London Korean Film Festival
Tuesday 12th November 2013
This weekend I went to the London Korean Film Festival to see a couple of really great Korean films. Before I give a review of each film I’ll just say that I first went to the festival back in 2010 to see Moss, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The festival has grown a lot since then and the selection of films this year has been very impressive. They’re showing everything from crime thrillers to comedies to animated features. If you’ve been reading the blog you probably know I’m a big fan of Korean cinema. I recently wrote a post of my top ten Korean films. The films of South Korea tend to have consistently high production values, strong acting and inventive direction. But the best part is that all of those qualities are used to serve the telling of powerful stories. I would strongly encourage anyone to visit the festival and take in what I feel are some of the finest films being made in the world right now. If you can’t make it before the end of the week, I’m sure they’ll be putting on another amazing season of films next year.
I was actually interviewed after Montage and gave the festival organizers my thoughts on the film. I’ll go into a bit more detail now but as always I’ll try to leave out the spoilers.
Director: Chul-soo Jang
Starring: Hyun-kim Soo, Ki-woong Park
Secretly, Greatly is the story of three North Korean spies sent into South Korea to gather intelligence to further the cause of reunification. From the description I was expecting a Korean Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a tense thriller full of cloak-and-dagger espionage tactics. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the film took itself far less seriously than that. Well, it did at first, then everyone started trying to kill each other... The first half was actually funny enough to rival any comedy film I’ve seen this year. The main character Ryoo-hwan Won is ordered to assume the identity of a village idiot in a small town in South Korea. His orders contain specific requirements that he must meet to continue fooling the locals; among other things, he must fall down in public at least three times a day, and take a shit in the street every six months. We are let in on the secret at the beginning, as we see the honed fighting skills and steely bravery of Ryoo-hwan’s elite 5446 Squad. Our knowledge of the spy’s true identity only adds to the humour as he teases a trail of snot out of his nostril before leaving his room in the mornings. As well as Ryoo-hwan’s painstaking efforts to maintain the illusion of retardation, we are made privy to his inner monologue as he interacts with the locals; “Why won’t this drunken bitch stop harassing me?” he thinks to himself as a young woman makes inappropriate advances towards him, his face still beaming out an idiot’s grin. There were several lines in the first forty minutes of Secretly, Greatly which made the whole cinema roar with laughter. The film also features some of the most flawless slapstick I’ve ever witnessed as Ryoo-hwan throws himself down the stairs and a pair of mischievous kids throw rocks at his head. Many of the other characters contribute to the laughs as well: there’s Ryoo-hwan’s fellow spy, Hae-rang Ri, who’s given the secret identity of an aspiring rock star, but has no musical talent; and there’s the grumpy old lady who runs the store where Ryoo-hwan works, who seems to spend her entire day shouting at him to do some work.
The film really does seem to split into two parts, the second beginning when the prospect of peace becomes a possibility between the two nations. The North Korean administration decides to pursue more amenable relations with the South. The trouble is, extending an olive branch is not so easy when your spies are hiding out all over the other party’s country. And so the inevitable order comes for all the members of 5446 Squad to take their own lives and save their country the embarrassment of having to explain their presence. At this point the film becomes a lot darker in tone. There are still occasional glimpses of comedy, but our three spies are now faced with a choice; are they willing to give their lives for their country, when it seems their country cares so little for them?
A film about North Korean spies infiltrating the South was always going to become political at some point, and I felt that director and writer Chul-soo Jang handled the switch admirably. The first half of the film is all about showing us the everyday lives of people in South Korea, and what a struggle it is for the three spies to fit in. The disparity between the two countries comes across very strongly in Ryoo-hwan’s reactions to the way the South Koreans think, in particular about money. The second part of the film is where the two countries finally clash. And the overriding impression I came away with is that while the North Koreans think of their struggle as one of life and death, the South Koreans appear more like concerned and slightly bemused onlookers. The North Koreans all end up trying to kill each other, whereas the South Korean policeman leading the hunt from his side is reluctant to even make an arrest. The policeman delivers the line that I feel sums up the film’s message most concisely; “You don’t have to die.” When confronted with a large group of men eager to throw their lives away just because their government says they should, his confusion is understandable.
While, in some ways, the film descends into little more than an action spectacle for the final half an hour, the message of the first part still carries through; the South Koreans have moved on, why haven’t the North? While it’s difficult to judge the political message of a film made by one side in any conflict, I have to say Secretly, Greatly doesn’t feel like a piece of South Korean propaganda. Although the North Korean administration isn’t shown to be particularly fair (which seems accurate) our sympathies still lie with the spies; who are really just three young men unfortunate enough to be born on the wrong side of an arbitrary line.
Director: Geun-seop Jeong
Starring: Jeong-hwa Eom, Sang-kyung Kim
This film begins with an interesting concept, a child abduction and murder case which is nearing the end of its fifteen-year statute of limitations. Policeman, Chung-ho, in a skillfully performed scene, has to inform the girl’s mother that the case will soon be dropped. The mother, Ha-kyung, must come to terms with the fact that the criminal who is responsible for her daughter’s death will never be punished for it, even if he is identified. When a countdown begins, and we are told “nine days until statute of limitations expires,” it seems briefly like the film will become an unoriginal race against time with the kidnapper predictably caught at the last second. However, director Geun-seop Jeong turns our expectations back on us, teasing us with one last chance to catch the devious criminal before the statute of limitations actually does run out. Now, it seems all hope is lost and the film is over, right? Wrong.
Another kidnapping soon takes place, and we are introduced to a new family who are tormented by the kidnapper. They are ordered to pay a ransom without involving the police (which of course, they have already done). Chung-ho is drawn into the new case, where he begins to butt heads with the officer in charge over the chief suspect. I don’t want to give too much away because the twist at the end of Montage is nothing short of genius. Suffice to say that the entire auditorium was on the edge of their seats as we watched Chung-ho piece together the evidence and close in on the true kidnapper. I doubt anyone saw the end coming.
I really want to emphasise that this is not your typical thriller. There is very little action, aside from two chase scenes which are absolutely integral to the story. And the plight of the mother, Ha-kyung, is incredibly moving. We are even made to feel the pain of Chung-ho, as he must close a case that has haunted him for fifteen years. But, at the same time, there are some very touching moments of warmth and even humour placed organically in the script, which serve to cement our relationship with the main characters. We really want the case to be solved, we really want the kidnapper to be caught, and most of all, we want the mother, Ha-kyung, to find peace. The writing and acting are worthy of any serious drama I’ve seen. It is also rare for a thriller like this to consider the moral implications of the crime it depicts. Montage does not shy away from exploring the motivations behind the two child abduction cases. Though both kidnappings are inherently morally wrong, we are still shown the human side of each crime. The perpetrators are as carefully and thoroughly developed as the other players, there are none of the stereotypical bad-guy traits we see in many similar films.
I have to say it’s rare to find yourself immersed in a thriller as deeply as I was watching Montage. And it’s even rarer still to be caught out by the twist.
If you get the chance to see either Secretly, Greatly or Montage, I would highly recommend them both. In the meantime, the London Korean Film Festival continues until Friday 15th November. I’ll be going to see Fist of Legend on Thursday 14th at the Odeon Covent Garden. And I can definitely recommend Moss which is showing that very same evening as part of a retrospective of director Woo-suk Kang’s work.
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