Slices of Life: London Korean Film Festival 2018 Review Roundup

The London Korean Film Festival (LKFF) ran from 1- 14 November in London and is now off taking highlights around the country with its annual UK Tour, the festival this year featured an in-depth special focus entitled A Slice of Everyday Life, along with a mix of UK and International premieres, guests and events across a diverse set of strands; Cinema Now, Women's Voices, Indie Firepower, Contemporary Classics, Artists Video, Animation and Shorts. The Smoke Screen is back from the London stretch of the fest with some samplings of the delights on offer:

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A Tiger in Winter

Director: Lee Kwang-kuk 

Cert 15, 111mins, 2018 Korea

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Playing London Korean Film Festival 2018

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 crazy comedies remain an essential part of the festival lineup, 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 Kim Jong-il 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.

On the same day a tiger escapes from the local zoo, Gyeong-yu, a good-looking but aimless writer (Lee Jin-uk, Miss Granny), announces with surprising casualness at breakfast with his girlfriend that he got fired from his job, or lost his job through cutbacks, he doesn’t care to be clear about it. Seemingly resigned to what comes next and not wanting a fight, the withdrawn Gyeong-yu simply packs up his things into a tiny suitcase five minutes later, and shuffles out into the cold Korean autumn to try to find a friend to shack up with. As played by Lee Jin-uk, Gyeong-yu remains this kind of curiously restrained and soft-spoken fellow for most of his screentime, but he is not an entirely un-relatable character. Ennui in the face of an adult life spent not doing what you think you should to do - in his case write with the vigour we hear that he once had as a student - is hardly uncommon. Gyeong-yu isn’t angry at life, he isn’t raging at the sky, he’s just sort of quietly stunned into a holding pattern, like a chicken hit around the head and left to wander the paddock. It actually makes him seem more vulnerable; the guy is so wire-thin and given to recoil from challenge you’d think the wind would blow him away. His first stop to get a job is a burger joint, and his CV is threadbare. No confidence, and no marketable skills, do not an easy path promise.

Gyeong-yu’s stasis leads to a series of often darkly funny - and more often pathetic - humiliations that are all the more affecting because they never stretch believability. He revisits his old apartment some weeks later and chats amicably to the presumed mother of his girlfriend outside on the steps, only to realise after about five minutes of conversation that, in fact, this woman is the new tenant who has just moved in, and his girlfriend is long gone with no forwarding address. Gyeong-yu ends up having to take work as a driver for hire picking up a mixture of surly characters, except his job isn’t exactly the same as working for Uber. Instead, he turns up to drive various drunk types home in their OWN cars, which makes you wonder how he himself then gets home. Drunk clients are not the most reliable payers either, often more than willing to write off his bill by claiming he scratched their car on the journey home. Shit-faced salarymen sometimes just greet him with harassment and a punch. His only escape are mealtimes with his old buddy who takes him in for a while, and there is a lot of eating and drinking in this film (mostly in cramped living rooms); rare moments of respite and regrouping.

There is enough alternately funny and melancholic incident in this first-act exploration of the pitfalls of the Korean gig economy to keep the interest going (as well as make you scared if your skillset is in the arts), but Lee Jin-uk’s very inward performance is given a much-welcome contrast by the arrival into the narrative of the delightfully peculiar Ko Hyun-jung (Woman on the Beach) as Gyeong-yu’s ex-girlfriend and now-successful novelist, Yoo-jung. Yoo-jung has earned the fame that Geong-yu always strived for, but, interestingly, she is revealed to be arguably even more messed up than he is, writers-blocked to hell but with a 10-bottle a day habit on top of it. She’s also refreshingly frank about her desires to get it on with her ex whilst trying to shake him out of his stupor. The two make for an endearingly clumsy and cute duo, even as the screenplay avoids letting them settle into the expected groove of sudden inspiration. The tiger motif drifts in and out, but the film would be fine just with scenes of Gyeong-yu and  Yoo-jung trying to put pen to paper.


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Hotel By the River

Director: Hong Sang-soo

1h 36min | Drama |2018

Playing London Korean Film Festival 2018

RATING: ★★★☆☆

It had been a while since I last saw a film from Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, but this year’s London Korean Film Festival offered a chance for a refresher with his latest unhurried relationship drama; Hotel By the River. Despite all the years away, I found myself settling into familiar Hong territory quite quickly with this new film; the director has lost none of his touch for teasing out the insecurities of prominent men (or men who think they should be prominent) and the gulf between them and the women in their orbit, not least when plenty of Korean Soju is being imbibed to loosen the tongues. 

This wintery comedy-drama, lovingly shot in evocative monochrome and which actually does take place in a hotel by a river, brings together five characters who are all in search of emotional outcomes but all end up missing each other both figuratively and literally. The five are split into two groups that comprise three related men (the father and two sons, the sons being summoned by the father) and two mid-thirties women who are old friends and have come together as the younger has been dumped by the married man she was having an affair with and is in need of consolation. These two groups, with their own messy histories that are unlikely to be resolved in one weekend, only rarely encounter each other in and around the hotel and often miss any planned rendezvous, and their occupation of different rooms and tables throughout the narrative suggests a constant divide between them. Such a chasm that is reflected in the various relationship failures that we learn the two groups have either suffered or helped create with their own impossible dreams, insecurities, or selfishness. Despite the wry comedy, there is a kind of resigned sadness enveloping this film as a result of all this miscommunication, as if Hong doesn’t think this divide can ever be solved, only chuckled wearily at. There’s a cat though.

The cast are all superb; Ki Joo-bong easily mixes charm and fickleness as the famous poet and patriarch Youngh-wan who has checked into the hotel to muse on what he believes is his impending death, whilst Kwon Hae-hyo and Yoo Joon-Sang  - who play his summoned sons Kyung-soo and Byung-soo - make for a charming and poignant comedy double act as they vie clumsily for their father’s affections and flail against his disappointments. As is Hong’s way, there is plenty of ‘auteur deflation’ in store for this family as their father reveals his own irresolute past behaviour. The women at the other end of the hotel (in what has to be said seems like the lesser strand) maybe are meant to be a sort of opposite end of this sort of male betrayal; the living repercussions the men never see. Does Hong have a guilty conscience? Either way,  Youngh-wan’s sons have plenty of baggage regarding their father’s abandonment of their mother that are just waiting for a good dose of Soju to let loose. Hong regular Kim Min-hee (star of The Handmaiden) and Song Seon-mi exhibit genuine warmth as old female friends Sang-hee and Yeon-ju who seem much better placed, - based on their gentle and nurturing rapport over the film’s brief 90 minutes - to make it out of this hotel on a more stable emotional footing. Yes, all of this is an acquired taste, but I personally enjoy Hong’s melancholic misanthropic musings on how we just can’t get the Rubik’s Cube of life solved.


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The Return

Director: Malene Choi

Cert 12, 84mins, 2018

Rating: ★★★★☆

Playing London Korean Film Festival 2018

Here is a real find for me from this year’s London Korean Film Festival; a restrained, emotionally resonant but also hard-headed docu-fiction piece exploring the struggles of a group of Korean-born but adopted-abroad children returning to their birth place to find their biological parents, battling with not just the gap of the years but the language and culture barrier. Karoline (Karoline Sofie Lee), a Korean born-mid-thirties woman who was adopted by Danish parents when very young, visits South Korea for the first time and shacks up in a guesthouse in Seoul, which curiously seems to be a regular haunt of other adoptees from Europe and the US who are there with a similar quest. Despite their different upbringings and beliefs as to why they are here and what they will find (Karoline seems more pragmatic about her chances of finding satisfaction, whereas another American adoptee speaks in near-spiritual terms about feeling pulled back to Korea, though it ruptured relations with his adoptive folks), what they seem to have in common is that they are each seeking to close some kind of gap in their lives. Many of the adoptees, especially those raised in the US, UK and Nordic countries, recount being bullied at school and singled out as different because of their looks. The warmth this little community generates amongst itself is palpable and appealing to watch, as if being away from home and amongst similar ‘wanderers’ has allowed unexpressed doubts and hopes to finally be spoken and a mutual support network to grow. 

As the hybrid story continues (it mixes scripted and documentary elements based on the director’s own experiences, and levies in some surreal subjective beats to suggest this is really a mystery), we see Karoline be hampered again and again by her inability to speak Korean and navigate the country alone, suffer a seemingly obstinate and evasive Korean adoption bureaucracy (her adoption guide seems weirdly unwilling to phone hospitals to acquire birth records, as if it is just not the done thing), but also experience surprise at the deepening commitment to his birth country fellow Danish Korean adoptee and drinking buddy Thomas displays, once he himself finds his own biological mother. Melodrama and easy resolutions are notably and pleasingly absent. A mellifluous glitchy soundtrack and moody cinematography evoke a suitable sense of loneliness and disorientation in an urbanised South Korea, a country that Thomas muses he feels looks aesthetically ugly due to being developed too quickly, though maybe this betrays a subconscious jarring sensation of his homeland growing up without him in it. Some moments of humour and bonding offset the dislocation of the adoptees somewhat, making Karoline’s trip more wandering than suffering. Interestingly, both lead actors were actually adoptees themselves.


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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.