Streaming: gems to explore from the London Korean film festival

Guy Lodge
·4-min read

While cinemas continue to grapple with an uncertain pandemic-induced future, the film festival circuit has adjusted swiftly to the chaos. Recent weeks have seen the Toronto and London festivals, as well as smaller events such as the Pordenone silent film festival, successfully pivot to digital editions; the next festival to take the home-viewing route is the London Korean film festival, running from 29 October to 12 November.

It’s a cracker, too: an annual highlight on the London cinephile’s autumn calendar and now anyone in the UK can sample most of the LKFF’s delights. (Some selections will screen only in cinemas, but the bulk of the programme is streamable, with limited virtual tickets now available to book.) It’s felicitous timing in a year that saw a sudden surge of mainstream interest in Korean cinema, thanks to a certain dark-horse winner of the best picture Oscar: if your knowledge doesn’t extend far past Parasite, here’s a good place to start exploring.

For Bong Joon-ho fans, this year’s fest has a particularly alluring hook: two of the director’s earlier short films, never previously seen in the UK. Incoherence – a sharp, scrappy social satire from 1994, made in his film-school days – shows the early development of his acrid comic style, and that continues through to 2004’s Influenza, a sly mock-documentary tracking one man’s criminal spiral, all shot on CCTV. (For real completists, there’s also Some Light, a drifting seven-minute short from director Kang Dae-hee, featuring Bong in a rare acting role.)

But numerous feature-length treats abound in the lineup too. In the Cinema Now section, you’ll find Hong Sang-soo’s latest film The Woman Who Ran, which landed him the best director prize at Berlin this year. I’ve written before in this column about Hong’s prolific output, which can range from slight to entirely beguiling. This falls in the latter column: a bittersweet, subtly time-twisting rumination on female friendships, beautifully anchored by his regular muse Kim Min-hee, and featuring a feline cameo for the ages.

With Hong, you always have some sense of what you’re getting, but over in the Women’s Voices section, Kim Mi-jo’s debut film Gull is a powerful surprise. Following a 60-year-old street vendor as she survives a sexual assault and attempts to bring her attacker to justice, it’s lean, cool-headed film-making that doesn’t make a martyr of its thorny, charismatic protagonist. One hopes Kim is a major voice in the making.

There’s more tender work on offer in the Friends & Family strand, focusing on iterations of the Korean family drama from the last 15 years – with Yoon Dan-bi’s recent, delicate and intricately observed Moving On a particular highlight. Unusual children’s fare is to be found in the Animation strand, headlined by the lively canine adventure Underdog. Most fascinating of all is the Classics lineup, bound this year by the theme of traditional Korean shamanism. A double feature of films by the revered Im Kwon-taek, Divine Bow (1979) and Daughter of Fire (1983) deals beautifully with ideas of haunting and belief. They’re available to stream from 30 October – ideal Halloween-night viewing for those who don’t get their chills from horror.

Also new on streaming and DVD

The Secret Garden
(Sky Cinema, PG)
This lavishly appointed new adaptation of the children’s chestnut from David Heyman, producer of the Harry Potter franchise, doesn’t want for pretty visuals or talented kids, but in changing Frances Hodgson Burnett’s bedraggled garden, healed by love and friendship, into a readymade CGI fantasy wonderland, it rather misses the point, and beauty, of the book — and falls short of Agnieszka Holland’s definitive 1993 version.

One Man and His Shoes
(Curzon Home Cinema)
If the phenomenon of sneakerhead culture – the obsessive prizing and collection of brand-name trainers – has escaped your understanding, Yemi Bamiro’s documentary breaks it down via the merged cults of Michael Jordan and Nike. It bites off a lot to chew, and jumps a bit rashly to moral panic, but it’s a fresh approach.

The Misogynists
(Amazon Prime, 15)
Three years after it was made, Onur Tukel’s knowingly seamy chamber piece arrives on VOD, hopefully to mark the end of the Trump era it bleakly christened. Portraying a trio of wealthy, MAGA-cheering coworkers over the 2016 election night, it’s an ugly, in-your-face depiction of conservative masculinity in its pomp — forcefully performed by Dylan Baker in the lead.

Ava
(Vertical, 15)
If you’re wondering why you’ve heard nary a whisper about a mainstream action thriller starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, John Malkovich and Geena Davis, Tate Taylor’s anonymously styled straight-to-VOD film answers the question well enough: as a cold-blooded Assassin With Issues, Chastain kicks the requisite amount of ass, but it’s a halfhearted, decidedly televisual affair.