The Korean Film Festival in Australia (or KOFFIA, the acronym they’ve mercifully given me so that I don’t have to type out “The Korean Film Festival in Australia” too many times. I am not paid by the word, which is clearly why I’m so concise with any tangents and diversions within my pieces, and only stick to the most pertinent of assertations and never crowd the parentheses) has played its second year in Melbourne, and, as I can often be found yelling to people on the train, Korea currently has some of the most exciting filmmaking in the world. On top of the generally excellent pedigree, they’ve also been making what I would say is some of the most innovative and uncompromising crime films since America was doin’ it right back in the ‘70s.
This year’s line-up looked like it may not appeal to my tastes, and those of crime-loving Complex readers, lacking any new films from Korea’s Big Three directors (Oldboy’s Chan-wook Park; The Host’s Joon-ho Bong and I Saw the Devil’s Jee-woon Kim) and not featuring the crimey, noir-goodness of last year’s line-up which included the blood-soaked action of The Man From Nowhere, Secret Reunion (make sure you see this flick – to give it a horrible high-concept pitch that diminishing the film’s huge achievements, it’s basically the Korean Red Heat, but better), Bedevilled, or The Unjust. Indeed, this year’s seemed like it would be sedate by comparison, but I was wrong. And a bit of an arsehole.
While this year’s fare was decidedly moodier, the quality was by no means lower, and there’s a lot there to appeal to the transgressive crime-fans out there.
The King of Pigs is an animated film by writer-director-editor-multi-hyphenate Sang-ho Yeon, which he apparently made independently over the course of many years. The films low budget ($150,000 US) is sometime noticeable, with some scenes not integrating computer-animated rendering effectively and a sloppy job with the English subtitles, but these are small complaints when watching what is undoubtedly the work of someone with an extremely strong and frequently brilliant vision.
The King of Pigs follows Kyung-Min, who, having murdered his wife after going bankrupt, reunites with childhood friend Jong-Suk, and the two discuss their difficult school days. The film is pessimistic to a soul-rending degree, as the social hierarchy of Korean schools unfolds on the screen. Kyung-Min and Jong-Suk belong to the lower stratum in the school, the Pigs, who are lorded over by the Dogs – those of the rich families, who are good students and good athletes. The Dogs seem to have rule over the school, running the place as almost a shadow government, administering regular beatings and sexual humiliations on the Pigs.
Then they meet Chul, a hugely disturbed child (like everyone in this film) who fights back against the Dogs and beats the shit out of them. The three Pigs befriend one another, and Chul attempts to guide them to become monsters to survive, to become “the evil.” Part-Lord of the Flies, part-Haneke, and pushing that line toward becoming a horror film, with its disturbing imagery (after trying to toughen themselves up by stabbing a cat to death over several agonising minutes of film-time, Jong-Suk is haunted by visions of the cat, which has become a gore-soaked version of the Cheshire cat, that follows him, laughing and reminding him that nothing he ever does matters, that his life is meaningless) and absolute bleakness of tone.
The children exist in a world of decay – buildings, streets, society and relationships crumble around them, while the sins and failures of those in authority destroys the next generation. The boys hang out in abandoned buildings, breaking whatever they want, killing animals, huffing solvents and gripping to hope – not of change, but of revenge.
Once the boys start contemplating suicides and murders, it feels less shocking than it does inevitable. The crime elements of the film are the darkest noir, and not for the squeamish. If I had one criticism of the film (budget considerations like subtitling aside) it would be the lack of variance in the tone – it is so unrelentingly grim that there is no lightness to allow that bleakness to really have its full effect. However, this film is such a singular and powerful vision, it’s hard to even fault that, and watching The King of Pigs, you know you’re seeing something very special, and very important, even though it’s hard to get through.
If there was a unifying theme across the films shown at KOFFIA, it would be that of teen alienation. Bleak Night, a noir-ish, low-key high school drama that plays like an odd, ethereal detective flick, is a great companion piece to The King of Pigs, and it’s also the best film of KOFFIA this year, as well as possibly my favourite film of the year.
It’s that good. See this by any and all means necessary. This is a film that should be written about by people smarter than me for years to come.
Bleak Night follows the father of high-schooler, Ki-tae, after Ki-tae’s death, as he tries to find out what happened, and the reasons for his son’s apparent suicide. The film was written and directed by Sung-Hyun Yoon, and this was his student film. That fact alone is just mind-blowing. The writing in this film is so fucking sharp, and the direction is flawless. Yoon is able to coax some of the most naturalistic performances I’ve ever seen on screen, and the chemistry between all of the leads is just electric. There is nothing contrived in this film; it just feels real. If it wasn’t for the fact that you will be stopped every few minutes to marvel at something beautiful in the film, you would simply forget you were watching a movie at all.
The film jumps back and forth in time in a subtle, slow way, that took me a little while to catch on to, but worked, as everything is just so fluid. Sometimes the film even jumps in time during scenes, inferring relationships and parallels between the past and future, and the lingering effect of even the smallest actions by characters.
Ki-tae (played by the marvellous Je-hoon Lee, whom I’ve decided is one of my favourite actors between being in this, and another KOFFIA highlight, The Front Line – which I’ll cover in my next write-up. This guy is basically the Korean Tom Hardy, to use another awful high-concept explanation) is a troubled, angry young man, stuck in that awkward phase of adolescence where it feels there are no adults and the world is fraught with danger from all directions. Ki-tae manages to alienate his friends, as he deals with his anger by lashing out and becoming the alpha male of the school (the King of the Dogs, to borrow the parlance of The King of Pigs). We move in and out of times when Ki-tae was tight with his friends Becky and Dong-yoon, to Becky not speaking with Ki-tae and Dong-yoon fighting his former best friend. We see Ki-tae brutally beating Becky, teasing him and bullying him horribly. The narrative has no conventional structure, and slowly parses out information, letting us see events from each character’s perspective. So, while we hate Ki-tae at first, we learn how vulnerable he is and the reasons for his actions. While we love Dong-yoon first, as the peace-keeper and most well-rounded of the group, we later see the horrid consequences of his wrath, and sweet, meek Becky, whom we immediately sympathise with, gradually loses some of that sympathy, as we watch as he only looks out for himself.
All the characters in Bleak Night are beautifully drawn – even throw-away toadies like Jae-ho contain surprising depths – and it makes you ache watching it.
The closest thing the film has to a through-line is Ki-tae’s father reaching out to his son’s old school friends and understanding him better than he did in life. On first glance, aside from the petty crimes commited by the children, this mightn’t seem like a straight-up crime flick, but, as I say, it really is like a detective film, and the horrid power of adolescence is suited to a muted noir-tone – the whole film, and all the characters, are tinged with doom. Much like The King of Pigs, this too is a film filled with decay. We rarely glimpse the horizon, and the characters are all boxed in their claustrophobic and paranoid existences.
Once we glean Ki-tae’s homosexual feelings toward Becky, it all becomes more and more clear where a lot of Ki-tae’s frustrations come from, and why he lashes out at the boy for whom he can’t express his love. As mentioned, Je-hoon Lee nails absolutely everything in this film, and delivers a dangerous charisma bomb of a performance. Pity Ki-tae – everyday is like the apocalypse to him. Bleak Night is a gorgeously subtle film, with nothing ever stated outright, but more hinted at and implied. But it deserves every superlative that can be thrown at it, and is the must-see film of the year.
We’ll check in with a few other crime-tinged festival highlights next time, while I contemplate the existential angst that has been wrought upon me by these incredible, but also incredibly sad films.
So, please excuse me while I go and be drunk forever as I gaze up and realise that our world is a horrid, uncaring place. Thanks, KOFFIA.