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Year of 12 Directors collage

The Korean Cultural Centre in London (aka the KCCUK) gave Korean cinephiles a special treat in 2012 with the Year of 12 Directors: one Korean director for every month of the year, four screenings (most of them free) for each filmmaker, with a bonus for the final session: a Q&A event with the director of that month flown in straight from South Korea.

Now that the Year of 12 Directors is over, it’s time to reflect.

January: Lee Myung-se (이명세)

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January began with Lee Myung-se (이명세) and 인정사정 볼 것 없다 (Nowhere To Hide, 1999), followed by screenings of 엠 (Em/M, 2007), 개그맨 (Gagman/Gagman, 1989) and 형사 (Hyeongsa/Duelist, 2005). Being away from the UK, I missed all but the last screening, which, luckily, was the one I was most keen on seeing. Hyeongsa certainly did not disappoint: though the plot was limited and inconclusive (keeping Sad Eyes a mysterious character from beginning to end), the film was a sumptuous affair in every way: mood, sound, visuals. The characters charmed me, the actors – Kang Dong-won, Ha Ji-won and  Ahn Sung-ki – I all adore(d). I loved the director’s adventurousness of presenting a period drama but throwing in music from another place and era. There was humour and action and titillating romance (an airborne, love-making sword fight) – completely idiosyncratic, not everyone’s cup of tea but pure awesomeness in my book. Of the Lee Myung-se films I missed, 엠 (Em/M, 2007) remains on my must-watch list (as do all of ♥ Kang Dong-won films). Even though I doubt I will enjoy all of the director’s creations as much, he is the sort of filmmaker I appreciate: with the guts to make the films he truly wants to make. His sympathetic demeanour at the Q&A only confirmed this.

February: E J-yong (이재용)

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February was E J-yong (이재용) month, with 정사 (Jeong Sa/An Affair, 1998), 다세포 소녀 (Dasepo Sonyeo/Dasepo Naughty Girls, 2006), 스캔들 – 조선 남녀 상열지사 (Seukandeul – Joseon namnyeo sang’yeoljisa/Untold Scandal, 2003) and 여배우들 (Yeobaewoodeul/Actresses, 2009) on the programme. I attended the Dasepo Sonyeo screening, which was good fun but didn’t have quite the bite you would expect for what advertised itself as a whacky comedy breaking all taboos about sex. Equally, I had hoped for Yeobaewoodeul, a docudrama giving a candid glimpse behind the scenes of the entertainment industry and into the life of real Korean actresses, to be more extreme (more catfights, darker revelations, nastier gossip) – but from what I gathered, the whole lot of London’s K-film bloggers (who nearly all happen to be male), all found the film a delight.

March: Park Kwang-su (박광수)

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Areumdaun cheongnyeon Jeon Tae-il.

In March it was the turn of Park Kwang-su (박광수), a pioneering figure of the Korean New Wave. As a director that tackled socio-cultural taboo topics in the late 1980s/ early 1990s his importance within Korean cinema is undeniable and pretty much all his films sounded intriguing: 칠수와 만수 (Chilsuwa Mansu/Chilsu and Mansu, 1988), 이재수의 난 (Yi Chaesu ui nan/The Uprising, 1999), 아름다운 청년 전태일 (Areumdaun cheongnyeon Jeon Tae-il/A Single Spark, 1995) and 눈부신 날에 (Nunbushin Nal-ae/Meet Mr. Daddy aka Shiny Day, 2006). Despite the plethora of negative opinions I heard from several fellow K-film bloggers about Yi Chaesu ui nan, I attended the screening. I didn’t love it either, but let’s say it was an interesting exercise in figuring out why the film simply doesn’t work despite Park’s good intentions. Chilsuwa Mansu and Areumdaun cheongnyeon Jeon Tae-il, meanwhile, remain on my to-watch list, Nunbushin Nal-ae I’m less interested in – the consensus from my fellow London K-film bloggers seems to be that despite the director’s seminal role in the Korean New Wave and the development of the national film industry that came with it, Park’s most recent film is rather commercial.

April: Song Il-gon (송일곤)

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Siganeui Choom.

From the very moment that I perused the Year of 12 Directors programme for the first time, I was particularly excited about April and its director, Song Il-gon (송일곤), anticipating somehow that he would be my favourite director in the line-up. I was not disappointed: 꽃섬 (Ggot seom/Flower Island, 2001) was a gem – a raw, unpolished gem, but a gem nonetheless. Of all the films of his that I watched, it etched itself most deeply into my heart, though I can’t say exactly why. Next came 깃 (Git/Feathers in the Wind, 2005), which I enjoyed though it not charm me quite as much, and finally 시간의 춤 (Siganeui Choom/Dance of Time, 2009). The latter was an unusual film: a documentary on Korean immigrants to Cuba at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was fascinating as well very moving – and as someone who has resided in many different countries, I could very much relate to some of the questions raised about that fragmented identity that living between two or more cultures creates. While I missed the final screening – and the Q&A with a director that I would have very much liked to meet -, 오직 그대만 (Ohjik Geudaeman/Always aka Only You, 2011) is definitely on my list of films-to-see, as are several others of Song Il-gon’s works, including 거미숲 (Geomi sup/Spider Forest, 2004) and 마법사들 (Mabeopsadul/Magicians, 2005) – if I can track them down (unfortunately copies of Song Il-gon’s films are hard to come by). From what I have watched of Song’s works, it is not that his films – not even one of them – are perfection and entirely fulfilling, but the stories he tells are always interesting and his characters are people, flawed as they may be, that one cares about.

May: Jeon Kye-soo (전계수)

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Samgeori Geukjang.

As for May and Jeon Kye-soo (전계수)… I was marking exams while staying at my sister’s in Vienna and missed it all: 삼거리 극장 (Samgeori Geukjang/Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater, 2006), his short as part of the omnibus feature 시선 1318 (Siseon 1318/If You Were Me, 2008), 뭘 또 그렇게까지 (Wol Ddo Geureonggeggaji/Lost and Found, 2010) and 러브픽션 (Leobeupiksyeon/Love Fiction, 2011). Thus I remain completely unenlightened about Jeon Kye-soo and will have to play catch-up some time.

June: Lee Joon-ik (이준익)

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Wangeui Namja.

The June line-up for Lee Joon-ik (이준익) was diverse, reflecting his rather unpredictable, multi-genre filmography: 왕의 남자 (Wangeui Namja/The King and the Clown, 2005) was a historical film with some suggestions of homosexuality (a much debated kiss between the king and the clown). Although it has been pushed from 2nd to 4th spot on the all-time Korean Box Office numbers due to the success of 도둑들 (Dodukdeul/The Thieves, 2012) and 광해, 왕이 된 남자 (Gwanghae: Wangyidoen Namja/Masquerade, 2012) this year, Wangeui Namja is a delightful film that I can only recommend. 즐거운 인생 (Jeulgeowoon Insaeng/The Happy Life, 2007), a story of now middle-aged friends that reform their college rock band, I had already seen previously and found neither particularly good nor bad (Jang Geun-suk fans will probably enjoy it the most), so I skipped the KCCUK screening. I also missed 님은 먼곳에 (Nimeun Meongote/Sunny, 2008), about woman who performs in a consolatory band for Korean troops during the Vietnam War, and 평양성 (Pyeongyangseong/Battlefield Heroes, 2010), focusing on a 7th century battle between different kingdoms and dynasties in comedy form, both of which sounded interesting enough. I may still watch them sometime.

July: Lee Hyun-seung (이현승)

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July is yet another month when I only managed to attend one of the screenings due to scheduling conflicts. Despite that, I fell love with the director. How to explain this? It’s just that 그대안의 블루 (Geudaeanui Beulru/The Blue in You, 1992) was – as confusing as the plot was at first – utterly compelling and convinced me of Lee Hyun-seung’s (이현승) brilliance. I could be wrong of course – 시월애 (Siwolae/Il Mare, 2000), 네온속으로 노을지다 (Neonsogeulo noeuljida/Sunset into Neon Lights, 1994) and 푸른 소금 (Poo-reun-so-geum/Hindsight, 2010) still await – but I do think sometimes a single work can reveal a whole lot about an artist. You can glimpse potential in the unpolished, first film of a new director that can elevate him/her above the level of more experienced filmmakers that reliably produce something every year or two and perhaps have greater commercial success, but can never reach the same creative heights. For me, Geudaeanui Beulru is the work of not just a director, but an auteur: someone who has such a distinct cinematic vision that a story he tells will still inspire twenty years on. My expectations for 시월애 (Siwolae/Il Mare, 2000) – generally praised over its US remake The Lake House (2006) – and 네온속으로 노을지다 (Neonsogeulo noeuljida/Sunset into Neon Lights, 1994) are particularly high.

August: Lee Yoon-ki (이윤기)

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Saranghanda, Saranghaji Anhneunda.

I went to India to escape the Olympics but that didn’t come without a regret of having to miss what sounded like another fabulous director: Lee Yoon-ki (이윤기) with 여자, 정혜 (Yeoja, Jeonghye/This Charming Girl, 2004), 러브토크 (Leobeutokeu/Love Talk, 2005), 멋진 하루 (Meotjin Haroo/My Dear Enemy, 2008) and 사랑한다, 사랑하지 않는다 (Saranghanda, Saranghaji Anhneunda/Come Rain Come Shine, 2011). The last film I was particularly interested in seeing – indeed I had opted not to watch it during the Pan Asia Film Festival in March as I wanted to attend the Year of 12 Directors screening with the Q&A. The solution for the film addict? Book a return flight to arrive in time for the event (cutting short my India trip by some ten days). I was also lucky enough that Paul of Hangul Celluoid lent me his 여자, 정혜 (Yeoja, Jeonghye/This Charming Girl, 2004) DVD.

Lee Yoon-ki’s films are what many would call slow: there is little plot and dialogue can often be sparse. If I can borrow a term from manga here, they are very ‘slice of life’: snapshots of real events as they happen to people every day, no embellishment added. This is particularly true for Saranghanda, Saranghaji Anhneunda, which depicts, almost in real-time, one rainy afternoon that a divorcing couple spends together as the wife packs up her things to move out and the husband lingers in the house, essentially only waiting for these final hours to pass. To some viewers this sort of storytelling is boring, to me it’s everything but that, meaning, firstly, that I can’t wait to see 러브토크 (Leobeutokeu/Love Talk, 2005) and 멋진 하루 (Meotjin Haroo/My Dear Enemy, 2008) as soon as I get a chance and, secondly, that Lee Yoon-ki makes it onto my top-3 list of directors from the Year of 12 Directors.

September: Jeon Kyu-hwan (전규환)

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Daenseu Tawoon.

Jeon Kyu-hwan (전규환) came to town (pun intended) in September with his Town Trilogy plus another film. 모차르트 타운 (Mochareuteu Tawoon/Mozart Town, 2008) was first up and… I wasn’t quite convinced. Researching the director at the beginning of the month to write my Year of 12 Directors‘ post I had been rather excited about the programme as Jeon Kyu-hwan’s interest in individuals on the fringe of society and taboo topics as well as a good critical reception all seemed promising. But Mochareuteu Tawoon didn’t manage to move me: some things were a little irritating (why Mozart Town? with a Slovakian musician?), some didn’t make all that much sense and mostly I felt we only got a superficial glance into characters’ lives. I didn’t have the motivation for the next two screenings – 애니멀 타운 (Aenimeol Tawoon/Animal Town, 2009) and 댄스 타운 (Daenseu Tawoon/Dance Town, 2010) – but did go for the final one, 바라나시 (Varanasi/From Seoul to Varanasi, 2011), which made me realise why Jeon Kyu-hwan’s films don’t work for me: Jeon’s efforts for tackling controversial subject matters may be laudable, but the protagonists in his stories are individuals that I struggle to empathise with for are never given any reason why we should care.

October: Im Kwon-taek (임권택)

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In October came the biggest retrospective of the master of Korean film, Im Kwon-taek (임권택), with fifteen films shared between the BFI and ICA. Shameful admission: I skipped it all. Not because I wasn’t interested, but let’s just say that after Zipangu, Raindance and especially the London Film Festival I was not only broke but also, yes, a bit tired of film-watching! There is such a thing as too many films and I do think this event could have been timed better because I know I wasn’t the only one that was exhausted when this retrospective finally came round. Well, I’m not one for regrets. Though I didn’t get to see any of Im Kwon-taek’s surely amazing films, I think that was preferable to watching them only half-heartedly. The good news is that the Korean Film Archive has four of his films freely available on its official YouTube channel and has also just released a box set of several more – a chance to catch up on at least some of what I missed.

November: Song Hae-seong (송해성)

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Woorideuleui Haengbokhan Sigan.

Song Hae-seong (송해성) I like to call the king of melo, for it is melodramatic fare that he seems to like best. I may again have missed most of the screenings – 역도산 (Rikidozan: A Hero Extraordinary, 2004), 우리들의 행복한 시간 (Woorideuleui Haengbokhan Sigan/Maundy Thursday aka Our Happy Time, 2006) and 파이란 (Pailan/Failan, 2001) – but I’m well familiar with the manga version of Woorideuleui Haengbokhan Sigan, which I can assure you is a big sobfest (a good one – it’s a gorgeous manga, just not one I want reread any time soon). Judging from the synopses of the other films, they are melo-heavy as well and with 무적자 (Moojeokja/A Better Tomorrow, 2010), the fourth Song Hae-seong film the KCCUK screened, I know. That one, I have to say, I wasn’t too fond of: an action movie on the surface, it was everything but that precisely because of the melo elements.

Note: no group interview with Song Hae-seong, who was unfortunately unable to attend the final London screening.

December: Lim Soon-rye (임순례)

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Woori Saengae Choigoeui Soongan.

Lim Soon-rye was the only female director in the Year of 12 Directors. Having attended a showing of 소와 함께 여행하는 법 (Sowa Hamgge Yehaenghaneun Beom/Rolling Home with a Bull, 2010) at the KCCUK last year, I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with her work. It was a film I had enjoyed, although it didn’t feel all that memorable at the time. 와이키키 브라더스 (Waikiki Beuladeoseu/Waikiki Brothers, 2001), meanwhile, the first one on the programme for December, spoke to me a lot more with its non-chronological, sensitive exploration of a band’s past and present that slowly zoomed in on one character only. It’s a little gem, one that many people will probably miss. With the other planned screenings – 우리 생애 최고의 순간 (Woori Saengae Choigoeui Soongan/Forever the Moment, 2007), 소와 함께 여행하는 법 (Sowa Hamgge Yehaenghaneun Beom/Rolling Home with a Bull, 2010), 날아라 펭귄 (Nalara Penggwin/Fly, Penguin, 2009) – busy December got in the way, plus the fact that I left the UK for the winter holidays. They are films to go back to, because based on what I have seen, Lim Soon-rye is certainly an interesting filmmaker.

Top 3 Directors of the Year

That would be Song Il-gon, Lee Hyun-seung and Lee Yoon-ki (no order of preference). Song Il-gon I had anticipated, but Lee Hyung-seung and Lee Yoon-ki were new discoveries. The biggest disappointment, as already indicated, was Jeon Kyu-hwan – I just expected something different from him.

The Missing Reviews

There are several films which I watched, but which have reviews still outstanding: Park Kwang-su’s 이재수의 난 (Yi Chaesu ui nan/The Uprising, 1999), Jeon Kyu-hwan’s 모차르트 타운 (Mochareuteu Tawoon/Mozart Town, 2008) and Lim Soon-rye’s 와이키키 브라더스 (Waikiki Beuladeoseu/Waikiki Brothers, 2001) – the one for Lim’s film is already in the works (added 2013/1/17). 소와 함께 여행하는 법 (Sowa Hamgge Yehaenghaneun Beom/Rolling Home with a Bull, 2010) and 즐거운 인생 (Jeulgeowoon Insaeng/The Happy Life, 2007) I watched previously, and I may review some day as well.

Remaining Firmly on My To-Watch List

  • Lee Myung-se: 엠 (Em/M, 2007), 칠수와 만수 (Chilsuwa Mansu/Chilsu and Mansu, 1988), 아름다운 청년 전태일 (Areumdaun cheongnyeon Jeon Tae-il/A Single Spark, 1995)
  • Song Il-gon: 오직 그대만 (Ohjik Geudaeman/Always aka Only You, 2011), plus any other films of his that I can get hold of
  • Lee Hyun-seung (이현승): 시월애 (Siwolae/Il Mare, 2000)네온속으로 노을지다 (Sunset into Neon Lights, 1994)
  • Lee Yoon-ki: 러브토크 (Leobeutokeu/Love Talk, 2005), 멋진 하루 (Meotjin Haroo/My Dear Enemy, 2008)
  • Song Hae-seong: 우리들의 행복한 시간 (Woorideuleui Haengbokhan Sigan/Maundy Thursday aka Our Happy Time, 2006), 파이란 (Pailan/Failan, 2001)
  • Lim Soon-rye: 우리 생애 최고의 순간 (Woori Saengae Choigoeui Soongan/Forever the Moment, 2007)

I will be sure to add any reviews to my Year of 12 Directors posts when I get round to watching these, to give you a comprehensive picture of this event and all the directors featured.

Missing/Incomplete Directors Posts

I didn’t systematically plan on blogging about the Year of 12 Directors, which is why my directors’ posts started a bit bare – the first couple of months only dates and film titles were listed. I can’t remember why, but when March and Park Kwang-su came around I decided to do a bit of research and ended up sharing it in a somewhat longer post – which repeated in the following months and got fleshed out more and more over time (latest addition in the December post: review quotes!). The information about the directors wasn’t always easy to find – in some instances I had to consult websites in multiple languages and rely heavily on Google Translate and my skills of interpretation – but I hope the posts were useful (at least Philip from London Korean Links seemed to appreciate them). I intend to revisit Lee Myung-se, E J-yong and Park Kwang-su (and, if I get really ambitious, Im Kwon-taek), since I gave them so no/little attention initially.

Joint Interview Sessions

Quite a few of the London K-bloggers attended the group interview sessions with the director. I’m too shy for that kind of thing but I’m grateful that they grilled the directors with their questions in our stead. 😀 I have linked all the interviews above but still wanted to thank everyone involved at some point or another (if I missed someone, let me know!): Paul of Hangul Celluloid, Israel of Asiaffinity, Jason of Mini Mini Movie, Andrew of Eastern Kicks, the Korean Class Massive, Colette of Oriental Nightmares, the London Korea Times, the F-Word magazine, CineAsia_online and Martin (?) of koreancinema.org. And a special shout-out to the interpreters (though I don’t know your names)!

…and 2013?

That’s for the KCCUK to answer, but from what I have heard we’ll be returning to a bimonthly screening schedule with an actor-themed programme instead of the directors-focused one.

Finally (If You Are Still with Me)

A huge ! to the KCCUK for organising a fabulous Year of 12 Directors. I did not manage to watch as many films as I had hoped, but I thoroughly enjoyed this year of Korean film.