London Korean Film Festival 2017

12th London Korean Film Festival LKFF
London Korean Film Festival 2017
26 October – 19 November 2017

by Richard Hamer

The London Korean Film Festival is now 12 years old, and has firmly established its reputation as the home for exciting, surprising Asian cinema in the Capital. This year – as the cliché goes – is no different: With a special focus on Korean Noir, its programme of over 60 titles has offered unparalleled access into the ‘dark heart’ of Korean cinema. There have been screenings of old classics and – as a sure sign of the festival’s growing importance – UK premieres of big-budget features like The Outlaws, while it’s still showing in Korean cinemas!

But it’s not all been crime and stylish noir violence: Through the likes of its (extremely well selected) opening and closing galas of The Day After and The First Lap, this year’s LKFF offers unique insight into modern Korean life, and the less distressing – but no less important! – ‘dark heart’ that can exist in the relationships between its people.

Directed by Cho Ui-seok
Starring Lee Byung-hun, Gang Dong-won and Kim Woo-bin

President Jin (Lee Byung-hun) is the charismatic head of a vast and successful Ponzi scheme that is secretly defrauding thousands. His operation is airtight; able to dissemble itself and destroy all evidence at the merest suggestion of police interference. To bring him down, elite financial crimes investigator Kim Jae Myung (Gang Dong-won) recruits one of Jin’s own employees – the cheeky computer whizz Park Jang Goon (Kim Woo-bin) – in an elaborate game of bluff and betrayal.

Master is great fun, not so much for its character or story, but for its sheer propulsive momentum. This is a film that reinvents itself constantly. What you think is the entire premise turns out to only be the first act: Master effortlessly turns on a dime, switching to a very solid impersonation of Ocean’s Eleven, before switching again into something far blunter and explosive for its final third. It runs nearly 2 and a half hours, yet doesn’t appear to have an ounce of fat on it… read more

The Day After
The Day After
Directed by Hong Sang-soo
Starring Kwon Haehyo, Kim Minhee and Kim Saebyuk

Presented in black and white, every scene amounting to little more than two people sat opposite each other talking, The Day After is a quiet, fascinating little movie. Kwon Haehyo plays Bongwan, the head of a small publishing house. He’s also married, and having an affair with his only employee. When his wife finds out, she comes to his office and physically attacks the first woman she sees. Unfortunately, she gets it wrong: Bongwan’s lover has already left the company, and the woman she’s just slapped is his new employee Areum (Kim Minhee), having a very bad first day at work.

It’s a movie not afraid to flirt with all-out farce. After that first case of mistaken identity, things only get worse: Areum confronts the wife. The old lover comes back looking for her job. Bongwan won’t give anyone a straight answer. In a series of awkward encounters, threats are made, promises are broken, and there’s a lot of confused and embarrassed silence… read more

The First Lap
The First Lap
Directed by Kim Dae-hwan
Starring Cho Hyun-chul and Kim Saebyuk

A wonderful exploration of cross-generational attitudes to love and life, Kim Dae-hwan’s The First Lap makes for a delightfully low-key closer for this years’ London Korean Film Festival.

The film follows Su-hyeon and Ji-young, a twenty-something couple that have been together for nearly a decade. They’re travelling on auto-pilot; happy enough but going nowhere. Neither has much in the way of a career, they live in a squalid little apartment, and when Ji-young discovers she might be pregnant, the question of commitment arises. After all this time, shouldn’t they be getting married? And if they can’t commit, then why – after all this time – are they even together?.. read more

The Merciless
The Merciless
Directed by Byun Sung-hyun
Starring Sul Kyung-gu and Yim Si-wan

Released from prison after a three-year stint, up-and-coming gangster Hyun-soo joins forces with Jae-hoo, an established figure in the Busan underworld, to make the kind of money they spent their years inside dreaming about. But things are not what they seem, and as they set about organising their ‘Big Score’, it’s clear that one – or both – has a hidden agenda. As events unfold, we repeatedly flashback to prison, where their relationship was born. As their true motives are revealed in the past, you’re forced to re-examine the events of the present. Who is everyone working for? What do they really want?

The Merciless is by no means original in its time-jumping, plot-twisting conceit, but it pulls it off with aplomb. Right until the final frame, you don’t trust what anyone says, or believe they’re working for who they say they are; every lie seems like a cover for another, greater lie. The fewer details you know about the plot going in, the better: While The Merciless is for the most part a fairly standard rendition of gangster clichés, the sheer frequency with which it pulls the rug of understanding out from under you is a thing to enjoy unspoilt… read more

The Outlaws aka Crime City
The Outlaws (Crime City)
Directed by Kang Yun-sung
Starring Don Lee, Yoon Kye-sang and Cho Cha-yun

Still playing in Korean cinemas at the time of its London screening, The Outlaws is doing great box office. It’s not hard to see why: Fresh from blockbuster hit Train to Busan, heavyweight star Dong-seok Ma (Don Lee) plays a cop at the centre of a violent, breathlessly exciting operation to find and arrest an entire Chinese-Korean gang that have taken over the Garibong-dong neighbourhood of Seoul.

Based (I suspect very loosely) on the real-life 2007 event known as the “Heuksapa Incident”, detective Ma Suk-Do (Lee) and his understaffed team of hard-bitten cops struggle to maintain order in a district split between several competing gangs. Protection rackets, illegal gambling and prostitution are rife. Stabbings are an everyday occurrence. Into the mix comes the unstoppable, sadistic Jang Chen (Yoon Kye-sang), who all-but single-handedly sends the entire neighbourhood spiraling into all-out war. To bring order to the streets, Ma Suk-Do has no choice but to build up a case to arrest the gangsters. All of them… read more

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