Special Focus: Korean Noir, Illuminating the Dark Side of Society
1964. Directed by Lee Man-hee , starring Moon Jung-suk, Jang Dong-hwi, Cert 18 , 105 mins.
Yeon-shil is the loyal mistress of gang boss Dong-il. In trying to hide her shame – the fact that she had been raped by a violent drug addict – she only compounds her plight. One of Dong-il’s men shows him a compromising photo of her being again attacked by the man who was blackmailing her. Her punishment is to have a broken bottle slashed across her face. Disfigured and abandoned, Yeon-shil lives with her assailant and sells herself on the streets. A swirl of black hair pulled across her once lovely face struggles to mask the emblem of a shame she never deserved.
A world where it is always night-time, grim men roam dark underpasses and tunnels with violence in mind, and a gang boss broods in a grimy basement storeroom; the Seoul of Lee Man-hee’s noir masterpiece seems partly realistic yet, despite its melodramatic touches, a weirdly abstract subterranean nightmare.
Regent Street Cinema, 05 Nov 17 12:00 pm
1980. Directed by Lee Doo-yong , starring Hah Myung-joong, Jung Yoon-hee, Choi Bool-am, Cert 18 , 158 mins.
Detective Oh Byeong-ho goes searching for the murderer of Yang Dal-su. Someone has bludgeoned small-time brewer Yang to death by a quiet riverside: no witnesses, no apparent motive. As lone-wolf Oh wanders about the winter landscape of South Jeolla Province and Seoul, he finds himself caught in a story of treachery, rape and murder. It all goes back to Yang’s role as leader of an anti-Communist militia that hunted down a desperate band of northern guerrillas in the final days of the Korean War.
Based on a crime novel by Kim Seong-jong, the film tries to pack nearly all of the book into its extended running time. Dramatic camera angles and off-kilter framing added to the rapid cutting style generate considerable energy. This style also creates a kind of perceptual anxiety which seems to reflect the growing emotional turmoil of our guide into the labyrinth, detective Oh.
Regent Street Cinema, 04 Nov 17 2:00 pm
1994. Directed by Jang Hyun-soo , starring Park Joong-hoon, Lee Gyoung-young, Oh Yeon-soo, Cert 18 , 109 mins.
From its big-synth opening chords you know you’re in for a bit of an early 90s treat, whether it’s the conman with a Filofax or sleazy shots of fishnet tights. In this world of boxy suits and hair scrunchies, a small-town thug travels to Seoul with the intention of joining the most violent and feared of the mobster gangs. As he struts the streets winding everyone up with absurd braggadocio, there is violence but it reads as stagey and camp, and indeed the main pleasure of this film is its absurdity and period charm – especially when you realise that the reference points are 1930s Hollywood meshed with 1980s TV. Lead actor Park Joong-hoon is something of a national treasure in South Korea and has been tipped for a starring role in the forthcoming season of local TV hit Bad Guys.
KCCUK, 30 Oct 17 7:00 pm
1997. Directed by Lee Chang-dong , starring Han Suk-kyu, Shim Hye-jin, Cert 18 , 114 mins.
In 1997 Lee Chang-dong wrote and directed Green Fish. At the time, it was simply the debut film of an established novelist, but we now know that it also heralded the arrival of a very significant film-maker. Han Suk-kyu is 26 year-old Makdong, a young man discharged from the military, who, rootless and unsure, becomes involved in the grubby life of a Seoul gangster. The nearest thing the director ever did to a genre film, Lee’s rare and sophisticated sensibility is already in evidence, as is his ability to find a striking image, deploy a fluid use of camera, and, most of all, get the best performances possible out of his actors. There are many who regard Lee as South Korea’s greatest living director, and since this is a relatively rare screening in the UK, you should run, not walk, to see it.
Regent Street Cinema, 06 Nov 17 9:10 pm
2017. Directed by Lee Myung-se , starring Park Joong-hoon, Ahn Sung-ki, Jang Dong-gun, Cert 12A , 112 mins.
A detective investigates the murder of a drug boss in this highly stylised violent actioner that saw director Lee Myung-Se, in America at least, marketed as Seoul’s answer to Hong Kong’s John Woo. It has been cited as an influence on The Matrix. This is the period in South Korean cinema where directors were gleefully using every trick in the technical playbook - and what the film lacks in narrative cohesion it more than makes up for in extravagant style. After this genre masterwork Lee spent four years in America unsuccessfully trying to put together an English-language debut. It never happened, and his career never quite recovered. Taking place over 72 days often in the pouring rain, this is a police procedural with an all-too familiar cop duo, taking a prime Western slab of noir and slathering it with gochujang.
Regent Street Cinema, 04 Nov 17 8:30 pm
2000. Directed by Oh Seung-uk , starring Park Sin-yang, Ahn Sung-ki, Cert 18 , 108 mins.
Released in 2000 when many renowned Korean directors such as Park Chan-wook and Ryoo Seung-wan began to make their mark, Oh Seung-uk’s Kilimanjaro remains a little-seen but highly accomplished feature debut, made fourteen years before his second and most recent film The Shameless. Set in the seaside town of Jumunjin on Korea’s East coast, it stars Park Shin-yang both as the detective Hae-shik, and as his identical twin brother, the gangster Hae-chul. Suspended for not properly investigating the killing of Hae-chul’s wife and child, Hae-shik returns to his hometown with the ashes of his brother. There, mistaken for the late Hae-chul, he is sought after by a local gang. Also starring veteran actor Ahn Sung-ki, Oh’s noir feature is an engrossing tale about the perpetual nature of violence.
Regent Street Cinema, 04 Nov 17 5:30 pm
2000. Directed by Ryoo Seung-wan , starring Ryoo Seung-wan, Park Sung-bin, Ryoo Seung-bum, Cert 18 , 96 mins.
Action-maestro Ryoo Seung-wan launched onto the Korean cinema scene in 2000 with this sensational debut that was made on a budget of just 65 million won (£45,000) over a period of three years as four short films that were then woven together. In these four different parts, the film follows how the lives of two young men - Suk-hwan (played by Ryoo) and Sung-bin (Park Sung-bin) - change when Sung-bin accidentally kills another student in a brawl in a billiard room. Sung-bin spends seven years in jail, and is then sucked into the criminal underworld, while Suk-whan becomes a cop. Bristling with energy and full of Ryoo’s kinetic flare, Die Bad is a gritty but immensely gripping film about the challenges faced by youth and the deadly spiral many find themselves in.
Regent Street Cinema, 03 Nov 17 8:50 pm
2006. Directed by Kim Jee-woon , starring Lee Byung-hun, Kim Young-cheol, Shin Min-a, Cert 18 , 120 mins.
"You can do 100 things right, but one mistake can destroy everything."
These words of gangster kingpin Kang (Kim Yeong-cheol) to his obedient enforcer Kim Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) are imaginatively played out in Kim Jee-woon's follow-up to A Tale of Two Sisters (2003). Part aesthete, part thug, Sun-woo likes to drink bitter espresso, but sweetens it with a sugar cube. When he uncharacteristically falls in love with his boss' young girlfriend (Shin Min-a), his immaculately measured life comes apart at the seams, and a self emerges that is driven more by emotions. Ensuing scenes of messy rebirth and ultra-violent destruction serve to dramatise Sun-woo's inner conflict as much as internecine gangland struggles. This makes A Bittersweet Life a genre film that is as cerebral, psychological, even spiritual as it is viscerally thrilling, with untold depths reflected in the brilliant sheen of its surfaces.
KCCUK, 31 Oct 17 7:00 pm
2006. Directed by Yoo Ha , starring Zo In-sung, Lee Bo-young, Nam Koong-min, Cert 18 , 141 mins.
A fictional South Korean filmmaker taps the illicit life of a childhood friend for a successful gangster movie, and faces the consequences. The story of a low-level debt-collector who, faced with lack of funds and a sick mother, opportunistically murders his way up the greasy pole, the lead is played by Zo In-seong, one of Korea’s leading actors, who brings real conviction to the role. Both domestically fraught and the epically blazing in equal measure, it covers ground from land-development corruption to the protagonist’s fragile courtship of a girl who works in a bookshop and hates his gangster lifestyle. Running long at 141 minutes, this is ultimately the story of a desperate man trying and failing to understand himself. Like the karaoke that dots the narrative, he is always singing someone else’s song.
Regent Street Cinema, 07 Nov 17 6:30 pm
2013. Directed by Park Hoon-jung , starring Lee Jung-jae, Choi Min-sik, Hwang Jung-min, Cert 18 , 134 mins.
The second directorial feature from Park Hoon-jung, the screenwriter behind The Unjust and I Saw the Devil, New World is a noirish gangster epic in which undercover cops and shady policemen plot from the shadows to gain control of Korea’s biggest crime syndicate, Goldmoon, when its CEO is killed in a suspicious car accident. With a succession crisis mounting, police chief Kang (Choi Min-sik) launches “Operation New World” in which he hopes to manoeuvre his long-term undercover agent, Lee Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae), into the top spot by taking out the two main factions led by flashy gangster Jung Chang (Hwang Jun-min) and the unscrupulous Lee Joong-gu (Park Sung-woong). In this world of habitual double crossing and confused identities, no one can be trusted and the only certainty is betrayal.
Picturehouse Central, 29 Oct 17 8:45 pm
2017. Directed by Han Jun-hee , starring Kim Hye-soo, Kim Ko-eun, Cert 18 , 110 mins.
In this Incheon-based, super-saturated female crime melodrama from first time director Han Jun-Hee, veteran South Korean star Kim Hye-soo plays the psychotic crime-boss known as ‘Mom’ whose unsavoury trade includes organ-trafficking and loan-sharking. Former street kid Kim Ko-eun plays the tomboy protégée Il-young who suddenly turns soft and can’t bring herself to kill a trainee chef as commanded - much to Mom’s cold fury. With its violent and melancholic disposition, as well as the twists and turns of its themes of stolen childhood, traded bodies and soul-destroying vengeance Coin Locker Girl eschews Hollywood redemption themes for a determinedly unresolved conclusion. By the end we’ve been on quite the ride, which begins and more or less concludes in the station transit locker where Il-young was first found as an abandoned baby.
Phoenix, 05 Nov 17 3:00 pm
2017. Directed by Byun Sung-hyun , starring Sul Kyung-gu, Yim Si-wan, Cert 18 , 120 mins.
Opening with a conversation about food followed by sudden, murderous violence, and fracturing its chronology into separate timelines, this latest feature from Byun Sung-hyun owes a certain debt to Quentin Tarantino, but is also a moody neo-noir, all existential musings, rain-swept treachery and savagery just out of shot.
Whether inside prison or out, ruthless gangster Jae-ho (Sul Kyung-gu) and his new young protégé Hyun-su (Yim Si-wan) struggle to trust each other in a world of endless double-dealing and betrayal. "The events that unfold in your life usually come from behind," Jae-ho tells Hyun-su, "never from the front." These words certainly capture something of this character's constant guardedness - but they also slyly help convey the homoerotic subtext of a film that ends up being as much tragic love story as twisty thriller.
Regent Street Cinema, 03 Nov 17 6:30 pm
1993. Directed by Kim Sung-soo , starring Kim Gi-ho, Lee Du-il, An Eun-mi, Cert 18 , 19 mins.
This mostly dimly lit short captures Kim Sung-soo’s masterful grasp of lighting that is predominantly set in a labyrinth of dark alleys. Do-cheol (Kim Gi-ho) who has been caring for his sick wife witnesses a murder in a neighbouring alley through a hospital window. He is seen by the killer and a chase ensues taking him through a maze of back streets, but the disorientating experience ultimately puts him back in the place where the first crime was committed, only this time he is no longer just a witness. With touches of wit and dark humour, one is never sure what lies around the corner. The film’s brisk pace keeps the adrenaline pumping for the nineteen-minute duration sharing much in common with Park Hong-min’s feature Alone, also set in Seoul’s urban jungle.
Birkbeck Cinema, 28 Oct 17 6:00 pm