London Korean Film Festival 2016

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It is time to set aside those unwritten LFF reviews as the LKFF is here! The London Korean Film Festival has returned from the capital and runs until 17th November with a season of classic and contemporary Korean cinema. This year’s festival has a special focus on films that explore the lives of Korean women as told through the lenses of female directors as reflected in Thursday’s opening gala screening of Lee Kyoung-mi’s new thriller The Truth Beneath. The festival closes in London with Hong Sang-soo’s latest Yourself and Yours after which the festival goes on tour to Sheffield, Manchester, Nottingham, Glasgow and Belfast from 18th – 27th November.

The festival features a wide range of Korean films and gives a rare opportunity to see films that might not make it back to the big screen in the UK. See the official website for more info or read on to find out what I have seen so far.

The Truth Beneath

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In Lee Kyoung-mi’s second feature the wife (Son Ye-jin) of an aspiring politician finds her life upended when her teenage daughter goes missing at the start of the national election campaign. While her husband (Kim Joo-hyuk) remains focussed on his political ambitions she instead picks up where the police investigation has failed and delves into the second life her daughter was leading.

With clever cinematic devices and an unflinching eye Lee Kyoung-mi explores both the story of a young girl’s struggle to find acceptance and friendship alongside a grieving mother’s struggle to get to know her daughter when she is no longer around. The film’s twists created loud gasps from the audience and the tense narrative had us gripped from start to finish. The lead performance by Son Ye-jin was powerfully understated and complex. A powerful opening to the festival and a strong statement to show this year’s commitment to showing the life of Korean women on-screen.

Our Love Story

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Another female director Lee Hyun-ju tackles a different kind of female relationship in Our Love Story as she explores the beginnings of a romance between a female student and an older young woman (Lee Sang-hee and Ryu Sun-young). The film is much more understated than the thriller above as it focusses on emotional nuance above flashy plot twists.

The romance between the two lovers is handled with great care and sensitivity. Free from the male gaze Our Love Story is capable of including sex between two women without including a full panoramic view of entwined naked forms à la Blue is the Warmest Colour or The Handmaiden. Instead we have a more restrained, tender, and authentic romance on-screen as part of a sweet and emotionally complex romantic drama.

I really do recommend you seek out a screening, a trailer of highlights is below, and if anyone has a spare ticket to the closing gala please let me know; it has already sold out!

Doctor Strange – Film Review

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The uniquely named Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an all star neurosurgeon worthy of working with House MD. After a horrific car crash involving the vertical part of a cliff edge he loses use of his hands and his career is seemingly over. As he seeks to regain his digital dexterity Strange hears of a unique therapy in Nepal and spends the last of his wealth to travel there. After an initial rebuttal Strange is enrolled on a magical journey as he learns from the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Wong (Benedict Wong) about the art of sorcery and the multi-dimensional universe. Acupuncture eat your heart out! Naturally there is a big bad threatening the establishment Strange has only just discovered and so he must fight the evil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen and his cheekbones) and a being of a much more threatening and less tangible nature. Space and time are bent to the sorcerers’ wills as they fight for what each thinks is right.

The huge success of this particular Marvel film is how free of the usual Marvel trappings it is. We are spared the overarching Avengers narrative, there are no CGI behemoths punching other CGI behemoths, and the story is compact enough to fit in one film. The Marvel Cinematic Universe can feel needlessly complicated and bloated so in comparison Doctor Strange is pleasantly lean. While there are nods to the wider franchise, and the obligatory mid-credits sequence, by and large Doctor Strange stands on its own two feet. There is nothing you need to know going in other than that you are going to have to try and dissociate Cumberbatch from the aloof, arrogant genius of Sherlock as he tackles the aloof, arrogant genius of Doctor Strange.

With its plot of multiple universes, time meddling, and magic Doctor Strange handles the fantasy well by simultaneously taking it absolutely seriously and being able to joke about it. The jokes are not as strong as they could be but the film is refreshingly lighthearted in amongst exposition about ancient texts and mirror worlds. That said the contractual Stan Lee cameo comes in the midst of an action set piece and his appearance completely took me out of the scene. Interrupting action for a quip by a random bystander isn’t always a wise move.

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Another niggle with the film is its limited female roles. Tilda Swinton’s part as the Ancient One puts her in a prominent role and easily adds an extra star to any review of the film. That she was cast in as a character originally destined for a man almost makes up for the whitewashing her casting brings. Swinton is the ultimate chameleon and manages to deliver wild exposition with calm certainty that allows you to almost believe it. Sadly Rachel McAdams as nurse and occasional love interest takes up the only other female position and is given little to do other than pine after Strange and clean his wounds when he deigns to drop through a portal and back into her life.

Where Strange really triumphs is in the visuals afforded by a plot filled with magicians who can bend space and time. The film takes Inception as a leaping off point and continues to meld the world beyond what we have seen before. Strange is without a doubt smarter than your average superhero adventure as it chooses a battle of logic for its final showdown and a totally unique fight scene in Hong Kong in which time flies every which way. Doctor Strange is a feast for the eyes and offers plenty of visual firsts.

With its cast Strange also excels. Cumberbatch may be the main draw but his Strange is relatively anonymous; it is the characters surrounding him that really stand out. Among the goodies we have the aforementioned Swinton who is ably flanked by indie British comedy legend Benedict Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and actor with an inbuilt reserve of gravitas. Everybody’s favourite Scandinavian Mads Mikkelsen provides the slight accent needed to be the bad guy as he no doubt will in Rogue One later in the year. Mikkelsen is a class act able to bring depth to the typical role of bad guy out to destroy the world. With McAdams rounding out the cast in the smallest role Doctor Strange really does have the most overqualified cast.

Doctor Strange  is not going to be anybody’s favourite film, nor is it going to trouble any awards. What is is it a refreshingly different superhero film in a franchise where the films have started to blur. An enjoyable flight of fancy all the more enjoyable for its lack of ties to the wider Marvel universe. Sadly we know that will change before too long.

Doctor Strange is the best Marvel film for a long time as it allows us to forget what we have come to expect and shows us something new.

Free Fire – LFF Review

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It is 1978 and in a Boston warehouse four members of the IRA are meeting a flamboyant South African arms dealer to buy cases full of automatic weapons. Americans there to facilitate the deal and keep the two parties under control fail at their jobs when a previous fight between minor players in each team flares up and the warehouse becomes the setting for a full on shoot out. As the cast scramble on the dusty and dirty ground bullets fly around striking concrete, ricocheting off metal, and thudding into flesh. For the next ninety minutes Free Fire is relentless fun.

Writer/director Ben Wheatley, again teaming up with writer Amy Jump, has made a film wildly different from his existing excellent oeuvre and yet distinctively his own. There have been comparisons made between Free Fire and Tarantino but I would argue that Wheatley and Jump’s film is a purer film than the likes of Reservoir Dogs. A Tarantino film feels as though it is trying to impress you while Wheatley’s are honest cinematic expressions. The violence in Free Fire is brutally authentic; each bullet wound suitably incapacitating its recipient and nobody leaving the warehouse either unscathed or with impeccable attire. Jump and Wheatley’s dialogue is similarly authentic, if more hilarious that your average trade negotiation, but the laughs come from incongruity and character beats rather than clever pop culture references.

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The warehouse in question is filled with an eclectic bunch of actors clearly chosen for their skill and suitability rather than their box office appeal. From the sole female actor in the form of Oscar darling Brie Larson we have the mainstream talents of Cillian Murphy and Armie Hammer through Sharlto Copley to the less known but equally talent likes of Noah Taylor and Michael Smiley. The entire cast gives it their all; nobody giving into vanity or shying away from an unlikeable character. As they sweat and bleed the characters all end up filthy and caked in a cocktail of dirt and bodily fluids and nobody is allowed the opportunity to play the noble hero. It is also a true ensemble cast as there is no lead role or hero to root for; we have a rag tag bunch of criminals all out to screw over one another.

Wheatley directs a film of nearly endless action with aplomb despite it being a departure from his previous work. You always know where each character each and who is aligned with who; at least as much as Wheatley wants you to. The sound design too deserves praise as the gunshots are given the deafening burst of sound they deserve hammering home the film’s dedication to authenticity. A gun fight is never going to be a pretty sight and not everyone will walk away unharmed or at all. The audience feels every shot fired and, while some shots miss, when a bullet finds a human home you can really feel it.

Free Fire is a simple and precise film; it does not exist to deliver a message or make a political statement but is here to entertain and delight, something it does with ease. Free Fire is 90 minutes of pure joy and I cannot wait to watch it again in March when it hits cinemas.

Arrival – LFF Review

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Aliens have landed! But in emotional indie style rather than in exploding world domination fashion. Think Monsters rather than Independance Day and then forget I mentioned Monsters as Arrival is completely different. Where was I? Aliens have landed! And it is up to linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to figure out how to communicate with them, with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) at her side. Hurrying her along is the US army who desperately want to know if the aliens come in peace or war and want the answers before anyone else. Twelve alien crafts have arrived and Louise is tasked with communicating with the one ship hovering just above US soil. I can’t wait for the spin-off film around the ship that landed in Devon…

As Louise starts to learn the aliens’ unique form of communication she feels the pressure from military representative Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) as the army loses trust in her, the alien visitors, and the rest of the world. Interspersed with beautifully shot visits with the aliens and complicated exposition about sentence structures are flashbacks to Louise’s daughter. The flashbacks did not sit well with me initially; I was enjoying a sciency scene of a linguistic nature then suddenly we’re back with a little girl talking about something tangentally related. I thought the filmmakers were awkwardly crowbarring in some depth to the character but could not have been more wrong.

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The film’s use of flashbacks is so ingenious that I cannot really talk about them without ruining the film’s biggest treats. Let’s just say that the flashbacks come good in the end and I probably won’t appreciate them fully until I watch Arrival for a second time. Arrival is very deceptive that way. On first watch the film is a solid and beautifully shot science fiction that falls under the banner of good rather than great but in the days since I saw it my mind has been percolating and reflecting on what I saw. Maybe Arrival is great after all?

I definitely need to see it for a second time.

Director Denis Villeneuve has tackled a variety of genres from the surrealist Enemy, thrilling Prisoners, and recently hit the mainstream with Sicario. With Arrival he maintains a beautiful aesthetic alongside a structure that cleverly hides from the viewer what is happening even as they watch it happen. This is science fiction that doesn’t treat weaponry and creature effects as the be all and end all but prioritises the human element and the all important fictional science; the big idea. Science fiction should be about ideas; about a big “what if” and should explore that idea to its natural conclusion. Arrival does this wonderfully.

I did not immediately love Arrival on first viewing. With time and reflection it has really grown on me and a second watch is definitely needed.

And then surely soon:

Sully – LFF Review

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On the 15th of January 2009 Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was flying an Airbus out of New York’s LaGuardia airport. Following a massive bird strike Sully lost both engines and was forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River for fear of crashing into New York city. The whole event took less than four minutes and Sully is widely regarded as a modern day hero. Seven years later Clint Eastwood has stretched and padded those four minutes to make them into feature film and thrown in a bad guy for good measure.

In Sully we get Hollywood’s favourite everyman Tom Hanks stepping into the lead role and bringing with him his reliable air of humble gravitas. Sully doesn’t see himself as a hero but the film forces him to defend his status as one as it shows the pivotal four minutes intercut with an investigation into whether or not Sully actually had to land in the Hudson; the alternative theory being that he could have safely made a return trip back to the airport. The bulk of the film is Sully wringing his hands about this disagreement and the wildly exaggerated depiction of the aggressive investigation into the crash landing. It seems than in making Sully a hero Eastwood decided he needed to make someone the villain. Clearly Eastwood is a fan of Unbreakable.

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Further padding out the film are flashbacks showing Sully’s past flying planes and scenes of his wife fretting at home. Feel sorry for Laura Linney who is reduced to looking concerned while talking into the phone and peering out of the window at photographers. Hanks’ Sully seems almost cold towards his wife so any emotional weight intended to be brought by their relationship is non existent. The flashbacks also add nothing to the film beyond showing us that Sully has always enjoyed flying and that flying isn’t always easy. Nothing revelatory there. These are mere distractions from the flight investigation which is itself a distraction from the crash which we get to see numerous times over from moderately different viewpoints.

It doesn’t feel nice to say that the story of Sully is too bland to make a decent film. There is no doubt that the real Sully did something brave and heroic but this very lack of doubt is why there is no drama in the rest of the film. Outside of the thrilling minutes of the crash the film is nothing but filler. Tom Hanks does his best but Sully, a wonderful man I’m sure, isn’t particularly interesting to spend time with. The resultant film is a completely non-cynical patriotic celebration of Sully and is just missing him standing in front of a slowly waving American flag to complete the canonisation.

Sully’s actions deserve celebrating but they do not deserve this lightweight drama. Never has a film based on true events suffered so much from a lack of material.