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The 25th Busan International Film Festival was originally scheduled to take place in early October, as usual, with a full lineup and screenings, albeit with certain increased safety measures and reduced foreign guests. The fact that this was being considered is an indication of how relatively effective South Korea has been at handling the COVID-19 pandemic, but an uptick in cases throughout August caused the festival to be delayed by two weeks and the schedule to be dramatically reduced. Also, press screenings and tickets were all cancelled and moved online. Thus, my experience of the festival was virtual, and limited mostly to Korean films, as many of the higher profile features, such as Minari (Lee Isaac Chung, 2020) and Undine (Christian Petzold, 2020), were not made available. Nevertheless, I was able to see a large number of Korean films making their world premiere, along with other titles released earlier in the year, allowing for a portrait of Korean national cinema at this particularly unusual moment in history.

One immediately noticeable change this year was in the Panorama section of the Korean Cinema Today program, which combines some selected premieres with an overview of titles previously released, allowing audiences, especially non-Korean speakers, to survey the year to date. This section is often very strong, but was noticeably lesser in quality this year, with fewer films in circulation and some anticipated films failing to live up to expectations. Included in the section was veteran Woo Min-ho’s Namsan-ui Bu-jang-deul (The Man Standing Next), a fictionalised political thriller about the real-life 1979 assassination of President Park Chung-hee by Kim Jae-gyu, the head of the Korean CIA, an event that had been made into a much more controversial film by Im Sang-soo back in 2005, Geu-ddae Geu-saram-deul (The President’s Last Bang). The Man Standing Next is a safer text, lacking the acidic satirical edge of the early work and being generally more reconciliatory in tone. The fact that this fairly standard thriller is South Korea’s entry for the Best International Feature Academy Award is an indication of the weakness of the year’s mainstream releases, and it is safe to say there will not be a repeat of last year’s triumph for South Korea in that category.1 The best Korean fiction feature of the year, and the one that should have been the Oscar selection, in my opinion, is Hong Sang-soo’s latest, Do-mang-chin Yeo-ja (The Woman Who Ran), one of his best in many years. Unfortunately, Hong is not really on the national cinema radar, becoming more of an international specialty item. The Woman Who Ran did play Busan, after debuting in Berlin and having a brief theatrical run domestically in September, but, tellingly, in a section called Icons alongside non-Korean auteurs such as Jia Zhang-ke, Tsai Ming-liang, Kelly Reichardt and Frederick Wiseman. This despite the fact that, in his own idiosyncratic way, Hong still has much to say about contemporary Korean culture and society (as well as remaining a key influence on younger Korean filmmakers).

The Woman Who Ran

There were a number of other films that played at other major festivals before debuting locally in the Panorama section, but none were particularly impressive. Kim Yong-hun’s debut feature, the noir thriller Ji-pu-ra-gi-ra-do Si-peun Jib-seung-deul (Beasts Clawing at Straws), which won a Special Jury Award at Rotterdam, has some fine moments and a standout turn by the great Jeon Do-yeon, but the derivative nihilism wears thin by the conclusion.2 Yoon Sung-hyun, who debuted a decade earlier with the critically acclaimed drama Pa-su-kkun (Bleak Night, 2010), finally released his long awaited second feature, Sa-nyang-ui Si-gan (Time to Hunt), which played at Berlin in February but then had its release impacted by the pandemic, eventually ending up on Netflix after some legal complications.3 Although it has some hints of the same qualities of his first film, especially his sensitive handling of male relationships, Time to Hunt feels overblown and the genre story elements are extremely contrived. Its failure is reminiscent of last year’s Woo-sang (Idol), the sophomore feature of Lee Su-jin, who had previously earned praise for Han Gong-ju (2013) and had likewise debuted at Berlin to disappointing notices, showing the difficulty many independent directors have in moving towards larger and more genre-based material. More disappointing still was Yeon Sang-ho’s stand-alone sequel to the enormously popular Busan-haeng (Train to Busan), Bando (Peninsula), which was originally selected to play at Cannes before that festival’s cancellation. The film managed to do impressive box office, being released in July when the number of virus cases was low, a tribute to the popularly of the original, but the critical reception was far less enthusiastic, adding to the sense of 2020 being a lost year for mainstream Korean releases.4

Thankfully, there were two smaller films in the Panorama section that were more impressive: Lee Seung-won’s Se Ja-mae (Three Sisters), which was part of the 2020 Jeonju Cinema Project, and Kim Jong-kwan and Jang Kun-jae’s Da-ri Ji-neun Bam (Vestige), which was a world premiere. Three Sisters, although not related to the Chekhov play, is similarly a showcase for its three lead female performers, led by Moon So-ri (who also produced) as the middle sister Mi-yoon, a married woman with two children who is deeply invested in her Christian church community. She appears to be the most well-adjusted of the siblings, although we soon find out she has major problems of her own. The younger sister, the writer Hee-sook (Kim Sun-young), is continuously drunk, overeating, and neglectful of her husband and stepson, and her older sister Mi-ok (Jang Yoon-joo) is disdained by her daughter and husband and is also, unbeknownst to others, suffering from cancer. As the stories unfold and we get flashbacks to their childhood, we learn all three are dealing with traumas that reverberate through their adult lives. The tone veers wildly, and the highly melodramatic / comedic ending at the father’s birthday, a sequence that recalls Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (The Celebration, 1998) as filtered through a distinctly Korean sensibility, did not quite work tonally, partially because of how moving the preceding flashbacks had been. But the story is consistently entertaining, with needed doses of black humour, and getting to see Moon, truly one of cinema’s best performers, have the opportunity to play such a great role is always exciting.

Vestige

Vestige was the other standout of the Panorama section, two short films, each roughly 30 minutes in length, combined together into a feature and linked by the thematic elements of memory, loss, and haunting. The first film is directed by Kim Jong-kwan, who is becoming one of the independent filmmakers whose work consistently impresses despite the seemingly slight content. He is the modern master of the omnibus film, often combining his own short films into a larger whole, as with The Table (2016) and A-mu-do Eop-neun Got (Shades of the Heart, 2019), or combining with other filmmakers, as with Netflix’s Persona (2019) or with this latest effort. Kim has always been more interested in tone and feeling than in narrative, and this may be his most extreme example yet in that direction. It is also the closest he has come to a horror film, although it is more in the evocative tradition of a Val Lawton than anything shocking or gory. Everything remains abstract, as we follow a woman and her haunted visions of a lost daughter, never developing into anything beyond the suggestion of a story. The imagery, as usual with Kim, is striking and stays in the imagination long afterwards, perhaps even more so here, given how obscure the narrative remains. Thus, it pairs quite well with Jang’s short, which is more grounded and uses a long-take realist style of two-shot conversations involving young people in their 20s trying to negotiate the difficulty of life in contemporary South Korea, material much more familiar to indie cinema. However, eventually, supernatural elements begin to surface in this story as well, leading to its fantastical conclusion. Jang has not made a film since his second feature, Han-yeo-reum-ui Fan-ta-ji-a (A Midsummer’s Fantasia, 2014), and this short shows his ability to capture characters and situations naturalistically even when combining with more haunted figures and landscapes. Vestige remains something of a sketch but does display both filmmakers’ talents and manages to integrate them successfully, making for an intriguing experiment in contrasting and complementary auteurs.

Fighter

I was able to see two other films in the Panorama section, neither of which were aesthetic successes but both of which were of sociological interest: Choi Ha-na’s first feature Ae-bi-gyu-hwan (More Than Family), which debuted here before opening domestically in November, and Kim Ui-seok’s In-gan Jeung-myeong (Empty Body), which first aired as part of a streaming series, SF8, in July (a shortened version had also aired on Korean broadcast television in October). More Than Family, something of a vehicle for K-pop star Krystal (the use of K-pop celebrities has become increasingly common in Korean cinema over the past few years), is a comedy/drama about a young pregnant woman who attempts to reconnect with her birth father before getting married, much to the chagrin of her mother and stepfather. It is difficult to recommend a movie that is essentially a comedy if none of the comedy works for you, which is the case here. But as a story about how Korean society is dealing with changes in the family structure and what and who are acceptable and unacceptable within such structure, it is very much worth seeing. Empty Body is even less pleasant as a viewing experience, a derivative piece of science fiction in which a mother (played by Moon So-ri, in a role that really wastes her talent) loses her son and has him recreated using artificial intelligence. The film, and the SF8 series of which it is a part, is essentially a Korean take on Black Mirror, and it is always intriguing to see how such a program will be culturally translated.  However, Empty Body does very little with the premise, and one cannot help but think about the far superior Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back” in comparison.

If the Panorama section was rather weak, it was redeemed by the Vision program, which featured 10 films, all premieres, from many directors making their debuts. While not all were successful, as a group they showed a greater perspective and variation in stories and storytelling, as well as better gender diversity, with 3 of the films directed by women (by contrast, only 1 of 15 Panorama titles had a female director). My favourite of the Vision section would be Choi Jin-young’s first feature, Tae-eo-na-gil Jal-hae-sseo (The Slug), an affecting piece that combines many themes common to Korean indie dramas with aspects of magic realism. The story begins in 1998, with the recent death of the parents of teenager Chun-hee, who is forced to live with her uncle and his family and is confined to the attic, a space that director Choi makes particularly memorable through her framing and repeated compositions. The film then flashes forward to the present day, where the adult Chun-hee (played by Kang Jin-ah, a familiar face within Korean indies) is still living in the same house and is now visited by her childhood self as she attempts to deal with her past traumas. A genuinely moving work, owing a great deal to Choi’s understated and intelligent direction, which uses the everyday spaces of the character and her small town to stunning effect, especially a tunnel in which many important narrative events are staged. It is also primarily a movie about outsiders, people who do not fit into Korean society and the abuse they suffer as a result, but with a careful balance of humor and even optimism that the magic realist elements provide. It is a rare film that can balance a recognition of human despair without wallowing in misery, and The Slug (despite the rather terrible English title, the Korean original being much better although difficult to translate) achieves this balance as well as any I can remember.

Our Joyful Summer Days

Another impressive first film by a female director was Lim Jung-eun’s Our Midnight, a beautifully shot black-and-white drama centering on two people meeting on a bridge over the Han River in Seoul and spending the evening together. Ji-hoon is a struggling actor whose long-term relationship has recently ended because of his lack of financial security. He ends up taking a job surveying bridges in Seoul in order to prevent suicides, where he encounters and develops a strange relationship with Areum, a young woman who has recently broken up with an abusive boyfriend and is facing challenges at work as a result. The plot is quite familiar to many independent Korean films, detailing the quotidian struggles of young people in modern Korea, but director Lim suffuses the tale with an abundance of cinephilia and cinematographic shadow play that adds a feeling of mystery and even romanticism to the otherwise downbeat subject matter. The references range from City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931) to Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988) to Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995), but do not feel flashy or empty but rather are well-integrated into the overall tone of the piece. With a slender 77-minute running time, it remains more of a mood piece, but announces the 30 year-old Lim as a talent to watch.

I would also recommend two other Vision films: Yun Jero’s Fighter, detailing the life of a young refugee from North Korea who begins a boxing career, and Jung Wook’s debut feature Jong-eun Saram (Good Person), a neo-noir in which a high school teacher suspects one of his students of deliberately injuring his young daughter. Fighter is director Yun’s fourth fiction film; he has also made three documentaries, including Song Hae 1927, which also premiered at this year’s festival, making him one of the more prolific filmmakers on the indie scene. The plot is very generic on the surface, but Yun sets up many cliches only to undermine them and produce a fresh take on the material. The direction is assured and the performances uniformly impressive, especially Lim Sung-mi in the difficult lead role and the great character actor Oh Kwang-rok as her coach. One can certainly complain that the story abandons the familiar boxing story beats only to replace them with melodramatic plotting that is just as hackneyed, but I felt the combination of the two ended up being more affecting than either set of conventions would have been on their own. Good Person is even more a genre piece, and the first half is compelling in the best noir tradition of following a flawed protagonist as his life unravels. It is not so much Hitchcockian as it is influenced by the directors Hitchcock influenced, especially Claude Chabrol. This does not have that level of tight directorial control or moral complexity, especially in its weaker second half, but it is nonetheless an impressive debut that uses the genre to probe Korean masculinity and its shortcomings.

None of the other films in the Vision program were as strong, although a few had some worthwhile qualities and merit discussion.  I found Lee Yu-bin’s Gi-bbeun Woo-ri Yeo-reum-nal (Our Joyful Summer Days) impressive at points but a decidedly difficult film to decode. It is a relationship drama in which the two leads are both unlikable and definitely incompatible, and the experience is thus rather frustrating and unpleasant; furthermore, it is unclear if this was the filmmaker’s intention, or if she actually wants the audience to desire the couple’s reunion. Director Lee is not without talent and I admire the ambition, but I cannot say it was quite worth recommending. Lee Hwan’s Eo-reun-deul-eun Mol-ra-yo (Young Adult Matters) was even more unpleasant, but with the intention of punishing the audience through the character’s suffering. Se-jin, played by Lee Yu-mi in a brave and admirable performance, is a pregnant teen looking for money for an abortion who encounters the underbelly of Korean society while forming a makeshift family with fellow runaway teens. The story recycles characters from director Lee’s first film, Park Hwa-young (2017), and continues his attempt to follow in the tradition of Kim Ki-duk and his portraits of sexual violence. It is well-made and effectively disturbing but rather sadistic in the relentless beatings the character is shown to endure. One noticeable trend of this year and more recent festivals, perhaps owing to Kim Ki-duk’s rightful cancellation, is sexuality, and especially sexual explicitness, being far less common in these independent films.5. Even here, despite the lurid content, the sex is kept to an on-screen minimum, and instead is replaced by rather extreme violence. I cannot say that it is a positive trade-off, although one likely to provoke less controversy. Much lighter and more crowd-pleasing was Lee Seung-hwan and Yoo Jae-wook’s LIMECRIME, which tells the story of two young boys from differing class backgrounds who bond over their mutual love of hip-hop. Based on their own experiences, Lee and Yoo show an authentic feel for the milieu, but really do not develop the characters with any depth. And stylistically, there is not much here, with a great deal of standard handheld shots and not much of a compositional eye.

In addition to the Korean Cinema Today category, there were two Korean films in the New Currents competition section, which often contains some of the best work by young Korean filmmakers. For example, in 2018, Kim Bo-ra’s acclaimed Beol-sae (House of Hummingbird) screened in this section. Unfortunately, one of the films, Lee Woo-jung’s Choi-seon-ui Salm (Snowball), was inexplicably pulled from the online site before I had a chance to screen, although reviews were generally positive.6 The other film, Lee Ran-hee’s Hyu-ga (A Leave), was indeed one of the best movies of the festival and a rare story of the working class that has both empathy and subtlety. The plot centres on Jae-bok, a man in his 50s who has been part of a 5-year workers’ protest over their unfair dismissal from their former jobs. He and his fellow protestors decide to take a brief leave following another court loss, and he re-enters his family’s life, where he is trying to support two teenage daughters as a single parent. A sympathetic portrayal of a basically decent (although not sentimentalised) man that is surprisingly complex in its depiction, seeing the point of view of other characters as well, especially his daughters and their sacrifices to his ideals. Cinematically straight-forward but efficiently told, with a truly terrific closing sequence that really elevates the movie overall. An impressive debut feature, and one that can stand proudly alongside other acclaimed chroniclers of working-class life. In fact, I think it contrasts quite favourably with the critical favourite Ken Loach, avoiding some of the heavy-handed-ness that Loach often employs to manipulate the viewer and instead trusting the viewer to analyse the situations and characters for themselves.

Finally, the Wide Angle section at Busan is dedicated to short films and documentaries, many of which are Korean and often explore local politics and social issues, and this year was no exception, with such works as Kim Eui-sung and Joo Jin-woo’s Na-ui Chot-bool (Candlelight Revolution), about the protest that led to President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, and Moon Seung-wook and Yoo Ye-jin’s Gunsan-jeon-gi (City of Outlanders), about the troubled history of the city of Gunsan. However, this year also produced a film that was a true outlier, the best Korean film to premiere at the festival and one of the better documentaries I have seen in recent years: Lee Dong-woo’s Self-Portrait 2020. It is a profile of Lee Sang-yul, an alcoholic, mentally ill homeless man living in Seoul who also happens to have had a lost career as a director, making a short film called Self-Portrait 2000 that played at the Venice Film Festival.  Director Lee Dong-woo mixes in the original short into his own verité-style footage of Lee Sang-yul and his community of fellow destitute outcasts living on the margins of society, with the subject matter of the Self-Portrait 2000, detailing a man gambling away his life, finding parallels with its director’s own self-destructive tendencies. With a 168-minute running time, the movie can feel overlong and repetitive, but I think the extreme length is ultimately necessary, given the dangers of exploitation and / or romanticism. The film avoids both, and instead provides a complicated document about both the individual and their place within the larger worlds of art and society. Lee Sang-yul is an unforgettable protagonist, an intelligent and at times charming man, capable of quoting Robert Bresson and analysing his own life in connection to a scene from Yasujiro Ozu’s Banshun (Late Spring, 1949), and yet unable to pull his life together and find any sense of peace. Director Lee Dong-woo also finds and includes footage of Lee Sang-yul and his film’s screening at Venice back in 2000, which is edited into the concluding conversation between the two men. It is this participatory approach that allows the film to avoid any sense of voyeurism and provides its ethical dimension. One senses the filmmaker empathises equally with his subject and with those whom his bad behaviour impacts, even a long-lost daughter who never appears on screen and whom we know only through harsh and mercenary words spoken to her father years earlier, which he repeats at different points throughout: “Go make some money you piece of shit.” As cruel as those words are, we experience enough of this man and his behaviour to not condemn his daughter, given the difficulty one would have in life with this man as a father. A truly unforgettable viewing experience, and a film that I hope will eventually receive a larger audience both within Korea and globally.

Self-Portrait 2020

In conclusion, another reason I think Self-Portrait 2020 is the most resonant movie of the festival is that the story of Lee Sang-yul can be seen by fellow filmmakers as both a warning and maybe even a premonition of the life that could await them. Although Korean independent cinema continues to get support from festivals and government agencies, it is always a constant fight and struggle for most individuals working in this sector to survive and keep making art. Undoubtably, that is what partially drew Lee Dong-woo to tell his story, as it is a story and fate that potentially awaits them. So although it was the smaller, more intimate work that was among the best work produced at Busan this year, all these filmmakers are aware of the difficulties ahead in being able to continue to tell these important stories.

Busan International Film Festival (online)
21-30 October 2020
Festival website: https://www.biff.kr/eng/

Endnotes:

  1. Jean Noh, “South Korea Submits ‘The Man Standing Next’ for 2021 Oscars,” ScreenDaily (October 21, 2020)
  2. Choi Ji-won, “’Beasts Clawing at Straws’ Wins Jury Award at Rotterdam,” The Korea Herald (February 3, 2020)
  3. Lee Gyu-lee, Film ‘Time to Hunt’ Faces Lawsuit over Netflix Debut,The Korea Times (April 9, 2020)
  4. Scott Mendelson, “Why Global Box Office For ‘Peninsula’ is Cause for Optimism,Forbes (July 29, 2020)
  5. Dong Sun-hwa, “Japanese Film Festival Asked to Cancel Screening of Kim Ki-duk Film”, The Korea Times, 12 February, 2020.
  6. Pierce Conran, “Busan 2020 Review: SNOWBALL Gently Strikes with Familiar but Well-Told Tale,” Screen Anarchy, 28 October, 2020.