Aga and Lee Sang-cheol’s Sok-mul-deul (The Snob). The best of the group is Between the Seasons, a moving portrait of a woman relocating to a new city and running a coffee shop, where she begins a friendship with a high achieving teenage girl. The story features a fairly telegraphed twist that is probably ill-advised given the sensitive subject matter, but it is a well-meaning and emotional tale, if rather unevenly directed. Sub-zero Wind is, like House of Hummingbird, an attempt at telling a wide canvas narrative of a teenage girl, in this case from the age of 12 to early adulthood. Unfortunately, it is too sprawling to create a real connection with its characters, and also handles a sexual abuse sub-plot rather poorly. The documentary Army shows observational footage of young men going through South Korea’s mandatory military service with the director’s own voiceover reminiscence of his own army experiences. Like Park’s previous feature Cheol-ae Kum (A Dream of Iron), there is some striking imagery throughout, but the voiceover narration and writing are real weaknesses, and the attempted poetic approach comes across as an affectation. The documentary The Strangers is also very personal, with director Myoung telling her own family history through a return to her hometown of Chuncheon, a small city an hour east of Seoul. Unfortunately, she seems unwilling to fully commit to dealing with her own past trauma, putting too much of the focus on her family instead. The worst film of the festival was The Snob, Shin and Lee’s second film following the critically acclaimed Ming-keu-ko-teu (Jesus Hospital), a failed attempt at a sex comedy satire of the Korean art world. It features the least likable set of characters I can remember, with a visual look derived from the worst of Korean TV drama. The film could potentially have worked if it fully committed to social critique, but it lacks the conviction to go full satire, with the result being a story lacking any emotional depth while being too self-serious to have much entertainment value.

Grass (Hong Sang-soo)

My most anticipated movies at Busan were both by big name auteurs in the Panorama section: Lee Chang-dong’s Burning and Hong Sang-soo’s Grass. Although both Lee and Hong are among the top Korean directors in the world, they are very different in style, subject matter, and especially output. Both made their debut back in 1996. Since that time and the release of Burning this May, Lee made 4 films; Hong, by comparison, made 20, and has even released another film since Grass premiered in Berlin in February. The scale and ambition of the movies also vary dramatically: Burning is Lee’s longest to date, at 148 minutes, while Grass is Hong’s shortest feature at 66 minutes. That said, Grass was my favourite of the two, a film that works as a pure Hong exercise in which plot is virtually eliminated and we are asked to either piece together the fragments and/or enjoy each individual sequence on its own. It takes place in a small Seoul café and consists of a series of familiar Hongian long take table shots, in which we have to make some educated guesses as to the meaning and the back story of each interaction. Hong’s frequent collaborator Kim Min-hee plays a woman sitting in the corner writing on a laptop, suggesting that these stories may be her imaginings, or that they are perhaps inspiring her to eventually take this material and shape it into something more like a narrative. This oblique approach allows the viewer to appreciate each sequence on its own, and as always Hong gets great performances from his cast. It also allows for some experimentation, with one sequence shot very unusually, with the camera behind one actor’s shoulder and the characters represented as mere shadows on the wall. It is the most abstract shot in Hong’s work, and shows the continuing, low-key cinematic daring of this prolific artist.

Burning (Lee Chang-dong)

The same can be said about Lee’s Burning, his first film since 2010’s Shi (Poetry) and his most unusual and mysterious to date. This is at least partially due to its source, as it is the former novelist Lee’s first adaptation, of the short story “Barn Burning” by Murakami Haruki (although this is a rather loose adaptation, with many significant changes and additions). The result is his most formalist work since the backwards narrative construction of Bakha Satang (Peppermint Candy), with a puzzling narrative and at least one character that feels more symbolic than three-dimensional. The plot revolves around Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a young working-class man from Paju, a small town north of Seoul near the North Korean border. Although he wants to be a writer, he works as a delivery driver in Seoul and one day encounters an old schoolmate, Hae-mi (newcomer Jun Jong-seo). The two begin a sexual relationship, but shortly afterwards she leaves for a trip to Africa, returning weeks later with a mysterious and very wealthy friend, Ben (played by Korean-American Steven Yeun). The plot grows more mysterious from there, with Jong-su and the audience trying to understand this stranger and his relationship with Hae-mi. Unlike Lee’s previous films, Poetry and Milyang (Secret Sunshine), which featured female protagonists and much more direct, emotional-filled narratives, Burning is an oblique thriller, far more stylised and self-conscious. The influence of cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, who previously worked on such expressionistic films as Mother (Bong Joon-ho, 2009) and Gok-seong (The Wailing, Na Hong-jin, 2016), should be recognised, as he collaborates to create the most dazzling imagery of Lee’s career. Despite this, I found myself slightly disappointed in this turn, while admiring much of the artistry. Burning stays in the mind for days afterwards, and a second viewing may likely change my opinion, but ideologically, it seems a step backwards from the more feminist thrust of the last two films.

Gong-jak (The Spy Gone North, Yoon Jong-bin)

In the introduction to his seminal The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (2004), Kyung Hyun Kim writes:

Peppermint Candy reveals the narcissistic and obsessive tendencies of the male that laments only his loss and failure though the man has enjoyed a privileged representation so far. Turning back the clock is only possible in the fantastic realm of the movies, where Peppermint Candy ends with the young Yõng-ho holding a flower in his hand and wondering about the origin of his ‘déjà vu’ at the river by the railroad track, the very spot where he will die twenty years later. But the Korean cinema’s misogynistic hope of recovering a wholesome maleness and purity from a fantasy, as if it can be transposed to be absolutely real, is, in the final analysis, impossible.5

Although written over a decade ago, Kim’s analysis seems increasingly relevant to discussions of much of the mainstream of Korean cinematic production, which is why Lee’s turn away from this re-masculinisation in Secret Sunshine and Poetry was so important. Burning, by contrast, is much more in keeping with the masculine focus of so much mainstream Korean product, even amongst its higher quality genre fare. A perfect example would be Gong-jak (The Spy Gone North), a based on a true story spy thriller from director Yoon Jong-bin that was a huge box office hit over the summer. It details the work of Park Seok-young (Hwang Jung-min), code named Black Venus, and his efforts to infiltrate the North Korean government in the 1990s in order to gain information about their nuclear development. Although it has some pacing problems in the second half (like its Hollywood counterparts, most mainstream Korean fare has become bloated in length), it is an effective and intelligent thriller that avoids simplistic jingoism. In fact, it reflects the liberal political turn of the past couple of years, with the villains being the militaristic, anti-democratic elements within the South Korean government as much as the North Korean dictators. But The Spy Gone North is also a hyper-masculine text, with the relationships between men dominating and women reduced to symbolic markers of family. In this way, it stands as a representative work of the Korean blockbuster, a trend the Korean premieres at the festival are trying to resist.

Herstory (Min Kyu-dong)

The big exception to the male dominance of the mainstream Korean output was Min Kyu-dong’s Herstory, also released in theatres this summer and also based on a true story from the 1990s. It revolves around a group of “comfort women” who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II and their efforts to receive compensation and, more importantly, recognition from the Japanese government. There have been many comfort women Korean dramas, including last year’s huge success I Can Speak (Kim Hyun-seok, 2017), which grossed 22 million domestically. By contrast, Herstory only reached 2 million in total and was considered a major flop. This is very discouraging given that Herstory is a far superior film, presenting the issues fairly and with nuance, unlike the overly heated propaganda of I Can Speak. It is also a movie with a flawed and fully human female protagonist (wonderfully played by Kim Hee-ae), a rich businesswoman who helps fund the campaign and learns a deeper understanding of the women and their stories. It is these relationships that make the movie work as well as it does, with a fine ensemble bringing this nationalist story down to earth. Unfortunately, the popular audience decided it preferred the myth. But given the huge presence of both female-centred narratives and women behind the camera at this year’s festival, there is hope that Korean popular cinema can be at least partially transformed by this influx of talent and become more de-masculinised in the years to come.

Busan International Film Festival
4-13 October 2018
Festival website: http://www.biff.kr/eng/

Endnotes:

  1. Recently, for example, the movement has turned to the problem of spy camera pornography. See Adam Taylor and Min Joo Kim, “’My life is not your porn’: South Korea’s war against spy cameras and sexual harassment”, Independent, 31 July 2018.
  2. Sonia Kil, “#MeToo Movement Brings Fast Change to South Korea’s Film Business”, Variety, 9 May 2018.
  3. 23rd Busan International Film Festival Program, Busan International Film Festival, Busan, 2018, p. 119.
  4. Ibid, p. 137.
  5. Kyung Hyun Kim, The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2004, p. 26.