Searching For Substance Over Style At This Year’s Korean Film Fest


A Korean film festival without the belligerent aesthetics and sketchy moral plans of Kim Ki-duk and Park Chan-wook is practically a badge of honor; one without the plaintive romanticism of Hong Sang-soo and sly genre deconstructions of Bong Joon-ho is like a winter without snow. That said, given the synapse-grating freakouts and wistful human dramas that comprise this year’s sampling of recent South Korean cinema, it’s as if the titans of Asia’s most renowned New Wave were still in the building.

A carryover from this year’s New Directors/New Films, Jung Sik and Jung Bum-sik’s Epitaph is an obscenely aestheticized and incoherently intertwined collection of ghost stories that’s useful at least as a summary of a national cinema’s unique fixation on the nature of modern family dynamics, mediated through a nexus of genre and gender.

Not so highly structured as Epitaph (which is most unnerving when it casts its sights on a woman without a shadow), Open City stars Son Ye-jin as a petty thief with a tattoo parlor that’s less a front than a platform for tawdry softcore posturing. From the black-and-white cutaways to the characters’ tormented pasts to the zing-boom editing of the pickpocket scenes, director Lee Sang-gi employs dumb-as-shit stylistic shorthand, as if to prove how far removed his commercial world is from Bresson’s existential one.

On a more childish wavelength, the unfortunately titled Virgin Snow, starring hotties Lee Jun-ki and Japan’s Aoi Miyazaki (a long way from Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka) as boundary-crossed lovers at a Kyoto high school, has been pathologically tailored for people who live for pop stars and through handheld technology. And if Virgin Snow suggests a Korean remake of Hilary Duff’s Raise Your Voice, then Forever the Moment is the country’s distaff Hoosiers. Billed as the world’s first handball movie and likely programmed to coincide with this year’s Beijing Olympics, the film chronicles the events leading up to the South Korean women’s handball team winning the silver at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. From the forced symbiosis of the sports court to the equally prickly arena of family life and back, director Yim Soonrye stirs and repeats with a conventional lack of brio, but manages to give expression, notably and non-histrionically, to the bittersweet effect of the professional on the personal lives of her characters.

A blistered transmission from a remote region of Korea, Jeon Soo-il’s With a Girl of Black Soil peers into the grueling life of a coal miner with black-lung disease and his two young children—one mentally handicapped, the other a surrogate mother to her father and brother. The family’s pile-up of tragedies, heroically shouldered by little Hae-gon (Yoo Yeon-mi), borders on the fetishistic, with the last shot playing like an advert for a children’s charity. But there’s genuine feeling to be found behind all the neorealist bombast, as when Hae-gon pulls up her brother’s trousers after he’s urinated, or in how the children use the physical detritus around them as musical instruments—haunting testaments to familial devotion and the survival instincts of the young.