London Korean Film Fest 2018 programme launch film: A Tiger in Winter

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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 Seemingly resigned to what comes next and not wanting a fight, the withdrawn Gyeong-yu simply packs up his things into a tiny suitcase five minutes later, and shuffles out into the cold Korean autumn to try to find a friend to shack up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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Owen Van Spall

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