Korean films are vying at Jeonju International film fest

Boram Lee, April 27, 2016, 10:49 a.m.

JEONJU, North Jeolla Province -- Ten films are vying in this year’s Korean Film Competition at the 17th Jeonju International Film Festival, offering a varying bounty of the best in Korea’s independent film scene. The film festival in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, is set to screen flicks for all sorts. The fest -- running April 28 to May 7 -- will see 211 films on the big screen from 45 different countries, with 49 films making their world premiere. While JIFF doesn’t lack in international flavor, the Korean Film Competition this year is offering some of the finest treats.

Three of the 10 films competing this year are feature-length documentaries with very different focuses, from punk rock (“No Preparation for Old Age”) to Jejudo Island’s disappearing “haenyeo” (“Breathing Underwater”) to crossing borders. (“Mrs. B. A North Korean Woman”).

Yun Je-ro’s “Mrs. B. A North Korean Woman” has the air of a story of escape similar to that of Park Yeon-mi’s memoir from last September, “In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom.” The cameras follow the eponymous Mrs. B, who has slipped out of North Korea with the intention of working in China, then soon returning home with the money she’s earned. 

However, life doesn’t go as planned. Mrs. B. marries a Chinese man she doesn’t like. Then, she begins smuggling -- some crystal meth, but mostly young North Korean women for Chinese karaoke. Eventually, she no longer wants to return to North Korea, and hatches a plan to get her family settled in South Korea. 

Mrs. B. seems to be constantly pulled between the duties of the life she lives, the life she has lived and the life she will live. Her Chinese husband’s parents, both over 80, are filled with anxiety, as they weigh the risks of Mrs. B. finding her way to South Korea, as well as the chances she’ll actually come back and officially marry their son, so they can die happily. 

“Remember she escaped from North Korea,” the son assures his parents. “Everything’s going to go fine.” A long silence follows.

Once Mrs. B., her North Korean husband and their two sons finally do settle in South Korea, she must figure out where her duties really lie and which life she will live, as they struggle in the face of prejudices and the lifestyle of a very different Korea.

On the much lighter side is director Kim Jin-tae’s debut comedic family film “A Field Day,” which follows five family members living together under one roof, yet oblivious to the different directions their lives are heading. 

The father, Cheol-gu, is laid off from his lower management positon and must choose sides between his union and the company as he leaves the house every morning to try to regain his job. Meanwhile, his stay-at-home wife Mi-soon, a Buddhist, has taken up a volunteer position with a Christian charity where she soon develops a crush on the charismatic leader. Their young daughter Seung-hee -- played by 10-year-old veteran actress Kim Soo-ahn, who steals nearly every scene she’s in -- prepares herself for a three-legged race partnered with a boy she hates while trying to win the affection of a classmate from New York. At the same time, Cheol-gu’s father Soon-dol inadvertently, but enthusiastically, becomes involved with a hard-line anticommunist group, and hard-up-for-money brother-in-law Seung-ju finds himself taking work for a “security” company. 

The fast-moving narrative of “A Field Day” maintains an upbeat comical tone throughout, supported by its percussive rhythmic score. Reminiscent of a Shakespeare comedy, the film relies on a series of coincidences that eventually bring the family together when they couldn’t seem further apart. As Cheol-gu puts it: “Loosen up a little. Isn’t this what life is all about?”

With a similarly light tone and at a more methodical pace, Ko Bong-soo marks his feature debut with “Delta Boys.” The story of four men in a rural Korean city not doing much with their lives who team up to prepare for a quartet singing contest is a study of those with ego and dreams to spare, but coming up short in talent and greatly lacking in drive.

The film begins with Ye-geun coming back to Korea after 20 years in Chicago in the U.S. and meeting up with childhood friend Il-look. Ye-geun -- played by Lee Woong-bin in a breakout role -- who is indelibly cool as he speaks in a laid-back manner, weaving English into his Korean as he stresses about “making it in Korea.” Without much thought, he renews a dormant spark in his never-do-well but well-meaning cousin for singing. To round out the quartet, they find mullet-sporting fishmonger Dae-woong, who has chased fame through seemingly every singing competition, and who then ropes in his even-less-talented friend Jul-se, whose wife hates Dae-woong. 

At 126 minutes, “Delta Boys” is overly long. Fortunately, though, the charisma of the hapless losers keeps the audience watching -- and wondering if they’ll ever get their act together.

Also making her feature directorial debut is Lee Hyun-ju, with “Our Love Story.” Lee presents a complex and striking, though in many ways unexceptional, love story in a film which, in some ways, is as simple as its title. 

The film centers on Yoon-ju, a 32-year-old art graduate student who has “never had time for dating.” This changes following a couple of chance encounters with waitress and bartender Ji-soo. While the audience is likely to be ahead of Yoon-ju in seeing where this goes as she takes a few incremental steps, the film beautifully and subtly portrays the cat-and-mouse, push-and-pull quality of any budding relationship as priorities change and responsibilities are left to contend with the sensations of new love. At the same time, the film neither avoids nor overdramatizes the added societal burden and complexities of the two women’s same-sex relationship.

“Our Love Story” is a densely packed film, leaving a lot boiling just under the surface. Its emotions and struggles are in many ways universal to all who can remember what it’s like to experience a new relationship and thoughts of love -- without totally rose-colored glasses. The film is sure to stand out, and perhaps widen some perspectives.

Chilean film professor Raul Camargo Borquez, Korean screenwriter and director Kim Dae-woo and Ichiyama Shozo, a Japanese producer and professor at Tokyo University of the Arts, form the jury for the Korean Film Competition, where the grand prize winner will receive 10 million won ($8,715). Other films competing in the Korean competition are “Worst Woman,” “Curtain Call,” “With or Without You” and “Press.” 

For more information about venues and screening times for the Jeonju International Film Festival, visit their website at eng.jiff.or.kr

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