We are all living in a post-Parasite world. Now that Bong Joon Ho has earned Korea its first Palme d’Or, and Parasite (2019) is the first non-English language - let alone Korean - film to have won the Academy Award for Best Picture, there is a new spotlight on Korean cinema as something of local provenance but global appeal. Of course what may be news to the rest of the world has been known for decades by those who regularly attend the London Korean Film Festival. In this year’s Cinema Now - the strand that casts its eye over contemporary Korean film - we are offering an eclectic mix of the national cinema’s mainstream currents and smaller tributaries.
Let’s start with the mainstream. Kim Byung Seo and Lee Hae Jun’s Ashfall (2019) is a disaster epic that mixes volcanic chaos, North-South tension, family drama, action, espionage, extraordinary chase sequences and a whole lot of genre-savvy wit. Upon its Korean release late last year, it was seen by over two million people in just four days - and you will know why once you have witnessed this self-aware crowd-pleaser for yourself. Kim Joo-ho’s Jesters: The Game Changers (2019) follows a skilled gang of illusionists in the fifteenth century who, like a Joseon-era SFX unit, stage divine interventions to bring about political change - but are they on the right side of history? Finding out is a metacinematic joy, perfectly pitched to our own era of fake news.
It would not be the London Korean Film Festival without the latest from Hong Sangsoo. This year it is Hong’s observational The Woman Who Ran (2019), whose very title hints that there may be more than meets the eye to the trip undertaken by its protagonist (Kim Minhee) to catch up with several old acquaintances. Meanwhile Kim Cho-hee, who has long served as producer on Hong’s films, has now written and directed her own, Lucky Chan-sil (2019), concerned precisely with a forty-something female producer (Kang Mal-geum) trying to break free from the shadow of a Hong-like, soju-swilling indie director (who drops dead in the opening scene). It is a breezily self-referential feature debut, revealing the many ghosts that haunt cinephilia.
Naturally, Korean cinema also has its oddities and outliers - those films that are hard to pigeon-hole, and that take the viewer on a disorienting journey to places previously unexplored. In Jeon Gye-soo’s dizzying Vertigo (2019), a troubled young woman (Chun Woo-hee) struggles to find her centre of gravity in the high-rise building where she works on precarious contract - all under the watchful eyes of a window cleaner (Jeong Jae-kwang). Despite the Hitchcock-riffing title, there is nothing quite like this mannered fable of feminism on the edge. My favourite of this year, though, is Jung Jinyoung’s entirely sui generis feature debut Me and Me (2019), a metaphysical, metempsychotic mystery in a small town where identities shift and blur, and karmic parallel worlds are ruled by a sort-of circularity.
Anton Bitel (Classicist and Film critic; Programmer: London Korean Film Festival)