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It’s (almost) July. The Olympics are coming to London this month but so is Lee Hyun-seung (이현승, alternate English spelling Lee Hyeon-Seung) in the KCCUK’s Year of 12 Directors. What to get ready for? Korea’s first ‘feminist’ movie, a romance classic that even Hollywood couldn’t resist and ex-gangsters gunned down by their past.

About the Director:

Although Lee Hyun-seung, born in 1961, has only a handful of films under his belt and had some extended time-outs in his career, his experience is widespread, as he has not only worked as a director, but also as producer and/or scriptwriter. He majored in Visual Communication Design in the Department of Fine Arts at Hongik University and entered the film world in 1986, as an assistant director for Park Chul-soo. After graduating from the Korean Academy of Film Arts, he acted as assistant director for Park Kwang-su. His own, full directorial debut came in 1992 with 그대안의 블루 (Geudaeanui Beulru/The Blue in You), with three more feature length films and one short following (see Filmography below). Another feature length film, 밤안개 (Bam-an-gae/Night Mist), is currently in pre-production and Lee also teaches at Chung-Ang University.

Lee Hyun-Seung is know for his aesthetic style – his strong use of colours and sensual imagery – but also for controversy, as Twitchfilm.com reports in an article on a panel discussion entitled “Korean Cinema: Stagnation or New Leap” that, back in 2005, Lee participated in with film critics and other members from industry. Some of the director’s comments inflamed viewers, Lee boldly stating:

I love actors who can perfectly embody the kind of character directors demand. But for those who can’t, if I had a gun handy I’d just shoot them dead. I just get that impulse sometimes … “actor” is not something that you can become in a day. That kind of wrong assumption is made by the fans or producers. (quote: twitchfilm.com, my emphasis)

In the same debate Lee Hyun-seung also objected to star casting, adding that “[d]irectors don’t choose actors because they’re stars. They do so because, in their opinion, they can act. They don’t leave out promising and talented young actors to sign stars” (quote: twitchfilm.com).

Twitchfilm.com’s article notes that Lee is known as “one of the most ‘activist’ directors in the industry”. The statement is not further explained, but could refer to the fact that Lee Hyun-seung is not afraid to go his own way with films and tackles challenging topics with much vigour. His debut feature film, Geudaeanui Beulru, after all, was billed as one of Korea’s first ‘feminist’ movies at the time and his 2009 short 릴레이 (Rillei/Really), a “lighthearted drama [that] portrays girls’ solidarity to support one of their peers, a teenage mother secretly raising her child in school, against the authoritative adults”, takes on a subject matter that is often ignored and “addresses teenage rights more openly and directly” (quotes: hancinema.net).

릴레이 (Rillei/Really, 2009)

The reception of Lee Hyun-seung’s films has been varied and certainly outside of Korea he flies somewhat under the radar. His early works are virtually unknown, in some cases – 네온속으로 노을지다 (Neon Sookeuro Noeuljida/Sunset into Neon Lights, 1995) – only the most minimal English plot synopses are available and certainly no reviews. More recent works fare better, it least in terms of being known in- and outside of Korea. Although 시월애 (Siwolae/Il Mare, 2000) was not a commercial hit in its home country when released cinematically – it sold less than a quarter million tickets – it has since then become somewhat of a classic and it is not uncommon to see it on “Best Korean Romance Movie” lists of global Korean film fans. Lee’s most recent film, 푸른 소금 (Pureun Sogeum/Hindsight, 2011), meanwhile, was made after a 10-year directorial hiatus. It premiered at the 16th Busan International Film Festival but was largely slammed by critics, bloggers and viewers alike (sample reviews: Haps, The One in Four, Twitchfilm, Modern Korean Cinema), many bemoaning the waste of Korean top actor Song Kang-ho. Box office numbers were equally disapproving, with just a few over half a million people seeing the film (source: KOBIS).

If, like me, you haven’t yet watched any film by Lee Hyun-seong, the KCCUK’s July focus offers an opportunity to explore his oeuvre so we may make up our own minds. I am certainly looking forward to Siwolae – which I have been saving to watch precisely for the KCCUK screening. I am hoping to get hold of 릴레이 (Rillei/Really) some time as well as it is unfortunately not on the programme (and seemingly not in KCCUK’s library either). I’m also confident that the joint monthly KCCUK director’s interview usually conducted by some of my fellow bloggers (Hangul Celluloid, Mini Mini Movies, KCMassive, Eastern Kicks, Cine-Asia Online, among others) will enlighten us a bit more about Lee Hyun-seung’s work.

Filmography: 

  • 그대안의 블루 (Geudaeanui Beulru/The Blue in You, 1992) – feature film.
  • 네온속으로 노을지다 (Neon Sookeuro Noeuljida/Sunset into Neon Lights, 1995) – feature film.
  • 시월애 (Siwolae/Il Mare, 2000) – feature film.
  • 릴레이 (Rillei/Really, 2009) – a short, part of the 시선 1318 (Siseon 1318/If You Were Me 4, 2009) project
  • 푸른 소금 (Pureun Sogeum/Hindsight, 2011) – feature film.
  • 밤안개 (Bam-an-gae/Night Mist) – No release date, the film is still in pre-Production. Song Kang-ho again stars.

Film screening dates, trailers and short synopses:

NOTE: It seems the KCCUK changed the original order of the screenings. I don’t know the final schedule for this month at the moment, other than that Siwolae is now screening on July 5. I will update once I know the details. I would guess that the July 26 screening will still be Pooreunsogeum.
NOTE (5/7/12): The second film screened will be Sunset into Neon Lights.
NOTE 2 (5/7/12): The schedule, as it is now, should be the final one.

  • July 5: 시월애 (Siwolae/Il Mare, 2000)

You have probably seen The Lake House (USA, 2006, starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock) and if you’ve dabbled even just a wee bit in Korean movies you will have heard of Siwolae – the film that The Lake House was adapted from. It is a tale about love across time as architect Sun-Hyun starts exchanging letters with Eun-Joo via the mailbox of a house his estranged father built. The twist: they do not live in the same moment in time but are two years apart from one another.

Fun fact: The American Remake used the English title of the Korean film for the name of restaurant where the lovers-across-time are meant to meet.
Bonus bit: Darcy Parquet’s review of Silwolae.

  • July 12th: 네온속으로 노을지다 (Sunset into Neon Lights, 1994)

No trailer available.

Sang-min and Kim Won are college seniors who become lovers. When they enter the working world, challenges come their way, Sang-min facing sexual discrimination at her job in advertising and Kim Won’s publishing company soon going bankrupt. Seeing no way out, Kim Won disappears for a year, leaving Sang-min behind, who remains determined to find a solution to their problems.

  • July 17th: 그대안의 블루 (Geudaeanui Beulru/The Blue in You, 1992)

No trailer available.

Yu-rim is a strongheaded businesswoman, living her life – whether in terms of career or love – her way. She falls in love with Ho-seok, a photographer, who is as uncompromising as she is. A synopsis of the film from the Far East Film Festival in Udine, where it screened in 2000, describes Geudaeanui Beulru as “a series of scenes in which both stars play off against each other in a series of glamorous settings. The film boasts first-class production design, which makes evocative use of colour, costumes and glossy cinematography to create a ‘mood’ which parallels the emotional goings-on between the two protagonists on screen” (quote: FEFF). As mentioned previously, the film was known as the first ‘feminist’ Korean production. Otherwhere’s REVIEW.

  • July 26th: 푸른 소금 (Pooreun sogeum/Hindsight, 2011) + Q&A with director

Lee Hyun-seung’s first full length feature film after a ten-year hiatus, pitches Doo-heon (Song Kang-ho), a former gangster of legendary status, against Sebin, a young woman, who was once a sharp shooter. Doo-heon has given up his old ways and now hopes to live quietly by running a restaurant. When he takes a culinary class to ready himself for his future line of work, his past catches up with him as he meets Sebin, who has been sent on a mission to watch over and eventually kill Doo-heon.

Bonus Bits: