LKFF 23: CINEMA NOW – Programmer’s Note

As the strand devoted to contemporary Korean film, Cinema Now surfs the Zeitgeist and rides the Hallyu’s crest, capturing the present in cross-section. This synchronic approach to a national cinema ensures two things in conflict: continuity, and novelty. For while the strand’s selection represents the cutting edge and the (roaring) current of Korean cinema today, the discoveries at that coalface have surfaced only because of what has been previously mined – and so every year Cinema Now uses the ever-shifting prism of the present to look backwards as much as forwards. 


Walk Up, for example, is a return – not just of the Festival’s old friend Hong Sangsoo, but of his typically simple seeming narrative format that conceals within it something more complex. Here, appropriately enough, Hong’s subject is time itself, which makes several abrupt leaps forward, even as the location – a semi-residential, multi-stor(e)y building – never changes. In this structure we see characters – including ageing film director Byungsoo (Kwon Haehyo), who would appear to be a stand-in for the director himself. Looking back in a different way is Lee Hae-young’s beautifully stylised Phantom, a classic whodunnit/spy adventure set during the Japanese Occupation, yet coming with all manner of kickass modern sensibilities. 


Park Sang-min’s sophisticated metamovie I Haven’t Done Anything uses a ‘screenlife’ format to show washed-out actor Oh Tae-kyung (played by the real Oh) drawing on his best known role from the past (a bit part in Oldboy (2003)) as he attempts to reinvent himself (or someone similar) as a Youtube influencer. This one builds from arbitrary-seeming chaos to an elegant conclusion that is as perfect as it is unexpected and cynically confronting. It is also, at 90 minutes, relatively short in duration for a Korean film these days. Even more compact and economic, despite a boldly involuted narrative structure, is Chang Hang-jun’s taut neo noir Open The Door, which looks back over the disintegrating lives of a migrant Korean family across two generations in New Jersey, while inverting its own episodic chronology to suggest inevitable, indeed Irreversible (2002) tragedy born out of early optimism, with every opened door closing on a brighter future. 


Similarly retrospective is Min Yong-keun’s postmodern portrait Soulmate, which not only looks back over many years of two women’s evolving friendship both as schoolmates and fellow artists, but is also a seamlessly relocated remake of an earlier Chinese film. Like the photorealist sketch at its centre, this is a (cinematic) trompe l’oeil, tricksier than it first seems. Also dealing with schoolgirl friendship, though otherwise very different, is Lim Oh-jeong’s punkishly anarchic Hail To Hell, in which two suicidal teenagers, out for revenge against their tormentor, find themselves at war with a doomsday cult, before seeking salvation on their own terms. There is simply nothing else out there like this. Meanwhile Lee Sol-hui’s Greenhouse shows a middle-aged carer and mother whose mental illness – along with a chain of bad decisions – lead her to spiral downwards in her increasingly inextricable professional and personal lives. The palpable tension here is pure Hitchcock. 

Anton Bitel