Some of the highlights from this year’s Busan International Film Festival.
The Age of Shadows
Country: South Korea
Director: Kim Jee-woon
Teaming with Warner Bros. for their first Korean language film, superstar director Kim Jee-woon returns to cinema screens with spy noir-thriller The Age of Shadows. Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s, Age of Shadows follows a band of independence fighters attempting to smuggle explosives and the Japanese police officers sent to track them down – yet everyone involved seems to have their own agenda.
From the moment it begins, it becomes quite clear that Age of Shadows is a visually stunning achievement, featuring some of the most incredible set designs and production values in the history of Korean cinema. Occupation-era Korea, as well as 1930s Shanghai, are gorgeously realized and immersive worlds of intrigue and betrayal, while the ever-reliable Song Kang-ho provides yet another charming and humanistic performance for a character that in other hands could have been one-dimensional. Yet the drama stutters when it comes to the narrative, with weak characterization and a very nationalistic story – complete with stereotypical black-clad, inherently evil Japanese antagonists – that undermines much of what the film is attempting to achieve. That said, it’s a solid and entertaining piece of cinema despite the fact it doesn’t reach the classic noir heights of The Third Man, from which so much inspiration was clearly taken.
Country: South Korea
Director: Yi Hyun-ha
Independent film Coffee Mate depicts the story of ordinary housewife In-yeong, who wiles away her days with yoga lessons and reading in a quiet cafe. By chance, she meets local carpenter Hui-su and, to avoid any misunderstandings, they agree to be “coffee mates” – only meeting at the café and never contacting each other via phone. As In-yeong and Hui-su meet more frequently, they begin to share their secrets and stories, their relationship developing into something more.
The romance genre is perilously difficult to get right largely due to the abundance of associated clichés, which makes it all the more satisfying when a potent love story arrives. Coffee Mate is such a film – it’s a charming and tender tale of love, one that doesn’t shy away from the realities of modern romance, with a story that will make even cynical audience members wish to fall in love again. Seemingly taking inspiration from classic romance Brief Encounter, Coffee Mate moves at a slow and subtle pace in organically developing the central relationship into a wholly believable connection, one that refreshingly leaves sex out of the equation to focus on the ties that bind. Interestingly, writer/director Yi Hyun-ha also examines the culture of marriage in Korea as a means of elevating class over happiness, a timely feature given the contemporary rise in divorce rates.
The Bacchus Lady
Country: South Korea
Director: E J-yong
When the BBC broke the news of elderly prostitution in Seoul a few years ago – a story that quickly went viral on social media – the government was left red-faced as questions of poverty and senior citizen welfare repeatedly surfaced. Enter The Bacchus Lady by director E J-yong, a story that follows one such sex-worker and the trials that she endures as she struggles to survive in a society which has seemingly all but forgotten she exists.
E J-yong deserves credit as a largely commercial filmmaker tackling such a controversial subject, and it speaks volumes that he has made The Bacchus Lady through independent channels. Curiously, rather than focus exclusively on 65-year-old So-yeong and her dangerous lifestyle, further social problems involving a Kopino (a child from a Filipino woman and a runaway Korean father), a disabled artist, a transgender landlady, the selfish younger generation and even euthanasia are thrown into the mix. As such, The Bacchus Lady is an interesting yet rather uneven effort, one that addresses issues but feels like a missed opportunity to explore the topics raised in greater depth. Luckily, the presence of actress Youn Yuh-jung holds everything together as she performs wonderfully, simultaneously inviting empathy for her predicament while conveying an unapologetic resolve, making The Bacchus Lady another impressive addition to her already stellar filmography.
The Girl with all the Gifts
Country: United Kingdom
Director: Colm McCarthy
YA meets Zombie Apocalypse in this British adaptation of M.R. Carey’s dystopian novel of the same name. Most of humanity has been wiped out by a fungal infection leaving survivors holed up at a number of army bases dotted around the country. Youngster Melanie (Sennia Nanua) strikes up a close relationship with teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) but what will become of the survivors when the ‘hungrys’ break through the gates?
Made for a meagre budget of £4 million pounds, the movie eschews big effects CGI in favor of a more gritty 28 Days Later style affair. With acting chops supplied by the likes of Paddy Considine and Glenn Close, the film goes for substance with a definitive spin from the usual zombie thrillers, even if the road movie style second half is something we have seen before.
Boys in the Trees
Directed by: Nicolas Verso
First time Australian director Nicolas Verso delivers a slight coming-of-age tale with all the trappings of late-nineties American culture. It is Halloween 1997 and introspective Corey and his mates take an evening off studying for finals, skateboarding and bullying geeks to hang out in a graveyard and drink to their hearts content. Petty arguments splinter the group, leaving Corey to reconnect with former friend Jonah on a night that bears all the typical hallmarks of a watershed in their young lives. But will they have a chance to right some past wrongs before the night is over?
Verso’s youthful drama contains undercurrents of fantasy and horror while the soundtrack brims with 90’s nostalgia courtesy of Marilyn Manson, Rammstein, Bush and the Presidents of the United States of America. Verso definitely has an eye for style, though the overtly American trappings (perhaps a nod to Corey’s own wish fulfilment) mean you will probably completely forget you are watching a film from Down Under.
Hounds of Love
Director: Ben Young
Perth in 1987 is clearly a more innocent time, with teenage girls at ease accepting lifts from complete strangers. Opening thus set, it can come of little surprise when Young’s debut feature turns into a thriller with more than a nod to classics such as Silence of the Lambs. Rebellious Vicki (Asheligh Cummings) sneaks out one night to attend a friend’s party. Lured to the home of Evelyn (Emma Booth) and John (Stephen Curry), she finds herself at the mercy of the couple’s games with the countdown to her death approaching at increasing speed. Can she set the pair off against each other in order to secure her escape?
A tense and at times quite disturbing thriller, Young gives his Bonnie and Clyde the space to portray a couple as much on the brink of annihilation as their victim is. Evelyn is desperate to get her kids back and willing to do anything her partner asks to help to secure this, while John – one of the most banally creepy characters seen on film in some years – uses her neuroses and neediness to get whatever he wants from her. Think Neighbors meets Prisoner Cellblock H and Wolfcreek.
Director: Boonsong Nakphoo
Experienced Thai director Boomsong Nakphoo explores Buddhism in his drama of a bereaved man (Yasaka Chaisorn) trying to come to terms with his son’s death and the subsequent failure of his marriage without seeking solace at the bottom of a bottle. A chance meeting with a Buddhist monk leads to a spiritual, physical and mental pilgrimage for Chaisorn as he faces the at times harsh living conditions required to be an ascetic while also encountering temptations along the way.
The director himself has highlighted that this is not a feature for everyone, with some scenes lasting several minutes in which very little happens. The majority of the conflict in the film is inner in nature, with much time spent meditating, walking, eating and praying (and most of this in silence). Made on a shoestring budget with ex-students of his as the crew, the film was only shown in one theatre in Bangkok before released on Youtube with English subtitles.