The London Film Festival may be out of the way, but the year’s Film Festival calendar is far from over. One of the next big festivals on my radar is the London Korean Film Festival (1st-14th November), which never fails to delight with its mix of classic and contempary Korean Cinema. South Korea has long been one of the most vibrant cinephile cultures in the world, and the LKFF is a shining jewel in London’s film scene.
The ‘special focus’ this year (that is to say, their loose-but-not-prescriptive theme) is “A Century of Korean Cinema”, and with a packed schedule of classic films, new movies and hidden gems the line-up may seem a little daunting at first. With that in mind, I’ve selected the top 10 highlights that have particularly caught my eye. In chronological order of filming, they are…
A Hometown of the Heart (Yoon Yong-Kyu, 1946) Close-up Film Centre, 8 Nov, 8pm
The lyrical tale of a child monk who is drawn to a young widow he sees at the temple. She starts to wonder if she might raise him as her son. A quiet, beautiful film about yearning.
Aimless Bullet (Yu Hyun-mok, 1961) Picturehouse Central, 13 Nov, 6:30pm
Brutal, bleak, neorealist postwar drama that was banned in Korea for being too downbeat about life in the country. A focus on male alienation, among civilians and ex-soldiers alike. Resentment, drinking, arguing, philosophy, violence and anger as a dark spirit hovers over the land. Awesomely nightmarish portrait of a world out of joint, in which humans are “aimless bullets, shot by the Creator” (is there any line in Korean cinema more nihilistic?).
The Devil’s Stairway (Lee Man-hui, 1964) Picturehouse Central, 13 Nov, 9:20pm
Sometimes referred to as “the first Korean horror movie” (I’ll let you argue over that). A surgeon, engaged to be married, tidies up some loose ends by killing his nurse lover – but is he truly free of her? (Spoiler: no).
A Day Off (Lee Man-hui, 1968) Regent Street Cinema, 2 Nov, 2pm
More alienation, but this time in a surreal, Antonioni-esque register. This beautiful tale of two lovers meeting up on a Sunday was, like Aimless Bullet, banned in its own time.
Ieoh Island (Kim Ki-young, 1977) ICA London, 12 Nov, 6:15pm
The spirits of drowned sailors have one or two things to say (and do) to group of company executives looking to open a spa on their island! A plot not too dissimilar to Carpenter’s The Fog, if The Fog was more dreamy, deranged and sexually disturbing, and in part a cautionary tale of capitalist greed.
The Age of Success (Jang Sun-woo, 1988) Regent Street Cinema, 4 Nov, 8:40pm
More corporate satire here, with a thrusting young artificial sweetener executive. He cooks up a scheme while recuperating in hospital that he feels sure will take him to the top of the ladder. Sort of The Secret of My Success meets The Great Dictator. Bananas.
Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (Bae Yong-kyun, 1989) KCCUK, 11 Nov, 7pm
Slow, gorgeous, reflective tale of three members of a monastery, each in their own way seeking enlightenment. Sometimes considered a forerunner to the work of people like Apichatpong Weerasethekul.
The Day a Pig Fell Into a Well (Hong Sang-soo, 1996) Regent Street Cinema, 5 Nov, 6:30pm
A rare chance to see Hong Sang-soo’s debut picture on the big screen! For all us HongHeads, this opportunity simply cannot be ignored. I for one will see you there. (Note: his latest film, Grass, is also playing, so if you want to you can bookend his career and get a sense of the distance he’s travelled in his evolution as a filmmaker).
Peppermint Candy (Lee Chang-dong, 1999) Regent Street Cinema, 3 Nov, 4:30pm
Director Lee rocketed upwards in the western consciousness last year with his stunning film Burning. This earlier effort is every bit as good, and features a cast of (then) unknowns in the tale of a 20-year reunion between old friends. One of their number, Yeong-ho, casts on ominous pall over the celebrations, before climbing up onto the railway tracks to commit suicide. The backwards story of his life might be thought of, in some way, as a Citizen Kane of the everyman.
Extreme Job (Lee Byeong-heon, 2019) Regent Street Cinema, 6 Nov, 8:35pm
Knockabout high-tempo comedy about a bunch of goofy cops who set up a sting using a fake chicken restaurant, who get more than they bargained for when the runaway success of the restaurant starts to endanger the success of the sting. See it before the inevitable Will Ferrell remake. Plus: this screening features a Q&A with the director!
There are many more treasures to unearth, of course, including in dedicated sections for Women’s Voices, Shorts, Animation, Documentary, and the Cinema of Ha Gil-jong (Personal suggestion: The Ascension of Han-ne).
But whatever takes your fancy, I hope you enjoy exploring Korean Cinema, and if you see something you like (or don’t) feel free to drop us a tweet @whitlockandpope!