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By Michael Sicinski
There’s really no point in discussing the Toronto International Film Festival’s City to City program as such. While the festival’s promotional materials call it “a snapshot of where’s hot right now,” it’s also a way for TIFF to curry favour with certain organizations and governmental bodies involved in international film production and promotion. One need only recall that the project kicked off in 2009 with Tel Aviv, alongside a (failed) push by the Israeli Foreign Ministry called “Brand Israel,” to understand that TIFF is engaged in its usual dollar diplomacy.
But then, bureaucratic institutions are often filled with basically good people doing their best to negotiate elephantine processes and huge sums of money, and this means that, from the ground level, positive outcomes are just as likely as negative ones. That’s because, from the point of view of the behemoth, some other unseen agenda is being served which has very little to do with something as miniscule as the showcasing of quality cinema. And some of this year’s selections would probably have not made it into the festival without City to City as an external imperative. In some cases, their absence would have been a real shame.
Is Seoul really some kind of sizzling hotbed of cinematic innovation in 2014 (as opposed to, say, Recife, Lisbon, or Tbilisi)? Not exactly. But after two-decades-plus of artistic and commercial achievement, this could actually be a good time to take a core sample of South Korean film. Of course, one of the most notable recent developments in the Korean industry was 2013’s Great English Crossover. Several Korean mega-auteurs took on English-language co-pros and, truth be told, the quality of these films has been fairly consistent with the directors’ earlier output. The best of the lot is clearly Snowpiercer, which builds on Bong Joon-ho’s fundamental artistic ambitions on a somewhat broader scale. He takes on another set of genre manoeuvres (dystopia, Hawksian group-activity) not so much to subvert them but to build them up with an impasto of operatic heft. Likewise, Grand Guignol formalist Kim Jee-woon brought his chops and his sick sense of humour to his Schwarzenegger cheapie The Last Stand, and, like him or hate him, Park Chan-wook slathered his painterly moralism all over Stoker. I’ve never been a fan of Park’s, but Stoker’s overheated Gothic stylings should have satisfied Brian De Palma’s posse, since this tale of suburban incest borrowed quite liberally from De Palma’s book of Rococo stupidity.
Kim, Park, and Bong may have made inroads into the English market, but they were never exactly boutique filmmakers to begin with. However, the ever-prolific Hong Sang-soo, a niche figure at home and abroad, has just made a film that is about 85% in English. Building, however inadvertently, on the relative success of In Another Country (2012), his bilingual collaboration with Isabelle Huppert, Hill of Freedom again finds Hong exploring his favoured themes and engaging in the structured dislocation that defines his aesthetic. A Japanese man (Ryô Kase) visits Seoul; speaking no Korean, English becomes the lingua franca with everyone he encounters. He has left a series of letters for the woman (Moon So-ri) for whom he had complicated feelings. At the start of the film, we see her drop the letters on the staircase, falling this way and that. Their now-random order provides a semi-diegetic excuse for the scrambled chronology of the young man’s tale as told in flashback, but Hong is once again really using this physical dispersal as a metaphor for the complexity of memory. Not without reason are Hong’s films frequently compared with Rohmer, but with Hill of Freedom he displays a subtle kinship with Resnais. It’s one of his best films to date, and demonstrates that Hong’s jaundiced vision of Korean culture—soju rituals and awkward passive-aggression, intellectual self-absorption and a condescending attitude toward women—can transcend the specificities of language.
Part of the difficulty of City to City is an uneven programming sensibility. In the midst of a festival like TIFF with its numerous constituencies, you get an eight-film muddle that represents very little in itself, even as it represents everything. It’s a fairly accurate snapshot of the Lightbox era, a reminder that Bell Canada cannot be unrung.
Mulling over TIFF’s naked ambition can serve as a fairly smooth segue into Kim Seong-hun’s deft but empty A Hard Day. This garden-variety black comedy from Cannes is a sturdy enough programmer, but it’s clearly Kim’s calling card for bigger and better things. The story of Ho (Lee Sun-kyun), a dirty cop who is called away from his mother’s funeral to purge the precinct of his team’s stolen money before an Internal Affairs sweep, A Hard Day plays on the Schadenfreude factor, as events go from bad to worse to worst. Kim’s chief identificatory trick is that Ho is a bastard but his opponents are truly scumbags. So we become invested in his getting away with everything despite the fact that, unlike the gangsters who try to best him, Ho was once honour-bound to serve and protect. Kim understands that split-second timing is everything, and he has built a reasonably effective tension machine. But for a film that strives to be hard as nails, A Hard Day is more like cotton candy, crackling on the tongue and evaporating instantly.
Leaving a much more lasting impression, A Girl At My Door is a debut film by July Jung, a protégée of Lee Chang-dong, who produced. This Un Certain Regard entry has all the trappings of a serious festival film, and it superficially shares a number of Lee’s thematic concerns: the big-city transplant stranded in a provincial backwater; the closed-minded, insular nature of said community of yokels; and the irrational, almost Camusian tendency to ostracize and scapegoat. However, Lee’s work totters on the brink of melodramatic inscrutability, regarding social cruelty as a force pitched somewhere between realistic behaviour and somnambulistic toadyism. In other words, there is an underlying weirdness to films like Secret Sunshine (2007) and Poetry (2010) that makes them work. Jung is clearly moving in that direction. But not having mastered that tone quite yet, Girl instead strikes a note of implausibility at crucial junctures.
Young-nam (Bae Doona, excellent) is a disgraced Seoul cop who gets involved with the horribly abused daughter (Kim Sae-ron) of the local fishing potentate (Song Sae-byeok); everyone knows he’s a creep but no one will stand up to him. Young-nam’s advocacy for the girl is complicated in the eyes of the townsfolk when it’s discovered she’s gay. But how exactly this represented a scandal in cosmopolitan Seoul is never explained, a rather large gap in Young-nam’s backstory. Nevertheless, A Girl At My Door is well-acted and crisply shot, a highly assured debut from Jung who should have a bright future as she grows beyond Lee’s tutelage and develops her own voice.
Despite its lapses, A Girl At My Door has commercial potential, not just because of niche content (although I’d put the odds of a pickup by Strand Releasing in the US at about 85%) but because it’s good. TIFF likes films that can sell, and yet, those thoughtful public servants manage to smuggle in some decidely uncommercial fare once in a while. It’s a reasonably admirable thing for TIFF to include an experimental documentary in a showcase like City to City, since there is no shortage of slick Korean studio product waiting in the wings. Sadly (and here comes the subtweet), you shouldn’t send a narrative film specialist to do an avant-garde programmer’s job. Kelvin Kyung Kun Park’s A Dream of Iron, which premiered in Berlin, has some things going for it to be sure. In a socioeconomic era obsessed with high-tech, Park wants to examine the advent of heavy industry (steel mills, in particular) and how it transformed South Korea in the ’60s and ’70s. With its spare, poetic narration, floating array of interviews, historical footage, and lengthy shots of the iron-forging process and ship-building, A Dream of Iron conjures memories of Chris Marker and Harun Farocki. But as we know, those men created their magic through rigorous editing. By contrast, Park’s film is sloppy and obtuse, often feeling like a set of half-organized rushes.
Interestingly, Soon-mi Yoo’s Songs From the North is a work that practically mirrors the provenance pattern of A Dream of Iron—an essay film from a Korean-born, US-educated multimedia artist. However, Yoo is a more experienced filmmaker. As a result, Songs is far more nuanced and, above all, a better constructed piece of experimental nonfiction. Although the kernel of Yoo’s inquiry into North Korea is the wartime experience of her own father (a leftist law student who, unlike many of his comrades, did not head north after the war), Yoo provides a broad-ranging examination of the culture and ideology of a nation too often regarded as either ludicrous or incomprehensible. While in no way softening the all-encompassing propaganda state of three generations of Great Leader Kims, Songs From the North also displays a rare audacity, showing certain aspects of North Korean life as perfectly normal. The genuine desires of ordinary people (above all for reunification) are explored with the utmost respect. Perhaps this is why Yoo’s film doesn’t belong in an official showcase like City to City—it’s screening in TIFF at Wavelengths—whereas a documentary in open thrall to Hyundai does.
Perhaps by chance, the question of reunification also comes up in Zhang Lu’s film Gyeongju. The deeply awkward protagonist, Choi Hyeon (Park Hae-il), is a well-regarded poli-sci professor in Beijing, back in Korea for the funeral of an old colleague. Recalling a memorable time he, the deceased, and another scholar had in Gyeongju many years ago, Hyeon returns to wander around in a doomed effort to recapture a long-gone moment from his past. Courtesy of the very patient Yun-hui (Shin Min-a), the proprietress of a teahouse to which he keeps returning, Hyeon falls in with a group of friends out for a drink. One is a local prof who knows Hyeon’s work well, and wants to talk shop. “How long do you think the North Korean regime can last?” he asks. “A century,” Hyeon blankly replies, to the older scholar’s horror. When asked about reunification, Hyeon says he couldn’t care less, and that “my field is shit.”
Gyeongju is most definitely not shit—nor does it take place anywhere near Seoul—but it’s certainly just as awkward and insouciant as its protagonist. Zhang hasn’t really developed his halting, downcast style since his impressive sophomore effort Grain in Ear (2005). The structure and length of Gyeongju simply means that Zhang provides more of these static beats, with an unnerving concatenation that never speaks to any larger frame of reference. Hyeon has an unfortunate meet-up with an old lover, follows Yun-hui and a friend out onto giant green funeral mounds, has an imaginary encounter with his late friend’s widow…In terms of the blocking, pacing, and soju consumption, Gyeongju can’t help but seem like it’s working Hong’s side of the street. But in its occasionally maudlin touches and tinkly music cues, the film possesses a faint air of Hur Jin-ho’s middlebrow rigour. This is not a winning combination, and it’s difficult to understand how Gyeongju nabbed a competition slot in Locarno.
This is especially the case when Zhang’s latest is compared with Alive, the second feature by Park Jung-bum, another Lee Chang-dong protégé (he was the assistant director on Poetry), which also competed in Locarno. As with his debut film, 2010’s The Journals of Musan, Park not only wrote and directed but also stars in Alive, which would be an impressive enough feat even if the film weren’t a gruelling three-hour workout. It could be overselling Park’s work just a bit to claim that there is no one else making movies like him, but trying to articulate their procedures or tie them to extant categories is quite difficult. On the surface, Alive is an extended glimpse into a few truly benighted lives, people yoked to each other by blood and held fast by the seemingly unbreakable shackles of poverty. Jeong-cheol (Park) is a construction worker who is trying to renovate a ramshackle lean-to when he isn’t undertaking backbreaking labour for his family’s survival. The construction job falls apart due to a crooked foreman, so Jeong-cheol ends up working with his mentally unstable sister Su-yeon (Lee Seung-yeon) at a soybean fermenting plant. (Nobody likes him there because he works faster than the long-time elderly employees.) Su-yeon’s manic self-abuse makes Bess from Breaking The Waves (1996) look like the picture of rationality; Jeong-cheol must look after her, her daughter Hana (Shin Haet-bit), and his dimwitted best friend Myoung-hoon (Park Myoung-hoon) who harbours a not-so-secret crush on Su-yeon. (He is so friend-zoned that he’s practically the only guy she won’t sleep with.)
In The Journals of Musan, Park’s protagonist was constitutionally incapable of functioning in the West. As a North Korean defector, he lacked the basic skills to negotiate late capitalism. His was a materialist problem, but everyone treated him like an alien. In Alive, Park has refined his method, producing a film that is both deeply realist and simmered in heightened affect, a combination of unusual and unlikely sources. In terms of its treatment of landscape, spatial articulation, and close attention to working bodies, Alive bears a resemblance to Wang Bing or even the Dardennes (Park also shoots most scenes as master shots, employing up to 80 takes, which complicated Alive’s surface-level realism). At the same time Park abjures verisimilitude through tightly controlled situations and a sense of sociological entrapment much more in line with the codes of melodrama.
Neither of these tendencies ever wins out in Alive; both are kept in a state of suspension, with an understanding that they become mutually conditioning. That is, Jeong-cheol’s hopelessness and bad fortune is both palpably felt and comprehended as a social effect. Add to this Park’s particular use of the film’s long form: although Alive is told in a linear fashion, there are numerous actions in the beginning of the film (e.g., Su-yeon’s self-torture in the abandoned building) that will only really make sense at the end, because Park organizes Alive a bit like a fugue. Information and identity are threads that weave in and out, but again, not in an ostentatious way. Alive’s mud-caked proletarian realism allows its deeper structures to remain largely submerged.
In a kind paradox of class-conflict, Jeong-cheol has more in common with the parvenu daughter of his soybean boss than with anyone in his immediate circle, since only they have the temerity to hope for better in Alive’s dungheap of a universe. But judging from Hwajang, being on top of the capitalist mountain is no guarantee of happiness either, although I’m sure any peasant would be glad to give it a shot. The latest from Im Kwon-taek—currently being called Revivre in the West—finds veteran actor Ahn Sung-kee as Director Oh, head of marketing at Adelaide, a major cosmetics firm, struggling to balance his work demands with the care of his wife, who is in hospital dying of a brain tumour. Meanwhile, he is nursing an erotic fixation on much-younger employee Ms Choo (Kim Ho-jung), not as something to act upon but as a mental distraction from the turmoil in his day-to-day life. Even though Im employs nonlinear chronology (the film begins with the wife’s death), there’s nothing flashy about his directorial approach. What Im ultimately achieves is a “revival” of Hwajang’s run-of-the-mill subject matter through an understated formal exactitude, befitting this Korean axiom’s 102nd film. His appearance in TIFF’s Masters section (alongside Hong) shows that, if we really want “a snapshot of where’s hot,” we’d better widen the lens.