Indie Films Drive Local Market as Studios Avoid Covid Market
- Writerby Pierce Conran
The pandemic hasn’t been kind to Korea’s film industry as theater operators have been forced to tighten their belts and distributors have found themselves confronted with an uncertain marketplace. Following a spike in COVID cases late last year that has remained stubbornly high ever since, few new commercial films have been launched in theaters, but in the absence of big local films, cinemas have welcomed a steady stream of well-received indie films. Though these have encountered many of the same pandemic-related issues, they have done so in a far less competitive marketplace.
The highlights of Korean film so far in 2021 are largely films that debuted to acclaim at Korea’s three major film festivals: the Busan International Film Festival, the Jeonju International Film Festival and the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival. Not only have festivals served as launching pads for these films, in some cases they have also been responsible for bringing them into existence, with three commissioned Jeonju Cinema Projects hitting theaters so far this year.
Director LEE Seung-won
Release Date January 27
Three Sisters, the third film by LEE Seung-won, following Communications and Lies (2015) and Happy Bus Day (2017), debuted as a Jeonju Cinema Project at the Jeonju International Film Festival last year before going on to screen at the Busan International Film Festival. Produced by and starring MOON So-ri, as well as KIM Sun-young and JANG Yoon-joo, the film follows three very different sisters who gather to go to their hometown and meet their father.
Playing the three sisters, MOON, KIM and JANG share formidable chemistry as their characters interact in memorable and occasionally explosive ways. A drama that touches on many themes, a comedy with variegated colors and finally a surprising road movie, Three Sisters has delighted viewers at festivals and on general release, where it has sold over 80,000 tickets.
Director BAE Jong-dae
Release Date February 18
Another film that launched at the Jeonju International Film Festival last year, Black Light has drawn significant praise for its performances, particularly that of YEOM Hye-ran, who earned a Best Acting Prize at the festival.
This debut film of director BAE Jong-dae, who worked in the directing staff of NA Hong-jin’s The Wailing (2016), follows widow Hee-ju (KIM Si-eun) who returns to work at a factory several years after the death of her husband in a car crash he caused. At her workplace, she comes face to face with Young-nam (YEOM Hye-ran) the wife of the man her husband crashed into and who has been in a coma ever since. Hee-ju’s guilt goes into overdrive until she learns that Young-nam’s husband may have actually been the man responsible for the accident. The film also stars PARK Ji-hu of House of Hummingbird (2018) fame.
Director SEO Eun-young
Release Date February 24
SEO Eun-young, whose first film Overman screened at the Busan International Film Festival in 2017, returned last summer with her second feature Go Back, which premiered in the Korean Fantastic Features competition of the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival. A thriller with social overtones, the film drew plaudits for its themes, tense plotting and especially its lead performances from HA Yun-kyung and PARK Ha-seon, who earned the Best Actress Award in BiFan.
HA plays a motivated young police officer who becomes involved in a case involving a kidnapped child while PARK plays a social worker who cares for abused children. As the cases grow, a kidnapper spreads a message that causes a national sensation.
A Distant Place
Director PARK Kun-young
Release Date March 18
Another Jeonju Cinema Project from last year, A Distant Place is the sophomore film from director PARK Kun-young, who debuted with the little seen but well-regarded To the River, which premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in 2018. The film has been praised for its sensitively expressed queer themes and striking visuals.
The film follows Jin-woo (KANG Gil-woo), who relocates to a sheep farm in the countryside, where he raises his niece Seol with his same-sex partner Hyun-min (HONG Kyung). One day Seol’s mother and Jin-woo’s twin sister Eun-young (LEE Sang-hee) appears at the farm wanting to take Seol back with her. Jin-woo hesitates and out of anger Eun-young outs Jin-woo and Hyun-min to their neighbors.
Director Jero YUN
Release Date March 18
Following his debut narrative feature narrative film Beautiful Days, which served as the opening film of BIFF in 2018, director Jero YUN returned to Busan last year with Fighter, another film about a North Korean defector living in Korea. The film’s star LIM Sung-mi earned the Actress of the Year award in Busan. Fighter had its international premiere earlier this month at the Berlin International Film Festival.
LIM stars as Jina, a North Korean defector who has recently left the social adjustment center. She gets a few jobs, including work as a cleaner at a gym. She is drawn to the boxers that train in the gym and soon takes up the sport herself. Along the way, she finds opposition from her fellow boxers and has difficulty trying to bring her father to South Korea.
Director BACK Seung-kee
Release Date March 25
B-movie filmmaker BACK Seung-kee returned to the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival last summer for the fourth time with his new work Super Nova, a lo-fi Korean space drama and a loving ode to Christopher NOLAN’s Interstellar (the Korean title is Incheonstellar, named after BACK’s hometown, where the film is set). The film earned a Distribution Support Award at BiFan.
Ki-dong (SON Yi-yong) works at ASA (Asia Space Administration) but leaves to raise his daughter following the death of his wife Sun-ho. One day he meets Sun-ho from a different dimension and decides to go to space to find her. He returns to ASA and joins a secret program that will find him and a crack team of researchers and explorers venture into the great beyond on the Super Nova spacecraft.
Shades of the Heart
Director KIM Jong-kwan
Release Date March 31
Another Jeonju Cinema Project, this time from 2019, Shades of the Heart is the fifth film by acclaimed indie filmmaker KIM Jong-kwan, though his sixth film, his commercial debut Josee, was released theatrically first at the end of last year. Shades of the Heart features YEON Woo-jin appearing as the same character in a series of vignettes with co-stars such as KIM Sang-ho, IU and LEE Joo-young.
YEON play Chang-seok, who has recently gotten divorced overseas and returns to Korea in order to publish an autobiographical novel. During his sojourn in Korea he meets a woman from his past, a former colleague, a man nursing his dying wife and an amnesiac bartender.