Review: Korean Films at TIFF 2012

Hello my lovely readers, my apologies for the incredible lateness of this post. I have been concentrating a lot of my free time working on my novel and this post – and a few others – was delayed because of that. But I’ve finally worked out a writing schedule so I have time for both. I simply never expected the short story I started writing about Love in the Land of Morning Calm to turn into something more.

But I digress…

This year at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) five Korean films played (along with one North Korean film and two documentaries on North Korea). I was able to catch four of the five South Korean films – all of which I would recommend, two of which I absolutely loved. Keep reading for my impressions of the four films (they are in no particular order). I wish I was able to catch all eight but time simply didn’t allow it. T.T

The Thieves (도둑들)

I absolutely loved The Thieves! Really, I can’t say enough about this film. If you get the chance go see it. What is it about, you ask?

Like the title suggests, this is a film about a gang of thieves – or rather it’s about two gangs of thieves – one Korean, one from Hong Kong – brought together for one specific caper against a deadly fence. Lots of subtle (and not-so-subtle) plot twists, backstabbing and rivalry ensues.

This is one film that’s more than just the sum of its parts. The star-studded cast directed by Choi Dong-hun, work together to bring the story and action alive. There’s just as much intrigue as there is action and never a dull moment in this blockbuster film.

As strong as the dialogue and cast are, you don’t even need the sub-titles to love this film. The fantastic locations and action scenes will appeal to even those who don’t enjoy “foreign” films.

And as much as I loved the film – and I did, if you haven’t seen it… go see it now – the highlight of the night was getting my picture taken with the director, Choi Dong-hun afterwards. Sorry about the picture quality – the flash was turned off on my phone.

Myself, The Thieves director Choi Dong-hun, and Jenn at TIFF

Pieta (피에타)

Pieta, by director Kim Ki-duk, is the tale of a violent man who collects money for a loan shark and a mysterious middle-aged woman who suddenly appears in his life claiming to be his mother. It won the Golden Lion at the 69th Venice International Film Festival, the first Korean film to do so.

It is a brilliant film but definitely not a film for everyone. It is intensely disturbing, at times even revolting; but also so well acted and written that you can’t stop watching even when you want to. I’m not sure which was most disturbing – the scene where the male character, Jang Mi-sun sexually assaulting the woman claiming to be his mother or the one where he fed her a piece of this thigh.

I’m fairly certain this was the only film I’ve ever watched were people got up and left the theatre. So yeah, definitely not for everyone. That being said, the acting was simply amazing. And so filled with emotion. I can’t say I enjoyed it as it was too disturbing to enjoy but it was also powerful and worth watching.

A Werewolf Boy (늑대소년)

This tale of love, coming-of-age, and loyalty is the polar opposite of the previous film. Sweet, poignant and innocent; it’s a film I can’t wait to see again. Seriously, I think the entire audience fell in love with the werewolf boy – Chul-soo, played by Song Joong-ki. Well, the women at least.

The story is told in two time-frames. One – only a small part of the actual tale – is set in modern-day; while the other – the majority of the film – is set 47 years earlier. The main female character – Suni, played as a girl by Park Bo-young and as an older woman by Li Young-lan – is ill and the family moves to the Korean country-side for her health. There, they meet the werewolf boy and bring him into their home, kind of like a stray dog (which makes even more sense after listening to the director, Jo Sung-hee after the screening). Suni teaches/civilizes him using a dog training manual and everyone’s happy for a time. Unfortunately, there a spoiled brat of a man who wants to marry Suni (did I mention she’s still in high school) and makes loads of trouble.

The film is simply lovely and was a pleasure to watch. But it’s not all lightness and love… like many Korean films, The Werewolf Boy blends genres and there are glimpses of violence and darkness. But ultimately, it’s a feel-good film with a wonderful twist at the end. I laughed, I cried (twice, hard), I fell in love, I wanted to hit some of the characters and I sighed. And as you all know, I love films that make me feel… Go see it, you’ll love it too.

Juvenile Offender (범죄소년)

This is the story of Ji-gu, played by Seo Young-Joo, a 16-year-old juvenile offender who gets caught committing burglary with a group of other boys while on probation. The only adult in his life is a grandfather who’s dying and the only good thing in his life seems to be his girlfriend. Unfortunately, he’s sentenced to a year in a juvenile reformatory and when he gets out; his life has been turned upside down. His grandfather has passed away, his girlfriend has changed and a teacher from the juvenile reformatory found his long-lost mother. But she turns out to be as messed up as he is.

While it was a well-acted film with an interesting story, it was also seriously miserable at times. It wasn’t sad in a “I’m going to cry” way but rather in a “wow, his life sucks” way which just made the film depressing. There were some sweet moments but mainly I spent most of the film feeling sorry for Ji-gu. I know I like to feel emotion in my films but I also want to ultimately be left with a happy (or even angry) ending… not one that makes me feel hopeless. Although, if it’s viewed as a social commentary… then it has chops… depressing chops but still there is substance there.

Did you watch any of the Korean films at TIFF? Which did you see? Did you like/dislike them? Anyone see In Another Country? I really wanted to see it too but it didn’t fit into my schedule. T.T

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

5 thoughts on “Review: Korean Films at TIFF 2012

  • October 3, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    Thanks for the reviews! I’m looking forward to watch a werewolf boy >< looks good!

    • October 3, 2012 at 4:58 pm

      You’re welcome 🙂 I hope you enjoy it. Please let us know what you thought of it after you watch it!

  • December 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    My boyfriend is planning to watch Pieta with my parents and me during the weekend. Now that I read your review…. it’s going to be interesting. 🙂

    • December 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm

      Pieta would be an interesting film to watch with parents, especially that one scene! Let me know what you think of it!

      • December 13, 2012 at 1:34 pm

        Indeed. Let’s see.

        I’ll let you know.

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