Busan 2019 marked a year of celebration, with multiple retrospective screenings in honour of the 100th anniversary of Korean cinema coinciding with Bong Joon-ho’s Gi-saeng-chung (Parasite) receiving Korea’s first Palme d’Or at Cannes, worldwide critical acclaim, and even Oscar buzz. After decades of increased national growth and international recognition, this represented a pinnacle for the Korean industry seemingly unimaginable when the festival was first founded in 1997. Now in its 24th year, Busan has increasingly become a launching pad for Korean independent filmmakers trying to continue as well as expand this national cinema into the future. Last year saw the premiere of Kim Bora’s Beol-sae (House of Hummingbird), which went on to acclaim and prizes from festivals around the world, including Berlin and Tribeca, along with a fairly successful theatrical run domestically. While none of this year’s premieres received the same level of critical attention, there were a number of strong features that also continued another trend of the past few years of increased gender diversity, with most of this coming from the independent ranks.1 At the same time, many in the industry are concerned that perhaps Korean cinema is getting too large and that these independent voices will have a difficult time receiving the attention they deserve, making it difficult to continue the innovative output that led to this cinema’s initial rise.2
Last year, the best of the Korean films came from the New Currents program, Busan’s main competition section which gathers first or second features from Asian directors. In addition to House of Hummingbird, last year included Park Young-ju’s Seon-hui-wa Seul-gi (Second Life), which went on to a brief theatrical run domestically, along with Kwon Man-ki’s New Currents prize winner Ho-heup (Clean Up). The three Korean features included this year, however, were much less impressive as a whole. The best of the three was Kim Duk-joong’s debut The Education, a slow-moving and at times frustrating character study that eventually grows more affecting over the second half while also showing a sharp compositional eye. The lead character Seong-hee is difficult and often unlikable, but like the film itself, she becomes more compelling as the story unfolds. And for a film dealing with the disabled and those who assist them, there is an admirable lack of sentimentality and an authentic sense of lived experience. The two leads, Mun Hye-in and Kim Jun-hyung, took home the Sonje Award for Actor and Actress. Probably the best received of the three was Lim Sun-ae’s Yook-sip-gu-se (An Old Lady), winner of the KNN Award, although I felt it had the opposite problem to The Education, starting strong but faltering over its second half. First-time director Lim sensitively handles the story of an elderly woman sexually assaulted by a much younger man during a doctor’s visit, smartly avoiding an explicit depiction and making the character’s subjectivity central. There are also two fine lead performances from Ye Soo-jung as the title character and the always terrific Ki Joo-bong as her closest friend, but the story is overly convoluted and then, towards the conclusion, takes a turn towards the melodramatic not keeping with its established, quieter tone. While neither The Education nor An Old Lady were as strong as even the lesser of last year’s Korean New Currents selections, both were vastly superior to Bong Joon-young’s Lucky Monster, easily the worst film I saw at this year’s festival. The narrative of a debt-ridden man divorcing his wife to protect her, winning the lottery, and then trying to find her again was certainly retrograde in gender terms, but mostly it was the style that made this unwatchable, like an annoying, hyperactive YouTube video expanded to feature length. Its inclusion in the New Currents section is a much bigger mystery than its tired thriller plot, although it did receive the KTH Award from the festival and thus must theoretically have its defenders.
While the New Currents selections were lacking, the Korean Cinema Today Vision lineup was particularly strong, and like last year, the festival has also made a movement towards greater gender diversity, with 7 of the 10 films directed or co-directed by women. The most acclaimed work was Yun Dan-bi’s Nam-mae-eui Yeo-reum-bam (Moving On), winner of the NETPAC Award, the Citizen Critics’ Award, and the Director’s Guild of Korea Award, a quiet and affecting family drama that also manages to be stylistically and thematically ambitious, rare qualities for debut features with limited budgets. Yun announces her presence with the third shot, an impressive 125 second long take of the family’s truck, photographed from the front in long shot, travelling from their abandoned apartment building and out of the city as the credits roll and Lim Ah-young’s version of Korean rock legend Shin Joong-hyeon’s 1971 ballad “Mi-ryeon” (Regret) plays on the soundtrack.3 The shot shows a journey out of the city but also into the past, with the single father returning to the family home of his elderly father. And for fans of Korean cinema, the shot recalls a similar credit sequence out of the city in Jang Sun-woo’s Woo-muk-bae-mi-ui Sarang (A Short Love Affair, 1990).4 The narrative progresses slowly and focuses on the relationship dynamics between the grandfather, father, teenage daughter, younger son, and recently separated aunt, with the missing mother notable in her absence. Although the story does advance forward towards a somewhat predictable conclusion, Yun is mostly interested in these character interactions. There are sequences that do not work, such as a physical confrontation between the daughter and son that is rather unconvincing and perhaps overly ambitious, but it is that same striving vision that makes the movie so effective overall. It makes for an interesting comparison with one of the better films from this year’s Jeonju festival, I-jang (Move the Grave), another film about changing familial dynamics that is more comedic and audience friendly. Moving On is a less accessible work, but it has a resonance that stays with the viewer long afterward.
My other favourite of the Korean premieres was Park Sun-joo’s Bi-mil-eui Jeong-won (Way Back Home), an even quieter and more reserved debut, especially considering its rather melodramatic subject matter. Jeong-won is happily married and in the early stages of trying to start a family when she receives a phone call from the police, informing her that the man who sexually assaulted her 10 years earlier has finally been captured. We learn that Jeong-won has kept this a secret from her husband and that it also caused a break within her family, as she was sent away to live with relatives as a teenager and remains distant (physically and emotionally) from both her mother and her adoring younger sister. Director Park avoids any depiction or representation of the assault itself (not even from Jeong-won’s subjective perspective) and consciously tries to keep the emotions as understated as possible, with even the more dramatic confrontations between the characters portrayed with utmost restraint. While this approach can certainly seem uninspiring and dull, it needs to be considered within the context of how stories of sexual assault are so often exploitative; in contrast to these works, the film feels fresh and deeply felt despite its low-key tone. It does lack in ambition, and the use of swimming metaphors is rather cliched and forced, but it is also a necessary corrective to previous portrayals. As an older male character says at one point to Jeong-won’s husband, “How would you feel if you were her?” Way Back Home is a noble attempt to answer that question and, as an added bonus, is one of the few Korean films to portray a realistic and happy marriage.
In the next tier of the Vision films are two other debuts from female directors attempting to portray flawed yet intriguing female leads and their psychological struggles with early adulthood. Koo Ji-young’s Kyung-mi-eui Se-gye (Kyungmi’s World) follows the aspiring actress Su-yeon, who returns from Seoul to her hometown of Tongyeong (on Korea’s southern coast) to help settle the affairs of her estranged grandmother, who is hospitalised with (possible) dementia. The Kyung-mi of the title is Su-yeon’s mother, who disappeared years earlier and whose absence, mental illness, and possible suicide haunt the lead character and fuels her psychodrama. It is a fine lead performance by Kim Misu, but the veteran character actor Lee Young-lan (also terrific in 2013’s Han Gong-ju) steals the film as the grandmother, a sharp, unsentimental characterisation that creates such an unusual personality that the movie is never as compelling once she exits the story. Partially as a result, the final act here falls somewhat flat, but it is a solid first film that does not quite pull off its broader vision. The film’s Director of Photography Kim Gilja took home the CGK and Samyang Xeen Award for Best Cinematography. Jeong Ji-young’s Eunmi is a smaller film, 71 minutes in length and even narrower in its focus on its troubled titular protagonist, who deals with the stress of studying for the civil service exam and living with her overbearing mother by engaging in a series of brief sexual encounters with various men. Director Jeong convincingly creates the world of the everyday life of Seoul’s struggling and alienated twenty-somethings, with fine location shooting and performances, especially from Kwak Min-gyu in a memorable supporting turn. Having appeared earlier in the year in both Wave and Move the Grave, he is quickly establishing himself as one of best young actors on the Korean indie scene.
I would also recommend two other female-helmed Vision titles, both united by their meta-cinema nature and gender-reversal take on one of Korean cinema’s most well-known auteurs, Hong Sang-soo. The more acclaimed of the two is Chan-sil-i-neun Bok-do-man-ji (Lucky Chan-sil), which won the CGV Arthouse Award, the KBS Independent Film Award, and the Director’s Guild of Korea Award. It is the directorial feature debut of the veteran producer Kim Cho-hee, who had produced eight of Hong’s films from this decade, most recently Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ttae-neun-teul-li-da (Right Now, Wrong Then) in 2015. The story is quite obviously semi-autobiographical, with the lead character Chan-sil an independent movie producer whose life is thrown into chaos when her long-time director, who seems a fairly obvious Hong stand-in, dies suddenly during a night of group drinking, leaving her without employment and isolated from the industry. She is reduced to working as a housekeeper for her loyal actor friend, played with a kooky charm by Yoon Seung-ah, and begins a flirtation with a young aspiring filmmaker, despite their differing taste in movies (she loves Ozu, he prefers Christopher Nolan). She is also living in a house run by an elderly woman (the great Youn Yuh-jung, herself a frequent Hong collaborator) which is haunted by the ghost of the late Hong Kong star Leslie Cheung. The self-reflexive style risks making the film just an in-joke exercise, but it is kept afloat by the genuine existential sadness of the lead character, who has devoted her life to her work in cinema, forsaking marriage and children, and is left doubting her life choices and wondering if she could perhaps change course. And the extra-textual knowledge that director Kim seems to be dealing with a similar crisis adds a weight to the otherwise light and airy proceedings.
Jeong Ga-young’s Heart does not reference Hong quite as directly but rather is inspired by his thematic concerns and some of his more essay-like works such as Geuk Jang Jeon (Tale of Cinema, 2005) and Oki-ui Yeong-hwa (Oki’s Movie, 2010). This is Jeong’s fourth feature in three years, quite a rarity amongst indie directors, and she also, unusually for Korean directors, plays the lead role in all her films as well. In Heart, she confronts the autobiographical nature of her work through a meta-fictional device which splits the narrative. We begin with a Hong-like narrative in which a married man listens as his ex-lover (played by Jeong herself), a woman with whom he has had an affair, discusses her desire for another married man. But halfway through this rather short 70-minute feature, there is a reflexive turn and we see Jeong (now in her real-life role as director) interviewing an actor, who questions her decision to put such private material in the movie. While Jeong does not quite display Hong’s mastery of stylistic and narrative form, it is nevertheless an intriguing variation on the typical Hong subject matter, but from a younger and less established female indie voice. This meta-cinema perspective could also be seen in Park Han-jin’s Ruby, the only one of the Vision titles I feel was ultimately unsuccessful despite some intriguing elements. Instead of being about indie film, the focus is on a television crew trying to make an educational series despite pressure to be more commercial. There are some fine comedic moments, but it is so slight in terms of premise and character that it runs out of ideas long before the 71-minute running time finishes, feeling like a short film stretched beyond its limits.
The Korean Cinema Today Panorama was, as always, a much more eclectic blend of filmmakers and approaches. There are many world premieres mixed with critical successes that played earlier this year, such as Hong Sang-soo’s very fine Gang-byeon Hotel (Hotel by the River) and Kim Yoon-seok’s acclaimed but I feel overrated Mi-seong-nyeon (Another Child), alongside many of the year’s box office hits, such as Lee Byung-heon’s comedy Geuk-han-ji-geob (Extreme Job) and Lee Sang-geun’s action thriller Exit. In terms of the premieres, it was an underwhelming group, although I would give a mild recommendation to Park Je-bum’s first feature Jip I-ya-gi (I Am Home), another in a long line of dramas about broken families playing this year. The lead character Eun-seo returns partially out of necessity to her childhood home to live with her father, a difficult man who is estranged from the rest of the family, including Eun-seo’s recently remarried mother and her married elder sister. It is notable as a rather rare and also convincing look at the relationship between young women and their fathers in Korea, with both characters presented as deeply flawed yet also relatable. It has an overly languid pace with a rather simple style, but its mixture of nostalgia with the recognition of needing to move forward was effective. The biggest disappointment of the festival was Park Jung-bum’s I Se-sang-e Eop-neun (Not in This World), his second feature released this year, with the acclaimed Pago (Height of the Wave) debuting earlier at Jeonju and going on to win a Special Jury Prize at Locarno. The story revolves around Jisu, a working-class teenager aspiring to be a singer who is befriended by fellow outcast Jeong-cheol (played by director Park). After being abandoned by her family and love interest, Jisu takes a dark turn, helping the local gangsters run their prostitution business, and Jeong-cheol takes it upon himself to try to save her. The movie is ambitious, over two and a half hours in length and taking on grand themes about humanity and our relationship and responsibilities to others. Unfortunately, the magic realism is rather cliched and banal, and the attempt by the dour Park to make a hopeful message in the final act proves hollow. More problematically, there are some echoes of the misogyny of Kim Ki-duk, one of Korea’s biggest auteurs who has been (rightfully) cancelled within the industry (his films did not appear in any of the centennial retrospectives here nor in Jeonju). Based on his previous work I think Park’s intentions are good, but perhaps a moratorium on Korean men making movies featuring prostitution is needed, given how frequently this subject is exploited, mishandled, and used as cheap and lazy allegory.
Regarding the non-premieres, I was able to finally see Lee Jong-un’s Saeng-il (Birthday), a popular success from earlier this year starring Jeon Do-yeon and Sul Kyung-gu. It is very much a text centered around the Korean nation, both in its subject matter and in its mode of expression. The story revolves around the real-life 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, a major national trauma in which hundreds of high school students were killed. This fictionalised narrative of an estranged family trying to finally move on from the loss of their son years earlier uses the melodramatic form as an attempt at a national catharsis, including an extended final scene celebrating his birthday in which the whole community (read nation) participates. Director Lee, a former assistant to Lee Chang-dong making her feature debut, spent time volunteering with an organisation helping the bereaved families and drew inspiration from those experiences, particularly the idea of the child’s birthday being an especially difficult time in which friends and family would gather together for support. The movie works as a tearjerker, almost excessively but in keeping with the weight of the tragedy and its psychological damage to the collective psyche. Jeon Do-yeon is especially impressive, with one standout scene of grief that is so intense that in crosses over into being truly terrifying and uncomfortable. As a narrative of nation, it has some quite fascinating aspects concerning the father that it unfortunately ignores in the service of reconciliation. Indeed, given the film is from a female perspective, it is disappointing if not totally surprising that the redemption of the father is ultimately at the heart of this most national of tales. Sewol was also still on the minds of documentaries at Busan, with Ju Hyun-sook’s Dang-sin-eui Sa-wol (Yellow Ribbon) and Lee Sang-ho’s Dae-ton-ryeong-eui Il-gop-si-gan (President’s 7 Hours), the later one of the worst films of the year, pedalling conspiracy theorising and rather outdated axe-grinding, perhaps representing a certain limit that this subject matter has finally reached.
Although my concentration was on this year’s Korean lineup, the festival also featured its customarily strong international selections, including many of the prizewinners from earlier European festivals. My personal favourites were Céline Sciamma’s Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, and Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, a quite varied group that collectively represent among the best modern cinema has to offer. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, winner of the Queer Palme and Best Screenplay at Cannes, is writer-director Sciamma’s fourth feature but the first of her films I have encountered, making her a very exciting if belated discovery. Although a period drama set in eighteenth-century France, the story, of the relationship between a painter and her reluctant subject, is tense and immediate and I think benefits from being set away from the contentious and charged contemporary moment. It is also wonderfully directed, showing a mastery of camerawork and composition worthy of the French masters of the past, clearly announcing Sciamma as one of the world’s great filmmakers. Unlike Sciamma, I have seen all of Baumbach’s previous works, and Marriage Story is at once his most atypical work and also perhaps his masterpiece. The ragged, indie nature of his style is replaced here with a polish and elegance only hinted at earlier (mostly in his collaborations with Great Gerwig), which is extended into the performances as well. A fascinating companion piece to The Squid and the Whale, with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson providing a depth and humanity to the rough and edgy sketches of Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney in the earlier film; this is Baumbach taking on similar subject matter but from an adult rather than childhood perspective. Finally, Costa’s Locarno Golden Leopard winner Vitalina Varela is the most beautiful film of the year, with Costa’s static and impeccably lit compositions drawing the viewer into his typically oblique and elliptical storytelling, albeit with a narrative and lead character slightly more accessible than his norm.
Shortly after Busan concluded, it was announced that CGV Arthouse, a local film investor and distributor, was ceasing operations following poor returns on rather expensive investments such as Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018) and Lee Su-jin’s Woo-sang (Idol, 2019).5 The news is a sign of the precariousness of the independent film scene in Korea, despite the growth of the domestic cinema over these past two decades. Thus, while this year’s Busan festival produced a number of fine films from many new voices, most of whom were women, it remains to be seen if these smaller works will be overwhelmed by the industry’s desire to expand, which may only increase with the international success of Bong Joon-ho. Optimistically, there is a chance this added exposure and capital will help all of Korea’s domestic cinema, and that there will be an added desire to see more diversity and alternative visions. But it does seem that, either way, 2019 will mark an important point in Korean cinema history moving forward.
Busan International Film Festival
3-12 October 2019
Festival website: http://www.biff.kr/eng/
- https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/meet-south-koreas-next-wave-film-auteurs-1252874. ↩
- https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/koreas-booming-studio-system-could-stifle-filmmakers-indie-spirit-1242691. ↩
- Shin Joong-hyeon is not only famous as a musician in Korea; he was also arrested and tortured by the Park Chung-hee dictatorship in the 1970s. See Julie Jackson, “‘Godfather of Rock’ Unplugged”, The Korea Herald, 8 November 2018. ↩
- To complete the associative chain, Jang Sun-woo’s 1996 film Kko-chip (A Petal), one of the first features to deal with the 1980 Gwangju Massacre, takes its title from a Shin Joong-hyeon song and plays a version by a female vocalist (Lee Jung-hwa) over its stunning credit sequence. This is unlikely to be coincidental. A Petal can be viewed on the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel. ↩
- Pierce Conran, “Film Investor and Distributor CGV ARTHOUSE Ceases Operations”, KoBiz, November 8, 2019. ↩