BIFF 2020: Oct. 22

GV for Peninsula (credit: BIFF)

In-person events are the bread and butter of the Busan International Film Festival, which, despite its global reputation as the most important international film festival in Asia and the significance of its concurrent Asian Content Film Market, is by and large a fan-centered event, with dozens of opportunities for Korean movie freaks to meet and talk to actors and filmmakers. Their post-screening Q&As are legendary, and often spill out of the theaters and into the lobbies of wherever the screenings are taking place. Obviously, all in-person events are cancelled this year, which is a bigger blow for BIFF than it probably is for other major world fests, but, apparently, they’ve found some small ways to make up for the loss. According to a press release, there were two screenings today that linked up simultaneously with screenings in the countries where the movies were made, and afterwards, the two sets of audiences were able to interact online. One was the documentary School Town King from Thailand and the other, the hit Vietnamese film Sister Sister, directed by a Vietnamese-American actor-director. In addition, a local screening of the zombie epic Peninsula, which is already in wide release in South Korea, included a “hybrid guest visit” afterwards, at which the producer and main actor showed up in the theater while the director “attended” online, wearing a mask, of course.

Back here in the BIFF annex at chez Brasor, I had a slight problem with a movie I had been looking forward to, The Man Standing Next, a fictionalized rendering of the activities of KCIA director Kim Gyu-pyeong (Lee Byung-hun) during the 40-day period prior to his assassination of President Park Chung-hee in 1979. Ever since seeing the farcical but supposedly entirely factual (according to its director, anyway) The President’s Last Bang, I’ve always been fascinated by the murder of the great dictator, but, unfortunately, the version that was uploaded to the press screening platform does not have English subtitles. Should I send a message or let it slide?

Me and Me

So instead I watched another movie from the Panorama section, Me and Me, the debut feature by veteran actor Jung Jin-young. A fantasy with elements of a stalled police procedural, the movie is difficult to describe. A young couple have moved from Seoul to a remote village where the husband takes a teaching job. The couple has a secret that eventually leaks to the surrounding community, which becomes concerned about their well-being and tries to create an environment wherein everyone feels safe, but the plan leads to disaster. As a local police detective, investigating the disaster, starts getting closer to the bizarre truth of the matter he finds himself literally changed into someone else, though his mind still clings to his former life. At first I found the continuing shifts in tone and logical development annoying and the idea of completely replacing one set of protagonists for another halfway through confounding, but eventually the film sort of won me over with its idea that we are all different people from time to time; it’s just that some of us adjust better to these displacements than others do. Jung and his main actor, Cho Jin-woong, conveyed the complete helplessness of a man caught up in a nightmare with a visceral power that was difficult to shake, and I can’t say that the nominally semi-happy ending made be feel any better. It’s hard to recommend, but it’s certainly original. 

Also original was the short documentary essay from the Wide Angle section, When a Hen Crows, an obvious student project by a young woman named Dabin. Mostly a contemplation of her coming out, so to speak, as a feminist in South Korea in 2020 (she says she became a feminist three years earlier), the movie has a tentative mood that reflects it’s narrator-maker’s lack of confidence in both her storytelling skills and her credentials as an “enlightened” woman. Though 25 when she made the film, she was still struggling with whether or not she could leave her apartment sans makeup. She scours public toilet stalls for hidden spycams and attends the recent street demonstrations celebrating the lifting of the abortion ban. On trips to her family home in some unidentified town, she reverts to old habits that were the product of being a plain girl in a household where her older brother had precedent. Of frail health most of her life—chronic hypothyroidism made her the envy of her classmates because it prevented her from getting fat—she equates illness with just being a woman. 

When the Hen Crows (c) Bean Film

By telling her story in the third person, Dabin makes the case for all women, though the personal touches are what really make the pronouncement universal, like when she overhears a neighbor complaining about domestic abuse at the hands of a family member and feels relief that it’s someone else who’s the statistic. The writing is more impressionistic than the images, and sometimes you can’t quite figure out what she’s getting at, but that would seem to be the purpose of the film in the first place. She knows she’ll never understand how to make her way in this environment as a woman without interrogating her present life out loud, and wielding a camera, to boot. As much as I admired how she made the personal compelling, I feared for her choices, especially the one guy identified as her boyfriend, who sits silently, nodding and grunting as she tries to explain how all men and women, especially those in relationships, can’t help but play the roles their upbringing has assigned to them. I’m hoping she took her own words to heart and dumped the guy shortly thereafter.

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