London East Asia Film Festival 2018 Review Round-Up

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The London East Asia Film Festival was established in 2015 as a non-profit arts organisation to champion the growing collaboration and diversity in East Asian filmmaking. Global blockbusters in Asian cinema rub shoulders with emerging talent of the future. LEAFF’s 1st edition officially launched back in 2016 on 20th October at ODEON Leicester Square and 40 films were screened over 11 days at venues across central London. LEAFF is back again in the capital for 2018, and the Smoke Screen has sampled a selection of the lineup that screened in late October-early November, all of which are reviewed below. It was a distinctly Korean LEAFF this year around for the Smoke Screen, it seems, as all the films hail from that nation’s vibrant film industry.

Dark Figure of Crime

Director: Tae-Gyoo Kim

1h 50min | Crime , Drama , Thriller | 3 October 2018 (South Korea)

Playing London East Asian Film Festival 2018

LEAFF runs 25 October-4 November in London and beyond.

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Launching the London East Asian Film Festival’s 2018 edition, director Tae-Gyoo Kim’s police thriller Dark Figure of Crime offers more cerebral and sombre material for viewers, even though both title and synopsis suggest a wild and visceral cat-and-mouse outing along the lines of Korean hits I See The Devil or The Chaser. I went in expecting a more outre tone and plot, but the film’s refusal to meet my expectations intrigued me, as did the story. Dark Figure of Crime is, in fact, based on a series of grim real-life events, which no doubt explains the more grounded approach but also why film has met with some controversy back in its homeland. It is a well-acted and serious-minded piece, though it won’t be for everyone.

Veteran Korean actor Yoon-seok Kim slips easily in to the role of world-weary but competent Busan detective Hyung-min, who is contacted out of the blue by a prisoner who is jailed awaiting trial for murdering his girlfriend, and is invited to meet to discuss a range of unsolved disappearances that the suspected killer is now mysteriously keen to confess to. This is the erratic, mercurial Kang Tae-oh (played with gusto by rising star Ji-Hoon Ju, who just manages to keep it from reaching the level of scenery-chewing), who confounds Hyung-Min by veering between thuggish, misogyinstic fronts, an air of childish innocence, and zen-like poise. Tae-oh goes on to sporadically provide clues to the detective about a series of seven disappearances and unsolved murders, but some of the leads are revealed to be blatantly false, whilst others take Hying-Min and his team tantalisingly close to a body or a vital piece of new evidence, but actually pinning any of these on Tae-oh remains impossible. Hyung-min, determined to solve the cases and finally bring closure to the families of the missing, feels he has no choice but to keep pursuing each of Tae-oh’s leads, but this risks putting the suspect in the driving seat and ruining Hyung-Min’s career. An ex-cop who was rundown into ruin by betting his career on trusting a serial killer’s ‘confessions’ that turned out to be a wild goose chase, warns Hyung-min that Tae-oh might not just be looking for attention, but might be attempting to manipulate the jury in his upcoming trial by creating a sympathetic portrait of a hapless suspect facing underhanded police attempts to pin any number of crimes on him. The tension comes from not knowing what will break first; the case or the patience of Hyung-min’s superiors to let him pursue this.

Pleasingly, neither cop nor criminal fit the classic archetypes here:  Hyung-min isn’t the picture postcard image of an unstable, hard-drinking and rule-rule-bending cop (he’s dogged and takes risks in offering Tae-oh money to keep him talking, but is clearly deeply moved by the plight of the families of the missing that he meets) and Tae-oh isn’t the next Hannibal Lecter either. In fact, it is never really clear what Tae-oh is: mentally unstable, an overrated thug trying to get what he can, or just lucky. Is he really brilliantly playing the police in order to reduce his sentence, or just wasting police time because he can? Is the inability of Hyung-min to really pin any of the cold cases on Tae-oh more due to bad luck or careful planning on the suspect’s part in case he got aught? Like Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, Dark Figure of Crime features a based-on-a-real-story plot where we wait for the sudden breakthroughs or satisfying sense that the world has been righted in vain. This might frustrate some viewers, but there is something to be said for an alternative view of a cop/criminal mind game that throws the whodunit out the window in the first act and feels more worryingly plausible for it, as instead of table-turning reversals and increasingly blurred moralities, we are pointed to a more likely truth that when a cop retires there will be a pile of case files on his desk marked ‘unsolved’. But in each one is a tale of sadness.


The Witch Part 1: The Subversion

Director: Park Hoon-jung

Thriller Scifi Horror| South Korea | 2018 | 126 mins

Playing London East Asian Film Festival 2018

LEAFF runs 25 October-4 November in London and beyond.

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Genre mashup The Witch sees a young and unworldly Korean female high school student suddenly have her life interrupted by a bunch of murdering superpowered teens and their affiliated hit squads, who invade her home and claim the girl is suppressing memories of her real existence: that she was in fact trained from birth to become a murder weapon via illegal experiments that enhance strength, speed and cognition. She managed to escape the government hospital, but appearing on a talent karaoke show blew her cover (don’t you just hate it when that happens?). Genetically engineered children running amok is not a hugely original plot conceit to be sure, but star Kim Da-mi is a sympathetic lead (one who can also handle the expected last-act turn) and has a cute chalk-and-cheese rapport with her mouthy BFF from school Myung-hee (Ko Min-shi). Main villain Choi Wo-sik, looking like a boyband’s fifth wheeler, chews on the scenery appropriately. But despite some satisfyingly crunchy super-powered fight sequences that make Marvel look tame - with combatants being kicked through four walls and minion’s heads being embedded into concrete with a single slam - the film takes a long time to really let rip with the craziness. Some wobbly internal logic doesn’t help either. Interestingly, this is a Warner Bros co-production with Korean interests (and not their first), and the director penned Kim Jee-woon’s bloody, torture orgy I Saw the Devil.


February

Director: Kim Joong-hyun

Drama | South Korea | 2017 | 82 mins

Playing London East Asian Film Festival 2018

LEAFF runs 25 October-4 November in London and beyond.

RATING: ★★★★☆

I started my journey into South Korean cinema through the somewhat obvious routes of the films of Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, but since then I have become so much more aware of how richly varied Korean cinema is; its not all melodramas dialled up to 11 or visceral revenge hunts with crazy twists. February, from director Kim Joong-hyun, is a great example of Korean cinema in a distinctly social realist mould, and this is not the first film I’ve seen over the last few years that shows a sincere interest in the state of the rich/poor divide following South Korea’s rapid industrialisation and the global financial crash. A tough watch with a distinctly unsympathetic lead that refuses pat resolutions to personal crises, February focuses on the struggles of young, broke twenty-something Mingyeong, who spends her days sleeping in a storage container she has broken into at night, taking money for sex hookups with an older man with a child (who she ends up moving in with despite not taking well to a maternal role), and sneaking into college classes unregistered to try to get a social work qualification. Newcomer Jo Min-kyoung gives a superbly modulated performance as Mingyeong, an ambiguous lead with an unclear amount of pain in her past who never stops sliding around on the spectrum between desperate victim and cruel con-artist.


Glass Garden

Director | Shin Su-won

Drama | | South Korea | 2017 | 116 mins

Playing London East Asian Film Festival 2018

LEAFF runs 25 October-4 November in London and beyond.

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Easily the most bizarre film I saw at this year’s LEAFF, female director Shin Su-won’s (Pluto, Madonna) Glass Garden is a weird mashup of sci-fi body horror film complete with practical effects that you’d expect in a Hammer horror film, and a sober study of mental illness, exploitation and plagiarism. Jae-yeon, a PhD student in biology with an untreatable foot disability, hopes to prove through experimentations with with chlorophyll implantation that humans are able to break free from reliance on external air, and can thus avoid deterioration even after death. After blowing her research post at her lab when she objects to another student borrowing her research to help the chief professor gain desperately needed funding, Jae-yeon decides to retreat to the countryside into her ramshackle research lab. As she finds a quiet place in the woods, a novelist with deteriorating health reaches out to her in awe of her research, even as her work starts taking her into very dark places that involve taking the chlorophyll injections to the level of forced experiments on captured people. As Jae-yeon, lead actress Geun-young Moon (A Tale of Two Sisters star), gives a committed performance as a smart but vulnerable woman desperate to find value in her failing work after the sheer volume of hope that has been bled into it, but the sight of various cast members wandering around caked in green makeup (as they mutate into tree creatures under Jae-yeon’s mistreatment) takes the film too far into the zone of silinesss, which just jars with the profound tone and sincere attempts to draw allegories from the scenario. This is a film with almost too much on its mind.

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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.