Category: Korean Cinema

The Bacchus Lady (South Korea 2016)

So-young meets a client while the boy waits for her

I am a little surprised that this Korean film didn’t get a UK release in 2017 after several major festival appearances. It has re-emerged now with a screening at the London Korean Film Festival and its subsequent appearance on MUBI UK. It seems likely that the reason for renewed interest is the starring role it offers to the acclaimed Korean actor Yoon Yeo-jeong whose big success with the Korean-American film Minari (2020) won her the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. She also plays a supporting role in Lucky Chan-sil (South Korea 2019) also in the current MUBI season. But in The Bacchus Lady she has the lead role and she is in virtually every scene. She is excellent in the film but she isn’t the only attraction. It is well directed with interesting and at times quite beautiful cinematography, a plaintive and effective music score as well as strong performances from supporting players.

So-young chats up a fit-looking older man

It is quite difficult to comment on the film without spoiling the narrative development of the last third of the film in particular. I’ll try to avoid too much plot description. The ‘Bacchus’ of the title refers to an energy drink available in South Korea and So-young (Yoon Yeo-jeong) plays a sex worker in her late 60s whose opening gambit when she accosts older men in one of the large parks in Seoul is to offer to sell them a bottle of Bacchus. Her other seemingly innocuous chat-up line is “Would you like a date?” I understand that the Bacchus ladies and the whole phenomenon of older sex workers (i.e. of pensionable age) is a social issue in South Korea. It appears that South Korea has not developed proper social welfare policies for older people, if women like So-young don’t have family or an occupational pension, they must keep working. She suggests it is better than cleaning the streets and collecting refuse.

So-young recruits the young amputee Do-hoon (Yoon Kye-Sang) to look after the boy

The ‘inciting incident’ of the narrative occurs right at the beginning of the film. So-young has contracted gonorrhoea and when at the doctor’s surgery she witnesses an attack by an English-speaking young woman on a Korean doctor. She had noticed a small boy waiting outside the surgery and when the screaming woman cries out to the boy to ‘run!’, So-young to her own amazement runs after him. She knows the city well and eventually she finds him hiding in an alley and takes him to her home. Why does she do this? A possible answer will emerge later. For now all we need to know is that So-young’s room is in a building with two other residents, a glamorous transgender landlady/landlord and a young amputee who seems to make a living painting small model figures of celebrities/film characters. In some ways this going to become a familiar ‘family’ of misfits. The boy doesn’t speak much Korean, only a few words of English and his own language, but somehow they will get by. It’s a feature of the film that looking after the boy is only one part of So-young’s busy life. She appears to owe money that she is paying off in instalments depending on the trade she can drum up in the parks.

If the surrogate ‘family’ seems a quite conventional device, there is also another familiar character in the form of a documentary filmmaker who wants to record an interview with So-young – prostitution is illegal in South Korea, though seemingly not very strictly enforced despite occasional ‘sweeps’ by the local police. Director Lee Je-yong has been criticised by some commentators for cramming too many stories and too many themes into his film. I don’t really agree with this. Lee seems very much in control of the narrative, though in the last third it does change a little, becoming focused on a set of key decisions that So-young takes that will ultimately determine her fate. One of the interesting aspects of the narrative for me is the impact of the American occupation of the country, which lasted much longer than the occupation of Japan, and how it eventually led in turn to both Korean migration to the US but also the creation of a Korean-American (including a Korean-African-American) minority following the local relationships involving American servicemen. This matches similar Vietnamese experiences, but more recently Koreans themselves have created their own mixed families during time spent on overseas visits for education or business in other parts of Asia. We learn eventually that the boy So-young has been looking after speaks Tagalog. Later she meets an American soldier in a fast food restaurant who is the son of an African-American father and Korean mother. Towards the end of the film So-young and her surrogate family visit a theme park in the north of the country, from where they can view the border, and we learn that she originally came from the North as a baby during the war in 1950.

So-young meets an American soldier

The Bacchus Lady could be seen as a form of social melodrama, driven by its concern about social issues with the most emphasis on the fate of the elderly in a society which has not yet worked out how to implement welfare policies (whereas the UK had them but is in danger of losing them). Or it could be simply So-young’s story. Either way it is certainly helped by Yoon Yeo-jeong’s irresistible performance. I’m intrigued by Lee Je-yong who seems to have changed his name to ‘E J-yong’. I realise now that he was the director of Untold Scandal (South Korea 2003), which was one of the ‘wave’ of Korean films that arrived in UK cinemas in the early 2000s and announced a new power in global cinema. I remember being impressed by a period drama with a contemporary feel, but the director has only made a total of eight features since his first in 1998. I hope he makes more. The Bacchus Lady is not a Friday night crowd pleaser and some audiences might find it disturbing, but I would very much recommend it. Although we do see So-young with her clients, there is no exploitation feel to these scenes which are sensitively handled. Here is a short trailer that doesn’t give away too much:

Heart (South Korea 2019)

Part of the long conversation between Lee Seok-Hyeong and Jeong Ga-young

This short feature (70 minutes) is part of MUBI’s current season of New Korean Cinema. It is presented as a ‘comedy’ but I suggest that is misleading for some audiences. I might have smiled at some point and I was prompted to think about a few things as I watched the film but mostly it left me cold. I admit that I’m probably not the target audience – perhaps I’m far too old to understand it. It was part of the London Film Festival programme and I’m grateful for the short introduction offered there and for the one other review I could find, on Eastern Kicks.

Choi Tae-Hwan, the young man the filmmaker meets when she is thinking about making the film

Heart is the third film by writer-director Jeong Ga-young. Following on from Lucky Chan-sil on MUBI, this seems to be another film that gets linked to the work of Hong Sang-soo, though in this case not directly but arguably as a film influenced by the more experienced director. Jeong plays a version of herself in the film, as what Kate Taylor on the BFI website describes as an ‘asshole film director’. She’s a 30 year-old young woman and the narrative is in two main parts. The first two thirds of the film presents an awkward encounter between Jeong and an art teacher played by Lee Seok-Hyeong. Some years earlier she slept with him around the time his wife was giving birth. Now she is considering an affair with another married man and seems to want to discuss her love life and ask his advice – or is this simply a ruse to play with the art teacher? In the midst of this rambling interconnection we are offered flashbacks to the earlier encounter between the two characters, including a couple of fantasy moments. In the final third of the film Jeong offers a kind of meta commentary in which she is now presented as the filmmaker before she was responsible for the earlier sequence as she interviews a young man (Choi Tae-Hwan) who could play the male role in a possible film.

One of the flashbacks in which the art teacher tries to explain what having your own exhibition requires.

Jeong presents herself as a young woman who seems to want everything her way and is aware of the contradictions in her behaviour. The film director in the second part of the film wants to make a film that will be screened at Cannes, but she doesn’t like Cannes because she’ll be uncomfortable getting drunk there. Her character in the first part of the film suggests that she pretends to be a young student to get concessions at the cinema box office, except when its an ‘R’ certificate when she wants to be seen as an older woman. The two reviewers I mentioned see Jeong as “clear-eyed and unsentimental” and that “young women [in the audience] will see a lot of truth in Ga-young” (both quotes from Tania Hall writing for Eastern Kicks). Kate Taylor suggests that Fleabag is a touchstone for the film alongside Hong Sang-soo. I’m all in favour of young women exploring their sexuality and discussing their moral codes if that’s what they wish to do and I can see that gleefully playing with male insecurity is something that could be an attractive proposition. The best sequence in the film for me was when the art teacher explains what you need to do and why, if you want to mount an exhibition of your work. The young woman wants to have an exhibition, even though she doesn’t seem to want to do the work or to have the talent.

Clearly, I struggled with Heart, but it’s good to have the MUBI season available and I will try some of the other titles.

Lucky Chan-sil (Chansilineun bokdo manhji, South Korea 2019)

Chan-sil and Kim-yeong, the French teacher

This lovely little film is one of two recent South Korean titles to turn up on MUBI. It’s an interesting mix of romance, fantasy and gentle humour with an underlying dramatic edge. Writer-director Kim Cho-hee is making her feature début as a director after working for several years as producer for the celebrated auteur director Hong Sang-soo. I’ve only seen one of Hong’s films and I found it slightly irritating so I was at first apprehensive about Lucky Chan-sil, but I needn’t have worried.

Moving house . . .

The film opens with a celebratory drinking session for a film crew at which the director suddenly collapses with a fatal heart attack. The future for the crew looks uncertain. The title credits are offered as simple text against a hessian background, familiar from classical Japanese films from the 1950s and especially the later colour films of Ozu Yasujiro. We realise then that we’ve been watching an opening sequence in Academy ratio. With the last title the ratio widens to 1.85:1. (I was reminded of the sequence at the start of Frank Tashlin’s 1956 film The Girl Can’t Help It when Academy becomes CinemaScope and B&W becomes Technicolor.) We might guess that this Korean film is going to offer film references and we won’t be wrong

The landlady

Sophie and her French teacher with Chan-sil in her cleaning mode

The film’s protagonist emerges as ‘Producer Lee’ or Lee Chan-sil (Kang Mal-Geum). This 40 year-old finds herself without a job and few prospects after working with the same arthouse director for some time. She realises that her job as producer was one that most people she meets don’t really see as important. “But what do you actually do?” She is forced to move to a room in a house on top of the hill overlooking the city. It’s such a steep climb that she must recruit three of her younger ex-colleagues to carry her belongings. When she gets to the house with its views out over the city, we meet her landlady played by Youn Yuh-Jung, the beloved grandma in Minari (US 2020). As Chan-sil gradually begins to understand her situation she realises she needs to earn some money and ends up cleaning house for her friend, a successful but empty-headed young actress named Sophie. Her relationships with Sophie and with her landlady (who is struggling to overcome her own illiteracy because of her poor education in the 1950s) help us to understand the changes in women’s lives in Korea but also the still powerful restrictions of traditions. Chan-sil has not had a relationship for a decade. Does she need one now? She could test one out with Sophie’s French teacher perhaps. But Chan-sil is not sure. Trying to push her into looking inside herself is a surprising extra character, the ghost of ‘Hong Kong Cinema Legend’ Leslie Cheung, played by a young Korean look-alike. Cheung was a beautiful young man who took his own life aged only 46 and depressed by the celebrity gossip about his sexual identity. He has been sorely missed by everyone who admired his great range of work in Hong Kong and later mainland Chinese cinemas. Cheung’s ghost is inappropriately dressed in the singlet and boxers he wore in one of his iconic roles in Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild (HK 1991). He shivers in Korea with the coming of winter – he’s a very corporeal ghost.

The ghost wearing warmer attire!

I don’t want to say much more about the plot and, to be honest, there isn’t that much plot to discuss. If you are looking for a conventional romance, comedy or even psychological drama with a clear resolution, you won’t find it. But spending 95 minutes with Chan-sil was a real pleasure for me. Some reviewers seem concerned that the film might be too autobiographical and self-reflexive about cinema. I didn’t get that feeling. There is an entertaining comparison of Ozu and Christopher Nolan at one point and we learn later that Chan-sil’s love affair with cinema began with Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies (Yugoslavia-Italy-UK 1988). The final short sequence of the narrative is also a filmmaking reference, but in a more abstract sense, unless I’ve simply misread it.

All of the performances are very good and the presentation of naturalistic photography and well-chosen settings work well. Music is used sparingly but effectively. I was intrigued to read that the the lead actor had come to professional acting quite late. Overall this does seem to me a serious and sensitive portrayal of the possibilities for women in South Korean society presented as a moving personal story. I look forward to seeing more films by Kim Cho-hee.

Moving On (Nam-mae-wui yeo-reum-bam, South Korea 2019)

Grandad’s house and the family together

A familiar East Asian family melodrama, the family in Moving On comprises three generations, including two pairs of siblings. Young teenager Ok-ju (Choi Jung-woon) and her little brother Dong-ju (Park Seung-joon) have to move out of their home with their father at the start of the summer holidays. It looked to me as if most of the houses in the street have been condemned for some kind of urban renewal. But it’s also clear that Dad is short of money after his separation/divorce. He does at least have a small van/people carrier which he uses as his base for selling shoes by the roadside. He takes his children and the family’s worldly goods to his father’s house – a quite palatial old building by comparison. Grandad is retired and has been taken to hospital, possibly suffering from heatstroke but he is required to have a scan as a precaution. There is plenty of room in the old house – just as well because soon Dad’s sister turns up, pursued a few days later by the husband she is trying to escape. He is sent away and the new family unit begins to work out a way of living together.

Dong-ju entertains the family

Moving On is the début film of writer-director Yoon Dan-bi, one of several young women making a splash in South Korean cinema in recent years. I’ve called this film a melodrama, mainly because it is a drama of relationships within a family and because, although fresh in itself, it calls to mind similar family dramas from across the region in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. It isn’t a melodrama of ‘excess’ but it does include a few potent songs and even a couple of spirited dances by Dong-ju. The old house plays an important role in the film and there is a real feel for the possibilities of mise en scène. It is a two story house with a wood-panelled interior and internal doors on the staircase that demarcate the upstairs and downstairs worlds. Ok-ju is quick to claim the upstairs bedroom and to keep out her brother, though she does allow her aunt to join her later. The house also has a balcony that overlooks the lush walled garden. I think it is also important that there are many scenes of the family cooking and eating together. I read a Korean-based reviewer who suggests that the location is the port city of Inchon and I suspect that the house is representative of a more traditional Korean family home in an area of narrow streets and houses with high-walled gardens. The film certainly appears to have made an impression winning several awards at mainly East Asian festivals.

Byunggi and Mijung are siblings backin the family home thinking about care for their father

The time period of the summer holidays provides both space for each of the characters to reflect on their situation and an end point on which they must focus. Father Byunggi (Yang Heung-joo) is attempting to study so that he can get a well-paid job, Ok-ju has a tentative relationship with a boy who lives some distance away. She is also just beginning to develop adolescent anxieties about her looks, especially her eyes which she thinks need to be ‘fixed’ by plastic surgery. Dong-ju is a lively small boy who simply enjoys each day as it comes, but he does want to see his mother – who is clearly out of favour with Ok-ju. The aunt Mijung (Park Hyun-young) has separated from her husband and is contemplating divorce. But the pressing situation which underpins many of the other discussions is Grandad’s deteriorating health. If Byunggi and Mijung get jobs, they will need to hire a carer for him and the children will also bear some of the burden. They look into the possibility of a care home but Ok-ju is shocked by this and by the prospect of the house being sold. Ok-ju gradually becomes the central character of the narrative with a couple of (mis)adventures of her own and in the closing section of the film there is a moving scene in which we appear to be experiencing Ok-ju dreaming. The whole closing sequence is emotional and I felt, very convincing. It is worth noting that the last three shots, as the closing music begins, are of the house interior, the clothesline on the balcony and the garden.

Ok-ju and Dong-ju in a taxi on a family mission

Since Moving On appeared in the same Borderlines Festival programme as Minari it is difficult not to compare them. Although the two films are very different in some ways, they do have characters and situations which correspond. Though Moving On is a début feature, I found it more satisfying. Minari seems to ask big questions but I didn’t feel so engaged with the family. Moving On has been seen as one of the best South Korean films of the year and its strength is in the attention to detail and the feel for the characters. All of the performances are good but I must pick out Choi Jung-woon as Ok-ju. She manages a wide array of emotional moments with aplomb. I’d also pick out and also the cinematography of Kim Ji-hyeon. I’ve read different reviews and in one the writer complained that Yoon Dan-bi was being compared to Kore-eda Hirokazu and that this takes away from her own distinctive approach. I can see the point being made but I think it is inevitable that if you have watched films over many years by Ozu Yasijuro and by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang as well as Kore-eda, you will marvel at how Yoon Dan-bi, not yet 30 when she made this feature, has been able to to present a family drama with such sensitivity and capture relationships with authenticity. In the clip below the trailer (the film is now playing on MUBI you’ll find a short film exploring the ‘Women Directors Leading South Korean Cinema Into its Next Century’. There are 10 of them and Yoon Dan-bi is the first featured. I’m also pleased that two more of the directors appear on this blog with their films House of Hummingbird (2019) and The House of Us (2019). South Korean cinema has much to offer international audiences and it’s great to see these women coming forward.

https://mubi.com/films/moving-on-2019/trailer

GFF20 #14: Miss and Mrs. Cops (Geolkapseu South Korea, 2019)

miss-and-mrs-cops

Kicking male ass

My preference for trying to see films without preconceptions is relatively easy to do at film festivals as most of the films have received little or no press coverage in the UK. It can come unstuck though as it did with this film: as it is a ‘South Korean cop movie’ I thought, ‘What’s not to like?’. While it is a South Korean cop movie it is also a comedy and while there’s nothing wrong with that genre mix, I found the serious issues dealt with didn’t gel with the humour. The pastiche, slapstick and farce were too powerful in tone and overwhelmed the serious social issues the film tackles: sexist South Korea. This reaction is likely due to the fact I’m not South Korean (I hope my maleness wasn’t an issue) for the film played very well in its country of origin but, interestingly, only to women; as Richard Yu describes:

Perhaps the strong feminist undertones turned away men at the box office; while the film smashed box office records, Korea JoongAng Daily reports that more than three-quarters of the moviegoers were women. Online reviews also showed a stark contrast between men, who rated the film 1.6 out of 10, and women, who rated the film 9.6 out of 10. It turns out men don’t like being called out on misogynistic behavior—who would’ve guessed?

The behaviour is two-fold: sex videos used to humiliate women and patriarchal institutions blocking women’s progress in the police force. The sexual violence, in particular, is disturbing (it isn’t shown in the film) and so I found the comic episodes jarred. The opening starts like a Hong Kong action comedy, Steven Chow’s work sprang to mind, but with women doing the beating up. So far so good. Its humour is broad brush and while there’s nothing wrong with that, I couldn’t reconcile it with the social commentary.

On the plus side the editing is sensational (I can’t find out who did it). There are a lot of action sequences, which are nothing special, but the pace of the editing brings so much to the film. However, on one watching it was too fast to work out how it was working and as I won’t be watching it again I’ll remain forever puzzled.

As it turned out Miss and Mrs. Cops was the only disappointing film of the ten I saw in Glasgow; not a bad return.

LIFF 2019 #7: House of Hummingbird (Beol sae, South Korea 2019)

Eun-hee in class and more interested in drawing than English

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this first feature by writer-director Kim Bora. Like the other recent South Korean film by a woman, The House of Us by Yoon Ga-eun, which I saw at the London Film Festival, House of Hummingbird  is a potential family melodrama that evolves more into the story of a young teenage girl. Nick saw the film at the London Fest and was a little disappointed. I was pleasantly surprised.

Family meal-time

Eun-hee, the central character is an eight grader in middle school which makes her around 14 in the Korean system I think (and therefore three years older than the girl in House of Us). She isn’t enjoying school and her slightly older siblings, both still at school, are not very friendly towards her. Her father runs a food shop specialising in rice products and works long hours and her mother seems rather distracted when not preparing food for the family. The year is 1994 and Eun-hee ignores the first two major events of the year – the Northern leader Kim Il-sung dies and South Korea play in the World Cup in the US. This is in contrast to the third major event which affects her very badly – but more of that later.

Eun-hee comes home from a stay in hospital – by herself

The film is slow-paced and perhaps over-long (138 minutes) for a narrative with relatively little narrative incident. But this does mean that we get to know Eun-hee in some depth. During the two semesters of her school year she has her first boyfriend, two separate relationships with girls in her class/year and a medical issue. As in most ‘real lives’ none of these three interactions come to much but Eun-hee does learn something about each of them and about herself. Certainly she gets more from meeting her friends than she gets from the members of her family. The context of a rapidly industrialising Korean society, now over the politically fraught times of the 1980s, is sketched in carefully. The building boom leads to a protest near her home by residents who refuse to move for re-development. At school the pressure for education attainment is being ratcheted up. Eun-hee’s terrifying teacher has the class chanting about going to university and not visiting karaoke bars. It reminded me of the worst excesses of our local girls’ school which forbade girls going out in the evening. Ironically, it is one of the elements of this new high pressure educational culture that offers Eun-hee hope of something more fulfilling.

Yong-ji makes tea for Eun-hee when she needs comforting

Eun-hee attends an after school Chinese ‘cramming class’ with her friend. One day the usual teacher is replaced by a woman in her early thirties, a mature student at the university. This is Yong-ji (Kim Sae-byeok) who seems both approachable and laid-back – calm and almost zen-like. Eun-hee is smitten. Yong-ji provides support when it is needed, making tea and offering advice. Eun-hee brightens considerably and in that way that perspectives change so quickly at 14, she sees herself becoming a cartoonist (or rather a graphic artist). Yong-ji is an attractive character but she also carries a sense of fragility and I was worried immediately that something might happen to her – and that’s where the third news incident comes in.

Reading through various reviews, the film receives praise for its clear-eyed view of life for a young girl in Seoul in 1994. But the descriptions vary. For some Eun-hee’s life is bleak and the family is dysfunctional. There are indeed some family tragedies and two incidents that suggest that Eun-hee is not being cared for or supported as she should be. There is domestic violence and the medical condition she develops is handled badly by the family. But I’m not sure how we are meant to read these incidents. Are they a critique of 1990s Korean society? Father appears to be over-worked and the few occasions when the family help out in the shop seem like genuine moments of co-operation. Perhaps the narrative is simply giving us Eun-hee’s perspective on what happens to her in 1994? If the film had been half an hour shorter and more tightly edited, I wonder if this would be seen as European-style ‘social realism’? The Korean audience seems to have found the film interesting as it earned nearly $1 million from its 154 screen opening in the country to go alongside its journey through many overseas film festivals. The film is described by critics (and the director) as a ‘coming of age’ film. But it certainly isn’t a genre film. Coming of age is not a useful term. Some of us don’t ‘come of age’ until we are in our 20s. Instead it is a growing up film about a particular year.

In the interview below from the Busan festival, the director explains why she chose the title (it makes total sense to me now and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t work it out before). If this gets a release in the UK I would recommend it.