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If you attended the screening for August director Lee Yoon-ki’s 사랑한다, 사랑하지 않는다 (Saranghanda, Saranghaji Anhneunda/Come Rain Come Shine, South Korea, 2011) on Thursday night, you will have already had a taster of the K-director of September: a trailer for Jeon Kyu-hwan’s 바라나시 (Varanasi aka From Seoul to Varanasi, South Korea, 2011) preceded the screening and gave a glimpse of what this coming month holds in store. Like myself, you might have been equally awestruck about how much emotion a completely dialogue-less trailer of 2:30 min evoked already, hinting at a craftsman who knows his game and promising a rewarding month ahead for London film fans.

About the Director

What might come as a surprise is that Jeon Kyu-hwan (b. 1965) has been making films for less than 5 years and started his career in talent management instead, first gaining exposure to the profession through clients from the film industry (actors Cho Jae-hyun and Sul Kyung-gu). Although he had a part in Kim Ki-duk’s 야생동물 보호구역 (Yasaengdongmool Bohogooyeok/Wild Animals, South Korea, 1997), his own directorial debut only came in 2008 with 모차르트 타운 (Mochareuteu Tawoon/Mozart Town). The KCCUK’s choice of Jeon Kyu-hwan thus continues the trend of showcasing directors that have been in the trade for a relatively short period of time, with only a handful of films to their name, but who are a real discovery for cineastes. (April’s Song Il-gon, June’s Lee Jun-ik  and August’s Lee Yoon-ik are others on this list.)

Five short years it may be, but Jeon Kyu-hwan has been embraced with open arms by critics and the film festival circuit. His first feature received some enthusiastic reviews, the follow-up 애니멀 타운 (Aenimeol Tawoon/Animal Town, 2009) won an award at the Cinema Digital Seoul Film Festival, leading to further festival invitations (from the Berlinale to the Hong Kong International Film Festival) for Jeon’s third production, 댄스 타운 (Daenseu Tawoon/Dance Town, 2010), and yet more awards (at the Granada Film Festival Cines del Sur, the Asian Film Festival of Dallas, the Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinema, and the Pusan International Film Festival). Film number 4,  바라나시 (Varanasi aka From Seoul to Varanasi, 2011), screened at the Berlinale, while 무게 (Muge/The Weight, 2012), due to be released in Korea later this year, is on the programme at the Venice International Film Festival for September 7, 2012, all these invitations to big-name festivals highlighting the recognition and respect that the director is receiving internationally.

Jeon Kyu-hwan’s first three films constitute the so-called ‘Town Trilogy’ and share a focus on individuals on the periphery of modern-day society: they are migrant workers, North Korean defectors, pedophiles and other human misfits, as the director takes in all of society and looks where people normally avert their eyes. The raw depiction of mistreatment, humiliation and discrimination on the screen makes for deeply uncomfortable but undeniably realistic cinema that “walks the fine line between documentary and drama” (source). It also explains why commercial, but not critical success so far has evaded the director, the films never catering to the tastes of the Korean mainstream audience.

Soon premiering in Venice: Jeon Kyu-hwan’s 무게 (Muge/The Weight, a story about a hunchback.

Jeon’s works are a reflection of his film making philosophy and his belief of art as social tool more generally, the director noting, in a March 2011 interview with the Korean Times, that in daily lives people “try to avoid filthy, uncomfortable truths. But art, be it literature, painting or film, cannot and should not ignore it.” There are more enlightening quotes to be shared from this interview, the director also explaining his focus on cities:

My characters aren’t the protagonist in my films — I am trying to tell a larger story through them, to focus on a particular aspect of the city through their stories…’Dance Town’ might look like it’s a political movie since it features a North Korean defector. But it’s not; If I had shot the film in Paris, then I might have featured an Algerian immigrant or such. I just wanted to portray one of Seoul’s multifaceted faces.

Stylistically Jeon Kyu-hwan considers himself minimalist, preferring to stay away – indeed, despising – fancy cinematography and filming as if “seen from the bare naked human eye”. Revealing are also his instructions to the actors to act like themselves, as normally as possible – obviously a controversial and problematic directive for a performer portraying a pedophile that finds his immoral sexual urges as strong as ever. Quote the filmmaker, who made the art director remove child porn magazines from the character’s home on the film set:

I’m not trying to defend sex offenders — in fact I despise them. But I was unsatisfied with the way these individuals are often portrayed. I am sick of all these movies that use the same template for storytelling, by casting particular actors for the same type of roles and manipulating reactions from audiences with audiovisual effects and props. I do not want to communicate with moviegoers this way.

To play with stigmas and taboos in this way of course is to play with fire and the easily offended will likely find the September film programme at the KCCUK too provocative and intolerable. Although I’m sure I’ll flinch at some scenes and find others shocking, I’m a firm believer that such films need to be made and, furthermore, should be watched (as I have previously thought here and here). It will be heavy, but hopefully enlightening fare and the Q&A night has good chance to turn out as one of the most interesting of the Year of 12 Directors.

Filmography

  • 모차르트 타운 (Mochareuteu Tawoon/Mozart Town, 2008)
  • 애니멀 타운 (Aenimeol Tawoon/Animal Town, 2009)
  • 댄스 타운 (Daenseu Tawoon/Dance Town, 2010)
  • 바라나시 (Varanasi aka From Seoul to Varanasi, 2011)
  • 무게 (Muge/The Weight, 2012)

Awards

  • 애니멀 타운 (Aenimeol Tawoon/Animal Town, 2009) – Movie College Award at the 2010 Cinema Digital Seoul Film Festival.
  • 댄스 타운 (Daenseu Tawoon/Dance Town, 2010) – Golden Alhambra at the 2011 Granada Film Festival Cines del Sur, Narrative Feature at the 2011 Asian Film Festival of Dallas, International Jury Grand Award & INALCO at the Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinema, Best Actress Award and Special Mention of NETPAC at the Pusan International Film Festival.

Film screening dates, trailers and short synopses

For trailers, click on the Korean titles. Information on how to reserve a (free) seat for the London screenings can be found at the website of the KCCUK.

September 6th: 모차르트 타운 (Mochareuteu Tawoon/Mozart Town, 2008) – Teaser trailer only.

In a Seoul that is not Salzburg (as Mozart Town should be), Sara, a pianist from Slovakia, experiences the city as a tourist, blind to its darker sides. Meanwhile, native locals and illegal immigrants alike struggle to find their place in the sad and lonely urban jungle of this Mozart Town. Mochareuteu Tawoon was shot within 15 days with a crew of non-professionals, providing a steep learning curve for the director.

Note: You must be 18 or older to see this film. (I suspect the same rating will apply for the other screenings.)

September 13th: 애니멀 타운 (Aenimeol Tawoon/Animal Town, 2009)

A man has a motorcylce stolen. The child who steals it is killed in a traffic accident. The convicted pedophile that drives the fatal car attempts suicide. Lives intersect to reveal a city that is only heartless and cruel.

September 20th: 댄스 타운 (Daenseu Tawoon/Dance Town, 2010)

Jung-nim, accused of a misdeed, flees North Korea with the help of her husband, who is caught by security forces. Though safe in the South herself, Jung-nim feels alienated by her strange surroundings, missing and worrying about the man she left behind. Then she is shown a picture of her husband’s execution by Oh Sung-Tae, a patrolman that is keeping her under surveillance.

September 27th:  바라나시 (Varanasi aka From Seoul to Varanasi, 2011) + Q&A with director – REVIEW

As the title already indicates, From Seoul to Varanasi is, unusually, set both in South Korea and India. It was a festival-related trip to the latter country that led to this, leaving Jeon Kyu-hwan so fascinated with the place that he wanted to shoot a film there. The story he tells is of a long-married but painfully estranged couple, the woman falling for Kerim, an Indian Muslim, whom she follows to the shores of the Ganges river only to end up in the midst of a terrorist attack.

Bonus Bits