Tuesday, November 24, 2009

2009 Pusan International Film Festival: Review Round-up

Before I get into the post proper, a bit of housekeeping: you can now find me on Twitter. After being a long-time Twitter atheist, I am here to announce that I have fully converted to the faith. If you look to your right, you'll see a widget with my latest tweets. My Twitter feed will be mostly an extension of this blog, to post short reviews of films, news items, and other ephemera that I either don't have time to post on the blog or don't necessarily warrant entire blog posts.

You can follow me at http://twitter.com/bournecinema.

It was so nice I had to do it twice. Yes, your intrepid cinema world traveler made a return trip to Busan, South Korea last month for the Pusan International Film Festival, for another round of (mostly) great films, seafood dinners, and strolls on the beach. My PIFF coverage is ongoing at Meniscus Magazine; three pieces are now up: a festival overview, a top 10 list with awards and statistics, and a review of the opening night film, Jang Jin's Good Morning President. I will also post some pictures and videos from the festival here. Below are brief reviews of some of this year's selections.

I’m in Trouble! (So Sang-min, South Korea, 2009)

This gently amusing film about the travails and romantic complications of an unemployed poet at first comes across as a poor man’s Hong Sang-soo, but soon reveals charms of its own. As the protagonist Sun-woo (Min Sun-wuk) breaks up, gets back together with, and breaks up again with his long-suffering girlfriend, his struggles become increasingly complicated and absurd. With a definite penchant for getting drunk (leading to hilarious scenes such as one where he drunkenly walks stark naked through a 24-hour spa), Sun-woo believes that he makes all of his most important life decisions while drunk, an idea that may or may not be delusional. This year’s co-winner of the New Currents jury prize (for best first or second film), the film’s best asset is its witty and revealing dialogue, delivered by an appealing young cast.

Nymph (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand, 2009)

Pen-ek’s latest (he was also on the New Currents jury this year) is beautifully shot, with a creepy atmosphere. A photographer (Nopachai Jayanama) and his philandering wife (Wanida Termthanaporn) travel deep into a dark forest, where forest spirits reside. The film opens with a murder in the forest, and there is evidence of others. However, these murders are never solved, and the film has little interest in explaining them; in fact, there may be no rational explanation. The worldview of this film respects, even reveres, mystery and things in the universe that are unknowable and un-seeable. Nymph is a distinctly Thai ghost story, exploring the porous boundary between the corporeal world and the spirit world. Quiet and disturbing, Nymph is so ethereal as to nearly float off the screen.

A Brand New Life (Ounie Lecomte, South Korea/France, 2009)

A beautifully observant, semi-autobiographical story of a girl left in an orphanage by her father in 1970’s Korea, A Brand New Life is built around close examination of its abandoned protagonist, Jin-hee (Kim Sae-ron), as she slowly comes to realize that Daddy’s not coming back, and she’s about to have a new family. Co-produced by Lee Chang-dong (Peppermint Candy, Secret Sunshine), one of Korea’s greatest filmmakers, Lecomte’s film has a similar novelistic attention to detail as can be found in Lee’s films. Its young actors and personal nature will no doubt draw many comparisons to So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain, which are admittedly not unwarranted. Lecomte, however, is no mere slavish imitator, despite her film’s clear antecedents. Tough-minded and bracingly unsentimental, A Brand New Life includes in its portrait of the orphanage and its inhabitants some sharp commentary on the mindset of Westerners who adopt kids from Korea. Lecomte’s film is a simple tale, but well told and with considerable emotional resonance.

Black Hair (Lee Man-hee, South Korea, 1964)

An unusual gangster film, Black Hair is a major Korean film of the 1960’s, recently restored by the Korean Film Archive in a print that includes the long lost opening sections of the film. These parts of the film were badly damaged, resulting in visual distortion in the initial scenes of the digital restoration. The story concerns a gang boss who gives anyone who crosses him a big scar across the face with a broken bottle, blinding the victim in one eye in the process. The boss instructs his men to give this punishment to his cheating wife. He has a change of heart at the last moment, but not before his enforcer (himself a victim of the “discipline,” as the gang boss terms it) has given his wife a hideous scar. She then becomes a prostitute (fixing her hairstyle to cover her scar) who shacks up with a raging opium addict, later finding love with a kind taxi driver. Complications arise when the gang boss seeks out his ex-wife, filled with remorse over the mark he has given her. Stark chiaroscuro and a grand, operatic atmosphere make this a valuable example of the riches to be found in the 1950’s and 1960’s so-called Golden Age of Korean cinema, which are still being rediscovered.

Toad’s Oil (Koji Yakusho, Japan, 2008)

A little too long and more than a bit self-indulgent, actor Yakusho’s debut as director is nonetheless very funny, pleasingly eccentric, and in the end quite moving. Concerned with the grief of a father (Yakusho) over the sudden death of his young son, the film combines comedy, tragedy, fantasy and nostalgia in a unique mixture. As is usually the case when actors direct, the performances are impressive across the board, starting with Yakusho himself, playing a stock day-trader gaining and losing millions and completely jaded and unfazed by it all. The personal tragedy that befalls him forces him to reorder his life priorities, and a road trip he takes with his son’s friend turns into a surreal journey into his past, featuring the salesman of the titular substance he first encountered as a child. There is also a bizarre comic encounter with a bear in the woods. As ungainly and unruly as its protagonist, Toad’s Oil is by no means a perfect film, but it has enough charm, humor and heart to get the film through its overindulgent longueurs.


Dr. Stan Glick said...

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Lee Chang-dong is one of Cinema's greatest directors, not just Korea's.

Author: Christopher Bourne said...

Well, obviously. Korea is where he's from, and he is one of the greatest filmmakers to come from there. And that's what I meant; clearly his worth is not to be judged simply within a Korean context.