Category Archives: Korean Cinema

Films From the South Festival, Oslo

Film festivals are essential in the process of increasing diversity in the range of films released globally. We like to support as many of these festivals as possible and the 20th Annual ‘Films From the South’ Festival is currently running in Oslo until October 17. A highlight of the festival is a programme of screenings of all the 12 films restored by the World Cinema Foundation. On October 10 there is a gala screening of one of the restored films, Mário Peixoto’s Limite (Brazil 1931), with new music from the Norwegian composer/musician, Bugge Wesseltoft. This prestigious event will be held at the home of Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. (Details of the event here.)

A still from Limite

Limite was first announced as a conservation project at Cannes in 2007. The Mário Peixote website offers background and links to a dossier produced for the Cannes event and an essay on the film and its importance for contemporary Brazilian film.

The World Cinema Foundation (WCF) is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and restoring neglected films from around the world – in particular, those countries lacking the financial and technical ability to do so.

Established by Martin Scorsese, the Foundation supports and encourages preservation efforts to save the worldwide patrimony of films, ensuring that they are preserved, seen and shared. Its goal is to defend the body and spirit of cinema in the belief that preserving works of the past can encourage future generations to treat film as a universal form of expression.” (from the WCF Mission Statement)

Since 2007, the WCF has restored the following films (some of which have been reviewed on this blog):

Redes (Mexico/1936) by Fred Zinnemann, Emilio Gómez Muriel
Revenge (Mest, USSR/Kazakhstan 1989) by Ermek Shinarbaev
Two Girls on the Street (Két lány az utcán, Hungary/1939) by André De Toth
A River Called Titas (Titas Ekti Nadir Naam, India-Bangladesh/1973) by Ritwik Ghatak
The Eloquent Peasant (Shakavi el Flash el Fasi, Egypt/1969) by Shadi Abdel Salam
A Brighter Summer Day (Taiwan/1991) by Edward Yang
The Night of Counting the Years (Al Momia, Egypt/1969) by Shadi Abdel Salam
Dry Summer (Susuz yaz, Turkey/1964) by Metin Erksan
Touki Bouki (Senegal/1973) by Djibril Diop Mambéty
The Housemaid (Hanyo, South Korea/1960) by Kim Ki-Young
Forest of the Hanged (to be completed) (Romania/1965) by Liviu Ciulei
Trances (Trances/El Hal, Morocco/1981) by Ahmed El Maanouni

'Egyptian Maidens'

The Films From the South programme offers many more delights (download programme). The programme looks very strong on the recent output from South Korea and Mexico and also on Asia and Latin America generally. African films are clearly still difficult to get hold of but there are a few here and I’m certainly intrigued by writer-director Mohamed Amin’s Bentein Men Masr (Egyptian Maidens, Egypt 2010) by  described as “an Egyptian version of Sex and the City”.

There is another welcome appearance for Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Un homme qui crie (A Screaming Man) (2010, Chad/France and Belgium) but just as Haroun needs French funding, some of the other ‘African films’ are also made by filmmakers operating out of wealthier countries. It would be good to see more indigenous production but every chance to put Africa on screen through co-production is worth exploring and here there is a new Tom Tykwer film Soul Boy (2010) made as a co-production with Kenya and co-directed by local filmmaker Hawa Essuman. Stolen (Australia/Morocco 2009) is a documentary feature that has provoked strong feelings. Australian filmmakers Daniel Fallshaw and Violeta Ayala (from Bolivia) travelled to a refugee camp run by the Polisario, the liberation group fighting for the independence of the Saharawi peoples of the Western Sahara. The filmmakers accompanied a refugee returning to visit her mother still in a camp on a trip sponsored by the UN. On the trip they claim to have discovered evidence of the slavery of Black Saharawis in the camps (see the film’s website). The Polisario have reacted with counter-claims in the Australian media as the film is screened at international festivals. Stolen has a Facebook page (briefly taken down but now re-instated). Stolen is screened in a strong documentary strand that includes an appearance by Kim Longinotto, the UK documentarist who has specialised in films about women’s struggles in many parts of the world and the festival is screening her latest doc Pink Saris (UK 2010) as well as 2008’s Rough Aunties. (We hope to feature a London Film Festival report on Pink Saris.)

There are many more interesting films at the Films From the South Festival and after investigating this year’s programme, we’ll certainly be considering how to get to Oslo in the future.

Mother (Madeo, South Korea 2009)

Kim Hye-ja as 'Mother' (grab from DVD Beaver)

Mother is something of a puzzle. I’m a huge fan of Bong Joon-ho’s previous films, Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006), but I knew enough not to expect the same again. In the event, Mother seems closest to Memories of Murder – but there are significant differences. Perhaps the most important difference re both the earlier films is that they explored their generic mixes in the context of recognisable social/political issues which attracted large local audiences as well as discerning overseas fans. Mother too has been very popular locally, but so far I haven’t found any explanation of connections to specific local social/political issues.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

In a small town, Do-joon is a young man in his twenties still living with his mother. He has learning difficulties in the form of problems with his short-term memory and is easily manipulated by his friend Jin-Tae. After an initial incident when Do-joon is the victim of a hit-and-run incident, the narrative fully kicks into gear when he is arrested for the murder of a young girl. His mother, who runs a shop selling herbal remedies and an unlicensed acupuncture service, immediately springs to his defence. Her son is imprisoned and the authorities and the legal counsel she hires seem fairly disinterested in pursuing any detailed investigation. Do-joon is held on circumstantial evidence and his mother is on her own, at least initially. Will she find the real murderer?


We shouldn’t be surprised that, as a major South Korean box-office film, Mother looks terrific with stunning camerawork, great performances and a fine music score (from Lee Byung-woo) and sound design. Several familiar elements are in place – a jaundiced view of the local cops, a character with learning difficulties, an almost Kurosawa-like obsession with extreme weather and a detailed view of small town life. As one of the lawyers says, “the fee we are charging wouldn’t cover an incident over two broken teeth in Seoul”. (In fact a tooth does get knocked out later on.)

So, are we being suckered into an art cinema/genre play – or is there more to it? The genre appears to be the Hitchcockian thriller, possibly the ‘wrong man’ scenario. If the mother had been a young woman it might have been a romance thriller. American critics such as Roger Ebert appear to accept it as a refreshing Hitchcock thriller that doesn’t do what is expected – and despite (or perhaps because of) its length (129 minutes) and leisurely pacing, leaves several questions still not answered.

The confirmation of what I suspected comes from Bong’s own statement in the Press Pack. His focus is on the mother-son relationship and what happens if a mother who will do anything for her son is placed in the position of the disinterested investigator that we usually get in these kinds of films. In casting Kim Hye-ja, a veteran Korean TV actor best-known to millions of Korean’s as a character in a long-running series The Rustic Diary (1980-2002), Bong ensured that his Korean audience would be immediately drawn to the character speculating how far she would go. Kim began her career in 1963 and Bong clearly saw that although she might appear to be fragile, she has inner strength and enormous psychological strength. Added to her performance, Bong’s meticulous attention to detail in the setting explains the popularity of a film that in the West is deemed ‘arthouse’. The son is played by Won Bin, who starred in a previous Korean blockbuster, Taegukgi (Brotherhood, 2004) and is described as an attractive ‘every mother’s son’. One of the female characters says that he has the most beautiful eyes – “like a deer’s”.

Trevor Johnson’s review in Sight and Sound (September 2009) is perceptive in recognising that the central performances are situated in a narrative in which South Korea comes across as a worryingly dysfunctional society with men who are complacent, incompetent or brutal and women who have had to find ways to cope. The mother’s situation (the absence of the father is never explained) creates issues for her investigation in terms of what she has done in the past and what she is prepared to do now. The final scenes are important and worth reflecting on. (The only flaw in the film’s construction that I could see is that she suddenly seems to have money at a crucial juncture – but perhaps I missed something?)

So, I think that the puzzle is solved. Bong is a genuine auteur of popular cinema, a highly skilled craftsman with a good sense of how to engage his Korean audience with intelligent films that fruitfully explore generic pleasures in the service of understanding human relationships in societal contexts. I won’t forget Kim Hye-ja’s performance and what it stands for.

US trailer:

Treeless Mountain (US/South Korea 2008)

The children with their ‘Big Aunt’

I’m not sure about this small-scale, personal film. Director Kim So Yong (b. 1968) left South Korea for the US when she was 12 and this film is her second feature as a Korean-American returning to the country of her birth. Funded by grants from Sundance, Cannes and Pusan Festivals, it feels like an ‘outside’ or observer’s view of something she experienced as a child in some way. The story is very simple. Six year-old Jin and her younger sister Bin find themselves ‘parked’ by their mother, first with their ‘Big Aunt’ and then with their grandparents while mother searches for their father (who has presumably deserted the family). Eventually, it becomes clear that Mother isn’t going to return – at least not in the near future.

The children (without previous experience) are very good and the slight story isn’t really a drawback as they are always interesting and engaging.  The press notes (from the production company website) reveal that the 89 minute film required 40 hours of footage (shot on Super 16) and that the hardest part was editing out the director’s instructions to the girls. The big problem for me was the shot size and framings. Many shots were in close-up with shallow focus and little in the way of establishing shots. Consequently, I found much of the opening half hour very wearing. Nick suggested that long lenses were being used so that the children would be less bothered by the camera, which makes sense. In the later stages of the film, as the children move out of Seoul into first a small town and then a rural area, there are more long shots and more sense of freedom. Perhaps this reflects, in the final sequence at least, a growing confidence as the children feel more secure.

If it wasn’t for the camera style, I might have seen the film as a rather austere neo-realist document, which besides the children’s emerging personalities also gave some insights into Korean culture – there is a lot of eating, for instance. This partly signifies the move from city to country (the food was more attractive for me, the more natural/less sophisticated it got) – a contra-flow for the adults who leave the country for the city in many societies. The obvious point to make about the film is that men are peripheral and this is largely a film about mothers, surrogate mothers and small daughters. I’m not sure about the title, but a posting on IMDB suggests that the children represent a mountain and the missing parents are the trees. There does indeed appear to be a symbolic moment when the younger child finds a branch from a tree and ‘plants’ it in a mound of rubble.

The film has been very well-reviewed and thinking back there is probably more to it than I first thought. I was aware of reflecting on depictions of childhood in other films. In the image above, the children seem to be moving through a field of similar flowering grasses as in the famous sequence from Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and the hungry children’s search for food reminded me of Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero.

Kim’s style, according to Screen International involves deploying “mainly a hand-held camera, close-ups of female faces, and interspersed inserts of static natural settings”. The static shots were very welcome, but what would have pleased me (i.e. a few more long shots instead of CUs) might have produced something too lyrical?

Asiexpo Festival 2008


Cho Min-Sik gets an award

Cho Min-sik gets an award

Review of Asiexpo 2008 by Leung Wing-Fai

In years to come, I’ll be asked where I was when Obama was elected the first African-American president of the US and I shall recall Asiexpo (4-9 November 2008). I did hope that was not the only reason I would remember the festival. Asiexpo is a small collection of films, documentaries and other cultural activities in Lyon that celebrates all things Asian (given this is France, Asia doesn’t just mean the Indian subcontinent). This year was its 14th edition. Most of the films in competition were independent, rarely seen and edgy titles. They were complemented with anime, the odd commercial features and retrospectives. This year saw ‘Bollywood Story: Panorama of Indian Cinema 1949-2008’ and ‘Homage to Choi Min-sik’, the Korean actor most known for his role as the lead in Old Boy. Before you get excited, I missed Mr. Choi as he arrived the day I left. However, the loss was compensated by smaller gems.

US trained Lee Sang-woo’s debut feature Tropical Manila (South Korea/Philippines 2008) shows great promise. Set in a slum in Manila, a Korean fugitive waits for the day he can return to his native country especially since his mother is dying from cancer. The interconnected yet strained lives of the man, his Filipino wife and ‘Kopino’ son Philip are fascinating. The visceral, sexually charged and violent film is repulsive and poetic at the same time. Lee’s aesthetics are clean but vibrant: you can almost smell the Philippines through the images. It comes to no surprise that Lee was apprentice to Kim Ki-duk.

Tropical Manila

Tropical Manila

Feast of Villains (Pan Jianlin 2008, China) is a realist depiction of a poor young man from Beijing duped by an illegal organ donation ring. Technically naïve though socially significant, the film can be accused of perpetuating the stereotypes of the evil ‘Southerners’ that are often seen in the popular imagery of mainland literature and cinema. Vermillion Souls (Iwana Masaki 2008) is an oddity. Debut direction by a 63 year-old Butoh master now settled in France, the film is more experiential than narrative, and a philosophical contemplation about death, weaving between dream and reality and witnessed by a seven year-old boy. The actors are fellow Butoh dancers and their performance is often physical and lyrical, betraying the theatrical origin of the filmmakers.

It was great to revisit such a Bollywood classic as Mangala (Mehboob Khan 1952) not least because of it glamorous lead Nadira. Nadira was an Iraq-born actress of Jewish descent (at the time, it was still quite a taboo for Indian women to appear onscreen). Her rise to fame was due to her depiction of unusually strong female roles. Dil Se (Mani Ratnam 1998) proved to be more popular amongst the diaspora (such as in the UK) than in India perhaps due to its unconventional subject matter (separatist movement, terrorism) and ending. It now gets regular screenings on Channel 4 late at night and is well worth checking out.

You can imagine my relief to see Tokyo Gore Police (Nishimura Yoshihiro 2008) after several days of heavy subjects including human rights, sex tourism, suicide bombing and organ trade. TGP is what it says on the tin: wall to wall gore, a so-called police force led by Eihi Shiina from Audition, set in futuristic Tokyo. You don’t get murder weapons as subtle as needles here though: we are talking about severed limbs turning into chain saws and giant claws, and geysers of blood. I can’t wait for the sequel!

Asiexpo is small, bijoux and Francophile. Apart from one or two titles, all the films were subtitled in French only, hence the slight lack of international presence. One small gripe I had was the disorganisation, especially long queues and problems with subtitles. Considering the festival was run by volunteers (who were all trés gentils by the way), we had to make allowances. I met someone in Lyon who asked if Obama would really make a difference. Has Asiexpo got a part to play in the Asian cinema landscape? Well, it is more like one small step towards change . . .

Thanks to Asiexpo, Lee Sang-woo and Iwana san.

Going domestic in East Asia

In the week that Pirates of the Caribbean opened to record business on 17,500 screens in 102 territories, it’s worth noting that it isn’t all going Hollywood’s way. In 2006, Japan and China joined India and South Korea as major territories in which the domestic film industry managed to achieve 50% of domestic box office. If you want to know what kinds of films these industries are producing, a good starting point is Leung Wing-Fai’s review of the 2007 Far East Film Festival in Udine, which we are honoured to present on the in the picture website. Fai wasn’t that impressed with what was on offer, but “telling it like it is” is part of her style. What’s clear is that these industries function much like other commercial industries and we need to keep track of the range of their ouputs.

2007 looks like a good year for Hollywood, but it is increasingly looking towards East Asian markets — the Pirates franchise brought in Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-fat for the latest instalment. The latest MPAA figures suggest that Hollywood’s share of the global market has been falling. Partly this is because some territories are growing fast (e.g. Russia) and partly because the difficulties of collecting box office figures in many territories have led to an underestimation of some national totals. In 2006, MPAA quotes a global market for cinema of $25.8 billion with US on $9.49 billion and East Asia on $6.32 billion (an increase of 15% over 2005-6).