Rolling Q&A with director Kwak Min-Seung

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An exclusive Q&A with the talented director of LKFF2021 film ‘Rolling’ Kwak Min-Seung. Moderated by Film Critic, University Lecturer and Translator Darcy Paquet. Rolling will be screening on 16 November at Everyman, Screen on The Green.

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Watch Documentary Youn Yuh-jung

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In the wake of Youn Yuh-jung’s Academy Award, national broadcaster KBS put together this stylish tribute. It opens with a series of brief statements from acting and other colleagues present and past. Viewers of the film Canola (2016) may be surprised to see Kim Go-eun, the film’s older Hyeji, looking positively radiant; fans of Minari will meet a very different Han Ye-ri than the exhausted young mother of the film.

The documentary is, however, more than a series of nice-looking talking heads. The KBS team have assembled footage from some of Youn’s work on television. She has had a substantial career on the small screen, from her early portrayal of temptress Hwang Hui-bin back in 1971, to the gentle reality TV of the recent ‘Yoon’s Kitchen’ and ‘Yoon’s Stay’. Her current role in the TV series Pachinko seems likely to make her television career as internationally recognised as Minari has her contribution to cinema.

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Special Focus: Youn Yuh-jung Talk with Professor Kim Hong Joon

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LKFF Programmer Mark Morris discuss’s Youn Yuh-jung’s incredible contribution to Korean cinema and her 5 decade career with Professor Kim Hong Joon of the Korean National University of the Arts. Part of our Special Focus strand celebrating Youn Yuh-jung and her historic Academy Award win.

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Spring Song Q&A with director Yu Jun-sang

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An exclusive Q&A with regular Hong Sangsoo actor and talented director of LKFF2021 film ‘Spring Song’ Yu Jun-sang. Moderated by Film Critic and LKFF Programmer Anton Bitel. Spring Song will be screening on 10 November at Everyman, Screen on The Green.

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London Korean Film Festival 2021 Brochure

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Youn Yuh-jung: The Guardian Article by Steve Rose

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Minari’s Youn Yuh-jung: ‘I’m very strange-looking, in a good way

As the London Korean film festival kicks off, Youn Yuh-jung, talks about how her portrayals of racy grannies and scheming maids scandalised the nation

In her Oscar-winning turn in last year’s Minari, Youn Yuh-jung played the mischievous granny you wished you’d had: the one who ignores your fun-sucking parents, takes you on wild adventures and teaches you to do your own thing. “You’re not a real grandma,” her Americanised grandson tells her. “They bake cookies! They don’t swear! They don’t wear men’s underwear!” In real life, Youn is pretty similar: lively, funny, unpretentious, and, she admits, not all that good at cooking. The 74-year-old actor has had an unconventional life and career, and most of us in the west know only a tiny fraction of it.

“My problem is, I don’t plan anything!” Youn laughs over Zoom from Los Angeles. Unlike her character in Minari, she speaks fluent English, although she apologises for it not being good enough.

Youn did not even plan on being an actor. “It was an accident,” she says. As a literature student in Seoul in the late 1960s, she visited a television studio where they were filming a children’s show. A presenter on the show asked her to stand beside him and receive a present from the audience. “So I did, and then they gave me a big cheque.” She was invited back the following week to do an audition, which she passed. Within a couple of months she had the lead role in the children’s programme. Did she enjoy the experience? “Honestly, I enjoyed the cheque.”

 

Her career path from there was not entirely accidental. She became a rising star thanks to her TV portrayal of Jang Hui-bin, a 17th-century royal concubine. That led to offers from movie studios, but she turned most of them down. “Usually it was, like: ‘Poor girl meets rich boy and then the family denies her and they cannot get married.’ It’s all the same story. To me it was very boring.”

 

Then along came Kim Ki-young, to whom Youn dedicated her best supporting actor Oscar (after flirting with Brad Pitt). The film was 1971’s Woman of Fire, a melodrama that’s extreme even by today’s standards. Youn plays a rural peasant working as a maid for a well-to-do composer and his pregnant wife. Before long she is having an affair with the weak-willed maestro, and also becomes pregnant. All hell breaks loose: the story takes in adultery, rape, abortion, murder, suicide and even rat-stomping. But Woman of Fire also highlights Korea’s class divides and patriarchal traditions.

 

Kim was the great provocateur of Korean cinema, who has been compared with Luis Buñuel, Samuel Fuller, Nagisa Oshima and Roger Corman. His work tended towards the erotic, the lurid and the horrific, but often with a sociological bite. Woman of Fire was a remake of Kim’s landmark 1960 film The Housemaid, an influence on the work of modern auteurs such as Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho (Parasite is essentially a variation on the same theme: lower-class interlopers upsetting privileged domesticity). Kim would remake The Housemaid again in 1982, after reworking similar themes in his equally bizarre 1972 film Insect Woman, in which Youn again plays the femme fatale. This time she’s a schoolgirl forced to become mistress to a wealthy man, but turns the situation to her own twisted ends.

 

Uninhibited, passionate and forthright, Youn came to embody a new type of independent Korean woman. Korean society really was male-dominated at the time, not least the film industry. “I’m not the Korean beauty standard,” Youn laughs. “To be an actress you had to be pretty, very pretty. They didn’t care about acting. So to them I’m very strange-looking, and in a good way. Very modern. Not obedient to anybody.” Youn credits her liberal-minded mother for that. She and her two sisters were born in Kaesong, in what is now North Korea. The Korean war began in 1950, when she was two years old. She remembers being evacuated to the south, travelling in a freight train carriage with no seats. Her father died when she was nine. Her mother trained as a nurse and raised the children single-handedly.

Youn would soon come to experience just how patriarchal Korea still was. In 1974 she married Jo Young-nam, a popular singer. “He was much more famous than me.” They moved to Florida, where Jo studied theology, and, as tradition dictated, abandoned her acting career to become a full-time mother, raising their two sons. In some ways, her American experience mirrored that of the family in Minari. “The church congregation was 2,000 people. Me and my husband were the only Asians.” She did not speak a word of English, but the community was welcoming and helpful, and she never experienced discrimination, she says.

 

The marriage did not last, though, and the couple divorced in 1987 (in recent interviews Jo has said he regrets having cheated on Youn). Youn had little choice but to return to Korea and resume her acting career. “Somebody had to put food on the table,” she says. The couple’s divorce was a national scandal. (She no longer engages with the Korean media, she says. Even since her Oscar win she has done no interviews with them.) The stigma of being a divorced woman meant producers hesitated to give her work. She would get small roles here and there, where nobody would notice her. “I didn’t care about what kind of role. I didn’t have any choice. I just worked.”

 

On camera as in life, though, Youn’s spirit seems to be irrepressible. The work steadily improved. In 2003 she began a fruitful partnership with Im Sang-soo, a film-maker very much in the Kim Ki-young vein. In A Good Lawyer’s Wife – an infidelity drama not dissimilar to The Ice Storm – she plays a grandmother who is having an affair with a younger man while her husband is dying. “I’m finally having an orgasm,” she tells her gobsmacked son. She has worked with Im three more times, including on his own modern-day spin on The Housemaid, which was a huge domestic hit and played in competition at Cannes in 2010. This time, Youn played the wily senior maid who never misses a trick. Lee Jung-jae, star of Netflix’s Squid Game, plays the man of the house. Elsewhere, she has continued to gravitate to the less polite roles: in 2016’s The Bacchus Lady she was a elderly prostitute servicing Seoul’s lonely seniors (“Don’t call me granny. My vagina is still young!”). She’s not afraid to take these roles, she says. “It’s not my life but it’s somebody’s life.”

 

In recent years, Youn has developed a new career as a reality TV star. Most young Koreans would recognise her today from her hit show Youn’s Kitchen. The idea is genius: taking advantage of famous Koreans’ relative anonymity abroad, a bunch of celebrities run a pop-up Korean restaurant in foreign locations. Thus, unsuspecting punters in Spain might be served by Parasite actor Park Seo-joon (who has 20 million Instagram followers) or Train to Busan star Jung Yu-mi. Meanwhile, chef Youn is toiling away back in the kitchen. “Oh I was very tired,” she laughs. “My legs were swollen and I complained, ‘This is harassment of elderly people!’” Initially she refused to do it: “I don’t cook! If my maid is not coming to the house that day, I will just go hungry. But [producer Na Young-seok] kept coming to my house and trying to convince me.” Eventually she gave in, and the show has been a smash hit. In one episode, a guest invites Youn to come and cook at his hotel in Switzerland.

The show might not run much longer: the anonymity of Korean stars is fading by the day. Korean culture is now a global force, in cinema, in pop music and in television. Youn hasn’t watched Squid Game yet, she says. “I’m here in LA. If I start watching it, I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop, so I’ll wait till I get home.”

 

Does she have an explanation for why there’s so much great cinema coming out of the country these days? “There has always been great cinema in Korea,” she says. “But it’s only now the rest of the world is paying attention.” She says when she met film-maker Park Chan-wook after the Oscars, “he said, ‘I’m wondering, why did you get the award? Because you can act that in your sleep. It’s nothing special to you.’ He meant, I think, nobody saw me while I was acting in Korea.”

 

Youn now has work on both sides of the Pacific. Just before the Oscar nominations she shot Pachinko, a miniseries for Apple TV adapted from the bestselling Korean-Japanese-American immigrant tale. She gets offers from the US, but “nothing suitable”, though she would love to do another movie with Minari director Lee Isaac Chung. She’s always up for something new. “I like adventure. I’m either very brave or very ignorant. But when you know everything you cannot do anything.”

 

Original Guardian article published on 4 November, 2021. Link here

 

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Tracing Korea’s films by women from the 2010s: Snowball and #AfterMeToo

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The Seoul International Women’s Film Festival is introducing to audiences at the LKFF two contemporary films by women: Director Lee Woo-jung’s Snowball and Co-directors Park Sohyun, Kangyu Garam, Soram and Lee Somyi’s #AfterMeToo. From their materials and subject matter, from the perspective of style, and also through those women who worked on their production—reflected from all angles across these two works is Korean women’s film of the 2010s.

Snowball is director Lee Woo-jung’s debut feature-length. During the first half of the 2010s, with Hanna Song (2008), Shhhhh (2009), Get Dry (2009), and See You Tomorrow (2011), amongst others, Lee arose as a star of short film, and became part of the recently-emerging unique short-film/independent-film culture and indie-film fandom headed by female audiences. Even until now, this independent film culture has been largely influenced by male directors such as Yoon Seong-ho, considered the ‘godfather’ of Korean independent film and comedy web-dramas, Kim Jong-kwan, who first triggered the fandom phenomenon surrounding short-film directors, and Bleak Night director Yoon Sung-hyun, who shaped the screening and marketing methods of independent films in Korea across the past ten years. However, the presence of women directors—including Kang Jin-a, Lee Woo-jung, Lim Oh-jeong, Kim Bora, Yu Ji-yong, Jeon Gowoon, Yoon Ga eun, Kim Hyun-jung, Kim So-hyung—and their short films has been far from insignificant.

The short films of these women directors, whose main characters were in their childhood or teens, though they didn’t possess an obvious strong feminist consciousness, dealt with the internal life and desires of their female leads, as well as their relationships with other girls. These shorts—operating somewhere between feminism, femininity and the female—foreshadowed the powerful proliferation of the feminist movement across Korean society, and sharply increased the presence of women across the cultural spectrum from 2015 onwards. Amongst these, Lee Woo-jung’s See You Tomorrow (2011) examined through a weird and frightening perspective the friendship between young girls and their brutal daily existence. The film left such a big impression on Korean independent film that it’s still talked about even now, and Lee soon became a director to watch as fans waited anxiously for her debut feature-length. Though it took around ten years for her to release Snowball, the specific culture of the language and ecosystem of teenage girls in the nineties, the cool portrayal of the punishing world that bars them from happiness, and the crises that arise from this, builds on from the world presented in See You Tomorrow, and in terms of direction shows a considerable maturity. Particularly prominent are the methods by which space and time of the past are expressed. Lee doesn’t interpose any event that would act as a clear indicator for the period, but instead inserts newsreels and home videos from the time, puts great effort into the costumes and artistic elements, and—through a different method from that of male directors’ ‘historical revisiting’ films—expresses the historical nature of time and space.

#AfterMeToo’s co-directors Park Sohyun, Kangyu Garam, Soram and Lee Somyi, and producers Park Hemi and Nam Soon-a, have also been key figures in Korean women director’s filmmaking of the past ten years. Kangyu Garam first began documentary-making with the cultural planning collective ‘Let’s Play Younghee’, whose key members are graduate students from the Ewha Women’s University department of Women’s Studies. Over the past five years, through her directorial and producing roles in films such as The Girl Princes (2011), My Father’s House (2011), Itaewon (2016), and Us, Day by Day (2019), she has emerged as the most important feminist documentary filmmaker in Korea. Park Sohyun attracted attention through her documentaries The Knitting Club (2015), and Like a Rolling Stone (2018), and is expanding the methods by which female characters are captured through the camera. Following the feminism explosion in Korean society and the Me Too movement, directors Soram and Lee Somyi directed Tong Geum: I Hate Curfews (2018) and Observational and Memory (2018) respectively, two films which showed young women directors’ sense of feminism, and the directors subsequently became the topic of conversation within the independent film world. Director Nam Soon-a, producer of #AfterMeToo, has made it compulsory for staff on her film production projects to undergo sexual harassment training, and as a female film figure that has made an important contribution to the industry, she is chairperson of The Association of Korean Independent Film and Video’s Gender Equality Committee. Nam has also directed clever spirited short drama films and documentaries, made through a feminist perspective. Producer Park Hemi is, unsurprisingly, a media activist, and during her work as an international film festival programmer, has contributed to the proliferation of feminism within the Korean independent film world.

It was these key film figures from the past ten years of the feminist documentary wave that came together to direct #AfterMeToo. The film opens with the voice of Kim Hak-sun, the first in Korea to come forward publicly and testify her experience as a sex slave of the Japanese army, showing that the spread of the ‘Me Too movement’ is not a recent phenomenon, but is connected to history. It is memorable not only how each of the feature’s short films—# MeToo stories in schoolMy Body and Heart is Now Healthy, Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Grey Sex—focus on societal declaration and whistle-blowing surrounding a different aspect of sexual violence, but how according to their subject matter, they are each referencing other documentaries.

Through Snowball and #AfterMeToo, two of the most central works within the Korean women’s independent film wave of the last ten years, let’s take the opportunity to glimpse into the subjective examination and artistic choices of contemporary feminist Korean film directors.

Hwang Miyojo

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Documentary – Programme Note

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In an ongoing collaboration with the Essay Film Festival, the documentary strand of the LKFF has sought, among other things, to shine a light on the rich history and current practice of social and activist documentary in Korea. Following this interest across several years, we have organised sessions dealing with the emergence of independent non-fiction film after the 1980s and filmmakers and filmmaking collectives working amid social movements. The practice of activist media, which exploded in tandem with the organisation of labour unions and the student movement, continues strong today and concerns many other aspects of society: struggle for women’s rights, films about environmental issues, housing problems, LGBTQ+ rights, among others.

This year we have focused once again on two films that relate to labour issues. Sister J is a portrait of a man laid off from the factory job he had for thirty years and his struggle to overcome his desperate situation. Sewing Sisters is an inspiring film about a collective of women workers who reminisce about their lives in the textile and garment industry and their struggles for better rights and access to education in the late 1960s and 1970s. Documentaries such as these allow us to understand more about Korean society and the political uprisings that have defined its social and cultural history in the last decades.  The inclusion of Sister J and Sewing Sisters within the programme of this year’s edition of the London Korean Film Festival underlines once more the importance and relevance of documentary filmmaking in Korea. When viewed alongside the wider feature film programme, it draws attention to the role cinema must play in bringing issues of social inequality and class divisions to the fore.

Ricardo Matos Cabo/ Matthew Barrington

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Indie Talent – Programme Note

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To cast one’s eyes over the Korean film industry these days is a bit like surveying wreckage after a storm. It will surely take some time before the mainstream industry is back to normal, but how did Korean independent cinema weather the pandemic? At first glance, one might conclude that it held up better than expected. Major local festivals such as Busan and Jeonju have continued to premiere full slates of new features. Theatrical releases have largely kept pace; in the year to August, 15 Korean independent films and documentaries grossed at least 10,000 admissions. 10,000 tickets may not sound like such a large number, but even before the pandemic it was a reasonable measure of success for the average independent film.

Nonetheless, something crucial has been missing. Compared to mainstream films, independent cinema relies on a much more active form of engagement with its audience. Festival premieres are crucial launching pads which create the initial buzz that spreads on the internet and leads to greater public awareness. While critics’ reviews are seen as having little influence on the performance of big-budget films, they matter much more in the independent sector. More than anything, distribution of independent features is heavily reliant on live Q&A screenings, which consistently attract the largest crowds. All of these paths to a potential audience have been severely impacted by the pandemic. Although many new independent films have received a Korean festival premiere and/or theatrical release, they have not filtered through the ecosystem in the way that they are supposed to in normal times. After all, the primary motivation for most independent filmmakers is not the dream of turning a profit, but rather the opportunity to meet and engage with the audience in a deeper, meaningful way.

In this sense, we felt it particularly important and appropriate to bring back the independent cinema strand for 2021’s programme, newly renamed Indie Talent. The four features presented here represent a cross-section of the diverse films now being produced in Korea’s independent film sector. All of them deserve more exposure than they have received to date. Limecrime, an artfully-told drama about two middle school boys obsessed with hip-hop, won the KBS Independent Film Award at its premiere in the 2020 Busan International Film Festival. Made on the Rooftop, a crowd-pleasing romance about commitment and heartbreak, screened as the closing film at the Seoul International Pride Film Festival. Rolling, a drama which expertly captures the rhythms and emotions of everyday life; and Awoke, a searing indictment of the bureaucracy behind government support for disabled citizens, both premiered at this year’s Jeonju International Film Festival. All these works were unveiled in the midst of the pandemic, and are success stories of a sort, and yet one might say that all of them are still waiting to be fully discovered.

In programming these films, we tried to highlight what it is that independent cinema brings to the Korean film industry as a whole. The characters at the center of these stories are not typical movie heroes; they offer new perspectives and different worldviews. These films feature social insight and critique that is more incisive and honest than what we might find in mainstream cinema. More than anything, they feature a different kind of storytelling, departing from the standard formulas and patterns to give the audience an experience that is sometimes dynamic, sometimes quietly moving, but always memorable.

Darcy Paquet 

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Cinema Now – Programme Note

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As its very name suggests, the remit of the Cinema Now strand is to focus on contemporary Korean films – but given that one of the key guiding principles for the programming (besides excellence) is eclecticism, it can be hard to generalise about films which have, after all, been selected in part for their differences and contrasts. For example, there is little common ground between Seo Yu-min’s twisty amnesiac thriller Recalled (2021) and Yu Jun-sang’s wryly deadpan journey behind the scenes of a music video Spring Song (2021), apart from the fact that both are well worth your time, and showcase the extraordinary breadth of sensibility in Korean filmmaking today.

It would not be the London Korean Film Festival without the presence of the latest from Hong Sang-soo – although fans may be surprised to see his In Front Of Your Face (2021) self-consciously deviating from his usual bag of tricks (here, while heavy imbibing is certainly still done, it is not soju that is drunk). Hong Seong-eun’s feature debut Aloners (2021) surveilles all the isolation and alienation of modern urban living as a close character study and minimalist ghost story. Of course, contemporary films need not have a contemporary setting, and The Book Of Fish (2021), Lee Joon-ik’s fictionalised account of real-life scholar Chung Yak-jeon’s island exile unfolds in the early nineteenth century, even if its ideas, ideals and ideologies look forward to modern Korea – while Park Jung-bae’s rip-roaring archaeological heist adventure Collectors (2020) disinters the shifting values of Korea’s past from the vantage of the present.

Last but not least, there is not one, but two new features (Josée, 2020; Shades of the Heart, 2021) from writer/director Kim Jong-kwan. He has been a very accomplished and prolific maker of short films since 2000, and much of his feature work has taken the form of an omnibus (Lovers, 2008; Come, Closer, 2010; Vestige, 2020), or else has intertwined multiple episodes into a more complex narrative (Worst Woman and The Table, both 2016). Arguably Shades of the Heart does something similar, presenting four autumnal encounters had by author Chang-seok (Yeon Woo-jin) as four formally headed, seemingly self-contained short films, each deriving its title from the name of Chang-seok’s current interlocutor. Yet binding these stories together is Chang-seok himself, and the fifth, final chapter reshifts attention to the author, crystallising the deep melancholy that has run through all these different meetings, and ensuring that Shades of the Heart is much more than the mere sum of its parts.

Meanwhile Kim Jong-kwa’s Josée tracks meetings between a young male student (Nam Joo Hyuk) and a wheelchair-bound, shut-in woman (Han Ji Min) whose love of tall tales and true starts to permeate the very form of her own romance (improbably blossoming in mid-winter). So if, like me, you have been unfamiliar with Kim’s work, prepare to discover, in this sly, subtle teller of human stories, your new favourite Korean filmmaker.

Anton Bitel

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