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BURNING and THE SPY GONE NORTH Lead Strong Year for Korea at Cannes

May 23, 2018
  • Writerby Pierce Conran
  • View2497
Healthy Korean Sales during Marché du Film 

Korean cinema was back on the Croisette this month at Cannes Film Festival kicked off in May with a pair of new Korean works in the official selection, in addition to a short film presented in the Critics’ Week lineup. The last few years have been particularly notable for films from the peninsula, but 2018 looked especially promising with the return of Korean master LEE Chang-dong, who premiered his latest work BURNING in competition, his first film in eight years and third to feature in the Cannes competition.

Joining LEE in the official selection was YOON Jong-bin’s period espionage drama The Spy Gone North, which was presented out of competition in ‘Midnight Screenings’ 12 years after YOON last participated in Cannes, in the Un Certain Regard section with his debut The Unforgiven (2005). Meanwhile, KIM Cheol-hwi’s Exemplary Citizen was featured in the Short Films section of the Critics’ Week sidebar. Showcasing the global talents of Korea’s acting field, two Korean performers also featured in the casts of foreign films screened in Cannes’ main slate: YOO Teo starred in the competition title Leto (aka Summer), in which he played the Russian rocker Viktor Tsoi, while YOO Ji-tae had a small role in Lars Von Trier’s controversial new title The House that Jack Built, screening out of competition.

Featuring YOO Ah-in (Veteran, 2015), Steven YEUN (Okja, 2017) and newcomer JUN Jong-seo, BURNING is an adaptation of MURAKAMI Haruki’s short story ‘Barn Burning’, originally published in 1983. YOO plays a poor aspiring novelist who develops a romantic attachment for a former acquaintance (JUN) who suddenly leaves for Africa. She returns with a new suitor (YEUN), a rich Seoulite who later confesses to the writer that he has a secret hobby of burning greenhouses. 

Screening for the first time on the evening on Wednesday, May 16, BURNING immediately met with an ecstatic response with raves quickly appearing on Twitter and then across a number of reviews over the next day. ScreenDaily reported that the film had broken the record on their annual Cannes Jury Grid, where it scored a 3.8 mark out of a possible 4, unseating former record-holder Toni Erdmann from 2016.

BURNING was the only Korean film in competition this spring and while last year’s two titles (BONG Joon-ho’s Okja and Hong Sangsoo’s The Day After (2017)) were considered to have little chance of securing a major prize, LEE had already featured in competition with two films (Secret Sunshine in 2007 and Poetry in 2010) and both of those left the Croisette with prizes (Best Actress for JEON Do-yeon for the former and Best Screenplay for Poetry).

Alas, to the surprise of many, LEE’s latest was completely shut out of the main jury’s awards, which gave the Palme d’or to Shoplifters by KOREEDA Hirokazu, another Cannes regular. However, BURNING did not leave Cannes empty-handed as it won both the FIPRESCI Prize from the International Federation of Film Critics and the Vulcan Award for the Technical Artist, which went to Art Director SHIN Jeom-hee, awarded by the Superior Technical Commission of Image and Sound (CST).

Featuring superstar HWANG Jung-min (Ode to My Father, 2014), LEE Sung-min (The Sheriff in Town, 2017), CHO Jin-woong (A Hard Day, 2014) and JU Ji-hoon (Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds, 2017), The Spy Gone North takes place over a few years during the late 1990s and follows the real story of ‘Black Venus’, codename for a South Korean operative who posed as a South Korean businessman seeking to engage in an advertisement with North Korea, but whose real mission was to gain intelligence on the hermit kingdom’s nuclear ambitions.

Screening for the first time at 11 pm on Friday, May 11, The Spy Gone North drew praise from several quarters as an old-school thriller that ditches guns for backdoor scheming and for its intricate production values and empathetic performances. It was deemed a timely film in light of recent political developments between the governments of North and South Korea.

While directors and stars graced the red steps of the Lumière Theatre, thousands of film industry professionals congregated a few steps away in the same building, the Palais des Festivals during this year’ Marché du Film. Several Korean companies were dotted around the Riviera side of the Palais, among them the booths of Finecut, CONTENTS PANDA, CJ Entertainment, Showbox, Lotte Entertainment, M-Line Distribution and Mirovision.

Representing BURNING, Finecut had a busy market, which included sales for its competition title as well as several deals for other titles, notably their upcoming period creature feature Monstrum, which sold to a number of global markets, including most English-language territories which went to AMC Networks-Shudder. BURNING has so far been sold to eight territories, among them France and China. The company staged market screenings for Monstrum and the animation Red Shoes & The 7 Dwarfs

CONTENTS PANDA, whose booth was right across from Finecut’s on the market floor, was also highly visible in the market. Among their most important titles were The Great Battle, a period siege drama from KIM Kwang-sik (Tabloid Truth, 2014) starring ZO In-sung (The King, 2017) as a general defending a small Korean battalion against an enormous invading army in the 7th century AD. CONTENTS PANDA’s booth featured a mannequin wearing a costume from the film, which had promotional screening luncheons in Cannes featuring exclusive footage. The company also had full market screenings of LEE Hae-young’s Believer, a remake of Johnny TO’s Drug War which was released domestically on May 22, MIN Kyu-dong’s comfort woman drama Herstory, CHO Kyu-jang’s thriller The Witness, and the animated title Underdog.

Behind The Spy Gone North was Korean major CJ Entertainment, boasting its fourth official selection in Cannes in as many years, which brought a slate of blockbuster titles. The sales outfit presented their comedy sleuth duo sequel The Accidental Detective 2: In Action, hostage taking drama The Negotiation and the North Korea-themed action-drama Take Point.

M-Line Distribution announced sales for its youth drama Little Forest from director YIM Soon-rye (Forever the Moment, 2008) and also presented new pickups such as the period drama Feng Shui with CHO Seung-woo (Inside Men, 2015), the third entry in a series of Joseon Era dramas that began with 2013’s The Face Reader, and the horror comedy The Odd Family: Zombie On Sale with JUNG Jae-young (Castaway on the Moon, 2009).

Mirovision also announced a slew of sales on titles such as the fantasy-drama Colors of Wind from My Sassy Girl (2001) director KWAK Jae-yong, the supernatural thriller Sooni: The Executioner’s Daughter, the revenge drama BROTHERS IN HEAVEN and Mermaid Unlimited (2017), latest work from Jiseul (2013) director O Muel.

Providing a buttress for all the Korean films in the lineup, companies in the market and the representatives of Korea’s film festivals was the Korean Film Council (KOFIC, Chairman - OH Seok Geun), which manned a pavilion on the beach by the Riviera side of the Palais des festivals dubbed the ‘Korean Film Center’. KOFIC also hosted a ‘Korean Film Night’ celebration on Sunday, May 13 at the Vegaluna Lounge on the Croisette. Featuring over 600 attendees, the event featured memorials for KIM Ji-seok, the Co-Founder and Deputy Director of the Busan International Film Festival who passed away last year during Cannes, as well as influential French film publicist Pierre Rissient, who died prior to this year’s edition.
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