From rare, undiscovered classics to breakout releases, James Balmont rounds up the highlights from this year’s London Korean Film Festival
In 2020, South Korean filmmaking officially went mainstream when Parasite scooped four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. In 2021, it’s only getting more massive. Nobody needs reminding of how popular Squid Game has been on Netflix since its release in September – but for the sake of clarity, it’s officially the most-watched Netflix show of all time, having reached over 142 million households. Nor should we forget that Youn Yuh-jung became the first Korean actor in history to win an Academy Award in April for Minari. Now, as the post-summer months get chillier, we’ve flocked to the cinemas to watch essential queer Korean films via Queer East Film Festival, and a breadth of cult and contemporary works at Leicester Square’s always-impressive London East Asia Film Festival.
But the best might still be yet to come, as the biggest programme dedicated to Korean cinema outside of the country itself arrives in the UK in November via the London Korean Film Festival (LKFF). Now in its 16th edition, it promises a wealth of outstanding works both new and old that mark South Korea as one of the world’s leading film industries, with strands on controversial director Im Sang-soo, Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-jung and Women’s Voices among the highlights. To top it off, it will also be hosting the UK premiere of the film that South Korea has officially nominated to go to the 2021 Academy Awards.
Before these mercurial works hit the screens this month, we rounded up eight unmissable highlights from the festival’s programme.
Escape From Mogadishu, 2021
November 4, Regent Street Cinema / November 21st, Manchester HOME
LKFF’s Opening Gala film has already been selected as the country’s official entry for Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards, which makes it an ideal entry point to the festival. The nomination sees director Ryoo Seung-wan follow in the footsteps of famed filmmakers Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), Kim Jee-woon (The Age of Shadows) and Lee Chang-dong (Burning), after his previous effort The Battleship Island ended 2017 as one of the country’s most popular.
This new action-thriller adapts real events that took place in Somalia in 1990, where South Korean embassy workers found themselves caught in the midst of a violent coup led by the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid (whose role in the Somali Civil War was also portrayed in Ridley Scott’s 2001 film Black Hawk Down). It’s been another unmitigated success at the Korean box office for director Ryoo, and has grossed over $29m since its release in July. It remains the highest-grossing film of the year in South Korea.
November 7, ICA
Lee Woo-jung’s feature directorial debut is one of two films that comprise LKFF’s Women’s Voices strand this year. A delicately layered high-school drama, Snowball takes place in Daejeon in 1993, where a trio of inseparable 18-year-olds run away to Seoul together only to find their friendships put to the test when they run out of money. Upon returning home, they face more challenges – physical and psychological bullying among them. Driven by the strength of its three young leads, this coming-of-age story offers an emotional and memorable anchor to balance out the Opening Gala’s blockbuster antics.
Woman of Fire, 1971
November 5, ICA
Day two of LKFF offers a classic from an era long before South Korean cinema had reached international renown. First released in 1971, Woman of Fire is a relic of a time when the country was effectively in the midst of an 18-year authoritarian dictatorship under President Park Chung-hee. 50 years on, a digitally-restored version of the film screens as part of a retrospective series on the career of Youn Yuh-jung, who became the first Korean actor in history to win an Academy Award for acting in 2021, for her performance in Minari.
Woman of Fire was Youn’s first-ever film role, and she personally thanked director Kim Ki-young (who passed away in 1998) for it in her Oscar acceptance speech this year. The lavishly-coloured film – a remake of Kim’s 1960 film, The Housemaid – casts Youn as a young maid who finds herself caught in a sordid love triangle involving her female employer and his music composer husband.
The Housemaid, 2010
November 17, Genesis Cinema
Youn Yuh-jung also stars in Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid – a remake of the same 1960 Kim Ki-young film that her debut film Woman of Fire was based on. She appears here alongside the magnetic Jeon Do-yeon (Beasts Clawing at Straws) and Squid Game lead Lee Jung-jae, who plays an obnoxious upper-class adulterer in what is a total reversal of his role in the Netflix hit. This eroticised take on the classic Kim Ki-young drama competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2010, and remains one of director Im’s best-known films outside of South Korea. A prior collaboration between the filmmaker and Youn, A Good Lawyer’s Wife, also screens at LKFF this year, while their latest collaboration provides the festival’s climax.
Heaven: to the Land of Happiness, 2021
November 19, Picturehouse Central
The LKFF’s Closing Gala stars South Korean powerhouse Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) as an escaped convict suffering from a terminal illness, who is joined by a young hospital worker (Park Hae-il, of Bong Joon ho’s films The Host and Memories of Murder) on a road trip in search of luxury after they acquire a large sum of money. The fourth film by director Im to appear at Cannes Film Festival, this odd-couple comedy is amplified by the presence of an elderly crime boss (Oscar winner Youn Yuh-jung) determined to retrieve the funds from the road-trippers. A headline feature not to be missed.
In Front of Your Face, 2021
November 13, Picturehouse Central
In Front of Your Face is the second of two films completed by director Hong Sang-soo in 2021 to receive its UK premiere this month. Introduction, a black-and-white, Berlin-set drama, opened two weeks ago at the Odeon Luxe West End via the London East Asian Film Festival. The film won the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay at Berlin Film Festival in March, only a year after Hong was awarded the Best Director prize at the same festival, for The Woman Who Ran. Now, In Front of Your Face arrives in London having premiered at Cannes in July. Like much of the auteur’s works, it utilises a minimal budget to great effect, placing emphasis on naturalism and subtlety in a muted tale about a middle-aged actress who crosses paths with a young film director.
November 18, Genesis Cinema
One of the more eye-catching additions to the LKFF line-up this year is animated body horror Climbing: the feature directorial debut of Kim Hye-mi. The film, which combines 3D graphics with cel-shaded animation, follows a pregnant climbing champion recovering from a car accident who begins to receive mysterious texts from a future version of herself. (It’s not the first film in 2021 to combine the themes of pregnancy anxiety and automobiles – see the Palme d’Or-winning French body horror Titane for a more brutal take on the subject matter.)
November 9, The Cinema in the Arches
Climbing isn’t the only film at LKFF to concern the fallout of a car crash – though the events portrayed in powerful social drama Awoke are much more moving. This beautifully shot feature opens with a young man named Jaegi receiving treatment in hospital, having been left paralysed after an automobile accident. His suffering is compounded by a fragile financial situation, as he is denied essential assistance from the government.
Alone shares an affinity with the moving social dramas of Ken Loach, such as I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You, and shines an essential spotlight on the hardships experienced by thousands of South Koreans. The film was directed and produced by a crew of disabled and non-disabled filmmakers, with the project’s roots in a filmmaking workshop for the handicapped residents of Jeju Island frequented by co-director Jung Jae-ik.
The London Korean Film Festival 2021 runs from November 4 to November 19.