Preview: Korean films at Reel Asian 2016

Korean films at Reel Asian 2016
Korean films at Reel Asian 2016

Every November I look forward to the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival (or Reel Asian for short because that’s a mouthful) because they always have some interesting films, often ones that I really want to see. I’ve been going for years and I have a soft spot in my heart for the festival because they were the first to give me a press pass (thanks guys!). But soft spot or no, I love the festival and recommend it because every year they bring amazing films to Toronto. I may only write about the Korean films, films from the Korean diaspora or films with a Korean connection but I’ve watched some amazing films over the years from all over Asia and the Asian diaspora. And the films are why you should go too!

But enough about me and how much I love Reel Asian, let’s talk about the festival!

This year is special as it’s the 20th anniversary of the festival – congrats Reel Asian! – and they’re celebrating by not only bringing great films and programming from Asia and the Asian diaspora. This year they announced at the press conference that over 60% of their programming is from North American filmmakers and storytellers AND over 50% is from female directors. How cool is that!? As Canada’s largest Asian film festival, they’ve always supported local and young filmmakers through programming like their So You Think You Can Pitch competition. And it’s fabulous that they continuing this commitment with this year’s programming.

Speaking of this year’s programming… let’s talk about the Korean films and those from the Korean diaspora that will be playing at Reel Asian.

Feature Films and Documentaries

Image courtesy of Reel Asian
Image courtesy of Reel Asian

Bad Rap 

Salima Koroma | USA | 2016 | 14A | 82 minutes | English | Canadian Premiere

  • Friday November 11, 2016 @ 9:00 pm | TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 2

Who do aspiring artists look up to in a culture that doesn’t represent them? Following several rappers, director Salima Koroma paints a portrait of what it means to be Asian in North America’s hip-hop culture. Facing stereotypes, rappers Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, and Lyricks (to a name a few) are caught in the constant battle of who they are versus how the public sees them. [synopsis from Reel Asian]

My Thoughts: I can’t tell you how happy I am that this documentary is in the lineup of films. ATK Magazine has interviewed two of the artists featured in it – Dumbfoundead and Awkwafina – and I’m super excited to see it. If you like music, this is one screening you won’t want to miss.

Image courtesy of Reel Asian
Image courtesy of Reel Asian

Seoul Station (서울역)

Yeon Sang-ho (연상호) | South Korea | 2016 | 14A | 93 minutes | Korean with English subtitles | Toronto Premiere

  • Saturday November 12, 2016 @ 9:30 pm | AGO Jackman Hall

In this animated prequel to Yeon Sang-Ho’s ambitious and wildly successful zombie apocalypse live action feature, Train To Busan (2016), a wounded man collapses in front of Seoul’s central subway station. Assuming he is homeless, nobody is willing to help. Soon after, the man undergoes a savage transformation, setting off a relentless chase that sweeps through the station, first among those squatting in the corridors and then spreading to everyone in the vicinity. [synopsis from Reel Asian]

My Thoughts: I loved Train To Busan (부산행) and love the fact that I can see the prequel. Plus, director Yeon Sang-ho was better known for his animated films (Train To Busan is his first live action film) and the biting social commentary found in them – The Fake (사이비) being a great example. So having loved the Train To Busan for the sheer enjoyment factor of a great zombie film and appreciated the thought-provoking social commentary in The Fake, I’m intrigued to see how Seoul Station is.

Image courtesy of Reel Asian
Image courtesy of Reel Asian

Reach for the Sky (공부의 나라)

Steven Dhoedt, Choi Wooyoung | South Korea | 2015 | PG | 90 minutes | Korean with English subtitles | Canadian Premiere

  • Monday November 14, 2016 @ 3:45 pm | TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 3

In this joint production between Korea and Belgium, directors Wooyoung Choi and Steven Dhoedt follow three students preparing for the Suneung. The lengths to which the students and parents will go for this test are extreme, and their dedication and sacrifice is unparalleled. The role of the media is significant, providing a continuous stream of coverage on exam day. A documentary on the pursuit for perfection, Reach for the Sky will keep viewers at the edge of their seats, as they feel the students’ gut-wrenching pressure to achieve excellence and earn their place in society. [synopsis from Reel Asian]

My Thoughts: As someone who taught English for three years in Korea in a private academy (or 학원), I understand a little about the pressure that is put on students there. This is an important story that the documentary is telling and one that should be heard.

Image courtesy of Reel Asian
Image courtesy of Reel Asian

Double Happiness

Mina Shum (in attendance) | Canada | 1994 | PG | 87 minutes | English, Cantonese with English subtitles | Canadian Retrospective

  • Monday November 14, 2016 @ 8:15 pm | TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 3

Sandra Oh stars as Jade Li, a feisty young Chinese Canadian living a “double life”. In one life, she is a respectful daughter from a traditional Chinese family, dutifully working at the shop of a family friend. In another, she is a modern woman attracted to a slightly awkward but persistent Caucasian graduate student named Mark. She aspires to become an actress despite her parents’ concerns over her career choices, and wishes her family had more Western sensibilities. When her father’s childhood friend arrives for a visit, Jade must juggle her competing identities even more carefully than usual, lest her choice of professions—and boyfriends—shame her family. [synopsis from Reel Asian]

My Thoughts: While this is a Chinese Canadian story, I’ve added it to the list for two reasons. First, Sandra Oh is Korean Canadian. But secondly, it’s a story that’s relevant to many immigrant and second gen families.

Image courtesy of Reel Asian
Image courtesy of Reel Asian

The Last Princess (덕혜옹주)

Hur Jin-ho (허진호) | South Korea | 2016 | 120 minutes | 14A |Korean with English subtitles | Toronto Premiere

  • Tuesday November 15, 2016 @ 6:15 pm | TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 3

It is 1925 and 13-year-old Yi Deokhye is the last princess of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty. Under Japan’s colonial rule, the young princess is forced to relocate to Japan to finish her studies. Her desperate attempts to return home are continually thawrted by the pro-Japanese general Han Taek-soo. One day, she meets a friend from her past, Kim Jang-han, now an officer in the Japanese army. Kim, who is also part of the Korean independence movement, plans a secret operation to move Deokhye and her brother Yi Un to Shanghai, site of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea. [synopsis from Reel Asian]

My Thoughts: I’m always intrigued about films that are a blend of fact and fiction and this period film, based on the best-selling novel Princess Deokhye (2009) by Kwon Bi-young fits that bill.

Image courtesy of Reel Asian
Image courtesy of Reel Asian

The Bacchus Lady (죽여주는 여자)

E J-yong (이재용) | South Korea | 2016 | 14A | 110 minutes | Korean with English subtitles | Toronto Premiere

  • Tuesday November 15, 2016 @ 9:00 pm | TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 3

So-young, at 65 years old, is a “Bacchus Lady” or bagkaseu halmeoni – a term given to elderly women who sell a popular South Korean energy drink known as Bacchus and who offer sexual services on the side. Once a prostitute on a U.S. military base, she now solicits clients in parks in Seoul, where old men gather. Over the years, So-young has formed a patchwork family, including her transgender neighbour and a one-legged man. Joining this ensemble is young Min-ho, who gets separated from his Filipino mother in the same clinic where So-young gets her regular check-ups. Together, they make the best out of their situation, until So-young begins to receive unusual requests from her aging clientele. [synopsis from Reel Asian]

My Thoughts: While I suspect this film will make me, and other members of the audience, uncomfortable, I’m intrigued. The subject matter – elderly prostitution and poverty – isn’t one many want to talk about but I suspect that the film will deal with this social issue well as it screened at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Film Talks/Panels

Image courtesy of Reel Asian
Image courtesy of Reel Asian

Kim’s Convenience: Ushering in a New Era of Asian Canadians on TV

2016 | Episode Premiere | Reel Ideas

  • Wednesday November 9, 2016 @ 7:00 pm | Glenn Gould Studio

Kim’s Convenience is the funny, heartfelt story of the Kims, a Korean Canadian family that runs a convenience store in Regent Park. A TV adaptation of playwright-performer Ins Choi’s celebrated play, Kim’s Convenience makes its broadcast debut on CBC this year. Meet the cast and crew behind this comedy series, as they share their own personal stories on growing up Asian Canadian within their local communities. [description from Reel Asian]

My Thoughts: I loved the play and the first two episodes were funny so I’m intrigued for the panel. Like many others have done, I could write tons on the importance of hearing and seeing difference voices but I think you should go to the panel instead.


Shorts Presentations

There are shorts presentations that include shorts by Korean, Korean-Canadian or Korean-American directors. Of course, there are lots more shorts to see as well.

Around The Bend (shorts programme)

  • Saturday November 12, 2016 @ 4:15 pm | AGO Jackman Hall (317 Dundas Street West)

Just Talking To Her

Euiyoung Lim | South Korea | 2015 | 10:44 minutes | Korean with English subtitles | Canadian Premiere

Recently fired and living alone, a middle-aged man tries to alleviate his loneliness by calling his children. But their busy lives make him feel even lonelier until an unlikely call cheers him up. [synopsis from Reel Asian]

The Time Agent

Jude Chun | South Korea | 2016 | 29:50 minutes | Korean with English subtitles | Canadian Premiere

An agent from the future has a simple mission: to make select couples break up. Why? Because their future children have committed crimes so devastating that they have been sentenced to non-existence. [synopsis from Reel Asian]

The Chicken of Wuzuh

Sungbin Byun | South Korea | 2016 | 12:47 minutes |Korean with English subtitles

Middle-schooler Wuzuh has a crush on her teacher, but jealousy leads her to take extreme measures in expressing her love. [synopsis from Reel Asian]

Next Of Kin (shorts programme)

  • Tuesday November 15, 2016 @ 1:00 pm | TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 3

A Conversation With Hana

Eui Yong Zong (in attendance) | Canada | 2016 | English and Korean with English subtitles | World Premiere

During the Lunar New Year, Yong talks to his family living in Korea on Skype. He has a serious conversation with his 9-year old sister Hana, whose only wish is to see her brother. [synopsis from Reel Asian]


Anna Oh | USA | 2016 | 21:07 minutes | English and Korean with English subtitles | Canadian Premiere

An undocumented immigrant who is also a rights activist travels back to South Korea to reunite with his ailing grandmother after 13 years of separation. [synopsis from Reel Asian]

My Thoughts: I’m a fan of shorts and having already seen The Chicken of Wuzuh (interesting short), I’m intrigued to see the others. Plus shorts programs are great ways for young filmmakers to get their films seen so check them out if you can.

Final Thoughts

There isn’t a film in this preview that I’m not excited to see – and a few others in the Reel Asian programming that look fabulous – but Bad Rap and Seoul Station are both on my ‘must-see’ list. Which films are you looking forward to most at Reel Asian this year?

Of course you’ll want to stay up-to-date on all the films and fun so be sure to check out their website and social media. They’re pretty active on both Facebook and Twitter so click ‘follow’ now to stay in the know.

We hope to see you there! Tickets are on sale now!

Editor’s Note: The film synopses are all courtesy of Reel Asian.

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.

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