Now in its 15th year, the Korean Film Festival is something area moviegoers look forward to every year—thanks to South Korea’s vibrant national cinema. Recent years have run the gamut from the 2016 zombie thriller Train to Busan to the talky arthouse dramas of prolific director Hong Sang-soo. While this year’s programming emphasizes films directed by women, Hong seems to cast a shadow over much of the series, with two from the director himself and one (Hit the Night) that’s a direct response to his why-don’t-we-get-drunk-and-talk M.O. This is a case study in how to program a festival: with titles that capture thematic breadth and resonate with each other in a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Little ForestDirected by Yim Soon-rye
This modest drama from director Yim Soon-rye (Waikiki Brothers) finds actress Kim Tae-ri a long way from the bodice-ripping The Handmaiden. Kim plays Hye-won, who leaves busy Seoul for the rural village where she grew up. The young woman comes to terms with the disappearance of her mother (Moon So-ri) by learning to cook the dishes she made for her. The film’s simple metaphor equates food with family, and with the patience needed to allow for flavors to develop. Yet this basic setup pays off as one of the most endearing films in the festival, and is one of a number of films in the program that addresses the tension between traditional and modern values—a conflict that finds a wonderful synthesis in the film’s enchanting electronic score. Yim’s opening film establishes a contemplative tone for the festival, and is the first of three appearances by series MVP Moon, who visits the Freer Gallery of Art on June 7 with her directorial debut.
Screens Friday, May 10 at 7 p.m. at the Freer Gallery of Art and Tuesday, June 4 at 7:15 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.
GrassDirected by Hong Sang-soo
Director Hong Sang-soo has been cranking out an average of two movies a year for more than a decade, and many of his recent films play like a self-examination spurred by a scandalous affair with leading actress Kim Min-hee (The Handmaiden), more than 20 years his junior. But what may seem like mere repetition and navel-gazing (usually including a fictional, unfaithful film director) has been a consistent source of fascinating drama, and the more of the director’s films you see, the more powerful their cumulative effect. Grass, one of two films he released in 2018, begins like much of his work, with a man and woman speaking in a café. But, in one of Hong’s typical narrative twists, the couple’s conversation seems to be the invention of an aspiring writer (Kim) who’s set up shop at the café. With modest means and a stable of regular actors, the director has turned public confession into a fascinating cottage industry, and even though most of this film takes place in a single setting, it packs a potent drama. (There’s even a post-credits stinger.)
Screens Sunday, May 12 at 1:30 p.m. at the Freer Gallery of Art and Monday, June 24 at 7:15 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.
Hotel by the RiverDirected by Hong Sang-soo
With a more varied setting (its characters don’t just talk at the same café), Hong Sang-soo’s second film of 2018 is something of a departure. Sure, figures talk about betrayal and filmmaking, and of course Kim Min-hee stars. But the interlocking human dramas play out at a riverside resort in the middle of a snowy winter. Ki Joo-Bong stars as an aging poet struggling to reconnect with his two estranged sons. Kim stars as a woman trying to forget a bad breakup and hiding out at the resort with a female friend. The name of the hotel is key: Heimat, meaning home, which is what Hong’s characters have difficulty finding. The film is bleaker than usual for the director; not only do the men have trouble relating to women, but they can barely even talk to each other. Still, there’s room for some self-deprecating comedy as Hong lets his characters talk back to him: speaking of an unnamed filmmaker, a woman declares, “He’s hardly a real auteur. He’s just very diligent.”
Screens Sunday, May 12 at 3:30 p.m. at the Freer Gallery of Art, Monday, June 24 at 8:45 p.m., and Tuesday, June 25, at 7:15 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.
BurningDirected by Lee Chang-dong
Director Lee Chang-dong’s smoldering 2018 drama was one of the most acclaimed Korean films in years, and while you should have seen it during its brief commercial run, the Freer brings it back for the festival, and it’s useful to see in the context of Hong Sang-soo’s alienated figures. Adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, Burning stars Korean soap opera regular Yoo Ah-In as a young writer whose affair with an old classmate (Jeon Jong-seo) is broken up by a rich and mysterious stranger (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yuen). Lee expands on a skeletal framework to make a two-and-a-half hour epic of modern loneliness and frustration.
Screens Saturday, May 18 at 2 pm at the Freer Gallery of Art.
Hit the NightDirected by Jeong Ga-young
In this conversational comedy-drama, a film director has long and frank sexual conversations with a potential performer. But, turning the tables on Hong Sang-soo, director Jeong Ga-young stars as the creative force. Jeong sets a confrontational tone immediately, almost as if she’s angry with Hong, and the title of her 2016 film Bitch on the Beach was likewise a direct rebuke to his On the Beach at Night Alone. While Hong begins his films with fairly banal dialogue, Jeong abruptly asks her prospective young actor (K-drama hunk Park Jong-hwan) about his masturbation habits. Its power more reactionary than dramatic, Hit the Night is a scathing parody, but as a self-contained feature, it’s less satisfying.
Screens Friday, May 31 at 7 p.m. at the Freer Gallery of Art and Thursday, June 13 at 7:15 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.
The Running ActressDirected by Moon So-ri
Moon So-ri stars as herself in her feature debut as a director, a semi-fictional portrait that depicts the struggles of a 40-something actress. The film’s three segments looks at different aspects of her creative life. Naturally, ageism and sexism has made it harder for her to get substantial roles. (Amusingly, one part pitched to her, as the mother of a college-aged daughter, seems to refer to Little Forest, which opens the festival.) The film’s lighthearted score works against the film’s serious issues, and that may be one of the things that Moon runs away from in a framing device that ties together the segments with the actress sprinting down the road in frustration. But a final segment, set at a director’s funeral, stops that running with a bittersweet drama.
Screens Friday, June 7 at 7 p.m. at the Freer Gallery of Art.
Fabricated CityDirected by Park Kwang-hyun
Korean cinema isn’t all arthouse drama. The industry produces action movies whose pacing and visual flair can put American thrillers to shame. This 2017 crime drama taps a potent conspiracy theory: what if evil government forces are using technology to control their citizens? K-Drama regular Ji Chang-Wook stars as Kwan Yoo, a down-on-his luck athlete who walked away from sports to get lost in violent video games. But joysticks aren’t the problem. This cautionary tale of 21st century technology turns Kafkaesque when Kwan Yoo, who we know is a good kid, is framed for murder. Director Park Kwang-Hyun cut his teeth on TV commercials, but in only his second feature, he demonstrates a gift for brutal melodrama, emotionally investing you in characters only to break your heart (prepare to have your heart torn out a few times), and placing his doomed yet resilient characters in hyperkinetic set pieces that make you wish every weekend at the movies could be like this.
Screens Thursday, June 13 at 6:30 p.m. and Thursday, June 27 at 6:30 p.m. at the Korean Cultural Center.