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 Womanand The Table, both 2016). Arguably Shades of the Heartdoes 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 Joséetracks 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.