In 2014, the Busan International Film Festival screened the documentary Diving Bell (The Truth Will Not Sink with Sewol), co-directed by Lee Sang-ho and Ahn Hae-ryong. Even before this premiere, there was controversy over the film, which was an extremely critical expose of the government’s handling of the Sewol ferry disaster that occurred in April of the same year and resulted in the death of 304 victims, many of whom were high school students. The first screening generated massive attention as well as fears of potential protest and violence.1 However, few at the time could have imagined that programming the film would have threatened the very existence of the festival two years later. Yet, because of the investigation and removal of the festival chairman Lee Yong-kwan, there were threats of a full boycott that were not resolved until a few months before the festival date, with some small-scale boycotting by the industry still in effect.2 Given all of this extra-textual drama, this year’s Busan festival, based purely on the evidence of the programming, showed almost shockingly few signs of disruption. While there was reportedly some impact on the industry-related events Busan also conducts, the average cinephile who attends Busan yearly and did not follow the saga would likely have noticed little to no difference.
While Busan has grown into perhaps the major festival in Asia and features a strong international lineup, it is foremost a showcase for Korean cinema, and when the local industry has a down year, as was the case in 2015, the festival can suffer. Busan functions as a kind of retrospective for the year in Korean movies, particularly for foreign attendees and local non-Koreans lacking in language fluency who thus often miss the bigger name auteur films because of the lack of subtitling on their initial Korean wide release. Thus the Korean Cinema Today program is divided into two sections: Panorama, with fifteen previously released films along with four unreleased works; and Vision, with eleven indie films, all making their world premiere. 2016 is shaping up to be one of the strongest years in Korean cinema in recent memory, with a combination of great work from established filmmakers and exciting films from the younger generation. Half of the films I screened at the festival were Korean, and as a whole it was an excellent collection. Moreover, even amongst the debut filmmakers, none of which I was able to see, the notices were very positive.3 Thus, the overall word-of-mouth of both critics and audiences was deservedly high, certainly helping the festival atmosphere and to at least slightly restore its damaged public image.
The two big Korean films of the year come from two known auteurs who have made their reputation with violent genre fare that has also played well with international art cinema audiences. The critical darling has been Na Hong-jin’s Gok-seong (The Wailing), an intense and dark horror film set in the countryside in which a local cop tries to deal with a series of seemingly supernatural murders and other bizarre events. The obvious comparison for horror film fans is William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), not only because of the subject matter of demonic possession but also because of what can only be described as its maximalist style. There are some absolutely dazzling sequences, most notably a shamanistic ritual attempting to cure the cop’s daughter of her possession, where Na’s ability to cross-cut and create a hypnotic rhythm while also amplifying the tension and horror is truly remarkable. Also, the story is able to draw on both Christian and traditionally Korean shamanistic traditions and combine them with the history of Japanese colonialism to create its morbid atmosphere, which has the ability to chill even without a belief in any of its superstitions.4 That said, the bludgeoning nature of the approach kept the movie from achieving the masterpiece status many other critics have assigned it.5 By contrast, Park Chan-wook’s latest, Agassi (The Handmaiden), has received a mixed reception, but I feel it is his best since 2003’s Oldboy.6
In terms of narrative, it is closer to his English language debut Stoker than to his earlier Vengeance trilogy, with a Gothic tale adapted from the Victorian set novel Fingersmith (2002) by Sarah Waters but transposed to 1930s Korea under Japanese occupation. The narrative is told, retold, and then told again from shifting perspectives, all revolving around male pornographers and their control of women and the eventual lesbian rebellion of the female characters against this regime. The biggest criticism against Park is that he is indulging in a male gaze at his female characters and their love-making, recreating the very pornography the film is critiquing, a similar criticism labelled against the Vengeance trilogy, with its contradictory desire to criticise violence and yet take pleasure in its visceral excitement. I would not argue too strongly against this reading, but nevertheless feel that both the characters and the performances by the two female leads (Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri) are invested with a genuine passion and conviction that contrast the traditionally cold and domineering pornographic gaze set up by the narrative. Park is in a difficult position with this material, in that he needs to create authentic eroticism with the sex scenes and yet avoid accusations of exploitation, a position in which at least some critics would inevitably judge him harshly. The most obvious recent comparison is La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 et 2 (Blue is the Warmest Colour, Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013), which was similarly criticised7 but which I likewise feel was able to bring a genuine erotic charge to the material that is integral to the film’s overall success as drama.
Another Korean auteur tackled the Japanese colonial period this year, but in this case in a straightforward and direct manner: Kim Jee-woon’s resistance action-drama Mil-jeong (The Age of Shadows), a clear Jean-Pierre Melville homage, particularly to the sublime L’armée des ombres (Army of Shadows, 1969). The result is a sometimes successful but ultimately disappointing drama that drains most of the poetry from the Melville source inspiration through Kim’s heavy reliance on CGI ultra-violence. Also, the desire to maintain a kind of resistance myth in Korea, which was rather outdated even when Melville attempted it nearly five decades ago in France, is rather off-putting. Ignoring the absurd idea that somehow the Korean resistance to the Japanese was a key to the winning of the war (which the film explicitly states at one point), the creation of noble resistance heroes (even when sometimes compromised) versus the evil Japanese villain is pure escapist nonsense that passes itself off as realism instead of the Tarantino-esque fantasy it actually is. That said, it is doubtful that a mainstream Korean movie that challenged this kind of nationalist myth could be made, if the treatment of local scholars is any indication.8 Other films from earlier in the year that I was able to catch up with were E J-yong’s Jook-yeo-ju-neun Yeo-ja (The Bacchus Lady) and Lee Kyoung-mi’s Bi-mil-eun Eop-da (The Truth Beneath). Starring the great Youn Yuh-jung as the lead character, an elderly prostitute trying to make enough money to support herself and her collection of fellow outcasts (a half-Filipino boy, a transgendered woman, a physically handicapped man), The Bacchus Lady’s main virtue is its location shooting around various familiar areas of downtown Seoul such as Jongno and Itaewon, grounding the story within the everyday reality of life in the city. The story and drama meander at times, but the ending is very effective and appropriately tough-minded. The Truth Beneath suffers from a rather dull and unconvincing opening hour, as it sets up and deals with its narrative of the kidnapping of a politician’s daughter, but the last act is very effective, becoming more a tale of repressed feminist rage and recalling the outlandish brilliance of early Park Chan-wook (director Lee worked on Park’s 2005 Chin-jeol-han Geum-ja-ssi / Lady Vengeance). In fact, the ending is so effective that I would almost recommend despite the lacklustre first two acts and a weak lead performance from Son Ye-jin (although like the film she is more effective during the later scenes).
The three Korean world premieres I was able to see were all very strong and represent a nice cross-section of the domestic art cinema production that is not well-known outside of the country. The exception to this anonymity may be the festival’s Opening Film, Choon-mong (A Quiet Dream), directed by Zhang Lu, a Korean-Chinese filmmaker who has achieved a modest international reputation with such films as Mang Zhong (Grain in Ear, 2005) and Dooman Gang (Dooman River, 2011). Zhang’s earlier work tended to be concerned with his native Yanbian province, home to many ethnic Koreans and bordering North Korea, and was fairly social-realist in form and content. Recently, however, Zhang has been making very different kinds of films, more similar to an art cinema filmmaker like Hong Sang-soo (whose latest work was surprisingly missing from this year’s festival, since Hong, along with Kim Ki-duk, is the most prolific of directors featured at Busan with sixteen features to date). His 2014 film Gyeongju was almost self-consciously a variation on the Hong stylistic and narrative form, but with a greater degree of emotionalism than is typical of Hong’s more distant approach.9 A Quiet Dream goes even further into art cinema reflexivity, specifically Korean art cinema, and thus is likely to be most fully understood and appreciated by fans of Korean art/festival films, making it an ideal opening selection for Busan. The very loose plot revolves around Ye-ri (Han Ye-ri) and her relationship with three men who hang around her café, Ik-joon (Yang Ik-joon), Jung-bum (Park Jung-bum), and Jong-bin (Yoon Jong-bin). The fact that all the characters are named after the first names of the actors indicates their fame, but it is fame of a very narrow sort, as the three men are all filmmakers known primarily to cinephiles of Korean cinema, and Han Ye-ri is a very accomplished and highly regarded actress who often stars in lower budget, independent films (including this year’s Choe-ag-ui Yeoja / Worst Woman, which was a critical success at the Jeonju festival). The tone is light and humorous, very much a celebration of cinephilia, including many in-jokes, such as a trip to the local Korean Film Archive, but like The Bacchus Lady, it gains a great deal from its great location shooting, which adds a naturalistic grounding to the fantasy. That said, admirers of Zhang’s earlier, more socially conscious work may be disappointed in this turn.
The two most pleasant surprises of the festival were Jang Woo-jin’s Chuncheon, Chuncheon (Autumn, Autumn) and Lee Hyun-ha’s Coffee Mate, both second features from directors who made acclaimed if little seen debuts in 2012. The fact that these follow-up films took many years to appear indicates the difficulty for even talented filmmakers in the independent circuit, even one as relatively healthy as the Korean industry. Autumn, Autumn also bares a strong resemblance to the work of Hong Sang-soo, who is becoming increasingly influential on the younger generation of Korean directors, with its setting in Gangwon Province, like Hong’s second feature, 1998’s Kangwon-do-ui Him (The Power of Kangwon Province), and split narrative form, also resembling the earlier film, although with less direct connection between the two parts. But despite this derivative approach, it is quietly effective and poetic in its juxtaposition of a young man looking for work and a middle-class couple trying to recapture their youth. Coffee Mate is a more conventional romantic drama about a bored housewife who begins what can best be described as an emotional affair with an attractive man who she continually meets at a neighbourhood coffee shop. This setting is particularly resonant for those living in Seoul and familiar with the ubiquity of these spaces, which are even more numerous than their western counterparts, mostly because Korea does not permit the same amount of personal living space. What makes this story work so well is that this very banal setting becomes transformed over the course of the film into an escapist playground where social boundaries are tested and transgressed, first through games that break with polite society and eventually into physical mutilation as an expression of angst. Thus it is able to follow in the work of great melodrama that uses the form to examine female desire, even if its conclusion is less hard-hitting than much of what precedes it.
Coming in October, the international section at Busan is an eclectic mix of films that had their premieres in Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto, with some premieres from big names in the Asian festival circuit. If there was a weakness this year, it was probably in the Window on Asian Cinema section, which normally features many notable premieres and/or films with big festival success previously, both of which were lacking this year. But overall it was a strong program, and like the Korean cinema section, offers film lovers an overview of the year, a kind of art cinema “Greatest Hits of 2016” collection. My favourite film of the festival, and the clear Academy Award frontrunner which had an enthusiastic reception at Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, is Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, one of the most exuberant expressions of pure cinema in many years. The only major critique is that it is fairly derivative, not so much of Classical Hollywood musicals but of the whole revisionist tradition, especially Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964) and Martin Scorsese’s underrated New York, New York (1977). But Chazelle’s execution here is almost flawless, putting to full effect the vast, expensive Hollywood machinery (including his charismatic stars) that most of his contemporaries manage to squander. From the joyous opening on a Los Angeles freeway to the bittersweet final fantasy, I cannot recall having a more enjoyable time in a movie theatre. A close second for me would be a very different film from long-time indie auteur Jim Jarmusch, Paterson, which is also an homage to a great American art form, minimalist poetry, specifically William Carlos Williams. The lead character, also named Paterson, is a bus driver living in Williams’ hometown of Paterson, New Jersey who finds time within his everyday routine to write short poems. The movie’s structure is very tight and formally constrained, following a week in the man’s life and spending roughly fifteen minutes of screen time on each day as we become accustomed to his routine and its slight variations. The result is one of Jarmusch’s best works in many years, showing great empathy and understanding of his characters while also avoiding sentimentality and its evil twin, cynicism. Not shying away from sentimentality is Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, a science fiction alien invasion story that harkens back to the tradition of early 1950s films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951). The writing is at times clunky, to say the least, but I found the experience to be emotionally resonant and at times even overwhelming. I would credit this to Villeneuve’s technical skill in producing an expressive audio-visual design as well as Amy Adams and her quite remarkable lead performance, without which the story most likely collapses. Villeneuve may be hit or miss as a storyteller, but he is undeniably skilled at working with actors and modulating his style to wring maximum affect.
In regard to the films from Europe, the standout was Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, which debuted at Cannes and, despite not winning the Palme d’Or, emerged as the critical favourite.10 The praise is well-deserved, as Toni Erdmann is a true original, an anarchic comedy that, while being a relationship movie about a father and daughter, is equaling about the soul-crushing modern business world and trying to stay sane within it, which Ade suggests may demand a certain amount of insanity. Another great film was Ulrich Seidl’s Safari, a very topical documentary about German tourists who go on safari to hunt big-game animals. Seidl structures the movie between interview scenes of the participants (formally framed in tableaux style), observational footage of the hunts, and finally the difficult task of actually dealing with these large dead bodies. Like most of Seidl’s work, there is no voiceover and a matter of fact presentation of this rather shocking footage. Correctly, Seidl understands that his commentary is rather unnecessary, that the power of the work comes from the very ordinariness of the couples and families participating, the racial divide in the work involved in this industry, and his unflinching capturing of events we know occur but usually repress. No documentary filmmaker consistently makes films as riveting as Seidl. Of lesser quality but still to be recommended are Personal Shopper, which won Olivier Assayas the Best Director Award at Cannes, and Death in Sarajevo by Danis Tanović. Less successful is the documentary Doomed Beauty by Helena Třeštíková and Jakub Hejna, detailing the story of the Czech actress Lída Baarová, who was a star in the 1930s and eventually became romantically involved with Joseph Goebbels. There is certainly interesting material here, but it becomes mostly about Baarová telling us her story, and her unreliable narration ends up being more tedious than intriguing. My worst film of the festival was Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s Le Ciel attendra (Heaven Will Wait), which deals with the contemporary phenomenon of European teenage girls being seduced by the ideology of Islamic extremism. While the story is careful to include moderate Muslim voices, the overall tone is nearly hysterical, and in retrospect will likely look like the Reefer Madness of the Islamic panic.
In conclusion, while this year’s festival program was not impeded by the pre-festival controversy, it will be intriguing to see if there is an impact going forward. Will Korean filmmakers target other Korean festivals, especially the Jeonju festival in May, as a protest to these events? Would this weakening then spread through the rest of the program? Or will the impact only be felt by those in the industry itself? After a very successful year for Korean cinema in 2016 at an artistic level, there are many questions both about how this cultural field will evolve in the upcoming years as well as what role the Busan festival will continue to play.
Busan International Film Festival
6-15 October 2016
Festival website: http://www.biff.kr/structure/eng/default.asp
- Steven Borowiec, “Documentary About Sewol Ferry Sinking Roils South Korea Festival,” Los Angeles Times, 8 October, 2014: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-south-korea-ferry-truth-shall-not-sink-20141011-story.html ↩
- Sonia Kil and Patrick Frater, “Korean Industry to Vote on Boycott of Busan Festival,” Variety, 25 July, 2016: http://variety.com/2016/film/asia/korean-producers-halt-boycott-of-busan-festival-1201821945/ Jean Noh, “Korean Film Industry Votes No to Lifting Busan Boycott,” Screen Daily, 1 August, 2016: http://www.screendaily.com/news/korean-film-industry-votes-no-to-lifting-busan-boycott/5107148.article ↩
- Darcy Paquet, “2016 BIFF Report: Korean Debut Directors,” Koreanfilm.org, 18 October, 2016: http://koreanfilm.org/biff2016.html ↩
- As sometimes occurs, the film is also noteworthy for being released just months before a political scandal about the influence of shamanism on President Park Geun-hye threatens to take down her government. See Associated Press, “Friend of South Korean President Arrested in Political Scandal,” The Guardian, 3 November, 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/nov/03/longtime-friend-of-south-korean-president-arrested-in-political-scandal ↩
- Shim Sun-ah, “(Movie Review) ‘The Wailing’: Na Hong-jin’s Masterpiece Thriller with Depth,” Yonhap News, 9 May, 2016: http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/news/2016/05/09/51/0200000000AEN20160509002700315F.html?a0a76e00
Pierce Conran, “Cannes 2016: THE WAILING, A Bone-Chilling, Thundrous Descent Into Hell,” Screen Anarchy, 13 May, 2016: http://screenanarchy.com/2016/05/cannes-2016-review-the-wailing-is-a-bone-chilling-thunderous-descent-into-hell.html On Twitter, Darcy Paquet even went so far as to call The Wailing the best Korean movie of the past five years: https://twitter.com/darcypaquet/status/727407082220056576 ↩
- For example, see Laura Miller, “The Handmaiden,” Slate, 20 October, 2016: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2016/10/park_chan_wook_s_the_handmaiden_based_on_sarah_waters_fingersmith_reviewed.html ↩
- Ali Weisman, “The Film That Won Cannes Is Being Blasted By Its Writer As Porn,” Business Insider 29 May, 2013: http://www.businessinsider.com/blue-is-the-warmest-color-author-slams-film-that-won-cannes-2013-5 ↩
- Choe Sang-hun, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/19/world/asia/south-korea-comfort-women-park-yu-ha.html?_r=0 ↩
- Marc Raymond, “Variations on a Hong Sang-soo Film: Gyeongju and Hill of Freedom,” in Wildflower Film Awards Korea Annual, Volume 1, edited by Darcy Paquet, Seoul: Wildflower Film Awards Korea, 2015: 112-117. ↩
- John Hopewell, “Cannes: ‘Toni Erdmann’ Wins Fipresci Competition Award,” Variety (May 21, 2016) http://variety.com/2016/film/news/toni-erdmann-fipresci-award-1201780230/ ↩