If like me, the thought of shelling out $11 to watch “The Bling Ring” and similar dreck at your local Cineplex leaves you cold, I urge you to check out the schedule for the 2013 N.Y. Asian Film Festival (http://www.filmlinc.com/films/series/new-york-asian-film-festival-2013) that begins on June 28th and runs through July 15th. I have been attending these festivals for the past two decades and they make living here worth it.
This year the organizers made nine Vimeo screenings available to the press in keeping with the gradual move away from DVD’s. While some of my colleagues in NYFCO are unhappy with this, it presents no problems for me. The nine films are not necessarily the ones that I would have liked to see but they are broadly representative of the fare being offered. Over the next few days I am going to be blogging about the films on a country-by-country basis. Today I start with Korea, whose film industry continues to impress me for its overall level of brilliance.
Scheduled for Wednesday, July 03, 3:00pm, “Confession of Murder” is Jeong Byeong-Gil’s first film. Like 2010’s Chinese-made “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”, the film owes more to Agatha Christie than John Woo. It is complicated story with a surprise ending. While nominally a policier, a genre that South Korea has virtually made its own, it does make much of an effort to psychologically probe its central characters—a function of their not being what they seem.
The film is based on the premise that Lee Du-seok, a serial killer of ten women, has come out of hiding just after the statute of limitations has run out. At his press conference, the handsome and charismatic killer announces the publication of a book based on his evil deeds that turns him overnight into a media celebrity. The film strives for satirical commentary on the rot at the heart of TV shows like Entertainment Tonight (or its Korean version to be more exact) but it is best when the attention shifts to Detective Choi, who was knifed in the face by Lee just after his final killing. Choi is a typical tough-as-nails anti-hero who breaks departmental rules almost every day but is deferential to his mom who treats him like an impertinent 16 year old she is sending to bed without supper. Their moments together on screen were much more entertaining to me than the car chases or convoluted plot twists.
“Juvenile Offender” that plays at Friday, July 05, 2:15pm and Thursday, July 11, 6:00pm is Korean filmmaking at its best. Directed by Kang Yi-Kwan, it is riveting character study of two of Korean society’s “losers”. We first meet Ji-gu, a sixteen year old who lives in poverty with his sickly grandfather, as he and some friends break into a house that the gang-leader describes as belonging to his uncle. “Take anything you like”, he says. The cops eventually arrest everybody but only Ji-gu goes to jail because he is unable to afford a lawyer and has nobody to vouch for him. After spending close to a year in jail, he is told by the warden that they have located his mother Hyo-seung who abandoned him as a baby when she was just his age. To complete the cycle of “irresponsibility”, Ji-gu has impregnated his own girl friend just before getting picked up by the cops.
She picks him up from jail and takes him with her to the apartment she shares with Ji-Young, the proprietor of a hair-styling salon who she knew from high school and who has given her a job sweeping the floor and other menial tasks. Although she has been generous to Hyo-seung, who lives with her for free, she never tires of reminding her that she is nothing but a deadbeat. Hyo-seung is the classic “victim” psychologically while Ji-young is the classic passive-aggressive. The tense standoff between the two women breaks down, however, as soon as Ji-gu shows up. Unlike his mom, he does not feel particularly grateful. Nor does filial respect describe his ambivalence toward his mother, who he asks where she has been all her life. After seeing the two hapless souls trying to fend for themselves after being evicted from Ji-young’s apartment, you can understand why she never came around for him. She can barely take care of herself. The two work menial jobs and stay just barely one step ahead of homelessness, while working to make for lost time as mother and son.
The performances of Jung-hyun Lee as mother and Rae-yeon Kang as son are deserving of the awards they have garnered from three different film festivals. Jung-hyun Lee is a mixture of truculence and vulnerability as is her son. The screenwriter and director clearly understand how such qualities become endemic in those not on the inside track of the race for the survival of the fittest in today’s South Korea. We are thankful to blogger A.J. Albone for transcribing a panel discussion with the director last April:
I interviewed police, to know what was the real present situation of Korea, which were the social problems of young offenders and young single mothers. I shot the film in real locations, for instance, the scenes shot in the reformatory were a real location. For me it was very important to make a very realistic film.
When I started making this film, I decided to convey a very real situation – the situation of social issues, but at the same time I wanted to make a beautiful film, thinking of the Korean audience. I wanted to make a film that was not only interesting in terms of content, but also beautiful.
I had never had such experiences before. I was absolutely not at all acquainted with the problems of juvenile offenders and young single mothers. After finishing this film I got interested in such social problems. I started also to try and find more information about such issues. I started becoming very aware of present Korean social problems.
While it is not part of NYAFF 2013, I would put in the good word for “The House”, an animated film presented by Korea Society out at The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens on Saturday, June 29, 2013 at 1 PM.
This is an animated film that never quite figures out whether it was intended for adults or children. It is about a slum neighborhood facing demolition in order to pave the way for the kinds of high-rises that make Seoul and most of China such a sterile eyesore. It is a critique of gentrification and beyond that the modernization that is transforming Korea along the lines of Karl Marx’s observation in the Communist Manifesto: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
As an obstacle to the developer’s plans, spirits dwelling in the slum housing create all sorts of obstacles in his path. At first the young heroine Ga-young, who has lost all her money when her mutual fund goes bust, is anxious to regain her old wealth and move into a fancy high-rise but as she gets to know the spirits around her made visible by a magic bracelet she is persuaded to resist the incursion by real estate developers. All in all, the plot will remind any New Yorker of what has been happening in downtown Brooklyn and Williamsburg over the past few years.
The biggest problem with the film is that it can’t decide whether to go full-tilt toward making a film exclusively of interest to adults or one for kids. There is a bit too much “Disney” in it, reminiscent of Casper the Friendly Ghost, but all in all worth seeing.