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FEFF Gorges on Korean Cinema for Sunny 20th Edition

May 08, 2018
  • Writerby Pierce Conran
  • View1152
Korean Stars and Directors Flock to Udine to Northern Italian Hospitality

The top celebration of Asian cinema returned to the idyllic Northeast Italian town of Udine last month, as the Far East Film Festival (FEFF) staged its 20th anniversary with a bumper selection of popular and acclaimed films spanning all genres from all over Far East and Southeast Asia. With unusually good weather and a record number of guests, the celebration took place in and around the Teatro Nuovo Giovanni on the edge of the city’s old town from April 20 to 28.

Korean titles have long been fan favorites in Udine and FEFF directors Sabrina Baracetti and Thomas Bertacche, who have been with the event since they founded it together two decades ago, did not disappoint, as not only did they invite 15 titles from South Korea but they also welcomed a massive delegation of directors, stars and producers who came to town to support the majority of the Korean films in the program. 

Indeed, it was Korea that kicked off this year’s festivities on Friday in rather explosive fashion as YANG Woo-suk's North Korea-themed action-drama Steel Rain (2017) occupied the opening slot. Director YANG, along with his stars JUNG Woo-sung and KWAK Do-won, were both in attendance. The invitation was a bold move by the festival as Steel Rain, which opened in Korea in December and welcomed 4.45 million viewers, recently premiered online around the world as a Netflix Original. Though the film did not have the premiere status usually required for an opening night film, the selection demonstrates FEFF’s progressive view towards the changing landscape of film consumption around the world.

Further demonstrating Udine’s embrace of the new digital film marketplace, the film’s lineup included two other Korean films that have been presented as Netflix Originals. ZHANG Hang-jun’s mystery-thriller Forgotten (2017) features KANG Ha-neul as a student whose kidnapped brother, played by GIM Mu-yeol, acts strangely upon his return. In KIM Hong-sun’s The Chase (2017), BAEK Yoon-sik plays a cranky landlord who teams up with SUNG Dong-il’s ex-cop to investigate the deaths of several elderly citizens in a poor neighborhood.

Among the most high-profile Korean guests in town were director RYOO Seung-wan and star HWANG Jung-min who were both there to showcase the director’s cut of last year’s World War II prison escape drama The Battleship Island (2017), as well as the 2015 action-thriller smash Veteran, which is currently the third most successful Korean film of all time. Director RYOO is a frequent guest in Italy but it was the first trip for HWANG, who is back on the road this month to present YOON Jong-bin’s North Korea-themed period drama The Spy Gone North at the Cannes Film Festival, where it will premiere as a midnight screening. The Battleship Island went on to receive the Crystal Mulberry Audience Award (third place).

Another big star attending the festival for the first time was MOON So-ri, both in support of the youth drama Little Forest by director YIM Soon-rye, who was also in town and to present her directorial debut The Running Actress (2017). Comprised of three short films, The Running Actress features MOON playing herself and sheds a light on the lack of female representation in the Korean film industry through her own experiences.

MOON did not travel to Udine alone as she was accompanied by her friend and producer Jenna KU (responsible for both Little Forest and The Running Actress) as well as her husband, director JANG Joon-hwan, who was in town with his own film, the political drama 1987: When the Day Comes (2017). Featuring KIM Yun-seok, HA Jung-woo, KIM Tae-ri and many more, 1987: When the Day Comes proved an enormous hit in Korea late last year when it welcomed 7.23 million viewers. Its powerful true tale of government abuses and corruption also resonated with viewers in Udine, who gave it both the Golden Mulberry Audience Award (first place) as well as the Black Mulberry Prize, which is voted on by Black Dragon pass holders at the festival.

Speaking of awards, SHIN Dong-seok’s debut indie drama Last Child (2017), which debuted in the New Currents competition of the Busan International Film Festival last year, earned the festival’s inaugural White Mulberry Award, awarded by a jury to the best film by a first or second-time director. The film focuses on parents who grow close to the young boy saved by their son on the day he died.

Korea has had a number of surprise hits hailing from the genre realm over the past year and many of those were strongly received by audiences in Italy. KANG Yun-sung was present to introduce his debut crime drama THE OUTLAWS (2017), last year’s major hit during the Chuseok holiday which features Don LEE (aka MA Dong-seok) as a gruff cop who goes up against YOON Kye-sang’s ruthless Chinese-Korean gang in a downtrodden Seoul neighborhood. The same neighborhood sets the scene for the buddy cop comedy Midnight Runners (2017), which screened with director Jason KIM in attendance. KANG Ha-neul and PARK Seo-jun play police academy recruits who put their studies to the test when they try to track down a woman kidnapped in front of them during a long night on the streets.

More recent hits that traveled to FEFF included JUNG Bum-shik’s found footage horror GONJIAM: Haunted Asylum, which became the second most successful Korean horror film of all time. Romantic drama was also alive and well in Udine with the star vehicle Be With You, featuring Son Ye-jin and SO Ji-sub and helmed by first-time director LEE Jang-hoon.

The female-led action-crime drama A Special Lady (2017) continued its run overseas, after picking up the Focus Asia Award for Best Asian Film at last year’s Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival. First-timer LEE An-kyu directs KIM Hye-soo as the number two in a gang who counters threats from all sides.

Rounding out the program was GWON Gyung-won’s politically-tinged documentary Courtesy to the Nation, which debuted at the Busan International Film Festival last year. The film explores the student protests that erupted in the early 1990s through the story of a man who was falsely imprisoned by the government.

In recent years, FEFF has also expanded to include several project markets, including Focus Asia and Ties that Bind, as well as several market events such as panels and networking gatherings. Korean projects, as well as sales and production companies, were heavily featured through the Focus Asia days of the event.

There’s no doubt that the 21st FEFF will feature another big crop of Korean films but only time will tell which of Korea’s talented film professionals will be lucky enough to travel to Udine next year and discover all its charming streets, enthusiastic fans, exquisite food and seemingly bottomless bottles of grappa.
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