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2021 marked a return of the Busan film festival to close to normality following a 2020 which had very limited theatrical presence, consisting mostly of online screenings, especially for press, as well as a more restricted number of films. 2021 was not quite status quo, as there were less screenings per day as well as 50 percent seating capacity. There were also fewer social events than would be the norm in a typical year, with the festival wisely easing back into such activities with caution. Overall, however, this was the Busan to which a regular festival-goer was more accustomed, with a particularly strong lineup of world cinema entries that had premiered earlier in the year at Berlin and Cannes, as well as a selection of Korean films closer to the norm that had been developing in the late 2010s. Being on location rather than online like I was in 2020 may be contributing to this opinion, but I think this was one of the strongest Busan lineups ever, both in terms of overall quality as well as with the Korean premieres, even if the depth of those premieres was shallower than at its peak.

The main competition section of Busan is “New Currents”, usually consisting of 10-12 films, a selection of international titles along with 2-3 Korean entries. Theoretically, this is where one would expect to find the best of the Korean premieres, but this is not always the case. In 2019, for example, the New Currents selection was quite weak, with many better films in the Korean Cinema “Vision” category. This year, however, the festival committee got the selection process correct, as the two Korean films chosen, Kim Se-in’s Ga-teun Sog-ot-eul Ip-neun Du Yeo-ja (The Apartment with Two Women) and Park Kang’s Seire, were easily the best of the directorial debuts. Moreover, I would argue that both deserve mention with the best of the Busan premieres of the past decade, which includes such great works as Lee Su-jin’s Han Gong-ju (2013), Jeon Go-woon’s So-gong-nyeo (Microhabitat, 2017), Kim Bora’s Beol-sae (House of Hummingbird, 2018), and Yoon Dan-bi’s Nam-mae-eui Yeo-reum-bam (Moving On, 2019). Not only are both accomplished cinematically, but they manage to fit thematically within the Korean “domestic independents” of the past decade while branching out into new and exciting directions from within this cinematic sphere.1

The Apartment with Two Women

The Apartment with Two Women is the English title of the film, but this is not a literal translation from the Korean; the original is more accurately translated as “Two Women Who Share the Same Underwear,” a more evocative title that better conveys some of the perversity of the relationships being examined. The two title characters are Yi-jung (Im Jee-ho, who won the Best Actress prize for her performance), a young woman in her late twenties, and her mother, Soo-kyung (Yang Mal-bok), who live together despite having a very contentious and even violent mother-daughter dynamic. The character of Yi-jung is the lead, and she has many similarities to the protagonists often found in Korean indies: she is struggling to find employment and has trouble making meaningful connections with others, likely due to her abusive upbringing. Soo-kyung, however, is not a character we often find depicted on screen. She is clearly a terrible mother, even hitting her daughter with a car (likely intentionally), and a lesser movie would have portrayed the relationship in a Manichean manner, with the long-suffering daughter being tortured by the mother-from-hell. But the actress Yang and director Kim make this character far more complex than expected, with a sexuality and energy that makes her attractive to both others in the story (her boyfriend, her best friend, her best friend’s husband) and to the viewer, despite our awareness of her monstrosity. Moreover, she continues to have sway over her daughter, a love-hate affair that has erotic overtones, to such an extent that it often resembles, especially in its second half, a Bergman-esque psychodrama. I hesitate to make that comparison, as the film stands on its own and does not feel derivative in any way, but I make the analogy because it gives a sense of the ambition and scope of the project, which is quite at odds with what we normally see with even the most accomplished Korean festival premieres. One extended sequence near the finale, which takes place, at least initially, in nearly complete darkness in their shared apartment, is truly masterful and is the most blatant example of its greater art cinema striving, as the women and their personalities and images seem to overlap and converge. What is even more remarkable is director Kim Se-in is only 29 years old, making her one of the main filmmakers to watch in the coming years. The Apartment with Two Women shared the New Currents Top prize with Chinese director Wang Er Zhuo’s Zai Jian, Le Yuan (Farewell, My Hometown) and took home 5 awards in total, a Busan record.2

Seire

The other New Currents Korean entry, Park Kang’s Seire, was not at quite the same level, but in many other years would have been the best debut of the festival. It stands out amongst Korean indies in being an entry in the horror genre rather than the typical realist drama, and it benefits from its low budget limitations by relying on subtlety and psychology rather than special effects and violent gore. The story uses Korean folk superstition for the basis of its plot, as “seire” is a sacred period after the birth of a baby, in which the family should refrain from going outside to protect the newborn from evil spirits. Expanded from Park’s 2020 short film of the same title, it centres on a new father, Woo-jin (an excellent lead performance by character actor Seo Hyun-woo), who learns of the suicide of his former lover. Against his wife’s wishes, he breaks the taboo and attends the memorial service, where he meets his dead ex-lover’s twin sister (Ryu Abel) and is reminded of his problematic past. Eventually, his home and family begin to feel threatened by what may be a curse or, perhaps, just a manifestation of his own guilt. Intelligently directed, relying on cinematic skill and psychological tension; this, along with the subject matter, recalls Roman Polanksi’s masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby (1968), with which this film can deservedly be compared. Most impressive is the ability of Park to maintain and sustain his great premise and not stumble, as many horror films often do, in the final act. A genuinely unsettling experience, and although there are a couple of conventionally frightening and shocking sequences and moments, it is mainly the creepy sense of guilt and dread that make the film linger. And as much as I admire and appreciate Korean indie dramas, it is refreshing to get a genre exercise as well, especially when it is as well-executed and thoughtfully considered as this one. 

Another highlight of the festival was getting to see the Korean premiere of Hong Sang-soo’s Dang-sin Eol-gul Ap-e-seo (In Front of Your Face), which played at Cannes in May. It was one of two Hong films playing here in the “Icons” section, along with Introduction, which debuted at Berlin in February and opened domestically here in May. The two films make a fascinating contrast, in that I believe Introduction to be Hong’s worst film and In Front of Your Face to be amongst his best. A major part of the later film’s success is the lead performance of Lee Hye-yeong, a star of many films of the late 1980s/early 1990s, including many collaborations with Im Kwon-taek, who has most recently been working primarily in television dramas. She plays Sang-ok, a retired actress who has been living abroad for many years and has returned to Korea to visit her sister. She also takes a meeting with a famous director (Hong veteran Kwon Hae-hyo) who was an admirer of her older films and wants to work with her on an upcoming project. This is simply one of the best performances in all of Hong’s cinema and gives the work an emotional depth and resonance that his movies can lack. Especially remarkable is a long take sequence between Sang-ok and the film director (who cannot help but be seen as a Hong surrogate) at a restaurant, a very difficult scene lasting several minutes in which the character goes through multiple emotional shifts, a high-wire act that Lee performs flawlessly. In Front of Your Face is also, perhaps, the culmination (we shall see with the ever-prolific Hong) of certain tendencies in his recent work towards religion and a confrontation with mortality. But unlike some of these more recent films, Hong retains a healthy cynicism here to offset the softer edge, particularly regarding his own male alter-ego, to whom he subjects an honest self-criticism. 

Sophie’s World

Not only did the festival feature two Hong films, but he was a major influence on the Korean Vision program, with 4 of the 12 selections bearing a clear stylistic and/or narrative connection to his cinematic approach. These are obviously not the first indies to show a resemblance to Hong, of course, but the sheer number was a rather striking trend. While none of these films are at the same level of his best achievements, all had some merits and collectively made for a rather fascinating companion to his cinematic universe. My favourite of the group was So-pi-ui Se-gye (Sophie’s World), the first feature from writer-director Lee Jaehan, in which the title character (Ana Ruggiero) visits Korea from France to try to reconnect with an old acquaintance. She stays with a Korean couple, Soo-young (Hong and indie cinema regular Kim Sae-byuk) and Jong-gu (Kim Min-gyu, who is becoming an indie fixture), with whom she develops a relationship, with the whole story being told in flashback as Soo-young reads Sophie’s travel blog a year later. The key influencing text here is actually one of Hong’s lesser works, 2012’s Da-reun Na-ra-e-seo (In Another Country), his first collaboration with Isabelle Huppert, which might be why this worked well in comparison. Although Ruggiero is an amateur and much less of an actress than Huppert, she probably works better in this role, as Huppert was never quite convincing as a foreigner adrift in a different culture. Ruggiero’s awkwardness works within this context, and while the film is overlong (115 minutes is excessive for the story being told here), it is generally perceptive about the experience of being a foreign tourist in the country, as well as how one can and cannot understand the people with whom you come into contact. 

The most direct association with Hong can be seen in Mo-toong-i (No Surprise), the debut of writer-director Shin Sun, a former Hong student from Konkuk University who has also worked as a staff member and minor supporting performer in Hong’s films over the past decade. The story is seemingly semi-autobiographical, as a film director reunites ten years later with former Konkuk classmates, revisiting old locations around campus from their university days and re-opening old arguments and resentments from the past. This plot outline also recalls Hong’s metatextual approach, particularly a film like Buk-chon Bang-hyang (The Day He Arrives) and likewise features surrealistic aspects in which the past/present and reality/dream seem to converge. Generally well-acted and with fine location shooting grounding the film in the everyday of Seoul city campus life but cannot help but feel like a decent Hong imitation, and without his signature stylistic rigour and sharpness. It has its moments but is hurt by a weak and sentimental conclusion and could have used more of Hong’s capacity for self-critique. 

Kim Kyung-rae’s second feature, Ol Gye-ul-e Jjik-eul Yeong-hwa (Film for the Coming Winter), is the most Hongian of all, both in terms of its story, its long take stylistic approach, and its art cinema ambiguity. Co-written by Kim Kyung-rae and lead actor James Chung, the plot revolves around a director preparing a new film and revisiting an ex-girlfriend to get her advice on the script. They end up spending the day together, with him telling her parts of the story, which eventually start to blend with their own past and present, including the Buñuel-esque choice of having the female character played by different actresses. Generally well-written and well-performed, with a style that does allow the audience a distance from which to judge the lead character and his actions. However, there is a heavy lean, especially towards the conclusion, to sentimentality with regards to the male character, an identification with his perspective which I did not share. Moreover, as the story becomes more subjectively his, the female character turns from being a fully formed individual to simply a supporting prop in the protagonist’s journey. This may have worked with a greater awareness and honest self-assessment, but my sense is the filmmakers wanted the audience to accept and feel the character’s profound emotions instead, which unfortunately I did not find nearly as weighty as intended. 

The Conversation

The most stylistically daring and austere of the Hong-influenced quartet was the second feature of writer-director Kim Duk-joong, The Conversation, which contains only 16 shots, most of which are static, over its 120-minute running time, an average shot length longer than even Hong at his most extreme. As the title suggests, there is a great deal of dialogue, although there is no central characters or story, instead showing various gender combinations (a group of female friends, a group of male friends, male and female couples) having discussions about everyday life. Some of these sequences work very well, either due to the performances, dialogue, and/or framing, but many also fail to be very engaging, particularly when the male friendships are explored. The bigger problem is that the parts do not really cohere into anything or make much sense as a whole film, united only in the unusual stylistic approach and general setting amongst the middle class in Seoul. Similar in approach to Hong’s Pul-ip-deul (Grass, 2018) and other indies such as Kim Jong-kwan’s acclaimed The Table (which premiered at Busan in 2016) but lacks the emotional impact and tight structure of those works. That said, director Kim Duk-joong remains a talent to watch. His first film, The Education, played in the Busan New Currents section in 2019, and although I was also mixed on that effort, both films show an ability to write dialogue and work with actors, combined with an adventurous cinematic style that bodes well for his future projects. 

Nobody’s Lover

Overall, the Vision section this year was not as strong as in previous years, with even the best of the films falling into familiar indie narrative territory and not achieving anything truly memorable. My two favourites were Han In-mi’s Man-in-ui Yeon-in (Nobody’s Lover) and Oh Seong-ho’s Geu Gye-ul, Na-neun (Through My Midwinter), both of which were the director’s first feature. The most notable difference between these two films and the previous Vision works discussed is the emphasis on social class as a major theme, an aspect of Korean independents that Hong and those influenced by him usually ignore. Nobody’s Lover (the Korean title directly translated would be “Everybody’s Lover” and again would be more appropriate) follows Yu-jin, a high school student alienated from her single mother (who is leaving her behind for a new relationship) and entering into the world of part-time jobs and romantic love, both of which are staples of “coming-of-age” in contemporary Korea. Solid direction and performances with a great feel for the quotidian despite some melodramatic turns, this debut shows promise despite some storytelling and structural issues, especially its length (137 minutes). This greater running time does make the characters feel more lived in, but this could have been accomplished with greater economy, given the rather limited scope of the story. Also suffers from inevitable comparison to superior indie films from recent years that handle this material more strongly but remains a worthwhile entry into this growing genre of female-centered and female-directed works. 

Through My Midwinter focuses on 20-something Koreans dealing with the difficulty of life in modern Korean society, a story that is bordering on cliché in recent years within the domestic festival scene. The plot follows a young couple, Kyung-hak and Hye-jin, who are attempting to make ends meet and advance their careers (he is studying to become a police officer, she finds work in the office of a small company) while keeping their fraying relationship together. This is complicated by class issues, as Hye-jin’s mother disapproves of their living together and wants her to find a more successful and richer mate. While it covers some familiar territory, it does add some fresh elements around modern relationships and how the “love marriage” in Korea (as opposed to the arranged marriage of the recent past) is being put under strain and transforming under contemporary capitalism. The final sequence, which finds the male character exiled to a factory town on the coast to earn a living, is affecting, but it was a disappointment to see the female character and her story arc essentially abandoned, given the balance that had been achieved through the first two acts. Overall, writer-director Oh has made a fine debut, one that adds a worthwhile contribution to the many recent indies dealing with similar issues, but one that also lacks in real cinematic flair despite its evident polish. The male lead, Kwon Da-ham, took home the award for Best Actor for his performance, but Kwon So-hyeon is equally great even if her role is unfortunately less developed. 

Through My Midwinter

Another Vision title that deals with similar thematic material is Nat-e-neun Deob-go Bam-e-neun Choob-go (Hot in Day, Cold at Night), the second film from director Park Song-yeol following 2018’s Ga-ggeum Gu-reum (Can We Just Love). Park also co-stars, co-writes and co-edits the film with Won Hyang-ra, playing a young couple struggling to get by financially. However, unlike Through My Midwinter and most other contemporary independent films, Hot in Day, Cold at Night completely lacks in polish and has the feel of an amateur production, and this is both its weakness and, oddly, its strength. Watching the first act, I was struck at how poorly made the movie was: Park and Won are very awkward performers, the camera framing seemed to lack any real thought or purpose (Park is also the cinematographer), and most other traditional signs of cinematic quality were absent. However, the story elements, involving Park’s work as a delivery man, his attempt at getting revenge against a friend’s betrayal, and Won’s interactions with a bizarre yet believable money-lending organisation, were all compelling enough to keep interest despite the stylistic shortcomings. And by the conclusion, I started to consider the possibility that the very lack of professionalism that I saw as a detriment was possibly a positive and may even have been intentional. Certainly, the film “makes strange” the familiarity of its story elements by appearing so haphazardly shot and assembled, like two characters out of a Korean indie drama had decided to make their own movie about their lives instead of relying upon the professional look of indies with more institutional support. And given that the two lead actors also wrote, directed, edited and shot the film themselves, this is somewhat the case. Of course, I do not believe Park and Won would agree with my assessment of their aesthetics, preferring instead to call their style merely different rather than worse, but I ultimately came away with a certain admiration for its unusual approach despite finding their filmmaking unappealing. 

The remaining Vision titles were underwhelming to varying degrees, ranging from the merely mediocre to the extremely ponderous. Like Seire, writer-director-star Lee Woo-dong’s Han-ggeut (A Bit Different) is unusual in being a genre exercise, in this case a noirish story of corrupt detectives attempting to stage a crime scene for a television crew to film. Some decent atmosphere and at just over an hour reminiscent of the “B” films of the past, but the meta-cinematic aspect is very tired and character development practically non-existent. The other films fall into the slow cinema category, attempting variations of the Asian minimalism school but without the combination of visual design and philosophical weight necessary. Kim Mi-young’s Joel-hae-go-do (A Lonely Island in the Distant Sea) is the best of this group, revolving around a sculptor and his relationship with his teenage daughter, who becomes a novice monk, as well as his romance with a professor dying of cancer. Fairly well-made and acted and with an admirable humanistic perspective, but inert and meandering, which takes away from the emotionality it wants to achieve. The Buddhist drama Beot-eo-nal Tal (Not One and Not Two) is a split narrative of a dying man seeking Enlightenment and a young woman trying to overcome her artistic block. Not much in terms of character and story, as everything is rather purposefully abstract. There is some skill in terms of the framing and editing, but the mixing of art horror, animation, and slow-motion techniques cannot mask the fact that the ideas are terribly banal. The worst of the group was Yoon Seo-jin’s Chorokbam, a grim and unpleasant drama about a family dealing with death and the everyday miserableness of existence. Beautifully shot (it deservedly won a Cinematography Award for Choo Kyeong-yeob), but almost parodic in its attempts to portray the director’s evident revulsion at life, using heavy-handed metaphors involving animals as well as the “realism” of portraying bodily functions. There is a vision here, but not one I would like to revisit. The other major sections with Korean films were the “Panorama” section, which is a mix of premieres along with notable titles released earlier in the year, as well as the “Wide Angle” category, consisting of documentaries and shorts from both Korea and the rest of the world. I did not have the time to cover either of these but wanted to mention a few of the titles garnering buzz and awards. In the documentary category, veteran director Heo Chul-nyung’s 206: Sa-ra-ji-ji An-neun (206: Unearthed), concerning the excavation of war-time mass graves, won the top prize, while Lee Hyeon-ju’s Jang-gab-eul Sa-reo (A Winter Glove) was the winner in the Short Film competition. Amongst the Panorama premieres, there were strong notices for Hong Jun-pyo’s animated feature Chun Tae-il, about the legendary activist who committed suicide in protest in 1970 (the same figure was the subject of Park Kwang-su’s important Korean New Wave classic A Single Spark from 1995), as well as Park Ri-woong’s Bul-do-jeo-e Tan So-nyeo (Girl on a Bulldozer). Also, given the enormous success of Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game, which dropped on Netflix a few weeks before Busan began and was still dominating more conversations around the festival than any actual film, it is notable that there is now an “On Screen” category, consisting of 3-episode previews of upcoming streaming shows, which this year included Yeon Sang-ho’s Ji-ok (Hellbound) and Kim Jin-min’s My Name

Drive My Car

I would like to conclude by discussing two films I saw at the festival that were not Korean but had a pronounced Korean connection: Zhang Lu’s Yanagawa and Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s Drive My Car. Zhang Lu is a Korean-Chinese director who has made most of his films in Korea, including his most recent work, Fukuoka (2019), which bore a strong resemblance to Hong Sang-soo, including the use of Hong regular Kwon Hae-hyo. Yanagawa has a similar storyline involving characters taking a trip to a Japanese city, although in this case they are Chinese rather than Korean. Not as strong as his usual work, it is primarily of interest in seeing Zhang apply the Korean indie style to a trans-national context. Similarly, Hamaguchi’s Murakami Haruki short story adaptation expands on the original by centering around a multi-national and multi-lingual theatrical production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” including two important Korean characters, one who speaks Korean and the other who communicates through Korean sign language. As Hamaguchi starts to become more prominent in international art cinema spheres, his work is consciously taking on greater transnational aspects. Korea’s domestic independents, by contrast, tend to focus more closely and narrowly on national aspects, which I believe is a major part of their value. However, this has led to certain stories and approaches getting repeated and for a certain triteness to develop. The exciting part of this year’s best Busan premieres was the ability to expand past the familiar tropes while remaining a cinema firmly grounded in the quotidian reality of life in contemporary Korea.

Busan International Film Festival
6-15 October 2021
Festival website: https://www.biff.kr/eng/

Endnotes

  1. For an overview of the Korean independent cinema of the last decade, see Marc Raymond, “Beyond the Auteur: South Korea’s Domestic Independents as National Cinema,” Film Criticism 45(1), 2021.
  2. Pierce Conran, “THE APARTMENT WITH TWO WOMEN Wins a Record 5 Awards in Busan, Including a New Currents Award,” Kobiz (19 October, 2021.