Inside the London Korean Film Festival

An in-depth look at this year's line-up

by Owen Van Spall

A Tiger In Winter
A Tiger In Winter

The London Korean Film Festival has reached its teens, and its 2018 festival programme, announced in full at the elegant Regent Street Cinema on September 17th, promised a maturity to match this advanced age. Though Korean staples (staples to Western eyes, at least) like intense crime thrillers and melodramatic comedies remain an essential part of the festival line-up, pride of place this year will be given to those filmmakers who explore the intimate, the grounded, and the surface-level ordinary. This year’s message is that there are so many more layers to Korean culture than the two highly visible poles of the (admittedly great) extreme sensory highs of the films of Park Chan-wook, and the high-wire tension around the Korean peninsula as it acts as a sort of wrestling ring for President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to work out their issues.

And so this year’s festival moves from this global outlook and the highs of genre fare to an intimate view of the day-to-day lives and struggles of the people of the country on the ground. This ethos was well-represented in the teaser film screened to support the programme launch night; Lee Kwang-kuk’s third title A Tiger In Winter, which is a thoughtful, witty and ultimately affecting look at the perils and frustrations of creative inertia and the indignations of falling into the Swiss-cheese holes of the gig economy, as two writers (a chemistry-rich duo of Lee Jin-uk and Ko Hyun-jung) seek to plough through their creative blocks, neither being helped by the weight of regrets, hangovers and missed deadlines hanging over them. Fans of the down-to-earth prism taken by the films of Mike Leigh or, for a properly Korean comparison, Hong Sang-soo, should apply.

The Land Of Seonghye
The Land Of Seonghye

In fact, Hong Sang-soo himself has a film in the centrepiece Special Focus strand of the 2018 festival; A Slice Of Everyday Life. The strand, which ranges over several decades of Korean indie fimmaking, opens with the second feature from the revered auteur filmmaker Hong; a film 20 years apart from his most recent film, Hotel By The River, which also features in the programme. Hong’s Power Of Kangwon Province (1998) finds two holidaying ex-lovers reconnecting after years apart, allowing for an examination of the complexities of male/female relationships that Hong would so successfully tackle throughout his career. Alongside Hong’s drama a diverse range of intimate films will play in this strand; Lee Kanghyun’s award-winning début Possible Faces (2017, UK première) follows the parallel lives of a couple after breakup, while parental bonds are the focus of Mothers (2017, UK première), the follow-up from Lee Dong-eun, director of last year’s indie success In Between Seasons. Winner of the Grand Prize in the Korean Competition at this year’s Jeonju Festival, The Land Of Seonghye (2018, European première) is another look at the new challenges faced by Korea’s rapid industrialisation and integration into the global economy, as one woman’s struggle for survival in our money-orientated society comes under the microscope.

The festival maintains a commitment to women filmmakers and characters in its Women's Voices strand, with this year’s Opening and Closing Galas both focusing on an intriguing pair of female-led narratives. Opening the festival on 1st November is the UK première of Jeon Go-woon’s Busan and Fantasia film festival winner Microhabitat (2018, UK première), which follows a young woman (Lee Som, Scarlett Innocence) on a journey across the city and back into the lives of her former bandmates after being forced from her apartment. The festival will close in London on 14th November with The Return (2018), in which director Malene Choi, a Danish-Korean adoptee, blurs the line between fact and fiction to tell the story of a young woman returning to Korea in an effort to track down her birth parents. The cast include genuine adoptees, whilst the narrative promises scenes that include some real-life interactions.

The Handmaiden
The Handmaiden Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

But if you are here for your fix of thrills and chills, the Cinema Now strand will be there to please. Choo Chang-min’s crime thriller Seven Years Of Night (2018, European première) serves up revenge reminiscent of Park Chan-wook, as a cruel father seeks vengeance after the accidental death of his daughter. In The Witness (2017, European première), the fear of putting his family in danger stops a man from reporting a brutal murder, allowing the killer to stay one step ahead of the detective on his tail. The star of Park-Chan work’s sensuous and twisty The Handmaiden, Kim Tae-ri, also features in this strand in Yim Soon-rye’s (Forever The Moment) rural foodie adventure Little Forest (2017). Choi Min-sik, star of the notorious cult hit Oldboy, also turns up in courtroom drama Heart Blackened (2016, UK première) as a wealthy CEO seeking to use his money and influence to clear his daughter of the murder of his fiancée.

The indie scene gets further attention in the Indie Firepower stand programmed by Asian cinema guru Tony Rayns. There the focus is on Park Kiyong and his three fiction feature films that explore short-term sexual relationships, and you’ll have a chance to see the film he co-wrote with Bong Joon-ho (Okja, Memories Of Murder), and had shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In The Mood For Love): the Berlin festival entry Motel Cactus (1997, UK première). Over in the Contemporary Classics - Lee Myung-se and 1990s strand programmed by Dr. Mark Morris, you will be taken back to the not-too-distant Nineties to examine a defining decade of Korean cinema via one of its most important filmmakers: Lee Myung-se.

Also on show will be the regular Animation strand at the Phoenix Cinema in North London, the best works from the Mise-en-scène International Short Film Festival, and the Artist Video strand returns also, in collaboration with LUX Artists’ Moving Image.

The London Korean Film Festival 2018 1-14 November in London and on Tour around the UK until 25th November.

London venues include: Picturehouse Central, Regent Street Cinema, ICA, Phoenix Cinema, Close-up, LUX, Rio Cinema, Birkbeck’s Institute of Moving Image, Kingston University, National Film & Television School, British Museum and KCCUK.

The festival tours to: Glasgow Film Theatre, Edinburgh Film House, Manchester HOME, Sheffield Showroom, Nottingham Broadway Cinema, Belfast Queen’s Film Theatre until 25 November 2018.

More information on the festival dates and times from the official site

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