In most people’s minds, film festivals without the word “fantastic” attached to them mostly deal in art house cinema, though these days the big ones show Hollywood blockbusters, even if they draw the line at the Marvel cinematic universe. In that regard, BIFF has a leg up on the competition since such distinctions in Korea tend to be purely economic. There are lots of Korean indie art house features released every year, but they get little exposure. Even the work of Hong Sang-soo, which is celebrated the world over and tends to find wide distribution in Europe, doesn’t make much money in his home country. But what would derisively be called “middle-brow cinema” in other countries gets fair play in Korea, and often the distinction between such fare and obvious blockbusters is blurry. That’s why BIFF often screens the biggest box office hits in Korea that have already been in theaters for months. For one thing, it’s a means of showing off the national product to international players (including journalists) who are coming to the festival, and it’s also a way of allowing hardcore local fans to interact with the directors and actors responsible for these hits.
Invariably, a lot of these movies that blur the line between art house and mainstream are genre exercises, and it’s interesting that two of the entries in the New Currents section this year are pulpy indies that are obviously meant to appeal to more general audiences. One, the second feature from Japanese director Shinzo Katayama, who has worked with Bong Joon-ho, belongs to the ever-popular serial killer genre, though the production notes try to make the case that it is a trenchant study of “human nature.” The English title, Missing, does the film no favors since I can think of at least two other movies off the top of my head with the same title. (The Japanese title, Sagasu–Search–is probably no better) Those who seek it out for the kind of excitement one expects from a thriller will probably not be disappointed, but despite a few odd twists and an unconventional structure, I’m not sure if they will come away impressed.
The premise seems simple enough. Harada (Jiro Sato) is a widower raising a high school age daughter, Kaede (Aoi Ito), on meager means. Having made a mess of a business he started, he goes from one low-paying odd job to another and finds it difficult to save enough money. Still, Kaede loves him as much as an intelligent, independent teenager can, and when he purposely goes missing one day, she rustles up all her resources to find him on her own, since the police don’t seem to take the case seriously. Her only clue is that before he disappeared, Harada said he had seen a fugitive serial killer on the train and wanted to look for him in order to claim the ¥3 million reward.
Had Katayama stuck to this simple, serviceable story–which is based on a real life serial killer story–it might have generated the requisite suspense you anticipate in such movies, but he wants too much in terms of the aforementioned “human nature” exploration, and the exposition necessitates a flashback structure that dulls the momentum of the plot and, even worse, strands the most interesting character, Kaede, in movieland limbo for almost a full hour. By the time she reappears her role in the story has changed for the worse. She goes from dogged seeker of truth to proxy conscience without proceeding through the phases that usually come with such a transformation. This lack of clear character motivation extends to the other primary characters, whose more extreme actions range from the blackly comic to conventionally grand guignol to stomach-churningly repulsive. Katayama seems to know he’s going out on a limb with these characters because he over-explains them at every turn through redundant dialogue. In the end, the viewer thinks more about the mechanics of the plotting than about what makes the characters tick.
The Korean film Seire, by first-time director Park Kang, is more straghtforward about adhering to its genre protocols. In this case the genre is ghost stories. The title refers to a Korean custom surrounding the birth of a child. For a 21-day period that extends from just before the birth to after it, the parents must follow certain rituals and avoid certain behaviors, otherwise bad luck could befall the child. The protagonist, Woojin (Seo Hyun-woo), is the new father, a salesman who takes his responsibilities seriously. He thinks the seire custom is a lot of hooey, but puts up with it for his wife’s sake. However, during the seire period he receives a message saying his old girl friend has died and he decides to go to the funeral despite his wife’s strong entreaties not to go, since one of the prohibitions of seire is that the parent must not go to a funeral. As it turns out, she’s right, but not necessarily for occult reasons. Woojin broke up with his former girlfriend after she miscarried a child that he didn’t really want in the first place, and, according to her twin sister (whom Woojin didn’t know about), the girlfriend never got over the miscarriage, or Woojin.
Park does some very interesting things with regard to Woojin’s difficulty in distinguishing between dreams and reality, and it becomes clear rather early on that the spooky things that happen around him are mostly projections of his own nagging guilt. Given that the South Korean birth rate is even lower than Japan’s, Seire will probably not be welcomed by those in the government whose job it is to convince young Koreans to have more babies. Children themselves are not scary in Seire the way they often are in other horror movies having to do with childbirth, but Park pretty much shows everything that could possibly go wrong when you decide to have a baby.