Sticking with non-American comedy-drama films, one of the masters of this particular blend is the Korean director Hong Sang-soo, who seems to put out several films every year each telling a complicated story of fraught relationships often (though not always) with a comic undertone. He made three films in 2017 for example, at least one of which (Claire’s Camera) is definitely in the same vein and picks up more closely on the Éric Rohmer influences given its French seaside setting (a director well worth checking out for his comic relationship dramas). You could also look back to 2013’s Our Sunhi as another excellent example of his particular touch.
Quite what’s going on with the characters at the heart of this film isn’t ever clear — the leading lady may or may not have a doppelgänger, or an identical twin, or maybe it’s just a game, or some kind of memory issue, or maybe it’s just cinema — but it does that familiar Hong thing of following young people in and out of various bars, where they are seen eating and drinking. There’s even a character who’s a film director. The leading man is working through his feelings about his girlfriend going out drinking heavily with other men, as reported second-hand and then constantly commented on by a variety of friends and barflies. But really, that’s what the film is all about — fragile male insecurity — and it does so very nimbly, with a typical (for this era of Hong’s style) Rohmeresque lightness of touch. His individual films may feel slight at times, but I believe Hong’s body of work is likely to compare with many of film’s greats.
Director/Writer Hong Sang-soo 홍상수; Cinematographer Park Hong-yeol 박홍열; Starring Kim Joo-hyuk 김주혁, Lee Yoo-young 이유영; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 7 February 2019.
My final day of the London Film Festival sends me to three films from Asia (two directed by women), and all of which deal with families in their various guises, though Bombay Rose has more of a romantic flavour than the other two. All three represent reasons why I continue to love contemporary cinema, and value the films that the LFF presents.
Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Twelve: So Long, My Son and Bombay Rose (both 2019) and House of Hummingbird (2018)”
Only two films today, as I used the evening to have some birthday drinks for myself, but both films I saw were written and directed by a woman who also took the lead role, and one gets the sense that both films are about their respective directors. As such the ways that they each approach themselves as subject probably reveal plenty about their respective situations, as the Korean film is more broadly comical.
Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Nine: Lingua Franca and Heart (both 2019)”
Day six and another four film day. I’ve actually managed to stay awake for all 16 of the films I’ve seen so far, but this writing them up at the end of the evening is the worst part. Still, I must put my thoughts down or I’ll forget these films, so here are some more reviews. Today I’ve visited Japan, South Korea, Tunisia (again) and Georgia.
Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Six: 37 Seconds, The House of Us, Noura’s Dream and And Then We Danced (all 2019)”
Day three of the #LFF brings two films from the ‘Laugh’ strand of the programme, one each from South Korea and Morocco, which go about their comedy beats in different ways, but both raise wry smiles and a few laugh-out-loud moments.
Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Three: Maggie and The Unknown Saint (both 2019)”
Following up on my Korean week, I return to one of the most lauded of recent works from that country, by prolific filmmaker Kim Ki-duk. It finds an almost spiritual register to deal with themes of dislocation and abuse, while also running at under 90 minutes.
I’m not quite sure how to feel about this film, but one thing I think is clear is that it lays out a space somewhere to the side of reality — maybe one that’s surreal, maybe one that’s imaginary or rather I should say mythical (there’s certainly a sort of folkloric undertow to the whole concept). At the heart of the story is a wife (Lee Seung-yeon) abused by her husband who tries to run away from him, and the attachment she forms to an itinerant young man (Jae Hee), neither of whom speaks (the wife or the man). He moves from home to home on a motorcycle, posting flyers over their locks so as to identify which aren’t being occupied when he returns later, and who then breaks into the homes to spend the night and eat their food, while mending broken items and doing the washing. At this point, it seems fairly clear — for such people don’t really exist except in stories like this — that he’s somehow other-worldly, though I suppose I could just as easily label him a plot device. The point is, there’s something magical about his presence, which allows the wife to hope for a better future even as she finds herself stuck with this horrible man she’s married to, and the dynamic between the three of them makes the ending rather a melancholy one, even as it is lift up by the promise of love, however spectral it might be. The lack of dialogue between the leads means the film never quite has to explain itself in so many words, leaving it an enigma, like these characters.
Director/Writer Kim Ki-duk 김기덕; Cinematographer Jang Seong-back 장성백; Starring Jae Hee 재희, Lee Seung-yeon 이승연; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 23 September 2019.
I recently did a themed week on Korean cinema, starting at its origins and covering a number of films across the decades. The one thing I didn’t really touch on, and probably the element of Korean cinema that’s been most marketable in the West, was what video label Tartan used to call “Asia Extreme”: the brutal, often gory and very stylish thrillers and horror films that got the best distribution over here. Obviously someone like Park Chan-wook with his Vengeance film trilogy and Oldboy (2003) was the most famous proponent from South Korea, but Na Hong-jin had his share of notable films. Therefore for my horror week it seemed only fitting that I catch up with a recently lauded piece of taut genre cinema from the country.
Opening in one of those small town settings where not much happens and the cops we see are lazy and slightly incompetent means you already have a sense of just how much things are about to change, but this is a long film and it makes its move into full-on gory horror fairly slowly. That said, the filmmaking is stylish and pulls you along as first we get these little flashes of incipient disturbance (a mysterious stranger, a naked woman in the dark, and the spectre of death in a place which sees very little of that kind of thing) before it all becomes just a hectic rollercoaster of fury and emotion. Our hero of sorts is the slightly overweight Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), a police office who has the permanent look of someone who’d much rather have a lie down, and over the course of the film he gets increasingly put upon, cut up and rained on, until he just seems to be pinging around like a pinball shouting at people to explain what’s going on — which isn’t very far from the viewer in a lot of the scenes. It’s called The Wailing but there’s much more screaming, shouting and crying in it, and if you can follow all the twists and turns then the filmmaker probably hasn’t done his job very well. That said, for all the extended running time, this is well worth watching.
Director/Writer Na Hong-jin 나홍진; Cinematographer Hong Kyung-po 홍경표; Starring Kwak Do-won 곽도원, Jun Kunimura 國村隼, Kim Hwan-hee 김환희, Hwang Jun-min 황정민; Length 156 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Saturday 24 August 2019.
One of the most prolific auteurs in modern Korean art cinema is Hong Sang-soo, who has moved on stylistically from early, rather formalist pictures like The Power of Kangwon Province (1998, a film I adore), to a looser, more improvisational method. His films often feature central characters who are film directors or lecturers, who have desultory affairs with their young female students or film workers, and spend a lot of time moping about as a result (frequently including some glorious drunken acting scenes). Sometimes, though, he spins the scenarios so that the woman is more centred in the story, and these are generally the stronger films. His collaboration (professional and personal) with younger actor Kim Min-hee has resulted in a number of fine works, none better than On the Beach at Night Alone, made in a year of three films from him. This may pale next to some of the output of those 60s studio directors like Lee Man-hee, but in the current marketplace, it’s prodigious.
Continue reading “Three 2017 Films by Hong Sang-soo Starring Kim Min-hee”
There have been a number of recent films that capture something of the terror and fluctuating emotions of being young with remarkable facility, and this is very much one of those. It uses tight close-ups on its child protagonist Sun (Choi Soo-in), as she stands waiting to be picked for a game of dodgeball. Everything is held in her eyes, and almost immediately, even before the end of that sequence (in which she is picked last), you know exactly who she is and where she fits into the school’s hierarchy. Sun is constantly trying to project cheerfulness and for a while, when she befriends a new student Ji-ah (Seol Hye-in), things look to be changing for her, and then schoolyard politics start to reassert themselves, the mean girls come by, and everything is levelled again. However, it’s never moralistic or sentimental, and it conveys with an economy of language what’s going on with Sun. She isn’t constantly broadcasting to the world (like say the protagonist of Eighth Grade) but that’s largely because her family is poor and can’t afford the technology or advantages the other kids have, and that clearly is feeding into her exclusion from the social cliques. And because it’s a Korean film, sharing food also becomes a meaningful exchange between characters, charting some of their emotional bonding (or otherwise) in subtle ways. This is a lovely, at times heartbreaking, film with an immensely good central performance and some lovely camerawork.
Director/Writer Yoon Ga-eun 윤가은; Cinematographers Min Jun-won 민준원 and Kim Ji-hyun 김지현; Starring Choi Soo-in 최수인, Seol Hye-in 설혜인; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Korean Cultural Centre, London, Thursday 2 May 2019.
There are a lot of contemporary films about city life, about young women, about precarious living arrangements, and about getting older and losing some of the connections that brought you together at university and in your 20s, and most of them sort of glide on by as just so much cinematic filler, not bad but hardly memorable. But this Korean film has a little something extra, a very poised and precise framing, and an excellent central performance, which really brings out the pathos and the quiet desperation without any excess or even much in the way of extraneous dialogue. The film holds a warm yet slightly quizzical distance from Mi-so (Esom), a 30-something woman who is still working as a cleaner and has given up her small apartment because the rent has gone up and she’d rather not give up her small vices (cigarettes, primarily, and a glass of whisky every so often too). She reconnects with her former bandmates from college as she sorts out where to live, but this isn’t a Nick Hornby film, and meeting them only emphasises the different paths they’ve all travelled. And so we’re left with the melancholy, after a fashion, but it’s all just so achingly evoked.
Director/Writer Jeon Go-woon 전고운; Cinematographer Kim Tae-soo 김태수; Starring Esom 이솜, Ahn Jae-hong 안재홍; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 4 April 2019.