The latest edition of the Busan International Film festival was, for the first time since 2019, more fully “international” in terms of the festival audience, with the relaxing of Covid restrictions bringing back foreign journalists, critics, and filmmakers. It also marked a return to a more “festive” atmosphere, with various industry parties and social interaction now permissible. But the cinema everyone was returning to had changed, and the festival reflected this in certain ways, even as it continued to try to fulfil its main goal of showcasing Asian and, more specifically, Korean cinema, with a huge number of world premieres of domestic works combined with screenings from the best of Korean movies of the current year. 2021 was a down year for the industry both commercially and critically; in fact, two of the best films from that year premiered in Busan but did not get a domestic release until after this year’s edition: Kim Se-in’s Gat-eun Sog-os-eul Ibneun Du Yeoja (The Apartment with Two Women) and Park Kang’s Seire. 2022 was much stronger in terms of quality, as was reflected in the “Icons” section of the festival with the inclusion of Park Chan-wook’s Heo-jil Gyeol-sim (Decision to Leave) and Kore-eda Hirokazu’s first film in Korean, Broker. Both these films, however, had already premiered locally in June, and both, despite their aesthetic distinction and major stars, failed to attract an audience, indicating how the previously strong Korean theatrical audience had not recovered from the pandemic. If this was the fate of these high profile auteurist works, the outlook for the smaller scale projects highlighted by the festival is even bleaker, at least in terms of theatrical distribution and success. 

The best of the Korean films that had their domestic if not world premiere at the festival was July Jung’s second feature, Da-eum So-hee (Next Sohee), which played at the “International Critics’ Week” section of Cannes in May but has yet to be released locally. Jung made her debut in 2014 with Do-hee-ya (A Girl At My Door, although the literal translation is simply Dohee, the lead character’s name, and thus the title Next Sohee is meant as an inter-textual reference), which was highly acclaimed and starred the great Bae Doo-na, who also co-stars here as a detective (a role very similar to her character in Broker). But, despite that earlier effort’s critical success, the fact that Jung took eight years to release a follow-up is telling and, unfortunately, not at all unusual within the industry. The story follows the life of a high school student, Sohee (played by Kim Si-eun), and the corrupt labour practices she encounters through an externship program at a shady call centre. A harsh indictment of the current social system that is the closest a Korean film has come to HBO’s The Wire (2002-2008), and like that landmark show does not offer simplistic individual villains but rather a broader political climate, making easy victories impossible and offering only the possibility of maintaining one’s integrity. Jang conveys this with a realistic style that captures contemporary life with vividness, and even manages to use mobile phones and social media without turning them into easy targets of critique. The only slight weakness is that stuffing all the plot into this running time impacts the realism effect slightly, but as film scholar Linda Williams has argued, The Wire itself, despite its efforts at verisimilitude, is basically a melodrama and uses that form as a basis for sociological examination.1 Jang does something similar here, while also making a work that is both formally complex (particularly in its narrative construction) and yet very moving. And given the current pessimism and anger amongst the younger generation, which boiled over following the recent Itaewon tragedy of October 29th, it would appear prime to capture a local audience when it is finally released with a wide distribution.2

Goein (A Wild Roomer)

Amongst the Korean world premieres, two were included in the “New Currents” Competition section, which last year had the two standouts Gat-eun sog-os-eul ibneun du yeoja (The Apartment with Two Women, Kim Se-in, 2021) and Seire (Kang Park, 2021). While neither of this year’s entries were to that high standard, Lee Jeong-hong’s Goein (A Wild Roomer, although the more literal Korean translation, “Mysterious Stranger,” might be better) was a strong and distinctive feature debut (Lee’s first short film, Ban-dal-gom, No Cave, played at the Busan International Short Film Festival in 2012). It is a low-key character study of Gi-hong (a great performance by Park Gi-hong in his first screen acting role), a struggling carpenter who rents a room from a married couple, befriending the husband while trying to track down a person who damaged his van. Unique in its lack of real narrative drive: there are plots running throughout, some of which could even be described as conventional, but the main focus is on the protagonist and observing the actor interact with the various people he encounters. It builds slowly and feels meandering and unfocused at times, but gradually becomes more and more affecting, to the point that the ending has a real and unexpected force and resonance without veering from its realistic core. 

The other “New Currents” entry was not as successful, but it was certainly topical in its depiction of adolescent unrest. Lim Oh-jeong’s Ji-ok-man-se (Hail to Hell) follows two bullied teenagers who agree to commit suicide together but delay in order to take a road trip to Seoul to enact revenge on one of their former tormentors. However, the former bully has turned to Christianity and believes they are sent from God so she can ask their forgiveness. The two leads have chemistry, but the tonal shifts are jarring and, as it reaches the conclusion, it becomes more unconvincing and makes any emotional investment difficult; slickly made but stylistically unimaginative. 

A superior film about similar subject matter was Cho Hyun-chul’s Neo-wa Na (The Dream Songs), one of the better entries in this year’s “Vision” section, dedicated to first-time features from new Korean filmmakers. The drama centres on two teenage female friends and their emotional and implicitly romantic bond, structured through a dream framework in which the characters imagine and deal with fears of death. It also becomes clear, especially to a Korean audience, that the film is referencing the 2014 Sewol tragedy, a move that could be read as exploitative, but I felt was subtly handled and gave the film extra resonance, especially given the connection generationally between Sewol and the recent Itaewon disaster.3 This still feels like a first film, as the style is at best eclectic and at worst confused, with frequent use of soft-focus cinematography that is not very effective. But the emotional moments do connect frequently enough, with fine performances from the young cast, including Kim Si-eun, who also starred in Next Sohee. And although it is uneven, I admire the ambition that is often missing in lower budget indies.

I-eo-ji-neun Ddang (The Continuing Land)

Overall, the “Vision” program, as is often the case, varied wildly in quality, and even the highlights were not as strong as in many previous editions. My favourite was Jo Hee-young’s I-eo-ji-neun Ddang (The Continuing Land), a split narrative between two female characters, one living in London, the other in Milan, who also overlap due to mutual friends. Given its focus on Koreans abroad, narrative structure, long takes, and relationships among middle-class intellectuals, it draws comparison to the work of Hong Sang-soo, although the overall feel and tone is quite different; more wistful, and nostalgic and emotional despite the distanced stylistic approach. It also shares an actress from Hong’s 2018 film Pul-ip-deul (Grass), Gong Min-jung, who is great here in a larger role than she has usually been given (Gong has been working steadily in indies and television dramas the past few years, most recently in a supporting turn in the acclaimed television series Jag-eun A-ssi-deul, Little Women, Kim Hui-won, 2022, which is also on Netflix in some regions). It is slight but affecting, with some terrific location shooting that marks Jo as a talent to watch. 

Two other “Vision” titles merit mild recommendations. Kim Tae-hoon’s Big Sleep revolves around the relationship between a 16-year-old teenage boy who comes from an abusive household and the middle-aged man who takes him in. There are some predictable story beats and it is perhaps too understated, but has a sensitivity to its characters and an admirable willingness to avoid too much overt backstory and allow an ambiguity in the portrayals. Even characters who would be simple villains in lesser films are given more complexity here, which gives the work a realism that counteracts the lack of dramatic intensity. Yoo Ji-young’s Birth is a lengthy but generally compelling drama of a female author and her teacher boyfriend and the struggles they encounter after she becomes accidentally pregnant. Though long, the running time is used interestingly in terms of structure, especially its opening 35 minutes in which we get to know the characters before the inciting incident. The writing, direction and performances are all solid, although the generally realistic aesthetic turns towards the melodramatic nearing the climax. It is a strong first feature with a refreshing perspective on pregnancy from a character who is deeply conflicted about her upcoming motherhood.

None of the other “Vision” titles worked for me, personally, although some had admirers and defenders. But, taken as a whole, they certainly reflect a grimness of mood that is sociologically valuable; the problem is making this kind of despair compelling takes a great deal of skill which was not often evident in these younger directors’ work. Jung Ki-hyuk’s Ulsan-ui Byeol (Star of Ulsan) tells the story of a woman and her family living in Ulsan, a key Korean ship-building port. The woman’s husband died years earlier and she took over his job at the dock and is even called by her husband’s name. Her two children are both disillusioned with the city and dream of better lives and careers. Though it has some good location shooting, and the story has a grounded feel, there is not much entertainment value here. And although there are some Marxist catchphrases thrown about, there’s not much real insight or analysis. The lead performance is believable, but the character is rather unlikable and hard to connect with, and the children gradually emerge as the richer characters. That said, it is a decent first film and one that showed some promise. I felt similarly about Lee Ha-ram’s Gi-haeng (Beyond), a five-chapter tale mixing Korean folklore and the Orpheus myth about a boy guided through the underworld by a female ghost. The film also includes a prologue and epilogue about a deserter during the Korean war. Mostly silent, with text on screen in place of dialogue, the film is a nice homage to that style of visual storytelling, which is also combined with a mix of black and white and colour as well as live action and animation. There is some striking imagery at times, but there really is not much story to handle the 95-minute running time, and there are not enough visual stylistics to overcome the very abstract nature of the enterprise. 

Yoon Ji-hye’s Gil-go Jae-mi-eop-neun Yeong-hwa-ga Ggeut-na-gal Ddae (The Day After Yesterday) is a slow cinema drama about a woman going through a breakup, framed through a film within a film structure, reminiscent of Antonioni for its wandering female protagonist and its industrial landscape (in this case Busan), but without his striking images or his existential angst. There is a pretension here towards big themes that are never developed, and the main idea seems to be rather simplistic: breaking up is hard to do, and that idea is given no emotional heft because of the distancing style. The literal translation from the Korean, “When a Long Boring Movie Comes to an End,” is a more accurate summation of its approach and effect. On the opposite side of the stylistic spectrum is Byun Sung-bin’s Gong-jak-sae (Peafowl), about a transgender woman who, having failed to win a dancing competition to fund her gender reassignment surgery, goes to her estranged father’s funeral in Jeolla province on the promise of inheritance if she participates in the funeral ritual. A well-meaning story of social marginalization and the attempt to reintegrate and progress, it is sluggishly paced, predictable and lacking in cinematic imagination, making the nearly two-hour film a tedious viewing experience despite its attempt at a populist, crowd-pleasing style. 

The most perplexing of the films this year was Lee Sol-hui’s Bi-nil-ha-u-seu (Greenhouse), in which a middle-aged woman tries to save money so that she can move out of the greenhouse she is staying in and make a home for when her son gets out of juvenile detention. In the meantime, she cares for an elderly couple, which leads to plot complications. It is not unusual to see a bad movie but seeing two bad movies wrapped into one is quite an accomplishment. What begins as an almost parodic take on the downbeat social drama then turns into a ludicrous farce involving the hiding of dead bodies and body-switching, except it plays these ridiculous elements straight. To top it off, the performances are not just bad, but often offensively so, a kind of disability minstrel show. The strangest part for me was that the film was well-received, winning three separate awards from the festival itself.4 Maybe it’s all meant to be a camp classic of tragic ironies, but I couldn’t get in on the joke. 

5Si-bu-teo 7Si-gga-ji-ui Juhee (Juhee From 5 to 7)

In addition to work by first-time directors, there were films premiering from indie veterans, including two critically renowned filmmakers making their return to features after many years: Jang Kun-jae’s 5Si-bu-teo 7Si-gga-ji-ui Juhee (Juhee from 5 to 7) and Lee Kwang-kuk’s Dong-e Beon-jjeok Seo-e Beon-jjeok (A Wing and a Prayer). The films are the directors’ fourth features, but Jang’s first since 2014’s Han-yeo-reu-mui Pan-ta-ji-a (A Midsummer’s Fantasia) and Lee’s first since 2017’s Ho-rang-e Bo-da Mu-seo-un Gyu-ul-son-nim (A Tiger in Winter). Juhee from 5 to 7 is, obviously, an homage to the Varda classic, Cléo de 5 á 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnes Varda, 1962), taking the basic idea of a woman anticipating a cancer diagnosis, but otherwise going off in very different directions. Here, the character is a professor in a theatre department, recently separated from her fellow professor and husband and, while she is the main protagonist, a significant amount of time is spent with the students in her orbit. The film is a great showcase for lead actress Kim Joo-ryung, best known for a memorable supporting turn in the Netflix mega-hit series Ojing-eo Geim (Squid Game, Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2021), who delivers a vastly different performance here, understated and quietly haunting. Not all the aspects work, but are helped enormously by a very moving finale. A Wing and a Prayer has clear affinities with The Dream Songs and Hail to Hell (Lim Oh-Jeong, 2022) : two female friends awaiting job interview results head to the East Sea to wish upon a sunrise, but soon argue and split apart, encountering two different new friends that parallel themselves. There are some structural problems in terms of story, with many loose and dangling threads, and the tone is uneven, but it is well-directed and with enough affecting moments to recommend it, despite its flaws. It is another in a string of indies about the disaffection of young adults, and while it is not among the top of this sub-genre, it is ultimately a worthy addition.

In the “Wide Angle” program, there were two epic-length and ambitious documentaries from relatively well-known directors within the Korean non-fiction scene: Lee Dong-woo’s SAGAL: Snake and Scorpion and Jung Yoon-suk’s Nun-sseop (Lash), both of which clocked in at over 150 minutes. SAGAL: Snake and Scorpion centres around Park Geonho, a degenerate gambler and loan shark who went to film school with the director. SAGAL is the follow-up film to the director’s great Self-Portrait 2020 (2020), which followed a former filmmaker whose life was ruined by his self-destructive behaviour. Lee references that film in SAGAL, which is not only a character study of a man on the margins of modern Korean society, but also a self-examination of his role as a documentarian, and one who becomes more self-loathing as the work continues. The length seems more excessive here than in Self-Portrait 2020 (which is 168 minutes) since the lead character is simply not as interesting but, as an auto-critique of the very act of making documentaries, it is a fascinating piece, and one that invites the viewer to consider not just the dishonesty of the lead character but of the filmmaker himself. Lash, unfortunately, was time (a lot of time) much less well spent. Jung is one of the most acclaimed Korean documentarians, having made Non-fiction Diary in 2013 and Bam-seom-hae-Jeok-dan Seo-ul-bul-ba-da (Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno) in 2017, but this latest effort is a major misfire. It details two interconnecting stories from Japan, one about an older man who owns multiple sex dolls, and the other about an attempt to run an AI as a political candidate. Basically, two rather mediocre documentaries with vague overlap pushed together into one extreme slog. Trying for an art cinema/non-fiction hybrid a la Ulrich Seidl, it manages to be both dull and unethical, especially in its treatment of the sex doll owner, who bares all (literally) for a movie that is not worth his sacrifice. The greatest irony is that Jung believes himself to be doing the opposite, contrasting the exploitative Japanese TV segment on the man with his own treatment, not realizing he is doing something similar, but for his own artistic pretension rather than commercialization. The movie thinks it is much smarter than it is, with few real insights into the characters or subject matter.

Du Sa-ram-eul Ui-han Sik-tak (A Table for Two)

A striking and welcome contrast to this pretension could be found in Kim Bo-ram’s Du Sa-ram-eul Ui-han Sik-tak (A Table for Two), her second documentary feature following Pi-ui Yeon-dae-gi (For Vagina’s Sake) in 2017. The film profiles Park Chae-young – a woman who has suffered anorexia – and her relationship with her mother. Told in a straightforward style, it is an honest and emotional look at women’s lives and relationships, with some powerful moments and interesting subtext, especially concerning the mother’s involvement as a pro-democracy activist in the 1980s. Director Kim does not shy away from the pain and awkwardness of the two characters, which are described in each’s interviews and even in some of their interactions. But, at the same time, the encounters between the two capture the bond that exists even between mothers and daughters who have resentments and baggage, as the two clearly trust in the filmmaker and collaborate willingly in putting their attempts at communication on screen. In showing an extended time period, going back to some of Park’s blogs and drawings from 2007 (when she was only 15), the narrative is also vast, despite its short running time and understated presentation. 

The “Wide Angle” program also included the short films, and the two award-winning Korean entries from this year’s competition, Jeong Eunuk’s Geu-ri-go Jip (I’m Here) and Roh Do-hyeon’s Ta-in-ui Salm (Other Life). Both are very strong and indicative of the depth of talent within the younger generation. I’m Here is about a young woman, recently unemployed, who is planning a work holiday in Canada, only to be held back by having to care for her elderly parents. The film makes smart use of horror film tropes while remaining, at its core, an indie drama about the difficulties of living in contemporary Korea. Other Life follows a young man who is invited to lunch by an older female writer who pays to ask him questions about his relationships with his former high school classmates. It is constructed like a short one-act play, with a psychological mind game aspect that works well and plays on generational tensions. Both directors will hopefully get a chance to move into features although, if the past decade is any indication (as with July Jung and Lee Jeong-hong’s journey from shorts to feature), that opportunity, even if it arrives, is likely many years away.  

Notably, Busan did not only show films this year. For the second year in a row, there was a section titled “On Screen” that focused on premiering the first three episodes of television or streaming series. Beginning in 2021 with three series, it tripled this year to nine, and seems to now be firmly ensconced within the festival program. Also, one of this year’s world premieres, Bang Woo-ri’s 20 Se-gi So-nyeo (20th Century Girl), already had a date for Netflix release before screening here. The film itself is interesting in being a kind of past/present hybrid, not just in terms of its own story but, also, in terms of its place in the festival. Ten years ago, this type of purely populist crowd-pleaser would have felt at place in Busan, maybe as an opening or closing film, but that has slowly changed over the years. Now, this type of film may be back, but only as a promotion for its streaming debut, and even the content itself feels closer to K-drama in style and feel than to cinematic features. Set mostly in 1999, the story revolves around high schooler Bora, whose best friend needs heart surgery in America. While she’s away, Bora gathers information on her friend’s crush and falls for her friend’s best friend. It is very uneven, with an often silly first hour and the hackneyed look and feel of bad television, but the second half, as we veer more towards melodrama, is quite effective, and the ending is moving despite its manipulation. The lead performance by Kim Yoo-jung is very charming, especially in the concluding frame, and the warmth of her character makes the film effective despite the weaknesses in script and direction. In a different world, she would emerge as a movie star, although these days her future will more likely be in television drama. 

Finally, I wanted to conclude with another documentary, Kim Young-jo’s Ji-seok, which is about as meta as a festival documentary can get, in that it is about one of the founders and, for many years, the head of programming for the festival, Kim Ji-seok, who passed away unexpectedly at the Cannes film festival in May 2017 following a prolonged battle over the attempted political censorship of a screening of an anti-government film, Daibingbel (Diving Bell, aka The Truth Will Not Sink with Sewol, Lee Sang-ho, Ahn Hae-ryong, 2014),.5 It is an often-intriguing look back at that controversy with interviews with many of the important participants, combined, not unexpectedly, with a great deal of hagiography. Nevertheless, the presence of key Asian filmmakers makes it fairly compelling for cinephiles, with directors such as Hirokazu Koreeda, Mohsen Mahkmalbaf, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang, and many others recollecting their memoires of Kim and the earlier days of Busan. It also could not help but feel like an elegy for the festival itself, or at least the original idea of what the festival was and represented. For as much as Busan was able to return to a sense of normalcy this year, the cinema itself had changed dramatically in the three years since the last full version in 2019, and while its future seems assured in the short-term, there also appear to be major transformations ahead. Optimistically, perhaps these changes are required, and certainly the younger generation, whose anger and disillusionment are on display in so many of the films, are unlikely to be nostalgic for the lost visions of Busan’s old guard. The question becomes what place the theatrical experience itself will have in whatever future emerges.

Busan International Film Festival
5 – 14 October 2022
Festival Website: https://www.biff.kr/eng/


  1. Linda Williams, On “The Wire” (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), p. 107-136.
  2. John R. Eperjesi, “Birth of the 6:34 Generation,” Hankyoreh (November 8, 2022) https://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/english_editorials/1066275.html
  3. Kang Hyun-kyung, “Sewol Ferry Disaster Haunts Nation in Wake of Itaewon Tragedy,” The Korea Times (November 6, 2022) https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2022/11/113_339242.html
  4. Michael Rosser, “’A Wild Roomer’, ‘Shivamma’ Win Top Awards at Busan Film Festival,” Screen Daily (October 14, 2022) https://www.screendaily.com/news/a-wild-roomer-shivamma-win-top-awards-at-busan-film-festival/5175447.article
  5. For a detailed examination of the controversy, see Darae Kim, Dina Iordanova, and Chris Berry, “The Busan International Film Festival in Crisis or, What Should a Film Festival Be?” Film Quarterly 69, no. 1 (Fall 2015), p. 80-89.

About The Author

Marc Raymond is an Associate Professor in the Communications department at Kwangwoon University in Seoul. He is the author of the book Hollywood's New Yorker: The Making of Martin Scorsese (SUNY Press, 2013) and has published essays on Hong Sang-soo in the New Review of Film and Television Studies and Style.

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