Korean independent filmmakers continue to turn out an impressive number of new features every year, despite a lingering downturn at Korea’s box office and cuts to public funding. With surprising regularity, large numbers of talented new directors emerge and make names for themselves each year. The Indie Talent strand is devoted to highlighting such new voices, as well as the works of established directors who are pushing themselves in new directions.
Independent cinema is an important complement to the mainstream industry because it provides space for different approaches to storytelling and characterization. This can be seen in the assortment of characters who appear in the four films chosen for this section. One of the “rules” that screenwriters working in the mainstream industry are expected to follow is that main characters generally must be likeable, dynamic and exude a positive energy. There’s perhaps nothing wrong with this in itself, but the end result is that protagonists all tend to fall within the same set of familiar, recognised types.
The heroes of independent films tend to be more like us: lacking confidence, susceptible to mood swings and exhibiting a messy blend of positive and negative traits. The decisions they take can sometimes be frustrating to viewers, but in the end, it is often their weaknesses that make them appealing. Take for example the character of Seol-hee in director Lee Kwang-kuk’s A Wing and a Prayer. In the very opening scene, she’s grilled in a job interview about her dreams and ambitions for the future, and she answers quite honestly that she has none. Her roommate Hwa-jeong is frustrated to no end at her lack of initiative, but we come to see Seol-hee in a different light when she encounters someone who needs her help. Indecisive, directionless heroes are hard to find in mainstream cinema, but Seol-hee emerges as a memorable and fully three-dimensional character nonetheless.
Jisu, the protagonist of director Shim Hye-Jung’s Flowers of Mold, gives an alarming impression when we first see her. Her habit of rifling through trash to discover secrets about her neighbours seems unhinged, not to mention morally problematic. Despite this, there’s something fascinating about the contradictions in her personality and the way she goes about her daily life. Gradually, the film gives us greater access into her mind and heart to help us understand her actions.
Director Lee Jeong-hong’s A Wild Roomer is very much about ordinary, flawed, contradictory human beings. The protagonist Gi-hong is no exception, being an interesting conversationalist but slightly lazy and prone to making gaffes. In place of a clearly structured plot, A Wild Roomer focuses instead on his various encounters with a range of similarly eccentric people.
Finally, A Letter from Kyoto delves into all the complicated tension, affection and misunderstanding that can exist among three grown sisters and their mother. This work fits into the category of films whose characters feel more real than fiction, in part because director Kim Min-ju never strives unnaturally to make the characters likeable. If we do end up liking them after all, it’s because we recognise so much of ourselves in their struggles.