I’m A Fan of BIFAN: Part 2


Friendly Interactions & the Comfort of the BIFAN Community


I generally travel solo. Sometimes other people are too wishy-washy about attending events or committing to things and at some point I just decided that I would make sure that I never missed the things that I wanted to go to. No shade on anyone else, it’s a me thing.

Traipsing around on my own? It’s what I did in LA. But Los Angeles has a melancholic and toxic sense of loneliness, it makes you feel shitty being alone. I thought that I liked being on my own there, watching people and reading alone in bars. But I like the independence I have here in South Korea much more. In LA, everyone is a lone alone. Here, people just happen to go out by themselves. It’s a different feeling.


Meeting new friends at the festival felt great! People-watching in Bucheon is top-tier, lemme tell you. And having dinner and drinks post-films can’t be beat! If it wasn’t for Grace I don’t think I would have had 1/10th as good a time. That girl is a miracle.

I only had one night where things went off the tracks. The night after Grace left I got terribly lost in the pouring rain. I walked around searching for the place we had been hanging out for the last few nights, trying to use Naver maps, photos I took, you name it.

I finally ended up crawling into a bbq restaurant when hunger and the downpour got the best of me and simply huddled over my banchan and meat like a wet rat, dripping and grumpy. I had never experienced rain like that in my life. My umbrella was about as useful as my earrings. But I ordered some beer and soju and started eating kimchi. These three items, by themselves or in some combination, can cure almost any hardship. That is fact.

I proceeded to sit there shaking my head and laughing at myself. I looked at my wet dress, my flattened hair, my miserable state. The fact that my ass was stuck to the rubber stool and made a noise every time I moved because…WET. It was fucking hilarious. I felt like I had been thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool. But I considered this: after the films I had seen that day, did I genuinely care about water? To hell with monsoon season. There was meat, beer, alcohol. I was finally out of the pour. It was a phenomenal night. It doesn’t get better than that.

I haz a frown from being so sopping wet. That changed quickly 😀


It has been argued that one of the more unique properties of film as an art form is in its modality; how it functions. In particular, it is the experience of moving image exhibition that sets it apart. The projection of time-based media in a theatrical space shifts the identity of individuals from being separate to communal. When the lights go down, that collection of perfect strangers transmogrifies into The Audience. Anyone who’s been to a movie has felt it. You lose yourself into the sea of spectatorship in that theater and it is glorious! It is why theaters are still important. That magic doesn’t happen at home with Netflix.

For those who go to film festivals like BIFAN, it is an experience that, whether each person is aware of it or not, becomes a central part of the Festival Journey and is instantly heightened. Seeing a film, a viewer is part of The Audience for the duration of that singular work. However, should that same viewer attend a film festival, they become part of something much larger- a community. You become Community Audience. More specifically, you are Festival Audience. You see familiar faces at screenings. Volunteers and staff recognize you and wave, you nod at others you have seen sitting near you…you have shed your skin and are no longer The (singular) Audience, you are Festival Audience.

I felt this hard at BIFAN and I kept thinking: yes, this is why I am here. This is absolutely why I moved to Korea. These people- this community of film lovers- these humans who come to this festival and are so joyful about cinema- that is what I have been searching for.

I felt so welcomed. It was remarkable. One of the BIFAN programmers- Jongsuk Thomas Nam- was so kind to me and invited me to two online events and while I certainly felt awkward and a little fangirlish, I still felt like I belonged. I sang Olivia Newton John’s Xanadu at the BIFAN zoom karaoke with a cadre of folks I had never met. While it certainly would have been better if I had been back at my hotel to sing, I just went ahead and did it sitting at the restaurant I was at (don’t worry it was outside). Soju…helped.

Zoom Karaoke! It happens!


I got a chance to meet Pierce Conran which was great! We had some absolutely fabulous conversations about mutual friends (Hi Doug!), underappreciated UK noir, Westerns and cinema in general. I was just thrilled to get to nerd out. Again- this reinforced that I was in the right place.

Seeing him around the fest and checking in on movie opinions also made me feel right at home- it’s something I love doing, whether or not a friend or colleague and I agree on a film. Seeing a buddy in between screenings and doing the “what did you think? What did you like? What are seeing next?”- is one of my favorite parts of festival-ing. It made me miss Phil Blankenship and Jackie Greed. I always used to do that “check-in” when I saw them at AFI Film Fest.

Epic cinema conversations! So fabulous!

While I did spend the bulk of BIFAN on my own, these interactions were so joyful and really highlighted how special the Korean film community is and made me even more grateful to have moved here and been able to experience this festival. I experienced no pretension, no weird looks, no looking-down-the-nose simply because I am passionate about my love for cinema and expressive about it.
I felt so happy. BIFAN really made me feel at home.

Then More Movies Happened….

Day Three: Sunday July 12, 2020
The films that I watched this day were:
Blink (Han Ka-ram, 2020) – Korea
Queen of Black Magic (Kimo Stamboel, 2019) – Indonesia
Pelican Blood (Katrin Gebbe, 2019) – Germany

This was a HELLOVA day. I don’t even know where to start.
While Blink had no subtitles, I was able to understand it with the basic Korean that I do know and the rich cinema vocabulary that I possess. I wish I could convey that to the filmmaker and actors since I could even reflect on the performances and the manner in which they engaged with the genre (Science Fiction) and its representation of gender and power structures. It was part of a special aspect of BIFAN called SF8, which is an anthology SciFi series from 8 different directors. Normally I’m not a SciFi person- I’m painfully picky about anything in that area- but Blink was incredible. It hit the right chords for me in the strong woman category, the unusually creative homage to Terminator (but not a rip-off! SO GREAT!!!!) and detective stories (I’m a straight-up sucker for a good head-strong detective, especially a woman detective).
From that I went right into Queen of Black Magic which was A. Great. Horror. Movie. YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.
But if you hate bugs, that movie is not for you! I may return to this and write about it again because it is a remake of an earlier 1981 film which I need to watch. There were frames of that film in the end credits and I was so enthralled by that. As a film preservationist, it did my heart good to see that and I was genuinely giddy at the way this was just such great horror. But like…I should have known it would be fun and utterly watchable. The name for fun and utterly watchable was right next to the writing credit: Joko Anwar.
Here’s the trailer but SERIOUSLY. IF BUGS SQUICK YOU- DO NOT WATCH THIS.

But Sunday’s movie that made me rethink my eyeballs was a German film by a first-time feature filmmaker named Katrin Gebbe. This film, Pelican Blood, ended up winning the Best of Bucheon Award (and deservedly so). I’ve never seen another movie like it. I thought I knew where it was going and then there was a FULL ON NO-HOLDS-BARRED WTF MOMENT where I exclaimed through my face-mask into the theater: “OH. OK. That just happened then.”
I didn’t mean to. But it happened. And it wasn’t like in other films where I’ve wanted to talk back to the screen for…reasons. The power of this film triggered some kind of feeling in me that set my vocal chords going and by the time the words formed on my lips I couldn’t stop and then there we were.
But Pelican Blood is a film that takes no prisoners and doesn’t give a fuck about you. It’s a film that gives zero fucks, in fact. It’s a naked, raw, terrifyingly brilliant piece of film making that looks at motherhood, childhood, darkness, mental health and all kinds of human pain in a truly extraordinary manner.
I LOVED IT.
I feel weird about wanting to see again because it made me so uncomfortable but it’s such an addictive film to watch. I cannot believe a film like that even exists and I can’t wait to see what this woman makes next.

Day Four: Monday July 13, 2020
The films that I watched this day were:
A Witness Out of the Blue (Andrew Fung, 2019) – Hong Kong
Bloody Daisy (Xu Xiangyun, 2019) – China
The Hand (Choi Yun-ho, 2020) – Korea

I love Hong Kong action films. And I love Louis Koo. Might not be everybody’s thing but hey- I’m not a fan of peanut butter and most people are so…to each their own, right?
Bottom line: A Witness Out of the Blue didn’t have to work hard to please me. But I don’t want to damage the film’s credibility either. It’s a truly funny and enjoyable movie!
You can’t tell by the trailer (which makes the film look like a Very Serious Action Movie) but within the folds of this action-packed Hong Kong heist genre pic you will meet a detective who runs a cat shelter, a parrot who is the only witness to the major crime, and a more than generous helping of quirky side-characters and their background stories. If you’re as familiar with Hong Kong and Asian Action Cinema as I am, then you know this to be one of the most delicious aspects of these films. I adored A Witness Out of the Blue and hope you will as well.

Few films I’ve seen in recent years have made me want to just turn on my heel and go RIGHT BACK into the theater and re-watch the same film, but Bloody Daisy was a film I instantly wanted to watch again. Alternating between scenes of pure drama, action and suspense, this film pays homage to some of the best crime film genres that exist. While the chronology of the picture goes from 1999 to modern day, the life changes, relationship fluctuations and character developments make this a highly charged and multi-layered thriller. The grim nihilism of Hong Kong action films of the 80s and 90s, American film noir and the 70s anti-hero buddy cop films were paid beautiful homage in Bloody Daisy. While I am not certain that the writer/director intended this reading, it is what I received from the film, why I loved it so much and a major reason why I would rewatch it. Aside from the fact that it just rules.

My only criticism (and it almost threw the film for me in certain respects): there is a rather uncomfortable tag during the end credits that has a big thank you to all the policemen working in China, giving all their time and their lives. I find this difficult for me to gauge. It’s very heavy-handed. Therefore, it being China in 2020, I feel a little awkward at this credit sequence message. The feeling towards police globally is not exactly positive and for good reason. On the other hand, Bloody Daisy, an incredible movie ABOUT is not a film about bad cops. HOWEVER the end credit praise was a little off-color for me and didn’t service the film well. I just wondered if he was asked to put that on in order to get the film made or…I have no idea. I don’t want to make any assumptions. It’s uncomfortable.

After Bloody Daisy I went and saw The Hand which was a really fun independent Korean horror short film about a hand that comes out of this guy’s toilet and starts killing people. It was super funny in a Evil Dead kind of way. I stayed for the Q&A which (as with the others I went to) was wonderful, even if I didn’t understand the majority of what was said.


Day Five: Tuesday July 14, 2020
The films that I watched this day were:
Sheep Without a Shepard (Sam Quah, 2019) – China
Impetigore (Joko Anwar, 2019) – Indonesia

So Tuesday was another strong day. I mean, hell. They were all strong days. Who am I kidding? There were some films that I loved and some films I only liked, but I enjoyed every single film I saw and I cannot believe what a good time I had at BIFAN.

So let me give you these trailers. If you are bothered by horror, do not watch the second one. Also, neither is TOO spoilery but if you think you will see these films (Impetigore is about to be available for streaming on Shudder) I would advise NOT watching the trailer and just going in blind:

So Sheep Without a Shepard knocked my socks off. Enough so that it’s probably going to get its own individual post since it’s a remake of another film and I want to watch that film and do a compare/contrast. As those who know me are aware, I have done a lot of work in adaptations and remakes and that is an interest for me. In my research on Sheep Without a Shepard, I found that the originating material was actually an Indian movie made in 2013.
So, that post will come! Bottom line, this film won the Audience Award at BIFAN so…it’s a well-loved film and should be seen.

Now on to Impetigore. The first thing you should know is that if you get the streaming channel Shudder or have the ability to rent it FROM a Shudder-connected platform, this face-melting film will be available to stream from July 23rd onwards according to what I have read here.
So the question is…should you? Well, if you like horror films, there is only one answer:

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So let’s not disappoint Varla, shall we?
But in all seriousness, Impetigore fucking rules. You know when you’re watching a movie and you’re so deeply involved with it that you absolutely forget that you’re watching a movie?
YEAH. SO Impetigore. That was my experience.
Now, I can’t say that this will happen for male viewers.
This is probably one of the strongest horror films I have ever seen with women as protagonists and central figures. I could probably talk about how much I loved this film for hours based on the dynamism of the women characters and the involvement of puppetry alone but…there is just so. much. to. love. about. this. film. I cannot wait to watch it again when it comes out on Shudder.
Sure, you can certainly see the influence of films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and more but it’s what Joko Anwar did with the idea of homage that I loved. He translated it into creative intent and unique synthesis not simply repetition.

Day Six: Wednesday July 15, 2020
The films that I watched this day were:
Fallen (Lee Jung-sub, 2020) – Korea
Mrs. Noisy (Amano Chihiro, 2019) – Japan
Taro the Fool (Tatsushi Omori, 2019) – Japan
The Interviewees (Hwang Seungjae, 2020) – Korea

So I could definitely feel the Film Festival Fatigue by Wednesday. But I kept going. Because HELLO. MOVIES TO WATCH.

I started out with Fallen which Grace had told me about. There was a lot to like about it. But it was a little bit messy.
Things I quite enjoyed: the smart way that it mixed the idea of a woman writer, true crime and women’s issues that are very specific to Korea. Fallen examines media exploitation of women, molka, Korean society and its response to queerness, bullying and suicide. It loses the path when it starts to go too deep into the Science Fiction realm. It seemed to be trying to handle too many genres at once which disappointed me because the visuals were strong, the performances great and any 3 or 4 of the things the film had would have worked together but not all 5-6. It just couldn’t hold up under all the multi-genre pressure. Worth watching but just difficult to work with at points.

I loved Mrs Noisy. Ootaka Yoko’s performance alone is extraordinary. It’s hard to talk about the film without saying too much but I definitely have some thoughts. I will try to keep this as vague as possible!

While I may have found myself disappointed with what I saw as a traditional return to domestic values in the third act I don’t believe the film can be chalked up to simple recuperation in that manner. The relationships and discussions are far too complex for it to be that easy.

This sensitive and funny women-centered film examines deeply flawed people and critiques modern parenthood in unique ways. While traditional family values are certainly present, they are not overbearing enough to disregard a film as worthwhile as this. Don’t miss it.

So Taro the Fool. Wow.
I’m not a fan of Harmony Korine or Tod Solondz. I just can’t watch their work. And Lars von Trier…well, I like a few of his films but not many. When I got out of Taro the Fool I thought I completely hated it. I thought it was in the Solondz/Korine school of cinema masochism that drives me absolutely insane. And I still think it might be.

BUT DAMN. I couldn’t get that film out of my head for two days. I just kept. Thinking. About. It. I could not stop thinking about it. There are only a few films that I’ve ever had that experience with: Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996), Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971), Germany: Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini, 1948) and Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985).

I am in no way suggesting that Taro the Fool holds a candle to those films; it doesn’t. Whatever Taro the Fool shares with these other films has no name. Taro the Fool wears discomfort and weirdness as a garment, traverses shock, swims through sadness, visits melancholy and returns to revel in awkwardness and anxiety. Sometimes I like films that have all those elements! But used in this fashion…I still can’t decide!
The lady in front of me couldn’t hang. She straight-up walked out at the scene that reminded me a bit of Alejandro Jodorowsky (who I adore). I get that.
But she missed some heartbreaking monologues that made me think: I don’t know if I like this film, but this scene is some of the most amazing film making and most intense shit I’ve ever seen. I fucking love it.
So…Taro is incredibly challenging. I’m still in the “unsure” category. But I sure appreciate it and thank BIFAN for having given me the opportunity to have experienced whatever it was!


My last film of the night was The Interviewees. There was a lot to like about this film since it is clearly based on actual interviews done with people talking about real-life situations in and around employment, happiness, life, death and other day-to-day existential matters and that non-fiction element makes it interesting. But it also weighs down the fact that it is a SciFi film.
Much like Fallen, I think this film might have been trying to do too much and maybe couldn’t decide where it was going. On the other hand, I really enjoyed the performances, the structure and the “twist.”

Day Seven: Thursday July 16, 2020
The films that I watched this day were:
The Kind-Hearted Man (Yamanouchi Daisuke, 2019) – Japan

I ended the festival with a bit of pink film from Japan. It’s definitely not for everyone so I would advise you look into pink film and decide if that is something that you would be interested in before watching this title. That said, it’s a pretty fun horror film with great scares and SFX make up. So some creepy old dude sex scenes, some kinda hot guy sex scenes, some scenes where I was like: “I don’t know if women’s bodies can actually do tha…oh, um, I guess they can. Learn something new everyday,” and some pretty awesome ghost shit.
I’m not going to complain ONE BIT about ending my BIFAN on that note. It was fun as hell!

After the film ended, I went to get some food and joined a bunch of folks for the Zoom online reception. Again, I felt so honored just to be there. People from ALL OVER THE WORLD were on this zoom call. People who are usually at BIFAN. People who were talking about how much they love the festival, the community, how sad they are they had to miss it but they’ll be here next year. Listening to everyone’s updates from Europe, South America, Taiwan…It was truly an incredible experience. My friend Ivy from LA was on the call too (she was one of the only people I knew on the Zoom Karaoke) and it was really nice to see her.

I’ve gone to a lot of after-parties, tons of receptions in my life. I grew up in the industry, on film and TV sets. It’s not that filmmaking or filmmakers in particular make me feel all geeky it’s just that I have a lot of respect for people like the group that were on this closing night zoom call. It was so obvious that it was a huge international collection of human beings who create genre work and REALLY LOVE THE CINEMA and that awed me.
I just love people who love the movies and these people love the movies.
BIFAN seems to bring those people out and…how magical is that?

I closed my evening at this small restaurant where I got a chance to meet a few of the volunteers who had been smiling and waving at me throughout the festival. I seemed to go into their particular theaters more often than others. Sometimes that just happens during a festival- you end up watching movies in only house 3 and 10 for two days!

Talking to these young women was so much fun. First of all, it was a really good chance for me to actually speak Korean (I rarely get a chance to speak Korean where I work and live- it’s basically all foreigners/English speakers). And I didn’t do as badly as I thought! I only used Papago when I needed to say really MAJOR things and for a word here and there. Also numbers. I am awful at the number system. Both native and sino-Korean. Don’t judge.

Festivals could not happen without volunteers. And these folks basically don’t even get to see most of the movies! So they were on their way out and I asked them to sit (they weren’t sure at first) and then they did. They asked what movies I preferred (I told them), then we just talked about Korea and why I’m here, how much I love it and random other things.
It was one of the best parts of the festival.
I loved being on the Zooms with the people who made the films for BIFAN.
I loved Zoom Karaoke.
I loved seeing the Q&As and I loved the movies.
But I really really really loved talking to these three women who worked so hard to make sure that everyone stayed safe, healthy and happy at the festival.


That was a tough job. I watched. If you think being a volunteer at a film festival is hard…trying adding the additional aspects of temperature taking for each film, bracelets, ID form filling out, and monitoring all that information when guests go into the theater.
I was so proud just to be able to thank them and talk about movies and have some laughs with them on my last night in town. It was the best way to end my first, and certainly not my last, BIFAN.

And thank you again to everyone who made this festival possible, from festival director and staff to programmers, jury members and other attendees. It was a dream come true. I am still floating 6 feet above the ground in happiness from this experience. BIFAN has made me the most ecstatic film nerd in the north of South Korea. Until next year film friends….

I’m a Fan of BIFAN: Part 1

Yep. The title is about as Dad Joke and pun-tastic as you can get. But to be honest, it describes my feelings towards the film festival I recently spent a week at perfectly. While it has been a few years since I have devoted any time to serious fan culture studies (it has changed significantly since I was focusing my attention in that area of study) I will stand behind the basic definition of being a fan being an “ardent admirer or enthusiast” of a given subject/topic/area of the world. Especially since I am highly allergic to the newer term the kids are saying “I Stan xxxx thing.” That refers to a toxic state of fandom which…is not my jam. And my experience at BIFAN? Totally a fan experience and not at all a Stan experience.

It’s hard to say what I love most about going to film festivals. I’ve been going for so long and they’ve become such a part of me that it’s difficult to pick out just one aspect.

I have been blessed to have spent many years enjoying films at TCMFF (Turner Classic Movie Film Festival), AFI Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Festival, OUTFEST, LA Asian Pacific Film Fest, Beyond Fest and more. These became as much part of my life as holidays or family events. In some instances, perhaps even more solid and reliable.


So now I’m sitting here in the north of South Korea, recovering from my very first film festival in my new adopted home. And wow. I’m just going to say it straight up: the 24th Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) 부전국제판타스틱영화제 was ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS. It was a film festival that felt like it was made for me. Every single film I watched felt like it was designed with me as audience. That was such a new and joyful experience!

Getting to the Festival…

There were some obstacles of course. The most obvious one is that BIFAN is the first festival I have ever had to travel for. Having been born and raised in Hollywood, California, every film festival I attended previous to this had come to me. So I got used to sleeping in my own bed, knowing the weather, being comfortable in the environment, etc. That was not the case here.

So off I went to Bucheon and my lovely friend Tyler agreed to watch my temperamental cat.
Arriving in Bucheon, I had a few surprises because I’m still really getting to know Korea.
The hotel that I thought was close? It was 20 minutes away and it was…not exactly a hotel. It was more of a motel. As in a love motel. But they were awfully nice at the front desk and it was basically clean even though it was the most uncomfortable bed. But hey…no one goes there for the beds. And I wasn’t there that much. I was mostly at the CGV seeing movies and then eating great food! So it was not a big deal at all.
Honestly, I laughed and think it’s pretty funny. Also? Who doesn’t love a good adventure while traveling?

OK, fair. Most people don’t. But I’m flexible. I mean, weird shit happens all the time here and if you can’t roll with it, you’re going to be really unhappy.
Even though a lot of things that I could never have imagined in my most creative imagination have happened since I moved here in November, 2019 (I mean, pandemic?!?!) I never want to live anywhere else.

So, I found my hotel, got situated and got prepared for what I knew was going to be a different kind of week and festival.

Festivaling in the Time of Pandemic

I got one of these packets for EVERY single screening I attended- an alcohol swab and some hand sanitizer. They were handed to me by volunteers as I walked into the theaters.

First off, yes. So let’s talk about That Thing. That Pandemic Thing: COVID-19.
Being in South Korea I absolutely know how lucky I am. Every day I acknowledge my privilege and my heart aches for my friends, family and colleagues in the US. I feel guilty a lot. But there’s not much I can do.
So that’s where my dumb broken brain is at.

As for BIFAN, the presence of a global pandemic (even as well-managed as it is in South Korea) changed everything about the festival:
The people who ran and figured out BIFAN this year took immense care and consideration with the strict medical precautions. I felt completely safe and comfortable there. People in white jumpsuits went into the theaters in between screenings to sterilize the theaters before audiences could enter, temperatures for each audience member were actively taken and observed for every film, people were spaced out in seats so well for social distancing! Everyone stayed masked while watching the films and volunteers reminded those who dipped their masks for a brief moment or two to please remember to keep their masks on.
By the end of the festival I was a total pro at figuring out how to drink a soda or a cold coffee drink with my mask on.

A lot goes into a film festival (especially an international film festival) to make it happen. So how the hell are you supposed to make it go when the world is on fire?!?!? Up until BIFAN, most big events and festivals have just been cancelling here in South Korea. It just didn’t seem manageable or like a controllable process.

Like Sundance, Telluride and the rest of the festival circuit, BIFAN usually hosts big parties, international guests for juries and Q&As…the event is an EVENT. But the BIFAN staff knew this was impossible this year. Even if Korea could host some dinners, it was impossible for filmmakers and guests from other countries to join simply due to quarantines and the economic burden that this would have put them under. The savvy part of a very well planned festival was the recognition that, while this year would have a loss of the crazy in-person celebrations, there was still the possibility to make the festival HAPPEN. THAT part WAS possible.

But how?

BIFAN put an extreme amount of work into their festival that platforms extreme works. They made it a hybrid festival- partially online, partially in-person. They still had the industry meetings, the filmmaker school support forums, and all the other the non-exhibition events that I generally don’t participate in that they have every year. I WAS ABSOLUTELY BLOWN AWAY.
These are never events that I attend. I don’t want to make films, I just want to watch and write about them. However, as a film archivist and preservationist I believe strongly in matters of access and the kinds of access that the BIFAN team made happen for film professionals at BIFAN was UNPARALLELED. I’ve never seen anything like that. It was groundbreaking in a way that it can be used in the future for other situations and BIFAN is on the cutting edge in this way.

The hard work that BIFAN put into making sure there was going to be zero infections at the festival was obvious and something that I felt very confident in. As a researcher, I had put a lot of time looking into the lengths the staff were going to in order to make the 24th Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) 부전국제판타스틱영화제 safe and not only was I not disappointed but I was impressed!

Here in South Korea we haven’t had any COVID infections stemming from movie theaters audiences. People have continued to go to the movies and that is not where sicknesses seem to come from. While audience attendance has gone down and some theaters have closed temporarily and/or limited the number of daily screenings, the infection clusters that have popped up recently have generally been traced to external influence, people acting irresponsibly (no masks, large/excessive gatherings of people ) or strict medical precautions not being taken to ensure safety.

I was prepared for BIFAN to be a different kind of festival due to the COVID issues but I was not ready for it to maintain fun and fabulourom the first film to the last film, everything went smoothly. Usually at film festivals I’m used to a few bumps on that first day (and there may have been one or two) but with the added stressors of COVID-19, BIFAN and the staff and volunteers really went above and beyond in a way that I’ve never seen before. When they write about people in South Korea coming together around this pandemic…they’re not kidding. But it was also BIFAN and the BIFAN community that made it happen. Incredible work.

These are the bracelets that we were given for each movie. Each film was marked 1-4 (depending what number it was) and our temperatures were taken and we were double checked by volunteers that we had the correct wristbands and had been through the whole process before we could enter the theaters. So thorough and good!
They way that they cordoned off the seats for social distancing. It worked so well!
Ready for my first film of the day, on that Friday morning!

Let’s Watch Some Movies!

Day One: Friday July 10, 2020
The films that I watched this day were:
A Girl Missing (Koji Fukada, 2019) – Japan
Dancing Mary ダンシング (Hiroyuki Tanaka/ SABU, 2019) – Japan
Gundala (Joko Anwar, 2019) – Indonesia
The Sunshine Family (Kim Tai-sik, 2019) – Korea/Phillipines

Friday I watched 4 movies and one Q&A. It was pure joy to be back in the theaters again, with other people, shuffling into the seats, putting bags and belongings down, getting settled in to enjoy. I have to say that it was a little rough for me to have chosen a slow burn thriller as my first choice of the day, but WOW!!!! I was NOT SORRY.
As a woman and a media scholar this film truly knocked me off my feet and I did not see any of it coming.

Please excuse the last vestiges of my nail polish 😥

A Girl Missing よこがお (Koji Fukada, 2019) was not the movie I thought it was going to be and I am so grateful.
It was better and more complex on a multitude of levels. A quietly important film, A Girl Missing is extremely relevant to current perspectives of women and deftly handles societal notions of guilt/blame, and the omnipresent media’s exploitative trend of “anything for a story.” If I go into too much detail, it will ruin it. In fact, I feel like I’ve already given too much away.
Yes, it moves slowly at first. But once it gets going, it’s an internally screaming rampage that cannot be stopped, a train that is off the tracks and all you can do is watch in agony as the narrative just builds to its conclusion. Really an exquisite film.

The next film I went into was Dancing Mary ダンシング (Hiroyuki Tanaka/ SABU, 2019). I was a little underwhelmed by the title of the film but you can’t always tell a book by its cover, right? And I was in heaven! This film was DEFINITELY my jam. Here is the trailer but it doesn’t even begin to cover 1/10th of 1/10th of what is in the film.

What I enjoyed so much was the social commentary and the character building and the genuine humor. I love Japanese dark comedies that are smart and well-made and this one is in that realm. Playing around in the Yakuza, ghost-story, punk rock and road-trip genres, it’s really an original work that only come from Japan. Every review has called it a cult film but I just want to call it a movie that filled me with pleasure and hit all my sweet spots.

So BIFAN was a game changer for me. I had some idea that it would be, but not like this. My next film was Gundala by a filmmaker, Joko Anwar. I’m going to leave the trailer here and let it speak for itself. What I do want to say for Gundala though is that it is extremely strong in its casting and social commentary and the action scenes are KILLER. The villain absolutely RULES and the tension is just *chef’s kiss*! Definitely watch it!

My final film of the day was a Filipino-Korean co-production called The Sunshine Family (Kim Tai-sik, 2019) based off of a Japanese film from 1992 called The Hit-and-Run Family. While I have not seen the original source material (I will- the story is too good to not see where it was born), this transnational interpretation was hilarious, heart-breaking and ultimately uniquely tender and satisfying.
Sure it’s a comedy, but Sunshine Family still manages to platform deep discussions about marital relationships, queerness, mental health and healthy parenting in between scenes of shutting out nosy neighbors trying to keep a…terrible secret.

As I watched, I kept thinking about my dear friend Ferrin. I think he would have really loved it and I really did miss sitting next to someone I love watching a movie that I was falling in love with. It is one of the great tragedies of COVID that this is not a possibility at the moment. When I fall in love with a film (as I do, time and time again) I always enjoy having a “partner in crime” to experience it with me. But at least I knew that there were other people in the theater with me enjoying the film and I could hear them loving the same things I did. That is such a critical part of the film experience. Sunshine Family was also the first Q&A that I went to and while I didn’t understand very much of it (my Korean is not very good), I stayed for the whole thing and I did understand a lot of it and it was so lovely to see these actors in person, in masks, in person.

Day Two: Saturday July 11, 2020
The films that I watched this day were:
Guilt By Design (Lai Siu Kwan, Sze Pak Lam and Yongtai Liu, 2019)- Hong Kong
Signal 100 (Lisa Takeba, 2020) – Japan

I was really taken by Guilt By Design. It’s a very Hitchcockian courtroom thriller with a great deal of action and nifty turns and twists that you may/may not see coming. While I live/eat/ sleep/breathe true crime stories, mysteries, and anything with a tense narrative involving a puzzle to be solved, I am generally the one person who can never see “it” coming. It’s not that I’m stupid, but I’m usually so wrapped up in the story and so tied to the characters (I’m 100% the ideal reader/watcher/audience of any media) and story that I can’t take that step back that my friends can. I really try- and I tried so hard to figure things out in this film! But I was still surprised at the end and so excited (like a little kid at a theme park) when the finale hit. It always pleases me when I don’t get it and the film just goes crazy. I had so much fun watching this!

Signal 100. Holy fucking shit. This went far beyond what I thought it was going to be. There’s almost no words that I can use to describe it. It’s definitely in the Battle Royale-Japanese kids/violence against each other in high school-genre, but it’s like…take that to 11. I loved the polarity of images that occurred between the pre-recorded intro to the film by the woman-director from Japan and then the film itself. While I didn’t understand what she said, she was young, beautiful, pregnant and smiling and Signal 100 was probably the most violent and gory films I saw at BIFAN. Did I like it? OH HELL YES. That movie was fucking great. Here’s a teensy trailer taste…

And with that, I end part 1 of the “I’m a Fan of BIFAN Chronicles.” Please return to this same place for details on Sunday through Thursday!

How I Survived 2018: Films I Became Obsessed With

I don’t generally make lists (I don’t believe in them) but I’m going to half blame Daniel Waters & his excellent cinema-personship for my desire to list the things I saw this year (I read his list today & was like….yeah, there’s some shit I want people to know about) and the fact that I’m getting old & I forget titles of things & such.

Warning: you will definitely see a pattern to much of the content here. I like Korean film and TV. A LOT. Like, not just as a hobby, but like…9/10 things I watch on a daily/weekly/monthly basis are Korean. There’s many many many reasons for this: I love the actors, the political intrigue plots, the corruption angles, the action sequences and the absurd number of serial killers or extremely violent murderous villains with amazing hair and immaculate taste in clothing that are existing in Seoul at any given point in the Korean movie environment.

That said, these are the films I watched this year that blew my mind or just made me super happy to be sitting in a darkened theater with other folks. Or, in some cases, home with my cats.

Please note that this is a mix of new and older films. But all were new-to-me.

성난황소 Unstoppable (English title) / Angry Bull (literal title) – dir. Kim Min-Ho, 2018

Ma Dong-seok is one of my favorite actors ever & the villain in this- Kim Sung-oh is mindblowing. That burgundy suit he wears is 80,000 shades of YESSSSSSS. Also the action in this one was just superb. Flimsy narrative but if you just go: “Cool. Revenge story. Lots of action & badassery” this is great!

꼬방동네 사람들 People in the Slum / People of Kkobang Neighborhood– dir. Bae Chang-ho, 1982

The Korean Film Archive did a hellova job restoring this classic working class drama and it’s worth watching just to see that gorgeous work alone. But the film itself is also great. Mind you, it definitely gets dramatic– like OH GURL THAT MUSIC SWELL dramatic- but I loved this film. And the lead actress Kim Bo-yeon 김보연 is excellent. It’s available to watch here on YouTube for free. thanks to the Korean Film Archive. Also, this article is really great & talks a bit about Bae Chang-ho who was nicknamed the “Steven Spielberg of Korea.”

people of the slum

Amateurs (Amatörer) – dir. Gabriela Pichler, 2018

This very queer, very funny, very touching comedy made my AFIFest sooooo great this year. I’m a huge fan of movies about adolescent girls saying “fuck you, I’m going DIY you stupid adults” and this is that movie. I died of laughter, I cried a looot and I would see it many more times. There are at least 5 languages spoken in this film- Swedish, Tamil, Arabic, German and English. It is about filmmaking, classism, capitalism and tiny backwater towns with a lotta bureaucratic outdated ways. It is loving and punk as fuck.

AMATEURS-by-Gabriela-Pichler

Pig (Khook) – dir. Mani Haghighi, 2018

This movie is so funny my sides hurt from laughing. A serial killer is on the loose picking off film directors in the local Tehrani film scene one by one. It’s all at once a satire, a parody of filmmaking as an industry and creative pursuit and ridiculously self-aware. The main character has some amazing rock t-shirts that he wears throughout and the film is just a blast. Want to rewatch many times.

마의 계단 The Devil’s Staircase – dir. Lee Man-hee, 1964

It’s safe to say that this is one of my new favorite film noir/thrillers that has ever been made. If you know me, that’s saying a GREAT DEAL. I will now profess my new addiction to Lee Man-hee and his work, completely setting the groundwork in Korean cinema for the thrillers and horror work that everyone loves today. This film actually scared me at one point! Goddamn Exorcist does nothing to my fear tendrils. If you love Diabolique by Clouzot (1955), this film is just as terrifying in its paranoia and intensity. Again, for those interested, it is available to watch here for free thanks to the marvelous Korean Film Archive.

devils-staircase-poster-e1528931985953

Cam – dir. Daniel Goldhaber, writer Isa Mazzei, 2018

This film is tits-out incredible. Having been connected with the sex worker world for most of my teen and adult life, I have watched it change drastically based on technology. While those things evolved, the misogyny and judgey-ness stayed exactly the fucking same. For Goldhaber & Mazzei to make this brutally brilliant and powerful film that stands alone as a great thriller/horror film but also functions as critical analysis of agency and identity in an online sexual universe. HFS. I’m alllllllllllllll in. This was my kind of movie. I cannot wait to see what they do next. Tickets already bought & paid for.

화녀 Woman of Fire- dir. Kim Ki-young, 1971

I worship at the film cans of Kim Ki-young. That’s why 2 of his films are on this list. For reference, popular modern Korean directors Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook both call this legendary director a huge influence on their work.

화녀 is a seriously dark and disturbing work. It’s erotic and powerful and troubling and visually fucking stunning. This film’s objective is to make you feel unsafe. Domestic bliss, familial calm, any home/hearth bullshit is tossed out the window to make room for psychosexual violence, lust and manipulation. I LOVE THIS MOVIE. Oh- and it’s also available for free here thanks to the Korean Film Archive! Have a stiff drink or some ice cream on hand. You might need it.

1971 - Woman of Fire (screenshot 3)

Akasha – dir. Hajooj Kuka, 2018

It may sound odd, but this is an incredible feminist rom-com about a small community set in the Sudan, against the backdrop of the Sudanese Civil War (which is a huge part of the narrative). If that sounds weird and crazy, it is. It has been so long since I’ve seen a film with the humor, feel and joy of 1930s screwball comedy (sans the overwhelming whiteness) that this almost put me into cardiac arrest at how divine it was. Find it. See it. Everything about this film is just amazing.

저는 영화를보고 있어요 Default / National Bankruptcy Day dir. Choi Kook-hee, 2018

Full transparency, I’m a nut for Kim Hye-soo. She’s a hellova actress. And Yoo Ah-in has been one of my main dudes since I watched him in Sungkyunkwan Scandal. Y’all loved in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning this year. You know you did (I did too, FTR). This is a pretty amazing film especially if you are not entirely well-acquainted with the HFS RAGING disaster that was the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Kim Hye-soo plays a financial analyst at the Bank of Korea who is beyond aware of the damages that the IMF will do and has to combat the Very Male industry that she’s in. The film doesn’t shy away from the overt sexism that businesswomen have to face in powerful positions. It’s infuriating and depressing but she is brilliant in this role.

The Night Comes for Us – dir. Timo Tjahjanto, 2018

This Indonesian blood ballet is so exceptionally choreographed and violently HELL YES that I can’t even think about how much I loved it without grinning and wanting to watch it again with other people.

Hold The Dark – dir. Jeremy Saulnier, 2018

It is extremely rare that the litany of horrors that indigenous communities have to handle on a day to day basis make appearances in what we might consider mainstream-esque (or at least a Netflix-sponsored) thriller. Hold the Dark is a difficult film to completely parse. I need to watch it again, for sure. But the fact that I can’t stop thinking about it certainly made me think: yeah, this is something I valued highly. The darknesses that this film explores are various: dying children, the inability of white folx to respect indigenous cultures and their rights, animal behavior, and more. Jeffrey Wright is incredible. And I stand by the statement I tweeted after I watched this: HTD is a Christmas movie.

어도 Iodo – dir. Kim Ki-Young, 1977

Out of all the films I watched this year (Mandy included) this is the one that really blew my fucking mind. For all intents and purposes, it is a murder mystery and a genre film done by Kim Ki-young. The extremely pithy Wikipedia synopsis reads: “When a man from an island ruled by women disappears, the man suspected of killing him investigates his past.” But that’s like saying “yeah, people die during wars” or “Having the flu makes you feel crappy.”  어도 is like if Ken Russell and Alejandro Jodorowsky were Korean, got REALLY HIGH and REALLY FEMINIST and were like: “Let’s make our version of The Wickerman, include prerequisite themes of sex, power, gender and erotics, and make a commentary on the erasure of shamanic culture in Korea.” Sound good? HAHHHHHHAHAHAHAH. It’s fucking mindbending and hot.

I love it when US films go strange places but honestly? We just don’t have the history to do it this well. Our history is racism, colonialism and fucked up power structures. Kim Ki-Young is the  goddamn master of mindfuckery in cinema and I love it. But you don’t have to take my word for it. It used to be available on the amazing Korean Film Archive’s website but sadly it is no longer there. I would advise that you somehow find and watch this amazing film though.

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There were plenty of other films-

도둑들 The Thieves – dir. Choi Dong-hoon, 2012  

Wild Search – dir. Ringo Lam, 1989

Destroyer – dir. Karyn Kusama, 2018

Shoplifters – dir. Kore-Eda Hirokazu, 2018

버닝 Burning – dir. Lee Chang-dong, 2018

아시스 Oasis – dir. Lee Chang-dong, 2002 (Yes, I like this film. No it doesn’t make me a monster. In fact, this is probably one of the most powerful and beautiful films I watched this year).

Sorry to Bother You – dir. Boots Riley, 2018

Skyscraper – dir. Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2018

The Ranger – dir. Jenn Wexler, 2018

And so many more.

These are the movies I can’t get out of my head and make me glad that I do what I do (watch & appreciate cinema & its interaction with human life and politics and whatnot).

I hope that maybe you’ll check out one or more of these. If you do, let me know what you think!

They Only Play Asian Stuff: Centering Korean Culture in LA & Regional Ignorance

Los Angeles is a funny place.
After my amazing ramen/movie night at CGV Cinemas, I went to read my Santa Cruz Noir book (OMGZ Susie, it’s SO GOOD! I’M DYING) & have a cocktail at Frank & Hank’s (thought of you, my beautiful love Michelle).

Some girl at the bar next to me asked about the book since I was having such visceral reactions to it, so I read her a passage over the pounding gangsta rap.
Girl: WOAH. THAT’S SOME BRUTAL SHIT GURL. And you’re laughing?
Me: Well, yeah. I recognize all the locations in the story and…it’s gory dark murdery stuff but…very brilliant!
*She took a picture of the book*
Girl: Imna have to get that.
Me: Oh you need to, 100%.
Girl: So what were you up to tonight?
Me: I was over at CGV down the street, watching a great movie.
Girl: The movie theater over there?!?!? *points towards the door* WHY??? THEY ONLY PLAY ASIAN STUFF. OH BUT LIKE HAVE YOU WATCHED ANY ASIAN HORROR.
Me: *having great difficulty not making life imitate art & make like one of the killers from Santa Cruz Noir*
Yeah. It was weird. And racist. And frustrating. CGV is a great theater. My favorite next to the New Beverly, actually.
I love K-town so very much. I am usually the only white person at the movies I go see and until a while back when I cut my hair into my current “punk rawk” look, I was given a lot of “What are you doing here?” expressions. I find it endlessly fascinating that my hairstyle has changed how I am treated but that’s a whole other conversation.
Back to CGV. I didn’t mind anyone looking at me with the “you don’t belong” expression. I knew that I was entering a non-white space. I belong from the perspective of being from LA and having grown up a few blocks away but…it is not my space. It is, however, the only location in LA that I can see these films and I desperately enjoy Korean cinema, from the soap operas to the gritty procedurals to the gruesome horror. I think the only genre I’m not into is the bubble-gum rom-com and even some of those I like!!! But when I go to CGV Cinemas in K-town I am very aware, as an Angeleno, that this may be my city but this is not my space.
The older Korean couples on date nights love me though. Maybe they think I’m a weirdo sitting alone with my concessions sighing and crying at that historical romcom with them. But I also think they appreciate having younger people in those movies (sometimes those films have a bit of an older draw). Maybe they just think I’m confused and I ended up in the wrong theater? I love seeing how many older couples do go to the movies together and enjoy the experience just like it was “the old days.” I feel like when I go to CGV, people there are really there for the experience and my heart soars.
I always feel really good in those theaters. Everyone there is going to the movies intentionally.
There’s a difference between going to the movies as something to do and going to the movies intentionally. You can do both (many do) but the people I see going in and out of CGV are people I want to go to the movies with. The audience for Believer last night was great. Maybe not super rambunctious like an average US action-movie audience, but they laughed loudly at funny lines and it certainly felt like a community. Which is what I need in a movie going experience and a movie theater.
CGV is really special because like many movie theaters that used to exist in Los Angeles, it offers culturally specific materials that cannot be accessed anywhere else. Korean films on the big screen. And not just on the big screen, but a REALLY DAMN BIG SCREEN. The seats are nice, the sound is great, they have 4 hours of free parking.
And, as I schooled Bar Girl, CGV doesn’t “just play Asian stuff.” More specifically, their focus is on the Asian community (the Korean community to be exact). White folks, or English-speaking anyones, are 100% secondary. But that doesn’t mean that they are not welcome or cannot attend. It just means that they are not the central audience for CGV and that is a breath of fresh air in this world. Yes, I am aware that CGV is a Korean company so obviously that is their focus but still. It’s really great to have this theater HERE IN LOS ANGELES.
Bar Girl was shocked when I told her that they are currently showing Deadpool 2 and I saw a trailer for the next Incredibles movie as well as the new Jurassic Park. She had completely tossed the theater to the side. Hi ignorance and total unwillingness to explore your own neighborhood (she said she lived in the area). Sure, these films have Korean subtitles, but that’s fucking great! This is something called ACCESS. Why shouldn’t everyone be able to see movies? And why shouldn’t we all be able to see as many amazing movies as we can? The fact that I was able to go and see Believer (Lee Hae-young, 2018), the remake of Johnnie To’s masterful Drug War from 2012 is so exciting to me! And by the way?
                      BOTH VERSIONS OF THIS MOVIE ARE AMAZING!!

They’re playing a comedy at CGV starting on June 22nd. The trailer looked INSANE. I cannot wait. So glad that they take MoviePass. I know that I sound like an ad for CGV (I don’t mind) but I’ve always said that it’s like the Korean Arclight but cheaper. And take a chance if you live in LA, come see a Korean movie with me. They are really great.

See how your calendar is looking for this beauty…. I’m excited AF.

Let Your Seoul Glow: My Journey to Korean Cinema

This will be my last and final piece for the Korean Blogathon. It has been a pleasure to participate in it, and I can’t wait to watch a slew of the films that have been written about by everyone else! Thanks to everyone that put this together and to Martin for designing such a lovely page to showcase our writing! It’s been fantastic. So, in conclusion…..

I live in a city where everyone is obsessed with the motion picture industry. If you aren’t pitching a script or don’t have one on the backburner, then you’re on your way to a meeting or to meet with your agent. If not that, then you are location-scouting or bitching about budgets or other production issues. Yes, that’s right folks, I live in the Devil’s Playground- Hollywood, CA. I was born and raised here, and it’s what I know. Is it always what I enjoy? Not by a longshot. But it’s where I’m from, for better or for worse.

In any case, try as I might, I was unable to get away from the cinema. It was like the siren’s call to me, although not in the same way as everyone else. While I fought anything and everything cinematic up until college (I was going to be a social worker, dammit!), I was unable to distance myself from the silver screen any longer, and got several degrees in it- but all in theoretical writing. Not as useful as building construction per se, but I loved it, and still do.

Within my film education, I encountered several kinds of Asian cinemas from my professors- but never Korean cinema. So I became very fond of Japanese cinema, and Hong Kong cinema and different Chinese filmmakers. From there, it was all up to me. So, being a rather exploratory person, I dove in head-first and didn’t come up for air for a very, very, very long time.

The first filmmaker I fell for was Wong Kar-Wai. His films came highly recommended by a friend, and that friend could not have been more correct. They were beautiful, sensual, graceful and smart. Some were action-type films and still contained the afore-mentioned descriptions. Wong Kar-Wai sold me, and got me involved.

About the same time, I developed a keen fascination with the Japanese New Wave and wondered intensely why no one knew more about it or was writing more about it. From there, I found Kenji Mizoguchi and became deeply obsessed with his work as well. To compliment the highly sexualized New Wave and the historical-yet-feminist-tinged-Mizoguchi, I was then introduced to my first slightly Korean figure- Takashi Miike. While born in Japan, he was from an area that was dominated by Korean immigrants. In addition, his father was actually born in Seoul. Miike had multiple Korean connections, a fact I was not aware of until a little while ago. He was still, however, a Japanese filmmaker, more or less, and so I added him to my bundle. However, his style added to the New Wave and Mizoguchi really made the kettle start to boil.

Miike has been described as “controversial and prolific” (both of which he is) and his films have been described as being “perverse and extremely violent” and also “dramatic and family-friendly.” Watching Miike’s work made me interested in seeing what else the Asian world had to offer.

Takashi Miike's film "The Happiness of the Katakuris" (2001) was a remake of the Korean film "The Quiet Family" (1998) by Kim Ji-woon

It was not until much later that I became aware of Korean cinema and what it had to offer, but I have to say that the previous films mentioned were the items that whetted my appetite. J-horror and all of its various offerings was starting to get a little repetitous, tragically, and I was not always a fan of how perverse Miike could get. Or at least not his methodologies. It wasn’t my bag, baby.To quote Huey Lewis and the News, I was in the cinematic mindset of: “I want a new drug.”

And lucky for me, I found one: Korean cinema. While doing my research and writing for this blogathon, I remembered that the first Korean film I ever saw was Tell Me Something (1999). To be honest, I have to congratulate Chang Yoon-hyun. While I may forget things about movies I saw last week or last month, I saw this movie over 10 years ago and it still stuck with me. I have thought about the film over the last few years, not remembering the title, but vaguely sure of the storyline and definitely remembering the imagery, and always thinking: “Damn. I need to find that movie and see it again.” So thanks, Chang Yoon-hyun. I’ll be making that purchase soon.

"Tell Me Something" really told me something about Korean cinema...

Continuing onwards, what I have discovered about this country’s cinema is that it has the unique ability to pull the rug out from under me in every single movie I have seen. Just when I think I know what’s going on, I don’t. I can’t think of another country that does that as well as Korea. Really, sometimes the content itself pulls the rug out from under the viewers feet. Look at Oldboy!

But that is what I like the most about Korean cinema and why I cannot stop watching it. My good friend (and fabulous writer) Dennis Cozzalio just recently pointed me in the way of a Korean cinema in my city. The CGV. It looks great. Some American films with Korean subtitles and recent Korean films with English subtitles. It’s got a little cafe, apparently, and I happen to know that it is surrounded by really great (and inexpensive) local food establishments. I’m sold, hook, line and sinker.

When I saw Mother (2009) and Memories of Murder (2003) on a double bill at the New Beverly Cinema, all I could think was that Good Suspense Films had returned to the silver screen. Alfred Hitchcock would be proud. I could just imagine him, sitting in the back, smirking away. I was astounded at how good they were.

July 6, 2010- New Beverly Cinema, Los Angeles, CA

Every time I see a new piece of Korean filmmaking I am blown away. I’ve seen Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw The Devil twice now, and I finally feel like I may be ready to write something coherent on it. It’s a pretty fascinating piece to me. I think what I am seeing come out of Korea is what Japan has not been able to do for me. There is something unexpected, every time. And living in a land where I have come to call almost everything in every film I see, it is a more than welcome facet to a film.

In addition, the humor makes me happy as a bird in springtime. It is so damn dark. This is a characteristic that I find endearing. Here in the US we find cynicism and sadism enjoyable, especially in our “dark” humor. I find that pathetic and super unfunny. I’m not a fan of Todd Solondz. I think he intentionally tortures his audience. But the Korean sense of humor comes from a pretty nasty history anyway, so why not laugh? If one looks at the random aside comments that are made in certain films, or the things that we are asked to find funny…not everyone I’ve been in the theater with has laughed, but I think that they are being played for fun. Almost all of the films that are serious films have a great deal of humor in them.

I know I’m new. I know I haven’t seen everything. But you know what? I’m really damn lucky.Now I get to go and watch all these other films that all the other folks in the blogathon have written about (and ones I’ve found while I’ve been researching for my writing) for the first time. And to me, watching a film you’re really excited about for the first time is like kissing someone you are really attracted to for the first time: you can only do it once, and it is destined to be amazing, even if it might seem a little sloppy at first.

I’m glad that I started out with my background in the Japanese New Wave and ghost stories, John Woo, Wong Kar-Wai, Miike, and all that. It was great stuff. There are aspects within those cinemas (especially horror-wise) that are shared. However, I am mostly glad to have seen those films/those cinemas so that I can appreciate  the Korean cinema on its own terms.

The Politics of Solitude: Oldboy and Korean Noir

This is my second entry for the Korean Blogathon. Enjoy!

When I asked a friend why he thought Southern Korean cinema seems to offer so many films based upon the theme of revenge, I got a much different answer than the one I was expecting. Most people I know simply chalked it up to the North/South Korea thing, which was fine. I get that. No big deal. Really, as one of my girlfriends stated, you’d want revenge too “when half of your extended family probably died of starvation or were put in a work camp making asbestos-covered paper flowers for French weddings.” But I was personally of the opinion that the revenge thing couldn’t entirely come from the schism. There had to be more. And, as it turned out, I wasn’t altogether wrong.

While I did think that the Northern/Southern Korean explanation was too much of an easy way out of explaining the severe proliferation of violent and vengeful films, I was unprepared for my friend’s other answer. It seems that Southern Korean filmmakers use revenge as a trope in a way that is similar to how US filmmakers have done in the past. He noted that the contemporary South Korean attitude is one of complete and total self-reliance due to massive distrust of authority figures. In essence, if something needs to get taken care of, the individual takes care of it themselves, as almost every professional agency is seen to be corrupt in some regard. Director Bong Joon-Ho corroborated my friend’s statement when interviewed about his film The Host. Bong states, “It would seem that only the little guy and his family have the best interests of Seoul at heart — the government could care less.” (1)

What struck me most about this was that, beyond these directors’ desire to align their main characters with a kind of  “everyman/little guy” mentality, their primary focus still remains in underscoring the fact that Joe Everyman is a very lonely place to be, existing more readily in a location of solitude and self-sufficiency than any kind of communal wealth. In doing so, they inadvertently have made it so that nearly every single one of their Revenge Films feature what is, essentially, the perfect noir protagonist (2). Like the noir guys of yesteryear, the male heroes of Korean cinema tend towards a violent methodology and don’t listen to anyone but their own inner voice. Of course, this may also have a lot to do with the fact that the outside world has seriously messed with their existence and thus their entirety is now dedicated to getting back at those that ruined their lives, but who knows?

Like Glenn Ford in The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953) or Cliff Robertson in Underworld U.S.A (Sam Fuller, 1961), South Korean cinema is populated with characters whose main goal in life is to even the score with the figures who caused them the greatest pain without any help from a higher authority source. In the American and Korean films, the heroes chose to take matters into their own hands…with markedly different results. But they are also markedly different countries. That said, what should be noted is that both of these groups of films (American noir and what we will now call Korean noir) indicate a severe distrust of authority/authority figures. While films like Heat and Underworld were directly correlated to American political contingencies, revenge films within South Korea are a very specified and specialized kind of noir that is reflective of South Korean political culture and climate. In order to clearly see how South Korea looks at its own people and develops its own noir, looking at one film in particular may give us a more conclusive feel.

OLDBOY: Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone

Noir extends beyond a mood and beyond a time. It is not a genre and it is as complicated as a chess board made from a silken spider’s web…and just as sticky. Park Chan-wook’s film, Oldboy, was released in 2003 as part of his “Vengeance Trilogy.” I would argue that this film fits the category of Korean noir perfectly and that the political discourse being laid out could be seen as somewhat revolutionary and yet not extraordinarily unusual in that respect for the highly volatile country of South Korea. While Oldboy‘s sibling films also work for a discussion of Korean Noir, I feel that the overt visuals and meticulous aural planning make this the primary film of importance within the threesome.

In one of my favorite essays about the environment of film noir,”No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir,” the author describes the protagonist as never actually being able to fit the word “hero” due to the shape of his surroundings. He says that “his world is devoid of the moral framework necessary to produce the traditional hero.” (3) If that description doesn’t fit Oh Dae-Su’s world to a T, I don’t know what does. As the film begins, the poor guy is just drunk and in the police station, having been done for being drunk in public. His pal comes to get him, they make a tragic last phone call to Dae-Su’s family, and…the alcohol takes over, leading Dae-Su to take off from the phone booth. The next thing he knows? He is trapped in a hotel room for the next 15 years, and he has no idea who put him there or why.

While the meat of the film may take place outside of the hotel room, post Dae-Su’s “escape,” that 15 year period is not to be ignored. Within his room/cell, he is allowed a very essential piece of information: a television. This media object serves as his sole escort- historically, sexually, and socially. We watch as he communes with soccer games, dance shows, and intensely important world events. Time passes and we are privy to his attempts at escape, all the while the screen is split, and we get to see the political changes taking place or the death of Princess Diana on the right while Dae-Su is trying to dig his way out on the left.

As Henry Sheehan so deftly notes,

Dae-su’s imprisonment begins in 1988, the last year of the rule of Chun Doo-hwan, a brutal and murderous military dictator who ruled South Korea with the help of a secret police force, intimidation, indoctrination, and all the tools of a modern authoritarian state.  Dae-su has a television set in his cell, so he is able to watch political developments more or less as they occur.  But they come at him in the weird, leveling flood typical of TV images.  The return of political dissident (and future president) Kim Dae-jung, for example, is given no more (and no less) emphasis than the wedding and subsequence death of Princess Diana.  Dae-su’s greatest television fixation is reserved for a young singer he seems to regard as his lover, but most of the time he flicks from channel to channel.  Politics and sex, both a factor of imprisonment,  get all mixed up in the gently pulsating beam. (4)

While we recognize what is going on in these initial diegetic circumstances , it is also integral to recognize where Oldboy itself comes from. Not unlike The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Maltese Falcon, or other famous films noirs, Oldboy had literary beginnings. Oldboy was borne out of a comic book written by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya. If those names don’t sound Korean, it’s because they’re not. They’re Japanese. Started in 1997, this 8-volume manga was bought in 2005 by Dark Horse to translate and then distribute in English due to the immense popularity of Park Chan-wook’s film. Although widely considered to be a comic with a noir-like storyline, the Japanese version of Oldboy differs from the Korean film greatly. While one might say that this is due to simple translative book-to-film issues, I would argue that with this property, it goes deeper.

Historically, Korea became annexed by Japan in 1910, making it part of the Japanese Empire. It remained so until the end of World War II in 1945, when Korea became what it is today, divided into North and South. Those kinds of scars don’t easily heal. One possibility with Oldboy is that Park Chan-wook saw the manga, saw the capacity it had for expansion, and simply lifted it, just wishing to use the narrative elements in an artistic manner. However, there is far too much political content within his film to argue such a thing. While these political elements are indeed gracefully hidden, they are most certainly there, making them seem just as much part of the storyline as anything else. Park Chan-wook’s ability to mask politics with characterization, music, and plot is nothing if not masterful.

When asked about the politics in Oldboy, the director’s response was coy. He said simply, “That is not what I intended. I can understand why people think that, and I have no intention of blocking that line of thinking!”(5) While this response may seem like a denial of having placed political messages within his work, Park Chan-wook’s relaxed attitude towards other’s people’s interpretations and his unwillingness to “get in the way” may tell another story. The heart of Oldboy does lay in a noir-like narrative, but the politics set the stage.

As Dae-Su’s story continues out of his forced isolation, he meets Mi-do, a woman who accompanies him on his journey to try to find the individual(s) who robbed him of his life. His involvement with Mi-do only leads him to more complications, and in the final face-off with the villain he discovers more about things in his past and Mi-do’s past than he ever wanted to know. Dae-Su sacrifices a great deal in order to make sure that Mi-do’s past never has to effect her in the way that his has caught up with him.

In this final scene, we witness Dae-Su, the man who has massacred people wildly and exacted the most horrific torture and revenge, is shown to be down on his knees in front of Lee Woo-Jin, the man who had imprisoned him for 15 years. Is he begging for his life? Not even a little. Dae-Su has shown that he cares nothing for his own existence. His body has pumped almost nothing but pure revenge since being released from that tower. No. Dae-Su is begging for the existence of Mi-do. Within this exchange, Lee Woo-Jin has said the most essential thing of all. Aside from threatening, Mi-do’s life, he said, flat out, “You’re notorious for not protecting your women.”

When Japan conscripted over 5 million Korean men beginning in 1939 for labor and a couple hundred thousand for the war effort, they also decided that they needed some ladies for “comfort.” They established brothels for their military men, and 51.8% of these “comfort women,” as they were known, were Korean. Due to the fact that Korea was under Japanese control, there was nothing that the men could do to stop this from happening. Thus, this became part and parcel of Korean history.

Dae-Su’s relationship with Mi-do is problematic, to say the least. She wants to make him happy, no matter what the cost to her is, even if it is physical pain during sexual intercourse. However, he knows that the emotional pain is on an entirely different registry. He will prevent this at all costs. It is almost as though through by using a Japanese text, Park Chan-wook is attempting to reinscript a new history for Korean women, one without the Japanese annexation and sexual slavery. Within this Oldboy, a film that is rewriting the comic through filmic means, the story is still relentless and painful, but Mi-do maintains dignity even if Dae-Su does not. In his final interaction with the heavy, he plays it so that she will never know her past. She will only know a future. To an extent, this is also a rewriting of Korea, over what Japan had attempted to do.

Dae-su’s final showdown with the man who organized his capture is of great import. It deals with a multiplicity of issues, but more than anything, it deals with matters in and around speech, image and control. The history of Korea isn’t far off from that storyline. While the details aren’t quite the same, both Dae-Su and Korea spent a decent amount of time being locked away, under someone else’s control. Then, upon release, they had to readjust, which still didn’t guarantee a happy life! In fact, in both storylines, there was a reasonable amount of violence, paranoia, and isolation. And at the end of the day, both Dae-su and Korea end up having to be split up into separate entities, with an indeterminate ending; hoping for a good conclusion, but based upon the previous visuals…it’s not lookin’ so hot for anybody at the moment.

While politics provide a solid foundation for Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, it is film noir that adds the ambiance and gives it the flavor. Park Chan-wook is a very meticulous filmmaker, from his casting right down to his costuming. The mood that was set for this film and the darkness of the piece, was not entirely due to the fact that much of it took place in what were supposed to be hidden or underground locations. To begin with, the entirety of the soundtrack was designed to play as much of a character in the film as each actor. Almost every track was named after a film noir. Whether it was In a Lonely Place, Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly or The Big Sleep, each track played a role in rooting the film in a kind of historical background where the protagonist of the film exists in a universe of alienation, solitude and nihilism. Additionally, many (if not all) of these tracks also had a literary background, similar to Oldboy itself. The soundtrack presents Oldboy as a fully formed and musically textured piece that asks you to look beneath the surface.  

Dae-Su, upon waking up in his confinement, begins to narrate the film via voiceover narrative. Now, if one were to take a survey of all the films noir that have voiceover narration…well, let’s just say it would take a long time to name them all. A voiceover is a very tricky thing. As an audience, you become automatically aligned with whomever is speaking to you and telling you the story. It is a fabulous way to curry favor for your main character, and especially if your main character is not so ethically or morally…favorable?

Oldboy does not begin with a voiceover, nor does it maintain as much of a strong presence throughout the film as it does in the beginning. As the film starts, we are simply watching Oh Dae-Su. But he is quite sympathetic. He’s just a drunk family man. Then we are drawn even closer to him through Park Chan-wook’s use of the voiceover after he has been captured and incarcerated. Indeed, it is at this point that some of the most basic notions of film noir become verbally expressed by Oh Dae-su  as he experiences 15 years of pure, unadulterated isolation.

Karen Hollinger notes that unlike other 1940’s genres, where the voice-over narrative is used primarily to “increase audience identification with the main character,” the narrative that is used in film noir is much less heroic. While there is certainly identification going on, the noir voice-over will “most often contain weak powerless narrators who tell a story of their past failures or of their inability to shape the events of their lives to their own design.” (6) While Dae-Su is able to express himself physically and seek out those who caused him harm, the continual voiceover seems to express how powerless he still seems to feel over the 15 years he lost (amidst other plot points). In truth, by the end of the film, the revenge that he has worked so hard to get falls more than a little flat.

Of the concept of revenge, Park Chan-wook said this:

The act of vengeance is a meaningless one. Killing the villain does not bring back the dead. Even the stupidest person knows that. But despite that, people are still captivated by a desire to avenge. And it’s not easy to walk away when the means are provided to “pay back.” [But on top of that,] vengeance requires a tremendous passion and energy. People have to abandon their other everyday activities in order to cling to that purpose only. Why do people want to devote their whole life to this meaningless, fruitless thing? Is this incomprehensible, dark passion the human characteristic, distinguishing us from other animals? (7)

Oldboy, like many films noir, is investigating what it is to be human while living within some kind of existential panic. Oh Dae-su’s solipsistic identity, caused primarily by the machinations of Woo-jin, the evil “puppetmaster,” created a humanity that was so far collapsed that it could only seek the kind of vengeance that Park Chan-wook is talking about. In the end, he truly does attempt to follow the film noir path. As Robert Porfirio writes, “set down in a violent and incoherent world, the film noir hero tries to deal with it in the best way he can, attempting to make some order out of chaos, to make some sense of the world.” (8)

 

(1) Interview w/Bong Joon-Ho, Rue Morgue Magazine #64, Jan./Feb. 2007.

(2) Noir scholars might insist that I refer to this as neo-noir based upon Oldboy‘s 2003 release date and noir’s temporal restrictions, but due to the fact that I see this film as referring to noir in its originating capacity and also due to the fact that it is existing within the confines of another culture and country entirely, I will continue to refer to it as “noir.”

(3) Porfirio, Robert G. “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Vol. 1. Edited by Alain Silver & James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 1998. 77-93.

(4) Sheehan, Henry. “Oldboy.” Film Criticism & Commentary. Accessed 3/9/11. http://henrysheehan.com/reviews/mno/oldboy.html

(5) Interview w/Park Chan-Wook by Neil Young for Neil Young’s Film Lounge-Park Life. Conducted during the Edinburgh Film Festival, 8/22/2004. Accessed 3/10/2011. http://www.jigsawlounge.co.uk/film/reviews/neil-youngs-film-lounge-park-life/

(6) Hollinger, Karen. “Film Noir, Voice Over, and the Female Narrative.” Film Noir Reader. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight, 1998.

(7) Interview w/Park Chan-wook by Carl Davis. “Oldboy Director Disses Vengeance, Looks Toward Upcoming Cyborg-Teen Comedy.” 8/22/2005. Accessed 3/11/2011. http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1508066/oldboy-director-finds-revenge-meaningless-looks-toward-teen-comedy.jhtml

(8) Porfirio, ibid.

transcscript of an interview with Park Chan-Wook, writer-director of
OLDBOY
conducted at the Sheraton Grand Hotel, Lothian Rd, Edinburgh
during the Edinburgh International Film Festival
on Sunday, the 22nd of August, 2004
between 10.00-10.30am

by Neil Young

Wonderwall: The Red Chapel and the Principals of Cultural Exchange

The Red Chapel is not what you would call a typically Korean film. I am using it for my first entry in the Korean Blogathon because I feel like it is far too important to go unnoticed, especially amongst people who have more than a passing interest in Korean Cinema.

The identity of Red Chapel has a semi-permeable membrane. Sometimes identifiable as a Danish picture, sometimes Korean, sometimes an amalgamation of both, this film has nationalism floating in and out of it like rubber toys in a kid’s swimming pool, creating a piece that is, above all, complicated as hell.

Directed by Mads Brugger (a caucasian Dane), and starring Simon Jul Jorgensen and Jacob Nossell (two adopted Korean Danes), this documentary tells the story of how the group of them traipsed into the hermetically sealed, totalitarian dictatorship of North Korea to perform a comedy bit/routine.

“Comedy is the soft spot of all dictatorships,” says Mads’ voiceover during the first 10 minutes of the film, and he is not incorrect. It is common knowledge that Hitler himself owned a copy of Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator, and was said to have loved it, and that was the film that made fun of the man himself! However, as Red Chapel moves forward, it becomes a harder and harder film to watch, and the comedy drains from it.

Reviews called this film a “more intelligent Borat,” and one of my best friends even acknowledged that, essentially, North Korea gets “Punk’d” within these somewhat harrowing 87 minutes. But I have a difficult time with either of these simplifications (even though I realize that my pal’s comment was just an off-hand remark). The reasons for my discomfort have to do with what I feel is a very tenuous situation that evolves within the film between the filmmaker, his actors (friends?), and the North Korean company that they keep/situations that they are in.

Jacob and Simon are young men who have been raised in Denmark virtually all their lives. It seems that they were given up for adoption by South Korean parents when they were extremely young, and have grown up in Denmark. While they are aesthetically Korean, they speak Danish and are, more or less, culturally Danish as well. In addition, Jacob is a self-described “spastic,” making language even more of an issue (even his English is subtitled).  Upon being approached to do this project, one could see how these young men would find it appealing. While North Korea has clearly not been even slightly part of South Korea for 50 years and counting, it is still close enough to these boys’ heritage for them to want to go back and want to investigate, dictatorship or not.

Oh North Korea…what a place! The Red Chapel is an incredibly important film because it goes behind the scenes of North Korea in a way that nothing has in many years. It is also crucially important because it dissects Korean individuals who have been once removed from their home country, and are asked to revisit not only their originating culture but also come to grips with aspects of their history that they didn’t necessarily know that would have to face or want to face.

While Korea was split into North and South in 1945, and the two locations could not be more distinct at this point, the simple fact is that the country used to be one and it is the location that Simon and Jacob both hail from originally. The most fascinating element of the entire film was that, while skewed to “expose the evil of the system” (as Mads’ voiceover states), the most evil was revealed through the smallest and most seemingly insignificant details. While we are told about people starving by the millions and the various tortures and death camps, it was actually Jacob’s total experience and the reappropriation of the comedy show that truly seals the deal.

While discussing all the North Koreans that they have been dealing with throughout the film, Jacob says sadly at one point in the film, “It’s psycho, cuz they’re all really nice to me.” While he’s right, it also made me wonder what his treatment in Denmark was!

The North Korean treatment of Jacob was gut-wrenching. First of all, they wanted to look good in front of the camera. Not only did they want to look good so that they could make their Dear Leader (Kim Jong Il) happy, but they did so in order to make North Korea look less like the totalitarian regime that it is. According to Mads, had he been born in North Korea and not in South Korea, Jacob would’ve been aborted or killed due to his disorders (spastic/cerebral palsy). His “specialized treatment” by their “handler” Mrs. Mak was not only completely unusual but also basically impossible in the Kim Jong Il Reign.

As the film progressed, and we were introduced to the comedy routine that Simon and Jacob were to perform, we were also introduced to what North Korea actually was. It became clear to me that the voiceovers by Brugger that told us of all the Kim Jong Il horrors were almost unnecessary when we saw what became of the show: it was ripped to shreds. The “cultural exchange” that Brugger kept discussing with the North Korean handlers that had been assigned to Simon, Jacob and Brugger became nothing but another form for North Korean propaganda. Big surprise, eh? Not only that, but they managed to marginalize Jacob’s character as well, frustrating the young actor and depressing him even further than he already was.

Mads Brugger commented over some stock footage of North Korean dancers that people in North Korea lost their identity to the totalitarian government of Kim Jong Il, their Dear Leader, and were nothing but pixels. This analogy fit the bill just perfectly. Within the new show, Jacob lost his voice and his agency and Simon became nothing but a robot for political discourse. Pixels, when put together, fit into a picture. This is exactly what the North Koreans were hoping to see happen. There was to be no cultural “exchange” within this particular experience. In a way,  the most disturbing part of the film was that Mads Brugger knew that this would happen and Jacob and Simon did not. Not only were they pixels for the North Koreans, but they were pixels for Brugger’s own political agenda.

At a particularly painful section in the film, Jacob spits out at Mads, “You have no moral scruples, do you Mads?” and, at that point, it is quite clear that he seems not to. There is always the chance that when they get back to Denmark it will be fine and good, all will be explained, and things will be peaceful again, but in a sense the director seems to be as much of a totalitarian as Kim Jong Il, just with Leftist ideals. Jacob spends a good amount of the film in pain, and is the one person who points out that the North Korea situation is not as simple as we think it is.

The beautiful thing about this film is that we are able to view the film through the eyes of two young Korean-Danish boys and one Caucasian Danish adult, and it seems that the outcome is more deftly complicated than when we started. One can argue that a totalitarian government is always wrong, and politically that is 100% correct. But what about the people?

Mads Brugger’s voiceover seems to be intentionally black and white, so as to lay out the “evil vs. good” arguments that many people in the world seem to be obsessed with. What balances it out is Simon and Jacob, the Korean youth, who see that experiences with human beings in a country make any black-and-white argument problematic and place it into a state of grays. North Korea has never been seen in this way due to the political nature of the country, and it is a groundbreaking move.

While it did not take place within the confines of the country itself, there was a cultural exchange that took place within the context of this film and the participants in it. When Jacob and Simon sing Oasis’ Wonderwall with a group of North Korean schoolkids you can see that these two young men have broken free of what they previously were in Denmark and reached a new identity that encapsulated their Korean-“ness” as well as everything that they were before. They regained whatever agency that the North Korean “handlers” had attempted to remove from them and reinstated it within themselves. The two young men that returned to Denmark were not the same men that went to North Korea, and that in and of itself is a big deal.

The Red Chapel is a wonderful film and, while it is alternately disturbing and emotionally wrenching at times, I found it to be highly worthwhile. If you get a chance, please please please put this on your “to see” list.