Starting as a light-hearted documentary focusing on a young Asian-American actor in Los Angeles, Samantha Futerman, who makes YouTube videos and has dreams of more substantial acting roles, this soon broadens out into a film about what it means to have family, and engaging with one’s roots. Futerman is one of a generation of Korean kids adopted out to families in the West, and when she’s contacted out of the blue by a French fashion student in London, she soon discovers she may have a twin sister. Together they try to verify their sisterhood via DNA testing and thereby trace their birth mother in Korea. Along the way there’s an idea of connections being made via social networking, and of the fluid movement of people in modern economies, as Samantha and her family fly over to London and vice versa, before heading on to a conference in South Korea. But more profoundly, it touches on a sense of what it means to be related when you’ve not grown up or even known about a familial connection, a rather more amorphous and mysterious topic (especially to one such as myself, who has no siblings). The documentary retains its lightness of tone, and is easy to watch thanks to the charisma of its director and (co-)star, though the story is clearly not finished by the time the film’s 81 minutes have gone by.
FILM REVIEW Directors Samantha Futerman and Ryan Miyamoto | Writer Samantha Futerman | Cinematographer Ryan Miyamoto | Length 81 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 18 January 2016
This film was presented at the London Film Festival. There was no introduction or Q&A.
Of all the films I saw at the London Film Festival, Madonna is the one I have the hardest time with, not because it was my least favourite or because it was badly made in any way, just that it’s got some quite challenging material in it. After all, it starts with a dead woman by the side of a canal, in a shot that’s not explained until quite some time later (and to be honest I’m still unclear about that woman), but which is freighted with all kinds of melodramatic baggage. But I’mdbe getting ahead of myself, because most of the film is a sort of build-up to these revelations, as Hye-rim (Young-hee Seo) starts working in the VIP wing of a large city hospital, where she is caring for an ailing billionaire investor, jealously guarded by his son. When he takes a turn and requires a new heart transplant, a mysterious unnamed pregnant patient (So-hyun Kwon) is brought in on life support, and Hye-rim sets out to investigate her past. The bulk of the film, then, is built up in flash-backs about this woman, nicknamed “Madonna”, and her difficult life on the streets. As I hinted above, I don’t quite buy some of the narrative twists taken later in the film, but at its heart this is about the inequities of class, and the unfair pressures put on women, particularly those who are poor, overweight or otherwise marginalised by society. It’s shot through with all kinds of grim and macabre details that can make it difficult to fully love, but there’s plenty in it that shows style and flair.
For an 18-rated film this is an odd experience, not least because it avoids entirely the kinds of things you expect in 18-rated Korean films. Largely that’s because most Korean films that get a Western release are horror movies or otherwise extreme depictions of violence and revenge. A Girl at My Door has plenty to offer that’s disturbing (why else would it have an 18) but it’s not due to body horror or violence, it’s more down to the basic stuff of human interrelationships. Young-nam (Doona Bae) arrives in a small coastal town to take up the post of police chief; the reason for her posting remains mysterious, though there’s a hint at some wrongdoing in her previous role. She takes a place near to where young girl Do-hee (Sae-ron Kim) lives, and witnesses the girl being terrorised by her drunken father (Sae-byeok Song) and grandmother, so she steps in, over time taking on an almost maternal role to Do-hee. It all ambles along in an unhurried way, building up a picture of this community and the various relationships within it, folding in immigrants working there illegally, a measure of racism, sexism and homophobia, all the familiar stuff of small town drama. The kicker is the child abuse allegations and this is where things get really complex, but there’s a hint this may be less an issue of pædophilia as pædophobia, and importing a real sense of unease to the situation. There are hints in the setting of something like Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, but the character drama is much more internalised and controlled, with excellent performances from both of the leads.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director/Writer July Jung | Cinematographer Hyun-seok Kim | Starring Doona Bae, Sae-ron Kim, Sae-byeok Song | Length 119 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Friday 25 September 2015
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 8 October 2014 || My Rating good
When an acclaimed ‘world cinema’ director makes their English-language debut, it’s usually that familiar route, by filming in an English-speaking country, or getting some more bankable English-language star as the lead. Prolific Korean director Hong Sang-soo, however, may not perhaps be making the sort of films that attract interest from English-language producers, but he certainly isn’t the sort to do things in the customary way. Therefore, like last year’s Our Sunhi, what we have here is another entry in Hong’s increasingly familiar style, a sort of casual comedy of manners, still set in Korea, but with a Japanese protagonist (Ryo Kase as Mori) who doesn’t speak the local language, thus requiring most interactions to be in English. The setup is that Mori is in the country looking for an old flame, Kwon, but the framing story is her returning to find a bundle of letters from him, narrating his quest and his affair with a waitress called Youngsun (Moon So-ri). At some point near the start, Kwon drops the letters, so the scenes — flashbacks prompted by Mori’s words — come out of order. It’s all fairly slight as a setup, and indeed the running time is a very laconic 66 minutes, but there’s plenty of genuine humour, prompted by the second-language misunderstandings, the array of colourful smaller characters (including a hipster-ish Westerner), and the ersatz shooting style with its periodic zoom shots at moments of disquiet or confusion. Hong is certainly building up a persuasive body of work about feckless students and impulsive relationships, not to mention frequent scenes of drunkenness over restaurant tables, and it all serves to pass the time very agreeably.
CREDITS || Director/Writer Hong Sang-soo | Cinematographer Park Hong-yeol | Starring Ryo Kase, Moon So-ri | Length 66 minutes
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Director/Writer Hong Sang-soo | Cinematographer Park Hong-yeol | Starring Jung Yoo-mi, Kim Sang-joong, Lee Sun-kyun | Length 89 minutes | Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 15 October 2013 || My Rating good
It takes dedication to continue making the kinds of films that Korean director Hong Sang-soo specialises in. He crafts slight, occasionally comedic relationship dramas with a handful of central characters, including at least one self-involved young man often chasing a young woman. Perhaps he’s going for a latter-day Woody Allen, and certainly his characters can at times be as infuriating as any in Allen’s comedies. Yet Hong’s films have their charms, perhaps for not sharing quite the same bitter worldview as Allen, putting him more in the company of French director Eric Rohmer.