One of the most popular and sorely missed international film events returns to cinemas this year, promising a kaleidoscope of compelling, heartbreaking, eccentric, and thrilling cinema from the famed archipelago.
Director Jong-kwan KIM has to be one of South Korea’s hardest working filmmakers, having completed the introspective Shades of the Heart (also playing at this year’s KOFFIA) just months after releasing his brooding adaptation of the young adult novel Josée, the Tiger and the Fish from author Seiko Tanade.
While Tanade’s bittersweet novel is no stranger to big screen adaptions, with a feature length anime recently coming out of Japan, Jong-kwan has once again injected his own complex perspective on the contemporary love story to deliver a thoughtful, confronting, and socially relevant drama.
Released simply as Josée, the stripped down title hints at the prolific director’s approach in witling away much of the ‘fluff’ embodied by the Japanese release, instead choosing to focus on his primary antagonists, the reserved college student Young-seok and his unexpected ward, the disillusioned wheelchair bound Josee. And while Jong-kwan does sprinkle a small supporting cast into his narrative, it’s the disruptive and volatile relationship between the two very different personalities that commands your attention.
Having appeared in the 2019 drama series The Light in Your Eyes, Joo-hyuk NAM as Young-seok and Ji-min HAN as Josee, with both young actors embracing the darker side of their character’s respective damage in a deeply humanising fashion, allowing Jong-kwan to subtly craft a duel-redemptive arc that is at once hopeful and heartbreaking.
Coupled with the film’s intimate cinematography, which allows the cluttered back streets of Seoul’s suburban landscape to breathe as an organic character in and of itself, Josée is nothing short of an affecting experience.
And while there are moments where Jong-kwan over-indulges his social commentary regarding wealth and poverty, the abled and disabled, and the widening generation gap playing out in South Korea, Josée is nonetheless an engaging modern fable trapped in a confronting realism and rich in metaphor.
We begin with the indigenous Orang Asli, a Malayan tribe whose history has been a story of unfortunate repetition: unceasing repression and regular retreats into the shadows of the Jungle.
Nowadays, only a handful of their ancestors remain, and it is via these few survivors that we’re provided detailed accounts of their generational struggle against deforestation and general lack of recognition.
Then we switch to a new and totally unrelated example of Malaysian subjugation, the 1969 513 Incident, wherein similarly journalistic accounts from survivors are delivered in sit-down interviews.
We wonder whether the entire film will follow this pattern of episodic examples of disparate injustices inflicted by the vague yet forbidding Malaysian government oppressor; we wonder when some form of story will be introduced, or whether this will all be a retrospective observation of the past…
After some time, we come to understand that hindsight is where we shall remain; that there is no real link between the two events, besides its common antagonist and general air of injustice.
On the rare occasion, there are modest attempts at creating some kind of atmosphere to reinforce or validate the recounts of the interviewees, but for the most part, the ‘mood dept.’ was seemingly a casualty of the film’s modest budget.
In this way, much of the film feels unfurnished and lacking in any trace of artistic expression. We’re consequently left with a film unsure of itself, as though it cannot commit to a sensation — other than pity — that it wants to provoke in the audience.
This gives the overall impression that the film’s sole intention is that the audience remembers a forgotten moment of history — mind you, this of course is a totally worthy motive, but when executed without any conviction, it can, ironically, have the opposite of the desired effect: an unmemorable film.
As a consequence, the film bears the mundane air of a high-school history class.
Ironically, what’s described as unfurnished filmmaking does not, in this instance, translate to authenticity, as it might for a similarly-toned Al Jazeera history doco (which are in themselves very informative programs, but that said, are under no illusions that they belong on festival circuits), nor does it endow the film with the air of authority of a minimalist film. In the case of The Tree Remembers (as is the case with most minimalist things; sterile, white-clad cafes, for instance), unfurnished means both uninspired and indecisive.
But then, the film suddenly redeems itself (to an insufficient yet pleasant extent) in the last 10 minutes, as one of the 513 survivors declares that only the trees are witnesses — finally uniting the two stories with the beautiful proverb, ‘what the axe forgets, the tree remembers’. Of course, we now understand that deforestation of the Orang Asli land is a perfect metaphor for the erasure of our memory.
This, however, is not only delivered too late in the piece, but with way too much subtlety; especially for those unfamiliar with the proverb in the first place.
The way in which these two threads came together was resemblant of a neat, Hollywood, last-minute knot; leading us to ask ourselves why they didn’t tie it together earlier, with some simple interweaving, or even through a humble plait?! The answer, we contend, is because the idea only arrived in the editing room, when all the filming was done — which is to say, too late. Maybe, it will have more of an impact in Malaysia or other nearby countries (Taiwan, for instance, where the film is streaming in the national festival), where the proverb is more well known.
Taiwanese short film, Growing Pains focuses on fourteen-year-old Yao (Chen Chong-En), who has had enough of his dilapidated sneakers.
Tired of having them merely repaired again and again by his financially strapped father (Yi Wen-Chen), who can’t afford to replace them, Yao attempts to convince his father to purchase a new pair.
For Yao, this becomes his obsession, and it is all that he focuses and concentrates on – he is eager to not be scoffed at by his classmates and wants to be able to match his peers on the track team.
One day, Yao’s father receives a visit from debt collectors, which ends in a nasty dispute. Immediately following this, Yao suddenly gets a pair of shoes from his father. What Yao fails to realise is how close his father is to real, far-reaching trouble.
Whilst his father makes attempts to get approval from his son, trying to uphold his dignity, and deal with unscrupulous standover men, Yao remains largely unaware of what his father is going through – and how near he is to facing serious problems and becoming insolvent.
All he can think about is his decrepit shoes and how much he wants a new pair.
Heavily in arrears to the debt collectors, Yao’s father continues to hope (dream) a lottery will help him out of his financial woes, pay his bad debt and give him respite and peace which he so needs and craves.
Despite the fact that his father toils and is under pressure from his outstanding financial obligations, things remain tense between the two, and Yao never fully understands the magnitude and severity of the situation.
The film is directed by Tapei-born filmmaker Po-Yu Lin, partly based on his adolescent encounters with his father.
This is a sharp, thoughtful study of the relationships between parents and children, the father-son bond and the sacrifices parents make by putting children first.
There is a distinct sense of politically charged awareness and anxiety, which hangs over Taiwanese romance, Butterflies, set sometimein the near future.
In this setting, the island country has been occupied and taken over by an oppressive regime and turned into a province of this empire.
Within this Orwellian situation, a young woman, Yu (Han Ning) is accused of conspiring against the incumbent ruling power and hiding her treasonous family, who refuse to obey and comply with the new administration.
After escaping from the clutches of the authorities that have detained her, Yu attempts to find Lien (Yu Pei Jen), a plastic surgeon who can change her appearance and aid her in escaping the totalitarian state.
The desire for freedom and free-will however, renders Yu vulnerable to and desperate for help and a safe harbour. She is ultimately seduced by the charm and charisma of Lien, who represents hope and love. However, things are not as ideal as they may seem…
So begins this 43-minute Taiwanese dystopian film, set in Taipei.
Interestingly, the film is not directed by a Taiwanese-born filmmaker, but by Spanish (Catalan) expat and Taiwan-based director Albert Ventura.
Nonetheless, it is a movie informed by, and with distinct parallels, to Taiwan’s past and present. Although this story is told from an outsider’s view, the two characters reflect the past, dark days of the Taiwanese White Terror period (May 1949 – July 1987) and its modern-day challenges. There are echoes of the political angst of current and past Taiwan, and the horrors faced, in Yu and Lien’s search for freedom – this is a country which only came out of martial law in 1987 yet faces threats to its acceptance and adoption of democracy and its freedom.
The burgeoning relationship between its two characters nods to hope of a free and independent future for Taiwan, whilst the dire and difficult climate they’re caught within acknowledges the past the country has faced – and its subsequent legacy.
Despite the challenges faced by its two characters and the diabolic political state they and those in the film find themselves in, the film is optimistic for Taiwan’s future.
Butterflies recognises this upside – as well as charts the precarious road ahead.
This is one sci-fi fans and genre buffs will enjoy.
Life for Yang Hsiao-Chi (Patty Lee) has always moved at a different pace to those around her. When she was young, she was always going too fast, just off by a few seconds with those around her; jumping the starting gun in races, laughing too early at jokes in the cinema, Hsiao-Chi is never quite in synch with the world around her.
At the age of thirty, she is working in a Taipei post office lamenting that she hasn’t yet found her place in the world. Specifically, she lacks any romantic attachment, so when the handsome Liu Wen-Sen (Duncan Lai) comes into her quotidian world she is quickly swept off her feet by the handsome and attentive man and for the first time finds herself with plans for Valentine’s Day.
In reality, Hsiao-Chi’s world is anything but normal. Waking up on what she believes to be Valentine’s Day, she finds that she has missed the day completely. All she knows is that the day didn’t happen to her and for some mysterious reason she is sunburnt.
Soon, she finds a picture of herself at a beach that she can’t remember posing for, and decides with the help of an anthropomorphic dream gecko to go in search of her missing day, which may also lead her to her missing valentine and perhaps even her missing father who years ago went out for tofu pudding and never returned.
A Tai (Liu Kuan-Ting) has also lived a life that is out of synch with the rest of the world. For him, he’s always a few seconds behind. He works as a bus driver and every day comes to Hsiao-Chi’s counter to mail a letter. The reason for his interest in her becomes clear as the film progresses – they once shared time together as children after an accident placed them both in hospital and he has been pining for her ever since.
Hsiao-Chi’s missing day becomes A Tai’s extra day, and the bus driver is given a chance to finally spend some time with the object of his affection.
Writer/director Yu-Hsun Chen has crafted a whimsical fantasy world where the rules of logic don’t apply. The missing/extra day is the crux of a narrative that suggests that love ignores rules, including, it would seem, the rules of conscious choice. Whilst the film is cloaked as a heartfelt romantic comedy there is something a little off with the choices behind the premise. The film espouses “Love yourself because someone out there loves you,” but what if that someone is a person you only half remember as a childhood friend who takes to essentially stalking you for years and through the strange missing/extra day takes you on an adventure only he is conscious for?
My Missing Valentine is at heart good-natured and plays around with the conventions of romantic comedy to the extent that the slightly disturbing undercurrent of the film can be dismissed up to a point. Patty Lee is charming in the lead role and the quirkiness of the film papers over what could be viewed as a darker level of viewership.
Perhaps, it is best to just experience the oddball world Yu-Hsun Chen has created on a surface level and not go too deep into the philosophical connotations that it presents. If you’re prepared to just go along for the ride, My Missing Valentine is an interesting and sometimes delightful film that wears its heart on its absurdist sleeve.
The first time we meet our protagonist in the film Tropical Fish, he is in the middle of a dream. He fantasises about going up to a girl at a bus stop and handing her a note. A fitting introduction to our main character, who prefers to act inside his head rather than in reality, and a fitting beginning for a story that feels as if it is also the imaginary creation of our protagonist.
Chen Yu-Hsun paints a vivid picture of our creative main character Liu through colourful dream sequences as well as his depiction of youthful nights at the arcade in which the boy secretly shares a cigarette with his best friend. Liu is a detached young boy, and with an extremely important exam coming up that could decide his future, reality is beginning to intrude on his fantasy world.
A few days before the exam, Liu is kidnapped in the process of trying to save another boy. The kidnappers claim that they will hold the two boys until a ransom has been paid by Liu’s father. But when the man behind the whole kidnapping operation dies, it leaves Liu and the kidnapped boy in the hands of the dead man’s good-hearted sidekick, Ah Ching (Lin Cheng-Sheng).
The film begins to lean into absurd humour as Ah Ching and his family treat the two boys like their own. The boys eat with them, go swimming, go out on the boat and are given help with study. The whole family assures Liu that they will have him back for the exam, comedically stressing the importance of this school test.
The whole plot feels like a scenario that a child has created in order to get out of doing something. In this case, Liu has created a far-fetched narrative to help him get out of doing the exam. We see television footage of news presenters and scenes with Liu’s parents where they all worry about whether he will be back in time to sit the exam. The reactions of other people mirror what Liu thinks they care about the most.
In Taiwan, the joint entrance exam decides whether kids will be able to get into high school and university. Chen Yu-Hsun seemingly pokes fun at the absurd importance placed on this one test.
Liu fits right in with Ah Ching’s family. He treats the other kidnapped boy like a brother, falls in love with one of the girls in the family and we see him begin to hope he can be stuck with the family for as long as possible.
Each character in the family is an individual and brings their own comedic value to the story. The film does a great job at making the viewer feel a part of this family as well. It does seem to lag as it begins to follow unrelated threads and ideas during the second act. But it certainly manages to steer back on track for the finale.
The film is about childhood and the conflict between imagination and reality. It often shows the beauty of the former and the unforgiving nature of the latter. After being so caught up in the whimsical story, we are literally shocked back to reality. The film reminds us of how much value imagination holds and teaches us to never let go of it; no matter how hard reality tries to take it away from us.
Romantic dramedies are a staple of Korean film culture, with a rich history dating back to box office success stories such as My Sassy Girl (2001) and On Your Wedding Day (2018). So, when an intriguingly titled film like Double Patty comes along, you’d be forgiven for expecting any number of romanticised platitudes and formulaic rom-com tropes.
However, writer-director Seung-Hwan PAEK (directing under the moniker Seung-Hawn BAEK) manages to pleasantly surprise, even after deliberately dropping a number of clichéd genre lures to hook the audience, only to serve up a thoughtful, bittersweet and genuinely heart-warming cinematic experience designed to question our fickle perceptions of contemporary relationships.
On its surface, Double Patty is the modest story of Woo-ram KANG (played by former Soccer star turned model, turned actor Seung-Ho SHIN), a professional wrestler struggling with his impending future outside the ring, and Hyun-ji LLEE (Joo-Hyun BAE, better known by her stage name Irene from the sassy K-pop group Red Velvet), a would be news anchor whose studies and work life threaten to burn her out before her career has a chance to take off.
After a few random encounters, Woo-ram eventually shows up to the twenty-four diner where Hyun-ji works as waitress, and proceeds to order the late night special, a hamburger with double patties. Over the coming weeks, the pair slowly form a respectful friendship, which eventuates in a trip to Woo-ram’s hometown, and the life he turned his back on.
The expectation past this point would be a series of predictable flirtations, possibly a misunderstanding or an old flame steeping back into the picture. Instead, BAEK delivers a raw, charming platonic romance between two disillusioned people struggling with their looming adulthood.
Instead of coming together into a single homogenised entity, BAEK allows his actors to fully inhabit their characters with an honest, beautifully understated casualness. Yes, there is an undeniable love between the two, but it’s how that love is expressed that crafts the epicentre of the film.
Both Woo-ram and Hyun-ji draw inspiration from each other’s better traits, and through their connection, recognise their own flaws. Woo-ram’s inability to reconcile his past with his future is tempered by seeing Hyun-ji’s fearless dedication toward achieving her goals, while her self-doubt and insecurities are tempered by admiration of his training regime and confidence in the ring.
While Double Patty embraces a conclusion that may leave some viewers disappointed, BAEK’s unflinching direction remains true to his characters’ individual journeys, landing a third act that is no less satisfying, nor moving, for its integrity.
As we know, comedy can be culture-specific. And, what’s more, filmmakers partly rely on their audiences being cued into the satire by seeing the film working against widely-understood unspoken assumptions. On the other hand, in an age of globalisation, all the cultures are somewhat merged. Such musings come to mind when faced with this almost incomprehensible Japanese romp.
It starts with the protagonist Shuji (Seiko Ito), who is in the process of moving out of his large house which he can no longer afford. His kids are not that impressed with the decision, but they are also not that happy anyway, as previously the parents had divorced.
At this point, for no apparent reason, the ex-wife/mother swans into the plot. En route, she crashes into the two removalists heading to the house so that the three arrivals immediately start an argument on Shuji’s doorstep.
Another layer of farce is added when Shuji’s daughter Akiko (Kaho Minami) decides to put out a tweet telling anyone who is on the app that there is a big one-off party at the house. All and sundry arrive in waves, with each batch of guests being more outrageous than the other. Another large contingent arrives with a couple of gay men who have decided to hold their wedding at the party. Oh, and I did we mention the aging lecherous grandad who dies and comes back to life to make mischief with the various guests? You get the idea.
This is one of the films in the long-standing Sydney Underground Film Festival, whose programme always contains a loose assortment of weird underground gems. The festival’s audience understands that and usually enters into the spirit of things. However, it is hard to judge a film like this on its own terms when half the point is that we are consuming it through the lens of delighted bafflement. This film is indeed bat shit crazy, and for some that will be a compliment.
It’s safe to say that the equality movement has been a little slow on the uptake in certain Asian cultures. But that’s not to say that the status quo isn’t beginning to be nudged, with films such as I Don’t Fire Myself finding purchase in mainstream media.
Written and directed by Tae-gyeom LEE, the film follows the struggles of Jung-Eun (Da-in YOO from 2019’s The Snob), an employee of an electric provider, who is relegated to a small coastal subcontractor outside the city after her abusive male colleagues attempt to oust her from head office.
Once she arrives at the new outpost, where she finds herself to be the only female employee, Jung-eun faces a new wave of misogynistic and sexist challenges before one of her co-workers, Choong-ski (Jung-se OH of It’s Okay To Not Be Okay fame), who happens to be raising three daughters on his own while working numerous jobs, reluctantly takes her under his wing.
As a workplace drama, I Don’t Fire Myself is an effective insight into the abusive culture seen in Korea’s corporate world, but where the film really shines, is in its ability to showcase the psychological damage such a culture inflicts on its victims.
Making his directorial debut, Tae-gyeom shows remarkable sensitivity with his characters, instilling his protagonist with a fragile strength and insight that never indulges problematic narratives or victimhood. Da-in YOO’s portrayal of Jung-eun is beautifully realised, with the actor deftly embodying a vulnerability and desperate determination that adds a heartbreaking realism to her fleeting moments of self-loathing, alcohol abuse and her eventual lashing out at those manipulating her career path.
I Don’t Fire Myself isn’t exactly the perfect metaphor for the social issue it tackles, but it does effectively use its narrative to deliver an engaging personal drama that quietly opens a relevant dialogue with its audience.