Monday, August 27, 2012

Storms in a Tea Cup: A Critical Eye on the 2012 KOFFIA Short Film Competition Selections

A sunny late August afternoon in Sydney not only marked the half way point of the NSW leg of this years Korean Film Festival in Australia, it also heralded the screening of the 8 finalists that were chosen as part of the Short Film Competition.

I was on hand to help out with the voting process for the Audience Choice Award, which meant having the pleasure to sit in the cinema and get to watch the selections myself. The eight entries ranged across a wide variety of subjects & styles, all being viewed under the watchful eyes of the judges which included ‘Sunny / 써니’ and ‘Scandal Makers / 과속스캔들’ director Kang Hyeong-cheol.

For anyone that missed out, as well as for those who didn’t, here’s my quick rundown of the entries in no particular order – 

FOR MOLONGLO / 몰롱로를 위하여
(directed by Benny Horn & Kush Badwhar)

Clocking in at almost 17 minutes, this short film follows a single days events in the campaign trail of Elizabeth Lee, a candidate to be the political representative for an area in Canberra. While the subject matter may not sound particularly riveting, it’s the conversations that happen as the events unfold which create the magic here. If anything, the campaign trail is merely the framework upon which hangs a subtle study of the loving relationship Lee's mother & father share. From the opening shot of them leaving their house early morning when it’s still dark, & her mother asking him if he’s left his sneakers in Canberra, to the two of them sharing a moment together standing outside their campaign car after a hectic day of doing flyer mailbox drops, it’s difficult not to enjoy their banter. The directors questioning remains unobtrusive and off-camera, letting their subjects create the narrative themselves, and when a question is asked, it’s always worth it. When at the start it’s asked to the father if he thought now, over 25 years later, that immigrating to Australia was worth it, he answers “Don’t know yet.” As a community that consists of such a high immigrant population (I’m one myself!), it’s no doubt a question we all ask ourselves at times, and indeed one we might never know the answer to.

HOJU / 호주 
(directed by Liam Gibson)

The cheers & whoops that came from a certain section of the audience at the start of the second entry gave an early foreshadow of what was going to win the Audience Choice Award, as we were introduced to Gibson’s (who’s also the star of the piece) documentary style approach into the Korean community of Sydney. Hoju plays out as something of a cross between an insight into the hidden, and not so hidden, places of interest in Sydney’s Korean quarter, and something akin to “A Dummy’s Guide to Korean Culture”. Scenes of Gibson exploring venues like ‘The Secret Room Café’ give us a rare insight into a place which for most people will never be anything more than a name on the outside of a building, are then juxtaposed with him hitting the city for a night out with a group of young Koreans and innocently asking “So should I pour my own drink?” As much as it’s about the Korean community it’s also clear that this is very much Gibson’s show, and he makes a likeable personality giving off something of a retro feel to the proceedings. His pronounced narration and polite line of questioning gave the whole thing the feel of being a travelogue from the 1960’s BBC archives, which is in no way a bad thing.

(directed by Mike Kang)

Things got serious with the third entry, a story which revolves around two different sets of relationships that unfold within an immigrant crisis centre in the western suburbs of Sydney. The first relationship is between one of the Caucasian counselors at the centre, who’s just finished his last day having been given early retirement, and an Asian cleaner waiting for him to leave so he can wrap up his evening and go home. The second relationship is between a couple who interrupt them mid-way through proceedings, first by an Asian girl who comes into the office crying, and then by her Middle Eastern husband who comes in and starts to beat her. It’s obvious from the get go that all of the principal players have issues with each other, from the counselors racist streak and complaints about being sick of helping “these types” of people, to the husband who reveals he used to be an engineer in his home country, but now can’t find anything better than being a taxi driver. The piece raises a whole host of very topical and relevant points that apply to today’s population in Sydney. For many Australia is seen as a dream, but the reality is sometimes different, and it’s this reality that is brought into focus as being the driving force of the friction between both the counselor and the cleaner, and the husband and wife. At the heart of it all though, it’s humanity that pulls us through, and director Kang seems all to aware of that as he ends things with a sign of hope.

MAUX DOUX / 달콤한 악

(directed by Andrew Lee)

Maux Doux was the elephant in the room out of all the entries. Eschewing all cinematic norms such as a linear narrative & structure, Lee instead opts for an all out assault on the senses. In doing so he achieves the one thing that’s so rarely seen in cinema these days, and that’s to create a completely disorientating 7 minutes of audio visual entertainment. As a piece which opens with masturbation and ends with vomit, there were a few audible exclamations from the audience as it played across the screen, as we follow a single male characters journey into what exactly we don’t know. Is it a bad trip, a nightmare, a journey through the mind? It could be all these things, but it doesn’t linger on screen long enough to offer us any answers. In it’s current form it may well be a case of style over substance, but when the style is as good as this, it’s hard to fault the experience that’s been created. Frequently switching between beauty and horror, sometimes on-screen at the same time, you’d be hard pressed to explain what it was about if someone was to ask you, other than perhaps to say, it was about the power of cinema.

(directed by Hossein Ghertassi)

It seems every short film festival I’ve been to contains at least one entry about a relative missing the death of a hospital bound family member, I think there’s something about the structure of such a scenario that just suits the short film format, and sure enough this time around the tale came in the form of ‘Remorse’. The piece makes itself clear what direction it’s heading in from the very start, so with the outcome already forecast so early, it’s not so much a case of how it’s going to end as to how they’re going to get us to that point and how good the performances are. Thankfully KOFFIA’s own Chase Lee is on hand as the video game obsessed character of the piece, inevitably ignoring the all important phone call that would give him the chance to say goodbye. The piece scores points in it’s use of no dialogue, although lines are mouthed, the only track that plays is a sparse piano piece that’s used to convey the emotions of the characters and what they’re going through. The combination of the music and the expressions on screen compliment each other well, leading to a satisfying conclusion that reminds us all of the importance of time and to cherish what we have now.

ROLL ON / 롤 온
(directed by Amelia Kelly)

What initially starts as what looks like will be a broad look at the development of Strathfield as the heart of Sydney’s Korean community and how it got there, quickly shifts it’s focus to the somewhat smaller but no less interesting tradition of the yearly Korean Volleyball Tournament held every Australia Day.
Told through a group of vignettes from various participants in the event, the piece essentially plays out as a brief history of how the game got started within Australia, which stretches back more than 35 years, to how it brings the Korean community together once a year to celebrate the best of both Korean & Australian culture. Although it ends on the bittersweet note that this years game was actually cancelled, with the enthusiasm and obvious passion that the interviewees have for the event and what it means to them, I’ve no doubt the it should be back on the calendar next year.

(directed by Sup Lee)

A more appropriate title probably couldn’t have been picked for this entry, as director Sup Lee manages to find the perfect balance of humour, awkwardness, and poignancy in this tale of a Korean student coming to Australia to go to school and take part in a home-stay program. It’s the dynamics between the host mother and father of the student, along with initially the students own father, and then later that of a Japanese female student who also stays with them, that make the piece work so well. Perfectly capturing the collision of cultures between that of a typical Korean father & son, & a well-to-do middle aged Australian couple living in suburbia, within it’s under 10 minutes run-time Lee manages to capture the sense of progression the student makes, who is excellently acted by Dae Ho-jin. Moving from the initial awkwardness of being able to say nothing other than “yes”, it’s actually Ho-jin’s expressions that manage to convey the most, from apprehension and anxiousness, to that of confidence and assuredness, the transition is a pleasure to watch. The piece will no doubt strike a chord with anyone that’s found themselves in a similar situation, as well as touching on the transient nature that so many of the encounters in a city such as Sydney can be, perfectly summed up by the expression of Ho-jin when the time comes for the Japanese student to leave and she passes him a letter to say goodbye. If there was a follow-up made to Unfamiliar Sense, I’d certainly be there to check it out.

THE WAY HE ARRIVED / 그가 도착한 방식

(directed by Matthew Rooke)

In case you didn’t notice, this entry is a nod of the hat to Hong Sang-soo’s 2011 feature ‘The Day He Arrives / 북촌 방향’ (also showing at the festival!), and clocking in at just 2:40 minutes, is a quick & quirky look at a group of characters trying to catch a taxi on the side of the road. Shot in black & white with no dialogue, and more interestingly, filmed in reverse, the piece introduces it’s characters with onscreen text not of their names or what they do, but rather, what they want to be. From upcoming actresses to lovesick girls, everyone is aspiring to something, and the piece does well in reminding us that even though we take for granted all of the people that we pass every day in the street, each of us has our own hopes and dreams that we aspire to achieve. What the intention of the reverse filming technique is can be an interesting point to debate, are the characters not yet where they want to be because their lives are stuck going in reverse, just like the character in Sang-soo’s own movie keeps on repeating his days? The piece ends with a dedication to ‘The Master’, Hong Sang-soo himself, and perhaps it’s only him that could provide a worthy answer to such a question.

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