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Ko - production in Busan
  • Action Films and Women Directors Out in Front as Korean Talent Returns to Udine
  • by Pierce Conran /  May 03, 2022


    During the initial onset of the pandemic in 2020, the Udine Far East Film Festival (FEFF) was one of the first major global meeting points for Asian filmmakers to be impacted. This year, FEFF returned to full strength with a lineup of major titles from across Asia, physical screenings and a long list of international guests for its 24th edition in Northeastern Italy. 


    For most of the Korean guests in attendance, this year’s FEFF was their first time attending an international event since the start of the pandemic. For some of them, including Kim Sein and Lee Jaewon, directors of the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA) graduation projects The Apartment with Two Women (2021) and Thunderbird, it was their first-ever international invite.


    And what an invite it is. Traveling to FEFF generally means flying into Venice about an hour south of Udine (where the concurrently held Venice Biennale offered an attractive post-festival pitstop for some guests). A small medieval town nestled within the Friuli Venezia Giulia region, Udine comes alive during the festival’s spring dates, with cafes flowing out onto the town’s piazzas as locals and the odd tourist take a quick stop for an espresso or a cappuccino (but never afternoon - the dairy is believed to upset digestion after lunch) or cooling off with an Aperol Spritz, the distinctive orange cocktail served in a wine glass.


    Beyond taking place in an idyllic town dotted with castles, cathedrals and canals, FEFF is also world-famous for its hospitality, with guests given the star treatment from artistic director Sabrina Baracetti, coordinator Thomas Bertacche and their devoted staff, which includes lunches and dinners provided at many of the town’s top eateries. Local specialties typically indulged in during any Udine trip include the buttery soft Prosciutto di San Daniele, tangy Montasio cheese and savoury pancake-like frico. Meals are washed down with crisp glasses of Prosecco and a range of delectable local wines. 


    But FEFF is really about the films and that’s where the festival truly shines. The festival hub is the landmark Teatro Nuovo “Giovanni da Udine”, a modern opera house seating 1,200 over several concourses for one of the most grand yet at the same time intimate festival screening experiences on the planet. A couple of screenings each day also take place in the old town at the Visionario theater.


    While everything screening at the festival is welcomed by a curious and receptive audience, in the end, only a few films can walk away with one of the fest’s main prizes. FEFF has one award handed out by a jury, the White Mulberry Award for First Time Director, but the most important trophy in Udine has always been its Audience Awards, open to all films, which are voted on every year by the festival’s loyal and hungry viewers.


    Miracle: Letters to the President (2021) 


    Korean films have proven particularly popular with local audiences over the years and 2022 was no different, with attendees crowning Lee Janghoon’s Miracle: Letters to the President (2021) with the year’s first-ranked Mulberry Audience Award (with a dazzling score of 4.48 out of 5), extending the Korean winners streak at Udine to 11 out of the festival’s 24 editions to date.


    Prior Korean winners have run across a variety of genres, from Kim Jeewoon’s irreverent wrestling comedy The Foul King (2000), Lee Haejun’s quirky urban Robinson Crusoe fable Castaway on the Moon (2009) and Lee Wonsuk’s outrageous romantic comedy How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (2013), to more serious fare such as Hwang Donghyuk’s child abuse drama Silenced (2011) and Jang Joonhwan’s searing political tale 1987: When the Day Comes (2017).


    This year gave Lee Janghoon his second invitation to FEFF after first visiting in 2018 with his debut fantasy romance Be With You. Lee’s emotional sophomore drama Miracle: Letters to the President, about a young maths prodigy who overcomes tragedy and strives to convince the powers that be to connect his small village to the railway system, was an immediate sensation in Udine. Not a dry eye was seen in the house during the film’s strongly received screening in Udine, which had audiences buzzing early in the festival.


    Kingmaker (2021) 


    The other Korean award winner at this year’s FEFF was Byun Sunghyun’s political drama Kingmaker, which picked up the Purple Mulberry Award (MYmovies Award). Sul Kyunggu and Lee Sunkyun headline this gripping election tale as an idealistic provincial politician and the campaign strategist that works behind him in the shadows. Based on the real early election campaigns of future Korean president Kim Daejung, the film chronicles a friendship fraught by ideological conflicts through exquisite period details and powerful visual compositions.


    FEFF’s lineup featured several films by women filmmakers this year, who were brought together for a ‘Korean Female Directors’ panel, moderated by Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival programmer June Kim, and featuring directors Cho Eunji (Perhaps Love, 2021), Kim Sein (The Apartment with Two Women) and Oh Seyeon (Fanatic, 2021). 


    Cho Eunji, a veteran actress known for her roles in Im Sangsoo’s Tears (2000) and The President’s Last Bang (2005), among many others, was welcomed to an international event for the first time as a director with her enchanting and mature romantic comedy-drama debut Perhaps Love. Ryu Seungryong plays a novelist struggling with writer’s block who is unaware that his ex-wife has embarked on an affair with his agent. Cho wanted to highlight the experiences of relationships between people who are out of the ordinary.


    Kim’s The Apartment with Two Woman debuted to massive acclaim at the Busan International Film Festival last October, where it won five awards, the most ever of any Busan premiere. The film follows the magnetic dysfunctional relationship between a scatty mother and her adult daughter.


    Also screened at the Busan International Film Festival, Fanatic is a personal documentary about director Oh’s own experiences as a fan who is forced to grapple with the implication of her idol’s tainted image when he is arrested for rape.


    Confession (2021) 


    Another documentary screening this year was Kim Jinyeoul’s Kim Jongboon of Wangshimni (2021), which chronicles the life of a woman who has maintained the same snack stall in Central Seoul for 50 years while paying tribute to her deceased civil rights activist daughter.


    This year’s Korean contingent in Udine featured a significant number of action films, including Ryoo Seungwan’s Escape from Mogadishu (2021), screening in the ‘Best of the Best’ program, and most of the filmmakers were around for a special ‘Korean Action Cinema’ panel moderated by Korean film critic, professor and translator Darcy Paquet, who has been an consultant at Udine since its early days.


    The films featured in the panel included Pil Gamsung’s Hostage: Missing Celebrity (2021), featuring Hwang Jungmin playing himself as he is kidnapped and held for ransom, Park Daemin’s cool vehicular action thriller Special Delivery with Park Sodam, and Yoon Youngbin’s old-school seaside gangster saga Tomb of The River (2021).


    Also part of the panel were the first ever Korean world premieres to be hosted at FEFF - Choi Jaehoon’s action-thriller The Killer and Lee Jaewon’s indie debut Thunderbird. Re-teaming The Swordsman (2020) director Choi and star Jang Hyuk, The Killer follows a meek retired hitman whose old calling is reawakened when the teenage daughter of a friend he is minding is suddenly kidnapped. Thunderbird follows a low-level thug who needs to retrieve the money to pay off a debt hidden inside his old Thunderbird car, which has just been pawned.


    Closing out this year’s 24th Far East Film Festival was the twisty thriller Confession from director Yoon Jongseok. A reworking of the acclaimed 2016 Spanish thriller The Invisible Guest, the film follows a successful businessman, played by So Jisub, who is accused of killing his mistress and the Byzantine case that follows.


    Now that they’ve closed the door on a terrific 24th edition, FEFF will surely dig deep and prepare to wow us all with something extra special next year, when Europe’s top Asian film celebration returns for its Silver Jubilee.

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