London Korean Film Festival 2015 - Emerging Directors

Each year, the LKFF spotlights two directors who are at the early stages of their career, directors whose small body of work may have met some acclaim at international festivals, but remain largely unknown outside of this bubble. It is nice to see mini-retrospectives of directors beginning their careers, ones who are unfamiliar, rather than those of the established, canonised names who are usually given such treatment.

The first of the two young directors in focus at LKFF this year was Jang Kun-Jae, whose gently impressive drama Sleepless Night effectively builds a concise, perfectly formed world in just over an hour. In the opening of the brief film, a relationship drama with no major incidents, Jang establishes an immediate naturalism, a believability of the relationship between his two leads that few filmmakers, let alone such inexperienced ones, manage. Only the second film Jang has directed, Sleepless Night sees a thirtysomething married couple Hyun Soo and Joo Hee (Kim Soo-Hyeon and Kim Ju-Ryoeng), work through the concerns and anxieties of their shared future together, most prominently whether or not they should have a child. A number of minor incidents shake the stability of their relationship - work pressures that test Hyun Soo's patience and position, and the theft of Joo Hee's bike that strains their finances - and all the while Jang teases out the anxieties common to relationships.

The simple mise-en-scene, square frame and grainy video grade aesthetic bring to mind Joe Swanberg, and overall there is the sense that Jang has been inspired by the style of the recent American independent films grouped together as 'mumblecore.' However, Jang's attention to food, the rituals of eating meals and drinking socially, and the position of the act as a means for initiating lengthier, focused conversation, seems more specifically Korean. The couple share pontifications over what is and what should be, weigh speculated future possibilities against current realities, and Jang captures the situation with an acuity and simplicity that is quietly impressive, but never imposing. Ironically the most eventful, traditionally-dramatic scene comes at the end, wherein Hyun See, out alone cooling off after an argument, sees a shooting star. His wife turns up moments later, missing the star but in time to repair the damage done by the argument. No dramatic falsehoods then, no contrivances, just minor relationship truths, some reached, some missed.

Also at the festival, Jang's newest film A Midsummer's Fantasia, a considerably different but still comparable film. Just as Sleepless Night looks at the intimate confines of a relationship and the discourses therein, A Midsummer's Fantasia too watches patiently over a number of exchanges between partners of varying kinds. If Sleepless Night looked to a new run of American talk films for formal inspiration, A Midsummer's Fantasia seems to be more inspired by the films of countryman Hong Sang-soo, with its split-story format, director character as a lead, and emphasis on the trickiness of communication, particular with the introduction of the extra stumbling block of translation.

Commissioned by the Nara Film Festival and produced by Naomi Kawase, A Midsummer's Night seems a little like an experiment for the director, a sidestep for a director three films in looking to avoid becoming stuck with a definable style. Split in two, the film's black and white first half has a director conducting research for a film, travelling around a small Japanese town Gojo, learning about its history and culture from local officials through the translation of an interpreter. Herein, amongst the idling exchanges, the film occasional slips into a documentary mode where the characters in the town directly address the camera, Jang seemingly removing the barrier between film observing a filmmaker researching a film and the direct products of Jang the director's own research. The second colour half, divided cleanly along the film's midpoint and only tenuously connected to the first, sees a man and a woman enter a chance encounter that develops naturally into something more romantic. He is a local Japanese and she a visiting Korean, and the barrier of language again creates a small, but far from impassable, barrier between them. The second half, warmer, more interesting and indeed more colourful, far outranks the ambling, sometimes tedious first half. Troublingly, in a film where Jang seems keen to innovate and deviate from what seems familiar to him, it is only when Jang returns to what worked so well in Sleepless Night, small scale conversations and intimate situations pregnant with anxiety as much as desire, does A Midsummer Fantasia really excel.

Also under the spotlight and also clearly influenced by a certain behemoth of current Korean independent cinema, Lee Kwang-kuk. His feature debut Romance Joe, features zippy, sharply written dialogues, criss-crossing plotlines and the kind of narrative and formal playfulness that might be expected of someone who was a former assistant director to Hong Sang-soo. That said, across this and second feature A Matter of Interpretation Lee is not making Hong Sang-soo films, more that Hong's influence seems to loom large over a certain type of new independent Korean cinema, a type that both Lee Kwang-kuk and indeed Jang Kun-jae slot easily (if perhaps, critically lazily) into.

With Romance Joe Lee spins a spiralling, steadily unravelling meta-narrative that begins with a director (Jo Han-cheol) forced by his producer to stay in a hotel until he writes something worthwhile. He orders a delivery of coffee to the room, and the girl who brings it (Shin Dong-mi), upon realising who she is delivering to, offers her company for a fee. In a film with a number of similarly self-congratulatory nods of the head, Shin praises his 'critical approach to narrative,' before revealing herself to be more raconteur than prostitute, unravelling the convoluted, cross-chronology story of the title character Romance Joe.

Enamoured as much by the chance to lift ideas for a new script as the idea of spending the night with the delivery girl, the director listens eagerly to the stories she tells. Lee presents them through an ever switching and folding flashback structure that connects a number of parallel doomed romance narratives, all which begin with suicide attempts. Though a virtuoso attempt at the kind of parallel narrative format that was popular for a time, it is not exactly clear what Lee is hoping to say within his stories. Despite this, his formal command - the way he moves the camera, introduces music as a transitional device and cuts between a complex series of events and timelines - is mannered and confident considering his inexperience.

Lee's latest feature A Matter of Interpretation begins with a similar conceit. After two setups that appear to build to nothing (a theatre actress, Shin Dong-mi, angrily quitting a production rehearsal, the same actress dumping her long term boyfriend, Kim Kang-hyun), a third setup, featuring a conversation between the same actress and an undercover detective, Yu Jun-sang, opens up a spiralling narrative much as the hotel room structure in Romance Joe did. Shin explains a dream, one that morphs in event and meaning as she tells it, and the detective - a better dream analyst than detective, he claims - offers interpretations of it. From here, Lee has his characters relay their dreams to the detective-interpretator one by one, thus exploring the complexities of their separate and intertwined realities through the medium of the subconscious. It's a stronger conceit than the one constructed for Romance Joe certainly, but still not the most organic of storytelling devices.

More a portmanteau of stories than connected narratives this time, A Matter of Interpretation shows a director comfortable playing with narrative, and one who is able to tell complex stories largely without losing the audience. All of the dreams involve variations of the same thing, a car and what might be in the trunk, yet each teases the dream out towards different conclusions. Like Romance Joe, suicide is a key motif, as is artistry, and the struggled pursuit of it. Unfortunately, these preoccupations, suicide and the artist who struggle for their art, are not interesting enough to hold up the film, and the appeal of guessing where the dreams will lead wears thin after an hour or so. Unlike his mentor Hong, Lee has not yet found that way of unearthing deep, highly relatable truths from seemingly inconsequential conversations. Some parts of A Matter of Interpretation border on the profound, but too many drag out a little too long without arriving at that indescribable something that the best films about people and relationships reach without appearing to have tried.

Strangely, perhaps the best film from Lee is his shortest. Hard to Say, a treat at just under thirty minutes, played with Romance Joe and managed to outstrip it. In the film, difficulties of expression and clarity of meaning are played out in literal fashion. An awkward, coquettish girl whose advances are rejected cruelly by her heartthrob imagines situations where the cocksure teenager who rejected her faces his own challenges of expression. Eventually, everything comes full circle and fantasy merges with reality over a playful, spritely 30 minutes that begins and ends delightfully with a perfect cyclical sendoff.

In this sidebar of the LKFF then, two new directors who make films with a confidence that outranks their relative inexperience. Across the five films, a number of experiments in narrative and style that whilst not always successful, prove consistently interesting. Oddly, the best film in this small section of the festival, Sleepless Night, also happens to be the simplest. In its simplicity, an honesty and realness that cannot be falsified.

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